Late Winter Colour: Primulas

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.

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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!

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Winter Jasmine

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!)

Remembered Colour: Lewisia

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’.)

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I’d be happy to wear these bright colours!

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.

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Close-up of a lewisia flower.

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!

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You can see the light coming through the petals of these flowers.

Little Pretenders: Hoverflies

This year I’d like to make my garden a bit more wildlife-friendly. (You can see my previous posts about gardening for bees – Bees’ Needs: Flowers! and Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees – by clicking on the links.)

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.

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Not a hoverfly! This one is a honeybee (on a tithonia flower).

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!

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Hoverfly on Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious).

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!

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Hoverflies like daisy flowers, like this aster.

Indoor Photography: Flowers with Studio Flash

During the winter I’m glad to be able to photograph plants indoors. It feels good to be able to stay warm and dry! And life is much easier when there’s no need to worry about the flower you’re trying to photograph waving around in the wind.

More importantly, taking photos indoors means that there is plenty of light available to me. I have a very small studio space set up in the house, complete with flash lighting, which allows me to be busy taking photographs at any time of day.

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I wanted the light to catch all the little crinkles and curled edges on the petals of the flower.

The photographs here were taken with a very simple setup. The white background is created using a small ‘light table’, which is basically a piece of translucent white plastic which is curved into an ‘L’ shape on a metal support. This gives a base and background that is lit with flash strobes both from behind and from below. These are adjusted to give an evenly lit bright white background to the photo.

The flower itself is lit with a flash fired through a white translucent brolly and a reflector at the side to provide a little bit of light to soften shadows. I like using this particular arrangement because it gives a slightly ‘harder’ light than the softbox that I’ve used for previous photos on this blog. This helps to bring out the shapes within the flower and gives a feeling of depth.

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The shadows help to give a sense of the shape of this cyclamen.

Having the flash pretty much to one side of the flower means that shadows can form in the ripples on the petals. If you look at the photograph below, you can see that there is a slight shine to the area at the centre of the flower, on the left side. This shows where the light is coming from. (More or less at a 45 degree angle, slightly higher than the flower and only just in front of it.)

If there wasn’t a reflector (a silver-coloured disc) at the right side, that side would be in shadow. The reflector is just enough to lighten heavy shadows without removing the shadows entirely, so you’re able to see the flowing shapes of the petals.

Digital photography has made using studio lighting far easier than it was with film cameras. (For years I used film, and I tended to stick with safe setups that I new would work.) Experimenting is easy when you can see the results straight away and you can soon find what happens when you move the lights around.

So when the weather’s turned miserable, I’m quite happy to be indoors, so long as I can find something to photograph…

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The petals seem to swirl around this little flower, almost as if they’re floating.

Dianthus ‘Rainbow Loveliness’

Sometimes things don’t go to plan with my flower photography. This year I wanted to photograph the range of different colours (including white, pink and lilac) of the Dianthus ‘Rainbow Loveliness’ given to me by a friend.

However, rain and the fact that the plants were grown from seed this year, so not yet large enough to have a lot of flowers, made it difficult.

By the time the young plants were ready to flower, the drought of summer had passed and it had become rather wet and windy. This meant that the delicately fringed flowers were easily damaged. I would walk past them and think, ‘Must take some photos’, but by the time I came back to them, the rain would have got to the flowers and would have left the petals trailing limply.

In the end, I managed to take photographs of just the one bicoloured flower. For close-up photography like this, the flowers really need to be in excellent condition. Sadly, my timing wasn’t good enough to catch the others when they were fresh and undamaged.

Not to worry! Next year the plants will be bigger and able to flower more profusely. They should also be able to flower earlier in the summer, when the weather is likely to be drier and kinder to fragile flowers. Then I should have a chance of of photographing more of these strange but pretty dianthus (‘pinks’), whose petals look like swirling strands of seaweed floating in an invisible sea.

Armchair Gardening: Planning a New Border

The weather in the past week has been rainy, so not much good for gardening. But it has been ideal for a bit of ‘armchair gardening’. I’ve been thinking about the planting for a new area and imagining which plants might look good there.

Elsewhere in the garden there are a lot of deep or bright colours. I’d like to keep this new patch a bit softer and fairly informal. (Having lighter colours towards the back of the garden can give an effect of receding distance, making the garden look slightly bigger.)

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This white rose has just the softest blush of pink.

