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.

June Blooms Before the Rain

The English gardener is the eternal optimist. Roses are planted, pruned, trained and nurtured and then the arrival of June is awaited.

Rosa ‘Munstead Wood’ before the rain.

And, when June arrives the buds start to open and all that effort is rewarded. Of course, the warm June days of gentle English ‘Constable’ skies with soft, billowy clouds and intermittent sunshine are the best conditions to achieve a fine display of roses.

However, as we know every year is different and having a good June for roses is not as frequent as the English Gardener believes. I gave up growing those old fashioned roses with large quartered blooms as four seasons out of five the buds balled and rotted in the rain.

Rosa ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Left photo, perfect and right photo beginning to scorch.

And, so we come to this June in particular, where the first two weeks brought temperatures up to 28ºC with days of endless, hot sunshine. The roses in my sheltered, backyard became scorched and bleached. Then virtually overnight the weather changed. The wind blew in from the north-east, the daytime temperatures dropped to 15ºC and we had several days of continuous rain to bash the remaining blooms into a squidgy mess.

Perennial poppy, papaver orientale ‘Patty’s Plum’ before the rain.

It wasn’t just the roses that were spoilt by the rain. The perennial poppy, Patty’s Plum were reduced to mush too. Fortunately, I took some pictures of their rich, intense beauty before their disintegration.

View from basement kitchen window of Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica with climbing rose ‘Mortimer Sackler’ in the background.

At the front of my house the pink climber now displays roses in various states of pulp yet the neighbouring salvia sclarea, normally good for a dry planting, has coped very well. Its contrasting shape, both flower stalks and leaves, has diverted attention from the climbing rose washout. It hasn’t been enough though, and with the lack of suitable flowers to cut, I was tempted and I am sorry to say, have bought some flowers from the florist. Well, who could resist these scented stock, so pink, such sweet scent, so summery.

End of Spring or Beginning of Summer?

It certainly has been late coming this year, but finally we’ve had sunshine. And, enough sunshine for the flowers to truly get into their blooming stride. My backyard, not the sunniest of spaces, now has the late-flowering pheasant’s eye daffodil, a selection of aquilegias and a few alliums all out together.

Narcissus poeticus – pheasant’s eye daffodil
Aquilegias
Allium hollandicum

Also this week a visit and wander around the local park offers a fine testament to the sun’s essential, life-giving force. It was delightful to see the azaleas and rhododendrons bringing colour to the partial shade of the fresh green canopy of deciduous trees.

Underplanting of deciduous tree in Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

And, out in the more open area there was the wild meadow-style planting of cow parsley mixed with clumps of spurge.

Cow parsley in a town park.

Even the more formal park-planting that borders the park entrance was full of loose, cheery colour. Although pansies and forget-me-nots are usually a spring combination, the answer to the question ‘End of Spring or Beginning of Summer?’ is, I think, most definitely the beginning of summer.

Bolton Lane entrance to Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

One small aside, even without deliberately or even mildly consciously choosing to take inspiration from all this welcome floral spectacle, it is most undoubtedly influencing my work.

Currently on my frame subliminal floral inspiration at work.

At last, homegrown tulips

Last autumn I made bulb lasagne (as the Dutch would say). In a couple of large pots I planted layers of tulip bulbs that had arrived from SarahRaven.com courtesy of my sister. Now spring has finally arrived here are the results.

Tulips on the front doorstep. (Photo from about three weeks ago.)

The tulips in the pot that have been on the front doorstep are about three weeks ahead of those potted up in the backyard.

Two parrots and a double.

Of course, it’s all very well having a welcoming show of flowers as you arrive at the front door, but you’ve soon found your key, opened the door and stepped inside and that’s it. During one fleeting glance I noticed three dark red tulips, I think they’re a double version of Queen of the Night, had shorter stems and were a bit swamped and so I cut them for indoors. Now I see a lot more of them on my kitchen table.

Cut from front door display, on the kitchen table and lasting well.

This year it has been a noticeably cool spring, but now at last the backyard tulips are also out. It has been a lesson for me that before mid-May my backyard probably doesn’t get anything like the necessary six hours of direct sunlight for good flowering. The pear tree blossom has been and gone and currently there’s only the tulips, a small clump of forget-me-nots and some sparse cherry blossom. However, there are also nine pots that look empty, but actually, hopefully, contain dahlia tubers that might just have survived last year’s freezing winter weather. Fingers crossed that there will be more flowers . . . eventually.

Tulips in the backyard. (Photo yesterday afternoon.)

Surprise flowers, lasting well

Every year my birthday falls near Mother’s Day and occasionally on Mother’s Day itself. I am not usually sent bouquets of flowers as I am not keen on the commercialization of ‘special’ days, but this year with the Covid thing and no visiting allowed I received a bouquet of pink flowers from my daughter.

