Out for the Big Butterfly Count

Recently I wrote that there had been few butterflies in the garden this summer. And I had seen no Peacock butterflies. Happily, some have now appeared, as you can see from the top picture (where it shares the buddleia flower with a Red Admiral.)

There aren’t as many butterflies as in last year’s really warm summer, but it’s great to see some. A little bit of sunshine and the scent of the buddleias has brought them into the garden to feast and sun themselves – conveniently for the ‘Big Butterfly Count’, which finishes this weekend.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly
Small Tortoiseshell

The appearance of this Small Tortoiseshell butterfly was well-timed for my second go at the butterfly count. It’s the only one I’ve seen so far this year. In fact, I’ve only seen it a few times in the garden. I was delighted that I had my camera ready, and even happier that it didn’t fly away. (Most of the pictures here have been cropped from much bigger images because I couldn’t get close without disturbing the butterfly.)

Below is a butterfly that I’ve not noticed in the garden before. It’s a Gatekeeper and there were two of them, often in the same area. (The dark, band-like markings on the forewings of this one show that it’s a male.) These are common in hedgerows, grassland and around the edges of wooded areas, so they may have come from the woodlands across the road from us. There are plenty of trees and shrubs in the gardens around here and wilder areas with long grass too, so there could soon be more of them.

Gatekeeper butterfly
Male Gatekeeper butterfly

After I had photographed the Gatekeeper, I thought to myself that it would be good if I could find a Comma to photograph too. They are common butterflies and sure enough, a couple of them turned up. In fact the first one surprised me by landing on the grass at my feet and then deciding to perch on my leg for a while. So I got a rather dodgy photograph of that one and then managed to get a better photograph of the Comma below.

The butterfly that we see most often here is the Red Admiral. There’s usually several of these around on a sunny day and they’re pretty reliable when it comes to being around for the Big Butterfly Count. Afterwards they entertained me by chasing each other around the garden. It was amazing to see them spinning wildly through the air in the last of the evening sunshine.

Comma butterfly
Comma butterfly

While I was taking part in the butterfly count, I noticed that many of the butterflies came to feed on the buddleia plant that you see in the photographs here. This was good, because I hadn’t seen many on it before and I wondered if they preferred the paler purple varieties. This one is ‘Royal Red’. Here it looks more of a reddish purple but the colour changes a lot with the light and sometimes it’s a really lovely deep colour with more red in it. I’m glad to see that it does attract butterflies. I have several cuttings of it that are growing well, so I’ll plant them out in a sunny and sheltered area. Maybe they’ll bring in more butterflies for next year’s count.

There was a surprise while doing my first butterfly count for this year – a big hedgehog snoozing in the undergrowth! I haven’t seen one in this garden for a few years, so it’s good to know that they are around. It was worth having to restart that count just for the glimpse of him or her. (And don’t tell my cats, but I left out a bit of their food, which it ate pretty quickly.)

Red Admiral butterfly
Red Admiral on Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’

Wanderlust Strikes!

As spring gets a bit warmer, it feels as if it would be good to visit gardens and nurseries again. It’s a long time since I’ve been in anyone else’s garden and I’d really like to see something different to my own now. (The gardener’s version of cabin fever?)

Visiting gardens is one of my favourite ways to have a day out. I love to see how other people have created their gardens – often very different to whatever I might have come up with. It’s inspiring to see the imaginative ideas and beautiful planting that you can find in the best gardens. You can take ideas home to your own patch and you can discover plants that you may not see elsewhere.

If I see an unfamiliar plant that I like, I try to ask its name. But if there’s no-one to ask, it’s handy to have a camera or phone to take a quick photo. Afterwards I can spend hours with Google, just trying to find out what it may be.

The white-flowered shrub in the top picture really grabbed my attention. I was impressed by the generous numbers of delicately pretty flowers, but had no idea what it was. Eventually I found pictures of Staphylea (bladdernut) flowers. (Hooray for the interwebs!) So I think it’s Staphylea, possibly colchica, but hard to tell from a small photo. (I’m pretty sure that some of you will be familiar with bladdernuts, so if you know, please tell…I could be tempted to try to find one for my garden.)

