Outside the Backdoor

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


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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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Loss of a flowering friend

Approximately every five years some of the larger trees in our garden require something more drastic than a light prune and so we summon the tree surgeons to come and wield the chain-saws.  Back in November, we did the same again but this year, sadly, we also had to ask their advice on dealing with our dead flowering cherry.

When we moved into our house our timing was perfect.  It was late April and the flowering cherry was in full bloom.  We were just in time to see it at its best before the pink snow-cloud began.  Funnily enough, we had to get it pruned that summer – at the same time as having the boiler replaced, if I recall correctly!  It was then that we learnt that ornamental flowering cherries are often quite short-lived – around fifty years on average, we read.  From that moment on, we felt nervous.  Our house was built in 1955 but when was the tree planted?  Given its look of maturity, we guessed not long after that which made it around fifty years old.  Still, for the next fourteen years or so, it flourished.

Then in November 2013 it was time for the tree pruning round again.  The cherry was taken back to its previous pruning points by the same company who had, by now, pruned it at least twice before.  After this major prune, the trees always look a bit sparse but by the autumn they have usually filled out again.  This time the cherry remained a bit sparse all year.  We didn’t think a great deal of it at the time but, in retrospect, the following summer of 2015, it didn’t really improve.  It flowered in the spring as usual but it wasn’t its usual voluminous self.  Perhaps it will improve next year, we said to ourselves – but it didn’t.  Again we had lovely pink blossom followed by glossy coppery leaves but somehow it just didn’t seem to be returning to the same fullness that we had become used to.  Mostly we put it down the combination of dry Januaries and then peculiarly grey and uninspiring summers.

When spring 2017 dawned, I watched carefully.  There were buds, but not many.  John said it was still a bit early.  This was true and, what I’d learnt about cherry blossom over the years, was that it goes from nought to sixty very rapidly in flowering terms!  A small bud one week is very quickly a mass of blossom only about ten days later.  Then the cherry tree over the road started coming into flower.  There was still no sign of flower on ours.  It’ll catch up, said John.  It didn’t.  It soon became clear that every other flowering cherry in the neighbourhood was covered in pink or, worse still, starting to get past its flowering best and yet ours stood there, stationary, with just a few chunky buds doing nothing.  It was a sad sight.

We decided to take action – possibly rather late in retrospect.  As a paid up member of the Royal Horticultural Society, I decided that now was the time to consult their plant help line.  They responded pretty promptly with advice on scraping back the bark in different places to see if the branches looked brown and dead under the surface.  They didn’t.  So we followed their further advice and sent in samples from different areas of the tree roots.  Sadly I received the following response:

“All three roots in your sample are healthy, with plenty of fine feeder roots present, so from this sample at least it does not appear as if a root disease is involved in the problem. However, the complete lack of leaves on a large tree like this, coupled with the speed of the decline that you describe, seems somewhat dramatic to me for the effects of drought and age – if these were solely responsible I would have expected a more steady decline. Having said that, fifty years is certainly a good age for this type of tree!  I think that if the tree is still not showing any signs of producing new leaves then its condition can probably be regarded as terminal.”

I don’t recommend spending a summer with a large dead tree in your garden – it is a depressing sight!  We had also just created the new hot border nearby which, if we had known the tree was going to die, we would have dug a different shape!  And yet when the tree surgeons came to quote, I really couldn’t bring myself to instruct them to remove it completely.  Instead I asked them to create a framework to support climbing plants, provided they felt the trunk was sufficiently robust to do so.  This they did and so now we have a new opportunity.

Sitting heeled into our currently empty veg plot is a new rambling rose – Rosa Helenae.  Its flowers will be small, white, clustered and scented and we hope that it will ramble its way up the old cherry trunk.  This will be a our first venture into owning a ‘rambling’ as against ‘climbing’ rose.  I just hope we’re prepared for the thorns!  I grew up with a rambling rose and still recall my mother cursing pruning it each year and her delight when the opportunity arose to remove it – and she was a great rose lover!!  I guess sometimes the saying of ‘right plant, right place’ also needs to apply to home and owner and getting snagged on thorns every time you walk down the garden isn’t much fun!

