Outside the Backdoor

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


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September brings …

Warm September brings the fruit;  Sportsmen then begin to shoot.

You may be relieved that I am not going to write about shooting here.  A far too controversial topic for a garden blog!  Far more interesting and rewarding to talk about fruit.

Raspberries in the garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last summer I found myself blackberry before starting work!  It was one of the joys and surprises of working from home, heading out for a walk before the endless screentime and Teams meetings, and in July coming home with a bag full of fruit!  However, it was early July, far too early for blackberrying.  Whilst this summer will no doubt be remembered for being wet and grey, it has produced fruit closer to the time of year we used to expect.  Blackberrying this year has definitely been an August pursuit.  Both this year and last, it has been a joy to see blackberrying being passed down the generations.  On various walks we have seen people of all ages filling the ubiquitous plastic bag with berries and heading off literally red-handed!

Out and about blackberrying (c) Elizabeth Malone

This year we are also lucky enough to have an abundant supply of blackberries at the far end of the garden.  This is a mixed blessing.  Twenty years ago we spent many hours hauling out bramble from this overgrown and chaotic area of the garden.  Now it seems that some of it is back, delighted to have been exposed by some judicious pruning of a giant laurel.  We are hoping that we can contain it and manage it in such a way that it will continue to bear fruit in future years without taking over the entire garden.

Washed and drying! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last year was the first time we added bramble jelly to our jam-making repertoire.  We were inspired by a commercially bought jar and thought ‘we can do this!’  We already had the jelly strainer and stand from our crab apple jelly making so all we needed to do was delve into our ancient but trustworthy Good Housekeeping recipe book which is full of ideas for jams and jellies.  In our eagerness to ensure a good set, it would be fair to say that the first batch came out a little, eh, stiff!  It tasted delicious but it was firm enough to support walls!  We have learned from this and the batch made last weekend is a lovely light, easy spreading consistency!

Deep, dark blackberry juice dripping (c) Elizabeth Malone

Blackberries and raspberries have certainly been the winners on the berry front this summer.  The less said about strawberries, the better – too wet!! Although we worried at the start of the raspberry season as it was so wet and we found that the berries were turning mouldy before we had time to pick them. A more pleasant benefit of the rain turned out to be a surprisingly good crop of cherry plums which were the first fruits this year to make us get our jam making it ready.

Jam ready for potting up (c) Elizabeth Malone

Cherry plums are small, dark red on the outside but glowing orange on the inside. They are also extremely sharp! Too sharp for even enjoying in something like a crumble. Believe me, we have tried it! If you enjoy you jam with a slight tang to it, cherry plums are for you!

Now as we head into September we are starting to watch the crab apple tree with interest. Fruits that seemed quite small only a week ago, are now starting to look a good size. The longer you leave crab apples, the more juice you tend to get for the jelly making process. That said, there are limits. Into October is good, but by November the fruits are falling off the tree and are better suited for bird food or potentially wiring into an Advent decoration. But let’s not even mention the ‘C’ word just yet!

Crab apple ‘Laura’ in fruit (c) Elizabeth Malone


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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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The joy of jam making

“Did you manage to get it to set?”

Our first ever strawberry jam!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Ignorance is bliss, it turns out when it comes to strawberry jam!  Dimly at the back of my mind I felt that there was something I ought to know about strawberry jam as against any other types of jam. No sooner had I posted a photograph on Facebook of our luscious deep red jam, than the questions began.  Due to the low pectin levels in strawberries, apparently the jam is notoriously difficult to get to ‘set’, that is, make it of a good jammy, sticky consistency.  Well I’m delighted to say that ours did set.  It is quite a ‘soft-set’ but then I think that’s how strawberry jam should be.

We were just thrilled to have so many strawberries to have a ‘jam crisis’ moment. We have had the occasional strawberry glut before. There was the year we exported a large quantity on holiday with us (see my post from 2017 – Seasons of mellow fruitfulness) and another year when a poorly timed holiday meant that the neighbours had the full benefit. This year, however, we timed it just right. As we returned from holiday, the strawberries began ripening and we were having a bowlful every evening.

Strawberry glut!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

But it turns out that there comes a point when you can’t keep up! My husband was picking some fruit every day when he returned from work so I lost track of just how many berries were stashed away in the fridge until one morning when he declared that we needed to deploy ‘Plan B’!  I had joked about Plan B – “we can always make jam”, I jested. As it turns out, we made several kilos of it and very nice it is too on a Sunday morning with croissants.

