Outside the Backdoor

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


Leave a comment

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.


1 Comment

RECYCLING FOR GARDENS AND WILDLIFE

The end of last month saw Recycle Week 2020, organised by WRAP – the Waste and Resources Action Programme.  WRAP is working on UK wide initiatives to work with, for example, the packaging industry to reduce those layers of unnecessary plastic that we fight our way through even to open a packet of biscuits!  Eventually there will come a time when we all say, remember when we had all those plastic cartons lying around?  But for now, for the majority of people, convenience means that we continue to buy and dispose of more plastic than we would ideally like.  So can we be creative and use it for the benefit of our gardens and wildlife?  Recently I’ve stumbled across a few ideas that have merit and some which may even keep our younger readers occupied across the October half-term!

Encouraging insects (c) John Malone

The first is the fruit-juice carton birdfeeder!  This popped up on my newsfeed on Facebook recently and I thought, what a fun idea!  Although ideally you should be feeding your garden birds all year round, there is a tendency for us all to do that little bit more for them during winter.  Fruit juice cartons, you know the sort, are ideal for this as they even come with a ready-made sloping roof to protect seed from the rain!  Crafty website Pinterest has literally thousands of pictures of people being creative with their fruit juice cartons.  A fruit juice carton bird feeder may not be squirrel-proof, but then neither are many of the more expensive models on sale in garden centres so you may as well give this a go!

Juice carton bird feeder

Earlier in the spring I mentioned that I’d also used fruit juice cartons as additional seed trays.  I have to say that these worked remarkably well!  The were particularly good for large seeds, such as cosmos, which you can easily space out.  I’d certainly do this again.

Milk carton watering cans are another way to re-use one of those bits of plastic that are hard to avoid.  Again, there are hundreds of examples of how to do this.  I also saw one suggestion about keeping a carton of water to hand next to your most needy plants so that you can step in and water them at the drop of a hat!

Sadly the pandemic has meant that all those nice, reusable coffee cups that we were all getting used to carrying around with us, are generally no longer accepted at most coffee outlets.  This means that we’re starting to face a mountain of disposable coffee cups again so why not rinse them out, take them home and use them as plant pots?  The ‘rinse out’ bit is vitally important there as I doubt anyone wants to find coffee dregs in the bottom of their handbag!

Of course the best recycling you can do in your garden that benefits both plants and wildlife is composting.  Yet again the other Friday evening, Monty Don was extolling the virtues of composting on Gardeners’ World and talking us through his enormous 4-bin system.  As I’ve said before, composting on this scale is unthinkable for most of us!  Realistically most of us have to be content with either a small square bin or one of those council supplied ‘daleks’.  We are lucky enough to have one of each and equally each has been a learning curve. 

Council ‘dalek’ composter (with cat!) (c) Elizabeth Malone

To avoid the plastic dalek turning into green sludge, we decided to built a wooden bin to take most of our grass clippings, or at least to allow us to drip-feed them into the other bin.  To be honest, we rather ignored this heap until this spring when the pandemic caused our green garden waste collections to be cancelled at just the peak of the garden waste production cycle!  Consequently this bin was revitalised and brought back into weekly (or almost daily) usage to take both grass clippings and larger, woodier prunings.  To our surprise, it seems to be working ok and there might even be something vaguely usable at the end of it all.

Rogue tomato plants in my border with the roses! (c) Elizabeth Malone

The dry spring and an expanded hot border meant that we also took the brave (or foolish) decision to empty our dalek completely and start again.  It hadn’t been fully emptied for some years and so we were rewarded with surprisingly rich, dark compost at the bottom which, hopefully, will have enriched some of our dry soil.  What we had not bargained for, however, was the knock-on effect of all those split / slightly mouldy tomatoes that I’ve tossed in the bin over the years.  As a result, I spent most of the spring pulling up tiny tomato plants from all over the garden!  Inevitably I missed two … which have spent the summer growing rampant in the flower border!  They’ve had no feed and irregular watering and yet they are producing bigger and better fruits that those that I have spent time and energy fussing over in the greenhouse.  Isn’t that just typical? 

Cropping better than the cossetted ones! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Do you have a top tip for recycling materials in the garden?  Do let me know.


