Outside the Backdoor

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


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A tale of dragons and damsels

It was only when I came to write this article that I was suddenly struck by the thought of knights of old saving damsels in distress from dragons!  I can’t help but wonder how ‘dragon’ flies and ‘damsel’ flies came to be named?  So far I have failed to find out but, thankfully, that’s not really the point of this article!

Broad-bodied chaser taking a break in our garden (c) John Malone

When it comes to insects, there are an awful lot that many of us would prefer to run a mile from.  However, I suspect dragonflies and damselflies are an exception as we are fascinated by their iridescent colours and their darting aerobatics.  They are also out and about on lovely warm, sunny spring and summer days, so they have lots of positive associations with walks out in the countryside.  We are lucky in that, having created the pond in our garden, it quickly attracted these fascinating creatures which then, in turn, made us find out a bit more about them and try to identify what we were seeing.

Red damselfly settled on our Iceberg rose over the pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

First of all, do you know your damselfly from your dragonfly?  Damselflies are the smaller ones.  They are also the early birds, emerging as the weather starts to warm up around April.  They have a gentle flight and, when resting hold their wings against their body.  Most commonly you will see red ones and blue ones and quite often you will see them in pairs performing their curled mating routine just above the water.  In our garden, they love to skim the pond and to settle upon waterlily pads.

Blue damselfly enjoying the sunshine on our lilypads (c) John Malone

Dragonflies, on the other hand, can be quite substantial.  They have a strong, fast flight, holding their wings out at right angles to their bodies like miniature aircraft and, whilst you do commonly see them over water, you might also spot them elsewhere in the countryside, skimming over fields and hedgerows.  There are three common types in the UK – hawkers, darters and chasers.  If you see a dragonfly, or damselfly for that matter, and want to know what sort it is, the British Dragonfly Society has a good identification guide on its website.

Hawker dragonfly (not sure which!) in Bushy Park (c) John Malone

Both damselflies and dragonflies emerge from larvae that have lived in water for anything up to 2-3 years.  Dragonflies especially, spend more of their life underwater as larvae than they do flying around as adults.  This worried me when we recently did our pond clearance as I was concerned that we might accidentally be removing lots of dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  However, plenty seem to be hatching this summer so I think we’re ok!  When ready to hatch, they will emerge up the strappy leaves of plants such as iris, and they will then cast off their outer shell leaving the ‘ghost’ of an insect behind.  You will then find them sitting around, drying off their new wings before they take flight.

Emerging dragonfly on our pond (c) John Malone

My favourite of these insects is the beautifully named Banded Demoiselle which is an exquisite creature of iridescent blues and greens.  We occasionally get one in the garden but you can see them in Crane and Bushy parks so do keep an eye out for them.  You become aware of them when you see something that looks more like a piece of silk flying in mid-air!  However, earlier today I discovered that these are also difficult to remove from indoors!  One flew into the dining room and it was a two-person job to eject it without causing it any harm.  They just seem too delicate to handle!

Banded demoiselle exploring agapanthus buds (c) John Malone

And finally, some people believe that if a damselfly lands on you, it indicates that you have a pure soul!


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All of a flutter

I originally drafted this for my church magazine back in the middle of April and I was delighted to say that there were butterflies fluttering around the garden in the exceptionally warm spring weather.  On that particular day I spotted Brimstone, Holly Blue, White and a Peacock. Today I’ve been able to spot a Small White, Holly Blue again and Speckled Wood. I am truly grateful to see this activity as the picture nationally in terms of butterfly numbers is rather depressing.  The Butterfly Conservation charity regarded the summer of 2021 as one of the worst on record.  If you think back, last spring had a long cold spell which put everything back by a couple of weeks which can’t have helped. 

Ever present Holly Blues enjoy our lilac (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seeing a butterfly in the garden on one of the first warm days of the year always gives me a little thrill.  It’s real sign that spring is just around the corner, but there’s more to butterflies than their delightful colours and a little bit of seasonal joy. Butterflies are an indicator of the health of our environment and are also an important pollinator.  It’s easy to focus on bees as pollinators but, see a butterfly perched on a flower probing for nectar, and you’re quickly reminded of their importance.

Verbena Bonariensis is one of the most popular sources of nectar in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m no expert when it comes to butterflies and I had to look up how many species we have in the UK.  Apparently it’s 59, two of which are regular migrants.  The migrants are the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow.  I do remember seeing several Painted Ladies in the garden one summer when there was a huge migration and it made headline news.  When I say that I’m no expert, I really mean it.  I think I can identify about ten species of butterfly and I’m afraid to say that when it comes to moths my knowledge is non-existent!  I find butterflies and moths surprisingly hard to identify.  I have a book that groups them by colour but I can often find myself in the ‘blue’ section, only to discover that they book considers the butterfly to be ‘white’.  It is not helpful!  You can also get rather distracted by names in the process too.  After all, who wouldn’t want to come across a Dingy Skipper!

