Little Pretenders: Hoverflies

Hoverfly on red scabious
A marmalade hoverfly on red scabious. (The commonest hoverfly in the UK.)

This year I’d like to make my garden a bit more wildlife-friendly. (You can see my previous posts about gardening for bees – Bees’ Needs: Flowers! and Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees – by clicking on the links.)

Bees are not the only pollinators that I’d like to encourage in the garden. Hoverflies are important for pollination and their larvae have a valuable role as predators of aphids and other garden pests. (There are always plenty of greenfly around here, so there should be plenty to keep any hoverfly babies munching!)

It can be easy to confuse hoverflies with bees or wasps. (They don’t sting but they mimic stinging insects so that birds are less likely to try eating them.) If you look at the photo of the honeybee below, you can see that there are differences between the common ‘marmalade hoverfly’ and the bee.

Bee on tithonia 2587
Not a hoverfly! This one is a honeybee (on a tithonia flower).

The bee here is generally a bit more furry-looking. (You can just see that there is a hairy patch on the front of the bee’s head and that its thorax is also hairy. Compare that to the thorax of the hoverfly, which is shiny and looks almost metallic in the sun.) The hoverfly has much shorter antennae and has just two wings, whereas the bee has four wings. (It’s hard to see that in the photo. You might just about be able to spot the separation at the back edge of the two wings on the nearest side of the bee.)

However, there are many other types of hoverfly (over 270 in the UK) and some look much more like bees than these. There is a difference that will help you tell which is which. Hoverflies have large eyes which cover the front and side (i.e.most) of their faces. A bee has eyes on the side of its face and they are much smaller and an oval shape.

It’s likely that some of the different ‘bees’ I thought I’d spotted in the garden were really hoverflies. Maybe I’ll learn to identify some of them… if I can move quick enough to photograph them!

Hoverfly on giant scabious
Hoverfly on Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious).

It’s very worthwhile to grow flowers that will attract these useful little beasties. They have shorter tongues than bees, so aren’t attracted to some of the deeper, bell-shaped flowers (e.g. foxgloves and penstemons) that bees like. Instead they prefer more open flowers where the nectar and pollen is easy to get at. They really like the daisy types like the aster below and umbellifers such as the fennel and wild carrot that grow in the garden here. One of the flowers that I often find them on is the scabious – as you can see from the photos.

I like watching hoverflies dart around amongst the flowers. They are fast and very agile (even flying backwards) and they add to the feeling of life and energy in the garden. I hope to see lots more of them this year – and maybe a few new ones – even if they do fool me into thinking that they may be bees or wasps!

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Hoverflies like daisy flowers, like this aster.

Frost-Magic

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A geranium leaf is lit up as the sun starts to creep over the garden fence.

The frost has been back again, giving us some chilly but sparkling mornings. I’ve been grateful to see it because we’ve reached the stage of the year when there are few flowers or plants left to photograph.

Stalking around the garden, camera in hand, I’m usually on the lookout for images that are only made possible because of the frost: veins on a leaf picked out in white, petal edges encrusted as if they’ve been dipped in sugar, or tiny crystals of ice building up on frozen plant surfaces.

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Tiny, frozen winter jasmine flowers with ice crystals building up on them.

The shady areas of the garden retain the most frost, and that shade can give a slightly blue tint to the white, which creates an even colder appearance. The lack of light makes it hard to get much depth of field in the photographs, even at fairly high ISO values. (I could use my tripod, but it’s much too cold to stand around for long and my feet feel warmer if I keep moving around.)

As the sunlight gradually starts to seep into the garden, I look for places where the frost has begun to sparkle in the sun. There won’t be much time before the frost begins to disappear as it warms up. This means I have to work quickly to capture the images that have attracted my eye.

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This climbing hydrangea is in one of the coldest parts of the garden, shaded by the fence and a tree.

Eventually I’m either too cold to stay out any longer or the frost has started to melt and drip off the wet plants. So it’s time to head indoors, first wrapping my camera in a large plastic bag to protect it from getting covered in condensation in the warmer air. (Outside, it’s all to easy to let the viewfinder get steamed up by my own breath – a frustrating interruption to taking the photographs!)

Once indoors, it’s time for a well-earned mug of coffee and a chance to get warm again while looking to see what new photographs I have. Frosty mornings can be productive and very satisfying!

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The frost on this fig leaf will soon be gone, now that the sun has reached it.

