Outside the Backdoor

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


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Tulip temptation

Another dry spring appears to have produced an especially vibrant performance of early tulips.  However, a recent visit to RHS Wisley reminded me that my offerings on the tulip front are a little mediocre!

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I have often been frustrated by tulips and their rather temporary nature – here one year, gone the next.  I dislike fishing them out of a pot after flowering only to discover that they have split into several bulblets and it’s hard to know what is worth keeping for the following year.  I guess that’s partly my own fault for only planting them in pots as, once they are over, I’m ready to move on to the next season’s planting.

That said, over the past couple of autumns, I have deliberately planted more tulips to bridge the gap from the daffodils going over and the summer border coming to life and this year I have been more than pleased with the results.  Having seen it recommended in many a gardening magazine, programme and blog, I planted up two bulb lasagnes – tulips deep do33125101583_d93754c8d7_mwn, miniature daffodils in the middle, and iris reticulata for the top early layer.
One of these pots I kept simple and only planted the bulbs, covering the top with an old upside down hanging basket in an attempt to stop the squirrels re-planting the bulbs elsewhere!  As I glance outside the backdoor, this particular pot is just coming to its end with the final flourish of fiery orange and red tulips glowing in the sunlight.

I was more ambitious with the second ‘lasagne’ as it was going into a particularly large, deep pot which meant I felt that I could get away with an additional winter layer comprised of wintering flowering violas and some variegated trailing ivies.  Having read the recommendation to plant variegated ivy to brighten dark areas, I delibe33245472505_36b083b149_mrately chose a variety with white / silvery edges which shone through the winter and which I intend to plant out at some point down the far end of the garden where it is incredibly shady and ivy is one of the few things that grows successfully.  My thought is that I can at least brighten up this area with the paler leaves.  The bulb leaves are now starting to die back and I am wondering whether I can carefully over-plant something for the summer without disturbing the bulbs beneath?

I have never really planted tulips in the border as I’ve always read that they don’t really come back and you need to replant every year.  However, I’ve noticed that my neighbour’s red tulips return to his border faithfully every year; and next-door-but-one threw in loads of red and orange tulips about three years ago and they have come back successfully.  So last year I decided to ignore th33746156701_86d7f26e95_m.jpge advice and attempt to naturalise some tulips in the border and, in particular, some rather stunning purple tulips which had  flowered at the same time as the bluebells.  I could see that they would make a fantastic combination so, instead of leaving them in the pot or lifting them to dry and then be lost at the back of the shed, I decided to transplant them to an area of border directly behind a huge clump of bluebells.  To my amazement they have returned this year with some vigour but, guess what?  They have flowered at a different time to the bluebells!  I guess you can’t win them all!


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All of a flutter

This month I am simply spoilt for choice in terms of topics to write about, such is the fullness and speed at which the garden develops in April and May, and especially this year in the amazing weather we have been experiencing.  Even as I type, the aroma of the first barbecues of the season is just reaching me and it is only April!

Since last month, we have been really busy.  The pergola is complete but I could move on to tell you about the new border which began to emerge during our week off work at the end of March, equally I could eulogise about the tulips that have been really spectacular this year, or I could tell you about the wonderful butterflies that have been entertaining us over the past sunny weeks.
I have decided to plump for the butterflies.  Last weekend, in less than an hour, we observed no less than seven different species fluttering around the garden.  It began with a Comma, a r33133577124_c0dea7542d_zegular visitor that appears early each Spring and loves to sun itself on the pergola.  The change in pergola has made no difference, the Comma butterflies (and there were at least two of them) still love the flat wood surface for taking a rest.  Having said that, they seem to be the butterfly less intimidated by human beings as I have often been landed on!

33592175560_38c3dbe2ec_zThis end of the garden seems equally popular with Red Admirals and at one point last weekend we had two Commas and two Red Admirals performing an elaborate quadrille in the sky.  The Red Admirals also seem particularly drawn to the pond and frequently rest on the marsh marigolds, I assume to sun themselves but may be to take nectar?

33125055743_5347f32300_mMost of our butterflies arrive in pairs or more but the Speckled Wood seems to be rather a loner.  Almost always to be found on the Choisya or occasionally on Lilac leaves, I have only ever seen one at a time and they also seem quite shy, never staying still long enough for a photograph.

