Outside the Backdoor

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


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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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Snowdrops

Nothing says ‘February’ more to me in the garden than snowdrops.  Just when we’re really getting fed up with the long dark winter days, along come these elegant white flowers to tell us that spring is just around the corner.

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Snowdrop flowerhead (c) John Malone

Unfortunately, when it comes to growing snowdrops, I don’t seem to have much luck.  Years ago I bought some bulbs and planted them in what seemed a good place but about one appeared.  In fact I think that one is still appearing each spring but it is rather lonely! 

At the time I was a relatively inexperienced gardener and, of course, later I read that it is much easier to establish snowdrops ‘in the green’, that is planted out when they have finished flowering but still have their green leaves feeding the bulb beneath.  So I acquired some small pots from the garden centre packed full of snowdrops that were just about to finish flowering and I planted them out only never to be seen again.  My final foray into attempting to settle them into our garden was a couple of years ago when a friend, who is apparently inundated with them in her garden in Surrey, generously provided me with a large clump which I duly planted in the shade of the hawthorn, yet again with complete and utter failure!  I suspect that the problem is that the nice, partially shaded, damp spots beneath trees that I plant them into in the spring, become dry shaded deserts in summer, whereas they actually need to be kept moist to thrive and multiply.  It would seem that the naturally forming leaf-mould simply isn’t enough.

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Other spring bulbs thrive beneath the hawthorn (c) Elizabeth Malone

I think part of my frustration stems from the fact that we grow other early spring flowers, such as hellebores, really well in similar locations. At the far end of our garden, a few hellebores have magnified into something quite spectacular for a small area. We have cream ones, deep red ones and those that have hybridised to form a mix; and they put on a magnificent display come rain, shine or snow!

Cream hellebores with red spots

Spotted hellebores (c) John Malone

Leucojum, like giant snowdrops, have also done well. The first of these were bought in pots as a ‘past their best’ deal in our local Homebase some years ago. We decided to give them a home and have not regretted it as they have bulked up and flower reliably year after year and look like outlasting the Homebase store!

Snowflake flower - Leucojum

Snowflake flower – Leucojum (c) Elizabeth Malone

So when it comes to snowdrops, I fear that I shall have to make do with admiring other people’s and for me, the first sight of them in 2019 came very early on a visit to RHS Wisley on the 4th January when there were already large clumps fully in flower.  Also at Wisley, the curators were busy putting together a very special display in the alpine house of some unusual and valuable examples which have been lent for show just this spring.  I couldn’t help but notice the big shiny padlock on the display case and wondered just how much those few plants were worth?  Only a few years ago there were newspaper articles of snowdrop bulbs changing hands on the internet for £300!

Snowdrop in bud

Snowdrops in bud at RHS Wisley (c) John Malone

In February last year we called into Castle Drogo in Devon en route to a weekend in Cornwall.  It was a bright spring-like day and as we were tight for time, we enquired where best to see any snowdrops in the grounds.  The National Trust volunteer produced a plan of the grounds, studied it carefully, and then started circling a few areas where we might possibly see some.  He gave the impression that our chances were slim. So imagine our surprise when we stepped outside the visitor centre only to spot a large clump of nodding white flowers literally yards from the door! And only a few feet further along the path we spotted clump after clump!

Snowdrops and mossy tree trunks

Snowdrops at Castle Drogo, Devon 2018 (c) John Malone

About five years ago, one of our Landmark Trust holidays presented us with plentiful snowdrops right outside the door.  We were staying in the wonderfully named House of Correction in Lincolnshire on some very chilly March days (yes, that is snow surrounding the snowdrops you can see in the photo below!)  Thankfully most Landmark Trust properties are blessed with a roaring fire and on this occasion we were most grateful for it!

Snowdrops in the snow

Snowdrops with a little snow at the House of Correction, Lincolnshire (C) John Malone

The potential sight of snowdrops is surely a great incentive to get outdoors at this chilly and gloomy time of year. So where should you head? Well clearly not out into my garden!  The National Trust have done a ‘Best places to see snowdrops near you’ list, which is very thoughtful of them. Winkworth Arboretum, which is normally more renowned for its autumn colour or even its bluebells in May, is on the list and is not a million miles from us so we might be taking a trip out!

Meanwhile, do you have a plant that you would love to grow in your garden but which stubbornly refuses to cooperate?


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Definitely NOT outside the back door!

Over the past couple of weekends I have made a fascinating study of front gardens.  This isn’t a new passion of mine and I’m not about to re-title this blog anytime soon.  I have been leafleting and, I will put my hand up now, to admit that I am about to make a shameless plug for a amateur show that I’m involved with – Hounslow Light Opera’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘ (tickets still available – and there is a horticultural connection!!)

