Outside the Backdoor

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


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A tale of dragons and damsels

It was only when I came to write this article that I was suddenly struck by the thought of knights of old saving damsels in distress from dragons!  I can’t help but wonder how ‘dragon’ flies and ‘damsel’ flies came to be named?  So far I have failed to find out but, thankfully, that’s not really the point of this article!

Broad-bodied chaser taking a break in our garden (c) John Malone

When it comes to insects, there are an awful lot that many of us would prefer to run a mile from.  However, I suspect dragonflies and damselflies are an exception as we are fascinated by their iridescent colours and their darting aerobatics.  They are also out and about on lovely warm, sunny spring and summer days, so they have lots of positive associations with walks out in the countryside.  We are lucky in that, having created the pond in our garden, it quickly attracted these fascinating creatures which then, in turn, made us find out a bit more about them and try to identify what we were seeing.

Red damselfly settled on our Iceberg rose over the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

First of all, do you know your damselfly from your dragonfly?  Damselflies are the smaller ones.  They are also the early birds, emerging as the weather starts to warm up around April.  They have a gentle flight and, when resting hold their wings against their body.  Most commonly you will see red ones and blue ones and quite often you will see them in pairs performing their curled mating routine just above the water.  In our garden, they love to skim the pond and to settle upon waterlily pads.

Blue damselfly enjoying the sunshine on our lilypads (c) John Malone

Dragonflies, on the other hand, can be quite substantial.  They have a strong, fast flight, holding their wings out at right angles to their bodies like miniature aircraft and, whilst you do commonly see them over water, you might also spot them elsewhere in the countryside, skimming over fields and hedgerows.  There are three common types in the UK – hawkers, darters and chasers.  If you see a dragonfly, or damselfly for that matter, and want to know what sort it is, the British Dragonfly Society has a good identification guide on its website.

Hawker dragonfly (not sure which!) in Bushy Park (c) John Malone

Both damselflies and dragonflies emerge from larvae that have lived in water for anything up to 2-3 years.  Dragonflies especially, spend more of their life underwater as larvae than they do flying around as adults.  This worried me when we recently did our pond clearance as I was concerned that we might accidentally be removing lots of dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  However, plenty seem to be hatching this summer so I think we’re ok!  When ready to hatch, they will emerge up the strappy leaves of plants such as iris, and they will then cast off their outer shell leaving the ‘ghost’ of an insect behind.  You will then find them sitting around, drying off their new wings before they take flight.

Emerging dragonfly on our pond (c) John Malone

My favourite of these insects is the beautifully named Banded Demoiselle which is an exquisite creature of iridescent blues and greens.  We occasionally get one in the garden but you can see them in Crane and Bushy parks so do keep an eye out for them.  You become aware of them when you see something that looks more like a piece of silk flying in mid-air!  However, earlier today I discovered that these are also difficult to remove from indoors!  One flew into the dining room and it was a two-person job to eject it without causing it any harm.  They just seem too delicate to handle!

Banded demoiselle exploring agapanthus buds (c) John Malone

And finally, some people believe that if a damselfly lands on you, it indicates that you have a pure soul!


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April brings …

April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies at our feet.

Is there a busier, but equally more rewarding, month in the garden than April? There’s certainly a lot more to look forward to than just primroses and daisies! Looking back over last year’s Lockdown Garden photos, goodness me, we were blessed with the most incredibly beautiful sunny, blue skies April!

5 April 2020 – that lilac was very early! (C) Elizabeth Malone

I have to be very careful in writing this as it’s become very clear to me over recent weeks that everything in the garden in 2020 was early. Writing this in March, the month is still rather chilly. On more than one occasion the weather forecasters have been heard to remark that the temperature is below average for the time of year. In the context of climate change and the continual rise in global temperatures, this is something we should probably be grateful for.

Tulip Purissima April 2020 (c) John Malone

April is the month of sowing and the long Easter weekend is the prime time for that. Many of you will have heard me say before that my grandfather reputedly always planted his potatoes on Good Friday, “when the devil’s looking the other way”! John’s Arran Pilots are chitting in the shed and I suspect they will indeed be planted out on Good Friday this year.

