Snow can bring a bit of magic to the garden at this time of year. It covers up the dead leaves of perennials, hides weeds and makes tiny sculptures from the seed-heads that you’ve left for the birds. And if there’s frost too, then those seed-heads become like icy Christmas decorations.
It’s rare for us to get snow at Christmas here in the east of England. In fact, in the last few days, hubby and I have been using a mild spell of weather to get work done in the garden. (It’s very pleasant if you manage to follow where the sun is as you work.)
Snow is more likely in January, when the temperature always seems to drop and you really start to notice the cold. If it snows, then there’s not much chance to get any work done in the garden. It’s a good time to grab a camera and go for a walk, looking for things to photograph.
There are water meadows very close to our house, so this is where we usually walk. They become a great plain of white, etched with the dark shapes of trees and the even darker waters of the river. After one especially deep fall of snow, the temperature had risen enough to let the top surface of the snow melt slightly but it then re-froze as it got colder again. This made for a very satisfying walk, crunching through that top icy layer into the soft snow beneath.
Back in the garden, the plants may all turn to soft mounds of white. It can be hard to remember which is which. Everything becomes unfamiliar, clean and, for once, immaculately tidy. These are the days when I don’t look at the garden and immediately begin to think of all the jobs that are waiting to be done there. Instead I wander around with my camera, looking to see what strange forms the snow has created from the plants.
The opportunity to take photographs in the snow is quite rare here and doesn’t usually last very long. (These pictures were taken some time ago.) So if it snows this winter, I’ll have to take my chance quickly and get out into the garden to see what transformations the snow has made.
Snow is part of our romantic image of Christmas – all white and crisp and ideal for sledging, snowballs and making snowmen. We very conveniently forget chaos on the roads, cancelled flights at snowbound airports and horribly slippery paths. Snow is an essential part of Christmas cards, holiday TV and happy childhood memories.
I won’t do a Bing Crosby and wish that all your Christmases may be white – it may be inconvenient for your travel plans or, if you’re reading this on the other side of the world, more than a bit unlikely! But I will say ‘May your days be merry and bright!’ I hope that you have a very happy Christmas.
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!
One of the ways I like to photograph flowers is to light them from behind. It brings out the translucent nature of the petals, allows the colour to glow, and shows up details that you wouldn’t see under normal front-lighting.
In the photograph of the yellow tulip above, I wanted to show the delicate lines of the veins in the petals. Without the back-lighting, they would have been pretty much invisible, but here, with the light coming through the petals, they are much easier to see.
The layering of the petals where they overlap one another creates areas of varying shade and this helps to give emphasis to the petals’ curving shapes. It also creates variations within the yellow of the tulip – more interesting, I think, than the flatter tones I’d have got if I had just lit the flower from the front.
While the yellow tulip was photographed to give a realistic image, the green clematis above has had its colour exaggerated by the lighting and it was then saturated a bit more in Photoshop. If the flower petals are thick enough, the light from behind can make the colour appear richer. However, if you give this technique a try, you’ll find that the results will vary with the strength of the light coming through the petals and how much the petals themselves allow light to pass through. If you use a flower with very thin petals, the colour may become much lighter and you could instead create an image with very soft, delicate colours – a lovely effect.
I can’t remember the name of the clematis below (this one grew in my garden in Scotland), but I hope I’ll find the same one again because these pinky-purply shades are among my favourite colours.
In this photograph, the petals on the left-hand side have the light coming through them from behind but the right-hand petals are lit from the front. That was because I wanted to light the centre of the flower to capture the detail there. As a result, the veins of the petals on the left show up very clearly, but the petals on the right have a much more solid appearance and you can see the slight magenta marking on the petal’s midrib.
A set-up like this is very easy to do if you can find a lightbox of the kind that’s used for viewing slides and negatives. These boxes have a translucent ‘opal’ top surface with daylight-balanced light tubes behind. All you have to do is lay your flowers on top and add some soft light to the front of the flower if you want to show the detail of the stamens etc. (Otherwise they would be likely to be in silhouette.) For the frontal lighting, you need to make sure that it isn’t too strong, otherwise it would drown the effect of the back-lighting. Soft, overcast light from a window would be the easiest thing to try.
If you try this back-lighting technique, remember to check that the light isn’t making your flowers hot and wilting them. You can always take them away from the lights in between shots, even give them a rest in some water for a while.
Comments are always very welcome – please feel free to add yours!
Sometimes I prefer the look of a photograph that has been converted to black and white, rather than the original colour version. And it can be even better if it has had some ‘toning’ added in Photoshop.
So why should that be? For some photographs, it may simply be that the original colours don’t work well together – as with the ‘Spider Lily’ above. The flower was growing in front of our house, which is painted ‘Suffolk Pink’. I didn’t like the pink wall as a background because it distracted from the flower too much.
