Outside the Backdoor

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


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April brings …

April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies at our feet.

Is there a busier, but equally more rewarding, month in the garden than April? There’s certainly a lot more to look forward to than just primroses and daisies! Looking back over last year’s Lockdown Garden photos, goodness me, we were blessed with the most incredibly beautiful sunny, blue skies April!

5 April 2020 – that lilac was very early! (C) Elizabeth Malone

I have to be very careful in writing this as it’s become very clear to me over recent weeks that everything in the garden in 2020 was early. Writing this in March, the month is still rather chilly. On more than one occasion the weather forecasters have been heard to remark that the temperature is below average for the time of year. In the context of climate change and the continual rise in global temperatures, this is something we should probably be grateful for.

Tulip Purissima April 2020 (c) John Malone

April is the month of sowing and the long Easter weekend is the prime time for that. Many of you will have heard me say before that my grandfather reputedly always planted his potatoes on Good Friday, “when the devil’s looking the other way”! John’s Arran Pilots are chitting in the shed and I suspect they will indeed be planted out on Good Friday this year.

Arran Pilot potatoes from 2020 ready for planting (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’ve already started some sowing. I have two tomato experiments germinating next to me in the study. After 20 years of growing the very reliable and delicious Sungold, last year was a bit of a disaster with a very poor crop so I’ve decided to ring the changes and have dug out of my seed box a couple of packets of free tomato seeds that came courtesy of Gardeners’ WorldMagazine. I will be trying out the upright Red Cherry and the trailing tomato Matkovska. It will be a huge change for me to have red fruits rather than yellow.

Sungold tomatoes from 2019 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I am also venturing into unknown territory this year with cucumbers and beetroot. The cucumber seed turned out to be larger than I was expecting and so I’ve sown in on an edge like you would sow a large courgette seed. Hopefully that’s the right thing to do? Having been rather over-enthusiastic in spreading out my garlic cloves in the autumn, it rather feels as if the veg plot has shrunk in size this year and so my beetroot experiment is going to happen in a large, rectangular ‘grow-sack’. Not that I’ve worked out where that’s going yet either although I have ordered masses of compost (peat-free of course) to fill it! That will be a puzzle to be solved over the Easter weekend.

Not advertising! Trying the ‘veg’ version for the first time (c) Elizabeth Malone

Beyond the veg plot, April is the month when our pond springs into life. The margins will be totally surrounded by the brilliant yellow of marsh marigolds. The first newts have already been spotted swimming around, rising to the surface to bask in the sunshine on any warm days. If we’re lucky we may have frogspawn and tadpoles although last year I fear that the heron put paid to that. The surface will be broken up by pond skaters skipping around and snails gliding beneath.

Our pond in April 2020 (c) John Malone

Elsewhere in the border the colours start to shift from early spring yellow into blues and purples as the bluebells come into flower. My best guess is that we have a mix of natural English alongside the invasive Spanish bluebell but I confess that I quite like both. Last year my tulips were flowering in the second half of March but this year I think they will be at their best in early April.

Bluebells in the garden in April 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing that sadly won’t be with us this year is our apricot coloured broom which unfortunately fell victim to drought last summer. We finally gave up hope last weekend and cut it back down to ground level. It didn’t seem entirely dead so there is still an outside possibility of it re-shooting. However, we bought a deep raspberry coloured broom for the far end of the garden and that seems to be doing well.

A new broom (c) John Malone

April should also reward us with the very beautiful tree peony. We have had mixed success with tree peonies over the years but we now actually have two that flower. One is the palest shell-pink and has huge papery petals. As the buds swell, they look like giant balls of ice-cream. They are short-lived flowers and have to be enjoyed in the moment so I am hoping for some warm spring days when we can stroll across the lawn to view its progress on a daily basis. The other is a deep cerise but is sadly a little hidden by other plants. It has more complex double flowers and looks like velvet.

Tree peony April 2020 (c) John Malone

And finally, April is the month when we should really see butterflies returning to our gardens. Any warm sunny day should bring them fluttering around and hopefully benefitting from the array of new flowers to choose from. I’m also going to be using another of my ‘grow-sacks’ to experiment with sowing wild-flower seeds which I hope will attract lots of bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects over the summer. I’ve never sown wildflowers before so I thought I’d start small before I get carried away and turn the lawn into a meadow!

