While life seems to have been turned upside down and we’re all preoccupied with worries about the coronavirus, nature is quietly getting on with the business of spring. The warmer weather has brought leaves to the trees, opened colourful flowers and encouraged new growth everywhere.
It’s reassuring to get on with the small, familiar garden jobs that this time of year brings. Cutting back the stems of last year’s perennials feels both soothing and satisfying.
I have time to notice how long and curled the stems that carried the swirling butterflies of the gaura’s flowers became. Or that the shrubby sage (which has wonderfully bright magenta flowers in early summer) needs cutting back to prevent it from becoming lanky. As I trim back all these old stems, I find the new seedlings of the Canary Island geranium which have been sheltering under the old growth during the winter. Soon their large, dissected leaves will be impressively handsome.
Meanwhile, the daffodils have gone over and are being dead-headed. Now the tulips are flaunting their glorious colours as the low angle of the late sun glows through their petals.
Not all of the flowers are as bold as the tulips though. There are the smaller, much more modest flowers of viburnum (top photo) and the plum tree that we planted last year (below). I’m particularly pleased to see the flowers on the plum tree – there’s lots – because last year it looked a bit sad and sorry during the drought. (Despite regular watering.) Maybe we’ll eventually get a few plums.
I’ve been entertaining myself by playing with black and white and a bit of digital toning with these photos. There’s plenty of time for a few experiments at the moment. I hope that you’re finding things to keep you happily occupied at this very strange time.
Rich oranges and lemon-yellows make these daffodils a brilliant and delightful welcome to spring. The flowers in these photographs are growing on a wide, grassy bank in front of the houses here and they’re a sight I look forward to every year. (And a lovely greeting to everyone who passes by on their way into the town.)
This year I think we all need as much optimism and good cheer as we can find while our minds are full of worries about the coronavirus. I’ve certainly felt lucky over the past few days to be able to escape into the garden and enjoy the peace and calm of being surrounded by the plants I’m working with.
The emerging flowers, new spring growth, and the increasing warmth of the sun are a comfort and allow some respite from the serious side of life. A small thing, maybe, but anything that increases our well-being right now must be good.
The daffodils seem to be bringing their own little bit of sunshine and exuberance to help lift our spirits – right when we need it.
I’ve been waiting for a chance to take photographs of these hellebores for a while. At last the weather has become calmer. The wind has died down again and there have even been a few dry spells.
It felt good to get back outside into the garden with my camera and I was relieved to see that the rough weather hadn’t harmed the flowers.
But actually getting into a good position to photograph them was going to be a bit tricky. At the best of times it can be awkward to get close enough to low-growing plants, especially when the ground has become too much of a swampy mess to kneel on. Hellebores make it even more difficult by insisting on hanging their beautiful little heads down. You have to practically get to worm’s eye-level if you want to see them.
Luckily for me, there was a stack of bags of compost nearby and I was able to drag one over and lie down on it to get my photographs. Having one elbow firmly wedged against a big plant pot helped to make sure that I didn’t take a nose-dive into the mud.
All this makes me realise that I may have to change the arrangement of some of the garden borders. Far too many of the smaller plants are positioned quite far into the border, so that you really need to get right into the border to photograph them. Without standing on the other plants. Or getting jabbed by something prickly. Or even sitting down unexpectedly in the mud! Hmm, this may need a bit of thought…
It’s particularly vile outside at the moment. Right now we have high winds and sideways rain and there was even some short-lived snow earlier in the week. So it’s comforting to know that the early flowers have survived, despite the weather’s attempts to shred them.
I photographed these irises a few days ago, in a dry and sunny gap in the stormy weather. (The weather forecast is my friend! I keep an eye on it to know when I must dash outside and photograph flowers before they are ruined.)
These fragile-looking flowers are iris unguicularis – had to check the spelling of that one – otherwise known as ‘Algerian winter iris’.
The plant was given to me by a generous neighbour and has slowly got itself established in a sunny border. It’s a plant that grows wild in Mediterranean countries and likes dry and sunny sites, so is well-suited to our hot and thirsty garden. (But the present heavy rain is unlikely to please it.)
There have been a good number of flowers this year, with a couple of buds still waiting to open. That is a good improvement over the previous years, when there were only three or four flowers and I thought the plant wasn’t too happy where it was. I’ve read that this iris flowers better as the clump gets older and more congested, so I’m looking forward to good displays in years to come…and a good reason to be outside on a wintry day with my camera.
It’s been a very blowy, wet, and sometimes stormy couple of weeks here. Everything outside has had quite a thrashing from the wind, so I’m grateful that the early flowers have somehow managed to survive.
Last autumn I planted a shallow pot with the yellow crocus ‘fuscotinctus’ and dwarf reticulata irises ‘Cantab’ (the paler blue) and ‘Harmony’. Their pot sits at the front door and gets a lot of sunshine and a little bit of shelter from the wind. It has been a delight to see the colour gradually appearing as these flowers opened.
Despite that bit of shelter, it was a challenge to take photographs without too much blur as the upper petals of the irises fluttered in the wind. Sometimes flower photography means that you just have to hope to be able to snatch a shot right when there’s a slight drop in the breeze!
Every year I’ve said to myself that I must try to photograph all the flowers in the garden, starting with the early bulbs…and not managed it. Something would always get in the way – maybe something garden related, like sowing seeds and clearing weeds from borders, or a family responsibility that needed my time.