Late Summer Heat

Tithonia-2574
One from my own garden – tithonia. (Mexican sunflower)

This post is a follow-up to last week’s ‘Late Summer Colour’. In it, I mentioned that I’d seen several especially striking orange flowers during my visit to Fullers Mill Garden and that I’d save them for their own post.

I’ve also included a couple of flowers from my own garden. The first is Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’, which is so brilliant in the sunshine that the colours almost shimmer. And the other is the vibrant red-orange echinacea in the final photo. (I couldn’t resist buying this one, as a change from the pink echinaceas that I’ve grown in the past.)

Orange-Crocosmia-Kniphofia-2-up
Left: Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie’ (aka montbretia).  Right: Kniphofia (‘red-hot pokers’).

So, back to the flowers at Fullers Mill… Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie’ was particularly showy, with larger flowers than any of the other crocosmias that I’ve seen before. The richness of the orange, with the deep red markings and the glow from the light shining through the crocosmia’s petals made me think of a sumptuous silk.

Near the crocosmias were the bold flowers of red hot pokers (kniphofias), looking like fizzing orange rockets spurting up from the ground. (Which makes me wonder if it would be possible to plant a border to suggest fireworks. That could be fun!)

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Flower of Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie’

A little calmer than the dazzling oranges of the crocosmias  and kniphofias were the bi-coloured flowers of the heleniums. The helenium is certainly less flamboyant than the others. Even so, the golden-yellow and reddish-orange of its petals are vibrant, and they have a warmth that is typical of many of our late summer flowers.

Heleniums 2888
Helenium flowers (aka sneezeweed) radiate warmth.

Earlier in the summer the gardens in this area had a lot of the cooler colours in them – reds and pinks that contain some purple, magenta, lavender, blue and white. (We probably choose these colours because we want to create a suggestion of coolness to offset hot temperatures.)

But now, as the season gets closer to its end and the temperatures have dropped, the late-summer flowers are creating a feeling of warmth through their hot colours. (Which are enhanced by the warmer light towards the end of the day.) So these radiant orange flowers help us to hang on to the idea of summer for a bit longer – and I hope they continue to do so for a good while yet!

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Another flower from my garden – a brilliant echinacea daisy.

Late Summer Colour

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There were still some beautiful lilies in flower – just asking to be photographed!

This year I haven’t had a lot of time to visit gardens, but I did manage to visit one of my favourites this week.

Last year I wrote a post about a visit to Fullers Mill Garden near Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk. This year, my visit was slightly earlier and there were more plants still in flower.

Fullers Mill Garden 2993
A peaceful part of the garden.

Visiting a garden at different times is interesting because you notice different plants. And, for me, that means the chance to photograph them too.

This time, there were lilies still in flower, so I made a point of photographing some of those – also flowers I don’t see so often, such as eucomis and alstroemeria. There were plenty of the usual seasonal favourites: Japanese anemones, asters, dahlias, autumn crocuses, rudbekias, hydrangeas and hibiscus.

Pink flowers - lily and indigofera
Pink flowers – lily and indigofera

It was a bit of a surprise to find flowers that had long gone over in my own garden – things like indigofera, agapanthus and astrantia. Maybe having more moisture in the soil means that flowers can last for longer.

There were plenty of bright colours still, the most noticeable being the oranges of crocosmia, heleniums and ‘red-hot pokers’ (kniphofia). They’ll get a post all of their own soon.

Fullers-Mill-eucomis
Eucomis bicolor with developing seed pods.

Fullers Mill is an exciting garden for a photographer to visit because of the sheer variety of plants and the lovely setting of the garden itself. I particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to photograph the almost sculptural-looking seed pods of the eucomis. It’s a plant I rarely see, but now I feel it would be fun to have in my own garden so that I can take more photographs of it.

Fullers-Mill-grass-helenium
Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron (L) and a yellow helenium (R).

It was quite a windy day when we visited, so it was a challenge to photograph some of the flowers that tended to sway and dance in the breeze. The yellow helenium (above) was on of those that didn’t want to sit still and its petals look like swirling skirts – a dancer indeed!

Next year, I’d like to visit the garden in different seasons, especially in springtime. There is a great collection of irises which I’m sure would keep me happily occupied for a long time. But any time would be a good time to visit Fullers Mill Garden – there’s always something interesting to see and to photograph.

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Lavender-blue asters – one of my favourites of the season.

Daisies: Simple but Pretty

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The flowers of Anthemis tinctoria ‘E C Buxton’ glow in the evening sunshine.