So as the 2018 gardening year commences, we will plant our new rose and we’ll reconfigure the hot border and hope to draw our eyes away from the dead branches behind.


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Dark at breakfast, dark at tea

"The Advent wind begins to stir
 With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
 It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
 And in between we only see
 Clouds hurrying across the sky
 And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
 And branches bending to the gale
 Against great skies all silver pale ..."

John Betjeman’s Advent 1955 is one of my favourite poems of the season.  I don’t have a Scotch fir but I do overlook the tall poplar trees along the railway line and they certainly bend in the gale, their skeletal forms looking particularly wintry against the early morning skies.  But it’s that “dark at breakfast, dark at tea” line which for me sums up the essence of this time of year outside the backdoor.  It’s the fate of the working gardener.

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As I head off to work at 7:30am, it is just getting light and I am sometimes treated to spectacular sunrises as I approach the station.  By the time return at 6.00pm it has already been dark for a couple of hours.  Closer to Christmas, the walk home is brightened by the various lit decorations and last year I found myself running my own ‘best door wreath’ competition in my head!  However, this means that I don’t see the garden at all during the week and my first view outside on a Saturday morning can be quite a revelation!  For example, the sudden realisation that the winter clematis is in full flower or that some over-eager bulbs have started to shoot.

Over the past 6-7 years, we have ensured that we plant winter flowering shrubs near the house so that we can easily catch a glimpse of them either from the dining room on a cold / wet day or see them illuminated by the glow of the Christmas lights.  For the last two winters, I have made a deliberate effort to plant a large pot with a winter flowering display that will catch the light, using pale cream or lemon violas, white hellebores and either silver or gold leaved ivies, avoiding anything with dark petals or dark leaves that won’t reflect what light there is.  I’ve positioned it beyond the kitchen window so that it catches some of the light from the house when we’re cooking.

I will also enjoy the moment when we can head outside to decorate our Christmas tree which has been sitting in its pot all year waiting for its moment of glory.  It’s grown a lot this year, entertaining us with its bright green shoots in Spring and growing by at least six inches!  We started this tradition of an outdoor tree on the patio when our cats were kittens but now it’s become a habit and we actually rather enjoy having the tree outside and the way its decorations sparkle in the winter sunlight or twinkle away as the wind causes the branches and lights to quiver.  We will also weave white lights around our olive trees on the patio and through the hawthorn, although this might be a bit of a challenge this year as we’ve just had the hawthorn pruned back quite substantially which, in itself, is letting more light into the house.

I am the first to admit that I am quite a fair-weather gardener so I would be lying if I said that I am looking forward to the long Christmas holiday so that I can get out into the garden and do stuff but I always hope for a few dry days in the run up to Christmas so that we can raid the garden for Christmas greenery without the need to dry it off before bringing it indoors.  Any holly that has real berries will decorate inside whilst holly, ivy and laurel will make up some swags to adorn our side gates.

However, I am looking forward to the long holiday as it will enable me to be at home in the daylight so that I can really appreciate what is sitting just outside the backdoor.  I will enjoy sitting in the warm looking out at the active birds flitting between feeders.  If it’s mild, I may even spot an occasional bumble-bee seeking food amidst the clematis flowers or ivy, and like many of you I’m sure, I will sit mulling ideas of things to do in the Spring!

 


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Thinking forward to fruit

The desire to grow fruit seems to have crept up on me unawares.  When we first moved here, we inherited a relatively young, leaning apple tree of unknown variety and a selection of blackberry and common bramble – both wanted and unwanted!  That was it really and for a couple of years nothing changed.

Our 24105214226_23c618e151_zfirst venture towards fruit growing was to plant another apple tree – an Egremont Russet which I gave John one birthday as it’s always been his favourite variety.  For the past couple of years we’ve had a reasonable crop helped, no doubt, by warm summers which enabled them to ripen properly.

At some point we took up an offer in the newspaper of free strawberry runners and planted these up in pots.  They have fruited quite well but the plants are now quite old and, without filling the patio with even more strawberry pots, there’s really no way this is enough to produce a decent sized bowl of fruit.  The desire to grow more strawberries and also to add raspberries was one of the main drivers for revamping our veg plot two years ago.

