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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May brings …

May brings flocks of pretty lambs
Skipping by their fleecy dams.

I think it’s fair to say that you’re unlikely to see many skipping lambs in and around either Hounslow or Whitton these days and certainly not in my garden!  However, I do have rather fond memories of an overnight stay in the Lake District at a rather unusually named pub if I remember correctly (possibly the Eagle and Child near Kendal) where unseasonably warm April weather meant that we sat outside in their beer garden (in the days when you could choose between sitting outside or in!) from which we were entertained all evening by gambolling lambs!

Lamb getting ready to gambol around the Lake District! (c) John Malone

In the gardening world, May is normally associated with the Chelsea Flower Show but currently this is planned for September for the first time in its history.  Chelsea normally means alliums.  Lots of those purple pompoms on sticks that contrast so vividly with the acid greens of spring foliage.  We’ve grown quite a few alliums in the garden over the years with varying success.  We have plenty of Allium Purple Sensation which have multiplied but we’re also rather fond of Allium Roseum which, as its name suggests, is a light rosy pink.  It’s also a more open flower that the usual tight globes.  I’ve yet to be tempted by any of the giant Alliums that you see around.  If you have any of the smaller globe types, such as Purple Sensation, let the flowerheads dry out after flowering and try to keep them intact through the autumn.  Last year we succeeded in doing this and John was then able to spray the seed heads silver to decorate our Advent crown.

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ (c) John Malone

I’ve often mentioned how I’m drawn to purple flowering plants and May is when the flower border really does turn purple.  As well as the alliums, it’s time for the geraniums to get going and we have some very large clumps of Geranium Johnson’s Blue which isn’t blue at all.  Like many geraniums (cranesbill), this one will spread anywhere and take over the entire garden given the chance so I crawl around on hands and knees teasing out its running roots every spring to try to maintain some order!

Geranium Johnson’s Blue (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’ve gradually come to realise that if a geranium is happy, it will quickly turn into a thug!  A few years ago we visited the garden belonging to the parents of newsreader Sophie Raworth.  I saw a very unusual deep pink geranium that I liked.  It took a white to track this down but John eventually located it in a small specialist nursery and gave it to me as a birthday present.  It has the extremely wordy title of Geranium oxonianum thurstonianum and is described by the RHS as “a vigorous perennial”.  Three years ago it arrived in a small 5cm square pot.  The clump is now at least 50cm across!  Thankfully it’s very pretty and flowers its socks off!

Geranium oxonianum thurstonianum (c) John Malone

Another more recent purple acquisition and favourite is Centaurea Jordy.  Centaurea is the posh name for perennial cornflowers or knapweed.  I’m afraid that I’m of the generation where mention of the word ‘knapweed’ conjures up Constable Knapweed from the children’s TV series ‘The Herbs’ (very educational!)  This cornflower is a deep, dark, beetrooty purple.  It’s great for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.  Unfortunately it does have a tendency to develop mildewy leaves and to be nibbled by those insects so sadly mine always seems to start the spring well but then falters.  May be this year will be different?

Centaurea Jordy (c) John Malone

Sticking with the colour purple, Clematis Niobe should also be in flower in May.  I used to rate clematis as my favourite plant and we have lots of different varieties around the garden.  It would even be true to say that we have some form of clematis in flower every month of the year.  However, if it is my favourite plant, then it does seem some years since I added a new one.  Perhaps the empty fence behind where the birch tree used to be is crying out for one? 

Clematis Niobe (c) John Malone

I’m also hoping that our Wisteria Amethyst Falls will produce some decent flowers this year.  Often advertised as ‘abundantly flowering’, I would disagree!  We chose this variety as we don’t have an appropriate spot for a huge, traditional wisteria.  This one is certainly smaller and lower growing but it’s also been quite difficult to establish and persuade to flower.  In its defence, it could be that it’s being drowned out by an over-enthusiastic cotoneaster growing alongside. 

Wisteria Amethyst Falls (c) John Malone

Finally, I mentioned the Raworth’s garden above which we visited as part of the National Garden Scheme.  We all need some different gardens to visit this year so please do consider booking a visit to an NGS garden.  These openings of private gardens help to raise huge sums of money for health charities such as Macmillan, HospiceUK, Marie Curie and Parkinson’s.  Whether the garden you choose to visit is large or small, I promise you won’t be disappointed!


