Outside the Backdoor

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

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Last leaf’s fall

I’ve been looking through a lot of Advent themed poetry over the past weeks in preparation for our Advent service at church and I’ve been struck by the number of poems that draw on fallen leaves as a means of illustrating the bleakness of this season.

“He will come like last leaf’s fall.

One night when the November wind

Has flayed the trees to bone.”

Rowan Williams

The difference between November and December in the garden and in our parks is striking. Although I tend to think of October as the best time for leaf colour, it is November when we see the most dramatic colours, usually just before they fall, and then by December all we are left with are the bare bones of the branches.

Local trees on the way to work (c) Elizabeth Malone

In our garden, November brought some unexpected gems of colour on plants that are perhaps not normally known as providers of autumn glow. The leaves on our strawberries in pots on the patio turned a glorious strawberry jam red – how appropriate!

Strawberry leaves (c) Elizabeth Malone

Some of our blueberries also produce amazing leaf colour, a real added bonus.

Blueberry in autumn (c) John Malone

Two shrubs, in particular, provide us with a more predictable technicolour display – berberis and continus. Cotinus, often known as the smoke bush due to its clouds of small dusky flowers, is a plant that loves to play with the light. On a summer’s evening I like trying to capture the colour of the rays shining through the dark red leaves but in the autumn the leaves seem to glow in their own right as they morph steadily from a red wine colour through to burnt orange before falling. They are also a brilliant leaf for capturing raindrops and, let’s face it, this autumn has certainly provided us with a lot of that!

Cotinus leaves after rain (c) Elizabeth Malone

Berberis is a plant that puts up a fight. I remember us having one in the garden when I was growing up and my parents eventually got rid of it as they grew tired of being scratched by its spiky thorns every time they walked down the garden! We have two which are planted in what are mostly safe places. One under the hawthorn tree and the other at the back of the border. This particular plant is of a columnar form and I seem to recall its label describing it as a pillar of fire in the autumn. I’m pleased to say that it does generally live up to this reputation.

Berberis (c) John Malone

The star of the autumn show this year has been our cherry, Prunus Kojo-no-mai, which we bought in a sale in the spring as it had already finished flowering. We were looking for something to fill a large pot in the front garden in due course so saw this as an investment for the future. I mentioned recently that we rather miss our large cherry tree both for its frothy spring blossom and its cherry red autumn leaves, and so this was a small replacement. We weren’t thinking about autumn colour when we bought it back in April and as we entered October it didn’t look as if it was going to do much. How wrong we were as November brought along a spectacular fiery display!

Prunus ‘Kojo-no-mai’ (c) John Malone

Some of our autumn colour is more hidden away. Our Virginia creeper climber, which we brought here as a cutting from our first garden almost exactly twenty years ago, adorns the back of our shed. It changes colour quite suddenly and will drop its leaves in an instant so you have to be quite quick to catch its display of yellow. Whilst it does a great job of covering the back of the shed, it’s always been a slightly irritating plant as it drops its leaves first and their stalks second. This means going round the garden picking up stalks one by one – very time consuming! Within days, all that is left is a skeletal framework of stems waiting for the small pink pip-like buds to appear, signalling that spring is on the horizon.

Virgina creeper mid-October (c) Elizabeth Malone

Christmas, however, is a time to take advantage of the skeletal forms of trees and plants. Acers are normally known for their vivid autumn colour but ours, another plant inherited from my mum, has pale green and cream leaves which have a pink tinge all year round and don’t put on a spectacular autumn display. This year the first frost caused them to drop almost overnight but what is left behind is a structure of almost silver branches which are just perfect for adorning with Christmas baubles!

Acer ready for Christmas (c) Elizabeth Malone

We are also careful not to prune back our black elder too early. Sambucus Nigeria ‘Black lace’ looks quite innocent in a garden centre but it can grow up to three metres high. The RHS recommend pollarding it back, potentially even to ground level in the spring although we’ve never been quite that brave. We do cut ours back quite drastically as it seems to get leggy and misshapen. However, when the leaves first fall, and that’s often not until quite near the end of November, we try to shape the plant a little and then it provides the perfect support for an array of Christmas lights. It’s just at the base of the patio and so provides a perfect seasonal glow through the really dark days of December.

November sunrise (c) Elizabeth Malone

“Spirit of place. Spirit of time. Reform

The rugged oaks and chestnuts. Now they stand

Make and pallid giants out of storm

And out of sorts. It is the autumn’s end.” Elizabeth Jennings.


Borrowed blossom

Garden designers often talk about the ‘borrowed landscape’. When you live in the suburbia this is a very posh way of referring to what you can see over next door’s fence! I’ve always thought that we are very lucky with our borrowed landscape, living as we do next to another gardener and also looking across the railway line, giving us an uninterrupted view of the classic line of poplar trees. In the Spring we benefit from a wave of blossom as each neighbours’ tree comes into flower, usually starting with the vanilla cream coloured flowers of some self-set plum trees. From there we usually move into our cherry plum blossom, followed by a series of flowering cherries, from the palest pink to deep cerise, and then we move into the white of hawthorn and eventually the apple blossom. When I look out across this from our study up in the loft extension, I think how incredibly lucky we are to have this view in London.

Borrowed blossom from our neighbours

However, this year will be a little different as our garden won’t be contributing much to this display, making us value our neighbours’ trees more than usual. The combination of our loss of cherry tree (see Loss of a Flowering Friend) and our giant tree prune back in the autumn meant that, not only are we lacking pink froth, but also the white cloud of our cherry plum is somewhat diminished and I don’t expect a huge show from our hawthorn either, certainly nothing like last year!