Leave a comment

Plastic, not so fantastic

It’s hard to believe it but avoiding the use of excess plastic already appears to be ‘so last year’.  The Coronavirus pandemic may have given us clearer skies and cleaner air but it’s done absolutely nothing for plastic pollution which must surely be on the rise again?  So what can we gardeners do to try to tip the balance in the other direction?

Agapanthus – not planted in plastic! (c) Elizabeth Malone

I confess that this isn’t an area of environmentally responsible gardening that I’ve fully embraced.  If I’m quite honest, it’s because it’s so difficult!  I’m writing this sitting on a hot patio surrounded by plastic pots; in the shed behind me reside several plastic bags of compost; and I’m about to water the garden (it is parched) with a plastic hose sitting on a plastic reel.

Echinacea – also not plastic! (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing that I’ve noticed about being ‘plastic conscious’ is that my shed is in danger of filling up with bits of plastic that “may come in useful” one day – a bit like my Dad used to collect bits of wood!  I’ve always kept the plastic pots that new plants arrive in.  I re-use them every spring for seedlings and potting stuff on.  There’s quite a lot of them in every size, shape and, since the need to make things more recyclable, colour.  When I re-use them, I do enjoy it if the label is still on the side and I can see what originally came in it.  Sometimes it’s a sad story of a plant that didn’t make it but on other occasions it’s astonishing how small the pot now looks compared to the thriving plant!

Potting on involves a lot of plastic re-use (c) Elizabeth Malone

Re-using plants pots is an easy thing anyone can do but, in my desperation for plastic not to be ‘single-use’, I’ve started to acquire a stack of strangely shaped trays that have usually come from biscuits or fruit or other foodstuffs in the hope of repurposing them for the garden in some obscure way.  This spring I had great success growing cosmos seedlings in plasticised fruit-juice cartons.  Plenty of gardeners extol the virtues of cardboard loo-roll tubes for sowing long-rooted seedlings such as sweet peas.  I did try this once but the cardboard went a bit weirdly mouldy on me.  I will try not to let this put me off giving it another go.  Fashioning pots for seedlings from newspaper is also another alternative but, as we all buy less and less printed newspapers, this might actually cease to be an option in years to come.

Seeds germinated in old fruit juice cartons (c) Elizabeth Malone

‘Re-use’ has to be the keyword when it comes to reducing plastic in our gardening.  If you’ve got something that is plastic, don’t replace it for the sake of it, just keep using it until it finally bites the dust!  Seed trays would be a good example.  You can buy wooden ones or trendy bamboo, but if you already have old-fashioned plastic, keep using it for as long as possible.

Extremely well-used plastic seed tray (c) Elizabeth Malone

Plant labels are another good example.  Plastic ones can be re-used time and time again.  However, I know that each year I lose a few!  Eventually I will need to buy some more.  I have some rather nice slate ones waiting in the wings but a simple alternative would be to use something like wooden lolly sticks.

Entertaining but plastic! (c) Elizabeth Malone

The other heap of stuff that is in danger of overflowing in my shed is old compost bags.  It is possible to buy compost in non-plastic containers but generally speaking I’ve found that this either applies to bulk-buying or requires time that I simply don’t have.  This spring, I think most gardeners were happy to take any compost they could get, such was the impact of the lockdown.  So whilst my compost might tick the ‘peat-free’ box, sadly it fails on the plastic free front.

No, it’s not autumn yet, but a good re-use of old compost sacks (c) Elizabeth Malone

Which leads me to consider other packaging.  Organic liquid fertilisers, such as seaweed extract, are fantastic for feeding your plants and keeping them health but, inevitably, they come in plastic bottles.  In the spring I do use chicken manure pellets which also come in giant plastic tubs.  Some of these get re-used for storing bird-food and keeping it safe from the mice, but I am thinking that I need to consider purchasing more of the dry types of feed, such as blood, fish and bonemeal, that come in cardboard boxes. 

For the time being, my watering arrangements will remain unchanged.  I have two plastic watering cans that are almost certainly more than 20 years old.  If one of them suddenly gives up the ghost, then I will think of buying a non-plastic alternative.

