Little Pretenders: Hoverflies

Hoverfly on red scabious
A marmalade hoverfly on red scabious. (The commonest hoverfly in the UK.)

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!

Hoverfly on giant scabious
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.

A Bright New Year

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Mahonia flowers glowing in the sunshine.

When everything outside is looking wintry and dreary, the mahonia bush right at the back of our garden boldly flaunts its gleaming yellow flowers. Give it a bit of sunshine, and those flowers are reminiscent of a yellow highlighter pen – practically fluorescent!

The mahonia provides a touch of brilliance and an attention-grabbing focal point to the garden at a time when it’s really needed. The little flowers are like a patch of concentrated sunshine. (I think it must be mahonia x media ‘Charity’.)

So I shall use these cheerful winter flowers to wish you a very bright and joyful New Year. May 2020 bring you health and happiness!

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A close-up of the tiny flowers of mahonia.

Natural Sparkle

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Agapanthus

Because it’s almost Christmas, I thought I’d post some slightly sparkly frost photographs. They go to show that nature can be festive when she likes!

Last Christmas, I woke up to a frosty morning and was able to get outside and spend a bit of time taking photographs of a softly shimmering world.

This year we had a cold period much earlier in the month and I took these photographs then. I don’t think I’ll be outside taking photos this year because the forecast is not promising any frost or snow. (I’ll have a lazy morning inside!)

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Fennel seed head

Seed heads are among the most promising of garden subjects to photograph when they are decorated with ice crystals. For this reason, I don’t cut plants back at the end of autumn. (And, more importantly, really, it gives a better habitat for wildlife and a supply of seeds as food for birds.)

There are several seed heads that I particularly want to stay intact until the frost arrives – agapanthus, fennel, allium and daucus (wild carrot) – because they have the most interesting structures and look at their best when frosted.

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Allium seed head

The arrival of frost is one of the times I most enjoy garden photography. With luck, there will be a moment when the sun comes out. Then the frost will glitter and shine, making the garden come alive with exciting new images to photograph. Plants that may have looked quite ordinary before (like the hydrangea below) suddenly acquire a radiance  that makes them irresistible to me and my camera.

I wish you a joyful Christmas, full of fun and sparkle!

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Climbing hydrangea

 

 

 

Frost-Magic

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A geranium leaf is lit up as the sun starts to creep over the garden fence.

The frost has been back again, giving us some chilly but sparkling mornings. I’ve been grateful to see it because we’ve reached the stage of the year when there are few flowers or plants left to photograph.

Stalking around the garden, camera in hand, I’m usually on the lookout for images that are only made possible because of the frost: veins on a leaf picked out in white, petal edges encrusted as if they’ve been dipped in sugar, or tiny crystals of ice building up on frozen plant surfaces.

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Tiny, frozen winter jasmine flowers with ice crystals building up on them.

The shady areas of the garden retain the most frost, and that shade can give a slightly blue tint to the white, which creates an even colder appearance. The lack of light makes it hard to get much depth of field in the photographs, even at fairly high ISO values. (I could use my tripod, but it’s much too cold to stand around for long and my feet feel warmer if I keep moving around.)

As the sunlight gradually starts to seep into the garden, I look for places where the frost has begun to sparkle in the sun. There won’t be much time before the frost begins to disappear as it warms up. This means I have to work quickly to capture the images that have attracted my eye.

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This climbing hydrangea is in one of the coldest parts of the garden, shaded by the fence and a tree.

Eventually I’m either too cold to stay out any longer or the frost has started to melt and drip off the wet plants. So it’s time to head indoors, first wrapping my camera in a large plastic bag to protect it from getting covered in condensation in the warmer air. (Outside, it’s all to easy to let the viewfinder get steamed up by my own breath – a frustrating interruption to taking the photographs!)

Once indoors, it’s time for a well-earned mug of coffee and a chance to get warm again while looking to see what new photographs I have. Frosty mornings can be productive and very satisfying!

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The frost on this fig leaf will soon be gone, now that the sun has reached it.

