Wishing You a Better Year.

None of us will be able to forget 2020 – the strangest and scariest of years. Here in the UK we are still keeping our heads down and trying to make the best of very restricted lives. I am especially aware of how lucky my husband and I have been. We have stayed healthy and we don’t know anyone who’s had Covid. (And I really hope it stays that way!)

We’ve also felt very lucky in having our garden this year. It has felt like a place of safety and refuge, especially during the first lockdown here. Although we are not yet of an age where we’d be particularly vulnerable to Covid, it seems that you really can’t predict what the effects may be on an individual. The possibilities of complications or long-term health effects has made us very wary of catching it.

Being able to spend time in the garden has been vital to our well-being this year. Seeing the garden as somewhere away from Covid, where we were not going to catch it, nor pass it on, was a great reassurance and comfort. There has been plenty of work to do in it, which has been a great distraction from the troubles of the world outside. It has also given a feeling of purpose to spending so much time at home. And the warmth of summer allowed us to appreciate how good the garden was as somewhere to just relax. Knowing that so many of our friends were also staying safe in their gardens was another reassurance.

But, of course, not everyone has a garden, and some who live in flats may not have easy access to outside space either. So I am very conscious of how lucky I am. And watching the bees, butterflies and other insects that have visited my little green space has felt quite special. It also gives me a feeling of responsibility – I can try to make this a better space for nature and a refuge for all sorts of little creatures. That makes my garden feel valuable and gives meaning to having to stay at home.

I hope that you’ve been able to find safety, comfort and something to help you cope with all the problems of Covid this year. And I hope that 2021 will be a better year for everyone. May you and yours stay happy and healthy and have the very best New Year.

Frosted leaves of Alchemilla mollis
Frosted leaves of Alchemilla mollis

Merry Christmas!

Somehow I feel that Christmas has sneaked up on me this year. It has arrived stealthily, without the normal fanfare. I don’t feel at all ready for it – which isn’t really a problem because our Christmas is fairly simple. But I haven’t noticed its imminent arrival in the way I usually would.

It’s probably partly due to spending so much time at home and being less aware of all the Christmas items in the shops. Not going out very much also means not seeing the Christmas decorations in the streets as often. And, of course, there have been none of the usual Christmas get-togethers that help to get us into the festive spirit.

Even if I’m a bit later than usual in getting the house decorated for Christmas, the garden could look suitably festive if we get a bit of frost. Nature seems well able to create her own sparkle and drama in the garden as the frost turns the remaining plants into icy sculptures.

Frost makes something special of the simplest things in the garden. The top photo is of fennel leaves. Most of the other fennel plants have died back for winter. This one, however, is a young seedling and has kept its leaves for long enough for the frost to turn them to a delicately etched tracery of tiny ice crystals. To my mind, it’s much prettier than any indoor decoration! The eryngium below (sea holly) had managed to produce some very late flowers and they look quite magical with a thick coating of frost. The sun had reached these, so the frost had started to soften and would soon disappear. Part of the excitement of frost, for me, is that it lasts for such a short time, so you have to make an effort to get out and see it at its best.

I hope that you are able to find some magic in your Christmas this year, despite the effects of Covid. I think that this year has reminded us all of how important our friends and family are to us, and how much we value their company. I hope that it won’t be long before we can plan to see them all again and enjoy being with those we care about. Until then, please take care of yourselves and I wish you fun and joy over the holidays.

Frosted eryngium (sea holly)
Frosted flower head of eryngium (sea holly)

Coming in Late

Hesperanthas tend to get nipped by frost here before they have much chance to flower. For some reason they always seem to flower late in my garden. They’re usually described as an autumn flower. (I’ve also seen sites say that they’re a late summer flower. But I certainly wouldn’t say November, or if I’m lucky, October is ‘late summer’!)