Redbud tree flowers

The redbud (Cercis siliquastrum or Judas tree) above was a bit more familiar to me because I have seen a few of them since moving to England. (Scotland has a narrower range of garden plants, partly because of the cooler climate. So there have been lots of new plants for me to learn about here. Fun!) The first time I saw this in flower was the beautiful specimen in Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex. It is wonderful in spring – as is the whole garden.

The shrub below had me puzzled for a long time. It looked exotic for our climate and I think it was probably getting a lot of shelter from the old brick wall behind it. My blogger friend Liz at ‘Exploring Colour’ posted a photograph of the flowers of a Kowhai (Sophora sp.) growing in New Zealand here: https://exploringcolour.wordpress.com/2020/10/28/shining-bright/ Thanks for the answer Liz!

These photographs were all taken on a visit to Marks Hall Arboretum in Essex in April 2019. What a long time ago that seems! I had a very happy afternoon wandering around in their huge collection of trees and shrubs, seeing lots of plants that were new to me. (They reckon they have the largest collection of Wollemi pine in Europe.)

It will be great to have this sort of day out again. And to be able to visit the small nurseries around us too. (Garden centres have been allowed to stay open but the nurseries, which I prefer, are closed until April 12th.) When they open, I’m sure I’ll enjoy seeing new and unfamiliar plants there too – and, no doubt, buy a few!

Kowhai (Sophora) flowers

Signs of Hope!

Crocuses are, for me, the first signs that spring is on the way. Hellebores don’t give me the same feeling because they start flowering when it’s still winter. But crocuses, with their fresh and radiant colours, show us that the garden has begun to fill with new life.

Before long, there will be other flowers to continue what the crocuses have started. But for now these are the flowers that bring gardeners (and the first bees) joy.

Flowers of Crocus 'Prins Claus'

When I lived near Edinburgh, I enjoyed the sight of mass plantings of crocuses in some of its parks. These gleaming sparks of colour, sprinkled over lush grass, were a cheerful sight and a reassurance that the cold of winter would end. Seeing the brilliant flowers fully open in the sunshine was a reminder that summer would come and days would be warm and bright.

This year I think we need the promise of better days more than we ever did. I’m looking forward to being able to spend more time outside, especially now I am aware of how much we benefit from being in contact with nature. Soon we will be able to enjoy the natural world again, as spring gives us the chance to get out into our gardens and back to the countryside.

Crocus Prins Claus

The Ordinary Made Special: Frost

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.

frosted plants

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…

frosted hydrangea

Frosted Seed-Heads

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.

frosted honesty seed pods
The remains of honesty seed-pods sparkle in the sunshine.

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.

frosted fennel seed head
Fennel seeds look at their best with a thick coating of frost.

Snow Day

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.

Waiting for Snow

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.

Melting snow on Braeburn apples

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!

Half-hidden by melting snow – the seed head of a long-gone agapanthus flower.

Wishing You a Better Year.

None of us will be able to forget 2020 – the strangest and scariest of years. Here in the UK we are still keeping our heads down and trying to make the best of very restricted lives. I am especially aware of how lucky my husband and I have been. We have stayed healthy and we don’t know anyone who’s had Covid. (And I really hope it stays that way!)

We’ve also felt very lucky in having our garden this year. It has felt like a place of safety and refuge, especially during the first lockdown here. Although we are not yet of an age where we’d be particularly vulnerable to Covid, it seems that you really can’t predict what the effects may be on an individual. The possibilities of complications or long-term health effects has made us very wary of catching it.

Being able to spend time in the garden has been vital to our well-being this year. Seeing the garden as somewhere away from Covid, where we were not going to catch it, nor pass it on, was a great reassurance and comfort. There has been plenty of work to do in it, which has been a great distraction from the troubles of the world outside. It has also given a feeling of purpose to spending so much time at home. And the warmth of summer allowed us to appreciate how good the garden was as somewhere to just relax. Knowing that so many of our friends were also staying safe in their gardens was another reassurance.

But, of course, not everyone has a garden, and some who live in flats may not have easy access to outside space either. So I am very conscious of how lucky I am. And watching the bees, butterflies and other insects that have visited my little green space has felt quite special. It also gives me a feeling of responsibility – I can try to make this a better space for nature and a refuge for all sorts of little creatures. That makes my garden feel valuable and gives meaning to having to stay at home.

