August flowers – it’s dahlia time

It’s the middle of August and during the drought the slugs and snails fared badly which means the dahlias did well, with nearly all of them being healthy and strong enough to flower this year.

I grow all but a couple of my dahlia plants in pots. It is not really ideal for them by a long way and has meant regular watering and feeding. I always use a watering can so I can gauge how much water each pot receives. It is time-consuming and tiresome, but essential. Flowering has been better this year with all the sun, but it’s also the first dahlia season since the big ol’ eucalyptus in a neighbouring yard bit the dust.

Dahlia ‘Jowey Minnie’ on the kitchen table.

Of course, dahlias are for me a great source of colour inspiration, but new this year there’s been some interesting almost structural shapeliness with the arrival of dahlia ‘Jowey Minnie’. I think you can appreciate their form more easily in the black and white and muted photographs below than when you’re being distracted by all that colour.

Same flower arrangement. Black and white, muted colour and full colour.

A clear close up of the arrangement shows the fascinating form of ‘Jowey Minnie’. Interesting to us humans, but less so to the bees and butterflies as the complex, tight shape does not make for easy access to the nectar.

Dahlias ‘Jowey Minnie’, ‘Totally Tangerine’. ‘Blue Bayou’ and ‘Bishop of Canterbury’ with ammi visnaga.

Single-flowered dahlias are preferable for pollinators, but even better are the tiny, nectar-rich, easy access flowers of ammi visnaga.

Ammi visnaga, white cosmos and borage. Left fading, right faded and soon for the compost bin.

Yesterday, we finally had some proper rain showers here in Ipswich. The forecast had been for short, but heavy downpours and so on Tuesday evening I cut the few remaining roses that had coped with the recent high temperatures.

Re-reading this it does seem as though gardening is somewhat of a trial, but I enjoy being outside, the physical activity and the rewarding outcome -beautiful flowers. At the same time gardening has made me very, very aware of the precarious nature of food production.

This year it looks as if I will harvest plenty of pears, but have had only a single plum! It was unblemished, sweet and delicious. There were three sweet cherries (yes, that’s only three!) and the birds got all three. There are plenty of figlets, but I don’t expect these to mature and ripen unless we have a long Indian summer. These are a second crop of figs as the very early first crop mysteriously failed. If we hear folk complaining about ‘wonky’ fruit in the shops we should just be pleased there’s fruit at all.

Roses ‘Breath of Life’, ‘L’Aimant’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with sweet peas and borage.

A ‘Vase Trial’ by Default

Instagram can be very annoying at times often suggesting and putting random pictures on your feed ‘because you liked’ some other post, story or reel in the past. It does this under the label ‘we think you’ll like this’ as it displays arbitrary pictures and videos. And, surprise, surprise more often than not I am not remotely interested in anything the algorithm suggests.

However, once in a blue moon the Instagram algorithm scores a goal. It did just this when it suggested I might like the account of florist, Graeme Corbett, at Bloom and Burn. Now, having seen lots of his lovely, contemporary flower displays I was inspired to have a go at his loose style using an old fashioned, painted vase with my own homegrown flowers.

Arrangement of roses ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’, ‘L’Aimant’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in a leaky vase.

Not quite in the free-flowing form of Graeme’s work, but I was reasonably pleased with my first effort. Then, I noticed a dark patch spreading across the black cloth and realised this old vase leaked. It was originally a charity shop purchase of my mother’s some 20 years ago and when I thought about it I couldn’t remember ever seeing it used for fresh flowers. Now I know why and so began the trial of the vases.

To immediately deal with the leak situation I grabbed the first vessel to hand which was a jug. It turned out that the free-flowing look and my trusty old Spode jug did not a fine match make. Something to do with the size of the bunch and the size of the individual blooms.

Turned out the Spode was too small.

And, then, when I switched to a green, glass vase (a gift from my sister) the height of the vase required cutting something taller from the backyard. I found a white foxglove and gave it a try, but the whole arrangement still didn’t work.

Green vase was a no-go even with props!

