Outside the Backdoor

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


Leave a comment

Homes for hogs

When I compiled my list of wildlife topics for the 2022 series of Outside the Back Door, I planned to time this article about hedgehogs to coincide with when they would be emerging from hibernation – how wrong could I be!

Some of you will be already aware that we have felt really privileged to be the home of several hedgehogs for the past two years.  However, it has proved a big learning curve, as you will discover if you read on, and one of the most surprising thing has been their lack of willingness to hibernate this winter!  More of which shortly.

An early hedgehog spot from summer 2020 (c) John Malone

Our hedgehog discovery came during those sunny days of the first lockdown in April 2020.  Hedgehogs were only on my mind due to a colleague having spotted some in her garden across the river in Molesey.  So when I found strange small curved droppings on our lawn, I found myself Googling “hedgehog poo”!  The photo that popped up matched exactly what had appeared on our lawn.  Then, to my amazement, I spotted one running down the garden at dusk only a few evenings later.  I’m not sure that my husband believed me at first but, several days later, we both saw one.  We were absolutely thrilled.  Thankfully so was our neighbour so we were able to create a hedgehog highway by protecting a dip in the ground that had appeared under our fences. 

Our hedgehog highway (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t get into feeding the hogs until late summer / early autumn when, thanks to a friend, we put out some special hedgehog food, prompted by a further sighting.  We then did our research and discovered that dry kitten kibble is recommended as hedgehogs only have little mouths.  Since then, kitten food has become a regular addition to our weekly shop and I can’t help think that the supermarkets must be wondering just how many kittens we own!!  Food stopped being taken in early November 2020 and, naively, we concluded we could stop feeding until the spring.  In spring 2021, we spotted droppings again and resumed feeding and, even more importantly, putting out a tray of water.  A quick scan around the garden each evening with a torch would often reveal a munching hog or two.

Supper time! (c) John Malone

It turns out that hedgehogs can be marvellous inspiration for a whole range of birthday present ideas and in May 2021 ‘Hog Cam’ was launched!  Timed to switch on after dusk, this motion sensitive camera could capture short videos of active hogs.  To our amazement, anything up to four hedgehogs could be seen at a time!  It appeared our garden had become ‘hedgehog central’ in Hampton!

Hedgehogs dining at dusk (c) John Malone

Going live with the camera in May meant that we were up and running in time for the rutting season.  You may well be familiar with the red deer rut in the autumn with its dramatic clashing of antlers, but I can now tell you that the hedgehog rut in May/June can become pretty feisty too!  Despite all those prickles, the male hogs will push and shunt their rivals around the garden.  They circle the female who will often remain quite still.  We were never quite sure whether we captured them mating and we didn’t see any tiny hoglets either but maybe we’ll be luckier this year?  The other thing we have learnt from the camera is that they don’t hibernate for uninterrupted long periods as we had imagined.  This winter they didn’t stop coming for food each evening until into January and, since then, they have only ceased to arrive for a relatively short period of about 2-3 weeks.  The night they turned up and we’d failed to put food out for them made us feel very guilty!

Prime real-estate for hedgehogs – currently unoccupied! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Given the parlous state of hedgehog populations in the UK, we do feel very privileged to host these adorable little creatures in our garden.  The good news is that recent studies by the PTES have shown that urban hedgehog populations seem to be steadying whereas in rural areas the numbers continue to fall.  This implies that it is all due to habitat.  The clue is in the name – ‘hedge’ hog.  Without hedges, we’re without hogs.  However, wildlife and gardening programmes have done their utmost to encourage anyone with a garden to make them hedgehog friendly and this is clearly having a positive effect.