Recently, I bought a white-flowered hibiscus, called ‘Red Heart’ because it has a bold red marking at the centre of its flowers. This was originally meant to go in the border alongside the new pond but, as I’ve been planting that area up, I’ve realised that there won’t be space for it.

Instead, I’m going to dig out a new border behind our main sitting-out area. (This is a tiny paved space with a wrought-iron arbour which is smothered by a grape vine at one end, and a more open seating place at the other.)

Left: Astrantia 'Florence' Right: Erigeron karvinskianus
Left: Astrantia ‘Florence’ Right: Erigeron karvinskianus

Because it’s an area for sitting around and taking it easy, I’d like to keep the planting looking relaxed and soothing. Somewhere that will help you to let all the stresses of the day ebb away. Whites, to pick up on the white hibiscus, and pale pinks are the most likely choices at the moment.

We already have a white-barked birch tree nearby, and I’m planning to move some pale pink Japanese anemones to another border behind the new area. (The anemones are beautiful thugs, so they’re getting a border of their own where they can run riot.)

Acanthus
This acanthus has delicately marked veins, but it looks rather spiky.

Sidalcea, astrantia and erigeron (Mexican fleabane) grow in the garden here, so it should be easy to introduce them to the new area too. And we have lots of dark red scabious – a few of those would help to emphasise the similarly-coloured red markings on the hibiscus.

Among the plants waiting to be found homes in the garden here are several white and pink rock roses (Cistus) and they would be likely to enjoy the sun in this border. So the planned area is beginning to look very pink and white, especially if I also add a pale rose like the one in the photo. (Don’t know its name.)

And maybe there should be some acanthus too – it has similar vein-markings to the astrantia and the ‘architectural’ form of the plant would be very striking. But that spiky look might not be so relaxing to look at! (Acanthus is a plant you need to be very sure about wanting, because it’s very hard to get rid of and can grow from little pieces of left-over root.)

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The sunny little daisies of Anthemis ‘EC Buxton’

The plan for this new area may be getting a little too pink, so some other pale colours could be added. I love the happy little daisies of the anthemis above. They’re like a sprawling splash of sunshine in the border and have a very informal look. Nigella also has that relaxed feel about it and would be delightful to see close-up. (The area behind the seating is a little higher, with a low retaining-wall because our garden is on a slight slope.)

Fantasy-gardening and planning new planting is a very pleasant way to spend wet days. But maybe the best thing about it is that it gets the enthusiasm going for starting the work. The rain is over for now and the forecast for the next week is mostly dry, so it looks like I have some digging to do…

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Nigella is an easy filler in a border.

Late Colour: Early November

November has brought chilly winds and the threat of frost. It’s not quite winter yet but the garden flowers are disappearing fast. Soon the main colour will be the yellow of the autumn leaves.

But for a few days yet, there is a little bit of colour here and there. Just enough to enjoy while I finish planting the spring bulbs.

Some plants have flowered for a surprisingly long period. The gaura (above) has been in flower for months, as has the pink-flowered salvia below.

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Salvia and fuchsia flowers brighten the garden until the end of autumn.

The deep purple penstemon ‘Raven’ is another plant that has fully earned its place in the garden by flowering for a long time. A weeping crab apple called ‘Royal Beauty’ grows nearby, and the rich red of its tiny fruits picks up on the slight touch of red at the mouth of the penstemon flowers.

The fuchsia is one of several plants that are in pots at the front of our house. I think this one is ‘Army Nurse’, but I can’t be sure because we have several that are very similar to each other. It’s one of the hardy fuchsias and I’m planning to plant it (and some others) out in a border in the back garden. They’ll be visible from the house and give a splash of glowing colour right through the autumn.

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Left: Malus ‘Royal Beauty’ (crab apple)    Right: Penstemon ‘Raven’

My last flower is the autumn crocus. The bulbs are growing in small clay pots sitting in a wrought-iron holder on the wall. (This keeps them well out of the way of my cats – autumn crocuses are very toxic plants so I didn’t want to take any risks with them.) These flowers should have been over by now but I planted them late, so here they are at last!

Now I must remember that I still have to finish planting some spring bulbs…then I’ll be hoping to find something more to photograph. Maybe some of the late colour will hang around for long enough to get frosted. Not very kind to the plant but makes a great picture!

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Crocus speciosus (autumn crocus) opening in the sun.

Geraniums: Easy and Reliable

Hardy geraniums were one of the first flowers I grew. They really encouraged me in my early years of gardening because they are so easy to grow and have both pretty flowers and good-looking leaves.