Daisies – the kind you find in your lawn – are the first flowers that I remember being aware of as a child. (Though I was a few years older by the time I tried the fiddly task of making a daisy chain.)

Now, as an adult, I’m aware of the tremendous range of daisies – the different colours, sizes and growth habits that give each their own character.

That character can vary greatly because the daisy family (asteraceae) includes plants you would expect, e.g. asters, coneflowers, dahlias, marigolds – and a lot that are a surprise, for instance cornflowers, and, believe it or not, lettuce!

Echinacea 2486
The large flowers of echinacea give a naturalistic look to the garden.

The bold shape of the bigger daisies, such as echinacea, makes them a great plant to mix with more delicate plant forms for contrast. (I have lots of fennel and verbena bonariensis which create an airy feel, and wispy grasses give a softness too.) Add in other plant shapes – spires (veronica and veronicastrum maybe) and some bold leaves – and you have a border full of textural and architectural interest.

Aster-2466
This tall aster has flowers of a very attention-grabbing colour!

My own garden is in a state of constant change at the moment. (I think that most gardens probably are.) The main border that I’ve created over the last couple of years has filled out so much that the plants no longer have enough space. Some plants are busily setting seed everywhere while others have grown more than I expected. So there will be a lot of shifting plants around!

As I re-organize borders and create new planting areas, I hope to add lots more daisies, especially some of the late-flowering ones like heleniums and dahlias. (My plan is to create a garden that allows me the opportunity to take photographs over as long a period as possible.)

There will certainly be plenty of choice for me because the daisy family is vast, so there will be a colour, size and shape to suit any planting plan I come up with.

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Doronicum (leopard’s bane) flowers are a cheerful sight in spring and early summer.

Bees’ Needs: Flowers!

Bee on a borage flower
A bee enjoys the last of the borage flowers.

This week has been ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ here in the UK. This is an annual campaign where a number of groups come together to increase awareness of the needs of bees and other pollinators and ways in which we can help them.

Suddenly there seems to be a lot more interest in the role of gardens in helping wild creatures, especially insects and birds, to survive.

(This week, the ‘Gardener’s World’ TV show was all about wild meadow flowers and ways that we can encourage some of the same plants into our own gardens. And the major garden shows – Chelsea and Hampton Court – have an increasing emphasis on planting for wildlife.)

In reality, the desire to help our bees and pollinators has been growing steadily over the last few years but now there is much more information about what gardeners can do. (And, I think, willingness in gardeners to do what they can to help.)

I’ll link to some of the best bee info websites that I’ve found at the bottom of this post.

A bee on a red scabious flower (Knautia macedonica).
Bees love this red scabious (Knautia macedonica).

In our garden here in Suffolk, I’ve tried to plant flowers that would be a good source of pollen and nectar over a long period. For early and late in the year, there is Mahonia and Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, but I really need to plant more early spring bulbs, especially crocuses, and flowers that will last well into autumn.

Among the most successful of the bee plants in the garden here are borage, red scabious, alliums, lavander and catmint.

At the moment there is a big patch of borage plants – they seem huge this year – and, although the flowers are almost over, the bees have been very busy here.

The red scabious  happily seeds itself all around the garden and you can usually find a few bees on its flowers. Verbena bonariensis does the same thing, cropping up all over the place and keeping not just bees, but hoverflies and butterflies happy too.

A beekeeper has caught a swarm of bees in a skep.
L: Checking that the bees are comfortably settled in their temporary home. R: Waiting for latecomers.

One year, I got a bit more than I bargained for when a swarm of bees decided to take up residence in the cherry tree in our front garden. Luckily a nearby beekeeper was happy to take them away to a nice new home. It was impressive to see how deftly he was able to shake them out of the tree into his straw skep. Once the queen and the majority of the swarm were safely settled in the skep, the rest of the bees gradually joined them by crawling in through a gap left for them. Frost fleece came in pretty handy as a way of discouraging escapees!

I hope to increase the number of bee-friendly plants in our garden and to encourage other wildlife too, probably by growing some wild plants in odd corners of the garden. The idea of having a small ‘meadow’ planting area appeals to me and may be a project for next year.