So what can you do to help hedgehogs in your local area?  Firstly, keep a look out for signs, such as the crescent shaped droppings, that would suggest you have hedgehogs in your area.  If you want to feed them, try putting a small tray of dried cat food out at dusk.  If you’re worried about rats, our experience so far has only shown a rat go to the dish twice since last May, although we do have a rather cheeky mouse right now.  The local cats also seem to ignore kitten food, clearly thinking it’s beneath them.  The fox, however, has swiped the lot occasionally but not always.  Also make sure you put out a dish of water.  We have been amazed at how much they drink.  Each hog will take some food and then waddle to the tray for a long drink, and they will do this to’ing and fro’ing for hours at a time!  They also travel long distances at night in search of food so enable a pathway between your garden and a neighbours.  Just dig down slightly to create a little run through for them.  Finally, leave corners of your garden where they can snuggle up beneath leaves and twigs.  Any actions you take may be vital in ensuring that our hedgehogs continue to survive – good luck!

Our dedicated drinking station (courtesy of a friend!) (c) Elizabeth Malone


Leave a comment

Fresh October

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Continuing this years series of blogs based on Sara Coleridge’s poem ‘The Garden Year’, I realised that nuts don’t feature in my garden at all, or at least not deliberately. Over the years I have pulled out many a seedling horse chestnut tree sprouting from a conker buried by an industrious squirrel.

Squirrel posing locally in Bushy Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also have a small oak tree in a pot dug up from somewhere in the garden and, again, probably growing from an acorn buried by a squirrel as I’m not aware of any oak trees particularly nearby. Our little tree is thriving but leaving us with the puzzle of what to do with it? Our garden isn’t the right size and scale for a majestic oak! As we live near Oak Avenue Nature Reserve, I’m wondering if I could sneak out in the dead of night and plant it there? With the emphasis next year on planting trees for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, maybe there will be an opportunity?

Our baby oak tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we may not have nuts to gather in the garden, this is without doubt the season of seedpods and berries. I watch in trepidation as the gigantic sycamore at the end of the garden casts thousands more ‘helicopter’ seeds in all directions. This tree wasn’t even here 21 years ago! It’s a self-set that has grown up just beyond our fence on Railtrack land which makes it somewhat challenging to get anyone to do anything with it. Once again next spring I will be pulling out hundreds of its offspring.

Sycamore warning! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Glancing out of the window to the patio, I can see that the berries on the black elder, Sambucus Nigra Black Lace, have already been devoured by the birds.  Berries from our main elder tree will probably have been eaten by pigeons but I suspect that the black elder berries have been snapped up by the flock of sparrows that seem to have adopted our garden over the summer.  Most afternoons between 8 and 12 of them descend and hide in the adjacent hedge.  For the next half hour or so there will be the sound of wingbeats as they ‘bounce’ up and down and in and out of the various bushes dining on a selection of insects, berries and seeds.  They are very entertaining to watch but also really distracting if you’re trying to concentrate on something!

Sambucca Nigra Black Lace against visit autumn sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

Underneath our bird feeders and therefore relatively low to the ground, we have a pyracantha will brilliant orange berries. These are at pigeon-height and will gradually disappear one-by-one of the coming weeks. From there the pigeons will then move on to the cotoneaster berries in the front garden which will mean we startle them every time we open the front door! I was going to suggest that it would be easier for the pigeons to progress to the hawthorn berries just above them. (Our bird feeders hang in the hawthorn tree which is less easily climbed by our cats!) However, I’ve just realised how few berries are actually left on the tree which implies that they’ve not been slow in coming forward to eat them. There’s a whole winter to go yet but they clearly don’t believe in being abstemious and saving some for later!

Prickly pyracantha (c) Elizabeth Malone

Green holly berries seem to be in abundance. Does this mean we’re in for a hard winter? I’m not quite sure when they turn from green to red, presumably when the temperature starts to drop? Of course as soon as they are red, then the birds will be ready to eat these too, leaving us to hunt around in mid-December looking for any that might still be available to decorate the house.

