It has been a very mixed summer of weather here in the UK. My part of the country, East Anglia, is known as the driest region and earlier this summer the farmers did have their large-scale, agricultural sprinklers out for a while. However, it’s been all change for August with a significant low-pressure weather system bringing high winds, heavy rain and thunderstorms. Just the kind of weather we need for all those delicate flower blooms – not.
Continuing my recent resolution to try and see a silver lining to any negative situation, I decided that the loss of flowers in the backyard would be transformed into a gain of floral colour indoors.
To that end I cut several small bunches before the storms arrived . . . to brighten up my office . . . . . my workroom . . .
. . . and the kitchen.
Annoyingly, when I was cutting the dahlias I noticed an unstaked sunflower had already bitten the dust and the runner bean flowers were fairly bashed about too.
But I do have my fingers crossed that the delicate white flowers were already pollinated otherwise there won’t be any beans to pick in the coming weeks.
It is only the middle of August, but the cooler weather has reminded me that the autumn is just around the corner. Nevertheless for the time being this is my floral muddle on the kitchen table, scented and colourful – mustn’t grumble too much.
Well, it is the end of July so there should be some flowers in the garden. My hollyhocks, sown from seed earlier this year, won’t bloom until next summer, but I spotted this beautiful single pink variety in our local park.
Of course summertime is the season of plenty in the flower garden and there really, really must be some to cut for the house.
Disappointingly, there are not as many as I would have hoped, but it is a start.
And, naturally, just as my late-sown sweet peas are getting into their stride, Mother Nature gifts us a mini heatwave. And, sweet peas do not like the heat.
It can all be a little disheartening, but that’s the standard trials and tribulations of gardening.
As if all this heat wasn’t enough, last Friday we had torrential rain through the night and I woke up to find the big old hydrangea at the front of my house had split in two.
The sheer number of huge, sodden blooms had weighed down the shrub until one of the two main stems split. I have had to remove nearly half of the plant. I stuck a handful of blooms in a vase and have strung up some stems to dry, but sadly most of it has been chopped up and added to the compost bin.
Nevertheless there is good news, the remains of the hydrangea is still adding some oomph to the pot arrangements at the front of the house.
It is over 18 months since the tree surgeon cut down the overgrown ornamental cherry that had been planted too close to the house and also removed two-thirds of the ‘Victorian shrubbery’ of laurels filling my backyard.
With the laurels cleared the residual mess was easier to see and the slow process of sorting and removing other people’s rubbish began. A task that took seven or eight weekends last autumn. I was particularly concerned about some of the unrecognisable lumps and bumps of rubbish that was stuffed into a pair of brimming wheelie bins. It was all rather smelly, but in the end nothing horrific.
Without the pseudo hedge it was obvious that there wasn’t much of a fence in place either and what remained upright was so rotten it would all need replacing. Scroll forward to this year and with a new fence in place I began to dig over the tiny borders. The fencing guys had commented to me that they’d never done a job with so much buried concrete and it seemed to me that with every thrust of the spade I struck another lump of the stuff. It has been hard physical work. It was dispiriting too, as two pieces were so large and deeply embedded I have had to leave them in the ground and simply mark their position. At some point I will either cover with shallow rooted plants or place a pot on top.
Fortunately, over the years I have acquired a number of pots of various sizes which is just as well as there is more cheaply paved patio than plantable ground in this backyard. Over the Easter holiday, during the four days of fine weather, I was able to paint the mismatched fencing all the same colour and plant young climbers to begin to make a garden. It is early days, but a rambling rose, several clematis, jasmine and a fast-growing ceanothus are all in and will eventually cover most of the fencing.
And, there have been blooms. The beautiful perennial oriental poppy ‘Patty’s Plum’, a gift from my sister, has been the first star. These were followed in June by the stately white foxgloves easily grown from the seeds I brought from my last garden.
Finally, with the recent warmth of the July sun the dahlias are coming into flower.
