A Slow Start and Gradual Change

The cold weather in May has slowed down the development and flowering of our garden for June. Normally there would be plenty of flowers here, including these alliums (Allium christophii) that I photographed last year.

There aren’t even as many of the alliums as there were in the few years before. Last year there were a good number of them in the bed where the picture below was taken. This year there are only a few in the same place.

I know that other gardeners find that Allium christophii doesn’t always come back but I don’t know why…is it because the bulbs became diseased, were in soil that was too poor, or had they just reached the end of their lifespan? (The plants had a sunny and well-drained site which seemed to suit them.)

Allium christophii flower buds opening
Allium christophii flower buds opening

Luckily I have another patch of Allium christophii which has done much better. This is an older area that I had planted as a gravel garden and here the plants have multiplied over the years. Ironically, the way the alliums had spread in this area made me worry that they would take over the other, newer border too. (And that’s still possible because there are plenty of allium seedlings in both areas.)

The unpredictability of gardening and the way things change from year to year is one of the things that keeps it interesting for me. (How boring would it be if the plants always stayed the same year after year!) There are always new things to learn and different ideas to try out. And there are always surprises around the corner!

I’m glad that I do have the older patch of alliums that are doing well because I would hate to be without their little purple stars. The bees love them too, which makes them important for my future plans for the garden. I think I will try to move some of those tiny allium seedlings to another area. Then I can just leave them there to grow and develop into new bulbs. Hopefully, in a few years I’ll be surprised by a whole new batch of these lovely flowers.

Allium christophii

Trollius: Golden Globeflowers

This globeflower (Trollius chinensis ‘Golden Queen’) has been flaunting its gloriously sunny petals throughout a couple of weeks of unseasonably grey weather.

It has been a bright point to days that should have felt like the run up to summer. In combination with an orange geum (‘Rijnstroom’, photographed for this post) it has given a cistrusy zest to a new border that I’m building.

Actually, I don’t know if they’ll normally flower at the same time because I have just recently bought the globeflower from a nursery that keeps most of its plants in a large glasshouse. The extra warmth they get in there means that they can flower early. So I’ll just have to wait until next spring to see if the flowering of the globeflower will coincide with the geum.

Whether or not it flowers at the same time next year, I know I’ll be delighted to see it again. How could you do anything but smile, in response to such cheerfully golden flowers?

Trollius 'Golden Queen' (globeflower)

Buzz! Buzz! Bee-lated Celebrations!

I’m a few days late to celebrate ‘World Bee Day’, but I will anyway because I think every day should be a bee day. (It was actually this lovely bee portrait by Steve Gingold that alerted me to the significance of Thursday 20th May.)

World Bee Day was launched by the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association and has been supported by beekeepers worldwide. There’s a website for World Bee Day that tells you all about the importance of bees and the essential role they play in the production of our food.

I think we’ve all become more aware of how much we need bees and that we need to do what we can to help them. There are some good books and websites to advise on planting ideas if you have somewhere to grow flowers for nectar and pollen. It doesn’t need to be a garden, pots on a balcony or window boxes can help. And the flowers in my images below (zinnia, scabious, salvias, and a perennial sunflower) are all very easy to grow.

If you’re in the UK, Dave Goulson’s ‘Gardening for Bumblebees’ is very good, for both planting suggestions and information on the lives of bees. But if you’re in the US, you’ll probably find that ‘Pollinator Friendly Gardening’ by Rhonda Fleming Hayes is more useful. (I thought it looked very interesting and would have bought it if it had been relevant to the bees and native plants here. You do need to read something based on your own area to get the correct information for where you live.)

Websites by local wildlife trusts are also likely to tell you what flowers are good to plant in your area. For the UK, I’ve found the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has an excellent site with lots of information about gardening for bees, identifying the different bumblebee species, and the lifecycles and habitats of bumblebees. I like the site set up by the UK Wildlife Trusts too – they have a good section on bees. (I would suggest checking out your nearest wildlife trust or organisation if you live outside the UK.)

I have a lot to do still in my own garden to make it really useful to bees for as much of the year as possible. It feels like something very worthwhile that I can do to help increase the numbers of bees around. And if most gardeners plant what they can for bees, while also avoiding the use of pesticides, we will together make a big difference.

Every day should be a bee day!

Tiny Beauty: Spring Vetchling

The spring vetchling or spring pea (Lathyrus vernus) is one of those plants that needs to be seen up close to appreciate its loveliness.

