Hungry Critters (1): Bees

Sometimes it feels as if there is nothing much that you can do to help the problems of the world around you. But we’re not as powerless as we may think. Small actions do make an impact, even if it’s only in our own small area.

For me, environmental issues are something that I’ve been aware of for a long time and I’m especially concerned about the challenges faced by pollinating insects.

Bumblebee on a blue scabious flower.
Scabious is a great plant for bees.

In an attempt to do what I can to help, I have been trying to increase the number of plants that are good pollen and nectar sources in my garden. It does seem to be a case of ‘plant it and they will come’, because during the last couple of years I’ve noticed a big difference in the number of bees and hoverflies in the garden.

Luckily, just like the bees, I prefer the simpler flowers to highly-bred doubles. (Think of an open bowl-shape that gives easy access to the centre of the flower for short-tongued bees, and tubular flowers like the foxglove for long-tongued bees.)

Bumblebee on a dahlia flower.
The open centre of this dahlia makes for easy access to bees.

For spring and summer, the garden has lots of good bee plants. Even in the winter there is mahonia, viburnum and ivy. But late autumn can be a bit sparse, especially after the sedums and asters have finished flowering.

So this year I’m hoping to find a bit more for my late autumn buzzy visitors. Can you imagine a better excuse for a bit of plant shopping?

This week is ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ in the UK and this year there will be online events to raise awareness of what can be done to help bees. You can read more about this and about the work of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust here: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/

Honeybee on sedum flowers.
Sedums are among the best autumn-flowering plants for pollinators.

Bad Hair Day?

I feel that this flower and I have something in common at the moment – a ‘hairdo’ that’s totally out of control! (At least I suppose I can blame mine on Covid!)

But the flower has a big advantage over me…it looks good with its strangely shaggy petals sticking out at odd angles. (Even if you might imagine that someone plugged it into the mains, cartoon-style!)

This is Dianthus ‘Rainbow Loveliness’, which I have previously photographed in the studio but not outside. The fringed petals make it an unusual and striking flower but they can make it more difficult to photograph in the garden.

The reason for this is that it can be difficult to isolate a single flower when it’s growing as part of a clump. And for this little dianthus, you do need to, if you want to be able to see the details of its complex shape. Otherwise, the fringed petals of the other flowers get in the way and create a confusing mass. (You can see what I mean in the bottom photo!)

I find that it’s useful to try propping the flower where there’s a plainer background using a thin cane and a clothes peg. And using a larger aperture to give a shallow depth of field helps too. But it is much easier for me to pick the flower and bring it into the studio where it’s easier to isolate it. (That’s one of the reasons why I tend to do a lot of my flower photographs there – and I don’t have to worry about the wind blowing the flower around either.) So I’m still planning to try to get some of the pink flowers into the studio – when they come back into flower!

You can see the studio photograph from last year here: https://annmackay.blog/2019/12/15/dianthus-rainbow-loveliness/

Dianthus Rainbow Loveliness in pink

Evening Primroses: Ethereal Beauty

The heat of the last week has made working in the garden during the day very difficult. So I’ve spent most evenings out there instead.

A perk of this change has been seeing the evening primroses at their best. The pale yellow flowers show up well even as the light starts to fade, looking delicate and ghostly above the shadowy foliage of the border.

But before it gets too dark, it’s worth taking a close look at the detail of the flowers. The long stamens and style, with its large, cross-shaped stigma are elegant and give a distinctive look to this evening primrose. (I believe it’s Oenothera stricta ‘Sulphurea’, a short-lived perennial.)

The evening primrose below is a different plant – this one is Oenothera macrocarpa. It’s much shorter and has darker yellow flowers, which stay open for longer. (They’ve been open all day here today, perhaps because it has been cool and rainy for a change.)

I hope that macrocarpa will self-seed around my garden the way Oenothera stricta does. They are drought tolerant and great for moths and early-morning bees, so they’ll be welcome wherever they pop up. I shall be sprinkling some of the seeds around as they ripen to give them a little help.

And before I go, I must just give this link for anyone who fancies a bit of armchair garden-visiting: https://ngs.org.uk/virtual-garden-visits/

The NGS is the National Gardens Scheme in the UK, which holds open days in private gardens aid of charities. (Mostly nursing and health charities, so particularly appropriate this year.)

Because the gardens have been unable to open to the public, they have posted videos of them instead. (Though now many of the gardens are starting to be able to open.) There are lots of excellent garden videos there, so I hope you enjoy them!

Crumpled Silk: Oriental Poppies

Somehow it feels as if the summer is moving fast. It’s all the fault of the flowers in my garden. (Well, just some of them!)