Hawthorn tree

Still, our neighbours are very generous in sharing their display of blossom. On what has been a very rare morning of blue skies and sunshine so far this year, our neighbour’s Magnolia was starting to gear up to what will undoubtedly be an amazing display of waxy tulip flowers, and this from a tree that was pruned quite substantially only two years’ ago. It’s a bit sad to see a little browning and wrinkling on the fresh petals, presumably a result of the harsh March snow and frost?

Magnolia tree in bloom

My parents had a huge Magnolia in their garden but I hadn’t appreciated the mess they can make. Whilst it delivers on beauty, the Magnolia also delivers a heap of clearing up starting with the shedding of the outer flower skin in spring, then its petals, followed by its seed pods in autumn and then finally its leaves as we move into winter! That’s four lots of raking up to do!

Glancing across to the other side of the garden, our neighbours there have two delightful cherry trees. A deep pink one which is just budding up and a paler pink which is currently covered in hanging clusters of blossom.

Flowering cherry tree coming into flower

This delicate tree flowers its socks off each year despite it also being used as a swing by the children!

Sometimes we borrow more than just blossom from our neighbours. On one side of the garden we have a pink lavaterra which our neighbour had found too big and had tried to remove. The plant was having none of it and decided it would try its luck by turning in the opposite direction and emerging from under our fence! Our neighbours on the other side have generously granted us access to that very spring-like shrub, Kerria Japonica (possibly Pleniflora), which has worked its way under the fence and now also blooms well in our garden!

Kerria flowers

It’s so much nicer to be accidentally sharing plants outside the backdoor than weeds!

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Loss of a flowering friend

Approximately every five years some of the larger trees in our garden require something more drastic than a light prune and so we summon the tree surgeons to come and wield the chain-saws.  Back in November, we did the same again but this year, sadly, we also had to ask their advice on dealing with our dead flowering cherry.

When we moved into our house our timing was perfect.  It was late April and the flowering cherry was in full bloom.  We were just in time to see it at its best before the pink snow-cloud began.  Funnily enough, we had to get it pruned that summer – at the same time as having the boiler replaced, if I recall correctly!  It was then that we learnt that ornamental flowering cherries are often quite short-lived – around fifty years on average, we read.  From that moment on, we felt nervous.  Our house was built in 1955 but when was the tree planted?  Given its look of maturity, we guessed not long after that which made it around fifty years old.  Still, for the next fourteen years or so, it flourished.

Then in November 2013 it was time for the tree pruning round again.  The cherry was taken back to its previous pruning points by the same company who had, by now, pruned it at least twice before.  After this major prune, the trees always look a bit sparse but by the autumn they have usually filled out again.  This time the cherry remained a bit sparse all year.  We didn’t think a great deal of it at the time but, in retrospect, the following summer of 2015, it didn’t really improve.  It flowered in the spring as usual but it wasn’t its usual voluminous self.  Perhaps it will improve next year, we said to ourselves – but it didn’t.  Again we had lovely pink blossom followed by glossy coppery leaves but somehow it just didn’t seem to be returning to the same fullness that we had become used to.  Mostly we put it down the combination of dry Januaries and then peculiarly grey and uninspiring summers.

When spring 2017 dawned, I watched carefully.  There were buds, but not many.  John said it was still a bit early.  This was true and, what I’d learnt about cherry blossom over the years, was that it goes from nought to sixty very rapidly in flowering terms!  A small bud one week is very quickly a mass of blossom only about ten days later.  Then the cherry tree over the road started coming into flower.  There was still no sign of flower on ours.  It’ll catch up, said John.  It didn’t.  It soon became clear that every other flowering cherry in the neighbourhood was covered in pink or, worse still, starting to get past its flowering best and yet ours stood there, stationary, with just a few chunky buds doing nothing.  It was a sad sight.

We decided to take action – possibly rather late in retrospect.  As a paid up member of the Royal Horticultural Society, I decided that now was the time to consult their plant help line.  They responded pretty promptly with advice on scraping back the bark in different places to see if the branches looked brown and dead under the surface.  They didn’t.  So we followed their further advice and sent in samples from different areas of the tree roots.  Sadly I received the following response:

“All three roots in your sample are healthy, with plenty of fine feeder roots present, so from this sample at least it does not appear as if a root disease is involved in the problem. However, the complete lack of leaves on a large tree like this, coupled with the speed of the decline that you describe, seems somewhat dramatic to me for the effects of drought and age – if these were solely responsible I would have expected a more steady decline. Having said that, fifty years is certainly a good age for this type of tree!  I think that if the tree is still not showing any signs of producing new leaves then its condition can probably be regarded as terminal.”

I don’t recommend spending a summer with a large dead tree in your garden – it is a depressing sight!  We had also just created the new hot border nearby which, if we had known the tree was going to die, we would have dug a different shape!  And yet when the tree surgeons came to quote, I really couldn’t bring myself to instruct them to remove it completely.  Instead I asked them to create a framework to support climbing plants, provided they felt the trunk was sufficiently robust to do so.  This they did and so now we have a new opportunity.

Sitting heeled into our currently empty veg plot is a new rambling rose – Rosa Helenae.  Its flowers will be small, white, clustered and scented and we hope that it will ramble its way up the old cherry trunk.  This will be a our first venture into owning a ‘rambling’ as against ‘climbing’ rose.  I just hope we’re prepared for the thorns!  I grew up with a rambling rose and still recall my mother cursing pruning it each year and her delight when the opportunity arose to remove it – and she was a great rose lover!!  I guess sometimes the saying of ‘right plant, right place’ also needs to apply to home and owner and getting snagged on thorns every time you walk down the garden isn’t much fun!

So as the 2018 gardening year commences, we will plant our new rose and we’ll reconfigure the hot border and hope to draw our eyes away from the dead branches behind.