This blog has changed that and given some structure to my photography. It has created the need for me to take photographs every week and has put both my garden and my photography at the top of my ‘to do’ list (right along with writing my weekly blog post).
Now I can pay more attention to the gradual arrival of spring here and the changes it brings to the garden. That makes me very happy and full of anticipation of the gardening year ahead. It’s a bit of a luxury really, but these days my time is more my own and I can spend it being the real me – obsessed gardener and photographer! (Happy days!)
It feels like a very special treat when the hellebores start to flower. I don’t have many in my own garden yet, so I enjoy seeing them in other people’s gardens and wherever they’re offered for sale .
Recently I treated myself to a couple of new hellebores. According to the labels, they are ‘Shooting Star’ and ‘Cinnamon Snow’, but they are so like each other that it’s hard to be sure if they are actually different. (Plant labels can easily get mixed up in garden centres!)
As far as I can tell, the ‘Shooting Star’ is very close to white, with a touch of pink and yellowy-green to the flower as it ages. In the photo above, these tints are more pronounced because the bright studio lights make the colours of the reverse of the flower show through its slightly translucent petals.
‘Cinnamon Snow’ is a little darker, with a peachy-pink blush to its creamy flowers. It’s interesting to watch the flowers darken and develop more of a green colouring as time passes.
The flowers on these plants are a bit more upright than most hellebores, which makes their pretty faces much easier to see in the garden. (Usually I find I have to turn the flowers of hellebores upwards to see what they look like, so their beauty can go unseen if there isn’t time to stop by them for a while.)
I’m looking forward to watching these plants settle into the garden and bring a little bit of sheer loveliness to late winter.
By the time you’re reading this, the garden here will probably be under attack from gale force winds and heavy rain as storm Ciara passes through.
During this sort of gardener-unfriendly weather, I’m very happy to be able to stay inside, working in the comfort of my tiny studio space. So I am always on the lookout for flowers that lend themselves to indoor photography. For this, primulas are very obliging.
Primulas are easily available at this time of year in a great variety of colours and markings. They don’t cost much to buy and the flowers, once picked for the studio, last well in water.
To be able to photograph such short-stemmed flowers, I have a collection of very small containers that act as mini vases. The top photo has a square recycled-glass bottle that is only 2 inches high – just the right size for very small flowers. The container in the other photos is probably an old eye-wash glass and it’s wide enough for several flowers.
Other useful ‘vases’ for short-stemmed flowers include vintage ink bottles, candle and tealight holders and shot glasses. It’s been fun shopping for these in junk shops and vintage stalls – you never know what you’ll find that will help to make a good photograph.
Now that the primulas have been photographed, I must decide where to plant them. They somehow look a bit formal and perhaps too showy for most areas of the back garden (which is now developing a more ‘natural’ look), so they’ll probably be planted in the front garden. Sadly, it seems that these highly-bred primulas are not useful to bees so I won’t be buying many of them. (Instead I could buy the yellow-flowered Primula vulgaris, which is native to the UK and is a good plant for bees, butterflies and moths.)
I hope you enjoy this little bit of cheery colour!
In part of the drab mid-January garden, lots of little yellow flowers sparkle amongst the bare branches of the dormant shrubs.
They are the flowers of winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), whose lax stems make it seem more like a climber than a shrub. In my garden it blends well with other shrubs because the long, thin stems with tiny leaves take up little space. It fills the gaps between other plants and becomes almost invisible in summer, while the other shrubs are in full leaf.
But just you wait for winter! Then the yellow starry flowers shine out against their dark background and add a touch of exuberance to brighten a cold and gloomy day.
If you leave it unpruned, the winter jasmine can spread quickly, with its flexible stems sprouting roots wherever they touch the soil. It’s easy to control the plant by pruning it after the flowers have finished, and it can be trained onto trellis or kept cut back to form a shrub. Personally, I like to have it growing in its natural, spreading form and I’m going to gather up some of the rooted stems to start new plants in other parts of the garden.
The flower you see in the photograph had been frosted and was still covered in water drops from the thaw. Although the frost destroys the jasmine flowers that are open, there are plenty of undamaged buds to provide lots more flowers – I’ll be sure to take the time to enjoy them. (And to take some more photographs!)
There’s not much happening to photograph out in the garden at the moment. Instead, I’m looking back through some older photos that have been hiding in my PC as unconverted RAW files. Processing them is one of those jobs that I never fully catch up with and sometimes I find an image I like lurking there.
These lewisias were bought a couple of years ago because I couldn’t resist the gorgeous deep pink and the orange with pink veins of their vibrant flowers. They just had to be photographed! (These are Lewisia cotyledon ‘Sunset Strain’.)
The petals make me think of light, silky fabrics. Like something you might wear on a summer’s day – rich, bright and full of the joy of life.
Photographing the flowers makes me aware of how delicate and translucent they are. As you’ll see in the last photo, the studio lights can shine through the petals, revealing their veining and the texture.
Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to keep lewisias growing for very long. They are natives of dry, rocky places in North America and need really good drainage. I have been able to keep some alive for a few years in clay pots, until I have eventually over-watered them. These, however, were planted in a very dry garden border and were happy until winter rains got to them. So it will be back to the pots for the next lot! Then I’ll be able to bring them under cover in winter.
These little beauties may not last long with me but that won’t stop me from buying more and trying again. I hope that I’ll learn how to look after them properly at last!
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.
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!
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!