Finally, I nipped upstairs to my bedroom where my grandmother’s lustre jug normally sits on a chest of drawers, emptied it of random bits and pieces and brought it down to the kitchen. Not to be caught out again I first filled it with water and checked it for leaks. After relegating the foxglove to the compost bin, I grouped the remaining flowers into a satisfactory arrangement.

Honestly, what a fuss to achieve an informal, free-flowing, ‘it just happened’ floral display.

So that was May 2022

I don’t know about you, but I seemed to have been waiting and waiting for the appearance of flowers this year. Maybe it’s because there’s been so much bad news around that the need for garden beauty has been more pressing. Finally, fat, colourful buds appeared.

Tight buds of aquilegias and closed tulips.

As my own backyard isn’t particularly sunny I resorted to walking over to the local park. However, the most stunning display wasn’t in the park, but this delightful wisteria and front garden planting at 16, Fonnereau Road, Ipswich. The bold, mid-nineteenth century architecture of this Grade II listed building is complimented and softened by the delicate palette of the flowers and foliage.

Wisteria sinensis at 16, Fonnereau Road.

In my own back garden the clematis montana ‘Rubens’ has grown to the top of the fence at last and by early May the first flowers bloomed.

Clematis montana ‘Rubens’

However, again the most stunning wall/fence treatment was not at my place nor even in the park, but this gorgeous ceanothus arboreus ‘Trewithin Blue’ topping the fence on a back garden running along High Street, Ipswich.

Ceanothus arboreus ‘Trewithen Blue’

Now, really I should not complain as by mid May I had plenty of flowering going on in the yard, but it was nearly all white. Self-seeded white honesty was in every bed. I had noticed it had seeded prolifically, but couldn’t bring my self to remove any.

White honesty. Lunaria. annua var. albiflora

There was a charming, fairytale quality with all the shimmering white for about a week, before the flowers began to fade. Fortunately, by then tulips in pots were coming into full bloom and

Selection of pot-grown tulips.
Tulip ‘Amazing Parrot’

then my favourites for this time of year, the aquilegias, now too mostly self-seeded, opened into all their intriguing colour combinations.

Self-seeded aquilegias

Towards the end of the month a small clump of alliums showed off their globes of tiny star-like flowers despite my earlier stupidity of leaving a heavy pot on top of their foliage.

Allium hollandicum

And, that’s it we’ve reached June and May 2022 is now history. But before I go, I think I’d like to award first prize for the most over-the-top May display to clematis ‘Nelly Moser’. Not the most subtle of the Group 2 clematis, but it’s hanging on in there despite slugs, snails, unreliable watering and all the various fungi that thrive in the still, damp air of a less than sunny backyard.

Looking for colour inspiration

We are fast approaching the end of April and I look at a blank piece of silk and feel I want to turn to floral colour for inspiration. I do have several containers of tulips almost in bloom, but they are either the double or parrot varieties typically at their best in May, and, as yet none of them are fully into their stride. Yes, I know there’s blossom, but in my backyard the trees; a couple of pears, the Victoria plum and the cherry ‘Stella’, are all white. And, there’s even more white with an unexpected abundance of honesty (Lunaria annua var. ‘Alba’) this year.

White honesty and more white honesty.

So I’ve resorted to scrolling through my photo albums and hunting down colourful flower pictures. I’ve been looking for pinks and oranges and, funnily enough, golden or possibly even yellow examples to inspire me.

Colourful image featuring strong orange and pinks.

In the process of selecting images I discovered that it’s almost three years since I’ve painted a yellow scarf or even a scarf of muted golds.

Digital Photomontage of a dinner-plate dahlia, oranges and a hint of medieval gilt work behind.

And the more I looked at all the pictures the more I felt like a return to yellowy warm hues.

Digital Photomontage of pears and sunflowers over a medieval painted screen.

It’s probably not going to be the strong yellows of the sunflowers, but a mixture of the softer apricot and cream of this bearded iris ‘Barbara My Love’ tempered by the time-worn gold of medieval St Jude from the rood screen of St Edmund’s, Southwold.

Left – Bearded Iris ‘Barbara My Love’. Right – St Jude, rood screen St Edmund’s Church, Southwold.

