It’s the end of January and I hope that these are the last frost photographs I’ll share for a while. Although this winter hasn’t been very cold, I just can’t wait for it to end. I’m ready to see new growth and to welcome the first flowers of spring.
Despite my impatience for the cold weather to be over, I’m grateful for a bit of frost. Without it, there would be very little to photograph here in winter. There would be much less to tempt me outside for a wander around the garden too.
With frost, the garden is transformed from being a soft and soggy mess of dying vegetation into somewhere crisp and rigid. It feels utterly changed, alien even. Plant remains that would normally go unnoticed stand out as the frost makes them into something new.
The smallest of things can suddenly be full of photographic possibilities. Tiny seed-heads, old leaves, the dried stems of decorative grasses – these can become features that demand attention. The frost emphasises the delicate nature of these small things. It can make a plant look like a piece of fragile lace or as if it has been dipped in sugar. And if the sun is shining, the garden can come alive with the sparkle of all those millions of tiny crystals.
So I won’t be ungrateful for the beauty that winter can produce. I’ll try to be patient while I wait for spring to arrive. But I can’t help being excited to see the signs that the spring isn’t far away. Now there are green daffodil buds starting to appear and the first of my hellebores has come into flower. And I’m off out into the garden to photograph them…
After last week’s snow-capped anemone seed-head, today we have seed-heads that are covered in frost. In the middle of winter I’m really glad to find anything to photograph in the garden, so I’m grateful that these are here.
On a frosty morning, these seed-heads create a focal point and some interesting textures in the garden. They become like miniature natural sculptures when their details are picked out by frost crystals. I find that seeing the patterns of frost encourages me to look more closely at the plant’s own structure. That allows me to see possible photographs where I may not have noticed them before.
Mind you, sometimes there’s very little left of the seed-heads, as you can see with the honesty above. These are pretty-well wrecked by now but, given a bit of sunshine to make the frost sparkle, still manage to look interesting. Of course, on a dull but mild day, with no frost or sunshine, they don’t look at all pretty at this stage. So it’s amazing what the right weather can do.
Amongst the best of the seed-heads for frost photography are the umbellifers. There are usually quite a lot of self-sown bronze fennel seedlings around the garden and these really sparkle on a frosty morning. I never cut these down until spring, because the seeds can provide food for hungry birds. (As well as starting lots more plants.) The delicate decorations that they become is a delightful winter bonus.
We were greeted by snow this morning, but by the time you read this it will be gone. It won’t last for even the full day because it has now started to rain.
But it has given me an excuse to post an image with just a little bit of wet snow. This is a seed-head of a Japanese anemone. I was attracted to photographing it by the cap of melting snow that it’s wearing, and by the way the drops of meltwater are clinging to the fluffy hairs of the seeds.
It’s interesting to see how these seed-heads start as perfect tiny spheres and then erupt into little woolly clusters of seeds that can float away in the wind. I allow them to stay in the garden over the winter. A few years ago, tidy-minded gardeners would insist that the old stems and seed-heads ought to be cut back and taken away at the end of the year. Times have changed, and now we’re encouraged to leave them standing as a habitat and food for wildlife.
With luck, goldfinches will come and help themselves to these seeds. (I’ve already noticed them eating the seeds of verbena bonariensis in the last week.) And if the heads survive until springtime, the remainders will probably be gathered up when the goldfinches are building their nests. I often see these birds with their beaks full of the fluffy seeds and think that they must be creating the cosiest and most comfortable homes for their babies. So I won’t be cutting back any of these seed heads. The birds are very welcome to them.
There’s still a little colour here in winter – just a few brave plants that choose to flower when it’s cold and grey. They brighten up the days and offer something to any bees that are awake and foraging.
It’s a pleasure to be able to wander into the garden to see the latest buds to have opened. Whatever helps to encourage me to go outside at this time of year has to be a good thing. Being rewarded by beauty and colour makes it easier to get started on some gardening.
As I enter the garden I’m pleased to see that a winter-flowering clematis is festooned with small bell-shaped blooms that have a deep red interior. To see the colour of these, you really need it to be growing above your head, so I have planted it to climb into a tall shrub (Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, shown last week). The clematis was planted only last year, so isn’t very big yet. But I’m happy just to see it alive and growing, because it was in a position that meant it could easily have been destroyed when the fence was replaced earlier in the year.
Further along the same border is the winter jasmine. The work of replacing the fence meant that this had to be cut back a lot, but it will recover in time. (It was a terrible straggly mess, all tangled up with a rampant honeysuckle that had started to look very unhealthy.) I had to give several shrubs and climbers a rather drastic pruning so that the fence could be got at. This has made me realise that I need to be more practical in the way that I plant the garden.
Not far from the winter jasmine is an area planted with shrubs and a few garden thugs (mainly Japanese anemones and a very vigorous geranium). Hiding amongst these is the pretty lavender-blue Algerian iris. (Iris unguicularis – I can’t spell it without checking the RHS site.) This needs to be moved to somewhere where it can be more easily seen and photographed…my knees and back will be grateful for that! The flowers are delicate and easily damaged by the weather but they are soon replaced by more, so certainly earn their place in the garden.
As I continue towards the back of the garden, my attention is drawn to the mahonia with its great sprays of bright yellow flowers. This shrub is an extremely prickly monster and must be approached with great caution when working around it. It often stabs at me in a very ungrateful manner while I am trying to weed around its base. But I forgive it because it can look spectacular and its big spiky leaves give it a very bold, ‘architectural’ appearance all year round.
I had intended to add some new winter-flowering plants this year, but obviously that hasn’t been possible. (I suspect that many gardeners may be tempted to have quite a spending-spree when we can shop freely for plants again!) For the moment I am content to enjoy what’s already here. This is a quiet time in the garden and staying at home means I have plenty of time to plan future plantings. I hope that means I’ll be all organised for spring and summer…haha! (That would be a first!)
January is the month that we really get into winter here. December can be mild and wet and not feel especially cold. Then, as the New Year arrives, the temperature tends to drop.
In December we did get a little bit of wet snow which disappeared within a couple of hours of falling. It didn’t stay around and look pretty for long, but it gave me the chance to take a few wintery photographs.
There’s something about the way snow half-hides things that makes having a rather chilly wander around the garden more interesting. It calls attention to details you might have just walked past the day before. Or makes you see things just a little differently. Those few remaining apples on their little tree fairly glow in the dull light when contrasted with the paleness of the snow. And fallen seed heads become semi-translucent as the melting snow soaks into them.
It’s quite possible that we may get no snow at all during January – or even during the rest of the winter. Winters without snow are not rare in the east of England. But I can’t imagine what my childhood in the north of Scotland would have been like without the heavy winter snowfalls.
Those winters were certainly colder and the snow would pile thickly everywhere until the landscape was just a soft white blur. Roads soon became blocked – I remember how often we helped to push cars out of snowdrifts on the narrow country road by our house. And the sound of a heavy sheet of melting snow rumbling its way down a slate roof is with me still. (The tall drifts of snow that built up from that happening were great fun to play in as a kid – but wouldn’t have been so great if the snow had landed on us!)
Here in Suffolk, though, things are very different. As I’m writing this, the sky is blue and the sun is shining – perfect weather for being outside. Maybe there will be snow this month or maybe there won’t…but if there is, I’ll get out and take some photos!