Comma butterfly on Verbena Bonariensis in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

The beauty of butterflies is that you really don’t need a garden to appreciate them.  A walk in your local park on a summer’s day is definitely enhanced by butterflies.  If you venture into one of our wilder, larger local spaces such as Bushy or Richmond parks, you are also likely to see species that might otherwise not turn up in your garden.  Two summer’s ago I finally worked out what a Small Skipper was courtesy of a walk in Bushy when they seemed to be everywhere.  Crane Park is also an excellent spot for a walk with butterflies.  I saw one of my first Jersey Tiger moths in Crane during the summer of 2020.  They adore nettles and there are plenty of those in Crane Park!

Small Skipper, Bushy Park (c) John Malone

If you do have a garden, or even a balcony, you can help our butterflies by planting pollinator friendly plants.  Back in 2011, the RHS launched a scheme which is now called ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ and enabled growers to label certain plants with the bee symbol so that gardeners can identify wildlife friendly plants.  Perfect for Pollinators may have a bee as its symbol but it is targeted at all pollinators – bees, hoverflies and butterflies.  Most flowering plants listed here will have single flowers as these are easier for pollinators to access but it will also include plants that are known to be rich in nectar and pollen.  I hope it goes without saying but if you want a butterfly-friendly garden, you will need to ditch the pesticides and you may also have to be a little less tidy.  Enabling your grass to grow a little longer encourages wildflowers which are good sources of nectar.  You don’t need to go as far as ploughing up the lawn and sowing a wildflower meadow, even though they can be very beautiful.

Wildflower meadow, NPL Teddington (c) John Malone

As is often the case when writing these articles, it’s made me list the butterflies I regularly see in our garden.  I’m pleased to say the list includes Large White, Small White, Peacock, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Orange Tip and an occasional Jersey Tiger.  I think that’s probably the limit of what we’re likely to attract.

Gatekeeper in the garden last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

Last June we spent a week in Dorset.  Three things really stood out for me.  Firstly, Dorset County Council has a conservation project of verge trials which meant that all the main roads we drove along were lined with an astonishing display of wildflowers.  It was really stunning.  Secondly, we walked around a sculpture trail in a disused quarry where there were butterflies everywhere, and I mean everywhere!  I don’t know when I’ve seen so many.  In particular, we kept seeing large white ones with lots of spots which I have since learned is the Marbled White.  Thirdly, we walked a small stretch of the South-West Coastal Trail near Osmington Mills where again we were accompanied by dozens and dozens of butterflies.  All of this added up to the feeling that we were in an area that truly values its wildlife and biodiversity.

Portland Sculpture trail wildflowers – the butterflies refused to stay still! (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Homes for hogs

When I compiled my list of wildlife topics for the 2022 series of Outside the Back Door, I planned to time this article about hedgehogs to coincide with when they would be emerging from hibernation – how wrong could I be!

Some of you will be already aware that we have felt really privileged to be the home of several hedgehogs for the past two years.  However, it has proved a big learning curve, as you will discover if you read on, and one of the most surprising thing has been their lack of willingness to hibernate this winter!  More of which shortly.

An early hedgehog spot from summer 2020 (c) John Malone

Our hedgehog discovery came during those sunny days of the first lockdown in April 2020.  Hedgehogs were only on my mind due to a colleague having spotted some in her garden across the river in Molesey.  So when I found strange small curved droppings on our lawn, I found myself Googling “hedgehog poo”!  The photo that popped up matched exactly what had appeared on our lawn.  Then, to my amazement, I spotted one running down the garden at dusk only a few evenings later.  I’m not sure that my husband believed me at first but, several days later, we both saw one.  We were absolutely thrilled.  Thankfully so was our neighbour so we were able to create a hedgehog highway by protecting a dip in the ground that had appeared under our fences. 

Our hedgehog highway (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t get into feeding the hogs until late summer / early autumn when, thanks to a friend, we put out some special hedgehog food, prompted by a further sighting.  We then did our research and discovered that dry kitten kibble is recommended as hedgehogs only have little mouths.  Since then, kitten food has become a regular addition to our weekly shop and I can’t help think that the supermarkets must be wondering just how many kittens we own!!  Food stopped being taken in early November 2020 and, naively, we concluded we could stop feeding until the spring.  In spring 2021, we spotted droppings again and resumed feeding and, even more importantly, putting out a tray of water.  A quick scan around the garden each evening with a torch would often reveal a munching hog or two.

Supper time! (c) John Malone

It turns out that hedgehogs can be marvellous inspiration for a whole range of birthday present ideas and in May 2021 ‘Hog Cam’ was launched!  Timed to switch on after dusk, this motion sensitive camera could capture short videos of active hogs.  To our amazement, anything up to four hedgehogs could be seen at a time!  It appeared our garden had become ‘hedgehog central’ in Hampton!