Arran Pilot potatoes from 2020 ready for planting (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’ve already started some sowing. I have two tomato experiments germinating next to me in the study. After 20 years of growing the very reliable and delicious Sungold, last year was a bit of a disaster with a very poor crop so I’ve decided to ring the changes and have dug out of my seed box a couple of packets of free tomato seeds that came courtesy of Gardeners’ WorldMagazine. I will be trying out the upright Red Cherry and the trailing tomato Matkovska. It will be a huge change for me to have red fruits rather than yellow.

Sungold tomatoes from 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I am also venturing into unknown territory this year with cucumbers and beetroot. The cucumber seed turned out to be larger than I was expecting and so I’ve sown in on an edge like you would sow a large courgette seed. Hopefully that’s the right thing to do? Having been rather over-enthusiastic in spreading out my garlic cloves in the autumn, it rather feels as if the veg plot has shrunk in size this year and so my beetroot experiment is going to happen in a large, rectangular ‘grow-sack’. Not that I’ve worked out where that’s going yet either although I have ordered masses of compost (peat-free of course) to fill it! That will be a puzzle to be solved over the Easter weekend.

Not advertising! Trying the ‘veg’ version for the first time (c) Elizabeth Malone

Beyond the veg plot, April is the month when our pond springs into life. The margins will be totally surrounded by the brilliant yellow of marsh marigolds. The first newts have already been spotted swimming around, rising to the surface to bask in the sunshine on any warm days. If we’re lucky we may have frogspawn and tadpoles although last year I fear that the heron put paid to that. The surface will be broken up by pond skaters skipping around and snails gliding beneath.

Our pond in April 2020 (c) John Malone

Elsewhere in the border the colours start to shift from early spring yellow into blues and purples as the bluebells come into flower. My best guess is that we have a mix of natural English alongside the invasive Spanish bluebell but I confess that I quite like both. Last year my tulips were flowering in the second half of March but this year I think they will be at their best in early April.

Bluebells in the garden in April 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing that sadly won’t be with us this year is our apricot coloured broom which unfortunately fell victim to drought last summer. We finally gave up hope last weekend and cut it back down to ground level. It didn’t seem entirely dead so there is still an outside possibility of it re-shooting. However, we bought a deep raspberry coloured broom for the far end of the garden and that seems to be doing well.

A new broom (c) John Malone

April should also reward us with the very beautiful tree peony. We have had mixed success with tree peonies over the years but we now actually have two that flower. One is the palest shell-pink and has huge papery petals. As the buds swell, they look like giant balls of ice-cream. They are short-lived flowers and have to be enjoyed in the moment so I am hoping for some warm spring days when we can stroll across the lawn to view its progress on a daily basis. The other is a deep cerise but is sadly a little hidden by other plants. It has more complex double flowers and looks like velvet.

Tree peony April 2020 (c) John Malone

And finally, April is the month when we should really see butterflies returning to our gardens. Any warm sunny day should bring them fluttering around and hopefully benefitting from the array of new flowers to choose from. I’m also going to be using another of my ‘grow-sacks’ to experiment with sowing wild-flower seeds which I hope will attract lots of bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects over the summer. I’ve never sown wildflowers before so I thought I’d start small before I get carried away and turn the lawn into a meadow!

Peacock butterfly visiting Purissima tulips in April 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Sounds of silence

Flapping, squeaking, buzzing … and not a jet engine to be heard!

I have lived my life underneath the Heathrow flight path. At my parents’ house, we used to look forward to a foggy day when the skies would fall silent but, since landing became more automated, even that ceased to be the case. Our current house was chosen for the fact that it generally falls between flight paths and doesn’t get planes directly overhead – hoorah! That said, there’s always the odd day when it feels like air traffic control have you in their sights. We do have the railway line, however, but since the Coronavirus lockdown began, trains have started later, finished earlier and they are shorter so they pass by more quickly.

