It’s the time of year when gardeners start peering anxiously at their plants, looking for signs of life. Are there new shoots emerging from the ground? Some leaf buds perhaps? Anything to show that the plant has made it through the winter?
But, as any gardener is unfortunately all too aware, it’s not just the winter that can kill our plants. There are all sorts of possible mishaps. Here, building work has been one of the biggest dangers to our garden plants in the last couple of years.
We’ve had several things done to our house, the main one being the addition of a conservatory. So there have been piles of building materials parked around the garden.
The resulting chaos was made worse by our decision to reclaim and re-use the brick pavers from the big old patio area where the conservatory was to be built. And, of course, they needed to be piled somewhere out of the way. Like the bit of border that has been overrun by a huge mass of Japanese anemones and is desperately in need of renovation…. and all before I could think to warn that there were other plants there too.
To be honest, I’d forgotten precisely where the hellebore was and it wasn’t until I saw one lonely hellebore leaf poking out between a couple of bricks that I realised that it had pretty much been covered. The bricks were removed but I didn’t really expect the plant to survive. There seemed to be too little of it left. That made me feel both sad and guilty because it was such a lovely little plant and one that I had enjoyed photographing.
So you can imagine how surprised and delighted I was to discover that it was growing again and this year it has even managed to produce some flowers. (I feel as if it has forgiven me! And I’ve promised it that I’ll take better care of it in future!)
It’s extraordinary how strong the life force in plants can be and how they can often tolerate conditions that really should kill them. (I know, it’s true that the plants that you try to get rid of – the weeds – that seem show the most determined ability to survive.) Every so often you get a wonderful surprise when a plant that you fear has died reappears, when new buds grow on what look like dead stems, or when new seedlings spring up from old plants unexpectedly. That vitality can certainly be something to celebrate!
The first crocuses are in flower and it feels as if spring is on its way. The sun grows brighter and stronger, the air is quite a few degrees warmer, and the daylight is lasting for longer. Winter, at last, is receding and it feels good to get outside and enjoy the re-emergence of life in the garden.
Winter can be a time when life runs at a bit of a low ebb. Most days are too cold and grey to wish to spend a lot of time outdoors and you really just want to keep warm and dry. (But, if there is a warmish winter day, with perhaps a little bit of sun, then I do try to get some gardening done. It raises my spirits and allows me to escape the incarceration of being stuck indoors.)
Spring is an invitation to go out into the garden and look for the start of new growth. Right now the snowdrops are still in flower, crocuses are showing as little flashes of colour here and there, and the daffodils are promising flowers soon, as their leaves lengthen and their buds fatten.
The long wait of winter is almost over. It’s time to start work in the garden again.
There’s lots to do – new borders to dig, weeds to get rid of, and old dead growth to be cleared away to allow room for the new shoots. The work is invigorating and brings a connection to the earth and the life that is quietly pulsing within it. That connection creates an awareness of the natural world. It gives a feeling of being part of that world, and of well-being and pleasure at being able to contribute to it.
If you’re coming to the end of winter wherever you live, I hope that you’re starting to see the signs of spring. Do enjoy them!
By this stage of winter, the idea of lush green growth is tremendously appealing. It’s easy to dream of densely-planted borders bursting with re-emerging life – new shoots, unfurling leaves, and buds that swell with the promise of flowers soon to come.
Amongst all this imagined greenery, ferns would be an excellent addition. Their finely-cut fronds would contrast well with larger, more solid leaves and would bring their delicate textures and a subtle feel of pattern to the border.
For photography, ferns make an excellent subject. There’s lots of pleasing detail, especially in the new foliage. The tightly-wound curls of the young fronds are especially photogenic and the outside surface of the curl (the back of the frond) can be surprisingly hairy and looks soft to touch.
(Saying that has made me realise that I didn’t actually touch them. I could have put out a finger to stroke the back of a curl, but I didn’t. Perhaps I should have. Taking photographs can absorb you so that you forget to interact with plants – or a garden – in ways that you would do, if you were walking around without a camera. So maybe I need to leave my camera in its bag for a while and explore the garden, before I start to take photographs.)
In my real garden (as opposed to the imaginary borders where anything will grow), it is too hot and dry for most ferns. The Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) is reckoned to be able to cope with drier conditions than most, but that is if it’s in the shade. Most of our garden gets a lot of sunshine, but there is one area that is shaded by the house in the afternoon. Now I am wondering if that bit of ground might be suitable for making a bog garden and I’m imagining the other moisture-loving plants that would also be happy there. (Though there are ferns that don’t need such damp soil.)