More trusty old friends – the can is at least 20 years old! (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing I’m not guilty of is using plastic ties.  I prefer old fashioned green garden twine.  At the start of lockdown I needed some urgently and included a ‘ball of string’ as part of an order to a local garden centre.  The most enormous ball of garden twine that you’ve ever seen arrived!  I won’t need to buy twine for quite some time to come!

Look at the size of that twine! (c) Elizabeth Malone


Leave a comment

Water wise

As I write this, the thermometer is set to soar into the mid-thirties centigrade later today. Admittedly the forecast is suggesting that it may be the classic British summer week of a few hot days followed by a thunderstorm. Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m not looking forward to the thunderstorm bit! That said, I would welcome the rain. In fairness, the garden isn’t looking quite as parched as it did a week or so ago. That Thursday of heavy downpours has refreshed the grass and the veg plot remained damp for several days after. More importantly, the pond filled up as did our water butts, and that’s where I want to focus really – what we do to manage our water wisely.

Rain falling on patio and chairs
Summer downpour (c) Elizabeth Malone

Scarily, over 25 years ago, I remember cataloguing a report from the then National Rivers Authority called Water: Nature’s Precious Resource which was in high demand from our Environmental Sciences students. This report emphasised that, whilst the press might focus on droughts in less developed parts of the world, the developed world needed to become much smarter at managing its water supply as changes to the climate were already beginning to signal trouble ahead. Without a doubt, handling books on these topics influenced my own approach to managing water, especially as gardeners can get a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to water usage! So what steps can we each take to do our bit? I don’t suppose I’m going to mention anything you don’t already know about but, as each summer seems to become a little warmer, there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of the changes we can make.

Watering can being refilled
Filling up – yet again! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Let’s start with water meters. I’ve always found it interesting that we expect to pay for gas and electricity according to usage but not water. If you’ve not yet fitted a meter, do consider it. Compulsory metering is being rolled out by Thames Water but not to our area just yet but you can get a step ahead and request an installation. Evidence suggests that if you are a one or two person household, you will almost certainly save money as well as water!

Two water butts
Water butts – not things of beauty! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Without doubt, a water meter makes you think about how much you are using, particularly in the garden. I suspect that there is a correlation between the owners of water meters and the owners of water butts! We have two water butts and every summer, as they run dry, we threaten to install more. The challenges are space and aesthetics. The two butts we have are not things of beauty! Located behind the shed, they are generally out of sight but the most obvious place to install more is on the patio and, worse than that, directly beneath our carefully chosen light fittings! You can appreciate our dilemma! We keep flicking through catalogues and websites offering slim, discrete designs, designs that pretend to be something else, and designs that also cost a small fortune! At some point we will bite the bullet as we really value our rainwater stocks, not just to avoid using tap water unnecessarily, but to ensure we can water acid loving plants such as our blueberries and our Christmas tree with lime-free water. We also use it to top up the pond occasionally which is better for the wildlife. According to the Consumer Council for Water, “The average house roof in the UK collects enough rain water in a year to fill about 450 water butts.” Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you install 450 butts – that would be a little excessive!

Blueberries ripening on plant
Blueberries ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Being selective about what you water in the garden is also important. New plants deserve good and frequent soakings as there’s nothing more soul-destroying than seeing your new favourite flower wilt and die within days. Try to find time to water either early morning or later evening to prevent excessive evaporation and also accidental scorching of leaves. The veg plot also needs careful attention. There’s not much point in throwing away all the hard work that goes into germinating, pricking out and planting on young veg plants, only to fry them on a sunny day.

Over view of vegetables plots
Veg plots (c) John Malone

Most advice on using water wisely in the garden makes it clear that you should ditch that sprinkler! That said, I have one exception to that rule and that has been trying to soak around the root area of a large tree. Our birch tree is really struggling and the tree surgeon’s advice was to really soak a wide area around the tree once a week. If we just leave the hose on, then the water runs off. Leaving the sprinkler spraying gently around the base of the tree enables more water to be absorbed where we need it.

Birch tree with dead and live branches with bird
Trying to save our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Mulching your borders in spring to seal in moisture is something that I always attribute to serious gardeners! For years I thought about doing it and would usually remember too late. We also had a run of very dry January and Februaries which meant that I felt I’d already missed the boat. Mulching also helps condition the soil and last year I decided I would be organised and we ordered sacks and sacks of mulch. It all seemed such a great idea until our rather hairy cats rolled in the straw-like substance and our lounge looked more mulched than the border!