The Holly Blues are probably the most numerous but also the smallest of the butterflies we see each year.  They have also got the year off to a prolific start as we saw at least four.  As their name suggests, they are drawn to the holly bushes but they do seem to spread their territory right across the garden and are as likely to be seen up near the house as they are in the depths of the border.

I will confess to finding white butterflies hard to identify.  Unless they are side by side, how do you tell a small white apart from a large white?  However, last weekend I definitely saw a Small White – it was really small and delicate!  In fact, I’m not sure that we actually saw a Large White, the wonderfully named Pieris Brassicae – brassicas equal members of the cabbage family – yes, this is the Cabbage White!

Another white butterfly that we saw and which is absolutely delightful is the Orange Tip.  Easy to identify as its name suggests, a couple very obligingly stayed still on a leaf long enough for us to observe the dark spot within each orange patch on the wing tips.

So that’s six species, or potentially seven, and that’s without mentioning the Brimstone that has been a regular visitor since the first sunny days of Spring.  Rather confusingly, there is a Brimstone moth as well as a Brimstone butterfly and, according to my trusty butterfly book, they look awfully similar!  However, I am pretty convinced we are seeing the butterfly as it has a fresher, pale yellowy green colour.

All of this might sound like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to identifying butterflies but, to be honest, I don’t and I find it really difficult!  I signed up for a butterfly count a few years ago and spent a silly amount of time trying to navigate the Collins Wild Guide to Butterflies and Moths – it was incredibly difficult.  I concluded that the bee count was much easier!  Apart from the Peacock butterfly, I think it would be true to say that we have seen every butterfly that I am actually capable of recognising and naming over the past week!  So if you see any more butterflies around the area, please don’t ask me any difficult questions about them.

Seeing so many species of butterfly in the garden has been very rewarding.  Apart from the occasional very careful limited sprinkling of so-called environmentally friendly slug pellets, we have not put any chemicals on our garden for at least fifteen years.  I can’t help thinking that this may be one of the reasons we are now such a butterfly-friendly garden.  We have also made a conscious effort to purchase plants that are either bee and/or butterfly friendly – the two often go together.  However, I tend to assume this is more related to summer flowering plants than the Spring bulbs but clearly nature thinks differently.  Either way, they are all a very welcome sight on a warm, sunny afternoon.


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Spring – a time of renewal

Throughout 2016 we kept promising ourselves that we must do x or y – decorate the hall and stairs and spare bedroom and replace the carpet, decorate the lounge / dining room, replace the leaning garden pergola, renew the fence down the far end and dig a new flower border.  I can’t explain it, but none of this got done – 2016 just seemed to fly by in a flash!  So we approached 2017 with a very long list of things to do both indoors and outside the backdoor and, so far, I’m pleased to say that we are really motoring through that list and, now that Spring is here, the tasks outside the backdoor are either being or are about to be tackled.

The pergola was erected in our garden by the previous owners who were keen to tell us that it was positioned to catch the last of the evening sun which they clearly thought was a major selli9013535219_f07946fce7_mng point.  The fact that this was on a cold, dark February evening meant that it didn’t really mean much to us at the time.  We may never have thought to build a pergola ourselves but it is an attractive feature and we have consequently planned things around it.  For example, the pond was deliberately sited adjacent to it so that you can sit and look over the water, watching the various insects darting around.  We have also planted a selection of things to scramble over it – a rather lovely white climbing rose and a pink clematis alpina.  The hard lines of the wood have been softened over the years by the lilac growing around it and the ivy entwining itself.

This all sounds 31937101185_5b9443dd71_mvery idyllic but about two years ago the pergola began to lean.  Almost unperceptively at first, but by last autumn it was probably a good thirty-degree angle!  The horizontal wooden struts were also rotten.  The cats love climbing up the pergola but we were beginning to fear for their safety.  Norwegian Forest cats are not lightweights and 6.5 kilos of Bryggen or Roly was beginning to look rather precarious!  So what to do?