Time stands still for no one and nothing and that includes formal flower arranging. Forty-five years ago my mother belonged to the local Flower Club. The ladies used to meet once a month with visiting guests demonstrating how to create pedestal, triangular and cascade arrangements amongst others. My mum’s favourite was the Hogarth Curve.
And, as with every other aspect of life, arranging flowers has fashions and favourites and, of course, time inexorably ticks on bringing gradual change, though not uniformly and not for everyone. Here’s a wee snapshot of a formal pedestal competition. The brief was titled ‘In Memory’ with the entrants free to choose a well-known person as their subject as well as their source of inspiration.
Now I realise that the ‘pedestal’ form of arranging flowers is the epitome of formal flowers, not least as it is still used in churches, but isn’t it time to loosen up the form a little. There were a further two, different flower competitions in the Floral Marquee at the recent Suffolk Show, but no entries were to my taste. I wandered away, disappointed and moved on to the displays from the local growers and nurseries. Now this was a completely different story.
Horticultural specialists arranged their flowering beauties as if they were at last month’s Chelsea Flower Show. Thoughtful form and colour combinations bedecked their stands in an informal, naturalistic celebration of plant possibilities for your garden. I can’t help but feel that in these times of climate crisis that the formal displays of cut flowers could move towards a more informal regime to include naturalistic designs and wildflower arrangements perhaps even reflecting local biodiversity.
It’s late May and the irises are in full bloom. Irises are definitely in my top ten favourite garden flowers along with roses, foxgloves, poppies, lilies, hellebores, tulips, clematis, dahlias, and, those great favourites of the medieval illuminators, columbines. Each May when the aquilegias flower I think of illuminated manuscripts and the unnamed artisans who spent hours in their workshops decorating religious texts.
And, it wasn’t just aquilegias that filled the margins, for illuminators included images of the different flowers found growing in their own local districts. From about 1300 onwards there is a wonderful variety of illustrations including daisies, honeysuckle, clover, cornflowers, the dog rose along with the blossom of fruit trees and the blooms of flowering herbs.
Gradually, during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, the making of illuminated texts became a specialist business with the production of breviaries, prayer books, psalters and books of hours from workshops across Europe. Stylised and simple motifs of flowers gave way to more naturalistic representations such as the irises seen in the Bourdichon Hours (above) and the almost ‘impressionistic’ iris seen in the Huth Hours (below).
I haven’t got any irises in my backyard as yet, and I’m still wondering if there would be enough hours of direct sunshine for them to bloom, but, fortunately, halfway down my road I spotted some in the little community plot.
This plot was one of those small, unloved areas which didn’t belong to anyone and has now been turned into a shared space, a community veg plot with a handful of raised beds and some seasonal flowers to brighten the whole affair. A number of local people who live in neighbouring flats or homes without gardens, spend their spare time planting, weeding and harvesting. This attractive project was instigated by one of my neighbours who’s also the Green Party candidate for our ward.
There is something heartening and positive about the continuing existence of a genus of flowers, admired and illustrated, that way we can track through the centuries. It would be nice to think that humans will be around for the next 700 years to enjoy the iris and the rest of the natural world, but that requires the present generation of world leaders to put their own personal ambitions aside, take a longterm view and start to deal with the climate crisis – seriously.
Last month we had strange weather. February had days feeling like spring and I saw people walking around in T-shirts! In climate terms a week of warm weather in February is disturbing.
However, March, so far, is turning out to be more like a usual March. It has been very, very windy, but that hasn’t affected these British grown tulips. They come from some of the extensive glass houses in Lincolnshire. Growing under glass has enabled British tulip growers to compete with imports from overseas and there are no air or sea miles. Growing under the protection of glass also lengthens the season for growing all kinds of cut flowers. Have you noticed how stocks (Matthiola incana) have joined the buckets of roses and lilies commonly available? However, for us domestic gardeners in East Anglia it will be another month before even the tulips are blooming in full force.
