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!

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.

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')