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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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March brings breezes, loud and shrill …

March brings breezes, loud and shrill,
To stir the dancing daffodil.

This verse of the poem, made me wonder whether the month of March deserves its reputation for being windy?  Apparently, the answer worldwide is ‘yes’ but in the UK it is actually January when we get the strongest winds.  What we want to see this month is daffodils dancing gently in the breeze and not flattened by a gale!  Perhaps that’s why the smaller varieties, such as tete-a-tete have become so popular in recent years! 

Tete-a-Tete daffodils in our ‘woodland garden’ (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since mentioning daffodils last month, I’ve been waiting for my ‘February Gold’ early flowering daffs to show their hand.  Sadly the very cold snap we’ve experienced during the first half of February has meant that I am still waiting and I fear that they will be ‘March Gold’ instead this year!

What else can we look forward to in the garden this month?  The big one for us is Clematis Armandii.  The first flowers started to appear during February but it should really take off this month.  You may be more familiar with this plant than you realise as it is often grown over fences.  It has long, dark green leathery leaves with very delicate creamy white simple flowers with just four petals that develop in large clusters.  It is beautifully scented and, as a result, is a magnet for early bees.  However, it is not for the faint-hearted!  It’s a big plant that has scrambled up twenty feet or so to cover the remains of our cherry tree in double quick time! 

Clematis armandii (c) John Malone

Flicking back over photos taken in the garden last March, I am struck by how many plants we have at this time of year that are white.  Either white flowers or white blossom.  A very delicate example is our cherry plum tree.  At some point this month, we will glance down the garden and realise that there is a white cloud of blossom.  To really appreciate this tree, you need one of those spring days with clear blue sky that is also unseasonably mild.  It is another bee magnet and you can stand beneath its branches and just listen to the very busy hum.

Cherry Plum blossom Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we’re talking plum blossom, I must mention our Mirabelle de Nancy tree which is also due to flower this month.  Mirabelle have never been widely available in the UK.  We first came across them in Alsace in France when, in September each year, roadsides are laden with stalls selling these delicious small, sweet yellow fruits.  Tracking down a tree to grow here was quite tricky and now that we’ve got it, I think we’re getting an insight into why it may not be the most popular plum in the UK! If I’m being honest, it’s a little tricky to grow!  We’ve had branches die back, silver-leaf curl and wriggly maggots in the fruits!  Oh and did I mention that the pigeons love them?  So much so that we’ve had to invest in a giant net if we’re ever going to have the opportunity to enjoy them ourselves. 

Blossom on Mirabelle de Nancy (c) Elizabeth Malone

My next white choice is a small flowering cherry, Kojo-no-mai, which sits in a pot outside the back door and was a sale purchase.  It came home with us as compensation for having lost our large pink flowering cherry tree.  It’s a rather small substitute but very pretty.  I remember it being out during lockdown last year.  Interestingly, our photos of it are from the middle of the month but then everything looks to have flowered quite early in 2020.  As this will be only its second spring with us, it will be intriguing to see when it flowers this year.  I can already see buds starting to swell along its branches.

Kojo-no-mai in bloom Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I very rarely mention our front garden but, in March, this tends to come into its own with a hedges of forsythia but also a large osmanthus – an evergreen shrub with tiny delicate white flowers with yellow centres.  It’s another one that is deliciously scented.  You will be starting to spot a theme here!  The osmanthus was an impulse buy when we needed something to fill a large pot and green-up the front garden after a gale uprooted an overgrown eucalyptus.  I don’t, however, think the gale was in March!  We were attracted to the plant in the garden centre and it was simply a bonus that it came with scent.  However, I think we have become more attuned in recent years to buying plants that are scented, simply because scent normally means bees and that can only be a good thing.

Osmanthus (c) John Malone

Now what about those dancing daffodils, I hear you cry.  Well you may be please to know that I am going to recommend some white ones to you!  Thalia.  Strictly speaking these are a variety of narcissus.  I discovered them last year and they are a terrific addition to any garden, plot or pot!  They are multi-headed with about three flowers per stem so they really fill out a pot nicely.  Although they are quite a tall, full-height daffodil, the petals are not the conventional daffodil shape but are more slender and create a floaty illusion, and yes, they are also scented!  I liked them so much last year that I put them on my ‘order more’ list for the autumn.  In fact, I then forgot I’d ordered from one supplier and added to a second order so I will have at least three times as many this year!  Definitely something to look forward to towards the end of the month.  In fact, I think they could look rather lovely flowering at Easter – fingers crossed.

