Little Visitors

After the bees got all the attention last week, I thought I’d pay some to a few of our other garden visitors. I find a lot more wildlife in the garden here than in our previous garden, so there’s often something new or unfamiliar.

The metallic-looking little beetle in the top photo is a first for me. I’d never seen one before but I have read about them. This is a rosemary beetle (Chrysolina americana) and actually an unwelcome intruder because it feeds on various aromatic plants. (These include rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme, all of which grow in our garden.) Luckily I’ve only seen the one so far, so I hope it hasn’t brought its friends! Apparently the damage they do may not harm the plants much, and the beetles themselves can just be picked off the plants.

I never use chemicals in the garden and prefer to hope that predators will naturally get rid of pests. In the case of rosemary beetles, their larva are eaten by birds, frogs and other beetles. So it’s good to have plenty of hungry carnivorous beasties around!

Greenfly tend to suddenly appear in large numbers every summer but luckily the ladybirds do too. A few weeks ago I found the weird-looking larvae of ladybirds in amongst a swarm of greenfly – I hope they had good appetites! There are lots of ladybirds around this year so I think they must have had a an easy winter. (I tend to see them grouped in curled up leaves that have fallen in autumn. Our garden is never too tidy, so there are plenty of places for them to hibernate.)

Another visitor that comes here in large numbers is the hoverfly. (Pictured above.) There are always a lot of these tiny pollinators around the garden – many more than there are bees. I like to watch these little brightly-coloured flies as they zoom around amongst the flower heads. And I find they will often be very obliging and sit still for long enough for me to focus on them when I’m out with my camera. Wish the bees would do that too!

The visitors that we’re missing this year are butterflies. There have been a few Red Admirals and some Large Whites but not much else. Last year there were often Peacock butterflies (below) sunning themselves on our brick path – sometimes as many as a dozen along the length of it. This year I have seen none so far. The low numbers are probably due to all the cold and rain we’ve had this year, so perhaps things will improve as the weather does. The ‘Big Butterfly Count’ survey is being held in the UK at the moment. Let’s hope that the results of that are a bit more encouraging!

Bees’ Needs Week 2021

The summer feels like it’s going by too quickly. (As always!) Already the flowers that I associate with late summer are starting to make an appearance. I’ve noticed the first pale pink flowers to open on my patch of Japanese anemones, and the echinacea plants (above) are now beginning to display their brightly-coloured daisies.

There are lots of flowers in the garden at the moment so there are also plenty of bees and hoverflies around. That’s very appropriate because this week has been the annual ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ in the UK. This is a campaign to encourage us to grow suitable plants for bees and pollinators and to allow areas in our gardens to be wild enough to create a habitat for them.

Bee on Cephelaria gigantea (giant scabious)

Interest in helping bees (and wildlife in general) has grown greatly in recent years, with many gardeners delighted to provide spaces for nature. Now local councils and other bodies are taking a more sympathetic stance too. They have been allowing areas of grass to remain uncut for longer and even encouraging wild patches and mini meadows in previously manicured areas.

It’s good to see the bees back again here after a couple of weeks that have been unusually wet and much cooler than normal. Certain flowers are particularly successful at attracting bees. Here it’s the various members of the scabious family that seem to always have bees and hoverflies around them.

The pale yellow flowers of the giant scabious (Cephalaria gigantea, above) are a recent addition to the garden and have proved very popular. Their impressive height makes it a little difficult for me to photograph the bees on them though! (They can get up to 8 ft. tall, but mine have still some way to go.) Scabiosa atropurpurea (below, right) is up to about 3 ft. tall, so much easier to photograph!

L: Honeybee on geranium, R: Bumblebee on scabious flower

The blue geranium pictured on the left (‘Mrs. Kendall Clark’) has finished flowering but geranium ‘Rozanne’ is ready to take over its role. However, although the bees enjoy it, there weren’t any on its flowers when I took my photographs.

I think the bees weren’t interested in the flowers of Rozanne because the lavender beside it was in full flower and more alluring. I watched lots of these buff-tailed bumblebees (below) buzzing from flower to flower, clearly intent on making the most of the nectar in the tiny flowers before they all go over. (Bumblebees have longer tongues than honeybees, which makes it easier and quicker for them to access the nectar in lavender than it is for honeybees. This means they tend to move around the flowers quite fast – so harder work for the photographer!)

Given how much the bees enjoy the lavender, I’ll plant more of it for next summer. (Angustifolia varieties are reckoned to be particularly good.) I’m very happy to be able to provide something for the bees here. It seems only fair when I enjoy going on a ‘bee-hunt’ with my camera – and of course, we need our bees!

You can read about Bees’ Needs Week and learn what you can do to help bees at these sites: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/ and https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2021/07/12/buzzing-for-bees-needs-week-2021/

Bumblebee on lavender

Gone Blue: Colour-Changing Flowers

Last month I photographed these tiny spring pea (Lathyrus vernus) flowers. After I had finished photographing them I noticed that they were still changing colour after they had been picked.

