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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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!
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!
By this stage of winter, the idea of lush green growth is tremendously appealing. It’s easy to dream of densely-planted borders bursting with re-emerging life – new shoots, unfurling leaves, and buds that swell with the promise of flowers soon to come.
Amongst all this imagined greenery, ferns would be an excellent addition. Their finely-cut fronds would contrast well with larger, more solid leaves and would bring their delicate textures and a subtle feel of pattern to the border.
For photography, ferns make an excellent subject. There’s lots of pleasing detail, especially in the new foliage. The tightly-wound curls of the young fronds are especially photogenic and the outside surface of the curl (the back of the frond) can be surprisingly hairy and looks soft to touch.
(Saying that has made me realise that I didn’t actually touch them. I could have put out a finger to stroke the back of a curl, but I didn’t. Perhaps I should have. Taking photographs can absorb you so that you forget to interact with plants – or a garden – in ways that you would do, if you were walking around without a camera. So maybe I need to leave my camera in its bag for a while and explore the garden, before I start to take photographs.)
In my real garden (as opposed to the imaginary borders where anything will grow), it is too hot and dry for most ferns. The Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) is reckoned to be able to cope with drier conditions than most, but that is if it’s in the shade. Most of our garden gets a lot of sunshine, but there is one area that is shaded by the house in the afternoon. Now I am wondering if that bit of ground might be suitable for making a bog garden and I’m imagining the other moisture-loving plants that would also be happy there. (Though there are ferns that don’t need such damp soil.)
If I do go ahead with this idea, the beautiful green growth of ferns would be a very satisfying reward. (Meanwhile, my imaginary garden is flourishing!)
It’s been quite mild here in Suffolk for the last few weeks but during the week we had the first frost of the season. Suddenly it feels like winter, although it was soon wet again.
While there’s a frost it’s great to be able to nip out into the garden and look to see what might be worth photographing.
If it’s sunny, the sparkle on the frost is wonderful but, of course, it means that the frost will soon disappear. That can make it can hard to decide what to photograph first. There’s never time to photograph all of the frosty subjects, no matter how fast you work.
I like to leave seed-heads on the plants in the garden here in the hope that they’ll get frosted. Sometimes there are a few flowers still. Penstemon ‘Garnet’ is especially good at continuing into the winter, although by this time there is only a sprinkling of flowers left.
Waiting for the frost to create opportunities for photography is a great reason for not being too tidy in the garden. Anything might look good with a coating of frost – flowers, seed-heads, leaves, grasses. It doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, so long as there’s an interesting shape or texture.
Frost is a kind friend to the garden photographer in winter – it makes interesting photographic subjects out of very little. (And you can leave tidying up the garden ’til springtime – well that’s my excuse anyway!)