I hope that you’ve been able to find safety, comfort and something to help you cope with all the problems of Covid this year. And I hope that 2021 will be a better year for everyone. May you and yours stay happy and healthy and have the very best New Year.

Frosted leaves of Alchemilla mollis
Frosted leaves of Alchemilla mollis

Merry Christmas!

Somehow I feel that Christmas has sneaked up on me this year. It has arrived stealthily, without the normal fanfare. I don’t feel at all ready for it – which isn’t really a problem because our Christmas is fairly simple. But I haven’t noticed its imminent arrival in the way I usually would.

It’s probably partly due to spending so much time at home and being less aware of all the Christmas items in the shops. Not going out very much also means not seeing the Christmas decorations in the streets as often. And, of course, there have been none of the usual Christmas get-togethers that help to get us into the festive spirit.

Even if I’m a bit later than usual in getting the house decorated for Christmas, the garden could look suitably festive if we get a bit of frost. Nature seems well able to create her own sparkle and drama in the garden as the frost turns the remaining plants into icy sculptures.

Frost makes something special of the simplest things in the garden. The top photo is of fennel leaves. Most of the other fennel plants have died back for winter. This one, however, is a young seedling and has kept its leaves for long enough for the frost to turn them to a delicately etched tracery of tiny ice crystals. To my mind, it’s much prettier than any indoor decoration! The eryngium below (sea holly) had managed to produce some very late flowers and they look quite magical with a thick coating of frost. The sun had reached these, so the frost had started to soften and would soon disappear. Part of the excitement of frost, for me, is that it lasts for such a short time, so you have to make an effort to get out and see it at its best.

I hope that you are able to find some magic in your Christmas this year, despite the effects of Covid. I think that this year has reminded us all of how important our friends and family are to us, and how much we value their company. I hope that it won’t be long before we can plan to see them all again and enjoy being with those we care about. Until then, please take care of yourselves and I wish you fun and joy over the holidays.

Frosted eryngium (sea holly)
Frosted flower head of eryngium (sea holly)

A Daisy by Any Other Name

This week my garden is full of Michaelmas daisies. I would call them asters – but that isn’t necessarily true. Actually, I do still call them asters, even though some had their name changed a few years ago.

My preference for the old name is because the new name for some asters is such an awkward mouthful. ‘Symphyotrichum’ isn’t exactly easy to say and is even harder to spell. (If I’ve got it wrong, I can blame the RHS website, which is my usual go-to for spelling plant names.)

Bee on Michaelmas daisy
A happy honeybee enjoying these Michaelmas daisies.

And if that’s not bad enough, many other popular asters were given a different name – ‘Eurybia’. Well, at least that one is much easier to spell, but it makes life more complicated for gardeners. But then there’s also ‘Galatella’, ‘Doellingeria’ and others – argh!

In fact, I have no idea of the names of all but one of the Michaelmas daisies here. I know that the flower below is Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Les Moutiers’ because I bought it from a nursery. But the small blue daisy above and the dark pink one at the bottom were both given by friends and their names are a mystery to me for now.

(I think the top photo – taken in a garden I visited last year – is probably Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’. It’s a plant I’ve been meaning to buy for a while, but it will have to wait until it’s easier to go plant-shopping.)

Honeybee on pink Michaelmas daisies
Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Les Moutiers’ – just try remembering that at the garden centre!

Whatever their names might be, I love seeing the colours of these daisies at a time when we’ve been plunged into dull weather with grey skies and lots of rain. They cheer me up and remind me that there’s a while yet before winter approaches.

More importantly, the bees are busily (and buzzily!) making the most of the nectar and pollen provided by these flowers. Having flowers for bees and other pollinators as late as possible in the year is one of my aims for the garden. The asters are a big help with this.

Whenever I do get the chance to buy plants again, I’ll just have to make sure that I’ve written down the names of any Michaelmas daisies that I want. (And then I’ll have to check it carefully, because most of my books and quite a few websites are out of date.) That way I’ll have a better chance of remembering the names of the plants I want!

Dark pink Michaelmas daisy flowers
Aster? Symphyotrichum? Or Eurybia?