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

What is becoming clear as I write this is just how important all these berries and seeds are to our wildlife. One plant that many of us have in our gardens, that grows wild in our churchyards and open spaces and yet is often reviled, is ivy. We were recently on holiday in Ramsgate in Kent where the seafront esplanade was lined by a mile or more of ivy. The sheer number of insects buzzing and hovering around the flowers was truly astonishing. To see this would make you question whether the UK’s insect life really is under threat? Although if any of you have done the ‘splat test’ on your car number plates this summer, you will know that this is a serious problem. (Our number plates remained almost spotless on journeys to Dorset in June and Kent in September). We have a lot of ivy in the garden. In one corner a whole range of birds must nest in it. We can’t see properly but every spring we’re aware of regular flitting to and fro. In the autumn, late bees will flock to it as one of the last flowering plants around and on a sunny day there is a constant stream of hoverflies skimming over it. In the depths of winter its shiny black berries will provide essential food for birds as well as decorating the house for Christmas. Yes, ivy can become too big for its boots at times but it’s easily pulled back to something more manageable and we wouldn’t be without it.

Garden ivy and hoverfly (c) Elizabeth Malone


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.


Leave a comment

Hoorah for hedgehogs!

We have hedgehogs!  Not one, not two but three!  I know that everyone thinks I’m a bit crazy to be going on about them like this but we haven’t seen a hedgehog in our garden for more than 15 years.  Having decided to focus this year’s blog posts on the climate crisis and the environment, it’s rather nice to have a story to tell about one of our most endangered species. 

Our first spiny visitor! (c) John Malone

Not that many years ago, hedgehogs were abundant in the UK.  Just think how many you used to see squished on the road!  And that, in its own way, has been part of the problem.  Man’s impact on the hedgehog has been significant.  If we’ve not run over them in our cars, we’ve removed the hedges they need to nest in (the clue is in the name!) and tidied our gardens to within an inch of their lives.  In the 1950s it’s thought that there was over 36 million hedgehogs in this country but now it’s estimated that the number is probably only around 1 million.  As a result this year saw hedgehogs added to the red-list of endangered species in the UK alongside other well-loved creatures such as the red squirrel.

We first became aware of our hedgehogs in the spring. In fact, I wouldn’t even have been on alert to look out for them had not a colleague not too many miles away remarked that she had them in her garden. Only a few days later I spotted some droppings in the garden. With three cats, we know cat poo well so quickly ruled that out! Foxes can’t really get into our garden because of our cat fence but prior to having that fence, clearing the garden of fox poo was a regular and very unpleasant task, so we quickly ruled that out too. To the amusement of friends and colleagues I Googled “hedgehog poo” and up popped a picture that matched what was in our garden almost exactly.

Hedgehog poo on our lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

Then, by total chance, I spotted a hedgehog running down the garden one evening! My husband looked sceptical but the following evening he saw it too! Inspired by this, our neighbour went out and purchased hedgehog food. Each evening the food vanished but we never saw what was eating it. As the days drew longer, we became less than convinced that we were feeding hedgehogs. I considered purchasing one of those wildlife trigger cameras but, oh goodness, what a selection there is out there! I decided it was all far too complicated and resigned myself to the thought that our hedgehog had trotted off to better gardens.

Our hedgehog highway (protected from fox digging!) (c) Elizabeth Malone

On the last weekend in September, I walked out into the garden and saw more hedgehog poo! That hadn’t been there the day before! Two days later we were washing up as dusk fell when I spotted a hedgehog running across the lawn! We shot outside with cameras and my husband rummaged in the shed for the remaining hedgehog food. Our little spiky friend seemed quite appreciative so the following evening we were prepared and the tray of food went out in preparation. As my husband took it out, he spotted movement amongst the dahlias. Suddenly I saw frantic waving – there was not one but two hedgehogs out there! One was really small, a baby we decided. At this point we began to realise that we knew very little about the lifecycle of the hedgehog – more Googling followed!