Merging the two photographs (the digital photomontage image below) has produced interesting, subtle tones which I feel fit with my mood. I think I’ve found my inspiration.

February Flowers

Last Saturday I was over in West Suffolk visiting Bury St Edmunds. It was a cold winter’s day with a freezing wind, but the sun was out and so were the snowdrops in the cathedral grounds.

Snowdrops in the grounds of St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

Heading into the historic part of the town we turned up Honey Hill and what a delightful surprise for February. All along the railings of St Mary’s Church black containers had been secured and filled with a winter display of flowers and foliage. The black railings with black boxes were repeated up the hill against the backdrop of the flint and stone south wall of the church. It looked elegantly beautiful. And, definitely much better in real life than in these photographs.

Winter flowers decorate the railings of St Mary’s Church along Honey Hill, Bury St Edmunds.

Of course being south-facing the hardy wallflowers were blooming beautifully and positioned at the top of the railings meant with a slight tilt forward of one’s head their sweet fragrance was easily caught. It is relatively uncommon to see urban winter plantings work so well and bringing delicate charm to a rather grand setting. After all, King Henry VIII’s favourite sister and a past Queen of France, Mary, was buried next door in the church.

Hardy biennial dark red wallflowers (variety possibly ‘Vulcan’), trailing variegated ivy and silver ragwort (senecio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’) fill the black planters.

The next floral gem we noticed was as we walked past the properties 1, 1a, 2 and 3 West Front and Samson’s Tower. These amazing houses have been built within and using the old West Front of the original Benedictine abbey church.

The reuse/incorporation of the old abbey church’s West Front and Samson’s Tower.

And, the floral gem was a white cyclamen and flint arrangement in a metal dish at the doorway of one of the West Front residences.

The very useful magnifier helps to locate the arrangement.

I took quite a few photos of this arrangement and will keep them and maybe will have a go at copying this idea. I think the combination of the white flowers, the black and white flints and the weathered metal is very appealing especially at this time of year.

White cyclamen possibly the variety ‘Picasso’.

As we walked past and around the east end of St Edmundsbury Cathedral we came to the Appleby Rose Garden. The rose garden is named after John Appleby, an American serviceman who served in the Second World War with the 487th Bomb Group in Lavenham, Suffolk. Within the walled garden there is also a garden seat crafted out of a wing of an American  ‘Flying Fortress Bomber’, but at the time of my visit an elderly gentleman was sat on the bench enjoying the tranquility and winter sun.

Clipped lavender in the Appleby Rose Garden, Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds.

Well, there are flowers in bloom in Bury St Edmunds, but what about at home in my backyard in Ipswich. We have my favourite February flower, iris reticulata ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ still making a showing despite five years in a pot fighting it out with a monster agapanthus.

Iris reticulata ‘Katharine Hodgkin’

And, there are the dainty and reliable hellebores flourishing with the paler pink type already flowering . . .

Helleborus orientalis in bloom a little early.

and the very dark red variety full of buds just about to burst into bloom.

Helleborus orientalis in bud.

Finally, I can’t resist here’s another picture of Honey Hill.

Another flower-inspired bandana

Well, it’s the 25th November and it’s four weeks to Christmas and that’s it for my backyard for this year. There are a few pink cosmos plants limping on and the hydrangea blooms will be slowly fading, or rotting away for the rest of the winter, but until next spring they’ll be no flowers from my yard to cut and bring into the house.

Drawing out and painting the first corner design.

Just as well I took the time to photograph some of my favourite combinations from the summer and early autumn flower arrangements.

Finding another colour combination for opposing corner.

I keep a selection on my iPad which I use when looking for colour inspiration.

Beginning painting the centre panel featuring the full large vase arrangement.

And, every now and then I do sort of copy an arrangement and include the vase as well. You may even recall that I painted a picture of the tall vase arrangement before the design ended up on scarves.

The example below will probably be the last one of this series as the season and the light have moved on and I am feeling the arrival of winter and with that a change of palette.

There once was a bunch of flowers

Back in September I had a good selection of homegrown flowers that made a large and colourful flower arrangement. You may have seen the arrangement in my Blog post ‘Light or Dark‘. I liked them so much I decided to have a go at painting them. It is some years since I last had my paints out and I’d forgotten how different it is to working with dyes on silk.