Strawberries on the go!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

The only jam we’d made previously was cherry plum, jam being pretty much the only thing you can make with these yellow, rose flushed, sour fruits. If you like your jam on the tart side, cherry plum is for you! Unfortunately our cherry plum tree is rather large and every so often we have no choice but to have it pruned which means we have at least one fallow year in terms of jam making. This summer is its first post-prune bounce back and we could see enough fruit developing for a batch of jam. Along with the crab apples starting to swell (see In praise of Laura), I sensed a jar crisis looming! Thankfully an appeal to friends saw us restocked.

Cherry plum jam 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

What I hadn’t reckoned on was the strawberry glut being followed by a raspberry glut! As strawberry production slowed down, the raspberries began to crop.  Just a few each day to begin with but soon it became closer to half a punnet.  They turned out to be superbly timed to be eaten along with the blueberries which have been cropping very nicely on the patio this year and our cunning ‘popadome’ device has been an excellent investment, meaning that we have benefited from the berries rather than the local blackbird population! Whilst I like our garden to be wildlife friendly, there are limits! Last year we barely ate a blueberry as almost the entire the crop was plundered by our feathered friends.

Popadome over the blueberries (c) Elizabeth Malone

As with the strawberries, there was an ominous sense of the fridge filling up. Buoyed by the success of our rookie strawberry jam, we decided to give raspberry a go. I delved into our elderly but trusty Good Housekeeping book and was astonished to read just how basic the recipe was for raspberry jam – raspberries and sugar! No water, no lemon juice, no need to fiddle around hulling or halving the fruit, just get it in the pan and cook it.

Freshly picked raspberries and blueberries 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Raspberry, it turns out, is the polar opposite of strawberry. After our traditional 10 minutes of a rolling boil, we did the usual cold plate trick to test the ‘set’. Normally the jam or jelly spreads about a bit on the plate as you run your finger through it to see if it wrinkles up. The raspberry landed on the plate and set! In fact running my finger through it turned out to be the equivalent of sticking my finger into boiling jam – raspberry jam keeps its heat!

We only made a couple of jars of raspberry but can’t wait to try it. Instead of the fridge being full of fruit, we now have a different problem – it’s full of jars of jam!

First ever raspberry jam! (c) Elizabeth Malone

  • Do you make jam from your garden produce?
  • Have you braved making strawberry jam and did it set?!


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Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!

The cherry plums are early!  When John said that they were ready last weekend, I didn’t quite believe him.  With a busy weekend ahead of us and no jam sugar in the cupboard, I took a quick glance and suggested that they could wait at least another week.  However, by this weekend a sizeable number were starting to fall off the tree.  It was time to act!

You may not be familiar with cherry plums.  They are small, bigger than a cherry but not as bit as a plum, and very, very sour!  But they do make good, flavourful jam!  Their red, plummy exterior covers a deep orangey / yellow flesh that gives the jam the colour of a good, dramatic sunset.

This morning we timed our pickings well as not long after the rain began to tip it down, making this the perfect afternoon for jam making.  I confess to be a little taken aback by just how many fruit were on the tree!

This is an old large cake box which was full by the time John returned to the kitchen!  I suspect that the very hot, dry weather that we’ve had up till now combined with the fact that the tree has not fruited for the last couple of years due to pruning (plums tend not to fruit well for a year or so after pruning), has led to a bumper year.

This was an awful lot of fruit to halve and stone!  Very quickly it became clear that we were not yet half way through but we already had the requisite 4lbs of fruit recommended by the recipe.  At this point it can be very easy to get carried away.  Let’s go on to 5lbs I said, or more said John.  Then I pointed out that our large stewpot that we make jam in probably wouldn’t take more than 5lbs of fruit!  At least not by the time you’ve allowed for 5lbs of sugar to join it!  At this point the realisation dawned that we were probably going to be doing the same thing again tomorrow afternoon.

Whilst the fruit simmered down, we washed jam jars and heated them in the oven and I acted on the old trick of cooling plates in the fridge to check the setting point.  Ten minutes of what is technically known as the ‘rolling boil’, when usually both you and the fruit get overheated (you must keep stirring at the same time!), and we were ready to dribble it onto the cold plate to see if it was going to set.  This duly wrinkled and so we were ready for the messy and dangerous job of getting a vat full of boiling fruit and sugar safely into its jars.

Cherry plum jam making

We had underestimated!  Further emergency jar washing commenced!  Although this looks like a right hotch-potch of jars, we find it really useful to have different sizes.  Many of our jars of jam are destined for the church pre-Christmas sale and, with an usual flavour such as cherry plum, it’s good to have some small jars that people can purchase as a taster.

So all that remains now is to repeat the whole exercise again tomorrow …!

And please don’t add ‘eye of newt’ to your jam!!