The flowers had started off as a purple-pink but were changing to blue as they aged. I wondered if they would turn entirely blue and I found, after a couple of days, that almost all of them had. (As you can see, there is one flower that has stubbornly managed to remain pink in the top photograph. However, I reckon it would have turned blue too if it had been able to last long enough.)

Having flowers that change colour is a bonus for a photographer, allowing a whole new set of photographs to be made of the same subject. It’s also fascinating to watch as this happens.

Apparently the reasons for this kind of colour change are practical. It lets pollinating insects know that the individual flower has already been pollinated and will now have little pollen or nectar left to offer them. This helps the plant by directing the attention of pollinators to those other flowers that are still waiting to be pollinated.

Colour change happens in other plants too. The one that I’m most aware of at the moment is Salvia ‘Hot Lips’. That’s because I bought what I thought was an un-labelled sage with a good bright red flower which would be ideal for an area of planting with hot colours. (I already had the magenta-flowered Salvia microphylla, which flowers really well here. This looked like a red version of it.)

I was a bit surprised later on, when the new flowers on the plant began opening in the well-known red and white bicolours of Hot Lips. From what I’ve read, the flowers on this plant can be red, bicoloured, or white, depending on temperature or growing conditions. So it’s an interesting plant to watch but not so useful if you have a particular colour scheme in mind!

Colour change isn’t something I’ve been much aware of in the past. But now it has me intrigued and I can see that it may give me good photographic opportunities too. So I’ll be keeping an eye open for other plants that do this…there’s always something interesting happening in gardens!

You can see my post with the spring peas still in their original pinks and purples here.

Lathyrus vernus (spring pea) flowers

Buzz! Buzz! Bee-lated Celebrations!

I’m a few days late to celebrate ‘World Bee Day’, but I will anyway because I think every day should be a bee day. (It was actually this lovely bee portrait by Steve Gingold that alerted me to the significance of Thursday 20th May.)

World Bee Day was launched by the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association and has been supported by beekeepers worldwide. There’s a website for World Bee Day that tells you all about the importance of bees and the essential role they play in the production of our food.

I think we’ve all become more aware of how much we need bees and that we need to do what we can to help them. There are some good books and websites to advise on planting ideas if you have somewhere to grow flowers for nectar and pollen. It doesn’t need to be a garden, pots on a balcony or window boxes can help. And the flowers in my images below (zinnia, scabious, salvias, and a perennial sunflower) are all very easy to grow.

If you’re in the UK, Dave Goulson’s ‘Gardening for Bumblebees’ is very good, for both planting suggestions and information on the lives of bees. But if you’re in the US, you’ll probably find that ‘Pollinator Friendly Gardening’ by Rhonda Fleming Hayes is more useful. (I thought it looked very interesting and would have bought it if it had been relevant to the bees and native plants here. You do need to read something based on your own area to get the correct information for where you live.)

Websites by local wildlife trusts are also likely to tell you what flowers are good to plant in your area. For the UK, I’ve found the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has an excellent site with lots of information about gardening for bees, identifying the different bumblebee species, and the lifecycles and habitats of bumblebees. I like the site set up by the UK Wildlife Trusts too – they have a good section on bees. (I would suggest checking out your nearest wildlife trust or organisation if you live outside the UK.)

I have a lot to do still in my own garden to make it really useful to bees for as much of the year as possible. It feels like something very worthwhile that I can do to help increase the numbers of bees around. And if most gardeners plant what they can for bees, while also avoiding the use of pesticides, we will together make a big difference.

Every day should be a bee day!

Finding a Balance: Weeds for Wildlife

This week I’ve been looking out for bumblebees on white deadnettles here. The white deadnettle (Lamium album) is an excellent wild plant for the queen bumblebees that have just emerged from hibernation in spring. The flowers, which are already opening now in April, are a great source of nectar and pollen when there isn’t much else around.

We have a lot of bee-friendly plants in the garden and I’m trying to develop this further by planting to provide for bees and other insects for as much of the year as possible. This is causing me a bit of a dilemma at the moment because this particular deadnettle runs rampant in my garden.

Deadnettles are members of the mint family and this one is determined to take over as big an area as possible. Before I knew that it was such a good bee plant, I’d spent years trying to remove it from the garden, with very slow progress. (I doubt that it was deliberately planted by anyone – most likely it just ‘arrived’.)

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books about gardening for wildlife. They all recommend the white deadnettle for bees, moths and beetles, so I feel that I really shouldn’t get rid of it all. At the same time, these books don’t mention how invasive this plant can be.

It’s a UK native wildflower, but can be bought as a garden plant (presumably for a ‘wild’ garden). As you probably guessed from the name, it looks just like a nettle – except for the rings of white flowers around the stalk – but thankfully it doesn’t sting.

