A Slow Start and Gradual Change

The cold weather in May has slowed down the development and flowering of our garden for June. Normally there would be plenty of flowers here, including these alliums (Allium christophii) that I photographed last year.

There aren’t even as many of the alliums as there were in the few years before. Last year there were a good number of them in the bed where the picture below was taken. This year there are only a few in the same place.

I know that other gardeners find that Allium christophii doesn’t always come back but I don’t know why…is it because the bulbs became diseased, were in soil that was too poor, or had they just reached the end of their lifespan? (The plants had a sunny and well-drained site which seemed to suit them.)

Allium christophii flower buds opening
Allium christophii flower buds opening

Luckily I have another patch of Allium christophii which has done much better. This is an older area that I had planted as a gravel garden and here the plants have multiplied over the years. Ironically, the way the alliums had spread in this area made me worry that they would take over the other, newer border too. (And that’s still possible because there are plenty of allium seedlings in both areas.)

The unpredictability of gardening and the way things change from year to year is one of the things that keeps it interesting for me. (How boring would it be if the plants always stayed the same year after year!) There are always new things to learn and different ideas to try out. And there are always surprises around the corner!

I’m glad that I do have the older patch of alliums that are doing well because I would hate to be without their little purple stars. The bees love them too, which makes them important for my future plans for the garden. I think I will try to move some of those tiny allium seedlings to another area. Then I can just leave them there to grow and develop into new bulbs. Hopefully, in a few years I’ll be surprised by a whole new batch of these lovely flowers.

Allium christophii

Trollius: Golden Globeflowers

This globeflower (Trollius chinensis ‘Golden Queen’) has been flaunting its gloriously sunny petals throughout a couple of weeks of unseasonably grey weather.

It has been a bright point to days that should have felt like the run up to summer. In combination with an orange geum (‘Rijnstroom’, photographed for this post) it has given a cistrusy zest to a new border that I’m building.

Actually, I don’t know if they’ll normally flower at the same time because I have just recently bought the globeflower from a nursery that keeps most of its plants in a large glasshouse. The extra warmth they get in there means that they can flower early. So I’ll just have to wait until next spring to see if the flowering of the globeflower will coincide with the geum.

Whether or not it flowers at the same time next year, I know I’ll be delighted to see it again. How could you do anything but smile, in response to such cheerfully golden flowers?

Trollius 'Golden Queen' (globeflower)

Tiny Beauty: Spring Vetchling

The spring vetchling or spring pea (Lathyrus vernus) is one of those plants that needs to be seen up close to appreciate its loveliness.

It’s a relative of the sweet pea, but is far smaller and looks much more delicate. It doesn’t climb, but instead produces a rounded clump of leaves and flowers around 18 inches high and wide. The flowers are just 3/4 inch long.

Several different cultivars of Lathyrus vernus have been bred to give different flower colours. You can find plants with flowers in pink and white, plain pale pink, white or blue. The plant in my photographs is the original species.

These flowers start out purplish pink, but gradually age to a pale blue. This gives a range of different shades of colour which adds to the appeal for photography. In those areas where background flowers are out of focus, the colours have a softness that reminds me of watercolour paint (top photo).

While writing this, I have popped back into my studio and had a quick look at the flowers in their vase. I was delighted to discover that the flowers have continued to change colour even after picking. The remaining flowers are now almost all blue, so I should be able to take some quite different photographs of them. (In that case, next week’s post will probably be blue spring flowers.)

The spring pea’s flowers are amongst my favourites at this time of year. For me, the smallest flowers can be the prettiest.

Lathyrus vernus (spring pea) flowers

A Plant to Share: Billbergia Nutans

The cold weather this spring has meant that there is less than usual in flower in the garden. So I had to look elsewhere for something to photograph this week.

Luckily I only had to go as far as the conservatory to find a plant in full flower. This is Billbergia nutans (aka ‘friendship plant’ or ‘queen’s tears’ ), a bromeliad that comes from South America. There it can be found growing attached to the branches of trees in the rainforest. Despite the huge difference in conditions, it seems quite content as a houseplant and is very easy to grow.

This billbergia must be pretty hardy, because our conservatory is unheated and gets cold in winter. (The conservatory is used more as an indoor garden than as a normal living area and in the winter usually has plants brought in that wouldn’t survive outside.) There is sun in the morning and early afternoon, followed by shade and this seems to suit the plant well. It grows fast, and after being split in two, has quickly filled both pots.

Billbergia produces leaves which grow in rosettes with the flower stalk at the centre. These leaves are long and arching and as they grow older, their edges develop tiny spikes. For most of the year this is a very plain-looking plant with nothing to show but its clump of green leaves. But while it’s in flower, it does look quite spectacular.

The speed at which billbergia grows and produces offsets means that it really does deserve the name ‘friendship plant’. The young rosettes at the outer edges of the plant can be detached (when they’re at least 6 inches high) and potted up as new plants. The other name, ‘queen’s tears’ comes from the way that the flowers drip nectar onto the ground. (It’s very sticky!)

My plants have tightly filled their pots now, so I think it will soon be time to remove some of the young offsets. That means that some new plants will go out into the world, continuing the chain of shared plants. A happy thought!

Bilbergia nutans

Frothy Pinks: Cherry Blossom

After last week’s pink tulips, here’s more pretty pinks – but even frothier! (Or should that be fluffier – not sure, but this cherry blossom can out-pink anything else.)

The blossom on our cherry tree is late this year because April has been so cold. Not all of the buds have opened yet but it should be a very good show when they are. The tree must be a good few years old, so is a good size and is always completely covered in these soft pink flowers.