Hedgehogs dining at dusk (c) John Malone

Going live with the camera in May meant that we were up and running in time for the rutting season.  You may well be familiar with the red deer rut in the autumn with its dramatic clashing of antlers, but I can now tell you that the hedgehog rut in May/June can become pretty feisty too!  Despite all those prickles, the male hogs will push and shunt their rivals around the garden.  They circle the female who will often remain quite still.  We were never quite sure whether we captured them mating and we didn’t see any tiny hoglets either but maybe we’ll be luckier this year?  The other thing we have learnt from the camera is that they don’t hibernate for uninterrupted long periods as we had imagined.  This winter they didn’t stop coming for food each evening until into January and, since then, they have only ceased to arrive for a relatively short period of about 2-3 weeks.  The night they turned up and we’d failed to put food out for them made us feel very guilty!

Prime real-estate for hedgehogs – currently unoccupied! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Given the parlous state of hedgehog populations in the UK, we do feel very privileged to host these adorable little creatures in our garden.  The good news is that recent studies by the PTES have shown that urban hedgehog populations seem to be steadying whereas in rural areas the numbers continue to fall.  This implies that it is all due to habitat.  The clue is in the name – ‘hedge’ hog.  Without hedges, we’re without hogs.  However, wildlife and gardening programmes have done their utmost to encourage anyone with a garden to make them hedgehog friendly and this is clearly having a positive effect.

So what can you do to help hedgehogs in your local area?  Firstly, keep a look out for signs, such as the crescent shaped droppings, that would suggest you have hedgehogs in your area.  If you want to feed them, try putting a small tray of dried cat food out at dusk.  If you’re worried about rats, our experience so far has only shown a rat go to the dish twice since last May, although we do have a rather cheeky mouse right now.  The local cats also seem to ignore kitten food, clearly thinking it’s beneath them.  The fox, however, has swiped the lot occasionally but not always.  Also make sure you put out a dish of water.  We have been amazed at how much they drink.  Each hog will take some food and then waddle to the tray for a long drink, and they will do this to’ing and fro’ing for hours at a time!  They also travel long distances at night in search of food so enable a pathway between your garden and a neighbours.  Just dig down slightly to create a little run through for them.  Finally, leave corners of your garden where they can snuggle up beneath leaves and twigs.  Any actions you take may be vital in ensuring that our hedgehogs continue to survive – good luck!

Our dedicated drinking station (courtesy of a friend!) (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Garden birds – our feathered friends

This year I’m going to focus on different aspects of wildlife that we might find in our gardens and local parks. Like so many, I’ve been amazed how many little wildlife nooks and crannies I’ve discovered during the various lockdowns of the past two years. I’ve also become a Volunteer Ranger in my local Royal Park, Bushy Park, in south-west London which is giving me another insight into what lives locally other than the human species!

I’m starting with garden birds as it’s time for the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch which will have me once again glued to the dining room window, binoculars and scrap paper in hand for my five-bar-gate counting. However, I’m aware that I am no wildlife photographer and birds have a habit of flying away the moment I produce a camera, so I apologise now for any appalling photos included here! This is a garden blog and not a photography blog!!

Birds are probably the most obvious form of wildlife that we like to attract to our gardens and provide us with a very quick and easy connection to nature. Whether it’s just a small feeder tray of seed or a whole collection of squirrel-proof feeders with a range of different types of food, it seems that we all love providing some extra nourishment for our feathered friends, especially during the cold months of winter when it’s harder for them to find enough food naturally, and during the breeding season.  If you’re going to purchase a bird feeder, I’d urge you to spend as much as you can afford on a something tough and squirrel proof otherwise your birds may not get quite the food you’d planned!

Our study, squirrel-proof feeders have services us well (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before writing this, I made a quick list of all the birds we regularly see on our garden and I’m delighted to say that we have more than 20 species flying in on a weekly, if not a daily basis.  (I’ll add a list at the end). However, there have been some significant shifts over the years.  Twenty years ago we were complaining about the mess created by the fussy eaters – the greenfinches, who used to pick at the seed and throw out anything not to their taste.  Now we would be over the moon to see one.  The reason behind this rapid decline has been well publicised by the various bird charities. A parasitic disease that prevents the birds from eating properly means that poor greenfinches are now headed for the endangered list.  The disease is thought to be passed on around feeders so it’s an important reminder to keep your feeders clean. Now I’m beginning to fear for chaffinches. Once plentiful in our garden, I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen a male arrive in the past week but where are the rest of his chums?

Chaffinch on our old patio when they used to turn up in large numbers (c) John Malone

At the opposite end of the scale, I’m delighted to say that the last couple of years have seen a resurgence of house sparrows in our garden.  I counted no less than 21 descending into our hedge the other afternoon.  They love our birdbath and are the one species that really get in there and happily splash around. However, we have discovered that birds don’t like the tennis ball we’ve been using to stop the water freezing. They won’t go near the bath if the ball is in there!

Sadly off-putting tennis ball!

Goldfinches arrived some 15 years ago and continue to multiply, devouring niger seed by the kilo.  Over the past 2 winters, I have also seen a goldcrest in the garden.  Not to be confused with the goldfinch, this little chap is the UK’s smallest bird (along with the very similar firecrest) and is absolutely tiny but easy to spot with its striking yellow striped head.  I have my fingers crossed that they might also become a regular but they don’t seem to be attracted to feeders so might be harder to encourage. In the Bushy Park Visitor Centre we have a goldcrest nest on display. It is absolutely tiny and it’s really hard to imagine the size of eggs and fledglings that hatch in this minute marvel.