Curled up cat in flower border
Mulch magnet! (C) John Malone

Finally, I’m going to mention the ‘lawn’. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden with a piece of ‘green’ in the middle, I suspect that, like me, it’s not exactly bowling green standard. Don’t water the grass when it’s hot and dry, it will turn green again remarkably quickly after one of those stormy downpours. Also, don’t cut during dry weather unless you really have to. Let some of the weeks flower and enable the bees and other insects to flourish on it.

Clover growing amid grass
Clover in lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone


Leave a comment

Grow your own

At the start of this year I set out to write a series of Outside the Back Door articles focused on different aspects of climate change and how we can all do our bit to improve the environment.  Against this month I noted down, “Grow your own”.  At that moment I could not possibly have foreseen that the global lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic was about to cause the most enormous surge in interest in people growing their own food.  As tinned tomatoes vanished from the supermarket shelves, so did packets of vegetable seed from every garden centre and then, as the garden centres closed, from every online supplier in the country.  I just checked some of the well-known seed companies and discovered that two are still trying to fulfil orders placed three weeks ago whilst another has deployed an online queuing system before you can even enter their website!

49797047171_59d3f4161e_k

Finna helping me organise my seed box!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing I have learnt from this current crisis, I’m not someone who jumps onto bandwagons!  At no time in the past few weeks have my kitchen cupboards been overloaded with pasta or flour and my bathroom is not stuffed full of loo-roll!  However, as I patiently wait to see whether last year’s packet of parsley seed will still germinate, I slightly regret this attitude and what is turning out to be the mistaken belief that these huge surges in demand would soon flatten out and we’d be able to buy things as normal, well at least online.  As a result, I find myself advocating growing your own veg at a time when my own veg plot is looking a little less full than normal.

26284924327_ca1c161ce7_k

Preparing one of our small veg beds for potatoes (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, wouldn’t it be marvellous if this crisis produced a whole new generation of gardeners?  Or at least brought about a greater recognition of what it takes to grow food for our tables?

Interestingly, the ‘grow your own’ trend was already booming in the UK, fuelled by a combination of growing concern for the environment; concerns about the use of pesticides; and the growth of Veganism.  If you are growing good yourself, you know precisely what has gone into it.

When I started experimenting with growing my own vegetables on our small plot in the garden, I really wasn’t sure whether I would keep it going but my interest has definitely increased, enough to consider whether we might even venture as far as an allotment one day.

49817472331_395f93fbf1_k

This year’s beans ready for planting out (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before digging up a sizeable bit of lawn, I read around a great deal to help me decide what to grow and one of the most useful pieces of advice which sticks in my mind was stating the obvious really – grow what you like to eat!  This is so true!  I like courgettes but my husband doesn’t.  Even one courgette plant can produce a considerable amount of fruit, not to mention that they are monsters that take over every inch of available space and, if you’re really lucky, become unsightly as their leaves are prone to mildew!  He doesn’t like tomatoes either but they are more versatile and store more easily plus you tend to be quite popular with friends in either sharing out spare plants or spare fruit later in the season!

49793444897_de17687c1e_k

We wouldn’t be without our garlic crop!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s interesting to discover how loyal you become to certain varieties of vegetables over the years.  For me, Sungold tomatoes are by far the best.  When it comes to peas and beans, Hurst Green Shaft and Cobra respectively seem to do well in my garden so I stick with them.  Perhaps if I had more space or more mouths to feed, I might be tempted to experiment a bit more.

12897f92-8fef-4c46-aa13-24fba8f80759

Sungold tomatoes gradually ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Growing your own produce is only satisfying if you eventually get to eat it.  I quickly abandoned lettuce in my veg plot as it simply fed the local slug and snail population.  Instead, I sow seed into large trays and I can create my own pick and mix selection of chard, rocket and red oak leaf lettuce, all of which seem to grow well this way.