It turned out to be an interesting lesson and a reminder to me to look and observe more carefully. Of course, I couldn’t let such an arrangement not feature in my silk work as well. And, it was revealing to see how the essence and not the detail ended up in the silk design.

Drawing out a loose version of the original flower arrangement.

As you might be able to guess this isn’t a full-sized scarf. I thought I would start with a bandana/small square scarf to see if the translation from gouache on paper to dye on cloth was worth pursuing. The jury is out on that at the moment. I have just started drawing out a 90 x 90 cm twill scarf to eventually include the arrangement, but probably as a repeat motif rather than a central ‘picture’.

For the time being this bandana is finished and steamed and on the shop.

Early Autumn and the Last Flowers of Summer

Back in early spring I sowed twenty sunflower seeds in a tray indoors and about six weeks later I considered planting them out.

April was unusually cold with quite a few frosts that would certainly have killed off the seedlings – so no planting out in April. I waited for the arrival of May. It began cold and then turned extremely wet, but eventually the temperatures warmed up. I thought now is the moment to plant our my sunflower seedlings.

The clematis has done well this year enjoying damp roots, but with enough summer sun to flower.

It looked at first as though I had timed it perfectly as May became June and the temperatures began to rise towards a little summer heat. And then it poured. It rained and rained and in my part of the world the rainfall was almost double the average for the time of year. And, as I blogged in ‘climate, rain, snails‘ earlier this year my backyard offered the ideal conditions for a population explosion of slugs and snails.

The upshot of all the rain was only one of the original twenty sunflower seedlings made it to flowering maturity. Not only did just a single plant survive, but it has flowered so late it has provided the feature blooms for the ‘last flowers of summer 2021’ arrangement.

I thought the one stem with its five blooms would look balanced and in proportion placed in my grandmother’s old, blue and white vase. Of course, I had forgotten that I’d never seen fresh flowers in this vase and soon discovered why. Somewhere it has a fine, hairline crack. First I grabbed a plate to collect the slowly pooling water, but no.

I think you’ll agree the plate doesn’t look right, too bright and white. So thinking a bowl would also be more practical for the slow leak, I tried a gold bowl and plate set up. That all just looked weird.

Knowing when you are beaten is a strength – apparently. Though only mildly irritated I pulled apart the arrangement, chopped stems, ditched the leaking vase and stuffed the flowers into a trusted leak-free milk jug. Finally, the last bouquet of this year’s homegrown flowers for my kitchen table. A touch dumpy, but very colourful and cheery.

Light or Dark?

I have to say that up until recently I was very much committed to the traditional dark background for a floral image.

You only have to see a few examples of those amazingly skilful and intriguing seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings to fall in love with the striking contrast of colourful blooms against a very dark, if not black background.

Over the years whenever I have grown enough flowers to put together a reasonable arrangement I have attempted to save the results of my gardening labours by snapping a few floral-themed photos with black backgrounds.

Now this preference of mine came under serious personal scrutiny when I decided to enter an image-based competition where photograph entries had to be uploaded to Instagram. I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but photos on screens can either benefit from the backlighting effect of the screen or be blighted by it.

After some time experimenting with my dahlias I concluded that a bright, almost white background made for a more interesting, contemporary photo and suited the screen presentation a little better. And, then it was a choice of going with either more flowers (above) or less (below). I chose less and although not a winner I was individually thanked for taking part, as were all entrants, which I thought was rather civilised for social media.

climate, rain, snails

On Monday of this week the IPCC published a report that has finally shocked our complacent media into taking the climate crisis seriously. Even BBC News has well and truly jumped off the fence of ‘balance’ and stopped giving airtime to climate change deniers such as Nigel Lawson. And, they even posted the headline – Climate report is ‘code red for humanity’.

Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ chewed to bits by slugs and snails.

Of course, for many, many people of this country this wasn’t news, but, sadly, a confirmation of the dire situation humanity faces. Where I live, as yet, the worst we have had has been tropical, monsoon-style heavy showers, but no actual flash flooding. Mind you I do live on a hill towards the top, but my father lives down on Ipswich Waterfront. He has received several flood alerts, but luckily high tides and torrential downpours have not coincided and only the nearby car park has flooded.