Narcissus Thalia dancing in those March breezes! (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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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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Peat Free April

Last year I wrote about Cool Compost, by which I meant either the home-made stuff or environmentally friendly organic and peat-free compost. Shortly after I became aware that April 2020 was being championed as ‘Peat-Free April‘, a campaign which very much echoes the concerns I raised last year. We are entering the peak gardening season, when even those who just tinker about their plot or balcony once in a blue moon, head out to the garden centres, DIY stores and supermarkets in search of a bag of what we glibly refer to as ‘compost’. Chances are the first bag they reach will be boasting some special offer and behind all the marketing the word ‘peat’ is likely to be hidden … or may be not! Last year I got very annoyed by the signs in one local garden centre proudly proclaiming a product to be 100% peat! So why does this matter?

Spring in a pot or two! (C) Elizabeth Malone

The UK’s peat bogs provide unique wildlife habitats but they also act as a carbon sink. Digging up the peat bogs releases tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere which directly contributes to climate change. As a result, DEFRA encouraged a voluntary ban on peat-based products available to amateur gardeners that was supposed to see peat all but phased out by 2020. In truth, very little has happened.

Happy peat-free violas and iris (c) Elizabeth Malone

This Lent the church is encouraging us to think about our impact on the planet. Going peat-free can be a part of that commitment and, I would suggest, is easier than becoming a vegan or removing plastic from your everyday life! Not that I’m suggesting that you shouldn’t do either of those things if you feel so inclined, it’s just that to go peat-free, all you have to do is read a label and buy the correct product!

Peat-free seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

The Peat-Free-April campaign is urging all of us to put pressure on our local garden centres to remove peat products from sale. Living in this part of west London, I imagine many of you will visit Squires Garden Centres. Squires state that, “Our policy is to stock a range of peat-free and peat reduced composts.” They go on to say that they, “actively promote these products in our Beautiful Gardens Magazine.” At least Squires publish their Sustainability policy. Our other local garden centre, Adrian Hall’s, are silent on the topic which is a shame as, to my knowledge, they have stocked peat-free composts for many years and now have a choice of products available.

But what about the plants you buy in the garden centre, what are they growing in? The chances are the answer is a compost containing peat but change is afoot, Suttons Seeds have announced that they have removed peat from their production this year and are even holding tours of their facilities as part of the Peat-Free April campaign. When a large company such as this takes the lead, you do hope that others will follow.

Gardening organisations and the gardening press all advocate peat-free growing and provide plenty of advice on sustainable alternatives. I’m no expert and I’ve never carried out peat versus non-peat comparisons but I seem to be able to get decent germination of seeds using peat-free compost, my pots look pretty happy and my inability to establish cuttings, well that’s just me needing more practice!

French bean seedlings (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last year when I wrote about Cool Compost, a friend went to her local supermarket and decided to pick up a bag of compost whilst she was there. I received an email later to say that she did pause to read the label and she was thrilled to see that the bag said peat-free. So that’s one convert! Hopefully this year there will be more! As to the photos in this blog, they are just a random selection of things from my garden that are growing peat-free.

Pulsatillas – the Pasqueflower (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Inspired by iris

It was this particular plant that we spotted at the start of a visit to West Green House recently that caused me to say, “We don’t really grow iris” …

In retrospect, it was an utterly ridiculous statement. If we don’t grow iris, then what on earth was this in a pot back in the spring?!

Or for that matter, what are these yellow things blowing around in the breeze by the pond?

What I think I meant was that I don’t feel I know iris as a species particularly well, not compared to say roses or clematis. In fact, it’s probably the early spring flowering ‘reticulata’ that I’m most familiar with and can reel off the names of varieties such as Harmony or George etc, quite happily. So small iris that are content to be out in the cold, I understand those.

I feel I have a vague grip on iris that enjoy paddling too. These ‘pseudacorus’, the traditional yellow flag iris, are clearly enjoy being in our pond and have spread over the years. We think we have three varieties. I say ‘think’ as I’m pretty certain that we only planted two and the third has made its own way here. This deep yellow one is the intruder.

Whereas I’m reasonably certain that we chose this paler lemon variety when we originally planted the pond.

