Outside the Backdoor

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


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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.

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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


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Snowdrops

Nothing says ‘February’ more to me in the garden than snowdrops.  Just when we’re really getting fed up with the long dark winter days, along come these elegant white flowers to tell us that spring is just around the corner.

Snowdrop bud - close up

Snowdrop flowerhead (c) John Malone

Unfortunately, when it comes to growing snowdrops, I don’t seem to have much luck.  Years ago I bought some bulbs and planted them in what seemed a good place but about one appeared.  In fact I think that one is still appearing each spring but it is rather lonely! 

At the time I was a relatively inexperienced gardener and, of course, later I read that it is much easier to establish snowdrops ‘in the green’, that is planted out when they have finished flowering but still have their green leaves feeding the bulb beneath.  So I acquired some small pots from the garden centre packed full of snowdrops that were just about to finish flowering and I planted them out only never to be seen again.  My final foray into attempting to settle them into our garden was a couple of years ago when a friend, who is apparently inundated with them in her garden in Surrey, generously provided me with a large clump which I duly planted in the shade of the hawthorn, yet again with complete and utter failure!  I suspect that the problem is that the nice, partially shaded, damp spots beneath trees that I plant them into in the spring, become dry shaded deserts in summer, whereas they actually need to be kept moist to thrive and multiply.  It would seem that the naturally forming leaf-mould simply isn’t enough.

Crocus, daffodils, hellebores

Other spring bulbs thrive beneath the hawthorn (c) Elizabeth Malone

I think part of my frustration stems from the fact that we grow other early spring flowers, such as hellebores, really well in similar locations. At the far end of our garden, a few hellebores have magnified into something quite spectacular for a small area. We have cream ones, deep red ones and those that have hybridised to form a mix; and they put on a magnificent display come rain, shine or snow!

Cream hellebores with red spots

Spotted hellebores (c) John Malone

Leucojum, like giant snowdrops, have also done well. The first of these were bought in pots as a ‘past their best’ deal in our local Homebase some years ago. We decided to give them a home and have not regretted it as they have bulked up and flower reliably year after year and look like outlasting the Homebase store!

Snowflake flower - Leucojum

Snowflake flower – Leucojum (c) Elizabeth Malone

So when it comes to snowdrops, I fear that I shall have to make do with admiring other people’s and for me, the first sight of them in 2019 came very early on a visit to RHS Wisley on the 4th January when there were already large clumps fully in flower.  Also at Wisley, the curators were busy putting together a very special display in the alpine house of some unusual and valuable examples which have been lent for show just this spring.  I couldn’t help but notice the big shiny padlock on the display case and wondered just how much those few plants were worth?  Only a few years ago there were newspaper articles of snowdrop bulbs changing hands on the internet for £300!

Snowdrop in bud

Snowdrops in bud at RHS Wisley (c) John Malone

In February last year we called into Castle Drogo in Devon en route to a weekend in Cornwall.  It was a bright spring-like day and as we were tight for time, we enquired where best to see any snowdrops in the grounds.  The National Trust volunteer produced a plan of the grounds, studied it carefully, and then started circling a few areas where we might possibly see some.  He gave the impression that our chances were slim. So imagine our surprise when we stepped outside the visitor centre only to spot a large clump of nodding white flowers literally yards from the door! And only a few feet further along the path we spotted clump after clump!

Snowdrops and mossy tree trunks

Snowdrops at Castle Drogo, Devon 2018 (c) John Malone

About five years ago, one of our Landmark Trust holidays presented us with plentiful snowdrops right outside the door.  We were staying in the wonderfully named House of Correction in Lincolnshire on some very chilly March days (yes, that is snow surrounding the snowdrops you can see in the photo below!)  Thankfully most Landmark Trust properties are blessed with a roaring fire and on this occasion we were most grateful for it!

Snowdrops in the snow

Snowdrops with a little snow at the House of Correction, Lincolnshire (C) John Malone

The potential sight of snowdrops is surely a great incentive to get outdoors at this chilly and gloomy time of year. So where should you head? Well clearly not out into my garden!  The National Trust have done a ‘Best places to see snowdrops near you’ list, which is very thoughtful of them. Winkworth Arboretum, which is normally more renowned for its autumn colour or even its bluebells in May, is on the list and is not a million miles from us so we might be taking a trip out!

Meanwhile, do you have a plant that you would love to grow in your garden but which stubbornly refuses to cooperate?


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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