I’ll be writing more about bees and gardens soon. In the meantime, here are some helpful (UK-based) sites if you’d like more information about planting for bees:

  • The Pollinator Garden – site by Marc Carlton. This site has more information than anything else I’ve found so far. Great planting list with details of what kinds of bees the different plants attract. Comprehensive information, including how to build bee hotels, creating garden meadows etc.
  • Save Bees and Pollinators  – The Wildlife Trusts. Information about the importance of pollinators and the threats they face. Links to information about how you can use your own garden to help them.
  • RHS Plants for Pollinators  – Royal Horticultural Society. Has downloadable plant lists for garden plants, wild flowers and ‘plants of the world’.
  • The Bumblebee Conservation Trust – has lots of information about different bumblebee species and their needs. Their ‘Bee Kind’ tool allows you to find out how many bee-friendly plants are in your garden. (It’s massive and goes on for 34 pages but you can also use it to see just the best plants for bees by clicking on ‘Only Show Super Plants’ in the filter bar.)
A bee on Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis is popular with bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Gleaming White

Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum)
The snowflake (Leucojum) looks like a snowdrop on steroids!

Last week I mentioned my friend Judy’s beautiful garden and that I’d been able to spend a morning taking photographs in it. While I was there, I noticed that there were a good number of white flowers sprinkled around the garden and I really liked the effect they created.

There’s something very fresh and delicate about the appearance of white flowers. If they were pure white, they could seem a little harsh. But many have yellow stamens or perhaps a touch of another colour on their petals, and this softens the effect greatly. Seen growing in great numbers, perhaps spreading their way amongst other flowers, the look they create can be  quite dreamy or fairytale.

White flowers of Anemone blanda.
Anemone blanda soon builds up to a healthy colony if it’s in the right spot.

In combination with the blues and yellows of other spring flowers, white is truly beautiful. It brings a lively sparkle and gleam to the garden and chases away the memory of winter greys.

The most enchantingly impressive sight in Judy’s garden that morning was a Clematis armandii which had become a great mass of flowers along a section of fence. Not only are the flowers beautiful to look at – they’re scented too. That’s a pretty good bonus!

White flowers of Clematis armandi.
Clematis armandii flowers practically sparkle in the spring sunshine!

I enjoyed the effect of these white flowers so much that I’m thinking about ways of bringing a bit more white into my own garden. A background of green foliage makes white flowers look especially fresh and lively, so that is something I’d like to try.

There are a few white flowers in my garden. The best are Gaura lindheimeri, which has flowers that look like a flock of tiny white butterflies, and the white pulsatilla that I photographed last month. There’s also a big old white lilac (Madam Lemoine) which has very scented double white flowers and is a joy to be near…except that it has one problem. When its flowers die, they turn brown but don’t fall and because this lilac has become very tall now, it’s difficult to prune them off. The dead flowers really spoil the look of this lilac, so I will have to get out my telescopic lopper on a pole thingy to remove them. That will most likely be exhausting but worth it!

Magnolia stellata flower.
Magnolia stellata brings a touch of the exotic to the garden.

Welcome to Spring

Scented 'Paperwhite' Daffodils
Scented ‘Paperwhite’ Daffodils

Daffodils…right now they are everywhere. This week we had the first ‘official’ day of spring with the arrival of the spring equinox. And right on cue, there are daffodils opening their cheerful flowers in a welcome to the new season.

Out in the country here, there are daffodils growing on the roadside verges outside houses and farms. In town, they’re at the start of garden paths or close to the front door. It feels as if everyone has some daffodils growing in a position where they’ll be both a welcome to anyone coming to their houses and a greeting to passers-by.

Daffodil 'Geranium'
Daffodil ‘Geranium’ has a lovely scent.

Outside my front garden there is a large ‘green’ – a wide area of grass with trees that stretches between the main road and the minor road that serves the houses here. In springtime, swathes of daffodils enliven this green, creating a colourful welcome for drivers coming into the town.

In our own front garden, we have a group of miniature daffodils growing in one of the borders, but most of our daffodils are in the back garden. Seeing so many daffodils by other people’s front doors makes me feel that I should grow some more by the front path next year, as a welcome to visitors and to ourselves when we return home. (Maybe a pot of  scented tazetta daffodils, such as ‘Geranium’ or ‘Paperwhite’ – they both have a delicious scent.)

'Ice Follies' daffodils
‘Ice Follies’ on the green outside my home.

A Little Survivor

Pink-freckled hellebore.
I thought I had lost this hellebore.

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.

Pink-spotted hellebore flowers.
Last year there was only a single leaf on this hellebore – this year it has managed to flower.

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!

Pink hellebore flower.
The usual view of a shy hellebore flower.

Signs of Spring.

Yellow crocus 'Zwanenberg Bronze'
Yellow crocus ‘Zwanenberg Bronze’

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!