Outside the Backdoor

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


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Let it snow!

Chill December brings the sleet,

Blazing fire and Christmas treat,

January brings the snow,

Makes our feet and fingers glow.

Sara Coleridge “The Garden Year”

My first Outside the Back Door based on Sara Coleridge’s poem, “The Garden Year” was written in February last year – so we missed January! For the purposes of my church magazine (the original driver for this blog), I need to combine December and January and, as soon as I read these verses, I knew it would work well as both coincidentally feature sleet and snow. I remember this poem so clearly from childhood and yet, if I’m honest, I can only remember one white Christmas whilst I was growing up. With climate change, the likelihood of a white Christmas in London and the south-east diminishes with each passing year.

Outside the back door January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, you may recall that earlier this year we did indeed have snow! On the 24th January the country was deep in the heart of Lockdown 3, our church was firmly embedded on Facebook and many of us were viewing the Sunday morning service when suddenly down came the snow! There were lots of comments that the vicar and organist were going to get a bit of a shock when they headed outside to discover the world had turned white! Overlooking the turning circle at the end of our road, there were a lot of excited children building snowmen, making snow angels and being pulled along on sleds whilst everyone tried to stay in their strict family bubbles. The shrieks and shouts of excitement were all the more louder given the confined circumstances we were all in at the time.

Winter wonderland January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m not a huge fan of snow. I’m sure lots of you would agree, it’s all very pretty unless you have to get somewhere! The beauty of last year’s lockdown snow was that there was nowhere to go and nothing to do! As a result, I think I enjoyed that snow fall more than most. Working from home, it was quite a relief not to have to worry about train services, opening times, staff rosters etc. Although in fairness some of my staff did have to travel in but we only had reduced services running due to the lockdown which made is much easier than a normal ‘snow day’.

Ice on the fruit trees (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also did what all Norwegian Forest Cat owners seem to do – we threw ours outside into the cold to take some photos of them in their native habitat! To be honest, they’re not that keen on this white slippy stuff and they rushed back indoors to a warm radiator within minutes!

Norwegian Forest Cats are meant to like this stuff! (C) Elizabeth Malone

As well as our footprints and the cats’ paw prints, I do enjoy seeing what else leaves its mark across the snow. It’s the one time you get to see the criss-crossing patterns left by birds hopping around in search of food. That’s the great thing about a winter cold snap, you never quite know what might fly into your garden. In that famous snowfall that brought London to a standstill a few years’ ago, we had a flock of redpolls turn up to raid the seeds on our birch tree. Almost without fail, by the end of January the large cotoneaster at the end of our garden will have been stripped of all its berries by an invasion of redwings. You really know that winter has arrived when you spot the redwings. At the end of January it will be the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch again and we will be glued to the garden with our binoculars to record our feathered friends and to see if anything out of the ordinary turns up.

Bird prints January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Prior to the snow, on 10th January my photos tell me that we experienced an amazing hoar frost. Sometimes I think this is prettier than snow. Snow tends to weigh things down whereas a hoar frost covers everything in the garden in sparkling jewels. I wrapped up to the nines and had a fun half hour or so walking around the garden for as long as my frozen fingers could hold the phone, photographing sparkling leaves, crystalline cobwebs and icing sugar dusted berries.

Frosted crab apples (c) Elizabeth Malone

By the end of January it starts to feel like we’re emerging from the darkness of winter. It will be almost light at five o’clock in the evening and the first flowers of the new year will be starting to emerge. If I remember exactly when to look, I might just see my tiny clump of snowdrops at the end of the garden. Last year our daily walks often took us through our local Cemetery where the crocuses were already looking stunning by the end of the month. As a result, I’ve planted bowls of crocus to have on our patio this year and I can already see them pushing up through the soil. I’m very much looking forward to seeing their burst of colour but in the meantime, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s rainy and it’s time to curl up in front of that blazing fire!

Crocus in Hampton Cemetery January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Rain, rain go away!