So now I’m wondering what to do. I have noticed that there are a couple of different species of bumblebee that visit the flowers. (Not many yet. It’s been quite chilly and if I was a queen bee, I’d have popped back to bed for a bit longer!) I really don’t want to deprive these bees of their food source but I know that the moment I turn my back on the deadnettle, it will reach out and grab the rest of my garden. The bees might then be really well-fed, but everything else will be swamped.

The best answer is probably to grow some of this over-enthusiastic plant in large pots. I’ll have to watch that none of the roots escape through the drainage holes, or else it will be off, racing through the garden again, with me in pursuit.

As you can see from the photo below, ladybirds like deadnettles too. Maybe I’ll get to like it eventually!

Ladybird on deadnettle

Frosted Seed-Heads

After last week’s snow-capped anemone seed-head, today we have seed-heads that are covered in frost. In the middle of winter I’m really glad to find anything to photograph in the garden, so I’m grateful that these are here.

On a frosty morning, these seed-heads create a focal point and some interesting textures in the garden. They become like miniature natural sculptures when their details are picked out by frost crystals. I find that seeing the patterns of frost encourages me to look more closely at the plant’s own structure. That allows me to see possible photographs where I may not have noticed them before.

frosted honesty seed pods
The remains of honesty seed-pods sparkle in the sunshine.

Mind you, sometimes there’s very little left of the seed-heads, as you can see with the honesty above. These are pretty-well wrecked by now but, given a bit of sunshine to make the frost sparkle, still manage to look interesting. Of course, on a dull but mild day, with no frost or sunshine, they don’t look at all pretty at this stage. So it’s amazing what the right weather can do.

Amongst the best of the seed-heads for frost photography are the umbellifers. There are usually quite a lot of self-sown bronze fennel seedlings around the garden and these really sparkle on a frosty morning. I never cut these down until spring, because the seeds can provide food for hungry birds. (As well as starting lots more plants.) The delicate decorations that they become is a delightful winter bonus.

frosted fennel seed head
Fennel seeds look at their best with a thick coating of frost.

Snow Day

We were greeted by snow this morning, but by the time you read this it will be gone. It won’t last for even the full day because it has now started to rain.

But it has given me an excuse to post an image with just a little bit of wet snow. This is a seed-head of a Japanese anemone. I was attracted to photographing it by the cap of melting snow that it’s wearing, and by the way the drops of meltwater are clinging to the fluffy hairs of the seeds.

It’s interesting to see how these seed-heads start as perfect tiny spheres and then erupt into little woolly clusters of seeds that can float away in the wind. I allow them to stay in the garden over the winter. A few years ago, tidy-minded gardeners would insist that the old stems and seed-heads ought to be cut back and taken away at the end of the year. Times have changed, and now we’re encouraged to leave them standing as a habitat and food for wildlife.

With luck, goldfinches will come and help themselves to these seeds. (I’ve already noticed them eating the seeds of verbena bonariensis in the last week.) And if the heads survive until springtime, the remainders will probably be gathered up when the goldfinches are building their nests. I often see these birds with their beaks full of the fluffy seeds and think that they must be creating the cosiest and most comfortable homes for their babies. So I won’t be cutting back any of these seed heads. The birds are very welcome to them.

Waiting for Snow

January is the month that we really get into winter here. December can be mild and wet and not feel especially cold. Then, as the New Year arrives, the temperature tends to drop.

In December we did get a little bit of wet snow which disappeared within a couple of hours of falling. It didn’t stay around and look pretty for long, but it gave me the chance to take a few wintery photographs.

There’s something about the way snow half-hides things that makes having a rather chilly wander around the garden more interesting. It calls attention to details you might have just walked past the day before. Or makes you see things just a little differently. Those few remaining apples on their little tree fairly glow in the dull light when contrasted with the paleness of the snow. And fallen seed heads become semi-translucent as the melting snow soaks into them.

Melting snow on Braeburn apples

It’s quite possible that we may get no snow at all during January – or even during the rest of the winter. Winters without snow are not rare in the east of England. But I can’t imagine what my childhood in the north of Scotland would have been like without the heavy winter snowfalls.

Those winters were certainly colder and the snow would pile thickly everywhere until the landscape was just a soft white blur. Roads soon became blocked – I remember how often we helped to push cars out of snowdrifts on the narrow country road by our house. And the sound of a heavy sheet of melting snow rumbling its way down a slate roof is with me still. (The tall drifts of snow that built up from that happening were great fun to play in as a kid – but wouldn’t have been so great if the snow had landed on us!)

Here in Suffolk, though, things are very different. As I’m writing this, the sky is blue and the sun is shining – perfect weather for being outside. Maybe there will be snow this month or maybe there won’t…but if there is, I’ll get out and take some photos!

Half-hidden by melting snow – the seed head of a long-gone agapanthus flower.

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

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!