Outside the Backdoor

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


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Harvest home

“Now autumn strews on every plain,
His mellow fruits and fertile grain;
And laughing plenty, crown’d with sheaves,
With purple grapes, and spreading leaves.”

Felicia Dorothea Hermans

How can it possibly be almost October? October is the month of National Poetry Day (taking place this year on Thursday 3rd), so I thought I’d start with a verse!  This year’s theme is ‘truth’ which made me ponder on the success of this year’s ‘harvest’. Could I truthfully say that the garden has been more productive than ever?  My honest answer is, I think so.  We seem to have been picking fruit, herbs and vegetables since early spring but, as with any year, there have been successes and, perhaps not disasters, but let’s just say things that didn’t quite go to plan!

Blackberries – a little of our wild rather than planted harvest!

Fruit has been incredibly abundant. Two years ago John remarked that the way the raspberries were developing, we would be making jam another year. How true!  Little did I think we would be adding strawberry to that list alongside our more usual cherry plum and, hopefully, crab apple jelly still to come.  The fridge is looking a little full so I shall be seeking to sell a few jars in aid of good causes. [See The Joy of Jam Making for a better insight and Thinking Forward to Fruit for where I was at with fruit growing a couple of year’s ago!]

Our crab apples ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

If fruit was on the up side of things, then my peas were definitely on the down side.  Every year I try to grow a bigger pea harvest but I seem to be thwarted.  Top of my ‘don’t bother to try that again’ list was a late sowing.  They were the last peas in the packet and they sulked.  In the end I had just two seedlings which I gave up on as it was clear that they were never going to produce anything.  I knew it was a gamble when I sowed them but part of my motivation was the failure of two previous sowings.  The first sowing of the season was excellent and we were able to make our delicious ‘pasta with peas’ recipe (seek out Ursula Ferrigno’s Truly, Madly, Pasta) and we also had sufficient to add to a number of other dishes but the second two sowings fell victim to slug attack when the previously dry summer suddenly decided to become wet!

Pea ‘Hurst Green Shaft’ starting to fill out (c) Elizabeth Malone

Back on the up side of things, this was a good year for garlic it turns out.  Last year’s grew well but stored poorly but I am hoping for better things this year.  As you can see from the photo, I started out determined that they would do well! The chicken wire was born out of discovering that, if the squirrels weren’t pinching the planted cloves, then the cats were digging them up! Back in November I planted two varieties, Early Purple Wight and Provence Wight, most of which have produced some good sized, healthy looking bulbs with quite a strong flavour.  Normally when I lift them, I brush as much soil off the bulbs as possible and then lay them out, leaves and all, in a seed tray which I then put in the greenhouse to dry off before I do a final clean, trim and store.  Last year I think I left them in the greenhouse for far too long, so this year I was particularly careful and allowed them to dry for just a week before I put them into storage.  They seem to be doing well at the moment so I hope this was the right decision.

Garlic starting to sprout (c) Elizabeth Malone

Weather-wise I have called this the yo-yo summer as the temperature has gone up and down quite randomly.  I seem to recall one weekend when we all roasted just on the Saturday and went back to reaching for cardigans on the Sunday!  This has made judging when to sow and where to nurture seedlings really quite tricky.  I lost one of my earlier sowings of peas when the beautiful fresh green shoots were burnt to a crisp in my greenhouse on an unexpectedly hot day.  My tomatoes sat in the greenhouse for a very long time before I actually got to eat one! Late July and early August lacked sunshine and in the end I removed the shading early in the hopes of encouraging the fruit to ripen. The inevitable result of that was a sudden tomato glut when they all decided to ripen at once!

Sungold tomatoes getting there slowly (c) Elizabeth Malone

To avoid my salad leaves simply being slug food, I grow them as ‘cut and come again’ leaves in trays which I normally start off in the protection of the greenhouse.  Having experienced the pea episode, I have spent more time this summer than usual, walking up and down the side of the house manoeuvring trays of rocket, red oak leaf and chard into either warmer or shadier spots depending on the forecast temperature.  Twice I failed miserably and had to start again.  In contrast to the tomato experience, the cooler, damper conditions of August were a welcome relief and we’ve had some great pickings.

Excitement of the first green shoots of the season (c) Elizabeth Malone

Some crops are also more sensitive to weather conditions that others.  For example, beans stop producing once the temperature goes much over about 28 degrees Celsius.  That used to be a rare event in the UK and so not much to worry about but this year and last it has become more the norm.  Does this mean that I will be wasting my time sowing beans in the future?  Despite my failed late sowing of peas, I did the same with my French beans and, at the time of writing, the plants are scrambling enthusiastically up their canes so I am hoping that we may succeed in picking an autumnal crop.