I wrote this post a few weeks ago for the church magazine.  Little did I know but rain was about to be the least of problems for us gardeners this “Spring”!  Note the inverted commas, as Spring has really started in a somewhat unusual fashion this week!  When I wrote this back in February, even then I was thinking that I would probably regret this title in July/August when it’s hot, dry and the garden is looking burnt to a crisp!  But right now I have virtually nothing I can write about being outside the backdoor as, so far, the story of 2018 has been rain, or more recently snow, has well and truly stopped play!

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Outside the Backdoor – 2 March 2018 (c) Elizabeth Malone

At least now it is getting lighter!  And by the end of the month, the clocks will have ‘sprung forward’.  No longer do the streetlights turn off as I walk to the station in the morning.  This happens to me for about two or three weeks in the winter when my departure coincides precisely with the timing of the lights and always reminds me of the first Harry Potter film when Dumbledore extinguishes the streetlights so that the wizards delivering the baby Harry to his Aunt and Uncle aren’t spotted by the ‘muggles’.  The evenings are lighter too.  If I leave work on time, it is now light and I’ve even taken a photograph of our emerging new building glowing rosy in a sunset.

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New Town House under Construction, Kingston University, Feb 2018  (c) Elizabeth Malone

However, for most of January and February, whenever I have been available to go out into the garden, the weather has been vile.  I was so optimistic on the second weekend in January when it was dry, not particularly warm but frost free.  We headed outside and soon I was tugging at a horrible dead, slimy mulch of crocosmia leaves, removing them from the border and exposing the bright green shoots of bulbs as well as making the patio look cleaner and neater.  I cleared more dead perennial leaves and shoots from the border and soon filled up our green bin whilst John tackled tidying up the sprawling Clematis tangutica, capturing as many of its silky seedpod heads before they spread too widely and produced a multitude of offspring.

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Clematis tangutica, Bill Mackenzie (c) John Malone

The following weekend it was wet – very wet, and so it has continued.  John has been marginally more successful in getting outside than me.  He often works from home a couple of days a week and seizes the opportunity of a bit of garden tidying in his lunch hour.  Having said that, we seemed to hit several weeks when the sunny days were the ones in the office and vice-versa.  This also led to three slightly tetchy mini-tigers as the cats prowled indoors, expressing their frustration at not being able to get out much.  Still, the other day I returned home to the declaration that the apple trees had now been pruned with a view to encouraging their fruiting spurs and on another occasion I returned from church to find the last prickly twigs of the raspberries being consigned to the rubbish heap.  All it takes is one fine day.  A couple of Sundays back, I returned from church to a sunny but blustery garden to discover that John has acted on my decision to remove much of our Escallonia.  If ever there was a shrub that had become too big for its own good!  Twiggy, dark and misshapen, something had to happen.  From ten feet tall to under two feet tall in a morning!  The light it has created is fantastic and now we can see the lovely Camelia beyond coming into bloom.

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Camelia – February 2018 – (c) Elizabeth Malone

Ironically perhaps, but one of the jobs we need to get done is to repair our water butt connections.  One of the water butts sprung a leak last year and in the early autumn we were able to empty it and John crawled inside to mend it.  Unfortunately this only solved part of the problem as it transpired that the connecting pipe also needed replacing.  We have the components but now we need a dry day to fix them.  It’s particularly annoying as we know we are losing water and, despite the wet weather now, you can be sure that this will all suddenly change and we will soon be needing watering cans.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.  Looking on the bright side, February has treated us to a charming display of miniature Iris reticulata.  These perfectly formed flowers are real jewels at this time of year.  I have already spotted daffodils in flower up the road (before they got covered in snow!) and I can see giant green spikes in the border so ours are starting to emerge.  What I cannot see, which is somewhat frustrating, are the tulips I planted in the autumn and I strongly suspect that the energetic squirrel chases taking place in the garden are tulip fuelled!

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Iris reticulata – February 2018 – (c) Elizabeth Malone