Of course it’s not only feeders that make a bird-friendly garden. Shrubbery for birds to shelter and nest is also important, as is plenty of sources of natural food such as berries and plants that attract insects. That much maligned plant, ivy, surely has to be near the top of the list as one of the most bird-friendly plants. The other day I spotted a woodpigeon getting up to all kinds of antics trying to reach a particularly juicy bunch of ivy berries.

Ivy in the frost (c) Elizabeth Malone

Every winter we await the arrival of redwings in our garden. They absolutely love the cotoneaster berries and will demolish a large plant full in a matter of days. Given how rare it is to see either a song thrush or mistle thrush in the garden these days, an annual visit from this very pretty close relative is always a delight.

Cotoneaster beloved of redwings (c) Elizabeth Malone

My favourite visitors are the great spotted woodpeckers and the long-tailed tits.  The woodpeckers embody the phrase ‘pecking order’ and it’s always interesting to see the reaction of other birds when they stake their claim at the feeders. Recently I saw a cheeky little goldfinch holding its own on one side of the feeder whilst the woodpecker dined on the opposite side. And of course hearing them ‘drum’ is a sure sign that spring is on the way. The long-tailed tits are just delightful, such pretty little birds. Always in small groups, they adore fatballs.

Of course the regular visitor that divides opinion in this part of the world is the ring-necked parakeet. We’ve been through phases in our garden when they’ve driven us crazy, arriving in huge flocks, but then suddenly we won’t see them for a while. I confess that it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship with them. They are noisy, messy and drive away the smaller birds but equally they are very entertaining to watch with their ridiculous acrobatics as they try to hang upside down!

Ring-necked parakeet on our feeder – only one?! (c) John Malone

If you feel that you’re only seeing the same few species of bird from your kitchen window, why not take a walk out to your local park? You may be surprised at the diversity of birds you see along the way. As I read on a recent local RSPB post, always look up, you never know what you might see!

Birds we see in our garden in south-west London over the course of a year:

  • Blue tit
  • Great tit
  • Long-tailed tit
  • Coal tit
  • Sparrow
  • Goldfinch
  • Chaffinch – fewer than we used to see
  • Wren
  • Robin
  • Redwing
  • Blackbird
  • Blackcap
  • Woodpigeon
  • Collar dove
  • Magpie
  • Jay
  • Great spotted woodpecker
  • Crow
  • Jackdaw
  • Parakeet
  • Heron
Herons love our pond (c) John Malone

And very occasionally …

  • Green woodpecker
  • Sparrow hawk
  • Stock dove
  • Goldcrest
  • Thrush


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Fresh October

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Continuing this years series of blogs based on Sara Coleridge’s poem ‘The Garden Year’, I realised that nuts don’t feature in my garden at all, or at least not deliberately. Over the years I have pulled out many a seedling horse chestnut tree sprouting from a conker buried by an industrious squirrel.

Squirrel posing locally in Bushy Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also have a small oak tree in a pot dug up from somewhere in the garden and, again, probably growing from an acorn buried by a squirrel as I’m not aware of any oak trees particularly nearby. Our little tree is thriving but leaving us with the puzzle of what to do with it? Our garden isn’t the right size and scale for a majestic oak! As we live near Oak Avenue Nature Reserve, I’m wondering if I could sneak out in the dead of night and plant it there? With the emphasis next year on planting trees for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, maybe there will be an opportunity?

Our baby oak tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Whilst we may not have nuts to gather in the garden, this is without doubt the season of seedpods and berries. I watch in trepidation as the gigantic sycamore at the end of the garden casts thousands more ‘helicopter’ seeds in all directions. This tree wasn’t even here 21 years ago! It’s a self-set that has grown up just beyond our fence on Railtrack land which makes it somewhat challenging to get anyone to do anything with it. Once again next spring I will be pulling out hundreds of its offspring.

Sycamore warning! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Glancing out of the window to the patio, I can see that the berries on the black elder, Sambucus Nigra Black Lace, have already been devoured by the birds.  Berries from our main elder tree will probably have been eaten by pigeons but I suspect that the black elder berries have been snapped up by the flock of sparrows that seem to have adopted our garden over the summer.  Most afternoons between 8 and 12 of them descend and hide in the adjacent hedge.  For the next half hour or so there will be the sound of wingbeats as they ‘bounce’ up and down and in and out of the various bushes dining on a selection of insects, berries and seeds.  They are very entertaining to watch but also really distracting if you’re trying to concentrate on something!

