It’s been quite mild here in Suffolk for the last few weeks but during the week we had the first frost of the season. Suddenly it feels like winter, although it was soon wet again.
While there’s a frost it’s great to be able to nip out into the garden and look to see what might be worth photographing.
If it’s sunny, the sparkle on the frost is wonderful but, of course, it means that the frost will soon disappear. That can make it can hard to decide what to photograph first. There’s never time to photograph all of the frosty subjects, no matter how fast you work.
I like to leave seed-heads on the plants in the garden here in the hope that they’ll get frosted. Sometimes there are a few flowers still. Penstemon ‘Garnet’ is especially good at continuing into the winter, although by this time there is only a sprinkling of flowers left.
Waiting for the frost to create opportunities for photography is a great reason for not being too tidy in the garden. Anything might look good with a coating of frost – flowers, seed-heads, leaves, grasses. It doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, so long as there’s an interesting shape or texture.
Frost is a kind friend to the garden photographer in winter – it makes interesting photographic subjects out of very little. (And you can leave tidying up the garden ’til springtime – well that’s my excuse anyway!)
I’ve been transferring my photo files over to a new PC, so it has given a chance to look through images that haven’t been seen for a while. Among them was this set of hollyhock pictures which were taken on a long-ago summer evening.
We hadn’t been living here in Suffolk for long and still felt relatively new in the area. It was a warm evening with the sun still shining over the water meadows that run along one side of the town, so Hubby suggested that we should go for a walk. We decided to wander along the river and by some of the old cottages along its bank.
One of the cottages had a little bit of garden at the side that had been taken over by hollyhocks – they looked as if they had just seeded themselves wherever they fancied. The tall spires were spilling out of the garden and dotted along the side of the path. Luckily I had taken my camera…….
For some reason, there was never the chance to photograph hollyhocks while I lived in Scotland. Some gardeners must grow them there but I don’t remember seeing them in Scottish gardens. (Maybe because they seem too tall and vulnerable for the rougher weather there – the winds can get quite fierce.) Here, though, they are everywhere. They’re a real ‘English cottage garden’ plant and an essential part of summer.
We now have a few in our own garden and they seem to be replacing themselves with their own seedlings. This means I never know what colours may come up – usually pink but there have been other colours – yellow and a deep, dark purply-red.
The hollyhocks were a treat to photograph. Their petals were so thin and delicate that it was easy to capture the evening sun passing through them. The light made them vibrant. It showed up the marking of the veins on their petals and the jewel-like colours, especially those with the dark ‘halo’ in the centre.
Looking at the photographs now, they bring back happy memories of summertime and an evening spent exploring our new home town. They’re a reminder, too, that it won’t be so long before next summer is on the way!
After flowers fade in the garden, there’s a certain feeling of loss, of knowing that they have disappeared for another year. But some plants have something more to give the garden – attractive seed-heads that add their own texture and interest to the planting.
For a photographer, seed-heads make a great subject. They can have very ‘architectural’, interesting shapes and their textures range from soft and fluffy to extremely prickly. There’s plenty of variety to inspire pictures with different moods. Could be something soft and gentle, or something bold and eye-catching, or perhaps an image with a more nostalgic feel.
Seed-heads have that inbuilt message that something is ending but also remind us that there will be something new – new life – in the future. And for a gardener, seed-heads can be a reason for hope, if there is a chance of new plants springing up – or dread if they’re weeds!
I love to see the Pasque flower seed-heads every year. (Top photo.) They are so soft that you want to stroke them but they can also really catch the light. The fine hairs reflect the sun and make them gleam on a sunny day. (They’re irresistible to my cats too, who find that the heads swaying on their long stems make a great toy to bat a paw at, especially those that can just about be reached through the slats of a nearby seat. Fun for all!)
Other seed-heads are not at all welcoming to the touch. But they do at least look interesting in a photograph. I’m happy to say that the plant above was in someone else’s garden. I don’t know what it is, but I really wouldn’t fancy brushing against it in a border. Ow!
I don’t know what the seed-head in the bottom photo is either. It might be a protea. The photograph was taken in a garden that had big glasshouses, so there were a fair number of non-hardy plants. The combination of textures and shapes and the soft browns, yellows and creams of this seed-head appealed to me. It’s very different to the seed-heads that I would find in my own garden and, like the Pasque flower, makes me feel that I want to reach out and touch it.
