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.

Winter Flowers

There’s still a little colour here in winter – just a few brave plants that choose to flower when it’s cold and grey. They brighten up the days and offer something to any bees that are awake and foraging.

It’s a pleasure to be able to wander into the garden to see the latest buds to have opened. Whatever helps to encourage me to go outside at this time of year has to be a good thing. Being rewarded by beauty and colour makes it easier to get started on some gardening.

winter-flowering iris
winter-flowering iris

As I enter the garden I’m pleased to see that a winter-flowering clematis is festooned with small bell-shaped blooms that have a deep red interior. To see the colour of these, you really need it to be growing above your head, so I have planted it to climb into a tall shrub (Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, shown last week). The clematis was planted only last year, so isn’t very big yet. But I’m happy just to see it alive and growing, because it was in a position that meant it could easily have been destroyed when the fence was replaced earlier in the year.

Further along the same border is the winter jasmine. The work of replacing the fence meant that this had to be cut back a lot, but it will recover in time. (It was a terrible straggly mess, all tangled up with a rampant honeysuckle that had started to look very unhealthy.) I had to give several shrubs and climbers a rather drastic pruning so that the fence could be got at. This has made me realise that I need to be more practical in the way that I plant the garden.

Melted frost on winter jasmine flowers.

Not far from the winter jasmine is an area planted with shrubs and a few garden thugs (mainly Japanese anemones and a very vigorous geranium). Hiding amongst these is the pretty lavender-blue Algerian iris. (Iris unguicularis – I can’t spell it without checking the RHS site.) This needs to be moved to somewhere where it can be more easily seen and photographed…my knees and back will be grateful for that! The flowers are delicate and easily damaged by the weather but they are soon replaced by more, so certainly earn their place in the garden.

As I continue towards the back of the garden, my attention is drawn to the mahonia with its great sprays of bright yellow flowers. This shrub is an extremely prickly monster and must be approached with great caution when working around it. It often stabs at me in a very ungrateful manner while I am trying to weed around its base. But I forgive it because it can look spectacular and its big spiky leaves give it a very bold, ‘architectural’ appearance all year round.

I had intended to add some new winter-flowering plants this year, but obviously that hasn’t been possible. (I suspect that many gardeners may be tempted to have quite a spending-spree when we can shop freely for plants again!) For the moment I am content to enjoy what’s already here. This is a quiet time in the garden and staying at home means I have plenty of time to plan future plantings. I hope that means I’ll be all organised for spring and summer…haha! (That would be a first!)

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

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)

Coming in Late

Hesperanthas tend to get nipped by frost here before they have much chance to flower. For some reason they always seem to flower late in my garden. They’re usually described as an autumn flower. (I’ve also seen sites say that they’re a late summer flower. But I certainly wouldn’t say November, or if I’m lucky, October is ‘late summer’!)

Maybe the late flowering is because the climate here is much drier than they like and they wait for the late autumn/winter rains to get them started. (They like that elusive ‘moist but well drained’ position that we don’t have very much of. There is the choice of well-drained and dry or yet more well-drained and dry. Adding compost helps but creating it takes time.) Plants that like damper conditions have to be kept watered in summer. Perhaps if I water the hesperanthas more thoroughly, they’ll flower a bit earlier.

I really wanted to photograph this plant before the frost could destroy the flowers, so I kept it in a pot under glass*. That worked well and it stayed in flower for a few weeks. Having the flowers protected from the weather meant that they stayed in great condition for being photographed.

This is a trick I often try with new plants – it allows me to have undamaged flowers to photograph and can make it much easier to get at them for photography too. (Once plants are in a border, it can be difficult to get near enough to them without trampling on their neighbours.)

Now that the photographs have been taken, I can plan where to plant out this hesperantha (or ‘river lily’). It will probably be a lot happier – especially if I manage to create an area that can easily be kept well-watered for all the plants that like moisture. (A bit like a bog garden without the bog.) I think that might be a challenge for next year.

POSTSRIPT: I was amused to see that I’ve misled some readers by using a common phrase in UK gardening. ‘Under glass’ just means in a greenhouse, conservatory or cold frame. The hesperantha has been in the conservatory for a while and will spend the rest of the winter in the greenhouse. It’s interesting to see how phrases we take for granted don’t necessarily travel well, hehe!

A Frosty Bunch

The frost caught the last few flowers that have been holding on in the garden. I love to see the effects of this and always hope that there will still be something around to be decorated by the first frosts. Some years it’s too mild here for that, and by the time the frost does arrive, the flowers are long gone.

Frosted flower of Scabiosa atropurpurea
A frosted flower and seed head of Scabiosa atropurpurea

But this year I’ve been lucky and still have some flowers, even now that it’s December. (I still find that surprising because there would have been none at all if we were still living in Scotland. Our garden there really seemed to go to sleep in winter.) And there are also the winter flowers – the newly emerged little yellow stars of winter jasmine and the glowing yellow buds of mahonia and pink ones of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. (These are just starting to open.)

