Outside the Backdoor

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

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Autumn’s gold

I confess that I find the autumn garden a confusing place.  When the calendar is flipped over to September, with any luck your borders will still be lush, bursting with colour and the air is still warm but head into November and it’s a damp, grey and increasingly cold story – the opposite ends of the season could not be more different.


The heart of the border (c) John Malone

Depending on when the first frost decides to make an appearance, the border can suddenly be transformed in a matter of days from high summer glory to a mush of brown, a sorry reminder that winter is just around the corner.  I am always thrilled when the border does still look good in September.  This year it did and also continued well into October but I can honestly say that it’s taken years of practice!  There’s no denying that I’m naturally drawn to spring plants and my love of the colour purple, bar the Michaelmas daisy, is a colour of the spring and summer garden whereas autumn says reds, oranges and gold.


Aster Cotswold Gem (c) Elizabeth Malone

The most vibrant gold in the garden this autumn has been the resurgence of a rudbeckia which I thought had gone away.  I planted it about five years ago but after year two it vanished.  Last year it reappeared very late in the season and produced about six flowers.  To my astonishment, this year it has grown steadily throughout the summer and in August began to reward us with a stunning display of hundreds of deep sunshine yellow flowers which have continued well into autumn.  This rudbeckia has definitely been my ‘autumn gold’.


Rudbeckia (c) John Malone

Our grasses provide a more subtle gold with their slowly bleaching stems and fronds as autumn progresses.  Stipa Tenuissima provides a swathe of gold in early autumn but as winter approaches it is almost white.  And to go with our precious metal, our fabulous ruby red Panicum has been looking particularly splendid this autumn.  The leaves look fantastic backlit by the sun but the flowers are almost black in colour.  I know that grasses are often perceived as rather trendy but I wouldn’t be without them as there are so many different colours and shapes and they are also often very tactile.


Stipa and panicum surround the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

Thinking ahead to next autumn we need more gold, that is, in the way of oranges and yellows.  Our ‘hot’ border seems to have become very dark red, again almost black, as a couple of giant Obsidian dahlias have taken over.  I’ve taken some cuttings of a yellow Honka dahlia in the hopes of injecting more lighter, brighter contrasting flowers.  Something with a good depth of orange would also be good.

Yellow ‘Honka’ dahlia (c) John Malone

Another lesson to be learnt this year is that the late summer / autumn border is much, much taller than the spring / summer border!  This has been accentuated by my very late developing cosmos which failed to flower before September (I expected them to flower in July!) and which shot up to over seven feet tall!  In mid-October they were looking fabulous but it was hard to find some of the lower growing spring plants beneath these giants to check on their health.  When September decided to deliver its month’s rainfall in just a day or two, all these tall plants were bending under the weight of water.  Some emergency staking brought them back upright but now the wind seems to have become stronger.  I get the sense that we are battling the elements as we try to cling on to summer.


Cosmos – taller than the fence! (C). John Malone

Our September break to the Netherlands gave us sight of a really interesting ‘brown’ autumn border.  On an extremely wet day in the seaside town of Katwijk-en-See I was really taken with the planting outside the church.  In many respects it was classic Dutch ‘Piet Oudolf’ prairie-style planting in drifts involving grasses and lots of interesting sedums and seed heads.  Sodden with rain, the plants all looked a deeper colour than they would have done in the sunshine.  It was a very clever way of easing the passer-by into autumn rather than pretending that it was still summer.


Katwijk-en-See (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since our return from holiday, the garden mostly seems to have been drenched.  October has been nothing if not consistent – when did you last leave church on a Sunday morning in the dry?!  For now the leaves remain on the trees, but for how much longer?  The first really nippy morning brought a pool of gold leaves down to circle each tree I pass on the way to the station of a morning.  Soon there will be piles of leaves to be cleared from the lawn.  I really miss our cherry tree which used to produce glorious red autumn leaves.  Many of our leaves come from our lilacs and they tend to just turn brown and die.  Our neighbour’s magnolia isn’t a lot better.  Both are, of course, really useful for creating leaf mould as they do turn to mulch quite quickly.  For our autumn gold, we must keep our fingers crossed for the birch which should provide us with a lovely golden glow, often against stormy leaden skies.

