Finding a Balance: Weeds for Wildlife

This week I’ve been looking out for bumblebees on white deadnettles here. The white deadnettle (Lamium album) is an excellent wild plant for the queen bumblebees that have just emerged from hibernation in spring. The flowers, which are already opening now in April, are a great source of nectar and pollen when there isn’t much else around.

We have a lot of bee-friendly plants in the garden and I’m trying to develop this further by planting to provide for bees and other insects for as much of the year as possible. This is causing me a bit of a dilemma at the moment because this particular deadnettle runs rampant in my garden.

Deadnettles are members of the mint family and this one is determined to take over as big an area as possible. Before I knew that it was such a good bee plant, I’d spent years trying to remove it from the garden, with very slow progress. (I doubt that it was deliberately planted by anyone – most likely it just ‘arrived’.)

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books about gardening for wildlife. They all recommend the white deadnettle for bees, moths and beetles, so I feel that I really shouldn’t get rid of it all. At the same time, these books don’t mention how invasive this plant can be.

It’s a UK native wildflower, but can be bought as a garden plant (presumably for a ‘wild’ garden). As you probably guessed from the name, it looks just like a nettle – except for the rings of white flowers around the stalk – but thankfully it doesn’t sting.

So now I’m wondering what to do. I have noticed that there are a couple of different species of bumblebee that visit the flowers. (Not many yet. It’s been quite chilly and if I was a queen bee, I’d have popped back to bed for a bit longer!) I really don’t want to deprive these bees of their food source but I know that the moment I turn my back on the deadnettle, it will reach out and grab the rest of my garden. The bees might then be really well-fed, but everything else will be swamped.

The best answer is probably to grow some of this over-enthusiastic plant in large pots. I’ll have to watch that none of the roots escape through the drainage holes, or else it will be off, racing through the garden again, with me in pursuit.

As you can see from the photo below, ladybirds like deadnettles too. Maybe I’ll get to like it eventually!

Ladybird on deadnettle

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.

Signs of Hope!

Crocuses are, for me, the first signs that spring is on the way. Hellebores don’t give me the same feeling because they start flowering when it’s still winter. But crocuses, with their fresh and radiant colours, show us that the garden has begun to fill with new life.

Before long, there will be other flowers to continue what the crocuses have started. But for now these are the flowers that bring gardeners (and the first bees) joy.

Flowers of Crocus 'Prins Claus'

When I lived near Edinburgh, I enjoyed the sight of mass plantings of crocuses in some of its parks. These gleaming sparks of colour, sprinkled over lush grass, were a cheerful sight and a reassurance that the cold of winter would end. Seeing the brilliant flowers fully open in the sunshine was a reminder that summer would come and days would be warm and bright.

This year I think we need the promise of better days more than we ever did. I’m looking forward to being able to spend more time outside, especially now I am aware of how much we benefit from being in contact with nature. Soon we will be able to enjoy the natural world again, as spring gives us the chance to get out into our gardens and back to the countryside.

Crocus Prins Claus

A Rose for Valentine’s Day

Actually, this really isn’t a Valentine rose – it would need to be red. But I don’t have any red roses in the garden, so this is the best I can offer. (It’s the climbing rose ‘Handel’.)

According to Google and several florists’ websites, a pale pink rose means, among other things, ‘happiness’ or ‘joy’. So maybe it’s a bit more suitable as an offering to my blog readers than a red one would be!

I don’t know why it’s the red rose that means love. Perhaps it’s because it’s the colour of blood, so associated with the heart and passion. At any rate, it does go back a long way, even to the myths of the ancient Greeks. Aphrodite, their goddess of love, was scratched by a thorn on a white rose bush as she was rushing to be with her dying lover, Adonis. Her blood turned the rose red and ever afterwards, red roses were the symbol of love.

It feels like it will be a long time before there are any roses at all here. It’s snowy outside at the moment, and I am dreaming of being able to visit gardens where the scent of roses is carried on warm summer air. And I’ll be very happy to see them, whatever colour they may be!

The Ordinary Made Special: Frost

It’s the end of January and I hope that these are the last frost photographs I’ll share for a while. Although this winter hasn’t been very cold, I just can’t wait for it to end. I’m ready to see new growth and to welcome the first flowers of spring.

Despite my impatience for the cold weather to be over, I’m grateful for a bit of frost. Without it, there would be very little to photograph here in winter. There would be much less to tempt me outside for a wander around the garden too.

With frost, the garden is transformed from being a soft and soggy mess of dying vegetation into somewhere crisp and rigid. It feels utterly changed, alien even. Plant remains that would normally go unnoticed stand out as the frost makes them into something new.

frosted plants

The smallest of things can suddenly be full of photographic possibilities. Tiny seed-heads, old leaves, the dried stems of decorative grasses – these can become features that demand attention. The frost emphasises the delicate nature of these small things. It can make a plant look like a piece of fragile lace or as if it has been dipped in sugar. And if the sun is shining, the garden can come alive with the sparkle of all those millions of tiny crystals.

So I won’t be ungrateful for the beauty that winter can produce. I’ll try to be patient while I wait for spring to arrive. But I can’t help being excited to see the signs that the spring isn’t far away. Now there are green daffodil buds starting to appear and the first of my hellebores has come into flower. And I’m off out into the garden to photograph them…

frosted hydrangea

Frosted Seed-Heads

After last week’s snow-capped anemone seed-head, today we have seed-heads that are covered in frost. In the middle of winter I’m really glad to find anything to photograph in the garden, so I’m grateful that these are here.

On a frosty morning, these seed-heads create a focal point and some interesting textures in the garden. They become like miniature natural sculptures when their details are picked out by frost crystals. I find that seeing the patterns of frost encourages me to look more closely at the plant’s own structure. That allows me to see possible photographs where I may not have noticed them before.

frosted honesty seed pods
The remains of honesty seed-pods sparkle in the sunshine.

Mind you, sometimes there’s very little left of the seed-heads, as you can see with the honesty above. These are pretty-well wrecked by now but, given a bit of sunshine to make the frost sparkle, still manage to look interesting. Of course, on a dull but mild day, with no frost or sunshine, they don’t look at all pretty at this stage. So it’s amazing what the right weather can do.

Amongst the best of the seed-heads for frost photography are the umbellifers. There are usually quite a lot of self-sown bronze fennel seedlings around the garden and these really sparkle on a frosty morning. I never cut these down until spring, because the seeds can provide food for hungry birds. (As well as starting lots more plants.) The delicate decorations that they become is a delightful winter bonus.

frosted fennel seed head
Fennel seeds look at their best with a thick coating of frost.

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.