Sambucca Nigra Black Lace against visit autumn sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

Underneath our bird feeders and therefore relatively low to the ground, we have a pyracantha will brilliant orange berries. These are at pigeon-height and will gradually disappear one-by-one of the coming weeks. From there the pigeons will then move on to the cotoneaster berries in the front garden which will mean we startle them every time we open the front door! I was going to suggest that it would be easier for the pigeons to progress to the hawthorn berries just above them. (Our bird feeders hang in the hawthorn tree which is less easily climbed by our cats!) However, I’ve just realised how few berries are actually left on the tree which implies that they’ve not been slow in coming forward to eat them. There’s a whole winter to go yet but they clearly don’t believe in being abstemious and saving some for later!

Prickly pyracantha (c) Elizabeth Malone

Green holly berries seem to be in abundance. Does this mean we’re in for a hard winter? I’m not quite sure when they turn from green to red, presumably when the temperature starts to drop? Of course as soon as they are red, then the birds will be ready to eat these too, leaving us to hunt around in mid-December looking for any that might still be available to decorate the house.

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass (c) Elizabeth Malone

What is becoming clear as I write this is just how important all these berries and seeds are to our wildlife. One plant that many of us have in our gardens, that grows wild in our churchyards and open spaces and yet is often reviled, is ivy. We were recently on holiday in Ramsgate in Kent where the seafront esplanade was lined by a mile or more of ivy. The sheer number of insects buzzing and hovering around the flowers was truly astonishing. To see this would make you question whether the UK’s insect life really is under threat? Although if any of you have done the ‘splat test’ on your car number plates this summer, you will know that this is a serious problem. (Our number plates remained almost spotless on journeys to Dorset in June and Kent in September). We have a lot of ivy in the garden. In one corner a whole range of birds must nest in it. We can’t see properly but every spring we’re aware of regular flitting to and fro. In the autumn, late bees will flock to it as one of the last flowering plants around and on a sunny day there is a constant stream of hoverflies skimming over it. In the depths of winter its shiny black berries will provide essential food for birds as well as decorating the house for Christmas. Yes, ivy can become too big for its boots at times but it’s easily pulled back to something more manageable and we wouldn’t be without it.

Garden ivy and hoverfly (c) Elizabeth Malone


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July brings …

Hot July brings cooling showers,

Apricots, and gillyflowers.

Gillyflowers?  I can hear you all asking, what are they?  Well apparently they are several things.  They can be wallflowers or sweet Williams, and back in Shakespeare’s day, the name was used to refer to carnations.  More recently, the term has been linked to ‘pinks’ or dianthus which I’d never grown until this spring.

Two years’ ago we were visiting the lovely garden of Broughton House in Kirkudbright in Dumfries when John spotted this small, perfectly formed pink flower.  Foolishly we didn’t ask what it was and assumed that, as it was a type of dianthus, it would be easy to find somewhere – ha, ha!  We’ve never yet managed to track it down.

Mystery dianthus at Broughton House (c) John Malone

Inspired by this, we have picked up pots of dianthus in garden centres on and off and flicked through catalogues, but never actually committed to buying any until this spring when two pots accompanied us home from Wisley one day.  It was May – cold, a bit damp, and generally grey and miserable.  The plants were put to one side for potting up later as I wanted them to replace winter violas that were still flowering but about to die back.  Stupidly I took my eye off the ball.  The weather changed rapidly on the bank holiday weekend and the poor plants were fried!  I dunked them into a bowl of water and slowly over the course of the next couple of days they picked up but they still bear the scars.  Many of the leaves are still scorched brown and we’ve lost one flush of flowers.  So let that be a lesson to us as “hot July” approaches and, judging by recent years, we’re unlikely to get many “cooling showers”!

Dianthus – nearly fried! (c) Elizabeth Malone

Pinks, or dianthus, are quite scented but it’s a smell that I can’t quite make up my mind whether I like or not.  It’s quite spicy.  Often described as ‘clove-like’, I’m not sure I can smell that connection.  However, that did set me off thinking about scent in our garden.  As long-standing readers of this column will know, I do plant a lot for wildlife, especially for bees and butterflies, and although scent has a role to play here, most of my ‘plants for pollinators’ were chosen more for their flower shape than their scent.  For example, the flowers that have been attracting dozens of bees during June have been the poppies.  The buzzing of the bees reverberates around the flower head as they bury themselves deep down in the centre of the bloom, causing the petals to almost rattle.  However, to the best of my knowledge, poppies are unscented.  That said, the lavender is about to take centre stage and that is extremely fragrant.  It will soon be covered in bees but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen butterflies head towards it.

Beauty of Livermere attacting bees (c) John Malone

Butterflies tend to prefer to perch on top of flat, open flowers.  They love the echinacea, another unscented plant, and also the verbena bonariensis.  Verbena is deceptive.  You could be forgiven for thinking that it is another flat flowerhead until you look carefully and you will see that the flower is made up of dozens upon dozens of tiny little tubes of nectar. Looking back through my photos, I realise the verbena is loved by bees, hoverflies and dragonflies as well as butterflies!