Blue Lake French beans cropping nicely (c) Elizabeth Malone

By trying to get a late crop of beans, I’m not trying to defy the seasons. The September edition of Gardeners World Magazine focused on the seasons and what they mean.  This year my church has decided to celebrate Harvest in October because it happens to fit in with other arrangements.  There is nothing wrong with that but, living in the urban environment as we do, it’s important to remember how the produce from our gardens and the nature surrounding us is changing significantly at this time of year and, when we look on the supermarket shelves, to remind ourselves that we are not meant to eat strawberries in December in the UK!  That said, I’m not going to preach about seasonality as life is just too busy not to succumb occasionally to non-seasonal produce.  That said, I did enjoy this quote from Monty Don, reminding us of just how privileged we gardeners can be.

“The seasons connect us directly to the true rhythms of life. … No one is more connected to them than those of us lucky enough to have a garden.”  (Monty Don, Gardeners’ World Magazine, September 2019)


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Buds (not in May!)

February has suddenly teased us with a promise of spring. Although almost every morning over the past week has started with a crisp frost, it has been succeeded by beautiful blue skies and sunshine that promises something of the summer to come. Although we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking winter is almost over, (think of the Beast from the East last year!), the garden has responded and there are signs of new growth in all directions, and not always in the obvious plants such as the camellia below.

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Camellia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Although the sun disappeared yesterday, I was tempted out into the garden to do the first proper stint of the year. With my still unreliable knee, I had to content myself with some gentle sowing of early peas and rocket in the greenhouse and a little light weeding and feeding whilst John diligently pruned all the roses and gave the acer a significant chop before starting to wield the axe against the pyracantha that has become a monster!

Before getting to work, I decided to do a complete circuit of the garden to assess what was shooting, what was reappearing from last year and what, as yet, is still keeping us guessing – again, reminding myself that it is still only the middle of February. Just for the fun of it, I also decided to have my first real play with John’s birthday present – a macro lens! Not being a photographer as such, I found it a slightly strange experience, having to coax it to focus on the small detail I wanted and not something it suddenly found in the distance. I’ve also found it incredibly frustrating trying to load up giant media files to blog with today but that’s another story I think!

My perambulations began literally outside the backdoor with a perennial wall flower that I bought as a between seasons gap filler last summer. It flowered its socks off from about May till August. Last weekend I began to realise how interesting foliage was becoming, with this soft, almost grey tinged with a hint of pink.

Grey leaves and buds of a perennial wallflower

Once in full flower, this will be a mass of vibrant yellow but for now, the tight flower buds at the centre begin crimson, start to hint of orange but then, with a bit of sunshine, turn yellow. Given how early it is starting to flower this year, will it still be in flower in July like last year?

Yellow wallflower bud

Dotted around the garden, a whole range of daffodils are now on the starting blocks and ready to burst forth in the next week or two. The small tete-a-tete do well in our garden, better than the full sized daffodils. However, I spotted a clump of large daffodils today that I don’t remember planting!

Daffodil buds

Daffodils in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Just above them, our clematis armandii is starting to bloom. The buds look quite unattractive in their early phase. If that was all you saw when you first came across the plant, I’m not sure whether you would want to give it house room? However, the pure white flowers are so elegant and the scent on a warm spring day is magnificent. It is, of course, a bit of a thug and needs to have some of its enthusiasm tamed each year otherwise the entire garden would be nothing by clematis!

White clematis armandii flower and buds

My walk around the garden was just before John decided to wield the secateurs against the roses. The amount of new growth on them was certainly shouting, “Prune me!” It was an interesting reminder of all those new roses we acquired last year, all of which now need pruning, feeding and mulching! I’m now wondering whether the box of rose food I bought is big enough?

Rose leaves

Rose leaves – ready to prune back (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst roses may demand attention, mahonia is a plant we do absolutely nothing to. We never planted it in the first place but have odd clumps that spring up in both the front and back gardens.  The sight of this one about to bud amused me when I saw the result of the photo – it reminds me of one of those strange looking romanesco cauliflowers!

Yellow mahonia about to flower

Mahonia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

As well as the flowers, I took a close look at the fruit trees. The apple trees are yet to show any real signs of buds developing but both the mirabelle and crab apple stems are beginning to swell with new growth.

Mirabelle stem in bud

Mirabelle de Nancy stem in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Finally I turned to the veg plot which always looks rather desolate at this time of year. The autumn planted garlic is now shooting well, displaying strong fresh green stems. The chicken wire seems to be doing its job in terms of stopping cats and squirrels digging up the cloves! John has cut the raspberries back but the strawberries desperately need a good haircut. Due to my knee problems, I failed to tidy them in the autumn so they are long overdue some tlc. The remainder is a blank canvas waiting to be sketched out for the year ahead.