A birthday bouquet that arrived in the post.

The beautiful roses arrived as semi opened buds and unusually the bouquet included some white foxgloves in bloom, all of course grown under glass probably in Holland.

Naturally, after about two weeks the flowers gradually began to fade and we arrived at the cut-down stage for some, and the transfer to a different vase stage for others. This transfer trick also included adding a couple of stems of hellebores from my backyard.

Unlike the roses and carnations the hellebores from my garden completely drooped after a single day, but as many of you know these flowers can be seen so much better when cut with a very short stem and placed in a bowl of water. And, I can report one week later the floating blooms are still looking fresh and catching the light as they bob around.

Perhaps pristine is not always best

It’s that time of year again when desperate for spring colour indoors I buy a bunch of tulips, then watch them slowly fade away. It has taken just over two weeks in my cool, basement kitchen for these pink ones to drop their petals. And, I think I have decided that there is something more beautiful about their fading glory than the stark, brash pinkness of fresh tulips.

Spode jug and flowers.
The close-up focusses on the shrivelling process of the petals revealing the stamens strong mustardy yellow against the fading pinking.

There is something gently mournful about this process and this year it is more poignant than ever as we mark this day, March 11th 2021, when one year ago the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic.

The solitary single stem. Could be the visual metaphor for a solo lockdown?

Buds of Potential

It’s that time of year again when I am out in the backyard surveying the residual winter mess and examining the plants already budding with potential.

Leaf buds on Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Schneeball’.

I have also been spending a few minutes poking around in the sodden vegetation to find any discrete beauties preparing for their floral entrance.

Unfurling leaves of the Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis.

And, to my surprise these hellebores had just started to bloom as the last of the snow finally melted away.

Another pink hellebore. The first flower.

Not all the plants in my backyard coped as well as the hellebores with the -5 degrees centigrade and 20 cm of snow. All of last summer’s pelargoniums that I had moved up close to the house are now a sad, blackened gloopy mess of vegetation. That is they are dead. Fortunately, last autumn I brought three indoors; one white single zonal, one dark pink regal and one pink scented-leaf variety. Overwintering in my kitchen isn’t ideal, but at least the are still alive.

Pelargoniums overwintered in my kitchen.

It isn’t only the temporary residents in my kitchen that are doing well, a couple of cuttings taken from the Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Schneeball’ seem securely rooted and have recently burst into leaf.

Cuttings sharing a small pot – two hydrangea and one Crassula ovata aka Money Plant.

Now, I must come clean. I don’t normally buy imported flowers but I couldn’t resist having some of these sweet pink beauties. I think it was a Lockdown 3 thing.

Of course, I could be mistaken regarding their provenance and they may have been grown under glass in Lincolnshire, but somehow at £1.79 a bunch (worryingly cheap) I think probably not.

A Winter Still Life

Across the UK we are all now living in a lockdown of one kind or another, again. As the winter weather makes outside experiences more challenging, I am guessing that there is going to be more online content featuring interior images.

And, who doesn’t love some flowers in winter, especially when they are grown in the UK.

Left or right? With or without?

This beautiful bunch of the scented ‘Paper White’ narcissi was a Christmas gift from my sister and they were grown by the folk of ‘Blue Box’ based in the Isles of Scilly. The flowers arrived tightly furled, they slowly unwound and released a gorgeous perfume. They have lasted remarkably well and are only just going over.

Scent, perfume, fragrance is part of our lived experience. Humans in the techie world have done so well digitising the visual and the auditory, but the olfactory . . . iSmell (I kid you not, ask Mr Google) so far, has not been a success.

Saved from the rain

On Tuesday I saw that the weather forecasters were telling us to expect the arrival of autumn proper. This was code for prepare for a noticeable drop in temperatures accompanied by wind and rain.

Dahlia ‘Blue Bayou’ – Mother Nature (with a helping hand from the plant breeders) offering a fuchsia pink with strong yellow softened with dark red.

Just as the light was fading, I grabbed my secateurs and nipped out into the backyard to cut any blooms that still looked half decent.

Sunflowers in their full glory as the paler pink cosmos is already shrivelled.

I cut dahlias, cosmos and sunflowers. It was more in error than by design I had planted three sunflower seedlings six weeks later than the main sowing and they only started blooming last week.

And, the dark pink cosmos has been very late this year getting into its stride. With the bright yellow sunflowers and the deep fuchsia pink of the cosmos I didn’t think I’d be able to make a tolerable arrangement, but it turned out that the dark red dahlias saved the day.

What a difference a backdrop makes? I prefer the black to the more contemporary choice for floral images which, I have recently noticed, is grey.