Outside the Backdoor

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


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Trees

As 2020 draws to a close and we welcome 2021, so I’m concluding my series of articles focusing on the climate crisis, and what better way to finish that on the very seasonal subject of trees.

Autumnal glow outside the back door (c) Elizabeth Malone

Like many things in the 21st century, choosing a Christmas tree becomes a moral, ethical and ecological dilemma. Real or plastic? And if real, what sort of real? Did you know that the UK produces over 4 million Christmas trees a year? This is insignificant compared to the 18 million produced annually in Germany! In November this year, the lockdown rules changed slightly two weeks in just to allow people to visit Christmas tree producers to buy their trees! Far too early if you ask me. The poor things were going to be bald by Christmas – the trees that is, not the people buying them! Think of all that needle-drop as they gently roast by the radiator.

Our regular church Christmas tree – the real option (c) Elizabeth Malone

But that doesn’t answer the question, if you want to make a sustainable, environmental choice, what tree should you choose? In researching this question, I found a very useful article in The Guardian from last year which points out all the pitfalls of artificial trees, from the chemicals used in production through to the more obvious issue of your artificial tree being non-recyclable and likely to exist on this planet for thousands of years before finally decaying. That said, if you already have an artificial tree stashed away in your loft, then you’ve made the commitment and you’re probably better to keep using in for a few decades to come!

Always useful to have a spare artificial one on the loft when you’re running a Christmas Tree festival! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Real trees, however, are not Christmas angels and come with their own environmental hazards from the pesticides and fertiliser used to grow them and the carbon footprint generated by the many miles travelled in transporting them. However, at least you can recycle them although I do have one plea to make. If you’re putting them out for the council collection, please avoid creating a hazard for unsuspecting pedestrians and a dark ‘bin-night’!

Making the most of real trees outside the back door (c) John Malone

For eleven Christmases now, our tree has sat outside the back door – literally! it was a decision taken when the cats were 6 month old kittens and we had seen one too many photographs of kittens wreaking havoc amidst the tinsel! (If you need to cheer yourself up, do seek out the Simon’s Cat video “Santa Claws”. That was the first year we abandoned a cut tree in favour of one in a pot. Our first tree lasted about three Christmases but the current one has clocked up about eight! Every summer it entertains us by putting on an amazing display of its own natural bright green lights as its branches push out their new growth. Sadly now it’s getting a bit sparse in the way of branches at the bottom whilst the top is increasingly bushy, not making it the easiest tree to decorate but we will still relish standing out in the cold, trying to tie baubles onto it with frozen fingers.

O Christmas Tree! (C) Elizabeth Malone

And so before I leave you to enjoy the festivities, in the month when we normally purchase millions of hacked down trees, why not also purchase something more positive? Especially this year when it’s going to be challenging to meet relatives and friends to hand them a present (which they’ll then need to quarantine for up to three days before unwrapping!), why not give the gift of trees? I did this myself back in September when normally I would have bought flowers for the church to commemorate my parents’ birthdays. With the pandemic halting the option of flowers being arranged in church, I decided to do something more permanent and purchase trees through the Woodland Trust. You can literally buy trees, although I appreciate you may not have somewhere to plant the, or you a purchase trees to be planted in woodlands around the country and you can add dedications. The trees I purchase in September will be planted in a woodland near some friends in Worcestershire and I’m looking forward to the day, hopefully in 2021, when we can all take a walk together to view them.

Autumn sunrise outside the back door (c) Elizabeth Malone

However, you’re spending this strangest of Christmases, don’t lose sight on our need to protect the planet and try to make your Christmas a little bit greener this year.


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Dark at breakfast, dark at tea

"The Advent wind begins to stir
 With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
 It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
 And in between we only see
 Clouds hurrying across the sky
 And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
 And branches bending to the gale
 Against great skies all silver pale ..."

John Betjeman’s Advent 1955 is one of my favourite poems of the season.  I don’t have a Scotch fir but I do overlook the tall poplar trees along the railway line and they certainly bend in the gale, their skeletal forms looking particularly wintry against the early morning skies.  But it’s that “dark at breakfast, dark at tea” line which for me sums up the essence of this time of year outside the backdoor.  It’s the fate of the working gardener.

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As I head off to work at 7:30am, it is just getting light and I am sometimes treated to spectacular sunrises as I approach the station.  By the time return at 6.00pm it has already been dark for a couple of hours.  Closer to Christmas, the walk home is brightened by the various lit decorations and last year I found myself running my own ‘best door wreath’ competition in my head!  However, this means that I don’t see the garden at all during the week and my first view outside on a Saturday morning can be quite a revelation!  For example, the sudden realisation that the winter clematis is in full flower or that some over-eager bulbs have started to shoot.

