Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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March brings breezes, loud and shrill …

March brings breezes, loud and shrill,
To stir the dancing daffodil.

This verse of the poem, made me wonder whether the month of March deserves its reputation for being windy?  Apparently, the answer worldwide is ‘yes’ but in the UK it is actually January when we get the strongest winds.  What we want to see this month is daffodils dancing gently in the breeze and not flattened by a gale!  Perhaps that’s why the smaller varieties, such as tete-a-tete have become so popular in recent years! 

Tete-a-Tete daffodils in our ‘woodland garden’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since mentioning daffodils last month, I’ve been waiting for my ‘February Gold’ early flowering daffs to show their hand.  Sadly the very cold snap we’ve experienced during the first half of February has meant that I am still waiting and I fear that they will be ‘March Gold’ instead this year!

What else can we look forward to in the garden this month?  The big one for us is Clematis Armandii.  The first flowers started to appear during February but it should really take off this month.  You may be more familiar with this plant than you realise as it is often grown over fences.  It has long, dark green leathery leaves with very delicate creamy white simple flowers with just four petals that develop in large clusters.  It is beautifully scented and, as a result, is a magnet for early bees.  However, it is not for the faint-hearted!  It’s a big plant that has scrambled up twenty feet or so to cover the remains of our cherry tree in double quick time! 

Clematis armandii (c) John Malone

Flicking back over photos taken in the garden last March, I am struck by how many plants we have at this time of year that are white.  Either white flowers or white blossom.  A very delicate example is our cherry plum tree.  At some point this month, we will glance down the garden and realise that there is a white cloud of blossom.  To really appreciate this tree, you need one of those spring days with clear blue sky that is also unseasonably mild.  It is another bee magnet and you can stand beneath its branches and just listen to the very busy hum.

Cherry Plum blossom Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we’re talking plum blossom, I must mention our Mirabelle de Nancy tree which is also due to flower this month.  Mirabelle have never been widely available in the UK.  We first came across them in Alsace in France when, in September each year, roadsides are laden with stalls selling these delicious small, sweet yellow fruits.  Tracking down a tree to grow here was quite tricky and now that we’ve got it, I think we’re getting an insight into why it may not be the most popular plum in the UK! If I’m being honest, it’s a little tricky to grow!  We’ve had branches die back, silver-leaf curl and wriggly maggots in the fruits!  Oh and did I mention that the pigeons love them?  So much so that we’ve had to invest in a giant net if we’re ever going to have the opportunity to enjoy them ourselves. 

Blossom on Mirabelle de Nancy (c) Elizabeth Malone

My next white choice is a small flowering cherry, Kojo-no-mai, which sits in a pot outside the back door and was a sale purchase.  It came home with us as compensation for having lost our large pink flowering cherry tree.  It’s a rather small substitute but very pretty.  I remember it being out during lockdown last year.  Interestingly, our photos of it are from the middle of the month but then everything looks to have flowered quite early in 2020.  As this will be only its second spring with us, it will be intriguing to see when it flowers this year.  I can already see buds starting to swell along its branches.

Kojo-no-mai in bloom Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I very rarely mention our front garden but, in March, this tends to come into its own with a hedges of forsythia but also a large osmanthus – an evergreen shrub with tiny delicate white flowers with yellow centres.  It’s another one that is deliciously scented.  You will be starting to spot a theme here!  The osmanthus was an impulse buy when we needed something to fill a large pot and green-up the front garden after a gale uprooted an overgrown eucalyptus.  I don’t, however, think the gale was in March!  We were attracted to the plant in the garden centre and it was simply a bonus that it came with scent.  However, I think we have become more attuned in recent years to buying plants that are scented, simply because scent normally means bees and that can only be a good thing.

Osmanthus (c) John Malone

Now what about those dancing daffodils, I hear you cry.  Well you may be please to know that I am going to recommend some white ones to you!  Thalia.  Strictly speaking these are a variety of narcissus.  I discovered them last year and they are a terrific addition to any garden, plot or pot!  They are multi-headed with about three flowers per stem so they really fill out a pot nicely.  Although they are quite a tall, full-height daffodil, the petals are not the conventional daffodil shape but are more slender and create a floaty illusion, and yes, they are also scented!  I liked them so much last year that I put them on my ‘order more’ list for the autumn.  In fact, I then forgot I’d ordered from one supplier and added to a second order so I will have at least three times as many this year!  Definitely something to look forward to towards the end of the month.  In fact, I think they could look rather lovely flowering at Easter – fingers crossed.

Narcissus Thalia dancing in those March breezes! (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Season of mellow fruitfulness

Traditionally October is the month for Harvest Festival services and yet, in our current climate and ways of farming, the harvest is often long gone and put away even by the start of September.  For me September is the beginning of autumn although this year, it was the end of July when I first walked out the front door one morning on the way to work and thought it felt different.  There’s a sense of coolness in the air and a smell that’s hard to describe but it says that the height of summer is already past and soon the morning ground will be thick with dew.  By thinking of 1st September being the start of Autumn, I’ve read that this means I’m following the meteorological calendar as against the astronomical calendar which would mean that Autumn didn’t get underway until later in the month on the 22nd.  Either way, now is certainly a good time to take stock of the harvest that the garden has produced this year.

Back in May I wrote about our increased interest in growing fruit and this summer we have really reaped the benefits of this.  In June our strawberry plants went mad!  In May, wonderful clusters of white flowers burst through thick bushy green leaves and I watched nervously as the fruits began to form.