Large White enjoying Verbena Bonariensis last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

It will be interesting to see how the summer progresses but currently I’m worried about butterflies in south-west London.  We saw quite a few in the garden in April – small whites, holly blues, commas, brimstones and the occasional peacock, but on the warm days in June we hardly saw a thing.  Has that been the effect of that long, cold May?  Last year we were lucky enough to see both a cinnabar moth and a Jersey tiger in the garden, in fact the Jersey tiger seemed to be everywhere.  We saw it in Crane Park and also in a local hedgerow but so far, nothing out of the ordinary this summer. 

A Jersey Tiger enjoying the nettles of Crane Park last summer (c) Elizabeth Malone

One of my experiments to attract more insects to the garden has been the sowing of a wildflower bed.  Returning to my original theme of scent, it’s interesting to note that it didn’t play a part in my plan.  Having never grown wildflowers before, I decided not to go mad and dig up the lawn but instead to sow some seed into a large re-usable gro-sack.  Instead of filling the sack with the obvious multi-purpose compost, I bought topsoil and mixed it with old spent compost and lots of grit in order to downgrade the quality of the planting medium.  Wildflowers, after all, don’t need to be pampered!  I then simply scattered over a packet of mixed seed and waited.  Initially I was annoyed by it as the sack sagged badly under the weight of the soil and it didn’t look particularly attractive but it is now flowering.  The only thing is, I’m not sure what the flowers are that have emerged!  I’m also not sure how well it’s doing on attracting insects – I’ve seen just one hoverfly so far!

My first wildflowers (c) Elizabeth Malone

If you’ve been wondering whether I’m going to mention apricots somewhere in this article, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.  We have fruit trees but not apricots.  We also have a lot of fruit and I can assure you that one of the things that is most attractive to bees is raspberries.  My advice is pick with care!!


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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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Hoorah for hedgehogs!

We have hedgehogs!  Not one, not two but three!  I know that everyone thinks I’m a bit crazy to be going on about them like this but we haven’t seen a hedgehog in our garden for more than 15 years.  Having decided to focus this year’s blog posts on the climate crisis and the environment, it’s rather nice to have a story to tell about one of our most endangered species. 

Our first spiny visitor! (c) John Malone

Not that many years ago, hedgehogs were abundant in the UK.  Just think how many you used to see squished on the road!  And that, in its own way, has been part of the problem.  Man’s impact on the hedgehog has been significant.  If we’ve not run over them in our cars, we’ve removed the hedges they need to nest in (the clue is in the name!) and tidied our gardens to within an inch of their lives.  In the 1950s it’s thought that there was over 36 million hedgehogs in this country but now it’s estimated that the number is probably only around 1 million.  As a result this year saw hedgehogs added to the red-list of endangered species in the UK alongside other well-loved creatures such as the red squirrel.

We first became aware of our hedgehogs in the spring. In fact, I wouldn’t even have been on alert to look out for them had not a colleague not too many miles away remarked that she had them in her garden. Only a few days later I spotted some droppings in the garden. With three cats, we know cat poo well so quickly ruled that out! Foxes can’t really get into our garden because of our cat fence but prior to having that fence, clearing the garden of fox poo was a regular and very unpleasant task, so we quickly ruled that out too. To the amusement of friends and colleagues I Googled “hedgehog poo” and up popped a picture that matched what was in our garden almost exactly.

Hedgehog poo on our lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

Then, by total chance, I spotted a hedgehog running down the garden one evening! My husband looked sceptical but the following evening he saw it too! Inspired by this, our neighbour went out and purchased hedgehog food. Each evening the food vanished but we never saw what was eating it. As the days drew longer, we became less than convinced that we were feeding hedgehogs. I considered purchasing one of those wildlife trigger cameras but, oh goodness, what a selection there is out there! I decided it was all far too complicated and resigned myself to the thought that our hedgehog had trotted off to better gardens.

Our hedgehog highway (protected from fox digging!) (c) Elizabeth Malone

On the last weekend in September, I walked out into the garden and saw more hedgehog poo! That hadn’t been there the day before! Two days later we were washing up as dusk fell when I spotted a hedgehog running across the lawn! We shot outside with cameras and my husband rummaged in the shed for the remaining hedgehog food. Our little spiky friend seemed quite appreciative so the following evening we were prepared and the tray of food went out in preparation. As my husband took it out, he spotted movement amongst the dahlias. Suddenly I saw frantic waving – there was not one but two hedgehogs out there! One was really small, a baby we decided. At this point we began to realise that we knew very little about the lifecycle of the hedgehog – more Googling followed!

Proof that there were two! (c) John Malone

Equipped with our new knowledge, we started to worry. If the little one was a recent baby, the statistics showed that its chances of putting on enough weight to survive the winter were quite slim. Our commitment to feeding them went up a notch or two at this point. We researched further food options and ordered kitten biscuit to be added to our next supermarket delivery. On one evening they had to do with a pouch of wet cat food and they were clearly unimpressed as that was the one evening we didn’t see them! The kitten food has proved popular as the kibble is small enough for a little hedgehog snout to cope with. Then, to our amazement, two became three! In fact, my husband was heading out with the food and nearly stood on one! At that point we realised that there were two more huddled together under our hawthorn tree.

