Pure Elegance

The white flowers of passionflower ‘Constance Elliot’ have been gradually appearing over recent weeks. There are never many at a time, but the sprinkling of delicate blooms feels like something very special to me.

This climber has only been in the garden for a couple of years, so it will no doubt spread and have a greater number of flowers in time. That’s if it can come through the cold of the winter!

There’s something about growing plants that are not really hardy or are only borderline hardy in your area that makes it all the more exciting and satisfying when they survive and flower.

Having lived most of my life in Scotland, it was a surprise to find that we could grow such things as passionflowers and grapevines here in Suffolk – and a tempting novelty! (Of course, there are things we could grow in Scotland that won’t grow here – rhododendrons particularly.)

Right now I’m trying to work faster in the garden to get as much as I can done before the weather turns wet and windy and winter arrives. Autumn can be a busy time, with plants to be split and moved, but this year there is plenty more to do on the new pond border. I’ll probably find myself working outside through the better weather of winter too – there’s so much to do! But for the moment, I must remember to take the time to enjoy the beautiful flowers that appear so briefly in the garden, especially these passionflowers.

Softer Colours

From my recent posts of zinnias, heleniums and echinaceas, you might be thinking that my garden is a blaze of bright colours at the moment.

But, in fact, it isn’t. There are areas of softer colours too, mainly because there are so many Japanese anemones. (They spread and get everywhere if they get the chance.) There are two pink ones – ‘September Charm’, which is the paler of the two, and ‘Hadspen Abundance’. (That’s the one in the top photo, complete with a little ladybird.)

Pink delphinium close-up

The third anemone is ‘Honorine Jobert’, a white one that doesn’t seem to spread as aggressively as the other two.

Despite their desire to take over the garden, I’m happy to see the mass of soft pink anemone flowers. It’s a restful, relaxing colour. Next year, I’m thinking of moving some of them beside our main sitting area and combining them with pale purples, such as perovskia (Russian sage) and silver foliage. This should help to create a laid-back area where we can allow our cares and stresses to float away…hopefully!

Another soft pink, this time unexpected, has been a second flowering of one of the delphiniums. To be honest, I don’t expect these delphinium plants to last long here, but I couldn’t resist them when I saw the pink that also has tones of mauve. These plants really like to be well-fed and don’t like too much heat and drought, so our garden is very unsuitable. I shall just have to try to remember to water them with tomato food and enjoy them for as long as they survive.

Blue geranium flower

A soft blue with a slight blush of magenta pink is a colouring I especially love and can be seen in the geranium pictured here. I’ve no idea what the variety is. (It was already in the garden when we arrived.) It manages to produce flowers over a long period and grows in the dry soil beneath several shrubs. Really, I ought to move a piece to somewhere where it would have more space and moisture, just to see what it can do.

The last of the more delicately-coloured flowers for this week is the blue scabious below. I find that scabious loves the sun and well-drained soil here. They flower over a long period and attract bees and butterflies, so there’s more than the pretty colour to enjoy. They’re almost finished for this year, but can produce the occasional late flower when you’re not expecting it.

It feels great to find a plant that is both delightful and happy in the conditions that you can give it, so next year I’ll be planning to plant more scabious varieties. And I’ll hope that there will be part of the garden that is full of gentle colours that bring rest and relaxation. (And, of course, bees and butterflies too!)

Bee on scabious flower.

Growing Flowers for Photography: Zinnias

Every year I try to have something new to photograph in the garden. So it’s useful to plant a few annuals to give me the chance to try something different. This year a packet of mixed-colour Zinnia seed has produced a nice crop of willing photographic subjects.

I haven’t grown Zinnias for a long time – years ago in Scotland – but not since we moved here. Why I’ve allowed myself to miss out on them I can’t say. (Probably too busy weeding in springtime to grow much from seed!)

Intriguing shapes in the centre of this zinnia flower

The reward for taking a little time to grow these plants is a border full of colourful flowers that gleam like jewels. They include magenta-pink, a good strong red, an orange that vies with tithonia (Mexican sunflower) for sheer vibrance, and (perhaps the one I like best) a much softer orange that is blushed with magenta. It’s like the floral equivalent of a big bag of mixed sweeties (candy) for a photographer!