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We do many things to promote a show and door-to-door leafleting is one of them.  I’ll readily admit that it’s not my favourite task but it does provide a fascinating opportunity to see what other people living locally have done with their front gardens.

May be it’s just a South-West London thing but to me front gardens are definitely the poor relation.  How often has anyone said to you that you must come round as their front garden is looking stunning at the moment?  Living where we do, front gardens are either for car parking or skip parking as yet another house extends up, sideways or even down!

I will confess that local front gardens have sprung a few surprises on me recently.  For example, I have been surprised at the prevalence of plastic trees … yes, really!  Plastic box in tubs and hanging plastic box balls, which have a tendency to fade to blue, seemed surprisingly popular in one local street.  (Hampton friends reading this, it’s OK, it’s not you!)

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Another striking thing has been the multitude of different hues of gravel, from the humble grey beach pebble through to the designer purple slate chips.  I confess I quite liked the slate grey and white gravel in front the house with a matching slate grey door with white surrounds.  We have gravel in our front garden but it’s a fairly boring shade of brown (or gold as the packet claims).  Another neighbour recently gravelled her front garden as a quick option (they intend to extend in a few years and so don’t want to create a lovely garden and then plonk scaffolding in it) but she’s quickly discovered one big disadvantage – the foxes absolutely love playing in it at night!

Our own front garden has had a rather chequered history.  When we moved here, it was dominated by a monkey puzzle tree which was certainly a talking point.  Then all of a sudden, twelve years ago now, it died.  It was incredibly sad to see this and the speed with which it happened was truly shocking.  This picture shows it at the start of 2005 when it was still vividly green.

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But by the end of 2005, the branches were brown and crisp from top to toe and even more vicious than when it had been alive!  (Although they did look great in the frost and covered in cobwebs.

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Once the tree had been taken down, we really didn’t know what to do to fill the gap.  Pots, including one with a eucalyptus that became far too big, filled the space and continue to do so today.

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We never knew why the monkey puzzle died and that has always deterred us from committing again to something distinctive in the front garden.  So enjoy our spring hellebores, our potted hollies by the door and the blast of golden forsythia in the front and middle hedge every spring but, beyond that I realise we are just like everyone else and most of our focus is outside the back door!

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Still, I’m not going to complain.  At least these plants don’t demand blood!


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Hellebore heaven

Have I talked to you about hellebores?  Well even if I have, I think they’re worth mentioning again, particularly right now when the garden is positively brimming with them!

31773987601_cdb90c80a5_zI find it intriguing that hellebores are so closely linked to the Christian year.  At Christmas 2015 I was given a beautiful white ‘Christmas rose’.  My previous experience of this particular type of hellebore was that they are somewhat challenging.  The only one I’d owned before had flatly refused to flower at Christmas and, in fact, one year produced one single brilliant flower in August!  After a few years of limping along with the occasional odd flower, it vanished!  So having been given a rather splendid specimen, I treated it very gingerly throughout last summer and was thrilled to see it come back into flower just before Christmas.  It has been flowering constantly ever since and has just recently produced a further two pure white blooms.

However, it is the ‘Lenten rose’ that is dominating the garden right now.  By the way, I should add that neither are actually ‘roses’ apparently!  It could be as much as fifteen years since we purchased our first helleborus niger.  We had been inspired by a Spring pot being planted up on Gardeners’ World and went out to search for a dark purple plant.  A year or so on and we began to realise just how many tiny seedlings were being produced from this plant each year.  We potted some up carefully and weeded others out.  We eventually began to plant up the far end of the garden with the ones that had matured into flowering.  Of course these then went on to self-seed too … what more do I need to say?!

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Spurred on by our success, we purchased a larger plant of the more traditional cream with 33245189795_4d04b25ed1_zburgundy freckles variety.  This eventually outgrew its pot and, along with its offspring, it to moved to the far end of the garden.  Now we occasionally refer to this as the ‘woodland garden’ which is a rather grandiose title for the triangle beyond the cat fence which is extremely shady as it is dominated by our cherry plum tree, a large holly beyond the fence and a self-set sycamore which Network Rail refuses to chop down.  Of course this makes the perfect conditions for hellebores which perform the classic woodland cycle of coming into flower and doing their stuff before the leaf canopy fills in above.  Consequently they have multiplied in their thousands!  Every year we pull out hundreds and hundreds of tiny seedlings, sifting through to see which ones look strong enough to leave or are placed co33203518586_00a6477a19_znveniently to fill a gap.

About five years ago, we bought a tray of pale pink hellebores and these have now started crossing with the others.  So we are seeing some intriguing hybrids combing various shades of pink, purple and cream.  Whilst they are very beautiful, they are also very frustrating in the way that they hang their heads so that you have to bend over and lift the flower to see their full glory … which is exactly what I did last weekend to collect the photos on this page!  It was a true delight to discover what lay beneath.