Unexpectedly cold nights worried me.  On Gardeners’ World, Monty Don warned that if the centre of the fruits turned black, that meant they had been damaged by the cold.  I sighed with relief as ours remained a healthy yellow but I began to worry again as May turned into June and our summer holiday approached.  Were these fruits all going to ripen as we crossed the Channel?  And if so, who was going to be eating them?  Certainly not us!  As it turned out, luck was on our side and about a fortnight before our departure a few fruits began to turn red.  We started out being thrilled by picking one or two fruits to eat each evening but soon this became ten or twenty fruits – complete bowls full!  Gardeners often proudly declare how many pounds of fruit their plot has produced but we were too busy enjoying the fruit to bother counting.  As our portions of fruit became larger and larger, eventually I had to draw the line.  Faced with masses of strawberries the evening before our holiday departure, I declared that it was too much and suggested that we take a punnet with us to eat en route into the Netherlands.  So it was that, on midsummer’s day, we found ourselves sitting in the lay-by of a service station in Belgium eating home-grown strawberries whilst watching a flock of sparrows taking dust baths!

Our raspberries have also been very productive.  In fact John was heard to say recently that we may yet be exploring recipes for raspberry jam in future years.  Yet again the scale of the harvest crept up on us, from tentatively picking the first few ripe fruits to suddenly realising that we had several punnet’s worth sitting in the fridge.

The blackbirds have also been enjoying our raspberries and our blueberries for that matter!  My defence of sparkly Christmas wrapping tape tied to branches and supports has not been overly successful in deterring our determined feathered friends.  Raspberries have been plentiful enough for us to feel generous towards the birds but their plundering of our blueberries has been less endearing.  We strongly suspect that they have eaten more than us!

Back in July the cherry plum tree was also laden with fruit which was ripening considerably faster than I was expecting.  I have jam jars clearly labelled with ‘cherry plum jam’ and dated 19th August.  This year’s crop was ready by 19th July!  The very hot spell of weather in June and early July clearly had an effect.  Not only were our cherry plums ripening rapidly but a colleague had apricots coming out of his ears!

One of the most rewarding sights of the harvest, however, has been our mirabelle tree.  We planted our Mirabelle de Nancy about four years ago but it is a tree that has had its challenges.  We fell in love with the mirabelle fruit during holidays to Alsace.  In September we would pass stalls selling brown paper bags full of mirabelle, a fruit that we had never seen on sale in the UK.  Having investigated trees, we finally established the variety, ordered one and planted it with great attention to detail.  However, it has been subject to leaf-curl which causes die-back in the branches, and also to fruit withering before maturity.  As a result, we have had about two mirabelle in total that have ever tasted remotely like what we had hoped for.  This year may well be different.  At lunchtime today, we had four mirabelle with yellow skins beautifully blushed with rosy pink that indicated these were perfectly ripe fruit and they were absolutely delicious!  We’re a long way from having enough to make mirabelle tarts or mirabelle jam but we are definitely heading in the right direction.

Soon it will be time to get the jam pan on the boil again and this time for crab apple jelly.  Our tree, Laura (that’s the variety and not a nick-name), is laden.  The wonderfully dark beetroot coloured fruits appear to be swelling day by day, presumably due to the rather extreme amounts of rain that have descended during August.  Like everything else, it looks like being an early harvest!


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Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!

The cherry plums are early!  When John said that they were ready last weekend, I didn’t quite believe him.  With a busy weekend ahead of us and no jam sugar in the cupboard, I took a quick glance and suggested that they could wait at least another week.  However, by this weekend a sizeable number were starting to fall off the tree.  It was time to act!

You may not be familiar with cherry plums.  They are small, bigger than a cherry but not as bit as a plum, and very, very sour!  But they do make good, flavourful jam!  Their red, plummy exterior covers a deep orangey / yellow flesh that gives the jam the colour of a good, dramatic sunset.

This morning we timed our pickings well as not long after the rain began to tip it down, making this the perfect afternoon for jam making.  I confess to be a little taken aback by just how many fruit were on the tree!

This is an old large cake box which was full by the time John returned to the kitchen!  I suspect that the very hot, dry weather that we’ve had up till now combined with the fact that the tree has not fruited for the last couple of years due to pruning (plums tend not to fruit well for a year or so after pruning), has led to a bumper year.

This was an awful lot of fruit to halve and stone!  Very quickly it became clear that we were not yet half way through but we already had the requisite 4lbs of fruit recommended by the recipe.  At this point it can be very easy to get carried away.  Let’s go on to 5lbs I said, or more said John.  Then I pointed out that our large stewpot that we make jam in probably wouldn’t take more than 5lbs of fruit!  At least not by the time you’ve allowed for 5lbs of sugar to join it!  At this point the realisation dawned that we were probably going to be doing the same thing again tomorrow afternoon.

Whilst the fruit simmered down, we washed jam jars and heated them in the oven and I acted on the old trick of cooling plates in the fridge to check the setting point.  Ten minutes of what is technically known as the ‘rolling boil’, when usually both you and the fruit get overheated (you must keep stirring at the same time!), and we were ready to dribble it onto the cold plate to see if it was going to set.  This duly wrinkled and so we were ready for the messy and dangerous job of getting a vat full of boiling fruit and sugar safely into its jars.

Cherry plum jam making

We had underestimated!  Further emergency jar washing commenced!  Although this looks like a right hotch-potch of jars, we find it really useful to have different sizes.  Many of our jars of jam are destined for the church pre-Christmas sale and, with an usual flavour such as cherry plum, it’s good to have some small jars that people can purchase as a taster.

So all that remains now is to repeat the whole exercise again tomorrow …!

And please don’t add ‘eye of newt’ to your jam!!