Wanderlust Strikes!

As spring gets a bit warmer, it feels as if it would be good to visit gardens and nurseries again. It’s a long time since I’ve been in anyone else’s garden and I’d really like to see something different to my own now. (The gardener’s version of cabin fever?)

Visiting gardens is one of my favourite ways to have a day out. I love to see how other people have created their gardens – often very different to whatever I might have come up with. It’s inspiring to see the imaginative ideas and beautiful planting that you can find in the best gardens. You can take ideas home to your own patch and you can discover plants that you may not see elsewhere.

If I see an unfamiliar plant that I like, I try to ask its name. But if there’s no-one to ask, it’s handy to have a camera or phone to take a quick photo. Afterwards I can spend hours with Google, just trying to find out what it may be.

The white-flowered shrub in the top picture really grabbed my attention. I was impressed by the generous numbers of delicately pretty flowers, but had no idea what it was. Eventually I found pictures of Staphylea (bladdernut) flowers. (Hooray for the interwebs!) So I think it’s Staphylea, possibly colchica, but hard to tell from a small photo. (I’m pretty sure that some of you will be familiar with bladdernuts, so if you know, please tell…I could be tempted to try to find one for my garden.)

Redbud tree flowers

The redbud (Cercis siliquastrum or Judas tree) above was a bit more familiar to me because I have seen a few of them since moving to England. (Scotland has a narrower range of garden plants, partly because of the cooler climate. So there have been lots of new plants for me to learn about here. Fun!) The first time I saw this in flower was the beautiful specimen in Beth Chatto’s garden in Essex. It is wonderful in spring – as is the whole garden.

The shrub below had me puzzled for a long time. It looked exotic for our climate and I think it was probably getting a lot of shelter from the old brick wall behind it. My blogger friend Liz at ‘Exploring Colour’ posted a photograph of the flowers of a Kowhai (Sophora sp.) growing in New Zealand here: https://exploringcolour.wordpress.com/2020/10/28/shining-bright/ Thanks for the answer Liz!

These photographs were all taken on a visit to Marks Hall Arboretum in Essex in April 2019. What a long time ago that seems! I had a very happy afternoon wandering around in their huge collection of trees and shrubs, seeing lots of plants that were new to me. (They reckon they have the largest collection of Wollemi pine in Europe.)

It will be great to have this sort of day out again. And to be able to visit the small nurseries around us too. (Garden centres have been allowed to stay open but the nurseries, which I prefer, are closed until April 12th.) When they open, I’m sure I’ll enjoy seeing new and unfamiliar plants there too – and, no doubt, buy a few!

Kowhai (Sophora) flowers

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 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

Hungry Critters 2: Butterflies

Recently I’ve been chasing around after butterflies to take part in the ‘Big Butterfly Count’. This is a UK survey where people from all over the country count the numbers of butterflies and some day-flying moths that they see in a 15-minute period.

(Actually counting the butterflies was quite tricky – some had to be ignored because they were too fast moving for me. A sudden flash of something brownish could be one of many butterflies. How frustrating!)

Small tortoiseshell butterfly
Small Tortoiseshell butterfly photographed in early summer.

Butterflies were being counted from the middle of July to the end of the first week in August. Anyone can take part in the butterfly count (the more the better) and from anywhere – gardens, parks, fields or forests.

The butterfly count was set up because butterflies are important as both pollinators and as part of the natural food chain, and because they react quickly to changes in their environment. A decline in butterfly numbers is a strong indication that other wildlife species are also struggling.

Comma butterfly
Comma butterfly on a blackberry

Unfortunately, because I was so busy with preparations for the fence being renewed, I only managed the one count right at the end of the survey. By then, there were only a few butterflies left in the garden – several Red Admirals, a couple of Commas and lots of Large Whites (which were probably taking advantage of the neighbours’ veggie patch).

Just a couple of weeks before I did my count, there had been around ten to a dozen Peacock butterflies sunning themselves on our brick path. I had hoped to be able to include them in my count but when the time came, they had all disappeared.

red admiral butterfly
A Red Admiral butterfly enjoying sedum flowers.

Nor were there any Painted Ladies or Essex Skippers, both of which I often see here. And I think that the Small Tortoiseshell that I photographed in May or June was part of an early brood. I haven’t seen any recently, so maybe there won’t be any from a later brood to overwinter here.