Proof that there were two! (c) John Malone

Equipped with our new knowledge, we started to worry. If the little one was a recent baby, the statistics showed that its chances of putting on enough weight to survive the winter were quite slim. Our commitment to feeding them went up a notch or two at this point. We researched further food options and ordered kitten biscuit to be added to our next supermarket delivery. On one evening they had to do with a pouch of wet cat food and they were clearly unimpressed as that was the one evening we didn’t see them! The kitten food has proved popular as the kibble is small enough for a little hedgehog snout to cope with. Then, to our amazement, two became three! In fact, my husband was heading out with the food and nearly stood on one! At that point we realised that there were two more huddled together under our hawthorn tree.

Enjoying a supper of kitten food (c) John Malone

We are really thrilled to be welcoming these increasingly rare and endangered creatures into our garden and are delighted that our efforts at gardening in an environmentally friendly way appears to be paying off. Our garden isn’t overly tidy. We have corners that frankly we cannot reach so leaves and twigs gather which are ideal for hedgehogs. We have never sprayed chemicals although I will admit to the occasional use of supposedly wildlife friendly slug pellets but these are only used when a plant is being decimated and for a limited time. However, if we can keep our hedgehogs happy, I won’t need these as they can eat the slugs for me!

Hedgehog house under construction! (C) Elizabeth Malone

We’ve been reflecting on why the appearance of the hedgehogs has been so thrilling? Is it anything to do with lockdown and needing some good news stories? Or is it that this is giving us a chance to put conservation into action in our own back yard? Either way, we hope our little spiny friends will find somewhere snug to hibernate this winter and that we can welcome them outside the backdoor again next year.


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


1 Comment

Sounds of silence

Flapping, squeaking, buzzing … and not a jet engine to be heard!

I have lived my life underneath the Heathrow flight path. At my parents’ house, we used to look forward to a foggy day when the skies would fall silent but, since landing became more automated, even that ceased to be the case. Our current house was chosen for the fact that it generally falls between flight paths and doesn’t get planes directly overhead – hoorah! That said, there’s always the odd day when it feels like air traffic control have you in their sights. We do have the railway line, however, but since the Coronavirus lockdown began, trains have started later, finished earlier and they are shorter so they pass by more quickly.

Intense blue above us (c) Elizabeth Malone

So I look up to the part blue / part cloudy white sky and instead of vapour trails, I can see a swallow circling … or is it a swift? I always find it hard to spot the difference at a distance so we tend to hedge our bets and refer to the ‘swillows’! It’s not a particularly full sky today in terms of birds but then it’s May. Most birds have more important things to be doing right now than swooping across our skies. That said, isn’t it blue? Apparently it’s not just our eyes deceiving us or our imaginations romanticising this new ‘lockdown’ world, it really is ‘bluer’ due to the lack of pollution. The blue skies have provided an intense backdrop to what has been a very beautiful spring.

Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’ against blue sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

The squeaking is incessant. It has been a huge week for fledglings. This picture doesn’t really tell the story. The lawn was covered in greedy young starlings demanding food and our sparrow family who have kept us entertained all week. The sparrows seem to have taken home-schooling to heart and we observe daily lessons such as how to approach a squirrel-protected bird-feeder!

A handful of greedy young starlings – the rest were hiding behind the bushes!

There’s also a lot of flapping going on. That would be the wood pigeons and magpies sorting themselves out, some in our birch tree and some on the roof of the house at the end of the garden. This is interspersed with the ‘woo-woo’ of the collar doves.

Magpie at sunset in our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seconds ago I had to duck! A formidable buzzing passed by my right ear as a giant bumble bee made its way towards the cotoneaster. The flowers of this plant might be tiny but the bees absolutely love it. We used to have the food-waste bin positioned near the prostrate cotoneaster in our front garden but that meant stepping very near the humming masses each time we used it. We concluded that it was prudent to move the bin!