Golden autumn sunrise (c) John Malone

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold. …

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing gold can stay” by Robert Frost


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Bedazzled by Dahlias

Everyone seems to be writing about dahlias right now so please forgive me for joining in! This time last year I wrote about being Dotty about Dahlias and talked about the dilemma – to lift or not to lift? So I thought it would be timely so share with you the success (or failure!) of what we did.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, we have dahlias but are these my originals? This gigantic Veronne’s Obsidian is a great example of a successful ‘leave in the ground’ strategy. Being in south-west London, we should by rights be able to over-winter our dahlias in the ground. In November we cosied them up under a thick layer of our best leaf mould. In less that 24 hours our mulch was scattered to the four winds courtesy of squirrels and squirrel-chasing cats! Clearly whoever recommended the mulching approach didn’t own cats and apparently wasn’t pestered by squirrels either! What were we supposed to do, rake it all up each day and re-mulch? I think not! As the winter progressed and remained relatively mild, I kept my fingers crossed and then the Beast from the East struck! Well that’s it, I thought to myself, and promptly placed an order for replacement tubers!

It seems I need not have feared as not only did the giant Obsidian’s reappear, but so too my red Honkas! In fact, I think all the tubers that were left in the ground eventually reappeared and are currently in flower. To me, flowering seems to have been late this year – a result of the Beast from the East or the drought? Take your pick! Throughout August I kept watching the buds carefully, particularly some plants where it was clear that they were going to be absolutely covered in blooms, but nothing seemed to be happening. Then as September arrived, so did the flowers and, as it turned out, the bees with them. Both the Obsidians and Honkas have literally been a hive of activity over the past few weeks.

There have, however, been some puzzles. We continued to over-winter five dahlias in pots – three yellow Honka, a Bishop of Canterbury (above) and another of York. I have fed both the dahlias in pots, as I always do, and also those in the ground. However, despite their cosseted existence, the potted dahlias have performed poorly. The yellow Honkas have yet to flower and the two Bishops have been rather circumspect which has been disappointing. Their cousin the Bishop of Oxford, however, was left in the border and is flowering beautifully (below).

The other puzzle has been my replacement red Honkas which clearly aren’t! Having resorted to Google, it would appear that these are ‘Honka Surprise’ – how apt! Fortunately I rather like them and so they are welcome to stay.

So as autumn progresses, I am again faced with the dilemma of what to do with my dahlias? I’m pretty convinced that I’m going to leave all the tubers in the ground that are planted in the main border. I will mulch with something, even if it does merely serve as a squirrel playground. As for my potted dahlias, I definitely need a re-think. I’m half hoping that having written about them, they will now prove me wrong and launch into an autumn fling but if not, I think it may be time to go back to the drawing board, or rather the plant catalogue!

So did you leave your dahlias in the ground last year? And regardless of where they were left, are you dahlias flowering later than usual?


The burnt garden

Confession time – I didn’t believe the weather forecasters when they predicted this summer’s heatwave … to my cost.  We headed off for almost two weeks holiday just as the bright yellow, glowing sunshine symbol was starting to wink away on the BBC weather app.  I didn’t entirely ignore the warnings as I did leave watering instructions for my cat-sitter but, unfortunately, I was far too focused on whether it was going to be 8 degrees or 18 in Iceland – it turned out to be both!  More of which another time.  However, there I was on a grey, slightly damp day in the East Fjords when a text pinged through.  London temperatures had soared, plants were scorching and it was clear that troops needed to be mustered if we were to return to anything alive.  Thank heavens for the wonders of hotel wifi and neighbours who responded admirably to my email pleading for help!  However, it was still a shock when we returned home to sights such as this!


This acuba started off life as a cutting from my mother’s garden.  Interestingly, in one previous hot summer, I remember her showing me the scorched leaves and us wondering if they really could just have been burnt by the sun.  This one is planted in full sun whilst its sibling is in a much shadier area and still has lovely shiny green leaves.  Neither wilt or show any other signs of stress, just these unsightly burnt areas on leaves that were in direct sun.

The bay tree in the front garden is another disaster area.