Converting the picture to plain black and white got rid of the distraction but the result wasn’t terribly exciting, so the colour tones were added to create a bit of extra interest. This has given a look very like a cyanotype print which has been toned in tea. (Does that sound odd? Ordinary tea makes a great toner for cyanotype prints – takes the harshness out of the blue and turns the white paper a soft cream/brown shade.)
Other photographs may benefit from simplification. With the ‘Crown Imperials’ above, I was attracted by the lines of the veins on the petals, and to a lesser extent, by the way the curve of one of the leaves at the top echoes the curve of the petals below it. But in the original, the orange of the flower and the green leaves that contrasted with it competed too much for attention. Here, with the image as a monochrome, your eye can more easily follow the lines along the petals.
Both of the photographs below worked well in colour but the blue and brown duotone of the agapanthus and the warm pinky-brown monochrome of the astrantia give the images a new life. They have become something entirely different from the photographs I started with. (You can see the original colour photograph of the astrantia here. )
I think that the toned versions of the photographs work because their subjects no longer look as they do in nature. Without their normal colouring, the flowers are somehow unfamiliar. Because of this, they are able to be seen in a different way. Now there is a possibility that you may notice new details or simply react with feelings that the original colour versions wouldn’t have inspired.
It’s very satisfying to experiment with photographs in this way. There can be a restfulness, even an elegance, to the restricted colours in the final image.
If you fancy trying this on your own photographs, you’ll find that it’s not hard to do if you have an image-editing program. Photoshop, for instance, allows you to convert the photograph to black and white. You can then alter the colour in any way you like, using the ‘Colour Balance’ adjustment on the shadows, midtones and highlights or you can try the more complex controls available in the ‘Curves’ commands. (I should think that there are other possibilities with newer versions of Photoshop than mine.) And, of course, there are many other monochrome effects out there that you can try. You could have hours of fun with these!
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.’
One of the good things about photographing flowers is that it’s fairly easy to come up with different images of your subject. (Much easier than having to hike miles around a landscape to find a different viewpoint.)
Variations of the image can be created while photographing or afterwards in the computer, using an image-editing program.
The top image (a version of the photograph below) has had textures added to it in Photoshop to give a softer, more romantic feel.
These ‘textures’ are simply photographs of a textured surface, usually with just one all-over colour but perhaps with a darkened edge and corners to give a vignette effect.
Photoshop makes it possible to stack the textured images above the original photograph and then to alter the opacity of the textured images. (Imagine looking through a stack of images printed on clear plastic – that gives some idea of how it works.) Controlling the opacity of the layers means that you can decide exactly how much of the textured layers show in your final image.
In this case, the textures I used were an image of a canvas weave and another of a lightly scratched surface. The opacity of the scratched surface was set very low, so that it hardly showed, while the canvas texture was set higher and made more visible.
If you decide to try out this ‘textures’ technique, there is another Photoshop tool that you’ll want to use – ‘Blend Modes’.
Blend Modes give control over how the different layers interact with each other. This tool can produce very subtle effects but it can also create something decidedly weird. Trying out the different settings is the best way to find out what they do. (And time can all too easily disappear as you play with all the possibilities…)
To prevent the details of the main flower from being obscured, I kept the textures off this area. This also removed the colour of the textures from the flower, so I added a plain pale yellow layer to unify the flower with the rest of the image.
(It would probably be simpler to just blur the textured area over the flower. This would remove the detail of the textures but allow the colour of the textured area to remain.)
After taking the first photograph, I decided to try something a bit bolder. This time I chose a very dark green background. Because very little light was hitting the background, it looks almost black and creates a strong contrast with the flowers.
For the second photograph, I changed the lighting to add to the contrast. (Both were lit with studio flash.)
The first photograph had been taken with a soft, well-diffused light (a softbox brought close to the flowers and a large reflector to the side). The result was to give a very even light with the reflector bouncing light back into the areas that would otherwise have been in shadow. This allowed the details in the petals to show and helped to give a gentle, delicate feel to the photograph.
To create the more contrasty lighting for the second photograph, I simply moved the light further away (and, of course, turned up the light output to make up for the increased distance). Moving a studio light further away creates a ‘harder’ light with stronger highlights and shadows. (Just think of how the sun creates such harsh shadows – it’s a very distant light source.)
Taking the reflector away also increased the contrast by removing the light that it would have bounced into the shadows. I think the end result is probably as far as I could push the contrast before I started to lose too much detail in the petals.
As with the first photograph, I decided to play around with textured layers to see what the effect would be. The result is much softer than the original photo and goes to show how different the image can become once you start experimenting with the different possibilities. I think there’s plenty to keep me busy for quite a while!