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')

A Daisy by Any Other Name

This week my garden is full of Michaelmas daisies. I would call them asters – but that isn’t necessarily true. Actually, I do still call them asters, even though some had their name changed a few years ago.

My preference for the old name is because the new name for some asters is such an awkward mouthful. ‘Symphyotrichum’ isn’t exactly easy to say and is even harder to spell. (If I’ve got it wrong, I can blame the RHS website, which is my usual go-to for spelling plant names.)

Bee on Michaelmas daisy
A happy honeybee enjoying these Michaelmas daisies.

And if that’s not bad enough, many other popular asters were given a different name – ‘Eurybia’. Well, at least that one is much easier to spell, but it makes life more complicated for gardeners. But then there’s also ‘Galatella’, ‘Doellingeria’ and others – argh!

In fact, I have no idea of the names of all but one of the Michaelmas daisies here. I know that the flower below is Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Les Moutiers’ because I bought it from a nursery. But the small blue daisy above and the dark pink one at the bottom were both given by friends and their names are a mystery to me for now.

(I think the top photo – taken in a garden I visited last year – is probably Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’. It’s a plant I’ve been meaning to buy for a while, but it will have to wait until it’s easier to go plant-shopping.)

Honeybee on pink Michaelmas daisies
Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Les Moutiers’ – just try remembering that at the garden centre!

Whatever their names might be, I love seeing the colours of these daisies at a time when we’ve been plunged into dull weather with grey skies and lots of rain. They cheer me up and remind me that there’s a while yet before winter approaches.

More importantly, the bees are busily (and buzzily!) making the most of the nectar and pollen provided by these flowers. Having flowers for bees and other pollinators as late as possible in the year is one of my aims for the garden. The asters are a big help with this.

Whenever I do get the chance to buy plants again, I’ll just have to make sure that I’ve written down the names of any Michaelmas daisies that I want. (And then I’ll have to check it carefully, because most of my books and quite a few websites are out of date.) That way I’ll have a better chance of remembering the names of the plants I want!

Dark pink Michaelmas daisy flowers
Aster? Symphyotrichum? Or Eurybia?

Growing Flowers for Photography: Zinnias

Every year I try to have something new to photograph in the garden. So it’s useful to plant a few annuals to give me the chance to try something different. This year a packet of mixed-colour Zinnia seed has produced a nice crop of willing photographic subjects.

I haven’t grown Zinnias for a long time – years ago in Scotland – but not since we moved here. Why I’ve allowed myself to miss out on them I can’t say. (Probably too busy weeding in springtime to grow much from seed!)

Intriguing shapes in the centre of this zinnia flower

The reward for taking a little time to grow these plants is a border full of colourful flowers that gleam like jewels. They include magenta-pink, a good strong red, an orange that vies with tithonia (Mexican sunflower) for sheer vibrance, and (perhaps the one I like best) a much softer orange that is blushed with magenta. It’s like the floral equivalent of a big bag of mixed sweeties (candy) for a photographer!

The shapes of the flowers are interesting too. I’ve always been attracted to the ring of tiny yellow flowers around the centre of the flower head. (These are the ‘disk flowers’ that make up the centre of a composite flower.) As these disk flowers gradually open closer to the very centre of the flower, the central disc can go from being flat to being conical, as in the top photograph. This gives an interesting variation in shape and more opportunities for different pictures.

There’s a fiery glow from this orange zinnia flower.

Zinnias are not just attractive to photographers, though. Bees love them too. The bee in the bottom photo seemed to have its face stuck right into one of the little disk florets. It was in no hurry to leave, so gave me another photographic opportunity. Thanks, little bee!

Late summer and autumn is a time when the garden here can start to run out of flowers, so the zinnias are especially welcome. And as a late-season bee plant, they are even more valuable. Next year I intend to find space to grow some more zinnias – so the bees and I will both be happy, and there will be lots more photographs. 🙂

Pink zinnia flower with a bumblebee

Didn’t Do My Homework: Heleniums

Last year I bought a couple of helenium plants because I wanted to have as many late-season flowers as possible. (I’m always keen to prolong summer and keep the bees fed too.)

One plant was put into a border straight away, while the other has been in a large pot until recently. It is now in my ‘hot’ border. Both plants have been kept well-watered through the dry summer and are growing happily.

But that may be more by luck than any gardening skill on my part. Normally I make a point of checking the needs of any new plant on Google – sometimes even before I buy it. (I’m at my most impulsive in garden centres!) Not this time…I’ve only just discovered that heleniums like a much wetter soil than I’d thought. Luckily, it’s raining at the moment, so the plants are happy for now.

Soon, though, I will have to move the plants because they’re in the driest part of the garden and probably won’t survive there long. Later this year I want to build a bog garden and now this is making me think of having two ‘bog’ areas. One would be drier than the other, i.e. damp rather than truly boggy. Hopefully this would make it possible for me to give a good home to plants with a range of moisture needs. Will it work? I guess we’ll find out next year!

Incidentally, when I did get round to Googling heleniums, I discovered two facts that (together) intrigued me: that the common name ‘sneezeweed’ was given to the plant because the leaves used to be made into snuff and that all parts of the plant are poisonous to humans. Makes me wonder if anyone was ever poisoned with the snuff – maybe it’s better to just enjoy heleniums in our gardens and let them keep their leaves!

Yellow helenium flowers
These yellow helenium flowers look like little pom-poms!

Soft Blue: Himalayan Blue Poppy

This is a bit of a post and run today, because it has been a very busy time over the last week. It’s been frustrating not to have time to take new photographs, but hopefully I’ll be able to get back to doing what I love soon.

The photograph above is a flower I love to see – a Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis). It is frequently grown in Scotland, where the conditions suit it. (It looks wonderful near water, with trees and shrubs growing around it.)

I tried growing a couple of plants in our previous garden in Scotland, but they only lasted two or three years before dying out. At the time I thought I simply hadn’t kept them moist enough but I’ve learned since that they’re short-lived perennials. So maybe they wouldn’t have lasted a lot longer anyway.

There’s something about a plant being difficult to grow or hard to obtain that makes them all the more appealing to gardeners. I’m trying to learn to keep to plants that have a good chance in my very warm and dry garden (still a learning process). That means that I won’t be buying any blue poppies – they really wouldn’t like it here. But I can enjoy the memory of them.

The reason for being so busy this week is that we’re getting the garden ready for a contractor to come in and replace the fence around the garden. There’s far more to do than I had first realised and it seems to have taken a lot of time! Shrubs and trees have been cut back, lots of things, (including a large compost heap) have been moved and room still has to be found to store the new fence panels, posts and gravel boards…phew!

It will be a great relief to get this work done. The oldest part of the fence was blown down by gales in early spring. Since then it’s been cobbled together and propped up as best we can, so that the neighbours’ young dog can’t escape from their garden. (He managed it once, and had a lovely time playing and evading capture in our garden.) Originally the new fence was to be started mid-May – but Covid stopped it.

The job will take three weeks and there’s till plenty for me to do to create enough working space. After that I’ll be glad to get back to my photography and to planning some new planting!

Hot Spot: Echinaceas

There’s a small patch of border that’s become quite a hot-spot this year. Red, orange and magenta-pink echinaceas (coneflowers), red geums, dark red scabious and the deep reddish-purple leaves of a heuchera are the start of a new planting scheme that radiates warmth.

There hasn’t been much red or orange in the garden before. Most of the other areas are planted with softer colours. These include lots of pink and mauve flowers, with plenty of lavender-blues added into the mix.

I find that these gentle pinkish shades can be difficult to use near red or orange – they can end up looking washed-out and feeble. On the other hand, a bright magenta – like rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) – works just fine and adds its own intense colour to the fieriness of the new border.

It feels good to now have an area specifically for hot colours. Last year I had some tithonia (Mexican sunflowers) in that space, and I found that I really enjoyed the intense colour. The tithonia is annual, so this year I’ve planted perennials instead.

(Although I grow a few annuals, at the moment I’m trying to concentrate on perennials so that I don’t have too much re-planting to do every year.)

The only problem with echinaceas is that they are short-lived perennials. I’ve read that the older pink varieties appear to go on from year to year because they self-seed and their offspring continue the display after the original plants have died. (It was something of a relief to discover this, because I was worried that I couldn’t keep the plants alive for long – some years they just seemed to disappear for no apparent reason.)

Some of the new echinaceas are said not to come true from seed and may die out after a few years. If that’s the case with those that I’ve planted here, then, because the colours are so gorgeous, I won’t mind buying more. (I’d like to plant yellow echinaceas too – they would be a good alternative to rudbekias because they’re much more tolerant of drought.)

In contrast to these brightly-coloured daisies, I also have an echinacea which has white flowers with centres that start off green and turn yellow. (If I remember correctly, it’s ‘Powwow White’.) It has a very different look to the hot-coloured flowers and suits a softer, more relaxing colour scheme. I photographed this particular flower when it froze last winter – you can see it here: https://annmackay.blog/2019/11/24/frozen-flowers/

Pink and orange echinacea flowers.
Echinacea flowers in a mix of orange and magenta-pink.