Intense blue above us (c) Elizabeth Malone

So I look up to the part blue / part cloudy white sky and instead of vapour trails, I can see a swallow circling … or is it a swift? I always find it hard to spot the difference at a distance so we tend to hedge our bets and refer to the ‘swillows’! It’s not a particularly full sky today in terms of birds but then it’s May. Most birds have more important things to be doing right now than swooping across our skies. That said, isn’t it blue? Apparently it’s not just our eyes deceiving us or our imaginations romanticising this new ‘lockdown’ world, it really is ‘bluer’ due to the lack of pollution. The blue skies have provided an intense backdrop to what has been a very beautiful spring.

Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’ against blue sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

The squeaking is incessant. It has been a huge week for fledglings. This picture doesn’t really tell the story. The lawn was covered in greedy young starlings demanding food and our sparrow family who have kept us entertained all week. The sparrows seem to have taken home-schooling to heart and we observe daily lessons such as how to approach a squirrel-protected bird-feeder!

A handful of greedy young starlings – the rest were hiding behind the bushes!

There’s also a lot of flapping going on. That would be the wood pigeons and magpies sorting themselves out, some in our birch tree and some on the roof of the house at the end of the garden. This is interspersed with the ‘woo-woo’ of the collar doves.

Magpie at sunset in our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seconds ago I had to duck! A formidable buzzing passed by my right ear as a giant bumble bee made its way towards the cotoneaster. The flowers of this plant might be tiny but the bees absolutely love it. We used to have the food-waste bin positioned near the prostrate cotoneaster in our front garden but that meant stepping very near the humming masses each time we used it. We concluded that it was prudent to move the bin!

Tiny flowers of the cotoneaster (c) Elizabeth Malone

I can also hear the relaxing sound of running water. Next door’s fountain is trickling into their pond, which reminds me that we’ve not yet turned on our fountain this spring. Something to do later. The sound of the trickling water is also hiding that inevitable summer noise – the whine of a lawnmower! Clearly no one has mentioned that it’s supposed to be ‘no mow May’ around here!

Time to turn on our own pond fountain! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Finally, I can hear the blackbird, surely one of the most beautiful bird songs. I know a mistle-thrust would probably be even more lyrical but this is south-west London, we can’t have everything you now! And as if to remind me that not all bird-song is necessarily beautiful, I can hear a bevvy of parakeets heading our way!

Good afternoon blackbird!
And good evening blackbird!


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The power of ponds

Water is an essential feature of any wildlife garden and for most of us that means a pond. If you are looking to make your garden, terrace or even balcony, more environmentally friendly, you can’t go far wrong in adding a splash of water.

Our pond in spring time (c) Elizabeth Malone

When we moved here twenty years ago, there was a willow tree by the pergola. The pergola had been carefully positioned by the previous owners so that it caught the evening sun in the summer and was therefore a lovely place to wind down at the end of the day with a glass of something cold in your hand. Sitting in the pergola and by the willow tree, we quickly realised that this area was begging for a pond. It is perhaps ironic that the willow tree subsequently died but we have never regretted the decision to build the pond.

Pond and pergola (c) John Malone

Before embarking on the pond we had tested the water (apologies for the terrible pun!) by plugging the drainage hole in a large ceramic pot, filling it with water and adding a water lily. It actually worked really well and was a delight to look at. I’d really recommend this for anyone who either doesn’t have the space for a pond or who just wants to add a bit more water to their garden.

Our increasingly giant water lily! (C) John Malone

Without a shadow of doubt, our pond is teeming with wildlife. As I write this, it is a glorious sunny spring day and red damselflies are emerging, skimming the water, perching on marigold leaves and quickly finding a mate. I’ve also counted six newts. On a day like this they love to just float in the sunshine. Sadly we didn’t have any frogspawn this year. We did have a lonely frog who turned up and waited patiently for its mate but clearly to no avail. We are really missing the tadpoles as they devour the green weed in the pond and keep the water clear. Instead I am having to mess around, trying to extract it with a hoe or any other device that seems to work. I’ve tried scooping with a net but trying to clean out the net before making the next scoop, is really frustrating! There are also water snails – where did they come from? Everyone always says build a pond and the wildlife will come. This is so true.