This year I resisted the temptation to plant seeds in February. I am holding my nerve even with the indoor sowings. I am trying to avoid weak, leggy seedlings as I don’t have a greenhouse to provide consistent good daylight.
It is early days in the ‘new’ old backyard and too dreary to photograph with piles of rubble left behind by previous owners. Although it is a small space, it’s going to be a long old haul to sort out, but some pots of pelargoniums and dahlias, and a mini swathe of hardy annuals should at least add some colour for this summer.
Expecting the best, I have already had a poke around in the pots of the overwintered dahlias and, fingers crossed, so far they’ve come through the winter. From now on I just have to watch out for early slug damage to the tender new shoots.
At last I have a rough plan, you could, at a stretch, call it a design for the backyard. It has been just over a year since I moved in and I have been observing the sunlight and shade patterns and I can see I have my work cutout to achieve any kind of flower garden. Disappointingly, there’s more shade than I had expected, not least from the enormous eucalyptus tree three gardens down.
It is a long-established tree and is easily 10 feet or so taller than the surrounding three-storey houses. As I write, its upper branches are violently whipping around, bending this way and that in the strong winds. It is really quite inappropriate for a Victorian terrace backyard and it overhangs six gardens. I am guessing it was originally planted to screen out the neighbours at the bottom of the garden and has just been left to grow and grow by a series of non-gardening homeowners.
Finishing on a more optimistic note I am looking forward to more of this
There is something perennially charming about a jug of fading sunflowers. You can see why Vincent Van Gogh was so taken with them. Famously, he painted sunflowers many times including the seven ‘Sunflowers’ canvasses which were ‘nothing but sunflowers’.Of the original seven sunflower paintings, five are now in museums around the world, one was destroyed in a fire during World War Two and one, amazingly, is still in a private collection. These paintings have been frequently reproduced and used to decorate all kinds of merchandise. I recently spotted these Vans on the Internet.When I was younger I had a small print of this version below.
I copied these exuberant flowers onto a couple of metres of silk which I made into a top.
During the intervening 25 years, I, as well as the top have faded a wee bit, but here’s me earlier this year during the heatwave caught on camera mixing up some dyes wearing my old sunflower silk. It may have been very hot in Ipswich this summer, but nowhere the 45 degrees we had experienced in Egypt.
As we are almost into September the temperatures have finally dropped enough for my sweet peas to bloom. They were an impulse purchase, reduced to clear at the DIY superstore when I was buying yet more paint. In all honesty they were planted too late, in too small pots and then were unfortunately hit with the heatwave we experienced this summer.
Apparently, high temperatures cause sweet peas to pause their flower production, they prefer cool nights and cool days, so that would be a normal English summer! But finally, yes, they are blooming.
Another impulse purchase of desperation back in May were some random dahlia tubers. They too have eventually begun to bloom displaying ‘surprise’ colours mostly neither colour combinations nor shades I would choose if picking from a dahlia catalogue.
The very dark red ones are fine and can stay, but I have been busy in the backyard ticketing the rest, yellow, messy yellows and muddled pinks as ones for the compost at the end of the season. Somehow they just made the dreary backyard (not even a work in progress as yet) look even more of a dump. However, when I chopped off all the flowers and brought them in (any flowers indoors are better than no flowers at all) I was genuinely surprised that they made a passable arrangement.
Now I have the dilemma of whether to keep them or not. Mmm, actually that will be probably not. If I had more space or an allotment where I could grow flowers just for cutting I would, but in such a small backyard all plants will have to work hard for their space and fit into my overall scheme.
Oh yes, there will be an overall scheme, but, deep sigh, it is all going to have to wait at least another year.