If I do go ahead with this idea, the beautiful green growth of ferns would be a very satisfying reward. (Meanwhile, my imaginary garden is flourishing!)
Blue flowers are beautiful but those that are truly blue aren’t common. Those that come to mind first are delphinium, cornflower, salvia, morning glory and plumbago. Many of the flowers that we think of as blue have a hint or more of purple, mauve or lavender in their colouring.
I’ve been sitting comfortably inside while it’s been cold and sleety outside, looking through photos taken in the garden here. Working my way through them has made me aware of how often I choose to grow flowers in the purple-blue and mauve colour range.
The second photo of a clematis shows a very similar colouring to the first photo. (But you’ll see that the bud in that first photo develops very differently as it matures….) Violet-purples and lavender-blues seem to be very common colours for clematis. That can make it hard to choose between them.
The way the colours in the petals bleed into one another is very delicate. It’s almost like the way watercolours blend into each other and is something that I’m keen to try and capture in a photograph.
The purply-blues, lavenders, mauves etc seem to all mix quite easily with other colours but not always with ‘true-blues’. However, the penstemon above seems to have managed this perfectly. Maybe nature can teach gardeners a thing or two about colour combinations. But, I prefer the colours in the flowers below, where the blue is a bit softer and seems to blend more gently with the lavender – perhaps there is a touch of red in the blue.
Going much more to the mauve/pink end of the colour range, there are many flowers that look beautiful and mix with the darker purple-blues very happily.
The hydrangea in the photo below grew in my previous garden in Scotland. The flowers on this shrub shaded from blue through to a mauve-pink. Evidently our soil there was not acid enough to turn the flowers completely blue, but the soft blending of the colours on the petals was lovely. (Here in Suffolk, blue hydrangeas turn pink – no chance of keeping one blue!)
The mauve-purple of the Allium ‘Cristophii’ has a lighter feel to it than the blue-purples but looks good with them. It’s an easy colour to use and the flowers are very attractive, so it’s good to see them self-seed around the garden.
So, while I may not have many real blues in the garden here, I’m very happy that there are so many photogenic flowers in the different purple shades.
At the start, I said you’d see how that clematis bud’s colours developed…. here it is…. Yes, it is the same flower!
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!
I’m lucky that East Anglia has some great gardens to visit. Last weekend there was the chance to get over to the Fullers Mill Garden near Bury St Edmunds, before it closes for the season. (It’s open from the start of April until the end of September every year.)
The garden is entered by a narrow lane that passes through the edge of the ‘Kings Forest’, Forestry Commission woodland at West Stow. So as soon as you arrive, you are surrounded by the sound of the wind rushing in the trees. This changes when you get right into the garden and arrive at Fullers Mill Cottage – now the sound you will hear is the River Lark forcing itself through a narrow weir before it spreads out again and becomes calmer on its journey through the garden.
As you continue into the garden, the sounds from the forest and the weir recede and you’re surrounded by a feeling of tranquility and calm. Even when the garden is full of visitors, you can find a quiet spot just for yourself. (And if you’re lucky, it might just happen to have one of the benches that are dotted around the garden.)
The original garden at Fullers Mill was small when the creator of the garden, Bernard Tickner and his wife Bess bought the cottage in 1958. Over a period of more than 50 years, Bernard was able to gradually buy land from the Forestry Commission and turn it from rough ground into a garden filled with a vast collection of plants, many of them uncommon and unusual.
The first area to be developed was the ‘Low Garden’ (Photographs above and below). The terraces here are full of flowering bulbs in spring, and in summer there are the beautiful flowers of the giant lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum.
Bernard said that his ‘gardening heroine’ was Beth Chatto and reckoned that there was a similarity in the way both gardens grew and developed over time. The gardens now cover seven acres and offer a wide variety of planting conditions. While the Low Garden has a mix of shady and sunny areas that suit woodland plants and lilies, the Top Garden has poor soil and dry conditions, so is much better suited to Mediterranean plants. Moisture loving plants are happy around the mill pond and along the river and stream banks. (The garden has both the River Lark and the Culford Stream running through it.) There are open areas too, so sun-loving plants can also be found a suitable home.
One of the great things about having such a wide range of growing conditions is the sheer variety of plants that can be grown. I was amazed by the huge number of different trees, shrubs and perennials growing here. It made me wish that I had a better knowledge of plants and could recognise more of what I saw. I suspect that even then, I’d still find that there were a lot of rare or unusual cultivars here that I didn’t know.