At this time of year, when there are few flowers left and so many garden plants are dying back for winter, seed-heads can linger. I like to leave as many as possible in my garden, so that when the frosts arrive, there will be something to photograph. A coating of frost can make a dried-out seed-head turn into something wonderful – a delicate structure with grace and sparkle. So if you like to photograph plants, it’s a good idea not to be too tidy in your garden. Leave those seed-heads standing and wait to see what magic a touch of frost or snow can bring!
I love to read your comments! Do you have any plants that you like for their seed-heads?
It’s getting chillier every day here and we’ve had some very grey skies during the week, so I thought I’d post a bit of bright colour on the blog today.
Wherever I go, I’m always keen to take the chance to photograph flowers. Sometimes there’s something new, or a plant that would be difficult to grow at home. You never know what plants and flowers you may come across when you’re out and about with a camera. It’s pretty much a matter of luck. (And lots of garden visiting!)
It’s also a matter of luck if you find flowers that are in good condition at the time and that you can photograph without other things being in the way. There’s not a lot you can do about distracting backgrounds but experimenting with different angles and getting as close as you can will help a lot.
The weather can be a matter of luck too. If you’re photographing plants outside or in a glasshouse, you’re better to choose a day that is slightly overcast. This will soften the light and make it more diffused, allowing you to capture the colours and textures of the flowers more easily. (Whereas bright sunlight, especially at the middle of the day will easily burn out highlights and create heavy shadows that obscure details.) Low-angled sunlight near the beginning or end of the day is much gentler and the slanting light picks out details beautifully, so it’s good choice if you can time your visit for it.
The orchids here are ‘Vanda’ orchids. I’ve never tried to grow these (just the similar-looking Phalanopsis or ‘moth’ orchids), so it’s a joy to find some that I can photograph. Their rich colours and the characteristic dotted effect on the petals add to the visual interest of the photos. And wandering around them, camera at the ready, lifts the spirits – of this photographer at any rate!
The wonderful variety of flower shapes makes the orchid family an inspiring subject for flower photographers. I find them hard to resist and will always be on the lookout for these exotic, intriguing blooms. At home I occasionally grow Phalanopsis orchids. They are pretty easy because they seem to thrive on neglect and nowadays they can be bought cheaply at most supermarkets. At the moment I have a couple of orchids just waiting to be photographed. They have a similar white/purple/burgundy colouring but one is a Phalanopsis and I think the other may be an Oncidium, so the flower-shape is very different. (Photographs for a future blog post….)
I hope that these orchids have brightened your day. Do you have different orchids where you live? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
The first time I saw a passion-flower was many years ago, on a holiday in England. It was the usual Passiflora ‘caerulea’, the blue passion flower. It seemed impossibly exotic for a flower growing in the UK at that time. And for someone still living in Scotland, with the colder winters there, the idea of growing one seemed to be pure fantasy.
A few years later I found some plants of ‘caerulea’ for sale in an Edinburgh shop and just couldn’t resist buying one – and, of course, taking lots of photographs of the extraordinary flowers. Later on, I managed to buy a plant of Passiflora ‘Amethyst’ (top photo) and became thoroughly hooked on these beautiful climbers.
For photography they’re a wonderful subject. From further away, the flower is graceful. Every part of it is elegant. There’s the shape of the petals and the way the strands of the corona are held in a ring. And then there’s the sculptural quality of the reproductive parts of the flower.
If you come closer in, there are plenty of details to photograph. You have the way the strands of the corona change from dark purple at the centre, to white, to blue at the outside. You’ll also see the dark purple mottling of spots that covers the three ‘styles’, with more, less pronounced purple spots on the five green ‘filaments’ that hold the anthers.
The plants in these pictures were in pots sitting on a tiled conservatory floor, so I used a large sheet of white paper to give a plain background. Because the plants can be an untidy mass of leaves and stems, each flower was gently disentangled from the rest of the plant and the stem holding it was stretched across the white background. This isolated the flowers, got rid of background distractions, and allowed a bolder image to be made.
For the photograph at the bottom, I decided to simplify things further and removed a few of the leaves on that stem. (Cruelty to plants!) Then I placed the flower, with its leaf and the little tendril, in a way that would create a composition with the shadows that they cast.
Before taking close-up photographs like this, it’s a really good idea to check that there’s no dust or bits on your backdrop and that there aren’t any wee beasties in the plant (unless you want them there). It’s frustrating to open an image in Photoshop just to find some tiny critter practically waving and shouting, ‘Yeah, I’m here!’ And if you have pets, don’t forget to check for hairs. I have two cats, one long-haired, and it’s just amazing to see where those fine hairs can get to. (Thank goodness for Photoshop’s heal and clone tools!)