Tadpoles last spring (c) Elizabeth Malone

Creating a pond needn’t be complicated but a little extra thought will help develop a really good wildlife haven. For example, ensuring that there are plants with tall, strappy leaves enables damselflies and dragonflies to emerge from the water and dry off after shedding their skin. You need plants that will maintain oxygen levels to enable frogs and newts to survive. You should also always include a way out for any creature that accidentally falls in. Most people have hedgehogs in mind when they say this but your cat might appreciate it too! Fortunately we have only ended up with a soggy moggy on about three occasions!

Dragonfly emerging (c) John Malone

As well as being a wildlife home, the pond also helps to sustain a variety of other creatures. The birds love to bathe here as well as drink and we frequently see bees and wasps refreshing themselves. The heron, however, is one of our less welcome visitors as it is probably the reason why we don’t have frogspawn. From our observations, there is nothing better that a heron likes for breakfast than a nice juicy frog! A bit like foxes, I think we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the heron. They are so intriguing to watch. The first time I saw one standing by our pond early one morning, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me and had stuck a plastic one in the garden … but then it moved its head slightly!

Bee taking advantage of the marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

As we originally envisaged, sitting next to the pond is a really restful experience, watching the wildlife and listening the trickling water (on the occasions when we do remember to turn on the fountain!) and I would recommend to anyone adding a pond to your garden to enhance the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for you as well.

The relaxing sound of trickling water (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Spring rainbow

This post wasn’t planned. Then neither was the idea of spending Spring 2020 in lockdown! However, if there is one time of year when I’m quite happy to be at home every day, even if I am still working like mad, then it’s spring.

With the daily gloom and doom of the news, we all need positive things to lift our spirits so earlier this week I began posting photographs to Facebook of some of the brighter, vividly coloured blooms currently dotted around my borders. I didn’t have a plan but I think all the rainbow pictures adorning the windows that I pass daily on my permitted exercise, must have sunk into my subconscious as I began to realise that I was posting the colours of the rainbow! So here is my spring garden tribute to the NHS.

RED – Wallflower

Unfortunately that means starting with a rather blurry photo of the one truly red plant currently in flower in my garden. It made me realise that red isn’t a very spring-like colour. Tulips maybe, but I prefer orange or white ones, and perhaps something like chaenomeles would suffice if you happen to have one of the right colour.

ORANGE – Tulip Ballerina

The sight of orange tulips is truly uplifting and I’ve already made a resolution for the autumn, I need to buy more and I know just the spot where I’m going to plant them in full view of the house.

YELLOW – Marsh Marigold

Our pond is a riot of yellow at this time of year as it is completely surrounded by marsh marigolds. Beloved of bees, it’s providing essential food for emerging insects. Its leaves are also giving shelter to a rather lonely frog who appears to be sitting patiently in the hopes of a mate arriving. The newts, on the other hand, appear to be thriving!

GREEN – Euphorbia Martinii

A souvenir from RHS Malvern Spring Show 2018, I love the red eyes of this euphorbia. It makes a terrific contrast to the everyday woodland spurge that we have running amuck at the far end of the garden. Admittedly we did plant it there having brought it from our previous house, but it has rather taken over although it too can look pretty splendid backlit on a sunny spring day.

BLUE – Bluebells

I’m sure this picture of bluebells will have many of you exclaiming that this seems awfully early! I would agree. Something like 2 – 3 weeks early I think and not normally around for Easter. Inspired by a friend, I’m planning on picking a few that are hidden from view and bringing them in to adorn our Easter table.

INDIGO – Honesty

Now we get into the difficult colours – Indigo and Violet. I confess I had to Google this to try to work out the difference. Neither turned out to be quite as ‘purple’ as I had imagined which presents quite a challenge in terms of selecting some spring flowers to complete my rainbow. So please forgive me if the colour-match here isn’t quite right!

Purple honesty is quite rare in our garden as we mostly seem to have banks of white. I don’t know whether I should admit this but they all originated from seed that we saved some years ago on a holiday in the Netherlands. These days I know better than to bring random seed in from abroad. I don’t think we seriously thought they would grow but grow they did and, with some careful management, we have managed to break the biennial cycle to ensure we get some in flower every year.

VIOLET – more purple if I’m honest!

And finally, to end on a very spring notes of tulips again. Part of a mixed pack of purple, purple tinged with white and pure white, these have been adding a wonderful splash of colour to the patio over the past two weeks and, most importantly, appear to have defied our cat’s attempts to eat them!