It’s a relative of the sweet pea, but is far smaller and looks much more delicate. It doesn’t climb, but instead produces a rounded clump of leaves and flowers around 18 inches high and wide. The flowers are just 3/4 inch long.

Several different cultivars of Lathyrus vernus have been bred to give different flower colours. You can find plants with flowers in pink and white, plain pale pink, white or blue. The plant in my photographs is the original species.

These flowers start out purplish pink, but gradually age to a pale blue. This gives a range of different shades of colour which adds to the appeal for photography. In those areas where background flowers are out of focus, the colours have a softness that reminds me of watercolour paint (top photo).

While writing this, I have popped back into my studio and had a quick look at the flowers in their vase. I was delighted to discover that the flowers have continued to change colour even after picking. The remaining flowers are now almost all blue, so I should be able to take some quite different photographs of them. (In that case, next week’s post will probably be blue spring flowers.)

The spring pea’s flowers are amongst my favourites at this time of year. For me, the smallest flowers can be the prettiest.

Lathyrus vernus (spring pea) flowers

A Plant to Share: Billbergia Nutans

The cold weather this spring has meant that there is less than usual in flower in the garden. So I had to look elsewhere for something to photograph this week.

Luckily I only had to go as far as the conservatory to find a plant in full flower. This is Billbergia nutans (aka ‘friendship plant’ or ‘queen’s tears’ ), a bromeliad that comes from South America. There it can be found growing attached to the branches of trees in the rainforest. Despite the huge difference in conditions, it seems quite content as a houseplant and is very easy to grow.

This billbergia must be pretty hardy, because our conservatory is unheated and gets cold in winter. (The conservatory is used more as an indoor garden than as a normal living area and in the winter usually has plants brought in that wouldn’t survive outside.) There is sun in the morning and early afternoon, followed by shade and this seems to suit the plant well. It grows fast, and after being split in two, has quickly filled both pots.

Billbergia produces leaves which grow in rosettes with the flower stalk at the centre. These leaves are long and arching and as they grow older, their edges develop tiny spikes. For most of the year this is a very plain-looking plant with nothing to show but its clump of green leaves. But while it’s in flower, it does look quite spectacular.

The speed at which billbergia grows and produces offsets means that it really does deserve the name ‘friendship plant’. The young rosettes at the outer edges of the plant can be detached (when they’re at least 6 inches high) and potted up as new plants. The other name, ‘queen’s tears’ comes from the way that the flowers drip nectar onto the ground. (It’s very sticky!)

My plants have tightly filled their pots now, so I think it will soon be time to remove some of the young offsets. That means that some new plants will go out into the world, continuing the chain of shared plants. A happy thought!

Bilbergia nutans

Frothy Pinks: Cherry Blossom

After last week’s pink tulips, here’s more pretty pinks – but even frothier! (Or should that be fluffier – not sure, but this cherry blossom can out-pink anything else.)

The blossom on our cherry tree is late this year because April has been so cold. Not all of the buds have opened yet but it should be a very good show when they are. The tree must be a good few years old, so is a good size and is always completely covered in these soft pink flowers.

The tree is Prunus ‘Kanzan’, one of the most frequently-seen ornamental cherries here. Sadly, our tree may not be here for many more years. They’re known to have a short life-expectancy. (I’ve seen differing estimates of 15-20 years and up to 40 years.) Ours was a mature tree when we moved here 16 years ago. In addition, it now has splits in the bark, which may be due to the effects of winter weather or may be an indication of disease. It has obviously suffered from canker at some time before we moved in, but this hasn’t stopped it from being laden with flowers in spring.

For now, we’ll enjoy whatever time the tree has left. At the same time, we will probably have to think about what we might want to plant in its place in the future. It should probably be something that doesn’t get too big, given that it’s so close to our boundary with our neighbours. We wouldn’t want it to protrude into their driveway! And it needs to be robust and healthy because it is the most exposed area of the front garden.

It feels a bit sad to to know that it may not be long before we have to remove this old cherry tree. We moved in to this house at a time when it was in full, glorious flower and it felt like a warm welcome to our new home. But the tree, like its flowers, is an ephemeral thing – to be enjoyed in the moment. (And afterwards I will still have photographs of its blossom as a reminder of it.)

Cherry blossom

Something Sweet: Pink Tulips

Tulips are a sign that spring is well underway. Winter is forgotten and plans are being made for summer.

However, tulips are something that I don’t have much experience of in the garden. I think that’s because I became frustrated by the fact that so many varieties don’t come back again. I’d plant tulips that flowered beautifully the first year (and perhaps remember to photograph them) but then the next year I’d wonder what I’d done wrong when they failed to reappear.