It’s in a large pot and, nestled up by the hedge, it is both sheltered but also easily forgotten if you don’t know it’s there.  The front garden faces west and consequently receives the full blast of the sun’s setting rays.  When the weather finally gets cool enough, clearly  we will need to give it a short back and sides.  Fortunately we have a second bay in a pot outside the back door which is in better shape should the need for bay arise, although curiously I do think of bay as being a winter herb when it comes to cooking.

There were also some scorched surprises.  I automatically think of dahlias as hot weather plants but it would seem that they too have their limits.  I fear that this Veronne’s Obsidian may not perform at its best this year.

My phlox was a brighter story but, look beneath the purple spray and, yes, there’s plenty of dead, drought ridden growth lurking there too.

But the plant that is worrying me most is our birch tree.  Regular readers will recall the sad tale of my flowering cherry tree, well the birch is right next door to it.  I have known it turn gold early and start dropping leaves when we’ve had previous dry summers but, as you can imagine, this time I am worried.  It has a number of dead branches on one side and the leaves were falling in their hundreds.  I’ve soaked a wide area where I believe its roots to be and I’ve mulched it over.  I’ve also called a tree specialist for advice – they are coming next week.  So please, all fingers crossed, I really can’t bear to loose another tree.



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Dotty about dahlias

Long gone is the era when dahlias were distinctly passé.  For the last ten years or more, dahlias have undergone a huge resurgence in popularity, mostly attributed to the incredibly successful ‘Bishop’ series with their dense dark red foliage.  The most popular of these is Bishop of Llandaff but, due to a number of mishaps, we don’t have any of these outside the back door.  We do, however, have some fellow Bishops – notably Oxford and Canterbury, the result of a newspaper offer on Bishop dahlias that we sent off for some years ago.

Initially we kept our dahlias in pots.  This was based on our bad experiences with the Bishop of Llandaff, one of which drowned on the patio in a very wet spring, and another of which was eaten to death in the border.  Pots seemed a safer option, added to which we could enjoy the flowers close to the house.  We also didn’t really have the right sort of space in the border for planting them out.  However, with the advent of my new hot / late summer border, that has all changed.

Much of the appeal of dahlias is their ability to extend the season.  For the first years that we lived here, I joined the ranks of frustrated gardeners who despair in August as the beautiful flower border of May and June is transformed into a rather desolate flower-less sight.  I know that there’s nothing wrong with green and I relish our evergreens in view in the depths of winter, but in July, August and September, I want something a bit more vibrant!  So, with the new border in place, our Bishops were released from the confinement of their pots and, goodness me, have they taken advantage!  At one point in the middle of August I counted no less than 19 flowers in full bloom on our Oxfords.

Having got into dahlias via the dark-leaved varieties, we have gradually become more adventurous in our choices, realising that it’s not so much about the leaf colour as the flower shape and that there are many, many different flower shapes, some of which will appeal more than others.  I cannot, for example, imagine us suddenly developing a liking for pom-pom dahlias!  They are just not our cup of tea.  Star-shaped dahlias, however, we love and are particularly pleased with ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ which produces extremely dark red flowers that are almost black and which beautifully complement the orange of the Oxfords.  The star-shaped flowers have much sharper, linear petals whereas the Bishops tend to have much smaller, rounded petals but both are very much single flowers with wide open centres which are a magnet for bees.

Verrone's Obsidian

Into this mix come our Honkas!  Another star dahlia, we have both red and yellow varieties.  The yellows are just such a happy flower, shining like sunrays even on the gloomiest summer day.  The reds are incredibly rich in colour.

I really felt that I had achieved what I set out to do when, on the August bank holiday weekend, a friend remarked on the amount of colour we had in the garden.  Although the main part of the border still had some pretty pink, purples and whites, it was the new hot border with the dahlias that was positively zinging and affirming that it wasn’t autumn just yet.  I am now keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t have an early frost as it would be incredibly sad to see this display reduced to a heap of blackened leaves just yet.

Meanwhile we face the dilemma – to lift, or not to lift?  I would say that we live in a mild area and the gardening books and websites suggest that a thick layer of mulch is therefore all we need to keep our dahlias cosy until next Spring.  But we’ve not done that before and have preferred to lift them, dust down and dry off and we have still lost some tubers.  So it’s going to be a difficult decision but, one thing is for certain, I don’t intend to be without dahlias next summer!