Outside the Backdoor

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


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Let it snow!

Chill December brings the sleet,

Blazing fire and Christmas treat,

January brings the snow,

Makes our feet and fingers glow.

Sara Coleridge “The Garden Year”

My first Outside the Back Door based on Sara Coleridge’s poem, “The Garden Year” was written in February last year – so we missed January! For the purposes of my church magazine (the original driver for this blog), I need to combine December and January and, as soon as I read these verses, I knew it would work well as both coincidentally feature sleet and snow. I remember this poem so clearly from childhood and yet, if I’m honest, I can only remember one white Christmas whilst I was growing up. With climate change, the likelihood of a white Christmas in London and the south-east diminishes with each passing year.

Outside the back door January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, you may recall that earlier this year we did indeed have snow! On the 24th January the country was deep in the heart of Lockdown 3, our church was firmly embedded on Facebook and many of us were viewing the Sunday morning service when suddenly down came the snow! There were lots of comments that the vicar and organist were going to get a bit of a shock when they headed outside to discover the world had turned white! Overlooking the turning circle at the end of our road, there were a lot of excited children building snowmen, making snow angels and being pulled along on sleds whilst everyone tried to stay in their strict family bubbles. The shrieks and shouts of excitement were all the more louder given the confined circumstances we were all in at the time.

Winter wonderland January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m not a huge fan of snow. I’m sure lots of you would agree, it’s all very pretty unless you have to get somewhere! The beauty of last year’s lockdown snow was that there was nowhere to go and nothing to do! As a result, I think I enjoyed that snow fall more than most. Working from home, it was quite a relief not to have to worry about train services, opening times, staff rosters etc. Although in fairness some of my staff did have to travel in but we only had reduced services running due to the lockdown which made is much easier than a normal ‘snow day’.

Ice on the fruit trees (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also did what all Norwegian Forest Cat owners seem to do – we threw ours outside into the cold to take some photos of them in their native habitat! To be honest, they’re not that keen on this white slippy stuff and they rushed back indoors to a warm radiator within minutes!

Norwegian Forest Cats are meant to like this stuff! (C) Elizabeth Malone

As well as our footprints and the cats’ paw prints, I do enjoy seeing what else leaves its mark across the snow. It’s the one time you get to see the criss-crossing patterns left by birds hopping around in search of food. That’s the great thing about a winter cold snap, you never quite know what might fly into your garden. In that famous snowfall that brought London to a standstill a few years’ ago, we had a flock of redpolls turn up to raid the seeds on our birch tree. Almost without fail, by the end of January the large cotoneaster at the end of our garden will have been stripped of all its berries by an invasion of redwings. You really know that winter has arrived when you spot the redwings. At the end of January it will be the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch again and we will be glued to the garden with our binoculars to record our feathered friends and to see if anything out of the ordinary turns up.

Bird prints January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Prior to the snow, on 10th January my photos tell me that we experienced an amazing hoar frost. Sometimes I think this is prettier than snow. Snow tends to weigh things down whereas a hoar frost covers everything in the garden in sparkling jewels. I wrapped up to the nines and had a fun half hour or so walking around the garden for as long as my frozen fingers could hold the phone, photographing sparkling leaves, crystalline cobwebs and icing sugar dusted berries.

Frosted crab apples (c) Elizabeth Malone

By the end of January it starts to feel like we’re emerging from the darkness of winter. It will be almost light at five o’clock in the evening and the first flowers of the new year will be starting to emerge. If I remember exactly when to look, I might just see my tiny clump of snowdrops at the end of the garden. Last year our daily walks often took us through our local Cemetery where the crocuses were already looking stunning by the end of the month. As a result, I’ve planted bowls of crocus to have on our patio this year and I can already see them pushing up through the soil. I’m very much looking forward to seeing their burst of colour but in the meantime, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s rainy and it’s time to curl up in front of that blazing fire!

Crocus in Hampton Cemetery January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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February brings the rain …

The first poetry book I ever owned was called something like A Child’s Treasury of Verse and it included a poem by Sara Coleridge called The Garden Year.  It always springs to mind at the start of the year when it’s hard to forget the first stanza …

January brings the snow, 
Makes our feet and fingers glow

It may have been forecast for London and the south-east a few times during January but suddenly this weekend it delivered and the garden turned white extremely rapidly!

Outside the back door on 24 January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

As well as the snow, earlier in the month we had a Sunday morning with a stunning hoar-frost that looked like imitation snow!.  Not wanting to miss out on the garden looking so magical, with every blade of grass and every twig outlined in white, I wrapped up and headed outside, camera (or rather phone) in hand.  It was absolutely freezing and although I moved around as swiftly as I could, the lack of gloves certainly made me fear frost-bite!!