Both are looking stunning this spring but we also planted a purple variety. We think it’s still with us but it seems to enjoy playing hide and seek, only appearing every couple of years and, blink, and we soon miss it. Having looked carefully around the pond last weekend, we think it may be about to reveal itself so are now on ‘purple iris watch’!

So the iris that I feel I know very little about are those that prefer growing conditions at completely the opposite end of the scale – hot, sunny and dry! There are so many different varieties that fall into this category that I find it quite overwhelming. I honestly don’t know my ‘siberica’ from my ‘germanica’ and I guess I’ve always felt nervous of planting them in the wrong place.

However, the inevitable happened when we left West Green House, we headed for a local garden centre and there, right in front of us, was a tall, proud, deep purple iris. How could we resist?

We have watched its first buds unfurl and I can now honestly say that I understand it when people say that their petals are like silk. I took a close look at this bud and it could easily have been woven rather than grown. Whilst I peered closely into the bud, a bee came along and quickly took advantage of our new purchase, flying deeply into the flower. It’s a very beautiful addition to our main border which has always sported quite a purple theme. Now all we need to do is master how to look after it and hopefully it will bulk up and then we’ll have to brave dividing it in years to come.

This certainly seems to have been a spring of iris and, as we become better acquainted, this might be the start of our iris journey.

 

 


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Spring is green!

I used this phrase for a recent Facebook post and all my G&S enthusiast friends came back with, “Summer’s rose ..” thinking of the lovely madrigal in Ruddigore. But it’s so true – spring is green!

Euonymus fortunei

Euonymus fortunei (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s probably the time of year when we appreciate the colour green the most. Owning, as I do, a garden bordered by lilac, you do get rather fed up of the brown twiggyness of winter. Whilst I love my lilacs (see Luscious Lilacs), it has to be said that they do sadly contribute to winter dullness.

Banks of lilac in winter bordering the garden

Lilac just budding green (c) Elizabeth Malone

From March onwards, I find it hard to resist walking around the garden taking photos of the new green emerging and now, in April, everything is positively zinging! The hawthorn, which entered April with a generous smattering of new green leaves, conveniently displayed against a vivid blue sky, is now a dense canopy beginning to show the signs of flower buds getting ready to welcome in May.

Hawthorn leaves against blue sky

Hawthorn leaves on 1 April 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the ‘woodland’ garden, as I like to call it when feeling posh, the euphorbia has been excellent this year. This one is only the common woodland spurge but we brought it from our previous house and it took to this area with enthusiasm until a couple of years ago when I became quite worried as it looked sickly. It’s good to see that it appears to have bounced back.

Close up of Euphorbia flower / bract

Euphorbia / woodland spurge (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m pleased to say that my Euphorbia Martinii, purchased at Malvern last year, has also returned. I was worried about it, to say the least, as it became rather swamped by a couple of over-enthusiastic dahlias last summer!

Euphorbia martinii bracts with red eye

Euphorbia martinii (c) John Malone

One of the really exciting greens at this time of year are the very first shoots of new seedlings in the greenhouse and on the veg plot. My rocket was first to be sown, first to germinate and also first to be eaten!

Rocket seedlings just germinating

Rocket germination! (C) Elizabeth Malone

I now have peas and French beans following in its footsteps and my tomatoes are almost ready to be pricked out and potted on – a task for the Easter weekend I think.

Last summer we also planted a number of new roses, five I think in the end, and I’m pleased to say all look to be doing well. However, it was the new leaves of our existing Iceberg climbing rose that really struck me last weekend. It was as if someone had been out and polished them up ready for the new season! These particular shoots were especially good to see as they were on new long stems stretching into the pergola, a direction that we’ve been trying to train it into for several years.

Shiny green new leaves on rose IcebergNew leaves on an Iceberg (c) Elizabeth Malone

Which just makes me think that I shall have to write a post later on this year entitled “Summer’s rose”!! But before I sign off on this post, I’m going to leave you with some lovely vibrant green which, ironically, is providing a fantastic backdrop to that most spring-like of spring flowers, the bluebell!!

Bluebells coming into flower with backlit green leaves

Budding bluebell (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Buds (not in May!)

February has suddenly teased us with a promise of spring. Although almost every morning over the past week has started with a crisp frost, it has been succeeded by beautiful blue skies and sunshine that promises something of the summer to come. Although we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking winter is almost over, (think of the Beast from the East last year!), the garden has responded and there are signs of new growth in all directions, and not always in the obvious plants such as the camellia below.