Leaf-Fall and some Autumn Colour

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Frost enhances the orange-red leaves of a crab apple.

It doesn’t get very cold in this part of Suffolk in Autumn, so the leaves tend to get blown away before they have a chance to develop much colour. (Yet a few miles away, where it gets chillier, there have been great clouds of yellow leaves.)

However, in the last couple of weeks, the night-time temperature has got cold enough to encourage a bit of colour here and there. You have to look quite hard for it, but it can be found.

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Blackberry leaves become a mix of heat and frost.

Our recent frost helped to make the last of the leaves more interesting to photograph, providing a crisp, icy contrast to the warm tones of the leaves. It was a good time to be out early to take some pictures.

While I was wandering around with my camera, I noticed soft noises that at first sounded as if there were birds hopping around nearby.

But when I looked up, I realised that I was hearing the leaves falling in the neighbours’ garden. It gets the sun before ours does, and as the frost melted, the leaf-stalks were losing their last grip on the trees and shrubs and dropping softly to the ground. Somehow, the tiny sounds made the morning feel even more hushed and peaceful.

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The frost has melted, but being wet makes these geranium and cotoneaster leaves all the more red.

The leaves will soon be gone and everything will seem bare and wintry. But, just for this last little while, these few are rich and glowing with beautiful warm tones – a sight to seek out and enjoy.

By the time you read this, we will have had another frosty morning here. More of the leaves will have fallen and I will have been out taking more photographs.

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Autumn has slightly lightened and warmed the tones of these weigela leaves.

Frozen Flowers

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Frost made this echinacea flower an inviting subject to photograph.

On Monday we had the first frost of the year. Up until then, the weather had been mild and wet, so it felt as if it had come suddenly. There were still a few flowers in the garden, lasting much later than you might expect. And, of course, they were caught by the frost.

As you may imagine, this meant that I had a busy morning padding about the frozen garden with camera in hand.

Now that the plants are beginning to die back for winter, there’s not much left to photograph, so the intricate effects of frost give an opportunity that’s too good to miss. I took as many photographs as I could before the sun melted it all away. (And there will be more in later posts…)

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A passionflower bud, caught by the frost.

The echinacea flower (PowWow White) was frozen through, and this has enhanced the green tinge to the ends of the petals. The emerging flowers start off pale green, with a vivid green cone, gradually maturing to a white flower with a golden-yellow cone.

This colour-change makes for more photographic potential. The plant is a new addition to the garden and I’m looking forward to following its progress with my camera during the next year.

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Frosted penstemon ‘Raven’ – hope it can cope with the cold!

The passionflower is ‘Constance Elliot’, which I wrote about here. It was planted just last year and has flowered well during the late summer. The bud seems to have escaped any serious damage from the frost and the plant’s leaves are still firm and healthy-looking, so I reckon it hasn’t come to any harm. Even so, as it gets colder, I’ll protect the base of the plant with either mulch or frost-fleece.

If the winter gets really cold, I may also put fleece around the penstemons. I’ve lost a few of these in cold winters, but some varieties have gone on for years – especially ‘Garnet’, which seems to be hardier than most. (Pictured is ‘Raven’, which came through last year’s fairly mild winter easily. I hope it turns out to be thoroughly hardy too.)

The rose below is a tough old girl who doesn’t let anything bother her…’Zephirine Drouhin’, a rose that is both delightfully scented and thornless. This is probably my favourite plant in the whole garden. I’m glad that she doesn’t mind the frost!

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Rose ‘Zepherine Drouhin’, covered in frost now, but her flowers will perfume the air again next summer.

Armchair Gardening: Planning a New Border

Sidalcea 'Party Girl'
Sidalcea ‘Party Girl’ has small flowers which look very like wild mallow.

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.)

Anthemis 'EC Buxton'
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

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The flowers of Gaura lindheimeri sway in the breeze like little white butterflies.

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.