As with any project ‘do nothing’ was an option but we quickly ruled that out.  Do away with the pergola altogether was another possibility but that would have left us with a well-established rose with nowhere to climb.  We also quite liked the fact that the cats could climb up it to get a better view or to sunbathe in the corner.  So early in the new year we started exploring the options available to us.

As with so many things these days, you can have just about any size, shape or material you want if you’re prepared to pay for someone to design it for you.  However, once you start looking for relatively simple and cost-effective solutions, the options quickly narrow down.  Whilst there might be hundreds of suppliers of garden pergolas on the internet, many of them offer exactly the same products and, after about an hour of searching, you begin to realise that you are seeing the same thing over and over again.  In the end we decided to be extremely boring and to order exactly the same pergola kit as before.  We agreed that if the new one lasted as long as the old one, we would be perfectly happy and 32976296360_3c3f6b8996_mslotting this in would mean relatively little disturbance as far as the plants were concerned.  The only thing we really wanted to change was underfoot – to banish the decking!  Not only was the wooden decking now rotting away but in the winter it can become very slippery.  So we’ve asked the builder to supply some stones to match our other garden paving.  As I write, these are on order so the pergola is sitting there looking very new but not quite finished.

33358831385_93db446288_mHaving got the ball rolling, we’ve also had the fence at the far end replaced.  This separates us from railway land and goodness knows what in the way of wildlife!  We have chosen concrete gravel boards as means of trying to prevent fox damage but we are already taking bets on how long it will be before a fox takes a chunk out of the fence!

From our long ‘to do’ list, this leaves us with ‘dig a new border’ yet to be tackled.  At present we cram all our flowering planting into one section of the garden and beyond that we have a bank of greenery for most of the year.  The choisya flowers in the spring and that sits next to an acuba which provides some bright lime green variation in leaf colour and then a lot of green lilac.  My plan is to dig out in front of this and use it as a backdrop to some late summer colour.  The area is very sunny and I think the hot colours will work here.  It is also in direct view from the house so will have visual impact.  I already have a few plants stashed away in pots ready to plant out here so all we have to do now is start digging before the ground begins to harden. You know how we’ll be spending our Easter bank holiday weekend!


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Hellebore heaven

Have I talked to you about hellebores?  Well even if I have, I think they’re worth mentioning again, particularly right now when the garden is positively brimming with them!

31773987601_cdb90c80a5_zI find it intriguing that hellebores are so closely linked to the Christian year.  At Christmas 2015 I was given a beautiful white ‘Christmas rose’.  My previous experience of this particular type of hellebore was that they are somewhat challenging.  The only one I’d owned before had flatly refused to flower at Christmas and, in fact, one year produced one single brilliant flower in August!  After a few years of limping along with the occasional odd flower, it vanished!  So having been given a rather splendid specimen, I treated it very gingerly throughout last summer and was thrilled to see it come back into flower just before Christmas.  It has been flowering constantly ever since and has just recently produced a further two pure white blooms.

However, it is the ‘Lenten rose’ that is dominating the garden right now.  By the way, I should add that neither are actually ‘roses’ apparently!  It could be as much as fifteen years since we purchased our first helleborus niger.  We had been inspired by a Spring pot being planted up on Gardeners’ World and went out to search for a dark purple plant.  A year or so on and we began to realise just how many tiny seedlings were being produced from this plant each year.  We potted some up carefully and weeded others out.  We eventually began to plant up the far end of the garden with the ones that had matured into flowering.  Of course these then went on to self-seed too … what more do I need to say?!

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Spurred on by our success, we purchased a larger plant of the more traditional cream with 33245189795_4d04b25ed1_zburgundy freckles variety.  This eventually outgrew its pot and, along with its offspring, it to moved to the far end of the garden.  Now we occasionally refer to this as the ‘woodland garden’ which is a rather grandiose title for the triangle beyond the cat fence which is extremely shady as it is dominated by our cherry plum tree, a large holly beyond the fence and a self-set sycamore which Network Rail refuses to chop down.  Of course this makes the perfect conditions for hellebores which perform the classic woodland cycle of coming into flower and doing their stuff before the leaf canopy fills in above.  Consequently they have multiplied in their thousands!  Every year we pull out hundreds and hundreds of tiny seedlings, sifting through to see which ones look strong enough to leave or are placed co33203518586_00a6477a19_znveniently to fill a gap.