Where are the flowers? Well, certainly not in my backyard. Disappointingly, this is the second summer for me in my 20 plus years of gardening that I have not had a patch of earth yielding some floral delights. The fencing was only erected last week so at least now I can begin to see ‘defined space’ (or lack of it) to plan some planting. As a stop gap I have stuck a few pelargonium and sweet pea plugs into pots, but they went in rather late and show no signs of blooming yet.
Feeling flower starved I trotted down to the local florist. I think like many small businesses old fashioned florists have had their casual, walk-in trade almost obliterated by the big supermarkets undercutting them. It seems to have left florists with the traditional wedding and funeral business plus the odd corporate event. The consequence of this change in retail habits has resulted in some florists, understandably, reducing the range of flowers being stocked in their shops. I was disappointed with what was on offer especially considering that we are in high summer. Dispiritingly this is the best I could manage
and the arrangement includes stealing a blousy hydrangea bloom from the single surviving shrub at the front of the house.
The local park has offered more treats for the florally deprived with swathes of English lavender contrasting with clumps of achillea.And, last month there were field poppies blooming cheerfully in the unexpected heatwave.However, back home it was a disappointing and scentless flower situation until a visiting friend came to the rescue with a gorgeous scented posey of flowers from her garden.Sweet peas and cheerful daisies. I really don’t think you can beat homegrown flowers. In this case there are no air miles, very few road miles and no excessive irrigation and/or glasshouse heating costs. There is just a delicate, visual treat and an intoxicating, seasonal scent filling my workroom.
It is now June and the classic flower of the month in England is usually considered to be the rose. Apart from the fact that I still have endless weekends of internal decoration to attend to, and, as I type, I am manfully ignoring one entire room left in an almost derelict state, I have started to think about the garden.
I realise one way and another I have missed this year for some of my flowering favourites such as the hellebores, tulips, aquilegias, irises and roses not to mention a flowering fruit tree or two. However, now is not the time to moan, but to get on and get planning. It is a good time to think ahead as although quite a few container grown roses are now out of stock for this season, they can still be ordered for delivery as bare root plants for this coming autumn and winter. Naturally, recent evenings have been spent perusing my old copy of ‘The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book’ in the hunt for suitable roses for very small gardens.
Although I do love many of the old fashioned shrub roses that I have grown in the past not all of them are as robust as some of the more recent introductions such as rosa Queen Elizabeth (1954, see below) or the David Austin rose, rosa St Swithun (1993, above right).
Currently, I am tending towards a thornless, reliable modern climber for my very tiny front patch, possibly the David Austin climbing rose, rosa Mortimer Sackler (2002). It needs to be thornless as it will eventually top the boundary wall at waist height between my property and a side passage used as the rear access for my neighbours.
Mind you I have been tempted by Stuart Thomas’s comments on rosa Agnes, “Unusual with delicious scent”, but despite the appealing name (😉) I don’t feel I can fit a yellow rose, even this pale, muddled beauty, into the planting scheme.
It is a while since I have taken my copy of the Rose Book off the shelf. Indeed, it has been boxed up with all the rest of my books for the last 18 months during the moving process and consequently I was surprised when a slip of paper fell out. As I picked it up expecting it to be a now redundant list of roses from my last garden, I noticed with curiosity that it was a poem. One of my favourites originally copied out over 15 years ago.
Some of you may remember seeing photos from my old garden of the white Japanese wisteria that I trained over a pergola. I originally bought it as a grafted specimen and it flowered from the first year, but it really got into its stride around about its fifth year. By the time I left that garden to a new custodian the wisteria was 11 years in place and blooming spectacularly every May. It also provided a canopy of green shade for all those long hot days of summer!
I have moved from the outskirts of city living back to urban life proper and no longer have the space for such a rampant plant in my backyard. Well, that’s not entirely true, but I need the sunny area for some fruit as well as flowers.
However, despite my ‘restricted space’ predicament, I am not entirely starved of this beautiful, May blooming flower as from the bedroom window I can see the charming Chinese wisteria decorating my next-door neighbour’s pergola.