On a weekend when I lost a fellow Gilbert and Sullivan fan to Covid-19, these are my “Flower that bloom in the spring, tra la!” And which make up my tribute to our hard-working, dedicated NHS staff.


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Planting on the wild side

In this second Outside the Back Door focusing on the climate crisis, I’m going to think about what we mean by wildlife gardening and the small things we can do to help wildlife in our local area.  This is a huge topic so, as spring is approaching, I’m going to start with planting for wildlife.

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Moth or butterfly?  (c) John Malone

There was a time when the term ’wildlife gardening’ was often laughed at as an excuse not to do anything and just let your plot get on and do its own thing, ie. just become its own little jungle.  As the contribution of gardens towards the environment has become more valued, so wildlife gardening has become more recognised as something that isn’t a jungle or neglected space.  An effective wildlife garden is one that is carefully crafted to ensure a range of different species are both protected and encouraged.

Planting for wildlife is something we can all do on any scale, whether we’re talking acres or just a pot outside the back door.  For example, I personally dislike frilly, double flowers and, as it turns out, this is a good thing for wildlife.  Bees and butterflies simply can’t get at the nectar hidden in double-flowered varieties and many have been so carefully bred that they are very low in nectar anyhow.  What butterflies and bees really enjoy are nice wide-open flowers that make their lives easier, things like echinacea or dahlias, both of which will grow happily in a pot if you don’t have the space for a border.  So if nothing else this spring, make a pledge to plant single rather than double-flowered plants.

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Peacock butterfly on echinacea (c) John Malone

Bees are happier to work a bit harder for their food but also are designed to delve into flowers in the way that butterflies are not.  So bees are equally in their element crawling deep into flowers such as foxgloves and penstemons.  I like foxgloves but I’m worried about them being poisonous to cats, especially as Roly (our brown tabby) has a nasty habit of eating plants!  However, last year I couldn’t resist sowing some of the free seeds that came with Gardeners’ World Magazine but I have planted the seedlings down the far end of our garden where Roly doesn’t venture.  So I hope he’ll be safe whilst I and the bees get to enjoy some apricot coloured flowers.

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RolyPoly the plant eating terror!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Planting for wildlife also needs to be an all-year-round.  As our winters are becoming milder, we are seeing an increasing number of bees in our garden in the depths of December and January so growing winter flowering plants that can sustain them over this period is equally important.  Our winter flowering honeysuckle has been our best investment in this respect.  It smells wonderful, looks wonderful, the bees love it and, to our surprise, it also reproduces very easily!  We discovered that it had layered itself and so we now have a second bush down the far end of our garden.  A few friends have expressed interest so we’re layering this one again to produce a few more plants to share around.

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Bee on winter honeysuckle (c) John Malone

Hellebores are another winter favourite with the bees, both the Christmas and Lenten rose varieties.  We have two beautiful Christmas roses (thank you to Sandra for one!) and dozens, or is that hundreds, of the Lenten variety as so many have self-seeded.  I love turning up the flower heads to see whether they are plain or speckled.  Other winter flowing plants favoured by bees include clematis and viburnum which bridge that gap before the bulbs start coming into their own.

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Bees will sneak under the drooping heads (c) John Malone

I’ve not yet mentioned ivy.  I recall my grandmother hating ivy, regarding it as a weed that was out to do evil such as destroy the brickwork!  However, ivy is one of the most valuable plants for wildlife.  Bees both feed on it and live in it, as do moths and butterflies, and birds of course.  I confess that I haven’t always been enamoured of ivy but I’ve come to appreciate it more recently, becoming aware of just how alive it is.

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Ivy (c) Elizabeth Malone

When thinking about what to plant to encourage wildlife, it’s very easy to forget about fruit and vegetables.  It probably sounds blindingly obvious now that I’ve written that as we all know that we need bees and insects to pollinate our crops.  That said, I am the first to acknowledge that we planted raspberry canes for fruit and not for the entertainment of the local bee population!  The bees, however, absolutely adore the raspberries, and the strawberries.  The plants can literally be buzzing all summer long.

