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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Spring rainbow

This post wasn’t planned. Then neither was the idea of spending Spring 2020 in lockdown! However, if there is one time of year when I’m quite happy to be at home every day, even if I am still working like mad, then it’s spring.

With the daily gloom and doom of the news, we all need positive things to lift our spirits so earlier this week I began posting photographs to Facebook of some of the brighter, vividly coloured blooms currently dotted around my borders. I didn’t have a plan but I think all the rainbow pictures adorning the windows that I pass daily on my permitted exercise, must have sunk into my subconscious as I began to realise that I was posting the colours of the rainbow! So here is my spring garden tribute to the NHS.

RED – Wallflower

Unfortunately that means starting with a rather blurry photo of the one truly red plant currently in flower in my garden. It made me realise that red isn’t a very spring-like colour. Tulips maybe, but I prefer orange or white ones, and perhaps something like chaenomeles would suffice if you happen to have one of the right colour.

ORANGE – Tulip Ballerina

The sight of orange tulips is truly uplifting and I’ve already made a resolution for the autumn, I need to buy more and I know just the spot where I’m going to plant them in full view of the house.

YELLOW – Marsh Marigold

Our pond is a riot of yellow at this time of year as it is completely surrounded by marsh marigolds. Beloved of bees, it’s providing essential food for emerging insects. Its leaves are also giving shelter to a rather lonely frog who appears to be sitting patiently in the hopes of a mate arriving. The newts, on the other hand, appear to be thriving!

GREEN – Euphorbia Martinii

A souvenir from RHS Malvern Spring Show 2018, I love the red eyes of this euphorbia. It makes a terrific contrast to the everyday woodland spurge that we have running amuck at the far end of the garden. Admittedly we did plant it there having brought it from our previous house, but it has rather taken over although it too can look pretty splendid backlit on a sunny spring day.

BLUE – Bluebells

I’m sure this picture of bluebells will have many of you exclaiming that this seems awfully early! I would agree. Something like 2 – 3 weeks early I think and not normally around for Easter. Inspired by a friend, I’m planning on picking a few that are hidden from view and bringing them in to adorn our Easter table.

INDIGO – Honesty

Now we get into the difficult colours – Indigo and Violet. I confess I had to Google this to try to work out the difference. Neither turned out to be quite as ‘purple’ as I had imagined which presents quite a challenge in terms of selecting some spring flowers to complete my rainbow. So please forgive me if the colour-match here isn’t quite right!

Purple honesty is quite rare in our garden as we mostly seem to have banks of white. I don’t know whether I should admit this but they all originated from seed that we saved some years ago on a holiday in the Netherlands. These days I know better than to bring random seed in from abroad. I don’t think we seriously thought they would grow but grow they did and, with some careful management, we have managed to break the biennial cycle to ensure we get some in flower every year.

VIOLET – more purple if I’m honest!

And finally, to end on a very spring notes of tulips again. Part of a mixed pack of purple, purple tinged with white and pure white, these have been adding a wonderful splash of colour to the patio over the past two weeks and, most importantly, appear to have defied our cat’s attempts to eat them!

On a weekend when I lost a fellow Gilbert and Sullivan fan to Covid-19, these are my “Flower that bloom in the spring, tra la!” And which make up my tribute to our hard-working, dedicated NHS staff.


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The boring side of bulbs

Today I planted the last set of bulbs ready for next Spring and breathed a sigh of relief.  I love Spring bulbs like the next gardener but planting them just isn’t my favourite task.

I only realised this some years ago when I was dutifully scrabbling around in the dry earth of September desperately trying to force into the ground some 200 bulbs that I had succumbed to in a rash moment when reading a ‘free’ offer in a magazine.  My next door neighbour called round and remarked that he disliked bulbs because planting them was hard work and boring.  I remember pausing at that moment and thinking, he’s right!

Early September brings the best bulbs into the garden centres but the ground is either too hard and dry to plant them or covered in late summer flowering gems.  And then there’s the dilemma about tulips.  All the advice points to planting them in November to reduce the potential for disease but if you leave purchasing your tulips until then, you will have very slim pickings in the garden centre which by this time will be full of Christmas decorations!  Store your tulip bulbs carefully and, by the time you are ready to plant them, chances are they will already be sprouting or some will have gone soft!

This autumn I wanted to plant yellows, oranges and reds in my ‘hot’ border but held off until last weekend as it was, to my delight, still flowering profusely.  The arrival of our first frost on 1 November gave me the cue to bring the dahlias back down to ground level and to remove any remaining annuals.  Heavy rain the night before fooled me into thinking bulb planting might be easier but no, the dahlia leaves had well and truly prevented too much water reaching the soil.  I chipped away at making suitable holes and eventually shoe-horned in about 30 bulbs, thereafter retreating indoors with what can only be described as ‘bulb-planting wrist’.

Today I decided to take the easy option and to plant my remaining tulip bulbs in a pot.  Having purchased a pack of orange and purple bulbs shown flowering beautifully together, I was surprised to discover that they were likely to flower at slightly different times.  So I have planted the earlier ones deeper in the hopes that they might all flower together.

Having prepared my pot, I think had to think about squirrel defences.  Having chopped down my dahlias last weekend and mulched them heavily, today I see that the squirrel has thoughtfully spread my mulch all over the lawn!  I have found that both plant supports and upside down  hanging baskets fulfil a useful anti-squirrel function.

Iris reticulata

And so, as I sit back and wait for the joys of Spring and bulbs in all their glory, I spare a thought for those professional gardeners and volunteers who bring amazing displays to us every year, such as the one below at Wisley earlier this year, and I’m just grateful that I only had a few packets of bulbs to plant and not a few hundred or thousand!

Tulips at Wisley


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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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Bluebell month

Is it me, or has it been an exceptionally good year for bluebells?  We had more clusters around the garden than usual and out on our recent travels, it felt like the bluebells travelled with us – slightly past their best in the South, amazing vibrant carpets of blue in the Midlands, and just emerging in Scotland!

Are they English or Scottish?  Was a question I was asked recently about our own garden bluebells and, with an air of disappointment, I was forced to admit that most of them are probably Spanish!  The Spanish bluebell has been invading the South East for a good many years now and so I fear our proliferation is in this direction rather than in the deeper, richer coloured and more elegant English variety.

In fairness, when I look at the cluster in this photo, I’m heartened to see that there may be a mix of English and Spanish.  The Spanish variety are paler and more upright whereas the English are darker and have a tendency to arch, with the flowers displayed on one side of the stem only.  Looking at that stem on the far right of the photo, that looks more English to me!

The only downside to this excess of bells is that they now need deadheading!  I took a good bag full of stems down to the compost bin one warm afternoon this week.

And whilst the Spanish may be a troublesome invader, I have to admit that I do still quite like them.  After all, who can resist the depth of blue in this clump?  True blue flowers are few and far between and these looked stunning complimented by pink blossom and purple tulips and have even given me an idea for planting next year – so watch this space!