DSC_0751

Camellia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Although the sun disappeared yesterday, I was tempted out into the garden to do the first proper stint of the year. With my still unreliable knee, I had to content myself with some gentle sowing of early peas and rocket in the greenhouse and a little light weeding and feeding whilst John diligently pruned all the roses and gave the acer a significant chop before starting to wield the axe against the pyracantha that has become a monster!

Before getting to work, I decided to do a complete circuit of the garden to assess what was shooting, what was reappearing from last year and what, as yet, is still keeping us guessing – again, reminding myself that it is still only the middle of February. Just for the fun of it, I also decided to have my first real play with John’s birthday present – a macro lens! Not being a photographer as such, I found it a slightly strange experience, having to coax it to focus on the small detail I wanted and not something it suddenly found in the distance. I’ve also found it incredibly frustrating trying to load up giant media files to blog with today but that’s another story I think!

My perambulations began literally outside the backdoor with a perennial wall flower that I bought as a between seasons gap filler last summer. It flowered its socks off from about May till August. Last weekend I began to realise how interesting foliage was becoming, with this soft, almost grey tinged with a hint of pink.

Grey leaves and buds of a perennial wallflower

Once in full flower, this will be a mass of vibrant yellow but for now, the tight flower buds at the centre begin crimson, start to hint of orange but then, with a bit of sunshine, turn yellow. Given how early it is starting to flower this year, will it still be in flower in July like last year?

Yellow wallflower bud

Dotted around the garden, a whole range of daffodils are now on the starting blocks and ready to burst forth in the next week or two. The small tete-a-tete do well in our garden, better than the full sized daffodils. However, I spotted a clump of large daffodils today that I don’t remember planting!

Daffodil buds

Daffodils in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Just above them, our clematis armandii is starting to bloom. The buds look quite unattractive in their early phase. If that was all you saw when you first came across the plant, I’m not sure whether you would want to give it house room? However, the pure white flowers are so elegant and the scent on a warm spring day is magnificent. It is, of course, a bit of a thug and needs to have some of its enthusiasm tamed each year otherwise the entire garden would be nothing by clematis!

White clematis armandii flower and buds

My walk around the garden was just before John decided to wield the secateurs against the roses. The amount of new growth on them was certainly shouting, “Prune me!” It was an interesting reminder of all those new roses we acquired last year, all of which now need pruning, feeding and mulching! I’m now wondering whether the box of rose food I bought is big enough?

Rose leaves

Rose leaves – ready to prune back (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst roses may demand attention, mahonia is a plant we do absolutely nothing to. We never planted it in the first place but have odd clumps that spring up in both the front and back gardens.  The sight of this one about to bud amused me when I saw the result of the photo – it reminds me of one of those strange looking romanesco cauliflowers!

Yellow mahonia about to flower

Mahonia in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

As well as the flowers, I took a close look at the fruit trees. The apple trees are yet to show any real signs of buds developing but both the mirabelle and crab apple stems are beginning to swell with new growth.

Mirabelle stem in bud

Mirabelle de Nancy stem in bud (c) Elizabeth Malone

Finally I turned to the veg plot which always looks rather desolate at this time of year. The autumn planted garlic is now shooting well, displaying strong fresh green stems. The chicken wire seems to be doing its job in terms of stopping cats and squirrels digging up the cloves! John has cut the raspberries back but the strawberries desperately need a good haircut. Due to my knee problems, I failed to tidy them in the autumn so they are long overdue some tlc. The remainder is a blank canvas waiting to be sketched out for the year ahead.

Autumn plants garlic starting to shoot

Autumn planted garlic (c) Elizabeth Malone

Of course it’s not all about new beginnings – some plants are already starting the cycle all over again.  Hellebores being the obvious example. Ours have been really splendid this year and it’s great to see that there are still buds waiting to open.

Red hellebore

That said, the pavement next to this one was strewn with stamen, showing that they’re planning ahead and getting ready to self-seed everywhere, which they do rather well!

Hellebore stamen on the ground

And finally, it’s always lovely to see something return. We bought this Euphorbia Martinii at Malvern last year. It looked great when we planted it but the poor thing got swamped by dahlias and grasses and I feared the worst. Even a week ago I didn’t spot this but here we are, and it’s looking fine!

Euphorbia martinii