For me, the wonderful collection of plants was an opportunity to take lots (and lots!) of photographs. I could easily spend days in this garden and still find that I wanted even more time for photographing the plants. (My husband did have some difficulty in getting me to leave the garden. Next time, maybe he’ll just leave me there!)
Despite the fact that there are large collections of plants (around 70 or more euphorbias and the same number of lilies and snowdrops are just a few of these), the garden is designed to be in sympathy with the character of its site. The river and stream areas are allowed to keep a fairly natural, informal look and the planting in the woodland areas feels very appropriate – somehow very ‘comfortable’ there. This is the sort of garden that I love. (I’m much less keen on formal gardens and have never come to like topiary or parterres – or even box edging.) Overall, the feel of the garden is unfussy and relaxed, and extremely welcoming.
In 2013 Fullers Mill Garden was gifted to Perennial, The Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society to ensure its future and keep it open for visitors to enjoy. Bernard remained involved with his garden right throughout his later years. (He died last year, at the age of 93.) In a radio interview when he was almost 90, Bernard said that he didn’t believe a garden was ever finished. ‘I’m still buying plants, much to Annie, the head gardener’s distress, because then she’s got to find a spot for them. And I say, ”You can find somewhere Annie, to fit those in”. And she does eventually…it may take a little while.’
You can hear the radio interview with Bernard Tickner here. It’s easy to hear, from listening to him talk, how much he loved the garden at Fullers Mill and how how happy it (and gardening) made him. That happiness is something that the visitors to the garden can’t help but share. It’s a delight to stroll around the peaceful grounds along the banks of the river and stream, to walk under the trees and to discover all the wonderful plants tucked into every corner of the garden.
Fullers Mill Garden is now looked after by head gardener, Annie Dellbridge and her team of gardeners and volunteers. They tend the garden with obvious loving care and make visitors very welcome. (The garden is open from the start of April to the end of September, on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can find full details on their website here.)
I fell in love with this garden and I know I’ll be back for several visits next year. And I even managed to bring a little bit of it home with me by buying a couple of white Japanese anemones and an aster, ‘Les Moutiers’.
Bernard Tickner said he liked the idea of buying a plant raised in a garden as a memento of it. But then, he was a man thoroughly in love with plants. I’ll give him the last word here, because it’s something I feel too (and I do hope he’s right!): ‘I love plants. Once you’ve got the ”disease”, you’ve got it for life. It doesn’t ever desert you.’
There’s been a change in the last week or so. Early mornings have been misty and daytime temperatures have dropped enough to make it feel like time to put the summer clothes away. (Though after the extremely hot days we’ve had this summer, anything ‘normal’ will feel very cool.)
We’re no longer woken by the light in the early hours of the morning and the evenings suddenly feel darker.
I love the beauty of autumn – the changing colours and (especially) the softer light that it brings. It’s a light that has lost the harsh glare of summer, making it much better for photography.
Even so, I always feel a slight melancholy at the ending of summer. It’s something I’ve felt since childhood. I was brought up in Caithness, the ‘far north’ of Scotland, where it seemed to hardly get dark at all on summer nights. That, coupled with the long school holidays created a marvellous feeling of freedom and unlimited time. (And the windy winter days, when darkness would fall by about 4 pm were, by contrast, something to dread.)
Now, as a keen gardener, it’s not just the leisure of summer that I miss, but all of its plants and flowers too. I miss watching new leaves unfurling and buds fattening up and showing that first little sliver of colour before they pop open and reveal their glorious petals…..but this year is different. Because I can see that I need to be more positive and enjoy the moment rather than regretting the fact that summer is ending. Instead, it is time to plan for next year and to do the work that was impossible in summer. (Right now that means digging. A lot of it. The hot weather meant that the ground became rock hard and my plans to dig a pond and new borders have been put off until this last couple of weeks. It’s amazing how much easier a drop of rain makes the work!)
Of course, new borders means new plants too. The fun part! And time to indulge in a bit of fantasy…. That’s where the photo at the top comes in. I saw the acidanthera in a garden last September and was impressed by how graceful they looked. (Much taller than I expected too.) So now I’m imagining how lovely they would look reflected in the planned pond and thinking what else might look good on that side of the garden – particularly if it’s a plant that looks good now and helps to extend the life of the border later into the year. (My overall plan is to have a garden with plenty to photograph for as much of the year as possible.)