Dinner plate dahlia ‘Penhill Watermelon’ (A survivor perhaps because it’s just so big.)

On a lesser issue all this rain and continuous warm damp has provided super optimal conditions for the slugs and snails. My backyard has been invaded and overwhelmed by snails. First they ate all my runner bean plants, then they started on the dahlias (always a favourite with both snails and slugs) and now they have moved on to the lilies. I have been growing lilies for over 20 years and, yes, in the past I have had to fight off the dreaded lily beetle, but this is the first time my lilies have been shredded by snails.

Survival rate of lily blooms about one in three.

Finally, in exasperation last week I went to war against these pests. Now, firstly I didn’t use slug pellets as they are a disaster for the wildlife and, rather incompetently, I had already missed the window of opportunity earlier in the season for deploying nematodes. This has left me with only one option to sally forth in the drizzle at dusk, hunt them down and physically destroy them.

Large slug heading for a feast of dahlia.

It has been very unpleasant and I have wondered how the professional growers of fruit and vegetables produce largely undamaged crops. I know really, mostly they use pesticides, but not for me as I garden organically. In a small, urban space without a pond for frogs or any town-dwelling hedgehogs visiting to snack at the snail bar, my backyard is devoid of predators except for me with my torch and wellies.

In the rain strongly smelling golden fennel, not popular with the local gastropods!

I don’t know about you, but I remember as a child washing mud from locally grown potatoes, picking out tiny slugs whilst preparing lettuce and cutting the odd worm or maggot from an apple. These days we appear to have forgotten the effort and resources that have been used to get near ‘perfect’ fresh food to the shops, but, perhaps this is about to seriously change. Apart from the immediate difficult weather, the climate crisis is already bringing droughts and floods and generally unseasonable weather to other parts of the world, and worryingly there are signs of the beginning of strain on our system of food production.

Seasonal, blemish-free cherries from Kent. (That’s two counties away – can I call that local?)

The IPCC issued another report (not this current ‘Code Red for Humanity’ one), a report that contained an entire chapter about food security back in August 2019 – you hadn’t heard about that? Neither had I. Disappointingly, looking around at all the great and good elected to govern us and lead by example, they too, don’t appear to have heard about it either and, even if they have, they’ve taken no action. Two years on from that report and with COP26 this November and following/despite the publication of the Code Red warning, it’s all still very much business as usual.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse may be on the horizon but let’s instead fret about exam grade inflation, refugees crossing the Channel and propping up the aviation industry as everybody is (apparently) entitled to cheap holiday flights!

The monument and grave of John Bunyan (1628-1688), Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London.

Here’s a thought regarding climate crisis action “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” John Bunyan (1628-1688).

Summer Flowers

Well, who’d have thought we’d go from cool and rainy to very hot and sunny from one week to the next. Of course, the answer is anybody used to English weather.

Rose L’Aimant in the rain.
Planted last autumn in a pot. Initially L’Aimant only produced three blooms, but more buds are forming following a mid-season feed.
Climbing rose ‘Breath of Life’. Planted last autumn against a south-facing fence.
Clematis ‘Margaret Hunt’ in a pot and doing well. Grown over three years from a small, £3 supermarket offering.

The roses, clematis and lilies have most definitely appreciated the moist soil followed by plenty of sunshine.

And, finally the pots planted up with summer bedding have eventually taken off and got into their stride.

This year’s summer bedding in containers.

Whilst writing this post I took a moment to review the progress over the last three years of getting my concrete backyard to look like a garden.

It has taken a fair amount of effort and time, but, at last, when I look out at the backyard I do feel as though I am looking at a garden. Unfortunately, the excess of rain at the wrong time facilitated a population explosion of slugs and snails. This has done entirely for the runner beans with every single one eaten to the ground and has also pretty much annihilated the sweet peas resulting in only one in five surviving to flower. However, there are plenty of plants that have not been eaten (yet) and the recent sunshine has boosted flower production enough for me to cut and have a scented arrangement for indoors.