The variability of butterfly numbers here (and those that are scarce or just not seen in my garden) makes me feel that I need to do more to help. Like making sure I don’t weed out the food plants needed for caterpillars! (Nettles and other invasives may have to go in large tubs though.) And I need to do a bit of research to discover more plants that I can grow for butterflies. I hope that next year I’ll be able to count more butterflies in my garden.

Peacock butterfly
A Peacock butterfly suns itself on a brick path.

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

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

Stay Home Spring: Virtual Garden Tours

Normally I try to have something different to photograph every week, so that there’s plenty of variety in the images for this blog. But I think that’s going to be a bit difficult for a while. When there isn’t much to photograph in the garden I may buy a new plant or go on a garden visit – neither of which is possible at the moment.

However, although I cannot leave home to go visiting gardens for now, I can at least enjoy them through videos on the web. It seems a good time for me to share a quick fantasy tour of several gardens. I hope they will provide a little ‘escape’ if you’re stuck indoors.

I’ve enjoyed visiting  Kew Gardens, but a day spent there can be quite tiring it you want to see absolutely everything. Their short video tour lets you see the highlights of the gardens the easy way! It includes my favourites – the Treetop Walkway (an amazing experience) and the gorgeous waterlilies in their own special glasshouse. You can find more videos from Kew at their YouTube page and I’d suggest the ‘Wakehurst in Bloom‘ video as a lovely glimpse of spring in one of their subsidiary gardens.

For many years I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh on a very frequent basis. (I lived a little over 10 miles away.) So I’m pleased to be able to see spring there again and even visit their other regional gardens from the comfort of my own home.

From another botanical garden are the New York Botanical Garden’s videos. It was a treat to be able to see their fabulous orchid exhibition, which is too far away for me to be able to visit in ‘real life’. (Look out for the superbly elegant Darwin Star Orchid and the ‘predicted moth’.)

Most years I visit open garden events in the areas nearby. Sometimes the gardens are unusual or quirky and many surround interesting historic buildings. Of course, these have all been cancelled this year. I’ve been looking for videos instead and was happy to be able to explore gardens a bit further afield than usual when I found this video of gardens on the Isle of Man.  Watching the video felt just like many of the open garden days that I’ve been to.

Gardens that I would normally be planning to visit at this time of year include Beth Chatto’s beautiful garden, which I’ve written about in a past post. This is one of my favourite gardens to visit, so I’ll miss it, but the video does convey what a spring visit there feels like. (I preferred to watch it with the sound music turned off though!)

I hope that you enjoy a little look around these gardens while you’re staying home. Stay safe!

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.

Bee on tithonia 2587
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!

Hoverfly on aster 2468
Hoverflies like daisy flowers, like this aster.

Frost-Magic

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.

Frosted winter jasmine-3959
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.

Frosted Hydrangea-3967
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!

Frosted Fig Leaf-3827
The frost on this fig leaf will soon be gone, now that the sun has reached it.

Elegant and Exotic: Acidanthera murielae

At this stage of the summer, there are not very many flowers left in the garden for me to photograph. But there’s one that’s in flower right now that I have wanted to photograph for some time.

I have been able to photograph Acidanthera murielae in a garden I visited, but I really wanted the chance to try it again in my own garden.

If you’re garden-visiting, you can’t tidy up the plant by removing the spent flower-heads before you take your photograph. And there’s a limit to how long you can spend as you wait for the flower heads to stop swaying in every slight breeze.

It’s so much easier to wait for a calm period in your own garden.

Acidanthera flowers sway easily because they’re held in groups on graceful three-foot high stems. With their tall, iris-like leaves, the plants make a very elegant sight that is both a treat to photograph and a star attraction for a late-summer border.

I just have a few of the flowers in a pot this year. Next year I’ll plant more of the bulbs in the garden, but I’ll have to remember to store them inside over winter because these East African bulbs aren’t very hardy. (Even better would be to just buy some new corms every spring – they’re not expensive.)

Acidanthera (also known as callianthus or Abyssinian gladiolus) are sun-lovers for a well-drained soil. They’re easy to grow and can create a spectacular show at this time of year.

Now I just hope they’ll sit still for a little while so that I can take some more photographs!

Flowers of Acidanthera murielae
I’m delighted to have acidanthera growing in my own garden at last!