Outside the Backdoor

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


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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


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Now the holly bears a berry …

It’s already looking rather festive outside our front door and has been for several months since our holly decided that it was going to produce an impressive crop of berries this autumn!

Holly bush

Holly bush (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to the run up to Christmas, I confess to being a bit of a Scrooge, grumpily commenting on any pre-Advent lights and tutting at any tree decorated before the 1 December. I will enjoy putting up the Christmas decorations when it’s time but ‘time’ as far as I’m concerned is not until the middle of December. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the natural decorations adorning the garden and this autumn seems to have been particularly fruitful.

“Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal” according to the Cornish Sans Day Carol but I can’t help wondering if they really meant Sarcococca? Although you could never sing that in a carol! But ours have been turning from a strange mix of red and black into dense shiny globules over the past few weeks.

Sarcoccoca

Sarcococca berries (c) Elizabeth Malone

Meanwhile our cotoneaster berries are being raided by the birds. You can’t blame them really and the warm red glow must surely be an open invitation to come and feast?

Cotoneaster berries

Cotoneaster berries (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to feasting, we had a lovely surprise last weekend when John discovered a small, very late crop of autumn raspberries. In fairness, they weren’t the most flavourful or the sweetest of the season but we still appreciated this last hurrah of home grown produce this autumn.

Raspberries

Raspberry Autumn Bliss (c) Elizabeth Malone

A few weekends ago we spotted fruit of rather a different kind when this rather spectacular ‘fairy ring’ appeared on the lawn. I’m afraid we had to capture it quickly in a photo and then remove it for fear of an over-inquisitive cat taking a nibble – it’s happened before with most unpleasant results! I am no fungi expert so am happy for anyone to tell me what they are.

Toadstools

Toadstools on the lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

And finally, a reminder of the heady days of that scorcher summer we had. Our olive tree has, not one, but two real olives on it! This happened once before when they summer temperatures were just enough to convince the tree it was perhaps living in the Mediterranean after all. That said, I don’t think I’m going to be celebrating my own bottled olive oil any time soon!!

Olive tree

Black olive – just one! (C) Elizabeth Malone


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Dark at breakfast, dark at tea

"The Advent wind begins to stir
 With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
 It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
 And in between we only see
 Clouds hurrying across the sky
 And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
 And branches bending to the gale
 Against great skies all silver pale ..."

John Betjeman’s Advent 1955 is one of my favourite poems of the season.  I don’t have a Scotch fir but I do overlook the tall poplar trees along the railway line and they certainly bend in the gale, their skeletal forms looking particularly wintry against the early morning skies.  But it’s that “dark at breakfast, dark at tea” line which for me sums up the essence of this time of year outside the backdoor.  It’s the fate of the working gardener.

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As I head off to work at 7:30am, it is just getting light and I am sometimes treated to spectacular sunrises as I approach the station.  By the time return at 6.00pm it has already been dark for a couple of hours.  Closer to Christmas, the walk home is brightened by the various lit decorations and last year I found myself running my own ‘best door wreath’ competition in my head!  However, this means that I don’t see the garden at all during the week and my first view outside on a Saturday morning can be quite a revelation!  For example, the sudden realisation that the winter clematis is in full flower or that some over-eager bulbs have started to shoot.

Over the past 6-7 years, we have ensured that we plant winter flowering shrubs near the house so that we can easily catch a glimpse of them either from the dining room on a cold / wet day or see them illuminated by the glow of the Christmas lights.  For the last two winters, I have made a deliberate effort to plant a large pot with a winter flowering display that will catch the light, using pale cream or lemon violas, white hellebores and either silver or gold leaved ivies, avoiding anything with dark petals or dark leaves that won’t reflect what light there is.  I’ve positioned it beyond the kitchen window so that it catches some of the light from the house when we’re cooking.

I will also enjoy the moment when we can head outside to decorate our Christmas tree which has been sitting in its pot all year waiting for its moment of glory.  It’s grown a lot this year, entertaining us with its bright green shoots in Spring and growing by at least six inches!  We started this tradition of an outdoor tree on the patio when our cats were kittens but now it’s become a habit and we actually rather enjoy having the tree outside and the way its decorations sparkle in the winter sunlight or twinkle away as the wind causes the branches and lights to quiver.  We will also weave white lights around our olive trees on the patio and through the hawthorn, although this might be a bit of a challenge this year as we’ve just had the hawthorn pruned back quite substantially which, in itself, is letting more light into the house.

I am the first to admit that I am quite a fair-weather gardener so I would be lying if I said that I am looking forward to the long Christmas holiday so that I can get out into the garden and do stuff but I always hope for a few dry days in the run up to Christmas so that we can raid the garden for Christmas greenery without the need to dry it off before bringing it indoors.  Any holly that has real berries will decorate inside whilst holly, ivy and laurel will make up some swags to adorn our side gates.

However, I am looking forward to the long holiday as it will enable me to be at home in the daylight so that I can really appreciate what is sitting just outside the backdoor.  I will enjoy sitting in the warm looking out at the active birds flitting between feeders.  If it’s mild, I may even spot an occasional bumble-bee seeking food amidst the clematis flowers or ivy, and like many of you I’m sure, I will sit mulling ideas of things to do in the Spring!