Recently I’ve allowed myself to fall in love with them again. They are one of the prettiest and most feminine of flowers at this time of year and I love to photograph them too. So now I am happy to grow a few every year, to give myself something new to photograph and to enjoy while they’re here.

Some tulips, like the one below, have only flowered once before disappearing. So I was delighted when the tulip in the top picture not only came back this year but has produced even more flowers. It’s ‘Angelique’ and is certainly a vision of sweetness in the early morning sun.

I didn’t buy any bulbs last autumn but this year I’ll make a point of buying some tulips that I haven’t tried before. Then there will be something new and delightful to look forward to next spring.

Tulip 'Angelique'

Daughter of the Wind: Anemone Blanda

The common names for Anemone blanda are ‘Grecian windflower’ or ‘winter windflower’. ‘Why windflower?’, I wondered, as I dived into a little internet search. The reason for the name is unclear. Some suggest that it’s because it symbolises their fragility in the wind, while others say it’s because the flowers are opened by the wind.

Whatever the reason behind the name, it probably comes from a Greek word which translates as ‘daughter of the wind’. That translation appeals to me greatly. I can imagine it as the name for a graceful old-fashioned sailing ship or a sleek modern racing yacht. I suppose I’m not the only one to come up with that idea!

But sailing ships are taking us far from garden flowers. This daisy-like flower is currently flowering in odd corners of my garden, mostly where I’d forgotten planting it. (Actually, I think that its rhizomes sometimes get picked up and transferred with other plants as I divide and move them elsewhere. So eventually they could end up anywhere in the garden.)

A bee-fly enjoying an Anemone blanda flower

The anemone above has a visitor. It’s not a bee, though, but a bee-fly. Although it may look like a bee, you can see the difference in the long proboscis (tongue, used for feeding on nectar) and the long and very fragile-looking legs. Although the proboscis may look sharp and a bit scary, bee-flies don’t sting or bite. They just try to look as if they might!

Bee-flies aren’t good news for the nearby ground-nesting bumblebees, because bee-fly larvae eat the bumblebee larvae. Luckily it doesn’t seem to affect the overall number of bumblebees. (Just shows how much murder and mayhem is going on among the beasties that live in our gardens!)

I hope that some of the bumblebees will find these anemones too. Apparently bees prefer to work among a large patch of the same flowers, rather than going to lone individuals. This must be a great reason/excuse for growing more of all the early spring flowers, especially these delightful beauties. (Given time, they will spread, but I reckon I’d like to give them some help.)

Please note that I won’t be able to reply to comments until after Tuesday because of internet connection problems. But I’ll be back to chat to you after that!

Blue Anemone blanda flowers

Fluffy Flowers for Easter: Pasqueflowers

The pasqueflowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris) are flowering slightly earlier than last year. That means they’re here in time for Easter, so they’re living up to their name. (The pasque part of the name comes from ‘paschal’, meaning ‘of or related to Easter’.)

The clumps are a bit bigger than last year, so there are more flowers too. Those fluffy, cup-shaped flowers are a most welcome sight. They seem to have settled into the garden here very well and they’re probably the most reliable of our spring flowers.

Pulsatilla vulgaris (pasqueflower)

But they don’t just look good – they feel nice too. Those fine hairs on the outside of the petals, buds and leaves are just as soft as they appear. I know this for certain, having spent a few minutes stroking them just to check! It’s not often that I think about how a plant feels as opposed to how it looks, but with these, the urge to touch is strong.

Although a native wildflower in the UK, the pasqueflower is rarely seen in the wild. It has become a well-loved garden flower, with nurseries and garden centres stocking plants with purple, white (‘Alba’) or deep red (‘Rubra’) flowers.

Pulsatilla vulgaris (pasqueflower)

I was hoping that I might have the opportunity to buy one or two more pasqueflower plants today. We were able to visit a garden centre for the first time in many months. (Probably since the end of last August.) It was a treat to be able to do this again and we did make sure to buy some plants. (But no pasqueflowers this time.)

Now that a few weeks have passed since having our first Covid jabs, we have enough protection to be able to explore the world again. Plant nurseries will be also able to open soon, so I’m feeling excited about being able to visit my favourites again. There’s a fair bit of border space that’s just waiting for some new plants to fill it!

If you celebrate it, I wish you a very happy Easter. And for everyone, I hope you enjoy your weekend.

A pasqueflower bud.

Wanderlust Strikes!

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

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

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

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

Redbud tree flowers

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

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

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

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

Kowhai (Sophora) flowers