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Bee on raspberry flower (c) John Malone

The other essential of a wildlife garden is some form of water, whether it be a pond or simple bird bath.  You can’t, however, plant up a bird bath in the way you can a pond!  Whilst pond plants provide shade for frogs and newts, they also act as a launchpad into life for dragonflies and damselflies who emerge from the water, shed their outer skins and then perch in the sunshine drying off their newly found wings before taking flight.

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Recently emergent dragonfly waiting to take off (c) John Malone

Now that it’s March, the garden centres are gearing up for their busiest time of year.  So why not head out there and start acquiring some really wildlife friendly plants?  Here’s a quick shopping list for you:  alliums, geranium, cotoneaster, cornflower, lavender … I could go on but probably easier to either go to the RHS website and download their comprehensive list or simply look out for the ‘Perfect for Polinators’ logo on any plants you buy.

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Echinops – loved by bees! (c) John Malone


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From sludge to sublime

One of the most significant things we’ve added to our garden in the eighteen years we have been here is the pond.  It is very much a wildlife pond so no fish for us!  Almost from day one we have been fascinated by the variety of species it sustains, from the bright flashes of blue and red damselflies to the more dramatic emergence of large dragonflies who leave their outer skins on the iris leaves as they prepare to take flight.

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1st damselfly of 2018 sunning itself on the pergola by the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

Then there are the dozens of pond skaters who dart around from spring to autumn, the waterboatmen doing backstroke across the length and the snails, lots of snails – wherever did they all come from?  Of course there are frogs too and their tadpoles, and a colony of newts who hang suspended in the shadow of water lily pads.

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Just hanging around!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

In terms of planting, the pond is almost entirely ringed by marsh marigolds which I remember us first falling in love with in Iceland where they grow wild and in abundance alongside rivers and streams.  Their deep golden yellow always looks stunning when the water surrounding them reflects a vivid blue sky.  We also have iris and the water forget-me-not is extremely happy, as is the purple flowered pickerel which is really getting rather too big for its boots.  All of these plants are very welcome as they are also incredibly popular with bees and hoverflies who appear to enjoy being by the water as much as we do on a hot summer’s day.

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Marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

What is far less welcome is the pond weed, in particular the blanket weed which, for some reason this spring, has decided to launch a takeover of our pond.  It began with the frogspawn.  Whilst that may seem a very odd statement, I love frogspawn when it is newly laid or when you can see tiny tadpoles wriggling within the jelly cell, but I don’t like it as the tadpoles break out of it leaving a rather slimy gunge all over the surface of the pond.  This gunge appears to attract the blanket weed.   We normally use barley straw to combat blanket weed but perhaps we were too slow in getting it into the water this year?  Or perhaps the weed was encouraged when the temperatures suddenly leapt from freezing to sweltering within a week back in April, but either way we were faced with unattractive pond soup.

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Blanket weed – yuk!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Fortunately I found a bundle of barley straw in the back of the shed cupboard but we realised that it stood no chance without a little help from us.  But which utensil to use?  I tried the winding the weed around the stick approach but I think I would have been there all summer.  John decided on the garden rake which worked reasonably well but was still slow progress.  In the end he decided that there was nothing for it but to put on the pond gauntlets and plunge in up to elbow depth.  Soon he had three piles of green, gungy weed around the pond, each having carefully been checked first for any inhabitants but also left overnight so that any shy creatures could creep out of their own accord.  Although the pond looked horribly murky for an hour or so, it was surprisingly how quickly it cleared and it was great to be able to get a clear view of our newt colony swimming around.  They didn’t seem too disappointed that some of their weed/food had been removed, in fact they almost seemed to appreciate being able to swim more freely.

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Gungy weed drying off! (c) Elizabeth Malone

As part of his delving into the deep, John also retried the pond pump and soon had a delightful trickle of water cascading little diamonds of water.  Apparently moving water helps the barley straw to be active but it was also rather lovely on a really hot day just to sit and watch the water spilling over and reflecting the blue sky above.  Time to just sit and stare.