Enjoying a supper of kitten food (c) John Malone

We are really thrilled to be welcoming these increasingly rare and endangered creatures into our garden and are delighted that our efforts at gardening in an environmentally friendly way appears to be paying off. Our garden isn’t overly tidy. We have corners that frankly we cannot reach so leaves and twigs gather which are ideal for hedgehogs. We have never sprayed chemicals although I will admit to the occasional use of supposedly wildlife friendly slug pellets but these are only used when a plant is being decimated and for a limited time. However, if we can keep our hedgehogs happy, I won’t need these as they can eat the slugs for me!

Hedgehog house under construction! (C) Elizabeth Malone

We’ve been reflecting on why the appearance of the hedgehogs has been so thrilling? Is it anything to do with lockdown and needing some good news stories? Or is it that this is giving us a chance to put conservation into action in our own back yard? Either way, we hope our little spiny friends will find somewhere snug to hibernate this winter and that we can welcome them outside the backdoor again next year.


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All creatures great and small

Health warning – I’m about to be controversial this month!  How do you like your verges?  Those strips of ground along the sides of pavements, roads and around car parks?  Do you look for bowling green perfection?  Are you happy with rough and ready?  Or would you like to see something attractive but relaxed and informal, not too neat?  This year I’ve been focusing Outside the Back Door on what we can all do in our gardens and back yards to improve our environment and do our little bit for the climate crisis but this month I want to look slightly further afield.  Not too far, probably just as far as the top of the road.

Wildflower meadow at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (c) Elizabeth Malone

One effect of the Coronavirus lockdown was councils having to re-prioritise tasks and budgets.  In many cases the need to trim verges around the boroughs fell to the bottom of the list.  In my own borough, the debate escalated recently as “enraged of RIchmond” took to social media to complain that standards were slipping and how ghastly it was to see all these wild flowers blooming around verges and attracting, shock, horror, insects!  As you might imagine, those of a different persuasion equally fought their corner, arguing the case strongly for this more relaxed, environmentally friendly approach – an approach which, in fairness, has already been deliberately adopted by some local authorities.  

Hampton Cemetery in Spring 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone

With so many appreciating getting closer to nature during lockdown, or rather nature getting closer to them, the role played by our in-between spaces, such as verges, can’t be ignored.  If we’re to hear more birdsong, we need to ensure plenty of insects around for birds to feed on – they can’t live on our nut and seed feeders alone!  And if we want to be dazzled by beautiful butterflies, we must provide the nectar to sustain them.  Our rougher, more unkempt verges can bloom and become a really important source of food.

Cabbage whites particularly like verbena it seems (c) Elizabeth Malone

Insects must surely be the most reviled of all God’s creatures?  I’m the first to admit that I will run a mile from a wasp and can only remove spiders up to a certain dimension!  I’ve only been stung by a bee once (I hope I don’t regret writing that!) and it was a painful experience.  Thankfully it’s not put me off encouraging bees into the garden.  Any plant I buy these days comes with the ‘bee friendly’ tag.  Scientists have shown that without bees we couldn’t survive.  So imagine my concern when, during that very hot spell towards the end of June, I kept finding large bumblebees dying on my lawn.  At the time our ‘lawn’ was a mass of clover as we’d stopped cutting due to the drought.  Every day we were finding one or two bees staggering across the flower heads and then they would just stop, literally dead in their tracks.  It was so sad to see.  I was so concerned that I contacted the local Wildlife Trust who introduced me to a new Facebook group called Nature in Richmond.  There I found other people reporting the same thing but also bee ‘experts’ who explained that the UK’s bumblebee populations are moving north due to warmer summers in the south of England as a result of climate change.  

Bees fighting over the echinacea in our garden (c) Elizabeth Malone

Joining this Facebook group has been a revelation.  You can post a photograph of just about anything wildlife related and someone is likely to know the answer.  Apart from recognising their importance, I confess I know almost nothing about insects but I have been delighted to post a photo of, for example, a hoverfly and to have it identified as a ‘marmalade hoverfly’.  Another colourful mystery was a red-belted clear-wing moth!  I’ve discovered that sightings such as this also get logged by the South-West London Environmental Network and added to their Biodiversity Record.  So whilst it’s a great source of information (and of some fabulous photography I should add), it’s also rewarding to know that we’re contributing to understanding the nature around us.

Red-belted clearwing moth in our garden as identified by the local nature group
(c) Elizabeth Malone

So whilst we’re on the topic of insects, let’s not forget the butterflies and my impression is that it has been a good summer for them.  I’ve carried out one or two butterfly counts in the garden and uploaded them to the Butterfly Conservation Trust who run this annual survey.  Across the summer I’m delighted to have seen large and small whites, commas, peacocks, red admirals, holly blues, brimstones, speckled wood and an abundance of gatekeepers.  However, a couple of weeks ago I saw a flash of orange followed by a flash of black and white that settled on the crab apple tree.  Before I could take a closer look it had fluttered away.  I went to get the camera but by then it had vanished.  A few days later I was walking in Crane Park and saw the same thing.  This time it was more obliging and settled on a convenient nettle patch ready to be photographed – a Jersey Tiger!  I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen one of these before and I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen another since in a local road where there is an unkempt verge, full of nettles (and sadly dumped rubbish).  Butterflies love nettles and wild flowers that are rich in nectar.  They are also a very important indicator of the health of our environment.  So it’s back to those grass verges again.

