Outside the Backdoor

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

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May brings …

May brings flocks of pretty lambs
Skipping by their fleecy dams.

I think it’s fair to say that you’re unlikely to see many skipping lambs in and around either Hounslow or Whitton these days and certainly not in my garden!  However, I do have rather fond memories of an overnight stay in the Lake District at a rather unusually named pub if I remember correctly (possibly the Eagle and Child near Kendal) where unseasonably warm April weather meant that we sat outside in their beer garden (in the days when you could choose between sitting outside or in!) from which we were entertained all evening by gambolling lambs!

Lamb getting ready to gambol around the Lake District! (c) John Malone

In the gardening world, May is normally associated with the Chelsea Flower Show but currently this is planned for September for the first time in its history.  Chelsea normally means alliums.  Lots of those purple pompoms on sticks that contrast so vividly with the acid greens of spring foliage.  We’ve grown quite a few alliums in the garden over the years with varying success.  We have plenty of Allium Purple Sensation which have multiplied but we’re also rather fond of Allium Roseum which, as its name suggests, is a light rosy pink.  It’s also a more open flower that the usual tight globes.  I’ve yet to be tempted by any of the giant Alliums that you see around.  If you have any of the smaller globe types, such as Purple Sensation, let the flowerheads dry out after flowering and try to keep them intact through the autumn.  Last year we succeeded in doing this and John was then able to spray the seed heads silver to decorate our Advent crown.

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ (c) John Malone

I’ve often mentioned how I’m drawn to purple flowering plants and May is when the flower border really does turn purple.  As well as the alliums, it’s time for the geraniums to get going and we have some very large clumps of Geranium Johnson’s Blue which isn’t blue at all.  Like many geraniums (cranesbill), this one will spread anywhere and take over the entire garden given the chance so I crawl around on hands and knees teasing out its running roots every spring to try to maintain some order!

Geranium Johnson’s Blue (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’ve gradually come to realise that if a geranium is happy, it will quickly turn into a thug!  A few years ago we visited the garden belonging to the parents of newsreader Sophie Raworth.  I saw a very unusual deep pink geranium that I liked.  It took a white to track this down but John eventually located it in a small specialist nursery and gave it to me as a birthday present.  It has the extremely wordy title of Geranium oxonianum thurstonianum and is described by the RHS as “a vigorous perennial”.  Three years ago it arrived in a small 5cm square pot.  The clump is now at least 50cm across!  Thankfully it’s very pretty and flowers its socks off!

Geranium oxonianum thurstonianum (c) John Malone

Another more recent purple acquisition and favourite is Centaurea Jordy.  Centaurea is the posh name for perennial cornflowers or knapweed.  I’m afraid that I’m of the generation where mention of the word ‘knapweed’ conjures up Constable Knapweed from the children’s TV series ‘The Herbs’ (very educational!)  This cornflower is a deep, dark, beetrooty purple.  It’s great for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.  Unfortunately it does have a tendency to develop mildewy leaves and to be nibbled by those insects so sadly mine always seems to start the spring well but then falters.  May be this year will be different?

Centaurea Jordy (c) John Malone

Sticking with the colour purple, Clematis Niobe should also be in flower in May.  I used to rate clematis as my favourite plant and we have lots of different varieties around the garden.  It would even be true to say that we have some form of clematis in flower every month of the year.  However, if it is my favourite plant, then it does seem some years since I added a new one.  Perhaps the empty fence behind where the birch tree used to be is crying out for one? 

Clematis Niobe (c) John Malone

I’m also hoping that our Wisteria Amethyst Falls will produce some decent flowers this year.  Often advertised as ‘abundantly flowering’, I would disagree!  We chose this variety as we don’t have an appropriate spot for a huge, traditional wisteria.  This one is certainly smaller and lower growing but it’s also been quite difficult to establish and persuade to flower.  In its defence, it could be that it’s being drowned out by an over-enthusiastic cotoneaster growing alongside. 

Wisteria Amethyst Falls (c) John Malone

Finally, I mentioned the Raworth’s garden above which we visited as part of the National Garden Scheme.  We all need some different gardens to visit this year so please do consider booking a visit to an NGS garden.  These openings of private gardens help to raise huge sums of money for health charities such as Macmillan, HospiceUK, Marie Curie and Parkinson’s.  Whether the garden you choose to visit is large or small, I promise you won’t be disappointed!

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Inspiration big and small

Traditionally, the gardening press would have us believe that gardeners spend the winter indoors, tucked up by a warm, glowing fire, scanning the seed and plant catalogues for inspiration.  Then, come spring and summer, we all leap into action to put all that planning into practice.  Whilst there is something rewarding about flicking through a magazine or catalogue in the depths of winter, the reality is that many of us really gain inspiration for our gardens either from the garden centres in spring, as all those tempting pots appear, or from visiting gardens and shows.


Plant haul from last year’s Malvern Show (c) Elizabeth Malone

When it comes to visiting gardens, those on offer through the National Trust or the Royal Horticultural Society, tend to provide great inspiration but it is on rather a grand scale.  Gardens open through the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), however, can be much closer to what you may be trying to achieve at home.

The NGS slowly came into being in the early 1900s and since then has become a thriving charitable enterprise which has donated over £58 million to charity since its records began in 1927.  Often referred to as the “Yellow Book”, you can now more easily access details of gardens using the NGS app on your computer or mobile device, enabling you to find out very easily what is open in your area each weekend throughout the summer.  With over 3,500 gardens listed, there’s nearly always something open within easy reach.

We try to visit a couple of NGS gardens each year and on one weekend in May this year we visited two rather contrasting gardens.  The first was a very typical NGS garden.  It was literally a stone’s throw from where we live, barely half a mile from our front door.


Gloucester Road, Hampton, UK (c) Elizabeth Malone

It was the first time this garden had thrown its gates open to the public and they were blessed with a glorious warm, sunny spring afternoon.  (I do always feel for those who find they’ve chosen to open on the wettest weekend of the year!)  This particular garden provided both inspiration and reassurance.  We were struck by just how many plants we had in common – clearly all things that grow well in Hampton!  By contrast, we don’t grow acers in a big way, whereas this garden had several, all of which were developing their brightly coloured little winged seedpods.


Acer wings in Gloucester Road (c) Elizabeth Malone

The element of this garden that really struck us, however, was the amount of different seating opportunities it presented.  Carefully positioned chairs and benches enable the sitter to either follow the sun or follow the shade depending on the mood.  As we were visiting en route to another appointment, we took the opportunity to sit and absorb the garden, something we don’t really do enough of in our own garden.  Inspired by this, earlier this weekend I found myself dragging a deckchair into a different part of the garden and found myself viewing our veg plot from an entirely new angle.


A new angle on our veg (c) Elizabeth Malone

Our second NGS garden that weekend was an entirely different proposition.  Chilworth Manor dates back to Doomsday and although I looked up their website before visiting, I really hadn’t anticipated a garden on quite such a grand scale.  John, on the other hand, hadn’t anticipated quite such a hair-raising steep, narrow lane to drive down! We descended into the valley down, what we subsequently learnt, was the hill that inspired John Bunyan’s “hill of difficulty” in Pilgrim’s Progress! Chilworth Manor has participated with the NGS for many years and Lady Heald, the former owner of the Manor, was one of their National Chairwomen.  However, as she became elderly, the house and garden fell into disrepair until purchased by the current owners ten year’s ago.  They have both transformed the garden and planted a vineyard!


Herbaceous border at Chilworth Manor (c) Elizabeth Malone

Our visit began with an introduction by the Head Gardener who provided some interesting insights into restoring a garden on this scale.  We soon wandered off under our own steam, taking in the woodland and Japanese gardens as well as the absolutely stunning and extensive walled garden.  The white wisteria walk is probably one of the most striking features I’ve seen in any garden for some time.  The roses and peonies had yet to burst forth and so we could only imagine what it would look like in another few weeks.


Wisteria walk at Chilworth (c) Elizabeth Malone

So was there anything to be inspired by in this garden?  I really enjoyed the sculpture dotted around.  It wasn’t advertised as a ‘sculpture garden’ but there were interesting pieces to be discovered, carefully placed to complement the planting and area surrounding them.  We have two heron sculptures by our pond, bought many year’s ago, but we’re still very fond on them and they have now weathered rather beautifully.  If I didn’t have any sculpture in the garden, I think I would be actively looking for some!


“Heron” by our pond (c) Elizabeth Malone

I confess that we were also inspired to buy a couple of bottles of their wine.  A pale pink but very dry English rosé which is only in its second vintage and quite limited in supply.  Chilworth has joined with other local vineyards to create the Surrey Hills wine trail which also looks rather fun!  I don’t think, however, that we’ll be planting vines any time soon!


Chilworth Manor rose wine (c) Elizabeth Malone

So why not check out the NGS website and spend a lovely summer’s afternoon contributing to a good cause whilst enjoying the garden, indulging in some tea and cake and maybe something a little stronger?!  And I promise that we’d not drunk the wine when we spotted these – yes, they own alpacas too!


Alpaca at Chilworth (c) John Malone