Winter Flowers

There’s still a little colour here in winter – just a few brave plants that choose to flower when it’s cold and grey. They brighten up the days and offer something to any bees that are awake and foraging.

It’s a pleasure to be able to wander into the garden to see the latest buds to have opened. Whatever helps to encourage me to go outside at this time of year has to be a good thing. Being rewarded by beauty and colour makes it easier to get started on some gardening.

winter-flowering iris
winter-flowering iris

As I enter the garden I’m pleased to see that a winter-flowering clematis is festooned with small bell-shaped blooms that have a deep red interior. To see the colour of these, you really need it to be growing above your head, so I have planted it to climb into a tall shrub (Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, shown last week). The clematis was planted only last year, so isn’t very big yet. But I’m happy just to see it alive and growing, because it was in a position that meant it could easily have been destroyed when the fence was replaced earlier in the year.

Further along the same border is the winter jasmine. The work of replacing the fence meant that this had to be cut back a lot, but it will recover in time. (It was a terrible straggly mess, all tangled up with a rampant honeysuckle that had started to look very unhealthy.) I had to give several shrubs and climbers a rather drastic pruning so that the fence could be got at. This has made me realise that I need to be more practical in the way that I plant the garden.

Melted frost on winter jasmine flowers.

Not far from the winter jasmine is an area planted with shrubs and a few garden thugs (mainly Japanese anemones and a very vigorous geranium). Hiding amongst these is the pretty lavender-blue Algerian iris. (Iris unguicularis – I can’t spell it without checking the RHS site.) This needs to be moved to somewhere where it can be more easily seen and photographed…my knees and back will be grateful for that! The flowers are delicate and easily damaged by the weather but they are soon replaced by more, so certainly earn their place in the garden.

As I continue towards the back of the garden, my attention is drawn to the mahonia with its great sprays of bright yellow flowers. This shrub is an extremely prickly monster and must be approached with great caution when working around it. It often stabs at me in a very ungrateful manner while I am trying to weed around its base. But I forgive it because it can look spectacular and its big spiky leaves give it a very bold, ‘architectural’ appearance all year round.

I had intended to add some new winter-flowering plants this year, but obviously that hasn’t been possible. (I suspect that many gardeners may be tempted to have quite a spending-spree when we can shop freely for plants again!) For the moment I am content to enjoy what’s already here. This is a quiet time in the garden and staying at home means I have plenty of time to plan future plantings. I hope that means I’ll be all organised for spring and summer…haha! (That would be a first!)

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

Merry Christmas!

Somehow I feel that Christmas has sneaked up on me this year. It has arrived stealthily, without the normal fanfare. I don’t feel at all ready for it – which isn’t really a problem because our Christmas is fairly simple. But I haven’t noticed its imminent arrival in the way I usually would.

It’s probably partly due to spending so much time at home and being less aware of all the Christmas items in the shops. Not going out very much also means not seeing the Christmas decorations in the streets as often. And, of course, there have been none of the usual Christmas get-togethers that help to get us into the festive spirit.

Even if I’m a bit later than usual in getting the house decorated for Christmas, the garden could look suitably festive if we get a bit of frost. Nature seems well able to create her own sparkle and drama in the garden as the frost turns the remaining plants into icy sculptures.

Frost makes something special of the simplest things in the garden. The top photo is of fennel leaves. Most of the other fennel plants have died back for winter. This one, however, is a young seedling and has kept its leaves for long enough for the frost to turn them to a delicately etched tracery of tiny ice crystals. To my mind, it’s much prettier than any indoor decoration! The eryngium below (sea holly) had managed to produce some very late flowers and they look quite magical with a thick coating of frost. The sun had reached these, so the frost had started to soften and would soon disappear. Part of the excitement of frost, for me, is that it lasts for such a short time, so you have to make an effort to get out and see it at its best.

I hope that you are able to find some magic in your Christmas this year, despite the effects of Covid. I think that this year has reminded us all of how important our friends and family are to us, and how much we value their company. I hope that it won’t be long before we can plan to see them all again and enjoy being with those we care about. Until then, please take care of yourselves and I wish you fun and joy over the holidays.

Frosted eryngium (sea holly)
Frosted flower head of eryngium (sea holly)

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

No Return

Sometimes flowers don’t survive here for long. Last year these autumn crocuses were growing in little wall-mounted pots by our front door. Really, they needed to be planted in the ground. However, because they’re very toxic, I decided that it would be best to keep them somewhere out of reach of our cats.

So this year they haven’t come back. Totally unsurprising, given that they had so little space to grow in. But that’s OK – sometimes I’m happy to have a plant that I know will just be temporary. It can be enjoyed at the time (and of course, photographed), and valued for the brief enhancement it brings to the garden.