Maybe the late flowering is because the climate here is much drier than they like and they wait for the late autumn/winter rains to get them started. (They like that elusive ‘moist but well drained’ position that we don’t have very much of. There is the choice of well-drained and dry or yet more well-drained and dry. Adding compost helps but creating it takes time.) Plants that like damper conditions have to be kept watered in summer. Perhaps if I water the hesperanthas more thoroughly, they’ll flower a bit earlier.

I really wanted to photograph this plant before the frost could destroy the flowers, so I kept it in a pot under glass*. That worked well and it stayed in flower for a few weeks. Having the flowers protected from the weather meant that they stayed in great condition for being photographed.

This is a trick I often try with new plants – it allows me to have undamaged flowers to photograph and can make it much easier to get at them for photography too. (Once plants are in a border, it can be difficult to get near enough to them without trampling on their neighbours.)

Now that the photographs have been taken, I can plan where to plant out this hesperantha (or ‘river lily’). It will probably be a lot happier – especially if I manage to create an area that can easily be kept well-watered for all the plants that like moisture. (A bit like a bog garden without the bog.) I think that might be a challenge for next year.

POSTSRIPT: I was amused to see that I’ve misled some readers by using a common phrase in UK gardening. ‘Under glass’ just means in a greenhouse, conservatory or cold frame. The hesperantha has been in the conservatory for a while and will spend the rest of the winter in the greenhouse. It’s interesting to see how phrases we take for granted don’t necessarily travel well, hehe!

A Frosty Bunch

The frost caught the last few flowers that have been holding on in the garden. I love to see the effects of this and always hope that there will still be something around to be decorated by the first frosts. Some years it’s too mild here for that, and by the time the frost does arrive, the flowers are long gone.

Frosted flower of Scabiosa atropurpurea
A frosted flower and seed head of Scabiosa atropurpurea

But this year I’ve been lucky and still have some flowers, even now that it’s December. (I still find that surprising because there would have been none at all if we were still living in Scotland. Our garden there really seemed to go to sleep in winter.) And there are also the winter flowers – the newly emerged little yellow stars of winter jasmine and the glowing yellow buds of mahonia and pink ones of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. (These are just starting to open.)

I think the fact that there is still life happening in my garden at this time of year does a lot for my well-being. There are still interesting things to see (and photograph), and of course, lots more work to do!

Frosted flower of Geranium 'Rozanne'
Frosted flower of Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Being able to get outside into the garden is a real benefit at the moment, when Covid restrictions make it difficult to leave home. At least I don’t have to be stuck indoors and I can enjoy my (chilly!) garden without having to worry about the dreaded virus. Of course, I’ll be even happier when I can safely invite friends nearby to come and spend time in my garden with me. Luckily my online friends can visit easily and without any health risks!

Frosted flowers of Cosmos
The last of the cosmos flowers caught the frost too.

Here Comes Winter!

Winter is on its way. The first signs of its approach have begun to show here. Earlier in the week, there was a light frost. It had already melted by the time I got out into the garden with my camera.

That melted frost allowed me to photograph the gaura above, still covered in dozens of icy little droplets. Somehow these drops seem fresher and clearer than raindrops do. Maybe they are actually cleaner – rain must collect whatever’s in the atmosphere as it falls.

The way that flowers can become translucent after having been frosted fascinates me. It makes the flowers look quite different from the way they normally do. They become especially delicate and rather ethereal. The gaura in the top photo is now so see-through that you can easily see the drops on the backs of the petals right through the petals themselves.

I photographed the flower below a couple of days later, after a much harder frost. The sun takes a few hours to get into this part of the garden in winter, so I have a good chance of finding still-frozen flowers here. By contrast, at this time the other side of the garden was dripping quietly as the brilliant sunshine worked its way in. (I reckon that I should use the shadier areas for more plants that would look good frosted.)

After photographing the frosted gaura, I wandered around the garden to look for more frozen flowers. So that means I have more frosty photos to process for next week. In winter, I’m grateful for the photographic opportunities that frost brings – they help to keep me active until spring!