Autumn plants garlic starting to shoot

Autumn planted garlic (c) Elizabeth Malone

Of course it’s not all about new beginnings – some plants are already starting the cycle all over again.  Hellebores being the obvious example. Ours have been really splendid this year and it’s great to see that there are still buds waiting to open.

Red hellebore

That said, the pavement next to this one was strewn with stamen, showing that they’re planning ahead and getting ready to self-seed everywhere, which they do rather well!

Hellebore stamen on the ground

And finally, it’s always lovely to see something return. We bought this Euphorbia Martinii at Malvern last year. It looked great when we planted it but the poor thing got swamped by dahlias and grasses and I feared the worst. Even a week ago I didn’t spot this but here we are, and it’s looking fine!

Euphorbia martinii


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Friend or foe?

Image result for grey squirrel gardenSo this has turned out to be a rather topical Outside the Backdoor for February’s Parish Magazine.
Do you like squirrels?  For you are they cuddly and cute sitting there nibbling on a conker or are they the menace that digs up your garden and should be treated like vermin?  There’s no doubt that, as our wildlife goes squirrels, much like foxes, are very divisive.

I think we tend to have a love / hate relationship with them but this winter it has definitely tended more towards the hate end of the scale as they have wreaked havoc outside the backdoor.

At the end of October, I was exceptionally efficient in ordering my garlic and getting it
24022687212_655ddf4780_mplanted in the veg plot.  In recent years I have found that autumn planted garlic does really well in the garden and results in large, usable bulbs unlike the spring planted which used to produce tiny bulbs that were really difficult to use in cooking.  However, no sooner had I planted them this year than the squirrels had other ideas and the plot was turned over by their scrabbling and the cloves were scattered to the four winds.  By now I should have an orderly set of green shoots of garlic about four inches high but there is no sign of anything, presumably because I am now looking in the wrong place because the squirrels have decided to replant them.  I am guessing that I am suddenly going to find garlic growing randomly in strange corners of the garden!

If squirrels weren’t menace enough, we’ve also been battling with mice.  Before you start wondering how on earth a house with three cats can possibly have a problem with mice, I should explain that they run around the wall cavities and beneath the sprung floor or our extension (why, oh why did we not have a solid concrete floor?!)  No one has been able to explain why, but it’s a problem common to many of the houses in our road.  However, the reason for mentioning this in the context of a squirrel discussion is that we found out that the local pest control people won’t come out to deal with the issue if you have things such as bird feeders in the garden that could be attracting the mice in the first place.  So very reluctantly we have removed all our bird feeders temporarily.  Imagine our annoyance then when, over Christmas, we spotted squirrels bringing fatballs intended for the birds, into our garden from goodness knows where, and caching them under our hawthorn tree!  Even worse, as they did this, they were having a good go at wrecking the Christmas decorations we had hung on the black elder and acer trees.  These bare branches had turned into a squirrel superhighway.  Meanwhile the birds are losing out on their regular supply of food and, with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch due to take place at the end of January, I can’t see us holding out on empty bird feeders for much longer.

So where are all the squirrels coming from?  And why do we seem to have experienced an explosion in the squirrel population in our garden?  The reason became clear as the leaves fell last autumn.  Amongst the bare branches, dense pockets of leaves and twigs were revealed which I suspect make up no less than four squirrel dreys in the garden.  Unlike most people’s image of a nest, a drey is a relatively untidy home with little structure, rather thrown together amidst the higher reaches of a tree.  Currently two reside in a hawthorn and two in our cherry plum.  Now we have to decide what to do with them.  Squirrels often have two sets of young, called kittens, in early Spring and early Summer.  If we don’t want four full nests in our garden, we shall need to break them up very shortly before there are young in them.

31937305725_0a1633af30_mHaving now read up on the breeding season, this does make sense in terms of what we’ve experienced with one of our cats regularly catching squirrels.  In the earlier part of last year we had no less than six squirrel incidents but nothing since, although one did have a close shave over Christmas when it was running up and down the olive tree right outside the backdoor.  Bryggen (large, furry and ginger) was on full alert with his normal cheeky expression replaced by that of a grand hunter!

Although I now regret writing that as we’ve had a narrow escape today with Bryggen sporting a rather muddy, bloodied paw as a result of his catch refusing to lie down!

I used to wonder why my next door neighbour was so angry about squirrels but his garden is full of lovely bulbs and various ornaments so now, as a I look out on every pot on the patio that has been dug up, I completely understand where he’s coming from!  It’s a stark reminder that, if you want a wildlife friendly garden, you cannot pick and choose!