The white hibiscus was in a garden I visited a few weeks ago. It has a simple elegance which I think would look good if I keep the planting around the pond fairly unfussy. (And I already have a couple of other hibiscus bushes in the garden which still have some flowers, so there’s a decent length of flowering period.) The white hibiscus with red markings (below) would echo the colouring of the acidanthera but would be a bit much if planted close to them and could look too fussy in the pond area.
Other flowers that could look good planted in my imaginary (so far!) border would be white gaura, with it’s flowers that look like dancing little moths or tiny butterflies and the dark buttons of the tall red scabious that already seeds itself around my garden.
My mother would never have approved of this white and red border – she always said the two colours should never be used together for cut flowers because it was unlucky. (The colours suggest blood and bandages, apparently.) And this was from someone who denied that she was the slightest bit superstitious…hmm. (Anyway, a real border would have other colours too – not sure what yet.)
It’s quite fun to design a fantasy border, and to finish with, I can’t resist adding a clematis to the mix. (They’re one of my favourites and I find them very hard to walk past in the garden centres. This one is in my garden already and it’s called ‘Ville de Lyon’.)
If you have any suggestions for planting to go around my pond and the border behind it, please do add them in the comments. I’m happy to gather as many ideas as possible because the pond and border will be a reality next year – I’m digging them at the moment!
I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy visiting other people’s gardens. They’re a great source of both pleasure and inspiration. One of my favourites to visit is the lovely garden created by the late Beth Chatto at Elmstead Market in Essex.
Fortunately for me, I live in the neighbouring county (Suffolk) and I’ve been able to visit the Beth Chatto Garden many times over recent years. But my first visit to the garden was much earlier, while I was still living in Scotland. At the time I was still fairly new to gardening and Mrs Chatto’s book, ‘The Green Tapestry’ had just come out. The book soon became one of my most relied-on sources of information about how to create a garden, so it was a great treat to actually be able to visit the garden that had inspired it.
As you walk into the main part of the gardens, your eye is caught by a series of four large ponds that form the impressive centrepiece of the garden. The water-garden was created to take advantage of water coming from a natural spring and to solve the problem of what would otherwise be heavy, waterlogged ground. The results are beautiful and invite you to wander and linger or just have a seat on one of the benches and relax.
It was late spring when we visited and there was new growth everywhere. The garden changes a lot with the seasons and can be dramatically different when the plants have grown to their full size later in the year. Our previous visit had been last autumn, so this felt like quite a contrast, with everything very fresh and green and full of promise for the summer.
Many of the plants here are familiar to me from Scottish gardens – candelabra primulas, gunnera and ferns particularly – but sadly they won’t grow well in my own very hot and dry garden. (One of the things I learned through reading Beth Chatto’s books was the importance of choosing the right plant for the situation. I’m afraid I condemned a few plants to a slow death by putting them in entirely the wrong place in my earlier gardening days!)
The planting in the garden is a delight. I love to see the way texture and shape are contrasted (as in the photo above). Actually, I’d really like to grow Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ in my own garden because the lines on the leaves make it a great subject for black and white photographs. (The wild arum keeps popping up here, so it should do well enough.)
Our visit to the Beth Chatto Garden was partly prompted by wanting to get ideas for making a pond in our own garden. (OK, so our pond will be absolutely tiny in comparison, but you might as well look for inspiration from the best!) And there’s a nursery at the garden, so inspiration can easily turn into a few plants to take home with you…
Of course, there are plenty of familiar plants that I can (and do) grow, like the alliums, camassia and forget-me-nots in the border above. And then there’s the plants that I could grow when I lived in Scotland, like the rhododendron below. (Ah, now I really wish I could grow that here!)
The gardens have far more than I can possibly describe here. There appears to be just about any habitat that you can think of – water garden, woodland, shady areas and the sunny scree beds. And then there’s the famous gravel garden with its drought-tolerant planting – it has been a great source of inspiration for our own very dry garden. It’s a garden that I feel I can thoroughly recommend to anyone visiting this area, at any time of year. There’s a nursery and a good tearoom too, so you can easily spend a few hours here.
As you will probably know if you read gardening papers or magazines, Beth Chatto passed away in May this year, aged 94. She has been an inspiration to many and I know that a lot of my own enthusiasm for gardening has come from reading her books. I feel that her legacy is not just in the beautiful gardens that she has created, but also in the love of plants and the understanding and knowledge of them that she has shared with other gardeners.