Outside the Backdoor

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


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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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Perfecting potatoes

We all have our favourites. May be for you it’s crispy golden roasties served with Sunday lunch or perhaps small, perfectly formed spheres flavoured with a hint of mint. Either way, potatoes are a staple in most people’s diets – do you actually know anyone who doesn’t like them?

Roast potatoes

Sunday roasties (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m also guessing that I’m not alone in that my very first experience of vegetable growing was potatoes. Some sprouted in the cupboard when I was little and my parents decided it would be fun for me to plant them. Given that they were probably just potatoes bought from the local greengrocer, I seem to recall that they provided us with a surprisingly generous yield (or maybe that’s just my memory?!)

When we dug our initial veg plot, it was with the intention of growing potatoes at the very least, anything else was a bonus. Over the years we’ve had mixed success in terms of both yield and quality. One of our biggest failings has been remembering which variety we’ve bought and whether it worked well enough to try again the following year. And then when we do remember, something holds us up in getting to the garden centre in timely fashion to purchase the same variety and so we end up trying something new again and repeating the cycle – you really would think we would be more organised! We could, of course, order from the huge variety of seed potatoes on offer in all the seed catalogues but, given the size of our veg plot, we only need one bag so it seems a bit over the top!

Example seed catalogue page

How many varieties?!

Last year, however, was different. Yes, we were still a bit late to the party in terms of what was left in the garden centre but we walked away with a bag of Foremost which did us proud, yielding a very good quantity of creamy tubers. The Potato Varieties database says that Foremost are relatively resistant to viruses and scab and that was certainly true of ours. On a number of previous occasions, our crop has been distinctly scabby but not last year. In fact we recently found an old cardboard cover from a bag of seed potatoes and laughed at the photo on the front which showed a distinctly scabby potato! Hardly great marketing and we did wonder what had possessed us to buy those.

Being quite a waxy potato, Foremost were also excellent for cooking as they maintained both their shape and flavour. We’ve had reasonable success with Arran Pilot over the years but Charlotte totally fell apart in the pot. We tried leaving the skins on but they would burst out! Our very first potatoes were International Kidney, the variety grown as Jersey Royals. We were very disappointed with the flavour concluding, like the best French wine-makers, that the ‘terroir’, ie. the soil, clearly contributes more to the overall taste than we perhaps give credit for.

Several years ago, in a burst of enthusiasm, we also dallied with Christmas potatoes. We bought a kit which meant we also acquired three planting sacks. The Christmas potatoes were virtually non-existent but the sacks have proved useful.

Crop of potatoes grown in sacks in summer 2018Sack of potatoes – our 2018 yield (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last spring we had a few too many seed potatoes to fit into our plot and so the remainder found their way into the sacks.  Traditionally potatoes need to be ‘earthed up’.  In other words, as they grow, you gradually draw more and more soil up over the leaves to cover them.  This is supposed to both increase the yield and protect any tubers near the top of the plant from being exposed to daylight which would turn them green and poisonous.  The same principle still applies to growing in bags.  When you first plant the bag, you only half fill it so that you can continue to ‘earth up’.  I don’t know whether this is a good idea of not but last year I didn’t waste good quality fresh compost on this but quite often topped up the bags with any spent compost, for example, from recent seed trays.  So I was simply re-using relatively fresh compost that had just done its job in enabling the seedlings to germinate but which, within a few weeks, would have gone to waste.  Regardless of being a good idea or not, the bags gave us a moderate yield as we expected and again this was of beautifully smooth skinned, clean tubers so it’s certainly something we’ll think about doing again.

Getting ready to plant seed potatoes

Lined up and ready to plant! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Although we only have two relatively small plots for our veg garden, each measuring approximately 8 feet by 8 feet, we do endeavour to rotate our crops.  Potatoes, however, being relatively large plants do provide us with a challenge and generally we just have to swap them from plot to plot on alternate years.  The size of our plots also limits what we grow so we have focused on either ‘earlies’ or ‘second earlies’, these being the type of potato that we would normally regard as ‘new’ rather than maincrop potatoes which would be left in the ground longer.  Early potatoes are normally ready for harvesting around the end of June so this means that the freed up space can be used for late sowings of beans or other veg whereas if we grew maincrop potatoes, we would be leaving them in the ground for much longer.  It’s all a balance of space and taste!

White potato plant flowers

Foremost in flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

Hopefully by the time you read this, we will have tracked down some Foremost tubers and they will be starting to chit (develop their shoots) out in the shed ready for planting at the end of March.  Apparently my grandfather always insisted on planting his potatoes on Good Friday “when the devil is looking the other way”!  Easter’s a bit late for that this year!


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A fine tilth

Why is it that one of the hardest jobs of the gardening year is also one of the first?  I’m talking about digging.  Having spent the past few months lifting nothing much heavier than the 25th anniversary edition of Gardeners’ World Magazine, last weekend and today I have been busy confronting the veg plot in the knowledge that, if I want to sow carrots and potatoes, then I need a lovely fertile looking soil and not the rather drab wintry clods of earth that were staring back at me.  So it was out with fork, hoe and rake in an attempt to create a fine tilth.

It never fails to amaze me how many stones I churn up during this process.  When we dug these beds originally, we removed a very large number of stones but, year after  year, more appear!  With carrots in mind, stones are a nuisance or a source of amusement, depending on your point of view.  Stones are often the reason for the hilarious shaped veg that appear which may or may not be much use when it comes to cooking.

Being Good Friday, it was also important to get our potaotes planted.  Family tradition (well no one else I’ve spoken to has ever heard of this!), possibly started by my grandfather, is that you plant your potatoes on Good Friday “when the devil is looking elsewhere”.  This is supposed guarantee a good crop.  So having dug, hoed and raked, we collected the beautifully purple chitted Arran Pilot tubers from the shed and popped them into the soil.

Of course there’s not much to show for our efforts at this stage other than our rather strange arrangement of sticks.  These are cat defences.  There’s nothing like a lovely bit of soil preparation for our cats to presume that we are just improving their toilet facilities!  


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Gardening brain

It’s hard to put my finger on it but there’s always a point in early February that seems to switch on my gardening brain.  Whilst I will be the first to put my hand up in shame and admit to being a bit of a fair weather gardener, it’s not just that the short dark days of December and January offer little encouragement to go outside, there’s something inexplicable that triggers in February that says come on, it’s time to start planning, buying, putting ideas into action.

This year it hit me yesterday morning.  I opened up the February edition of Gardeners’ World Magazine and saw trigger words such as ‘sow’, ‘seed’ and ‘prune’, and before I knew it, I hadSun_Gold_Tomatoes_(4866993719) a giant list for the garden centre today!  Not that it was the most exciting list, principally consisting of large bags of stuff – compost (multi-purpose and ericaceous) and manure, plus tubs of poultry manure.  However, there was also the promise of things to come with a bag full of seed potatoes (Arran Pilot) ready to chit and a sachet of Sungold tomato seed to be sown later this month. l discovered Sungold by chance some years’ ago before they became every chef’s favourite.  Somehow they manage a unique depth of flavour that balances both sweetness and sharpness, making them the perfect tomato in my opinion.

As soon as I was home it as out with the rose food and the manure to get our roses off to the best start for this year.  Then it was on to pruning a giant overgrown shrub.  This would have been a lot easier without the gale force winds which made the bush a constantly moving target!  Meanwhile John could be seen attacking the buddleias at the far end of the garden, reducing their twenty foot high branches down to two foot high trunks.  Now they are ready to go racing skywards once again.