Finding that they were easy to divide and propagate gave me a confidence boost as I learned about the basics of gardening, and I’ve loved having them in the garden ever since. They’re tough little survivors, and great to fill in spots that other plants would struggle in.

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‘Mrs Kendall Clark’ is a lovely blue geranium.

There are several blue or purple-blue geraniums in the garden. Some were here already when we bought the house. One is magnificum, which has striking dark veins on the petals (below, right). There are a couple of others that I don’t know the names of – one of the mysteries of inheriting plants!

I’ve added two of my favourite blue geraniums – Rozanne (top photo) and Mrs Kendall Clark (above). Rozanne’s flowers can be quite strongly blue, especially when the flower is newly opened but then can age to a more lilac shade. Mrs Kendall Clark is a paler blue and stands tall and elegant in the border. (And has attractive, finely-divided leaves – a definite bonus.)

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Left – This white geranium appeared unexpectedly in the garden this year. Right – Geranium magnificum spreads easily.

There was a nice surprise this summer when the white geranium above simply arrived from nowhere. I can’t remember planting it – not in recent years anyway! (Though it may have been labelled as something else. It’s welcome anyway!)

I enjoy photographing the geraniums, especially those that have strongly marked veins on the petals. That’s a detail that adds a lot of interest to a flower portrait.

The geranium below appealed to me for a different reason – the wonderfully hairy stems! (Apparently they are sticky, but I didn’t touch them to find out for sure!) It was growing in a garden I visited and I hadn’t seen one before, so I was rather intrigued by it. However, I’m not likely to try growing it because it can’t withstand frost. Maybe I’ll get to see it in its native Madeira some day!

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Geranium madarense has unusually hairy, sticky stems.

Japanese Anemones: A Dilemma

Last year I bought two plants of the Japanese Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ while I was visiting Fullers Mill Garden, (which you can read about here). There had been one already in the garden when we first arrived, but somehow it died out, even though the pink Japanese Anemones nearby thrived.

The elegant white flowers on graceful tall stems captivated me. The stamens are a rich yellow and the petals have the slightest blush of pink on the reverse – just enough colour to add interest when I’m photographing them.

In the garden they are simply beautiful. One plant is in front of a weeping crab-apple that has dark red fruits. Beside is a gaura, whose butterfly-like white flowers are still on the go, creating a lovely early-autumn combination.

The other plant is apparently very happy in a little raised bed that is a temporary nursery area for plants that will go into a pond-side border.

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The backs of the petals of ‘September Charm’ are surprisingly hairy.

There were already some pink Japanese anemones in the garden. One is ‘September Charm’, which I planted as a division from a plant in my previous garden in Scotland. (This doesn’t really live up to its name here, because by September it has pretty much finished flowering. But I can forgive it for that because it starts to flower in late July, so it has been busily flowering for a good long time.)

The other pink anemone was already in the garden when we arrived and I believe it is ‘Hadspen Abundance’. This is an unusual flower, because the petals are very variable. Two of the five petals are smaller and slightly darker than the rest. In the particular flower below, the variance isn’t much, but I have seen the plant with much bigger differences between the two sets of petals. That can make the flowers look quite strange!

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‘Hadspen Abundance’ has irregularly-sized petals.

So by now you may be wondering what my dilemma is. (Or, if you are familiar with Japanese anemones, you may know exactly what I’m going to say…) The problem is, these enchanting plants are real thugs in garden borders.

My pink September Charm has run riot. It now has a huge spread in an area that nothing much wants to grow in because the conifers in the neighbouring garden had left the soil so impoverished. (The conifers are gone now, thank goodness.)

And as for Hadspen Abundance – well, let’s just say that now I understand why there wasn’t much more than it and some geraniums in the garden. It takes over and is difficult to remove. So now I want to add to the chaos… (Actually, I have added to the chaos – both white anemones are already in the ground.)

This all leaves me wondering what to do next. Re-plant them in large containers? Chance it and hope that they don’t smother everything else? Maybe I can leave the one in the temporary nursery-bed where it is – but it’s only a very small raised bed. I think it will be able to creep out of there! (Anemone roots are very efficient at spreading themselves around.) Big bottomless pots might be the answer, so I’ll have to see what I can find.

Meanwhile, I shall enjoy the flowers and take photographs of them whenever I get the opportunity. Let’s hope that I’m not writing about how they’ve taken over the entire garden at some point in the future!

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The white flower of ‘Honorine Jobert’ brightens a slightly shady spot.