About five years ago, we bought a tray of pale pink hellebores and these have now started crossing with the others.  So we are seeing some intriguing hybrids combing various shades of pink, purple and cream.  Whilst they are very beautiful, they are also very frustrating in the way that they hang their heads so that you have to bend over and lift the flower to see their full glory … which is exactly what I did last weekend to collect the photos on this page!  It was a true delight to discover what lay beneath.

 


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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!


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Bluebell month

Is it me, or has it been an exceptionally good year for bluebells?  We had more clusters around the garden than usual and out on our recent travels, it felt like the bluebells travelled with us – slightly past their best in the South, amazing vibrant carpets of blue in the Midlands, and just emerging in Scotland!

Are they English or Scottish?  Was a question I was asked recently about our own garden bluebells and, with an air of disappointment, I was forced to admit that most of them are probably Spanish!  The Spanish bluebell has been invading the South East for a good many years now and so I fear our proliferation is in this direction rather than in the deeper, richer coloured and more elegant English variety.

In fairness, when I look at the cluster in this photo, I’m heartened to see that there may be a mix of English and Spanish.  The Spanish variety are paler and more upright whereas the English are darker and have a tendency to arch, with the flowers displayed on one side of the stem only.  Looking at that stem on the far right of the photo, that looks more English to me!

The only downside to this excess of bells is that they now need deadheading!  I took a good bag full of stems down to the compost bin one warm afternoon this week.

And whilst the Spanish may be a troublesome invader, I have to admit that I do still quite like them.  After all, who can resist the depth of blue in this clump?  True blue flowers are few and far between and these looked stunning complimented by pink blossom and purple tulips and have even given me an idea for planting next year – so watch this space!


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Surprises!

When it comes to the garden, I prefer my surprises to be good ones rather than bad ones!  Call me fussy, but I prefer to discover that a treasured plant has reappeared rather than that the slugs have eaten my newly germinated radish!  The last few weeks have certainly sprung some good surprises.

First up were the creamy yellow scented narcissi.  Stupidly I had dumped the pot they were planted in around the back of the shed next to the pot washing pile.  I ignored it all winter (pot washing being a warm summer’s day activity in my book) assuming that I would just clear it out in the Spring.  However to my delight, in February it produced some of my favourite Iris Reticulata!  These delicate, deeply coloured flowers are so rewarding to see on a cold day when Spring still feels some weeks away.

Then, to my amazement, this pot threw up a further surprise when it revealed the scented narcissi.  These happy multi-headed stems seem to dance around in the sunshine and their perfume wafts around in the breeze.  Behind them I can see tulips emerging so clearly this must have been a ‘bulb lasagne’.  Someone remind me to label it so that I don’t make the same mistake again next year!

A different sort of surprise has been the flowering of our Mahonia in the front garden.  This is one of those plants that has always been there and, to be honest, we’ve paid very little attention to it.  Every year it’s produced a few prickly leaves and the odd bit of flower but last year, for the first time, we suddenly had a mass of yellow and this Spring has been a repeat performance.  Sadly it seems to be a rather bog standard form of this shrub and does not exude the wonderous scent that is promised in the descriptions of more genteel varieties advertised for sale.  However, what it lacks in scent, it is currently making up for in vibrant yellow spikes and I, for one, am very happy for it to continue doing this year on year!

And finally, this is a surprise that I can’t decide whether falls into the good category or not.  Some years’ ago John fell for the purple and white Honesty that was flowering freely in the garden of a holiday rental house in the Netherlands.  He collected some seedpods and brought them home.  Subsequently I have thought that this was probably illegal – but hey ho!  Honesty is a bienniel so only flowers every other year.  We sowed the seed and then had a very long wait but, sure enough, we were rewarded with banks of purple and white flowers two years’ later.  We have now managed to juggle the cycle so we do have some Honesty in flower each year but this Spring does look like being a bumper year, particularly for the white variety.  However, there’s a new kid on the block – a pale lilac coloured flower!  There’s only a couple of them so far but we’re wondering whether we’re onto something new!