Frothy Lace: Wild Carrot

Seedhead of wild carrot (Daucus).
Wild carrot gets the name ‘bird’s nest’ from the way the umbels of seeds curve in on themselves.

Lacy, dainty flowers held on stems that curve inwards into a concave shape, both when the flowers are just opening and later, when the seeds are forming  – this is the wild carrot (Daucus carota).

If you live in the USA, you may know this flower as ‘Queen Anne’s lace’, but in the UK we also call it ‘bishop’s lace’ or ‘bird’s nest’. (You can see why, from the photo above.) Just to add to the name confusion, Queen Anne’s Lace is a name also used for an entirely different plant in the UK (Anthriscus sylvestris, aka cow parsley).

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Here, the tiny flowers are still folded shut. As the flowers open, the umbel will become less concave and flatten out.

Whatever name you know it by, the wild carrot, in its white-flowered form, is often seen growing along the edges of roads and fields. In recent years, new pink and burgundy-flowered cultivars have been developed and the plant has become popular in gardens.

Here I grow it for the light, airy feel that it adds to garden borders. I’m also growing it to photograph. There’s plenty to inspire me: delicate umbels of tiny flowers contrasting with the almost spiky-looking bracts below them, colours ranging from palest pinks to deep, dark reds, and that distinctive ‘bird’s nest’ shape.

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Open flowers of Daucus carota ‘Dara’

Photographing the flowers in the garden can be a bit tricky. The large, lightweight flower heads tend to move in the slightest breeze, so getting a reasonably sharp photograph can take a lot of patience! They’re worth the effort though, and I know that I’ll go back to them again and again for more photographs.

Next year, when I hope to have a larger number of the flowers in the garden, I will cut some and bring them indoors to photograph in the studio. No breezes there! (Apparently they make a good cut flower, lasting well if you sear the stem ends in boiling water for a few seconds.)

Right now, the seeds of these plants are ready to gather. So I will collect them – some to sow now and some to sow next spring – in the hope of having lots more of this delightful plant.

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The newly-emerging wild carrot flowers in springtime.

Rich With Colour: Dahlias

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One of my favourite dahlias, for both its flower shape and its colour.

This year I’ve been trying to extend the flowering season in my garden a little. So I’ve planted echinaceas, heleniums, rudbekias and asters, which helped to keep the garden going through the transition into autumn.

But I’ve been missing out on one of the best flowers for this time of year – the dahlia.

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These little dahlias are quite cute!

As a newcomer to dahlias, I find the choice of flowers quite bewildering. There are so many different types to get to know…cactus, semi-cactus, ball, pom-poms, anemone-flowered and more.

So far, I’ve decided that I like the peony-flowered and single dahlias the most because they have open centres (great for bees). The collarette dahlias are really interesting to photograph because they have two rings of petals – the large outer petals and a sweet little ring of twirly mini-petals around the central disc. (You can see one in the top-left corner of the photo-mosaic below.)

So far I’ve just planted two dahlias here. One is ‘Siberia’, a white, waterlily-flowered dahlia which you can also see in the mosaic below. The other is a seedling of ‘Bishop’s Children’ which has flowered in a rich bright red. That’s a small start, but next year I’ll be on the lookout for more.

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Some of the dahlias that I’ve photographed recently.

As usual, one of the biggest factors in my plant choices will be finding flowers that will make good photographs. Dahlias have a huge range of colours and shapes, so choosing will probably take some time.

For photography, I often look for flowers that have one colour with another blushed over them, or a different colour along the edges of petals, because it gives an interesting element to the photograph.

Shapes within the flower are important when photographing it too. Elegant curves, contrast of size and shape and interesting small details are all essential parts of a satisfying flower image.

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The brightest of reds.

I can foresee a slight snag with my new interest in dahlias. It’s going to be hard to restrict myself to the plants I actually have room for! Well, that will be a problem for next year. This year I must get on and improve the soil in the borders for them. And I’ll start working on my dahlia ‘to buy’ list, while dreaming about the wonderfully rich colours that they will bring to my garden…

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A dahlia that I’d love to grow.