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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Cool compost

So this month’s topic is compost! I promise that I’m not about to come over all ‘Monty Don’ on you and suggest that you create three giant bins in your garden for this purpose. Whilst making your own compost is to be recommended, few of us with town gardens can do this with any real conviction. Whilst our garden may be larger than the average urban backyard, I don’t want to lose valuable planting and green space to compost making, so I’m afraid that my attempts are limited to a council supplied bin which, in fairness, takes a lot of our green kitchen waste and, about twice a year, enables us to give a new plant a decent start in life.

Compost bin with cat on top

Compost bin camouflaged by cat (c) Elizabeth Malone

No, my focus this month is on the compost that you are most likely to be buying in the garden centre, supermarket or DIY store, usually labelled ‘multi-purpose’ which covers a multitude of sins. It was the Easter weekend, when the national news was dominated by the Extinction Rebellion protests, that I found myself getting on my soap box and starting to preach about making sure that you are gardening ‘peat free’. On Easter Saturday I walked into a garden centre which was proclaiming its extra special holiday deal on multi-purpose compost which is was proud to shout was ‘100% peat’. I stared in horror as the woman next to me started loading her trolley. “You do realise”, I found myself saying, “that it’s 100% peat, don’t you?” The look she gave me either said “what planet are you from?” Or “OK, local nutter, move away now.” It made me realise that, as a keen amateur gardener, I’ve been reading the horticultural press for the last couple of decades and watching the experts on TV, probably Geoff Hamilton being the first, advising me to avoid using peat-based composts at all costs. But what if you’re not a keen amateur? What if you just garden occasionally in the spring and summer when you fancy a bright hanging basket or a pot outside the backdoor? That afternoon I tested my theory out on my osteopath (who once famously cut all the flower heads off a peony thinking it was a rose that he’d forgotten to prune!), and quite right he asked, “Why shouldn’t I use peat?”

Plant pots in greenhouse

Potting up for the summer – make sure it’s peat free (c) Elizabeth Malone

Peat bogs are to the UK what the rainforest is to South America, they are our carbon cupboard and, as such, can do an enormous amount to protect us from climate change. They also help prevent against flooding and they are a vital habitat for our wildlife. Scarily we have lost more than 90% of the UK’s natural peat bogs. If you want to read more about this, Friends of the Earth have an excellent article.

I began tinkering with gardening about 26 years ago. In the beginning I almost certainly bought standard peat-based compost but I quickly abandoned it. Thinking back, this was almost certainly because of Geoff Hamilton on Gardeners’ World who was an environmental campaigner way ahead of his time. When Alan Titchmarsh took over the helm of GW, he was quickly under pressure to move towards peat-free gardening. The fact that I remember this makes me convinced that we had already converted.  Whilst I am no expert gardener, I feel that I have gardened very successfully in my own way, without peat for more than 20 years.  I once had a conversation with a chap at a garden centre who saw me buying peat-free and told me that it wouldn’t be much good for seed-germination, but I was happy to tell him that I’d never found this a problem.  Something like this might be a stumbling block for commercial growers who need a very good success rate but for us amateurs, I think we can afford a few seeds to go amiss.

Newly germinated seedlings

Cosmos germinating (c) Elizabeth Malone

Part of my annoyance on that Easter Saturday stemmed from the fact that Westland, a giant horticultural company, have bought the ‘New Horizon’ brand whose ‘peat-free and organic’ compost I have been using for donkey’s years. In another local garden centre, the familiar green bags had been replaced by bright red ones. Peat free yes, but no longer organic. I bought a couple as a stop-gap to get me through the weekend but a week later I was delighted to discover that another local garden centre had now begun to stock a peat-free, organic compost from Melcourt, endorsed by the RHS. This may well become my ‘go-to’ compost.  The great thing about this particular garden centre, and here I will give a shout-out for Adrian Hall’s, is that they stocked Melcourt peat-free and organic, Melcourt peat-free only and the New Horizon peat-free, thus giving the customer a choice of several peat-free options amidst the non-peat-free.  This is definitely progress as most garden centres, even if they’re not shouting ‘100% peat’, still leave you hunting for the one peat-free brand they stock.  I’ve just done a quick google search for peat-free composts and have been surprised to discover that all the big chains claim to stock them.  However, it strikes me that it’s just not very visible when you walk into the store and an awful lot of people will just by the first thing they see, particularly if it’s on special offer.  So I think that we, as gardeners, have a responsibility to educate our friends and to make sure our garden centres and DIY stores understand the importance of what they stock and also how they stock it.