I think the fact that there is still life happening in my garden at this time of year does a lot for my well-being. There are still interesting things to see (and photograph), and of course, lots more work to do!

Frosted flower of Geranium 'Rozanne'
Frosted flower of Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Being able to get outside into the garden is a real benefit at the moment, when Covid restrictions make it difficult to leave home. At least I don’t have to be stuck indoors and I can enjoy my (chilly!) garden without having to worry about the dreaded virus. Of course, I’ll be even happier when I can safely invite friends nearby to come and spend time in my garden with me. Luckily my online friends can visit easily and without any health risks!

Frosted flowers of Cosmos
The last of the cosmos flowers caught the frost too.

Here Comes Winter!

Winter is on its way. The first signs of its approach have begun to show here. Earlier in the week, there was a light frost. It had already melted by the time I got out into the garden with my camera.

That melted frost allowed me to photograph the gaura above, still covered in dozens of icy little droplets. Somehow these drops seem fresher and clearer than raindrops do. Maybe they are actually cleaner – rain must collect whatever’s in the atmosphere as it falls.

The way that flowers can become translucent after having been frosted fascinates me. It makes the flowers look quite different from the way they normally do. They become especially delicate and rather ethereal. The gaura in the top photo is now so see-through that you can easily see the drops on the backs of the petals right through the petals themselves.

I photographed the flower below a couple of days later, after a much harder frost. The sun takes a few hours to get into this part of the garden in winter, so I have a good chance of finding still-frozen flowers here. By contrast, at this time the other side of the garden was dripping quietly as the brilliant sunshine worked its way in. (I reckon that I should use the shadier areas for more plants that would look good frosted.)

After photographing the frosted gaura, I wandered around the garden to look for more frozen flowers. So that means I have more frosty photos to process for next week. In winter, I’m grateful for the photographic opportunities that frost brings – they help to keep me active until spring!

Frosted gaura flowers

No Return

Sometimes flowers don’t survive here for long. Last year these autumn crocuses were growing in little wall-mounted pots by our front door. Really, they needed to be planted in the ground. However, because they’re very toxic, I decided that it would be best to keep them somewhere out of reach of our cats.

So this year they haven’t come back. Totally unsurprising, given that they had so little space to grow in. But that’s OK – sometimes I’m happy to have a plant that I know will just be temporary. It can be enjoyed at the time (and of course, photographed), and valued for the brief enhancement it brings to the garden.

Most of our plants do come back from year to year. Others are a fleeting glory that remains only in memories and photos. For me, they give a bit of variety to both the garden and my photography.

These autumn crocuses may be gone, but, having given me something new to photograph, their images will remain.

Pause for Thought

A very wet weekend means that I am forced to stay indoors – unless I fancy a thorough soaking. But that’s not bad, because it gives me the chance to think about what I’m doing next in the garden.

I’m still working on building a pond and a new border running along that side of the garden. This has been my ‘Covid project’, although it actually started back towards the end of 2018. (Hubby offered to help this year, but I decided to continue on my own because it has given me a sense of purpose during this strange year.)

It has felt as if digging the pond would go on forever, partly because our dry ground is practically impossible to dig in summer. Also, I have found that the site for the pond has much more of a slope than I first realised. (It’s amazing how invisible a slope can be until you start using a spirit-level.)

I thought I’d finished digging the pond back in May. But the smaller sizes of pond liner were sold out when I tried to buy one, so I decided that I might as well make the pond bigger. More digging! (More soil to shift too.)

At last I’ve got to the point where I need to think carefully about the border around the pond. This area was always pretty awful – overshadowed and impoverished by huge conifers in the neighbouring garden and swamped by the few thuggish plants that could grow there. (The worst ones were two types of deadnettle. They’re valuable for bees but in our soil they just keep spreading…and spreading.)

Which brings me to the flower above – a Japanese Anemone. I’ve mentioned how invasive they can be in previous posts, but they are beautiful. This one was growing in a raised bed in the ‘pond border’ which was acting as a temporary nursery area. I’ve just cleared that bed away and potted up all the plants from it. But now I have to think about where to put them in the new border and whether they may cause trouble.

Since I know the anemone is a little trouble-maker, I’ve decided to keep it in a pot. (Probably many pots eventually…) It’s not the only plant that is making me pause for thought. I’ve just read that some ferns are allelopathic, meaning that they emit chemicals that suppress the growth of other competing plants. So does this mean that the particular ferns I want to plant out will damage the plants around them? I haven’t been able to find out so far. Maybe my ferns will also have to stay in pots.

Other plants are making me wonder too. Like the perennial sunflower I photographed back in August (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’). After struggling to grow for years, this has suddenly grown tall and wide. Will it now try to take over?

As it rains outside, I’m busily Googling all these plants. I need to find out which are safe to grow together without some being bullied out of existence by their bigger and more boisterous neighbours. Sometimes being a gardener feels more like being a referee!