The tree is Prunus ‘Kanzan’, one of the most frequently-seen ornamental cherries here. Sadly, our tree may not be here for many more years. They’re known to have a short life-expectancy. (I’ve seen differing estimates of 15-20 years and up to 40 years.) Ours was a mature tree when we moved here 16 years ago. In addition, it now has splits in the bark, which may be due to the effects of winter weather or may be an indication of disease. It has obviously suffered from canker at some time before we moved in, but this hasn’t stopped it from being laden with flowers in spring.

For now, we’ll enjoy whatever time the tree has left. At the same time, we will probably have to think about what we might want to plant in its place in the future. It should probably be something that doesn’t get too big, given that it’s so close to our boundary with our neighbours. We wouldn’t want it to protrude into their driveway! And it needs to be robust and healthy because it is the most exposed area of the front garden.

It feels a bit sad to to know that it may not be long before we have to remove this old cherry tree. We moved in to this house at a time when it was in full, glorious flower and it felt like a warm welcome to our new home. But the tree, like its flowers, is an ephemeral thing – to be enjoyed in the moment. (And afterwards I will still have photographs of its blossom as a reminder of it.)

Cherry blossom

Something Sweet: Pink Tulips

Tulips are a sign that spring is well underway. Winter is forgotten and plans are being made for summer.

However, tulips are something that I don’t have much experience of in the garden. I think that’s because I became frustrated by the fact that so many varieties don’t come back again. I’d plant tulips that flowered beautifully the first year (and perhaps remember to photograph them) but then the next year I’d wonder what I’d done wrong when they failed to reappear.

Recently I’ve allowed myself to fall in love with them again. They are one of the prettiest and most feminine of flowers at this time of year and I love to photograph them too. So now I am happy to grow a few every year, to give myself something new to photograph and to enjoy while they’re here.

Some tulips, like the one below, have only flowered once before disappearing. So I was delighted when the tulip in the top picture not only came back this year but has produced even more flowers. It’s ‘Angelique’ and is certainly a vision of sweetness in the early morning sun.

I didn’t buy any bulbs last autumn but this year I’ll make a point of buying some tulips that I haven’t tried before. Then there will be something new and delightful to look forward to next spring.

Tulip 'Angelique'

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

Daughter of the Wind: Anemone Blanda

The common names for Anemone blanda are ‘Grecian windflower’ or ‘winter windflower’. ‘Why windflower?’, I wondered, as I dived into a little internet search. The reason for the name is unclear. Some suggest that it’s because it symbolises their fragility in the wind, while others say it’s because the flowers are opened by the wind.

Whatever the reason behind the name, it probably comes from a Greek word which translates as ‘daughter of the wind’. That translation appeals to me greatly. I can imagine it as the name for a graceful old-fashioned sailing ship or a sleek modern racing yacht. I suppose I’m not the only one to come up with that idea!

But sailing ships are taking us far from garden flowers. This daisy-like flower is currently flowering in odd corners of my garden, mostly where I’d forgotten planting it. (Actually, I think that its rhizomes sometimes get picked up and transferred with other plants as I divide and move them elsewhere. So eventually they could end up anywhere in the garden.)

A bee-fly enjoying an Anemone blanda flower

The anemone above has a visitor. It’s not a bee, though, but a bee-fly. Although it may look like a bee, you can see the difference in the long proboscis (tongue, used for feeding on nectar) and the long and very fragile-looking legs. Although the proboscis may look sharp and a bit scary, bee-flies don’t sting or bite. They just try to look as if they might!

Bee-flies aren’t good news for the nearby ground-nesting bumblebees, because bee-fly larvae eat the bumblebee larvae. Luckily it doesn’t seem to affect the overall number of bumblebees. (Just shows how much murder and mayhem is going on among the beasties that live in our gardens!)

I hope that some of the bumblebees will find these anemones too. Apparently bees prefer to work among a large patch of the same flowers, rather than going to lone individuals. This must be a great reason/excuse for growing more of all the early spring flowers, especially these delightful beauties. (Given time, they will spread, but I reckon I’d like to give them some help.)

Please note that I won’t be able to reply to comments until after Tuesday because of internet connection problems. But I’ll be back to chat to you after that!

Blue Anemone blanda flowers

A Sweet Gift

Recently my neighbour brought me some beautiful hellebore heads from her garden. She’d been cutting some to display in a bowl and said she felt like sharing the bounty. As you can imagine, I was delighted.

You won’t be at all surprised to know that I photographed them. To start with I tried photographing them in the bowl I floated the heads in. However, I soon realised that the markings on the petals of the individual flowers would show much better if I photographed them on their own.

Pink-speckled white hellebore flowers

To photograph the flower heads, I used my studio lighting and my ‘light-table’. This table is simply a piece of curved white plastic on a frame. It’s translucent, so that I can shine light through it. And that means the light can pass through the flowers too.

This is probably my favourite way to photograph flowers. It shows up every detail of markings and colour changes in the flowers, making it a great way to show the pretty freckles and streaks on these hellebores.

A pink hellebore flower

Using the light table also shows the veining in the leaves well. I was surprised to see how much pink there is in the leaf-veins in the photo above. The light coming through the leaves has really brought out the colour. (And it makes the colour of the flower gleam too.)

Just to see the difference, I decided to photograph the next hellebore in a tiny coloured bowl. Although I like the way the dark purple of the bowl goes with the deep purply-pink markings on the flower’s petals, I prefer the other images. This has made me think that I will probably use the light-table more often to create images that show the translucence of the flowers. (Especially when someone brings me such a lovely gift!)

Cream-coloured hellebore flower

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