Jersey Tiger butterfly on hydrangea leaves in our garden August 2020 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Water wise

As I write this, the thermometer is set to soar into the mid-thirties centigrade later today. Admittedly the forecast is suggesting that it may be the classic British summer week of a few hot days followed by a thunderstorm. Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m not looking forward to the thunderstorm bit! That said, I would welcome the rain. In fairness, the garden isn’t looking quite as parched as it did a week or so ago. That Thursday of heavy downpours has refreshed the grass and the veg plot remained damp for several days after. More importantly, the pond filled up as did our water butts, and that’s where I want to focus really – what we do to manage our water wisely.

Rain falling on patio and chairs
Summer downpour (c) Elizabeth Malone

Scarily, over 25 years ago, I remember cataloguing a report from the then National Rivers Authority called Water: Nature’s Precious Resource which was in high demand from our Environmental Sciences students. This report emphasised that, whilst the press might focus on droughts in less developed parts of the world, the developed world needed to become much smarter at managing its water supply as changes to the climate were already beginning to signal trouble ahead. Without a doubt, handling books on these topics influenced my own approach to managing water, especially as gardeners can get a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to water usage! So what steps can we each take to do our bit? I don’t suppose I’m going to mention anything you don’t already know about but, as each summer seems to become a little warmer, there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of the changes we can make.

Watering can being refilled
Filling up – yet again! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Let’s start with water meters. I’ve always found it interesting that we expect to pay for gas and electricity according to usage but not water. If you’ve not yet fitted a meter, do consider it. Compulsory metering is being rolled out by Thames Water but not to our area just yet but you can get a step ahead and request an installation. Evidence suggests that if you are a one or two person household, you will almost certainly save money as well as water!

Two water butts
Water butts – not things of beauty! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Without doubt, a water meter makes you think about how much you are using, particularly in the garden. I suspect that there is a correlation between the owners of water meters and the owners of water butts! We have two water butts and every summer, as they run dry, we threaten to install more. The challenges are space and aesthetics. The two butts we have are not things of beauty! Located behind the shed, they are generally out of sight but the most obvious place to install more is on the patio and, worse than that, directly beneath our carefully chosen light fittings! You can appreciate our dilemma! We keep flicking through catalogues and websites offering slim, discrete designs, designs that pretend to be something else, and designs that also cost a small fortune! At some point we will bite the bullet as we really value our rainwater stocks, not just to avoid using tap water unnecessarily, but to ensure we can water acid loving plants such as our blueberries and our Christmas tree with lime-free water. We also use it to top up the pond occasionally which is better for the wildlife. According to the Consumer Council for Water, “The average house roof in the UK collects enough rain water in a year to fill about 450 water butts.” Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you install 450 butts – that would be a little excessive!

Blueberries ripening on plant
Blueberries ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Being selective about what you water in the garden is also important. New plants deserve good and frequent soakings as there’s nothing more soul-destroying than seeing your new favourite flower wilt and die within days. Try to find time to water either early morning or later evening to prevent excessive evaporation and also accidental scorching of leaves. The veg plot also needs careful attention. There’s not much point in throwing away all the hard work that goes into germinating, pricking out and planting on young veg plants, only to fry them on a sunny day.

Over view of vegetables plots
Veg plots (c) John Malone

Most advice on using water wisely in the garden makes it clear that you should ditch that sprinkler! That said, I have one exception to that rule and that has been trying to soak around the root area of a large tree. Our birch tree is really struggling and the tree surgeon’s advice was to really soak a wide area around the tree once a week. If we just leave the hose on, then the water runs off. Leaving the sprinkler spraying gently around the base of the tree enables more water to be absorbed where we need it.

Birch tree with dead and live branches with bird
Trying to save our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Mulching your borders in spring to seal in moisture is something that I always attribute to serious gardeners! For years I thought about doing it and would usually remember too late. We also had a run of very dry January and Februaries which meant that I felt I’d already missed the boat. Mulching also helps condition the soil and last year I decided I would be organised and we ordered sacks and sacks of mulch. It all seemed such a great idea until our rather hairy cats rolled in the straw-like substance and our lounge looked more mulched than the border!

Curled up cat in flower border
Mulch magnet! (C) John Malone

Finally, I’m going to mention the ‘lawn’. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden with a piece of ‘green’ in the middle, I suspect that, like me, it’s not exactly bowling green standard. Don’t water the grass when it’s hot and dry, it will turn green again remarkably quickly after one of those stormy downpours. Also, don’t cut during dry weather unless you really have to. Let some of the weeks flower and enable the bees and other insects to flourish on it.

Clover growing amid grass
Clover in lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone