Here Comes Winter!

Winter is on its way. The first signs of its approach have begun to show here. Earlier in the week, there was a light frost. It had already melted by the time I got out into the garden with my camera.

That melted frost allowed me to photograph the gaura above, still covered in dozens of icy little droplets. Somehow these drops seem fresher and clearer than raindrops do. Maybe they are actually cleaner – rain must collect whatever’s in the atmosphere as it falls.

The way that flowers can become translucent after having been frosted fascinates me. It makes the flowers look quite different from the way they normally do. They become especially delicate and rather ethereal. The gaura in the top photo is now so see-through that you can easily see the drops on the backs of the petals right through the petals themselves.

I photographed the flower below a couple of days later, after a much harder frost. The sun takes a few hours to get into this part of the garden in winter, so I have a good chance of finding still-frozen flowers here. By contrast, at this time the other side of the garden was dripping quietly as the brilliant sunshine worked its way in. (I reckon that I should use the shadier areas for more plants that would look good frosted.)

After photographing the frosted gaura, I wandered around the garden to look for more frozen flowers. So that means I have more frosty photos to process for next week. In winter, I’m grateful for the photographic opportunities that frost brings – they help to keep me active until spring!

Frosted gaura flowers

Brilliant Bougainvillea

Although it’s late autumn, there are still some flowers in our conservatory. We treat it as an ‘indoor garden’ rather than as a sitting room and try to have a few plants in there all year. (We haven’t actually got that many yet – I’m working on it!)

The most eye-catching of the flowers there are those of a young bougainvillea plant. This is just its second year and it has been well covered in flowers. (So has the floor – I seem to be always sweeping them up.) I love the showiness and flamboyance of the bright flowers – really I should say bracts, rather than flowers.

Apart from the glorious colour, these have a nostalgic attraction for me. My parents spent over 20 years in Spain when they retired, and had exactly the same colour of bougainvillea growing by their front door. So this bougainvillea brings back happy memories of spending time in the sun with Mum and Dad.

Seeing bougainvillea in flower in Spain always made me wish I could grow it too. There was a garden centre close to my parents’ apartment and I frequently went there to buy plants for their garden. That was a great excuse for spending ages wandering around looking at all the exciting and (to me) exotic-looking flowers, shrubs and trees. (If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you’ll know that time spent discovering plants makes me happy.)

The bougainvillea flowers will soon be gone from my plant, but I’ll look forward to seeing them again next year and to the sunshine that comes with them too. By then, I hope we’ll all be able to get out and discover the things that make us happy.

Bougainvillea flowers

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?