Peacock butterfly visiting Purissima tulips in April 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Grow your own

At the start of this year I set out to write a series of Outside the Back Door articles focused on different aspects of climate change and how we can all do our bit to improve the environment.  Against this month I noted down, “Grow your own”.  At that moment I could not possibly have foreseen that the global lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic was about to cause the most enormous surge in interest in people growing their own food.  As tinned tomatoes vanished from the supermarket shelves, so did packets of vegetable seed from every garden centre and then, as the garden centres closed, from every online supplier in the country.  I just checked some of the well-known seed companies and discovered that two are still trying to fulfil orders placed three weeks ago whilst another has deployed an online queuing system before you can even enter their website!

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Finna helping me organise my seed box!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

One thing I have learnt from this current crisis, I’m not someone who jumps onto bandwagons!  At no time in the past few weeks have my kitchen cupboards been overloaded with pasta or flour and my bathroom is not stuffed full of loo-roll!  However, as I patiently wait to see whether last year’s packet of parsley seed will still germinate, I slightly regret this attitude and what is turning out to be the mistaken belief that these huge surges in demand would soon flatten out and we’d be able to buy things as normal, well at least online.  As a result, I find myself advocating growing your own veg at a time when my own veg plot is looking a little less full than normal.

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Preparing one of our small veg beds for potatoes (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, wouldn’t it be marvellous if this crisis produced a whole new generation of gardeners?  Or at least brought about a greater recognition of what it takes to grow food for our tables?

Interestingly, the ‘grow your own’ trend was already booming in the UK, fuelled by a combination of growing concern for the environment; concerns about the use of pesticides; and the growth of Veganism.  If you are growing good yourself, you know precisely what has gone into it.

When I started experimenting with growing my own vegetables on our small plot in the garden, I really wasn’t sure whether I would keep it going but my interest has definitely increased, enough to consider whether we might even venture as far as an allotment one day.

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This year’s beans ready for planting out (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before digging up a sizeable bit of lawn, I read around a great deal to help me decide what to grow and one of the most useful pieces of advice which sticks in my mind was stating the obvious really – grow what you like to eat!  This is so true!  I like courgettes but my husband doesn’t.  Even one courgette plant can produce a considerable amount of fruit, not to mention that they are monsters that take over every inch of available space and, if you’re really lucky, become unsightly as their leaves are prone to mildew!  He doesn’t like tomatoes either but they are more versatile and store more easily plus you tend to be quite popular with friends in either sharing out spare plants or spare fruit later in the season!

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We wouldn’t be without our garlic crop!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

It’s interesting to discover how loyal you become to certain varieties of vegetables over the years.  For me, Sungold tomatoes are by far the best.  When it comes to peas and beans, Hurst Green Shaft and Cobra respectively seem to do well in my garden so I stick with them.  Perhaps if I had more space or more mouths to feed, I might be tempted to experiment a bit more.

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Sungold tomatoes gradually ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Growing your own produce is only satisfying if you eventually get to eat it.  I quickly abandoned lettuce in my veg plot as it simply fed the local slug and snail population.  Instead, I sow seed into large trays and I can create my own pick and mix selection of chard, rocket and red oak leaf lettuce, all of which seem to grow well this way.

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Salad trays to protect from slug attack!  (c) Elizabeth Malone

Returning to the main impetus behind this article, the climate crisis, why is growing our own food good for the environment?  There are many answers to this so I will simply pick out the things that stand out for me.  Vegetables, and I include salads and herbs within that, are great for enhancing the biodiversity in your local plot.  You need insects to pollinate your crops, the insects need you to grow them to get the food they need to survive too.  It’s the perfect working relationship.  Home grown produce doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic in order to transport it or extend its shelf-life.  The fact it doesn’t need to be transported wins on the pollution front too.  As the grower, you are also in control in terms of reducing pollution from pesticides.  Finally, with careful management, you can also reduce your food waste as you pick what you need.  That said, sometimes there’s no avoiding gluts but there is always the freezer or a grateful neighbour!

I would love to end this article by extolling you to go out and buy a packet of seed and grow something edible for yourself but I fear that sourcing that seed may be a step to far just at present.  But if you can’t grow something edible this year, there is always next!

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A bee reminding us that growing our own fruit and veg is good for wildlife (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Watering wisely?