Over the past 6-7 years, we have ensured that we plant winter flowering shrubs near the house so that we can easily catch a glimpse of them either from the dining room on a cold / wet day or see them illuminated by the glow of the Christmas lights.  For the last two winters, I have made a deliberate effort to plant a large pot with a winter flowering display that will catch the light, using pale cream or lemon violas, white hellebores and either silver or gold leaved ivies, avoiding anything with dark petals or dark leaves that won’t reflect what light there is.  I’ve positioned it beyond the kitchen window so that it catches some of the light from the house when we’re cooking.

I will also enjoy the moment when we can head outside to decorate our Christmas tree which has been sitting in its pot all year waiting for its moment of glory.  It’s grown a lot this year, entertaining us with its bright green shoots in Spring and growing by at least six inches!  We started this tradition of an outdoor tree on the patio when our cats were kittens but now it’s become a habit and we actually rather enjoy having the tree outside and the way its decorations sparkle in the winter sunlight or twinkle away as the wind causes the branches and lights to quiver.  We will also weave white lights around our olive trees on the patio and through the hawthorn, although this might be a bit of a challenge this year as we’ve just had the hawthorn pruned back quite substantially which, in itself, is letting more light into the house.

I am the first to admit that I am quite a fair-weather gardener so I would be lying if I said that I am looking forward to the long Christmas holiday so that I can get out into the garden and do stuff but I always hope for a few dry days in the run up to Christmas so that we can raid the garden for Christmas greenery without the need to dry it off before bringing it indoors.  Any holly that has real berries will decorate inside whilst holly, ivy and laurel will make up some swags to adorn our side gates.

However, I am looking forward to the long holiday as it will enable me to be at home in the daylight so that I can really appreciate what is sitting just outside the backdoor.  I will enjoy sitting in the warm looking out at the active birds flitting between feeders.  If it’s mild, I may even spot an occasional bumble-bee seeking food amidst the clematis flowers or ivy, and like many of you I’m sure, I will sit mulling ideas of things to do in the Spring!

 


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Add one squirrel and stir …

Just to reassure you, this is not a recipe!  It was a remark made by John over breakfast during the Christmas break when he glanced out into the garden and saw a flurry of urgently feeding birds and squirrels chasing around.  The whole garden seemed to be on the move and so it often seems at this time of year.

I think there are a number of reasons as to why the activity seems so frantic in the middle of winter.  The days are short which not only affects the amount of time the animals have for feeding, but also when we get to see them.  During the working week from late November until nearly the end of February, I only see the garden in the light at weekends, apart from Christmas, which is something that makes the holiday quite special.  Suddenly we are at home for ten days and are around to see this compressed feeding frenzy.  Equally the birds need to eat plenty in a short space of time to sustain them through the cold nights.

I can’t explain it, 31032516503_3fa00d032a_mbut it seems that there’s also a change from the moment we have passed the shortest day.  Around 7.15am this week as I’ve been eating breakfast, I’ve been very conscious of the bird song.  It wasn’t there before Christmas.  Can the birds really be aware of that very small change in the earth’s rotation that signals longer lighter days are just around the corner?

We are also conscious of clusters of birds sitting around the trees, specifically wood pigeons and collar doves.  Early one afternoon we had six wood pigeons and eight collar doves all perched in our birch and cherry trees. Today the top of the wood burner flue is popular!

Back in the autumn we made some changes to our bird feeding arrangements which weere short-lived – more about that in my next post!  We were getting increasingly dispirited by filling the bird feeders on a Saturday morning only for a large flock of parakeets to descent and empty them by Saturday afternoon.  Not only was this costing us a fortune but it was annoying to see the smaller birds losing out so much.  As if inspired by the parakeets, we were also seeing more large birds dominating the feeders such as crows and magpies.  Something needed to be done.  In the end we purchased two new bird feeders, the sort designed to keep squirrels at bay, with outer cages to allow small birds in but to keep larger birds (and mammals) out.  One of these feeders has mixed seed in it and the other fatballs.  After a few months’ use we are pleased to say that these are allowing the smaller birds a fairer chance.  The bluetits, great tits and chaffinches all love the new feeders and, having smaller appetites, there is food out there for them for most of the week.  The larger birds are still welcome but they have to eat out of the remaining seed feeders and, once they are empty, then that’s it until we choose to refill them.  Some of the more dextrous parakeets do try to get into the caged feeders but it’s sufficiently challenging for them that they soon give up and move on elsewhere.

Keeping the squirrels away from the seeds is an added bonus.  However, it doesn’t deter their antics and they still like to jump onto the swinging feeders in an attempt to get 31097548814_4e58bb6fa1_mwhatever scraps they can.  In squirrel terms, our large ginger cat Bryggen is probably the best squirrel deterrent.  The more squeamish amongst you would prefer not know that 2014 will go down as a three squirrel year!  It’s made Bryggen a hero with our elderly neighbour who detests squirrels.  As well as having lots of pots with bulbs, he also has lots of small military models in his garden which the squirrels regularly move around much to his annoyance.  His reaction to Bryggen’s most recent squirrel conquest, “If he were a bloke, I’d buy him a pint!”