One day the opening flowers of a plant are teasing you with a flash of colour as they strain to pop out of the confinement of their buds. And just a few days later they’re already gone, leaving you with just a passing memory.

Oriental poppies are amongst the fastest-moving. From that first hint of the glorious petals as the flower emerges, to the rounded seed-head, takes hardly any time.

But the crumpled silk flowers with their dark and mysterious centres are so gorgeous that their short life is something special for me. Nothing in my garden can match the flamboyance or drama of these prima donna blooms and every year I excitedly await the moment that they will open.

The poppy in the top photograph is ‘Patty’s Plum’, a very popular cultivar. The second photograph is of a poppy that was labelled ‘Lilac Girl’, but is really a pretty pink rather than lilac. I tried Googling this plant, but could find little information on it, other than that it may be a seedling of Patty’s Plum. In any case, it’s a lovely flower, and I shall look forward to seeing it again next year.

Papaver orientale 'Lilac Girl'
Papaver orientale, said to be ‘Lilac Girl’

Early Summer Clematis

The clematis above (Guernsey Cream) was planted just last year. I had forgotten that it flowered early in the year, so it was a happy surprise to see lots of buds already beginning to open last month. I’m hoping that it will flower again in late August too.

The petals of this clematis have a green bar down the centre that is more strongly coloured if the plant has shade. In this particular flower, the bar marking wasn’t very pronounced. Instead, there was more of an overall green tinge which faded to cream as the flower aged.

Like many other pale-coloured clematis, strong sun makes the flower colour fade. So if you want to preserve the colour of a delicately-hued clematis, plant it somewhere that gives it some shade.

Clematis ‘Multi-Blue’

Unfortunately, Clematis ‘Multi-Blue’ has struggled this year. I planted it in an unsuitable position in the hottest part of the garden. Even with a bit of shading at its roots, the plant gets baked by the sun all day. When it’s windy, as it has been recently, it gets even more dried out. Lesson learned! I shall take a bit more care with future plantings.

‘Ernest Markham’ (below) is doing much better. Apparently this one can grow to 4 metres high, so it may take over in the shrub border behind it…I won’t mind if it does.

After weeks of drought and high temperatures, we’ve had a few days of wonderful, life-giving rain. It’s such a relief! And all the plants, including the clematis, are doing much better for it. The moist soil makes it possible to dig in the garden again and I’ll make sure to create some good planting-places for future clematis purchases. There are sure to be some!

Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’

Irises: Intricately Beautiful

Late spring feels really special when the irises start to flower. The iris above is (I think) a Pacific Coast iris called ‘Broadleigh Rose’. It was given to me by my generous friend Judy. (Thanks Judy!) This is the first time it has flowered and I’m delighted with it.

Irises are a marvellous plant for photography. They have it all – rich colours, striking markings, and a really ‘architectural’ shape. Iris sibirica is probably my favourite for photography because it combines an elegant shape with the boldest of markings.

At the moment, these irises are all living in large containers. They’re patiently waiting for me to finish preparing the border that will be their home. (That area previously had a row of huge conifers growing behind it in the neighbouring garden, so it was difficult to get anything to grow there. With the removal of the trees, I’ve had the chance to rejuvenate the area.)

Iris sibirica 'Currier'
Iris sibirica ‘Currier’

The new border runs most of the way along one side of the garden. There are already several well-established shrubs and some more recently planted small fruit trees along the border. But most of the rest is fairly bare, with just some planting at one end.

Eventually (!) this border will have a pond and a bog area. I’d really like to grow moisture-loving plants and this seems to be the only way that I can do it. (Unlike the garden in Scotland, where poor drainage meant we had areas that could flood.)

The pond has been dug out. (That took me a long time!) Now I need to level out the ground around it a bit, as the garden has a slight slope. This job is proving difficult because the ground has become so dried out.

But the irises are cheering me on with their vibrant colours, so hopefully it won’t be too long before they have the chance to get settled in to their new surroundings. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the border will look like next year!

Iris sibirica
Iris sibirica

Ranunculus: Jewel Colours

These ranunculus plants were the last plants I bought before the Covid-19 lockdown. It’s strange to think how different life was then.

The supermarket where I bought them was full of people rushing in and out on a busy weekend. Families and elderly people all going about normal life. While choosing my plants, I chatted happily with another lady who was a keen gardener…changed days!

Nurseries and garden centres have just started to open up again here but some had already begun selling over the internet and delivering locally. We were pleased to be able to buy from a tiny local nursery that we use every year. (Hubby plants annuals into tubs and baskets for the front of the house every year. I’m more into perennials.) It was a relief to know that the nursery would be able to survive.

As it has turned out, the extra time that folk now have to work in their gardens seems to have made many of these small businesses busier.