It’s just over two weeks since I shared the Burnt Garden with you and we’ve actually had some rain – not a lot, but enough to refill both water butts – hoorah!

Is it me, or did it take a while for the gardening press and media to catch up with the fact that many of us gardeners are really struggling with heat and drought this summer?  And I know it’s not just been a London and South-East thing.  Friends in Scotland were bemoaning the lack of water back in the Spring, long before the high temperatures took hold here.  Finally, about a week ago, the emails starting arriving advising us to ‘water wisely’, but just what does that mean?

I mentioned that the recent rain had filled our two water butts.  We are now carefully rationing this new bounty to ensure that we can continue to use rainwater to water our blueberries, other acid-loving plants and, most importantly and unseasonably, our Christmas tree!

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Although in doing this, I am conscious that this year most of my promising blueberries have ended up feeding the local blackbirds!

We can also use the rainwater to top up the pond in due course.  We are now having a serious discussion as to where we can site further water butts because clearly, if our summers are going to continue like this, we need more than two!  However, I’m sure it doesn’t take me to tell you that water butts are large and usually ugly beasts but needs must!

We are also told not to water established plants and trees but, as I mentioned before, I am very worried about our birch tree and my fears were given credence by the tree consultant who I called in to give it an honest assessment.  When I said that I had drenched the root base weekly, he told me that it was no where near enough in order to prevent the tree being stressed further and possibly dying.  He pointed out that the roots probably run under most of the garden so, rather than just soaking the immediate area around the trunk, I should be watering every evening on a very wide scale and encouraging my neighbours to do the same.  So Operation Birch has begun, resulting in a very strange area of bright green grass nearest the tree whilst the rest of the lawn still currently looks like the Sahara!

I am convinced that everyone thinks I’m wasting my water trying to revive the lawn which, of course, is not the case!

Whilst most of the gardening advice is to focus water around the roots and to give a deep, focused soaking, this isn’t going to work for the tree, so I have developed a 15 minutes and then move on approach to using a sprinkler.  This is a real time saver.  Wherever I set my sprinkler, I know water will benefit the tree along with anything else planted nearby.  To avoid over-drenching any one area, I have been known to set the oven timer!  I can then nip out between other tasks and move it on.

Finally, I suppose it is worth reminding ourselves that some plants are really enjoying the heat.  My tomatoes, which were sown late due to the Beast from the East (oh, how that seems a lifetime ago!), are now ripening and it looks like being a good crop.

The watering can is constantly to hand to give them a dousing every evening.  Recently someone was advising reducing the leafy growth even before the end of summer and given the need to save water, this seems sensible, so I am snipping off bits of tomato when the mood takes me and when I can bear to step inside the greenhouse!  I think it would be fair to say that, with the heat we’ve had, I’m the one who comes out looking like a tomato!

 

 

 

 


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Gardening brain

It’s hard to put my finger on it but there’s always a point in early February that seems to switch on my gardening brain.  Whilst I will be the first to put my hand up in shame and admit to being a bit of a fair weather gardener, it’s not just that the short dark days of December and January offer little encouragement to go outside, there’s something inexplicable that triggers in February that says come on, it’s time to start planning, buying, putting ideas into action.

This year it hit me yesterday morning.  I opened up the February edition of Gardeners’ World Magazine and saw trigger words such as ‘sow’, ‘seed’ and ‘prune’, and before I knew it, I hadSun_Gold_Tomatoes_(4866993719) a giant list for the garden centre today!  Not that it was the most exciting list, principally consisting of large bags of stuff – compost (multi-purpose and ericaceous) and manure, plus tubs of poultry manure.  However, there was also the promise of things to come with a bag full of seed potatoes (Arran Pilot) ready to chit and a sachet of Sungold tomato seed to be sown later this month. l discovered Sungold by chance some years’ ago before they became every chef’s favourite.  Somehow they manage a unique depth of flavour that balances both sweetness and sharpness, making them the perfect tomato in my opinion.

As soon as I was home it as out with the rose food and the manure to get our roses off to the best start for this year.  Then it was on to pruning a giant overgrown shrub.  This would have been a lot easier without the gale force winds which made the bush a constantly moving target!  Meanwhile John could be seen attacking the buddleias at the far end of the garden, reducing their twenty foot high branches down to two foot high trunks.  Now they are ready to go racing skywards once again.