Most of our plants do come back from year to year. Others are a fleeting glory that remains only in memories and photos. For me, they give a bit of variety to both the garden and my photography.

These autumn crocuses may be gone, but, having given me something new to photograph, their images will remain.

Pause for Thought

A very wet weekend means that I am forced to stay indoors – unless I fancy a thorough soaking. But that’s not bad, because it gives me the chance to think about what I’m doing next in the garden.

I’m still working on building a pond and a new border running along that side of the garden. This has been my ‘Covid project’, although it actually started back towards the end of 2018. (Hubby offered to help this year, but I decided to continue on my own because it has given me a sense of purpose during this strange year.)

It has felt as if digging the pond would go on forever, partly because our dry ground is practically impossible to dig in summer. Also, I have found that the site for the pond has much more of a slope than I first realised. (It’s amazing how invisible a slope can be until you start using a spirit-level.)

I thought I’d finished digging the pond back in May. But the smaller sizes of pond liner were sold out when I tried to buy one, so I decided that I might as well make the pond bigger. More digging! (More soil to shift too.)

At last I’ve got to the point where I need to think carefully about the border around the pond. This area was always pretty awful – overshadowed and impoverished by huge conifers in the neighbouring garden and swamped by the few thuggish plants that could grow there. (The worst ones were two types of deadnettle. They’re valuable for bees but in our soil they just keep spreading…and spreading.)

Which brings me to the flower above – a Japanese Anemone. I’ve mentioned how invasive they can be in previous posts, but they are beautiful. This one was growing in a raised bed in the ‘pond border’ which was acting as a temporary nursery area. I’ve just cleared that bed away and potted up all the plants from it. But now I have to think about where to put them in the new border and whether they may cause trouble.

Since I know the anemone is a little trouble-maker, I’ve decided to keep it in a pot. (Probably many pots eventually…) It’s not the only plant that is making me pause for thought. I’ve just read that some ferns are allelopathic, meaning that they emit chemicals that suppress the growth of other competing plants. So does this mean that the particular ferns I want to plant out will damage the plants around them? I haven’t been able to find out so far. Maybe my ferns will also have to stay in pots.

Other plants are making me wonder too. Like the perennial sunflower I photographed back in August (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’). After struggling to grow for years, this has suddenly grown tall and wide. Will it now try to take over?

As it rains outside, I’m busily Googling all these plants. I need to find out which are safe to grow together without some being bullied out of existence by their bigger and more boisterous neighbours. Sometimes being a gardener feels more like being a referee!

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

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?

Rainy Day in the Studio

It’s very wet and windy here and has been for a few days. So no chance of close-up photography in the garden. (Although, if I feel up to getting rather wet, I may go out in search of drip-covered spider’s webs later.)

For now, I have opted to stay warm and dry indoors. But what to photograph? Luckily, I don’t even need to go outside to pick some flowers. That’s because I tend to gather up odd bits of dried plant material and other natural bits and pieces that catch my interest, like these dried bougainvillea bracts.

I am fascinated by the structure of plants. There is such a variety of shapes and of ways that the parts of the plant are constructed. Looking at them from close-up allows you to see all the little details – sometimes much more than you would have expected from a passing glance.

Photographing these bougainvillea heads under studio lights gives the lace-like veins of the bracts a clarity and crispness. The strong light enhances the translucent bracts and also helps them to stand out against their plain white background.

These are very simple photographs to take but the results please me. It shows how worthwhile it is to gather up things like these – nature’s tiny creations – and to take a close look at them. Next, I really ought to go and photograph the flowers that are still on the bougainvillea plant. Luckily, that’s in the nice dry conservatory!

Dried bracts of bouganvillea flower

Flowering at Last: Cosmos

This year I decided to grow cosmos ‘Seashells’ (above), but it has taken a long time to come into flower. For a while, I didn’t think there would be any flowers at all. Now, however, the first few flowers have opened and there are plenty more buds for flowers to come.

I was worried that I had sown the seeds too late. (Sometimes there are just too many things wanting to be done at the same time in spring.) Even so, I hoped for a late show of flowers from them and they haven’t let me down.

I belong to a gardeners’ group on Facebook, and some of the members had been discussing the lateness in flowering of their cosmos plants. One of the group came up with the information that it’s simply because the plant is sensitive to day-length and needs a short day (long night) to be able to produce flowers.

That’s something that I would never have thought of before. Living in the UK, I tend to assume that flowers will want the longer days of summer. (I imagine that people who live in areas where cosmos are native or naturalised will be much more aware of the effect of the day-length.)

Apparently there are new varieties which don’t need the short days and can flower earlier in the summer. So next year I can either buy these seeds, or relax, take my time, and sow the older varieties a bit later. Or maybe try both – you can never have too many pretty flowers!

Dark pink cosmos flower
A dark pink cosmos photographed in a garden I visited last year.