Outside the Backdoor

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


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Luscious lilacs

From the end of April into the first half of May, we are surrounded by lilac! It’s a very nice position to be in. The scent is truly amazing, wafting down the length of the garden and into the house on really warm days.

It’s at this time of year that I realise that we have a lot of lilac! During April it transforms from a tangle of brown twigs into a tempting bank of bright green that tells you that spring is really here, and then suddenly one day it is in bloom! On a glorious spring day with azure blue skies, the sight of the white and mauve plumes of flower is quite breathtaking but it is very much a brief moment of glory as, by mid-May, it will all be over and we’ll be left facing the very large challenge of deadheading it and keeping it within limits.

I say keeping it within limits as lilac knows no restraint. During the growing season it every stem can put on about a foot’s growth in a week! I have known us go on holiday for ten days in May only to return and wonder why the garden suddenly seems so narrow? Whilst our backs were turned, the lilac has marched forward and what was a green perimeter is now more akin to a green version of the six foot thick walls of a medieval castle! In fact, for some strange reason, it always puts me in mind of Sleeping Beauty. In the fairy tale, the hedge grows up rapidly around the castle where the princess is sleeping and I can’t help but think of lilac shooting up with such energy amidst other thorny creepers to create an impenetrable wall.

Sadly I have no idea what variety of lilac we have as they were all here when we moved in. They stretch across our garden in an arc that’s probably about thirty feet long. There appears to be three varieties – a medium shade of mauve, a very pale mauve and the intense white. All grow with equal vigour and, if left unchecked, the flowering just gets higher and higher. For the past few years, John has been working hard to bring the lilac down lower and to encourage flowers within sniffing distance. It seems to be working although neither of us fully understands the plant enough to be doing this consistently.

When we enter lilac season I am conscious that I just don’t see much of it about these days compared to something like wisteria which seems to adorn many front gardens at around the same time. It seems strange given that lilac is easy to grow, and looks and smells beautiful but I guess its three week flowering period just isn’t enough to justify the space it would take up in many gardens when gardeners can choose from such a huge variety of plants billed as ‘repeat flowerers’ or ‘long flowering’. Admittedly there are times when we feel a bit defeated by the extent of our lilac wall but there’s no way we would be without it.

PS. At just the same time as I was drafting this post Ali, The Mindful Gardener, blogged on a similar theme. Do check out her thoughts.

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Borrowed blossom

Garden designers often talk about the ‘borrowed landscape’. When you live in the suburbia this is a very posh way of referring to what you can see over next door’s fence! I’ve always thought that we are very lucky with our borrowed landscape, living as we do next to another gardener and also looking across the railway line, giving us an uninterrupted view of the classic line of poplar trees. In the Spring we benefit from a wave of blossom as each neighbours’ tree comes into flower, usually starting with the vanilla cream coloured flowers of some self-set plum trees. From there we usually move into our cherry plum blossom, followed by a series of flowering cherries, from the palest pink to deep cerise, and then we move into the white of hawthorn and eventually the apple blossom. When I look out across this from our study up in the loft extension, I think how incredibly lucky we are to have this view in London.

Borrowed blossom from our neighbours

However, this year will be a little different as our garden won’t be contributing much to this display, making us value our neighbours’ trees more than usual. The combination of our loss of cherry tree (see Loss of a Flowering Friend) and our giant tree prune back in the autumn meant that, not only are we lacking pink froth, but also the white cloud of our cherry plum is somewhat diminished and I don’t expect a huge show from our hawthorn either, certainly nothing like last year!

Hawthorn tree

Still, our neighbours are very generous in sharing their display of blossom. On what has been a very rare morning of blue skies and sunshine so far this year, our neighbour’s Magnolia was starting to gear up to what will undoubtedly be an amazing display of waxy tulip flowers, and this from a tree that was pruned quite substantially only two years’ ago. It’s a bit sad to see a little browning and wrinkling on the fresh petals, presumably a result of the harsh March snow and frost?

Magnolia tree in bloom

My parents had a huge Magnolia in their garden but I hadn’t appreciated the mess they can make. Whilst it delivers on beauty, the Magnolia also delivers a heap of clearing up starting with the shedding of the outer flower skin in spring, then its petals, followed by its seed pods in autumn and then finally its leaves as we move into winter! That’s four lots of raking up to do!

Glancing across to the other side of the garden, our neighbours there have two delightful cherry trees. A deep pink one which is just budding up and a paler pink which is currently covered in hanging clusters of blossom.

Flowering cherry tree coming into flower

This delicate tree flowers its socks off each year despite it also being used as a swing by the children!

Sometimes we borrow more than just blossom from our neighbours. On one side of the garden we have a pink lavaterra which our neighbour had found too big and had tried to remove. The plant was having none of it and decided it would try its luck by turning in the opposite direction and emerging from under our fence! Our neighbours on the other side have generously granted us access to that very spring-like shrub, Kerria Japonica (possibly Pleniflora), which has worked its way under the fence and now also blooms well in our garden!

Kerria flowers

It’s so much nicer to be accidentally sharing plants outside the backdoor than weeds!


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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


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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.