Our ‘Autumn Bliss’ raspberry canes came in the winter but, as soon as spring sprung, they shot away with bright green shoots.  We erected poles and wire to support them, although not quite the sophisticated set up with tensioners and the like as seen on Gardeners’ World!  Despite all the expert advice, we succumbed in year one and let them fruit – how can anyone possibly resist?  Clearly it did them no harm whatsoever as in year two they not only reached for the skies but also started heading off across the lawn!  Now this we hadn’t really anticipated.  Everyone knows that bramble and blackberry is invasive but no one warns you about over enthusiastic raspberries!  Just slice down the side to stop runners, is the expert advice.  Well we did that but to no avail!  They are determined to rule the world and we now spend considerable effort in removing them from where they are not wanted!

Last year, on the Friday before the May Bank Holiday my new strawberry runners arrived, perfect timing for planting over the weekend.  Strawberry runners are just a mass of root with small signs of shorn back leaves and when they’ve arrived in a jiffy bag in the post, they look distinctly unpromising.  However, I prepared my row as instructed, sprinkled some general fertiliser, spread out the runners and duly planted and watered in.  With the warm sunshine, the following day they already looked settled and I could have sworn were showing more signs of green.  The variety I chose was ‘Albion’ and produces fruits throughout the season from June until October – I have since learnt that this is what is known as an ‘everbearer’.  There are so many varieties available, however, that it’s very hard to know whether you’ve chosen well.  All the reviews suggest that this has excellent flavour but we’re not really convinced – the jury is still out.  However as year 2 approaches, the strawberry plants have bushed out and are absolutely covered in flowers – I cannot wait to find out what happens next!

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Meanwhile, our blueberry collection is growing.  We grow these in pots as they require acid soil so would fare badly if planted in the relatively neutral soil of our garden.  Two of our existing blueberry bushes were selected at random as offers in gardening magazines.  One is a tall striking plant that produces lots of berries but 33662456630_a7abea7134_zalso has striking red foliage in the autumn.  The other is small and compact and has been less reliable on the fruit front.  I have been on the lookout for another of the same variety as the tall one, ‘Chandler’, but it seems quite hard to track down.  Two summers ago I became distracted in a garden centre by a new variety called ‘Sunshine Blue’.  Another compact variety but bred for patio growing, it was absolutely laden with small pinkish flowers.  I just couldn’t resist.  It’s a self-polinating variety and produced a bumper crop before almost succumbing to being waterlogged.  We have now spent a summer nursing it back to health and this spring it has flowers once more so we have our fingers crossed.  However, unable to resist another of those magazine offers, we have three more juvenile blueberries that arrived only a couple of weeks ago and which have now been potted up into small pots as befits their current size.

Autumn holidays in France were responsible for us falling in love with the Mirabelle, that tiny yellow plum that packs a huge punch in terms of flavour.  However, they are not often grown in the UK and it’s possible that we are beginning to discover why.  Our Mirabelle tree, which has just spent its fourth Spring in our garden, flower in late March and produces a tiny delicate white blossom.  The flowers eventually turn into small green berries and from then on in it’s a question of all fingers crossed for a tiny crop of plums.  This is really exciting as it’s so hard to buy these as fruit in the UK.  Occasionally a few boxes appear in M&S for a short period and also in the occasional select greengrocers but to have our own in the garden will be quite an achievement but so far we have had about six and, to be honest, we’ve probably picked them too early to ensure we ate them and not the birds.  That said, keeping the tree alive and healthy is all we currently wish for.  It seems particularly prone to some sort of leaf curl and eventually this causes die-back.  We prune these branches out carefully and hope that they remain disease free.  This spring it looks a little more confident but we just have to wait and see – there are no guarantees in the fruit world.

And talking of guarantees, our cherry plum keeps us guessing year on year.  Often confused with mirabelle, the cherry plum produces small red fruits with deep gold flesh which is very, very sour!  However, they do make excellent  jam – particularly if you like your jam with a bit of ‘zing’!  Three years ago we were inundated with cherry plums and produced pots and pots of jam but we’ve now had two fallow years.  This spring the tree was covered in its delicate white blossom and we can see fruit forming so we have all fingers crossed.

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