French bean seedlings

French bean seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

Saving what peat we have left is something we can all easily contribute towards. Next time you go looking for a bag of multi-purpose compost, just make sure it says ‘peat-free’. If it doesn’t, find one that does and, if the garden centre doesn’t have a peat-free option, take your business elsewhere.

White geranium phaem

Cerinthe and Geranium Phaem Alba – self seeding and avoiding compost altogether! (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Awaiting the arrival of Spring

Only last weekend I could feel the anticipation of Spring really being on its way but today, as I type, it is dark and grey.  There is a constant stream of heavy drizzle and it is cold and windy.  Only yesterday I dug my woolley hat back out of the drawer.

February is traditionally a gloomy month but just occasionally it teases with glimpses of something better to come … just around the corner. Last Sunday I saw the first daffodils in flower as I drove to church.  When I returned to do the ironing, I was distracted by the sight of a pair of magpies starting to build their nest.  Interestingly they were attacking one of the squirrel dreys that I wrote about last month, clearly viewing it as an easy target.  Time and time again they visited to wrestle already prepared twigs from between the branches and then flew off to wherever their construction site is located.  Today there is no sign of them.

Outside the backdoor it’s not entirely bleak.  There are splashes of colour and flower to 33066815126_be63a70312_mcheer both sight and smell.  Next to the patio, the winter flowering honeysuckle is now covered in sweet scented blooms and its lemony fragrance wafts into the house provided, of course, you are brave enough to open the door and let in the cold wintery air!  Various winter flowering clematis are covered in bells, some flushed with burgundy, others creamy white.  When the sun has deigned to come out, these have been a magnet for bees.  In the border the viburnum is sporting rosy clusters of pink blossom which is complemented by the pinky shades of tiny long-tailed tits who are flitting around the fat balls hanging in the nearby cherry.  The viburnum would also smell nice if I donned my gardening boots and fleece and trekked across the muddy grass to give it a sniff. However, the outdoors could not look less enticing right now!

32293206243_3ed1b9c0d2_mPlants generally start growing when the temperature reaches about 5o centigrade, which is why I am surprised to see that my bulbs have definitely grown this week.  The pot of miniature iris reticulata have suddenly burst into flower!  I can also now see just how much the squirrel disturbed them as they are now all on one side of the pot!  There are signs of crocus beneath the hawthorn but they are being shy in the gloom.  Earlier in the week they were open.

33108784985_fe47a4f020_mElsewhere daffodil leaves are forcing their way upwards.  At this point my daffodils always look healthy and robust but, rather annoyingly, when they come to flower, I often discover that the bulbs have been eaten by something and I only get half a ragged trumpet!

Gardening emails are now exhorting us keen gardeners to get ready for Spring and Summer.  It’s time to be pruning and, more importantly, to be sowing.  The thought, however, of standing outside with compost and seed trays in the drizzle does not appeal!  But if I am to have any crops this year, it’s time to think seriously about what they might be and at least to buy some fresh seed packets.  Tomatoes, which will come indoors to germinate, need to be sown by the middle of March at the latest.  At least by then I am hoping that they can sit in their usual place in the study which, due to decorating and new carpet, has been piled high for the past few weeks with the contents of various cupboards and shelves.  Seed potatoes also need to be bought and chitting started – that odd process of leaving them somewhere in the light and cool (but not freezing!) to generate the long purple shoots that eventually help them to produce the crop.  At some point we need to brave it outside the backdoor to a garden centre to gain some inspiration and get all of this underway.

Right now  I feel more like hibernating.  Even Bryggen, the most outdoorsy of our cats, has come skidding back into the house, slipping on a wet patio as he cornered too quickly!  Finna, the heat-seeker, is curled up on top of the hot water tank, echoing what most of us probably feel like doing now!