Purple Passion(flower)

These passionflower photographs are the result of an afternoon spent playing with a stem of the plant in my studio.

I photographed the flower and leaves to show their translucence. This makes the tiny veins in the petals and leaves stand out and gives a very crisp, sharp look to the photograph.

The colour changes a bit too. When seen under normal lighting (i.e. lit from the front or above), this passionflower is a soft pinky-purple. Here, though, the light from behind has bleached out the petal colours considerably and you can see more pink and red tones rather than the normal purple.

My setup for photographing flowers against a white background is fairly straightforward. I use a mini ‘shooting table’. Basically this is a sheet of translucent perspex on a metal frame. It’s bent into an ‘L’ shape (seen side-on). That gives both a background and a base for the photograph.

Because the shooting-table is translucent, you can shine studio lights through it. This gives a bright white background.

If you set the light levels so that there is a lot of light coming from behind the flower (in comparison to the light coming from the front), then you’ll get the maximum amount of detail in the veins of the petals.

To light the flowers from the front, I usually use two large studio flashes (strobes). One of these is fitted with a large, square softbox, which gives a very soft and even light. But the size of the softbox is more than a little awkward in my very small studio space!

The other light is fitted with a white (translucent) shoot-through brolly. The light from this is not as soft as that from the softbox, so it introduces a bit more shadow. This gives a bit more depth and modelling to the photograph.

If I want to have stronger shadows and a more dramatic feel to the image, I’ll use just the light with the brolly and leave out the light with the softbox. A reflector opposite the light is enough to put just a little light into the shadows.

By the way, if anyone knows the name of this particular passionflower, then please tell me! I’ve been wondering about it because it was labelled ‘Amethyst’, but Amethyst usually has a ring of purple filaments, instead of the white that this flower has. I’m intrigued and would love to know the correct name!

Passionflower ‘Amethyst’ or something else?

Allium Christophii: Star of Persia

We’ve just had our first little bit of rain in weeks. The garden has been desperately dry, with small cracks appearing in the ground in the worst areas. So this rain is a huge relief!

At the same time, we’ve had the sunniest May here since records began in 1929. Wonderful for sitting out in and giving us lots of flowers everywhere, but making it even harder to keep up with watering.

Many plants have suffered in the heat, but a few have coped well. One of the best has been Allium christophii, which seems quite unbothered by drought. As long as it gets lots of sunshine and has well-drained soil, it’s happy.

The allium leaves become yellowed and dead-looking by the time the flowers open. These can to be hidden by planting the bulbs with something that they can grow up through.

When the allium flowers are over, there are the lovely dry seed heads to give an interesting display for the rest of the summer. You may find seedlings if you leave the heads – or you can just cut the heads and bring them indoors to display. (Allium christophii will also multiply by bulb offsets.)

One big bonus of growing alliums is that they’re highly attractive to bees. I’m trying to increase the number of good plants for pollinators and other insects in my garden, so these really earn their place.

These alliums are well settled in my garden. I have two areas where there are spreading clumps of them and it’s a delight to see the flowers increasing every year. They’re so pretty that I won’t mind if they get a bit invasive. That just means that there will be more for me to photograph!

Tricky Manoeuvres: Hellebore Photography

I’ve been waiting for a chance to take photographs of these hellebores for a while. At last the weather has become calmer. The wind has died down again and there have even been a few dry spells.

It felt good to get back outside into the garden with my camera and I was relieved to see that the rough weather hadn’t harmed the flowers.

But actually getting into a good position to photograph them was going to be a bit tricky. At the best of times it can be awkward to get close enough to low-growing plants, especially when the ground has become too much of a swampy mess to kneel on. Hellebores make it even more difficult by insisting on hanging their beautiful little heads down. You have to practically get to worm’s eye-level if you want to see them.

Luckily for me, there was a stack of bags of compost nearby and I was able to drag one over and lie down on it to get my photographs. Having one elbow firmly wedged against a big plant pot helped to make sure that I didn’t take a nose-dive into the mud.

All this makes me realise that I may have to change the arrangement of some of the garden borders. Far too many of the smaller plants are positioned quite far into the border, so that you really need to get right into the border to photograph them. Without standing on the other plants. Or getting jabbed by something prickly. Or even sitting down unexpectedly in the mud! Hmm, this may need a bit of thought…

Dark Hellebore 4833