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Time to relax!  (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Little and large

At first I wasn’t even sure that I had actually seen it, it was so tiny.  I was gardening at the far end of the garden when I was aware that something very small indeed had flown past me.  It reminded me of the occasion, possibly as much as ten years’ ago, when John had come back from that end of the garden talking excitedly about this tiny bird he had seen with a bright yellow flash on its head.  At that time we had to delve into a bird book in order to identify it – a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird!

Since then, goldcrests have had a little more publicity on programmes such as SpringWatch, or maybe I’ve just become more aware of them through reading magazines from the RSPB.  When I say they are small, I really do mean it.  At just 9cm in length, they weigh a mere 6g!  Yes, you read that correctly, not much more than a teaspoon of sugar!  Apparently they do breed right across the country but you are far more likely to find them in coniferous woodlands or parks with large, mature trees, than you are in gardens in Greater London.

Goldcrest

Photo:  Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons

So had I seen a goldcrest?  I just had an instinctive feeling that I had.  Then, later the same day, I spotted a tiny bird literally hanging around our birch tree.  It looked smaller than a bluetit and, when I say ‘hanging around’, it was doing just that but its mannerisms were different to the bluetit which we see most days.  I grabbed the binoculars and discovered just how difficult it is to home in on something so small!  However, for once the bird cooperated and didn’t immediately fly off, and I was able to home in on it and, to my delight, to see the bright yellow streak on its head – definitely a goldcrest!  It hopped around a bit more before coming a little closer into the camellia.  I’m also delighted to say that it’s been back.  I’m sure I saw it later the same week and then one evening this week it hopped around our hawthorn tree.  Needless to say we didn’t have a camera to hand, hence the Wikimedia photo above!  Having said that, the bird is so tiny that our chances of getting a good picture through the lounge window are probably slight!  It would be fantastic if this little bird became a regular visitor so I have my fingers crossed that it’s not scared off by the boisterous parakeets or, worse still, predated by the ever-present crows, magpies and our local jay.

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Parakeet pairing!  (c)  John Malone

On the same evening that I spotted the goldcrest, John was heading out into the garden to add some kitchen waste to the compost heap when he stopped in his tracks.  “Heron!”, was all he said.  Ah, that time of year.  The frogs were back to lay their spawn in mid-March and since then we have been aware of the heron circling the garden more frequently.  There’s nothing a heron likes better than a few frogs for breakfast, lunch or tea!  This particular heron was stationery, poised to pounce.  When we built our pond, we invested in a pair of very stylised heron sculptures which are quite a feature next to the pond.  Bizarrely, this real-life heron was mimicking the same stance, making it look as if we had three in a row rather than two!

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Real-life heron imitating art!  (c) John Malone

I can always remember the first time I came down to breakfast and saw a heron by the pond.  I honestly thought someone had played a joke and put a plastic one in place!  Why and who, I have no idea why my mind thought this rather than the more obvious thought that this bird had spotted our new garden feature!  Measuring nearly a metre in length and weighing in at between 1.5 and 2 kilograms, nothing could be further from the goldcrest in terms of size!  However, there are a similar number in the country – 60,000 goldcrests compared to around 63,000 heron, but unlike the goldcrest, herons have always liked London.  When we used to work near the Thames in Isleworth, there was a heronry opposite and John could often count five or six in a line up along the river bank.  If you visit Regent’s Park, heron are usually found up in the trees!  To me they remain a creature from a by-gone era and we often joke, “Pterodactyl overhead!” when we see one!

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Take off!  (c) John Malone

I can never quite decide whether the heron is a welcome garden visitor.  Our next door neighbour thinks not, but then his ponds have goldfish in them!  The heron will perch on our fence eyeing them up and then the poor things hide at the bottom of the pond for days, too scared to even come up for their food.  When the house whose garden runs parallel to the end of ours decided to install a series of raised ponds to house koi-carp, we were most entertained by the heron sitting on the roof our their house thinking that all its Christmases had come at once!  In terms of our pond, it’s the frogs and newts that they like.  Sadly many a poor frog has returned to the place of his birth and to his mate only to become heron breakfast!  I find it fascinating to watch the heron stalking, poised and statuesque, but when they jab down to catch their prey, I’m always convinced that they are going to pierce the pond liner and then where would we be?