Frosted gaura flowers

No Return

Sometimes flowers don’t survive here for long. Last year these autumn crocuses were growing in little wall-mounted pots by our front door. Really, they needed to be planted in the ground. However, because they’re very toxic, I decided that it would be best to keep them somewhere out of reach of our cats.

So this year they haven’t come back. Totally unsurprising, given that they had so little space to grow in. But that’s OK – sometimes I’m happy to have a plant that I know will just be temporary. It can be enjoyed at the time (and of course, photographed), and valued for the brief enhancement it brings to the garden.

Most of our plants do come back from year to year. Others are a fleeting glory that remains only in memories and photos. For me, they give a bit of variety to both the garden and my photography.

These autumn crocuses may be gone, but, having given me something new to photograph, their images will remain.

Pause for Thought

A very wet weekend means that I am forced to stay indoors – unless I fancy a thorough soaking. But that’s not bad, because it gives me the chance to think about what I’m doing next in the garden.

I’m still working on building a pond and a new border running along that side of the garden. This has been my ‘Covid project’, although it actually started back towards the end of 2018. (Hubby offered to help this year, but I decided to continue on my own because it has given me a sense of purpose during this strange year.)

It has felt as if digging the pond would go on forever, partly because our dry ground is practically impossible to dig in summer. Also, I have found that the site for the pond has much more of a slope than I first realised. (It’s amazing how invisible a slope can be until you start using a spirit-level.)

I thought I’d finished digging the pond back in May. But the smaller sizes of pond liner were sold out when I tried to buy one, so I decided that I might as well make the pond bigger. More digging! (More soil to shift too.)

At last I’ve got to the point where I need to think carefully about the border around the pond. This area was always pretty awful – overshadowed and impoverished by huge conifers in the neighbouring garden and swamped by the few thuggish plants that could grow there. (The worst ones were two types of deadnettle. They’re valuable for bees but in our soil they just keep spreading…and spreading.)

Which brings me to the flower above – a Japanese Anemone. I’ve mentioned how invasive they can be in previous posts, but they are beautiful. This one was growing in a raised bed in the ‘pond border’ which was acting as a temporary nursery area. I’ve just cleared that bed away and potted up all the plants from it. But now I have to think about where to put them in the new border and whether they may cause trouble.

Since I know the anemone is a little trouble-maker, I’ve decided to keep it in a pot. (Probably many pots eventually…) It’s not the only plant that is making me pause for thought. I’ve just read that some ferns are allelopathic, meaning that they emit chemicals that suppress the growth of other competing plants. So does this mean that the particular ferns I want to plant out will damage the plants around them? I haven’t been able to find out so far. Maybe my ferns will also have to stay in pots.

Other plants are making me wonder too. Like the perennial sunflower I photographed back in August (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’). After struggling to grow for years, this has suddenly grown tall and wide. Will it now try to take over?

As it rains outside, I’m busily Googling all these plants. I need to find out which are safe to grow together without some being bullied out of existence by their bigger and more boisterous neighbours. Sometimes being a gardener feels more like being a referee!

A Memory of Summer: Clematis ‘Samaritan Jo’

Now that we’re so far into autumn, I have already photographed most of the flowers that are left in the garden. So I’m catching up on a bit of photo-processing from earlier in the year.

The clematis here (‘Samaritan Jo’) was planted late last year, and I had been excitedly waiting to see what the flowers would be like. In early summer, a mixture of single flowers and double flowers appeared, and even one (at bottom) that didn’t seem able to decide which it wanted to be.

A single flower of ‘Samaritan Jo’.

The deep magenta/purple edging to the petals was what initially attracted me to this clematis. The faint magenta lines along the midrib of the petals and the slightly greenish tips add to the beauty of the flower, and make it a delight to photograph.

This clematis was named in honour of the volunteers who work for the Samaritans. (Apparently they are all known as ‘Samaritan Jo’.)

