The Last Flowers

Autumn is beautiful. Golden light filters through the trees, with their jewel-bright leaves set against a vibrant blue sky. (If you’re lucky – and we have been.)

Except when it’s not. Friday was suddenly grey and cold here in the east of England. Autumn quickly became a bit more serious and a heavy shower of hail was a brusque reminder that winter isn’t far off. (And the clocks going back this weekend will mean that time spent in the garden will have to finish earlier. There’s still lots of work to do out there and I have been known to continue until it’s dark.)

As always, I’m planning for the future and growing as much as I can to provide myself with flowers and plants to photograph. At the moment I’m working on the last bit of planting for the year. It should make a difference to next autumn, as the plants are mostly late-flowering. One that I’ve chosen because it is so good to photograph is Hesperanthus, also known as ‘Crimson Flag’. (You can see it in the picture above.) The plant used to be called Schizostylis, but the name changed a few years ago. Gardening is confusing at times!

Geranium'Rozanne'
Geranium ‘Rozanne’ flowers for months and continues into October and November if trimmed back in late summer.

Despite the cold turn to the weather, there are still some flowers in the garden. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ (pictured above) is still flowering its little socks off. I planted it late last autumn, so this is the first year that I’ve been able to see how long it will continue. It has done really well – flowering from early in the summer and still being well-covered in flowers now. I’m really glad of this, because it’s my chosen subject for the last week of my Natural History Illustration course. There aren’t many other flowers left in the garden for me to draw! (You can read about the drawing class here. It has been very worthwhile and now I feel that I’ll be able to continue to learn on my own.)

Elsewhere in the garden, there is a sprinkling of penstemon flowers, the last of the asters that are just about to finish, and some small dark crimson dianthus (pinks) that seem content to flower for a long time. The happy surprise has been to see how well a clump of Gaura lindheimeri is doing. I’ve tried to grow it a couple of times before and lost it in cold winters. This plant has survived and has been in flower from early summer. Its white, moth-like flowers are now creating a delicately lovely picture in combination with the red fruits of crab-apple ‘Royal Beauty’.

Have you any suggestions for extending the flowering season towards winter? I’d love to know what you grow – please feel free to comment!

Gaura linderheimeri flower
Gaura linderheimeri flower in front of the fruits of malus ‘Royal Beauty’

Not Always Greener

Late summer and autumn can be a great time for grasses in the garden. Some change colours around this time and there’s an amazing variety of flower and seed heads which add texture and interest to garden borders.

Grasses can give a lovely ‘natural’ look to a garden and help to create a relaxed atmosphere, especially when they’re grown with the other plants that are at their best at this time of year – rudbekias, echinacea, heleniums and asters are the obvious ones. (The slightly ‘wild’ look that many daisies have makes them ideal companions for grasses.)

Chasmanthus latifolium
The flat heads of this chasmanthus are a lovely coppery colour

The natural look of grasses can create a problem because they don’t look right with many of the more traditional plants. Hybrid roses, for instance and many of the double-flowered plants (like clematis).

In my own garden, the solution has been to create different areas. (Not that easy because it’s not a very big garden.) In one area, the planting is what I’d describe as ‘modern cottage-garden’, with a wide mixture of flowering plants, including roses and clematis, small shrubs, herbs, and bigger plants such as lilac, wisteria, philadelphus, viburnum and hydrangeas. The other area is beside the site for my in-progress pond. (Still digging!) This is where the planting will be much more informal. The perennials in this area are generally taller. I have the little yellow sunflower, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and Japanese anemones here, as well as crocosmias – all of which can be very thuggish. So the plants going into this border will need to be vigorous enough to make their own claim on some space without letting themselves be crowded out. (And there may need to be quite a bit of interference from me to ensure fair play!)

Grass flower-heads
Grass heads like these add a lot of texture to a border

When I was a kid, I was very attracted to the textures of grass heads and loved to run them through my fingers. (Sometimes stripping off the seeds – I must have spread a few plants around that way!) This tactile quality of grasses helps to make the garden a more inviting place. Somewhere that you can touch the plants, feel them in your fingers and become involved with them – not just somewhere that you look at from a distance.

If you look at them closely, grasses, especially the flower heads, can have a lot of detail. They can be delicate and airy, bold and attention-grabbing, brightly-coloured or subtle, and some have a slightly metallic sheen to them. They are wonderful when they are back-lit by the low light of autumn, even more so if there’s a spider’s web sparkling with dew-drops suspended from the leaves.

Grasses, like other plants, are a reason to spend time in a garden: time just looking and enjoying the detail. There’s a quote from writer Henry Miller that is particularly appropriate here, ‘The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself’.

Do you enjoy the details of plants? Does anything particularly catch your eye? I’d love to know in the comments!

Panicum virgatum
The delicate heads of Panicum virgatum

Waterlilies: Beautiful, Exotic, Mysterious…

The waterlily is one of the most enchanting plants and it has held a fascination for humans right throughout history.

Sacred in Egypt, India and China from ancient times, the waterlily has become a symbol of many things: renewal of life, immortality, purity, divinity, enlightenment.

So when we look at these beautiful flowers, we’re aware of more than just the waterlily itself. We feel the magic of  all the associations that have grown up around it. We get caught, ever so slightly, in its spell…

pink waterlily
A hardy pink waterlily in an outdoor pond.

Before the age of around 20, I had only ever seen waterlilies in photographs or paintings. Never in ‘real life’. (I don’t think I’d even seen a garden pond during my childhood on Scotland’s north coast. The climate there isn’t exactly encouraging to serious gardening.) The first time I saw one in a garden (somewhere much further south), I was entranced. The flower seemed like something foreign and entirely exotic and that impression has stayed with me. Since then, I’ve always been delighted when the chance comes to photograph them.

Photographing flowers in someone else’s garden is always a little tricky. Usually it’s not possible to use a tripod, so close-up work is difficult. You must be so very careful not to stand on any plants or brush against anything that you might damage. But waterlilies are even more awkward. Frequently the flowers are just too far away or they’re sitting at an angle that means you can’t see them properly. It’s wonderful when you find waterlilies growing right by the edge of the pond and when you can get close enough to them without the danger of taking an unintentional nose-dive into the water!

yellow waterlily
I love this pale yellow waterlily

As you might expect then, the idea of being able to photograph waterlilies in my own garden really appeals to me. Currently I am starting to dig out a pond. Actually, it’s only a small hole so far – I’m digging an exploratory trench so that I can work out where pipes run and hopefully avoid them. Today it has been raining for a few hours and I’m really grateful because it will make the hard ground much easier to dig. (Digging is much better left until after we’ve had some rainy weather. Summer here is so hot and dry that the ground bakes as hard as stone.)

It will probably take quite  while to get my pond made and to work out what to plant around it. But I do already have a couple of little waterlily plants. They were given to me by a kind friend who was sorting out her own pond. At the moment they’re planted up in a pond basket which is sitting in a huge plastic box. So far they seem quite happy (and they even have a little frog who likes to lurk in the pond basket beside them) but I’ll be glad when I can give them a proper home. And then I’ll have to wait and see what colour (pink or red) they are…

Do any plants enchant you – I’d love to know in the comments!

white waterlily
Elegant simplicity – a white waterlily

Exploring a New Path (and Some Resources for Learning to Draw).

When I started this blog, I mentioned wanting to get on with the things that are important to me. Specifically, I wanted to learn new art techniques that would help in my printmaking and in mixed-media work. One of those techniques was perhaps the most basic – learning to draw.

So now I am busy doing something that is entirely new for me. A few weeks ago I enrolled for a six-week natural history illustration course. (I’m now doing the work for week three.) The class is online, held by the University of Newcastle in Australia. (If it appeals to you, you can find it here. )

It was luck that drew my eye to the advert for the course and the fact that it was offered free (so long as you don’t want a certificate at the end) made me think, ‘Why not?’ A drawing course held locally would probably make me feel a bit uneasy, but online you’re pretty much anonymous, so there’s no need to feel self-conscious about any lack of drawing skills. Additionally, the course is aimed at anyone from beginner to more experienced, so I didn’t have to worry about the course being too advanced for me.

Having said that, I did find the course really hard work last week – spending hours staring at the items I’d chosen to draw and attempting to get the detail of them onto paper. I felt tired by the end but managed to get the drawings (mostly) finished and submitted. A lot of the value of doing a course like this is that it pushes you to get the work done and to commit yourself to it. (Obviously, you could back out of the course and you wouldn’t lose anything, but self-respect, and the desire to make the most of an opportunity to improve, is a good spur onward.)

Does it seem a bit strange for a photographer to want to be able to draw rather than simply taking a photograph? Well, maybe! But this will give me the freedom to be able to do printmaking without needing to rely on a photo for the basic image. (I’ve done both screen-printing with a photo-stencil and photo-lithography but now I’m learning drypoint, which really does need some ability to draw.) Even the photography should benefit, because learning to draw trains you to become more observant. Drawing a subject forces you to concentrate on it to see all the details and to fully understand its structure and gives a much better understanding of what you are looking at.

The course lists a number of useful outside resources which are available to anyone. (You could learn a lot about the basics of drawing from these, without bothering with the course.)  These YouTube videos may be worth a look if you’re interested in learning to draw or improving your drawing skills:

  • SchaeferArt – first video takes you through the basics and following videos build on drawing and painting skills.
  • Paint Academy – basic shading, hatching etc demonstrated. You can work alongside this in real time. They have a large number of painting and drawing videos – many more advanced than the one I’ve linked here.
  • Drawing & Painting – The Virtual Instructor – I found this video on ‘How to Shade Basic Forms’ the most useful of those I’ve listed. There are lots more videos from him (on both drawing and painting) here that all look worth watching  – might need quite a bit of time!
  • Digital Painting Lessons – ‘Visual Measuring’ – basics on working out angles
  • EmptyEasel – ‘How to Draw by Finding Basic Shapes Within Objects’ – simplifying a subject  to make it easier to draw.
  • Sycra – ‘Negative and Positive Space’
  • Cathy Johnson – ‘Sketching in Nature’  The sound is low at the start but she does start speaking!

This drawing course is certainly a challenge for me. When I complete it, I’d like to have enough skills to be able to continue learning on my own. It does feel exciting to do something new! I hope that if you’re interested in learning to draw, you’ll find the videos helpful. (I wish I’d realized that they existed before!)

Japanese garden
Your destination might be a surprise!