The shapes of the flowers are interesting too. I’ve always been attracted to the ring of tiny yellow flowers around the centre of the flower head. (These are the ‘disk flowers’ that make up the centre of a composite flower.) As these disk flowers gradually open closer to the very centre of the flower, the central disc can go from being flat to being conical, as in the top photograph. This gives an interesting variation in shape and more opportunities for different pictures.

There’s a fiery glow from this orange zinnia flower.

Zinnias are not just attractive to photographers, though. Bees love them too. The bee in the bottom photo seemed to have its face stuck right into one of the little disk florets. It was in no hurry to leave, so gave me another photographic opportunity. Thanks, little bee!

Late summer and autumn is a time when the garden here can start to run out of flowers, so the zinnias are especially welcome. And as a late-season bee plant, they are even more valuable. Next year I intend to find space to grow some more zinnias – so the bees and I will both be happy, and there will be lots more photographs. 🙂

Pink zinnia flower with a bumblebee

A Ray of Sunshine: Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

At this stage of the summer, there are fewer flowers around for me to photograph. So I’m grateful that the perennial sunflower, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, has done well this year.

In previous years this plant has struggled to survive. It would really prefer to be growing in a more fertile soil with a bit more moisture. Instead, it’s in a rather impoverished area that was close to where the roots of the neighbours’ conifers must have been.

Those huge trees were taken out a couple of years ago and the border on this side has been slowly recovering ever since. I thought the heat and drought of this summer would make the helianthus suffer badly, so I remembered to give it an occasional thorough watering. And I’ve been well rewarded with a healthy plant that’s just a little taller than me and covered in radiant yellow flowers.

The bees seem happy with the result too, and have been busily visiting the flowers. (That pleases me especially, because I want to keep up the supply of flowers for the bees and other pollinators for as long as possible in the year.)

Maybe next year I’ll try growing some of the bigger annual sunflowers too, if I can find the space. Talking of space, I’m waiting to see how far this sunflower will spread – some say that it can be invasive. But for now, I’m very happy to see these sunny little flowers brightening up my garden and feeding the bees.

Honeybee on a flower of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

Longing for a Cool Space.

Last week was a busy one, with the first side of the garden now sporting a smart new fence. The neighbours will be glad that their puppy can no longer escape through the old fence and (possibly) to freedom.

But the increasingly hot weather has made the work harder. For the contractor who is building the new fence, and for me as I clear away the overgrowth of shrubs and ivy.

Temperatures here have been reaching over 30 degrees C. For the UK, that’s very hot. For someone brought up in Scotland, that’s really uncomfortable. And it has made me wish for a bit more shade in the garden.

This place has become more of a suntrap than ever since our neighbours removed a lot of tall trees from their garden. Now the centre of our garden fairly bakes in the sun. So I am wondering what shrubs or small tree(s) I can plant to create a cooler space, but without causing too much shade to other areas.

I find getting a good balance in this kind of planning to be a tricky business. Meanwhile, ‘a green thought in a green shade’ (a phrase from Andrew Marvell’s poem, ‘The Garden’) conjures up enticing images of a soothingly green and leafy space. Though frankly I wouldn’t mind what colour the thought was, so long as it was a cool one!

White echinacea flower - 'Powwow White'.
Fresh whites and greens: Echinacea ‘Powwow White’ stands up well to the summer heat.

Soft Blue: Himalayan Blue Poppy

This is a bit of a post and run today, because it has been a very busy time over the last week. It’s been frustrating not to have time to take new photographs, but hopefully I’ll be able to get back to doing what I love soon.

The photograph above is a flower I love to see – a Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis). It is frequently grown in Scotland, where the conditions suit it. (It looks wonderful near water, with trees and shrubs growing around it.)

I tried growing a couple of plants in our previous garden in Scotland, but they only lasted two or three years before dying out. At the time I thought I simply hadn’t kept them moist enough but I’ve learned since that they’re short-lived perennials. So maybe they wouldn’t have lasted a lot longer anyway.