49726280083_e25e43fab3_k

Salad trays to protect from slug attack!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Returning to the main impetus behind this article, the climate crisis, why is growing our own food good for the environment?  There are many answers to this so I will simply pick out the things that stand out for me.  Vegetables, and I include salads and herbs within that, are great for enhancing the biodiversity in your local plot.  You need insects to pollinate your crops, the insects need you to grow them to get the food they need to survive too.  It’s the perfect working relationship.  Home grown produce doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic in order to transport it or extend its shelf-life.  The fact it doesn’t need to be transported wins on the pollution front too.  As the grower, you are also in control in terms of reducing pollution from pesticides.  Finally, with careful management, you can also reduce your food waste as you pick what you need.  That said, sometimes there’s no avoiding gluts but there is always the freezer or a grateful neighbour!

I would love to end this article by extolling you to go out and buy a packet of seed and grow something edible for yourself but I fear that sourcing that seed may be a step to far just at present.  But if you can’t grow something edible this year, there is always next!

48281695382_fef1d3d00d_k

A bee reminding us that growing our own fruit and veg is good for wildlife (c) Elizabeth Malone


Leave a comment

Peat Free April

Last year I wrote about Cool Compost, by which I meant either the home-made stuff or environmentally friendly organic and peat-free compost. Shortly after I became aware that April 2020 was being championed as ‘Peat-Free April‘, a campaign which very much echoes the concerns I raised last year. We are entering the peak gardening season, when even those who just tinker about their plot or balcony once in a blue moon, head out to the garden centres, DIY stores and supermarkets in search of a bag of what we glibly refer to as ‘compost’. Chances are the first bag they reach will be boasting some special offer and behind all the marketing the word ‘peat’ is likely to be hidden … or may be not! Last year I got very annoyed by the signs in one local garden centre proudly proclaiming a product to be 100% peat! So why does this matter?

Spring in a pot or two! (C) Elizabeth Malone

The UK’s peat bogs provide unique wildlife habitats but they also act as a carbon sink. Digging up the peat bogs releases tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere which directly contributes to climate change. As a result, DEFRA encouraged a voluntary ban on peat-based products available to amateur gardeners that was supposed to see peat all but phased out by 2020. In truth, very little has happened.

Happy peat-free violas and iris (c) Elizabeth Malone

This Lent the church is encouraging us to think about our impact on the planet. Going peat-free can be a part of that commitment and, I would suggest, is easier than becoming a vegan or removing plastic from your everyday life! Not that I’m suggesting that you shouldn’t do either of those things if you feel so inclined, it’s just that to go peat-free, all you have to do is read a label and buy the correct product!

Peat-free seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

The Peat-Free-April campaign is urging all of us to put pressure on our local garden centres to remove peat products from sale. Living in this part of west London, I imagine many of you will visit Squires Garden Centres. Squires state that, “Our policy is to stock a range of peat-free and peat reduced composts.” They go on to say that they, “actively promote these products in our Beautiful Gardens Magazine.” At least Squires publish their Sustainability policy. Our other local garden centre, Adrian Hall’s, are silent on the topic which is a shame as, to my knowledge, they have stocked peat-free composts for many years and now have a choice of products available.

But what about the plants you buy in the garden centre, what are they growing in? The chances are the answer is a compost containing peat but change is afoot, Suttons Seeds have announced that they have removed peat from their production this year and are even holding tours of their facilities as part of the Peat-Free April campaign. When a large company such as this takes the lead, you do hope that others will follow.

Gardening organisations and the gardening press all advocate peat-free growing and provide plenty of advice on sustainable alternatives. I’m no expert and I’ve never carried out peat versus non-peat comparisons but I seem to be able to get decent germination of seeds using peat-free compost, my pots look pretty happy and my inability to establish cuttings, well that’s just me needing more practice!

French bean seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last year when I wrote about Cool Compost, a friend went to her local supermarket and decided to pick up a bag of compost whilst she was there. I received an email later to say that she did pause to read the label and she was thrilled to see that the bag said peat-free. So that’s one convert! Hopefully this year there will be more! As to the photos in this blog, they are just a random selection of things from my garden that are growing peat-free.

Pulsatillas – the Pasqueflower (c) Elizabeth Malone


2 Comments

Planting on the wild side

In this second Outside the Back Door focusing on the climate crisis, I’m going to think about what we mean by wildlife gardening and the small things we can do to help wildlife in our local area.  This is a huge topic so, as spring is approaching, I’m going to start with planting for wildlife.