It seems to have settled down quite well in the garden. (I have lost a few clematis by planting them in areas where they got really baked by the summer sun and didn’t have enough moisture in the soil around them.) ‘Jo’ is in a position that doesn’t dry out too much and has a bit of shade to the base of the plant.

Hopefully there will be lots more pretty flowers on this lovely clematis next year. (A happy thought right at the moment, with rain falling here and the wind suddenly sending leaves flying everywhere!)

This one doesn’t know if it wants to be single or double!

A Splash of Late Sunshine

I managed to photograph these rudbeckias (coneflowers) before they got too weather-beaten to use. (They’re actually gone now – only the brown seed-heads remain – so I was just in time.)

The rudbeckia below (and at bottom) is ‘Goldsturm’ and it has given a rich touch of gold to the main border for weeks. I’d though of moving it to a position that would give it a little more moisture but it seems settled where it is. (Moving it might be risky too, I’ve lost them a few times, both back in Scotland and here. I think they got too dry.)

Rudbekia 'Goldsturm' flower

The rudbeckia at the top of this post is, I think, an annual. Hubby grew it from seed as part of his collection of potted plants in the front garden. (That part is his domain!) Sitting in its big pot, it has added a welcoming glow by our front door. It must have been in constant flower for a couple of months and now that it has gone over, I miss it!

There’s a new yellow tint seeping into the garden now as the leaves gradually change colour. Somehow at this time of year, we always seem to have a week or two of very rough, windy weather. So the leaves get blown off before there’s time to fully appreciate that yellow. If the wind does let up for a little while, I might get the chance to nip outside with my camera. (But I suspect I’ll end up collecting fallen leaves instead and photographing those.)

Rudbekia 'Goldsturm' flower

Small but Beautiful

The flowers in the garden are getting fewer as autumn progresses. Finding something to photograph is more difficult now, but there are a few flowers left and some are still looking good.

Amongst these is this very long-flowering Scabious atropurpurea. It’s a lovely little thing, but you do need to look at it closely to see the detail. I’ve also had to use plenty of light because the flowers are very dark. Here it’s a tricky balance between being able to see anything in the centre of the flowers and keeping the colour as true to life as possible.

And talking about the true colour – this is one of the supposedly ‘black’ flowered scabious varieties. (I’m not sure which. I’ve had both ‘Ace of Spades’ and ‘Chile Black’ and they look very similar to me.) As you can see, the flowers really aren’t black at all, but a very deep burgundy red, as are many other flowers that have black in their name. (Like Black Parrot tulips, photographed here: https://annmackay.blog/2020/05/03/tulips-flamboyant-and-fun/ )

I love having the deep, dark purplish-reds of these flowers in the garden. They look dramatic as they sway on their tall, delicate stems and can take the overly sweet edge off a bed that has a lot of softer pinks. Because they also self-seed freely around our garden, they help to give a more cohesive look to the borders.

(A problem of growing flowers to photograph is that it’s easy to end up with lots of ‘one-offs’ that give a very bitty effect. Repetition helps to hold the garden together. It’s good to have plants that are easy to propagate and can be sprinkled through the borders or grown in massed groups. )

Like other scabious flowers, these are great for bees and other pollinators. That gives me another reason for growing them and makes me want try other varieties of scabious too. (I do already have a small blue scabious – no idea of the name – and the related Knautia macedonica which is an absolute magnet for bees and hoverflies.)

It’s great that these flowers are happy to sow themselves everywhere because they are short-lived as perennials. (They’re often treated as annuals.) These have been in flower for a very long time and look set to flower for a few weeks yet. I do dead-head them but always leave the last seed heads, so there are usually lots of new seedlings the next year.

Hopefully I’ll never be without a few of these pretty little flowers around the garden – it will make the bees happy too!

Scabiosa atropurpurea flowers (scabious 'Chile Black')