Frosted rose-hips (c) Elizabeth Malone

So what does February have lined up for us?

February brings the rain, 
Thaws the frozen lake again.

With the amount of rain we had pre-Christmas and then again during January, you might not wish to read this! That said, I think this poem is ‘of an era’. Glancing back through my trusty gardening diary, I don’t feel that February brings the rain anymore. Instead, it’s often quite dry and I’ve been caught unawares having failed to water pots outside the back door, only to find them drooping due to lack of moisture.

February has a surprising amount of colour for us to look forward to and I’m rather assuming that everyone would like a bit of an uplift as we continue to slog our way through Lockdown 3!

First to make an appearance in our garden is likely to be the snowdrop. You will note that it is singular, ‘snowdrop’ and not ‘drops’. That’s because snowdrops don’t’ seem to like our garden and, after numerous attempts, both in bulb form and ‘in the green’, I can still only boast one small clump! I have already seen a few popping their heads up around Hampton on our daily walks so I shall be keeping a close eye out for ours to make sure I don’t miss them!

My one lonely snowdrop (c) Elizabeth Malone

The flower I probably most look forward to in February is Iris Reticulata. One day they’re still just a mass of thin strappy leaves and then the next they provide this very welcome zing of vivid blue or purple splashed with sunshine yellow. However, don’t make the mistake I did one year when, in eagerness to add more to an existing pot, I squished in more bulbs in the autumn only to discover the following spring that I’d planted a different colour and I now had violet blues interspersed with beetroot purple and they clashed horribly!

Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Our Christmas hellebores are now giving way to the spring or Lenten hellebores. We have literally hundreds of these thanks to them self-seeding freely all over the place. Every time I go out to the recycling bin at the moment, I’m terrified that I’m going to step on a rather gorgeous deep red one that’s emerging through the gravel! So which are my favourite hellebores? I think the answer has to be ‘all of them!’ And that’s because I like the surprise of turning up their heads to face me to see what sort of flower they are – plain, speckled, dark centred? It’s always a surprise and delight.

Self-set hellebore (c) Elizabeth Malone

Along with snowdrops, crocuses are the other bulb that I most identify with February. We only have a small clump or two under our hawthorn tree but they seem to have improved year on year. I always remember planting them as one of our cats was determined to dig them up every time I turned my back. I’m amazed we have any at all!

Purple crocus – not sure which variety (c) Elizabeth Malone

Back in the autumn, I also planted up a pot of very early daffodils called February Gold. It was part of my plan to brighten up the late winter which, I guessed, might be a bit strange. Well, it turns out that I was spot on there! That said, looking back over last year’s garden photos (and lockdown meant that there were many of them), I discovered that my favourite daffodil from last year was already flowering on the 15 February. This was Jet-fire. For a small daffodil, Jet-fire is taller that the well-known tete-a-tete and has gold, thrown back petals with a deep orange trumpet. It really performed, with flowers lasting for several weeks.

Narcissus ‘Jet-fire’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

I shall have to wait to see if February Gold lives up to its name! As we continue to progress through these very grim months of pandemic, I encourage you to keep looking outside at what’s around you. February isn’t the dull, grey month that we often think of. There’s plenty of colour awaiting for us!


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New shoots

So it’s already twelfth night and the greenery and berries from last year’s gardening season are heading out to the recycling bin.

Cat and greenery

Lending a paw (c) Elizabeth Malone

I couldn’t help but notice over Christmas that there was a lot of looking back going on and, in our gardens, a lot of focus on things still in flower. So when do we draw the line under the last gardening year and step forward into the next? Over the Christmas and New Year break, I took a stroll around the garden and was very much struck by the amount of new growth. It’s been a relatively mild winter so far here in south-west London and so many plants and bulbs are starting to reach out into the new year.

One of the biggest surprises I had was this violet coming into bud. My original clump of violets was given to me barely two years ago but they seem to have settled in well. I divided up them up on receipt into three different plants and each is now filling out. These are planted in the shade of our cherry plum tree and an increasingly giant self-sown sycamore on Railtrack land (therein lies a challenge!) which is providing them with a naturalistic woodland setting which they clearly love.

Violet bud

Violet in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

I turned around from struggling to take close up photos of the violet and spotted this white cyclamen unfurling itself. I think this particular plant began its life in a winter patio pot and was then planted out. It’s in a rather dark corner of the ‘woodland’ area which appears to suit it. Look carefully and you can see more buds emerging. The leaves also seem to be especially good this winter.

White cyclamen

White cyclamen bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Camellia buds are emerging confidently. I was worried that last summer’s drought would severely affect these as the general advice is that camellias need plenty of water in early autumn to enable their buds to form and whilst the drought had ended by then, it was quite some time before the ground could really be considered as wet. However all three of my camellias are currently promising a good display, as are others up the road, so fingers crossed that they don’t end up a mushy brown mess courtesy of heavy frosts!