Ranunculus-red-4967
Ranunculus (red) aka Persian Buttercup

While garden centres and nurseries may cope with the effects of the pandemic, it’s a disastrous year for garden events and openings. Some however, have tried to offer an online alternative.

The Chelsea Flower Show is the biggest of these online events. For the week, the RHS had a programme of short talks by growers and designers plus a few visits to gardens that we might not normally see. It’s been interesting, but nothing like watching Chelsea on the TV as we normally do.

The BBC has managed to make some interesting programmes using footage of previous Chelsea shows alongside interviews with designers, growers and presenters all in their own gardens and nurseries. I enjoyed this much more than the RHS event – it gave more space to talk about garden design and the developments going on within gardening.

(If you’re in the UK, you should be able to watch the BBC programmes on the iPlayer. But if you’re elsewhere, you may find some of the programmes on Youtube.)

Ranunculus-5011

Tulips: Flamboyant and Fun

Tulips are flowers to make you smile. They come in all sorts of rich colours and extraordinary shapes, like the parrot tulip above. And they just call out to me to photograph them.

The tulip in the top photograph is ‘Black Parrot’, but, as you can see, it’s not really black at all. It’s more of a deep maroon shade – like a very dark wine.  Here, newly picked and under the powerful studio lights, the reddish tones stand out. But the colour looks more purplish in the less intense light of my kitchen, especially as the flower ages.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this tulip flower will develop as it opens out fully. New shapes will be created by the unfurling petals, giving the opportunity to take a variety of different photographs.

The tulip below is very different to the first one. It’s a viridiflora – named for the green markings on the petals. The vibrant colours and sheen of the petals make me think of  silk. The twisting shapes of the petals even suggest that the fabric is swaying in a breeze.

This year I’ve had several different tulips in the garden and they have done well in our warm spring weather. (There are more that are just starting to open.)

I haven’t grown many before, but now I feel encouraged to make a point of trying some new tulips every year. Then we’ll have the enjoyment of them in the borders and I’ll have plenty of lovely subjects to photograph.

Now I’m just waiting for the ‘Blue Parrot’ tulips to open – exciting!

Viridiflora tulip 'Doll's Minuet'
The petals of a viridiflora tulip look like a rich, silky fabric.

Blossom Time

Our lives may have been put on hold by Covid-19, but spring is speeding along as usual.

It seems that we wait for weeks in late winter for any sign of spring’s arrival. And then, when it gets here, it almost bowls us over with the energy and headlong change as everything in the garden rushes into growth and new life.

Spring feels wonderful but is hard to keep up with. So many jobs to do – plants, seeds, weeds – where to start? And with so many plants flowering at once, I always miss photographing some of them.

But the special flowers, like the cherry and crab apple blossom here, are worth making a special effort for. The wind had begun tearing at the delicate flowers, so I quickly cut a couple of sprays to photograph indoors. This makes it much easier to capture their details in close-up photographs, with no worries about them being blown around by the wind.

Being able to spend some time photographing these flowers was a special joy. It was a chance to appreciate their soft and transient beauty without other distractions intruding. And it was a bit of attention that the flowers thoroughly deserved. I hope you have time and the opportunity to enjoy some flowers this week.

Crab apple blossom
Delicate spring blossoms

A Flash of Colour: Pasqueflowers

Over the past week or so, I’ve been enjoying the brilliantly-coloured flowers of Pulsatilla vulgaris (commonly known as pasqueflower) in my garden. Their rich violet-purple petals and golden stamens are a sight that has lifted my spirits.

You can see these flowers at their best on a sunny day, when they open fully, inviting bees to come and pollinate them. Soon there will be the fluffy white seed heads which glisten in the sun as their silky hairs catch the light. (You can see the seed head at the top of this post.)

Pulsatilla vulgaris (purple pasque flower)
I find the fluffy stems and leaves of the pasqueflower very appealing.

It feels like no time at all since the flowers started to appear but it won’t be long before they go over. This feeling is partly because I’m distracted by the spring work in the garden and sometimes get too engrossed in whatever is keeping me busy.

A nearby clump of white pasqueflowers has already finished flowering. (I removed the seed heads from this one as it’s still a young plant and I didn’t want it to put its energy into producing seeds yet.) The difference in timing intrigues me – why did the white one flower a couple of weeks earlier than the purple one? It can’t be a difference in conditions because they are only a foot apart and get the same amount of sun.

The spring flowers seem to rush into bloom very quickly and disappear quickly too. Maybe it’s the comparison with the slower changes of winter that makes this seem to be the case. It’s a good time to pause and have a good look around to see what’s in bloom and to take a few moments to appreciate the brilliance and exuberance of our spring flowers.

Pulsatilla vulgaris (purple pasque flower)
Spring flowers bring glorious colour to the garden.