I’m always on the lookout for plants that will make good photographs. Many of the plants in the garden here are chosen this way. So you can imagine my delight when we moved into this house and I discovered that the neighbours had a blue passion-flower that was sneaking under the fence into our garden. There was great excitement when the first flowers opened. Sadly, the plant disappeared. I don’t know if it was due to a very cold winter or if the neighbours decided to get rid of it.
As you would expect, I soon got some plants of my own and the two you see in the photos here are currently living in our conservatory. (I’m trying to learn not to over-water them. They like better drainage than I had thought and I’ve nearly lost them a couple of times!)
In the garden, I’m trying ‘Constance Elliot’, which has pure white flowers and is said to be scented. It’s growing over an arbour and seems to be doing well but I don’t know if it’s hardy enough to come through a cold winter. (Mulching it should help.) It hasn’t flowered yet – that’s something to look forward to next year.
If you’re reading this from somewhere warmer than the UK, passion-flowers may be a common sight for you. You may have some of the more tender varieties that, here in England, I can only dream of. I wonder if there are plants that won’t grow where you are, that you really wish you could have? Do let me know in the comments!
Autumn is the ‘berry time’ of year. In our neighbours’ garden, a rowan tree is now heavily laden with glistening red fruits.
This small tree reminds me of the rowan trees that grew in the garden of my childhood home in the north of Scotland. Rowans can often be seen growing beside houses throughout the Scottish Highlands.
In the past, these trees were seen as a ‘lucky’ tree – a superstition which was a diluted form of earlier beliefs in the rowan’s magic powers, especially as an antidote to evil.
In Britain, the rowan was once regarded as one of the most powerful protectors against the forces of darkness. It was believed to keep away witches and malicious spirits and to avert the evil eye.
Witches were believed to be afraid to come near a rowan tree because, if a christened person should touch a witch with any part of the tree, then the Devil would be entitled to carry her away to Hell as his tribute.
Faeries and spirits also kept their distance from the rowan. An old tale tells of a woman who prevented a ghost’s return to its grave by barring its way with a rod of rowan.
Another tale shows that even the Devil himself was believed powerless against the supernatural force of the rowan. A young miller’s apprentice had rashly arranged to meet the Devil. His anxious friends advised him to take a rowan branch with him, draw a circle around himself with it and, whatever happened, to remain within the circle.
When the Devil appeared, he threw a book to the boy and asked him to write his name in it. The boy refused to return the book. Enraged, the Devil made the most terrifying attempts to reach him, but could not break through the magic circle. Defeated, the Devil eventually disappeared, leaving his book in the hands of the startled apprentice.
Since any part of this magical tree was able to turn aside evil, both its wood and its berries were used to make charms.
To make a more powerful charm, red thread was combined with rowan because red, as the colour of blood, possessed a strong magic. Red rowan berries were strung on a red thread to make an amulet which could be placed around the neck of a child to keep it safe from the powers of the unseen world.
”Rowan tree and red threid
Gar the witches tyne their speed”
(Scots traditional charm, gar = makes, tyne = lose)
Red thread was also used to bind rowan twigs in the form of a cross which was frequently used to protect young children and livestock. During the dangerous period before baptism, when a new-born child was particularly at risk from witchcraft, the evil eye, or even abduction by faeries, a rowan cross might be fastened to its clothing or to the cradle.
Beltane (1 May) and Halloween were reckoned to be the most dangerous times of the year, because evil forces were then at their strongest. To stay safe, it was wise to carry a sprig of rowan or even to have a piece of rowan wood sewn into your clothing. You might also place a rowan cross above the doorway of your house to make sure that no witches could get in.
It was thought unlucky to use rowan for ordinary firewood, or to cut one down, except for special uses. The tree that protected the Scottish Highlander in life, sometimes protected him in death too, for a coffin or bier made of rowan wood was regarded with great respect.
During its long history as a magical protector, the rowan has earned affection and respect. Nowadays, however, it is more valued as a graceful garden tree which is also very beneficial to wildlife. Next time you see one, I hope you’ll think of the significance the rowan has had for our ancestors and, maybe, imagine how they felt about it. Sometimes a tree isn’t just a tree!
I’m intrigued by beliefs, superstitions and folk-tales about the plants that surround us. I’d love to know more, so if you know any, I’d be delighted to hear about them in the comments……
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!
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!
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.)
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!)
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!
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…
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!
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!
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!
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!)