There’s something about a plant being difficult to grow or hard to obtain that makes them all the more appealing to gardeners. I’m trying to learn to keep to plants that have a good chance in my very warm and dry garden (still a learning process). That means that I won’t be buying any blue poppies – they really wouldn’t like it here. But I can enjoy the memory of them.

The reason for being so busy this week is that we’re getting the garden ready for a contractor to come in and replace the fence around the garden. There’s far more to do than I had first realised and it seems to have taken a lot of time! Shrubs and trees have been cut back, lots of things, (including a large compost heap) have been moved and room still has to be found to store the new fence panels, posts and gravel boards…phew!

It will be a great relief to get this work done. The oldest part of the fence was blown down by gales in early spring. Since then it’s been cobbled together and propped up as best we can, so that the neighbours’ young dog can’t escape from their garden. (He managed it once, and had a lovely time playing and evading capture in our garden.) Originally the new fence was to be started mid-May – but Covid stopped it.

The job will take three weeks and there’s till plenty for me to do to create enough working space. After that I’ll be glad to get back to my photography and to planning some new planting!

Hot Spot: Echinaceas

There’s a small patch of border that’s become quite a hot-spot this year. Red, orange and magenta-pink echinaceas (coneflowers), red geums, dark red scabious and the deep reddish-purple leaves of a heuchera are the start of a new planting scheme that radiates warmth.

There hasn’t been much red or orange in the garden before. Most of the other areas are planted with softer colours. These include lots of pink and mauve flowers, with plenty of lavender-blues added into the mix.

I find that these gentle pinkish shades can be difficult to use near red or orange – they can end up looking washed-out and feeble. On the other hand, a bright magenta – like rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) – works just fine and adds its own intense colour to the fieriness of the new border.

It feels good to now have an area specifically for hot colours. Last year I had some tithonia (Mexican sunflowers) in that space, and I found that I really enjoyed the intense colour. The tithonia is annual, so this year I’ve planted perennials instead.

(Although I grow a few annuals, at the moment I’m trying to concentrate on perennials so that I don’t have too much re-planting to do every year.)

The only problem with echinaceas is that they are short-lived perennials. I’ve read that the older pink varieties appear to go on from year to year because they self-seed and their offspring continue the display after the original plants have died. (It was something of a relief to discover this, because I was worried that I couldn’t keep the plants alive for long – some years they just seemed to disappear for no apparent reason.)

Some of the new echinaceas are said not to come true from seed and may die out after a few years. If that’s the case with those that I’ve planted here, then, because the colours are so gorgeous, I won’t mind buying more. (I’d like to plant yellow echinaceas too – they would be a good alternative to rudbekias because they’re much more tolerant of drought.)

In contrast to these brightly-coloured daisies, I also have an echinacea which has white flowers with centres that start off green and turn yellow. (If I remember correctly, it’s ‘Powwow White’.) It has a very different look to the hot-coloured flowers and suits a softer, more relaxing colour scheme. I photographed this particular flower when it froze last winter – you can see it here: https://annmackay.blog/2019/11/24/frozen-flowers/

Pink and orange echinacea flowers.
Echinacea flowers in a mix of orange and magenta-pink.

Purple Passion(flower)

These passionflower photographs are the result of an afternoon spent playing with a stem of the plant in my studio.

I photographed the flower and leaves to show their translucence. This makes the tiny veins in the petals and leaves stand out and gives a very crisp, sharp look to the photograph.

The colour changes a bit too. When seen under normal lighting (i.e. lit from the front or above), this passionflower is a soft pinky-purple. Here, though, the light from behind has bleached out the petal colours considerably and you can see more pink and red tones rather than the normal purple.

My setup for photographing flowers against a white background is fairly straightforward. I use a mini ‘shooting table’. Basically this is a sheet of translucent perspex on a metal frame. It’s bent into an ‘L’ shape (seen side-on). That gives both a background and a base for the photograph.