47991752257_b5db89084b_k

Moth or butterfly?  (c) John Malone

There was a time when the term ’wildlife gardening’ was often laughed at as an excuse not to do anything and just let your plot get on and do its own thing, ie. just become its own little jungle.  As the contribution of gardens towards the environment has become more valued, so wildlife gardening has become more recognised as something that isn’t a jungle or neglected space.  An effective wildlife garden is one that is carefully crafted to ensure a range of different species are both protected and encouraged.

Planting for wildlife is something we can all do on any scale, whether we’re talking acres or just a pot outside the back door.  For example, I personally dislike frilly, double flowers and, as it turns out, this is a good thing for wildlife.  Bees and butterflies simply can’t get at the nectar hidden in double-flowered varieties and many have been so carefully bred that they are very low in nectar anyhow.  What butterflies and bees really enjoy are nice wide-open flowers that make their lives easier, things like echinacea or dahlias, both of which will grow happily in a pot if you don’t have the space for a border.  So if nothing else this spring, make a pledge to plant single rather than double-flowered plants.

48372313417_89298a129e_k

Peacock butterfly on echinacea (c) John Malone

Bees are happier to work a bit harder for their food but also are designed to delve into flowers in the way that butterflies are not.  So bees are equally in their element crawling deep into flowers such as foxgloves and penstemons.  I like foxgloves but I’m worried about them being poisonous to cats, especially as Roly (our brown tabby) has a nasty habit of eating plants!  However, last year I couldn’t resist sowing some of the free seeds that came with Gardeners’ World Magazine but I have planted the seedlings down the far end of our garden where Roly doesn’t venture.  So I hope he’ll be safe whilst I and the bees get to enjoy some apricot coloured flowers.

47978835341_00a6599b5b_k

RolyPoly the plant eating terror!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Planting for wildlife also needs to be an all-year-round.  As our winters are becoming milder, we are seeing an increasing number of bees in our garden in the depths of December and January so growing winter flowering plants that can sustain them over this period is equally important.  Our winter flowering honeysuckle has been our best investment in this respect.  It smells wonderful, looks wonderful, the bees love it and, to our surprise, it also reproduces very easily!  We discovered that it had layered itself and so we now have a second bush down the far end of our garden.  A few friends have expressed interest so we’re layering this one again to produce a few more plants to share around.

33343312648_66ecbb58be_k

Bee on winter honeysuckle (c) John Malone

Hellebores are another winter favourite with the bees, both the Christmas and Lenten rose varieties.  We have two beautiful Christmas roses (thank you to Sandra for one!) and dozens, or is that hundreds, of the Lenten variety as so many have self-seeded.  I love turning up the flower heads to see whether they are plain or speckled.  Other winter flowing plants favoured by bees include clematis and viburnum which bridge that gap before the bulbs start coming into their own.

33245189795_4d04b25ed1_z

Bees will sneak under the drooping heads (c) John Malone

I’ve not yet mentioned ivy.  I recall my grandmother hating ivy, regarding it as a weed that was out to do evil such as destroy the brickwork!  However, ivy is one of the most valuable plants for wildlife.  Bees both feed on it and live in it, as do moths and butterflies, and birds of course.  I confess that I haven’t always been enamoured of ivy but I’ve come to appreciate it more recently, becoming aware of just how alive it is.

41605733002_f7bf08af13_k

Ivy (c) Elizabeth Malone

When thinking about what to plant to encourage wildlife, it’s very easy to forget about fruit and vegetables.  It probably sounds blindingly obvious now that I’ve written that as we all know that we need bees and insects to pollinate our crops.  That said, I am the first to acknowledge that we planted raspberry canes for fruit and not for the entertainment of the local bee population!  The bees, however, absolutely adore the raspberries, and the strawberries.  The plants can literally be buzzing all summer long.

48281695382_fef1d3d00d_k

Bee on raspberry flower (c) John Malone

The other essential of a wildlife garden is some form of water, whether it be a pond or simple bird bath.  You can’t, however, plant up a bird bath in the way you can a pond!  Whilst pond plants provide shade for frogs and newts, they also act as a launchpad into life for dragonflies and damselflies who emerge from the water, shed their outer skins and then perch in the sunshine drying off their newly found wings before taking flight.