Tiny flowers of the cotoneaster (c) Elizabeth Malone

I can also hear the relaxing sound of running water. Next door’s fountain is trickling into their pond, which reminds me that we’ve not yet turned on our fountain this spring. Something to do later. The sound of the trickling water is also hiding that inevitable summer noise – the whine of a lawnmower! Clearly no one has mentioned that it’s supposed to be ‘no mow May’ around here!

Time to turn on our own pond fountain! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Finally, I can hear the blackbird, surely one of the most beautiful bird songs. I know a mistle-thrust would probably be even more lyrical but this is south-west London, we can’t have everything you now! And as if to remind me that not all bird-song is necessarily beautiful, I can hear a bevvy of parakeets heading our way!

Good afternoon blackbird!
And good evening blackbird!


Leave a comment

The power of ponds

Water is an essential feature of any wildlife garden and for most of us that means a pond. If you are looking to make your garden, terrace or even balcony, more environmentally friendly, you can’t go far wrong in adding a splash of water.

Our pond in spring time (c) Elizabeth Malone

When we moved here twenty years ago, there was a willow tree by the pergola. The pergola had been carefully positioned by the previous owners so that it caught the evening sun in the summer and was therefore a lovely place to wind down at the end of the day with a glass of something cold in your hand. Sitting in the pergola and by the willow tree, we quickly realised that this area was begging for a pond. It is perhaps ironic that the willow tree subsequently died but we have never regretted the decision to build the pond.

Pond and pergola (c) John Malone

Before embarking on the pond we had tested the water (apologies for the terrible pun!) by plugging the drainage hole in a large ceramic pot, filling it with water and adding a water lily. It actually worked really well and was a delight to look at. I’d really recommend this for anyone who either doesn’t have the space for a pond or who just wants to add a bit more water to their garden.

Our increasingly giant water lily! (C) John Malone

Without a shadow of doubt, our pond is teeming with wildlife. As I write this, it is a glorious sunny spring day and red damselflies are emerging, skimming the water, perching on marigold leaves and quickly finding a mate. I’ve also counted six newts. On a day like this they love to just float in the sunshine. Sadly we didn’t have any frogspawn this year. We did have a lonely frog who turned up and waited patiently for its mate but clearly to no avail. We are really missing the tadpoles as they devour the green weed in the pond and keep the water clear. Instead I am having to mess around, trying to extract it with a hoe or any other device that seems to work. I’ve tried scooping with a net but trying to clean out the net before making the next scoop, is really frustrating! There are also water snails – where did they come from? Everyone always says build a pond and the wildlife will come. This is so true.

Tadpoles last spring (c) Elizabeth Malone

Creating a pond needn’t be complicated but a little extra thought will help develop a really good wildlife haven. For example, ensuring that there are plants with tall, strappy leaves enables damselflies and dragonflies to emerge from the water and dry off after shedding their skin. You need plants that will maintain oxygen levels to enable frogs and newts to survive. You should also always include a way out for any creature that accidentally falls in. Most people have hedgehogs in mind when they say this but your cat might appreciate it too! Fortunately we have only ended up with a soggy moggy on about three occasions!

Dragonfly emerging (c) John Malone

As well as being a wildlife home, the pond also helps to sustain a variety of other creatures. The birds love to bathe here as well as drink and we frequently see bees and wasps refreshing themselves. The heron, however, is one of our less welcome visitors as it is probably the reason why we don’t have frogspawn. From our observations, there is nothing better that a heron likes for breakfast than a nice juicy frog! A bit like foxes, I think we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the heron. They are so intriguing to watch. The first time I saw one standing by our pond early one morning, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me and had stuck a plastic one in the garden … but then it moved its head slightly!

Bee taking advantage of the marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

As we originally envisaged, sitting next to the pond is a really restful experience, watching the wildlife and listening the trickling water (on the occasions when we do remember to turn on the fountain!) and I would recommend to anyone adding a pond to your garden to enhance the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for you as well.

The relaxing sound of trickling water (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