Because the shooting-table is translucent, you can shine studio lights through it. This gives a bright white background.

If you set the light levels so that there is a lot of light coming from behind the flower (in comparison to the light coming from the front), then you’ll get the maximum amount of detail in the veins of the petals.

To light the flowers from the front, I usually use two large studio flashes (strobes). One of these is fitted with a large, square softbox, which gives a very soft and even light. But the size of the softbox is more than a little awkward in my very small studio space!

The other light is fitted with a white (translucent) shoot-through brolly. The light from this is not as soft as that from the softbox, so it introduces a bit more shadow. This gives a bit more depth and modelling to the photograph.

If I want to have stronger shadows and a more dramatic feel to the image, I’ll use just the light with the brolly and leave out the light with the softbox. A reflector opposite the light is enough to put just a little light into the shadows.

By the way, if anyone knows the name of this particular passionflower, then please tell me! I’ve been wondering about it because it was labelled ‘Amethyst’, but Amethyst usually has a ring of purple filaments, instead of the white that this flower has. I’m intrigued and would love to know the correct name!

Passionflower ‘Amethyst’ or something else?

Hungry Critters (1): Bees

Sometimes it feels as if there is nothing much that you can do to help the problems of the world around you. But we’re not as powerless as we may think. Small actions do make an impact, even if it’s only in our own small area.

For me, environmental issues are something that I’ve been aware of for a long time and I’m especially concerned about the challenges faced by pollinating insects.

Bumblebee on a blue scabious flower.
Scabious is a great plant for bees.

In an attempt to do what I can to help, I have been trying to increase the number of plants that are good pollen and nectar sources in my garden. It does seem to be a case of ‘plant it and they will come’, because during the last couple of years I’ve noticed a big difference in the number of bees and hoverflies in the garden.

Luckily, just like the bees, I prefer the simpler flowers to highly-bred doubles. (Think of an open bowl-shape that gives easy access to the centre of the flower for short-tongued bees, and tubular flowers like the foxglove for long-tongued bees.)

Bumblebee on a dahlia flower.
The open centre of this dahlia makes for easy access to bees.

For spring and summer, the garden has lots of good bee plants. Even in the winter there is mahonia, viburnum and ivy. But late autumn can be a bit sparse, especially after the sedums and asters have finished flowering.

So this year I’m hoping to find a bit more for my late autumn buzzy visitors. Can you imagine a better excuse for a bit of plant shopping?

This week is ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ in the UK and this year there will be online events to raise awareness of what can be done to help bees. You can read more about this and about the work of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust here: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/

Honeybee on sedum flowers.
Sedums are among the best autumn-flowering plants for pollinators.

Bad Hair Day?

I feel that this flower and I have something in common at the moment – a ‘hairdo’ that’s totally out of control! (At least I suppose I can blame mine on Covid!)

But the flower has a big advantage over me…it looks good with its strangely shaggy petals sticking out at odd angles. (Even if you might imagine that someone plugged it into the mains, cartoon-style!)

This is Dianthus ‘Rainbow Loveliness’, which I have previously photographed in the studio but not outside. The fringed petals make it an unusual and striking flower but they can make it more difficult to photograph in the garden.

The reason for this is that it can be difficult to isolate a single flower when it’s growing as part of a clump. And for this little dianthus, you do need to, if you want to be able to see the details of its complex shape. Otherwise, the fringed petals of the other flowers get in the way and create a confusing mass. (You can see what I mean in the bottom photo!)

I find that it’s useful to try propping the flower where there’s a plainer background using a thin cane and a clothes peg. And using a larger aperture to give a shallow depth of field helps too. But it is much easier for me to pick the flower and bring it into the studio where it’s easier to isolate it. (That’s one of the reasons why I tend to do a lot of my flower photographs there – and I don’t have to worry about the wind blowing the flower around either.) So I’m still planning to try to get some of the pink flowers into the studio – when they come back into flower!

You can see the studio photograph from last year here: https://annmackay.blog/2019/12/15/dianthus-rainbow-loveliness/

Dianthus Rainbow Loveliness in pink