48372137166_72f120d8f0_k

Recently emergent dragonfly waiting to take off (c) John Malone

Now that it’s March, the garden centres are gearing up for their busiest time of year.  So why not head out there and start acquiring some really wildlife friendly plants?  Here’s a quick shopping list for you:  alliums, geranium, cotoneaster, cornflower, lavender … I could go on but probably easier to either go to the RHS website and download their comprehensive list or simply look out for the ‘Perfect for Polinators’ logo on any plants you buy.

48372021327_3e38f3f7ce_k

Echinops – loved by bees! (c) John Malone


Leave a comment

Doing our bit

“Responding to climate change is an essential part of our responsibility to safeguard God’s creation.”   Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

On New Year’s Eve I posted on Facebook that I could hardly believe it was twenty years since we’d all sat around waiting for the Millennium Bug apocalypse to happen.  Looking back we can laugh but, as some friends reminded me, lots of people worked hard to prevent that crisis from happening.

Image result for millennium bug logo

Remember this?!

As we enter the new ‘roaring twenties’ a different and very real crisis is looming, one which needs all of us to tackle, not just a selection of experts or people with the right skills – the climate crisis.  Unlike the Millennium Bug it doesn’t have a set date by which we need to act which means that it’s very easy for anyone from government and heads of state down to individuals to think that they don’t need to do anything just yet, that they can put off change until tomorrow or next year.  The appalling fires in Australia last month were a stark reminder that we cannot do this.

Outside the Back Door began as a monthly article for my church magazine and this year I’ve therefore decided to focus each Outside the Back Door in the ten issues of the magazine on a different aspect of the environment to highlight what we as individuals can do in our own spaces.  Online I may post some other stuff in between but in the blog that ties in with the magazine, I’m targeting ten articles that will each highlight an environmental concern and try to think about ways we can act as individuals to do our bit.

49283245488_99b059e578_k

Azalea in flower in our Vicarage garden Christmas 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

As it happens, gardens and churchyards have a lot in common. It is becoming increasingly clear that our local green spaces have a very important role to play in reducing pollution and maintaining a diverse habitat for wildlife but if we’re not careful, our actions as gardeners in wanting to improve these spaces can also have a negative impact on the planet – think of all those plastic plant pots, trays and labels we use or the amount of peat still being used in the horticultural industry.

33746166371_ecbe4bfb26_k

Focusing on gardens, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has been running its Greening Grey Britain campaign for a couple of years now, encouraging members and non-members alike to get planting in whatever small way.  During its research for this campaign, the RHS discovered that between its own gardens and its members’ gardens, over 22 million plants were added to gardens each year!  That’s an astonishing number of trips to the garden centre!  They also discovered that 77% of its members were actively seeking to establish plants that were good for encouraging bee populations and other pollinators.  There are lots of bergenia (Elephant’s Ears) around our church which are great for attracting over-wintering bees.

49372053673_483184f5af_k

Bergenia coming into flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

Gardens are good for our planet but so are our churchyards and church grounds.  We often worry about the state of our church grounds and there’s no denying that litter is a problem.  That in itself can provoke another whole climate debate – if there were less packaging on things, there would be less litter about the place!  Between the church grounds and vicarage, we currently have a great deal of open space to maintain and, as a small congregation, we are grateful to those who are finding time to keep things cut back and under control.  However, we should also remind ourselves that gardens and grounds can be too tidy!  It’s often surprising on a Sunday morning just how much birdsong can be heard around the church (above the noise of the aircraft coming into land at Heathrow!) and those birds need food.  Our trees, grass, borders and slightly untidy spaces to the rear of the church will all be providing abundant insects to feed on.  Walk along the side of our church to this door and look at the ivy creeping up it.  Ivy is an incredibly valuable plant for birds and insects.  So we can trim, but with care!

49372700607_810d9c06ad_k (1)

St Stephen’s, Hounslow (c) Elizabeth Malone

In 2020, perhaps we should take a new look at what our church grounds can provide?  An easy, wildlife friendly thing we could add would be a small ‘pond’.  I’ve deliberately put that in inverted commas as it could be something as simple as an old washing up bowl sunk into the ground which would provide a valuable source of water for birds, foxes and any small amphibians that may be in the locality.

Next time I’m going to focus on what we can be planting to encourage wildlife.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, Anthropologist