Camellia bud

Camellia bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m not sure that I’ve ever really taken notice of our Portuguese laurel when it’s at this early pink stage of budding. Now here’s a plant that probably needs to bit of curtailing at some point during the coming year!

Laurel bud

Laurel in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

The cabbage centres of the Euphorbia seem to be forming well. This is plain, standard ‘woodland spurge’, nothing special but I do still enjoy the vibrant lime green bracts when they emerge. They are usually interspersed by daffodils, which are starting to poke their heads above ground but were really too low to make a sensible photo. My large headed daffodils have been disappointing in recent years with the buds often nibbled by creatures in the soil before coming into bloom. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for better things in 2019.

Euphorbia, or woodland spurge

Euphorbia emerging (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m also wondering why there seem to be just four crocuses appearing here?! Given that I specifically planted more back in the autumn, I’m wondering where they have gone? Has a squirrel relocated them by chance?

Crocus buds

Crocus leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

Of course it’s not all about skipping forward a season to brighter spring days, some plants are in their element now. The great advantage of the holiday season being the chance to see the garden in daylight other than just at the weekend. This winter flowering jasmine has been providing a splendid backdrop to gold baubles throughout Christmas. It’s vibrancy has also lit up some rather gloomy, cloudy days.

Winter flowering jasmine

Winter flowering jasmine (c) Elizabeth Malone

Like the jasmine, the winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is planted near the house. The jasmine gives us a bright welcome each morning whilst the honeysuckle scents the patio and will even waft into the house on a relatively mild day. The honeysuckle is also loved by winter bees and we’ve observed several over the holiday.

Winter flowering honeysuckle

Lonicera fragrantissima (c) ElizabethMalone

But the current star of the garden has to be our Viburnum Bodnantense (Charles Lamont) which is flowering its socks off in a fashion rarely seen before. For some reason I do associate pink blossom with the height of Spring so this shrub really does feel like it’s heralding the new year and soon it will be time to start some real gardening for 2019, the bit we all love, some sowing and planting!

Pink blossom of Viburnum Bodnantense

Viburnum Bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ (c) Elizabeth Malone


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The boring side of bulbs

Today I planted the last set of bulbs ready for next Spring and breathed a sigh of relief.  I love Spring bulbs like the next gardener but planting them just isn’t my favourite task.

I only realised this some years ago when I was dutifully scrabbling around in the dry earth of September desperately trying to force into the ground some 200 bulbs that I had succumbed to in a rash moment when reading a ‘free’ offer in a magazine.  My next door neighbour called round and remarked that he disliked bulbs because planting them was hard work and boring.  I remember pausing at that moment and thinking, he’s right!

Early September brings the best bulbs into the garden centres but the ground is either too hard and dry to plant them or covered in late summer flowering gems.  And then there’s the dilemma about tulips.  All the advice points to planting them in November to reduce the potential for disease but if you leave purchasing your tulips until then, you will have very slim pickings in the garden centre which by this time will be full of Christmas decorations!  Store your tulip bulbs carefully and, by the time you are ready to plant them, chances are they will already be sprouting or some will have gone soft!

This autumn I wanted to plant yellows, oranges and reds in my ‘hot’ border but held off until last weekend as it was, to my delight, still flowering profusely.  The arrival of our first frost on 1 November gave me the cue to bring the dahlias back down to ground level and to remove any remaining annuals.  Heavy rain the night before fooled me into thinking bulb planting might be easier but no, the dahlia leaves had well and truly prevented too much water reaching the soil.  I chipped away at making suitable holes and eventually shoe-horned in about 30 bulbs, thereafter retreating indoors with what can only be described as ‘bulb-planting wrist’.

Today I decided to take the easy option and to plant my remaining tulip bulbs in a pot.  Having purchased a pack of orange and purple bulbs shown flowering beautifully together, I was surprised to discover that they were likely to flower at slightly different times.  So I have planted the earlier ones deeper in the hopes that they might all flower together.

Having prepared my pot, I think had to think about squirrel defences.  Having chopped down my dahlias last weekend and mulched them heavily, today I see that the squirrel has thoughtfully spread my mulch all over the lawn!  I have found that both plant supports and upside down  hanging baskets fulfil a useful anti-squirrel function.

Iris reticulata

And so, as I sit back and wait for the joys of Spring and bulbs in all their glory, I spare a thought for those professional gardeners and volunteers who bring amazing displays to us every year, such as the one below at Wisley earlier this year, and I’m just grateful that I only had a few packets of bulbs to plant and not a few hundred or thousand!

Tulips at Wisley