Parched in May, Sodden in June

We’ve had some strange ol’ weather adding to our already strange times. As if we weren’t all living in an upside down world, the weather is all over the place. According to the Met Office we have, in England, just experienced the driest May on record.

And, now it’s June and we have these monsoon-like downpours. My roses bloomed so early that the first flush had near enough finished before the arrival of June and despite the rain, there’s no sign of ‘balling’ of the next flush as they are still tight buds. For once, I feel the roses have outwitted the capricious English weather.

However, it has been another story in the local park as by the end of May the lawns were turning brown,

and the ornamental grass display looked so parched it could have been mid-August in a heatwave.

A few white alliums in bloom are the only clue it isn’t high summer.

It was also a shame to see some of the frilly poppies (papaver somniferum) failing as they are normally so resilient. Their heavy heads drooped and their leaves withered. Following the past month without rain even a good watering would probably not save them now. I think perhaps it’s more the fact that the soil is baked so dry that the roots have become entombed.

Papaver somniferum – only about one in ten were successfully blooming.

Hopefully, there will be other poppies germinating from a later sowing that will fare better now June has brought us plenty of rain.

Of course, there are other features of Holywells Park where the heavy rain has been most welcome. It has topped up the ponds, re-greened the grass and provided moisture to the sheltered areas beneath the trees. This amazing palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) grows well in its sheltered position. It stands tall as the monsoon-like deluge penetrates the overhead canopy and gives this little corner of an urban park in Ipswich a tropical atmosphere.

But, there is no doubt about it – the plant that has benefitted the most from all those hours of Maytime sunshine is the banana plant in the park’s Victorian Conservatory – it’s been growing like Jack’s beanstalk.

A pastel pink beauty and thornless too

It is almost the summer and it is sunny. The temperature here in Suffolk yesterday topped 28 degrees centigrade. Just this last week the fat buds of the climbing David Austin rose, Mortimer Sackler, have burst into their double, pastel pink blooms. You can just see from the photograph below that the rose is planted in the corner of the small, below ground level front garden. The aim is to train it up the south-facing basement wall where most of the blooms will eventually be in full sun. This is its second year and it is coping much better now I have improved the soil with plenty of home compost and organic chicken manure pellets. Last autumn I discovered that the builders had dumped their excess sand and gravel and covered it with a thin layer of top soil, something I should’ve noticed when I originally planted the rose!

Rosa Mortimer Sackler.

Of course, sometimes a gardening error occurs that is not the gardener’s fault. This happened when I bought the clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’. I specifically bought this variety as my late mother had grown it in the partial shade of a conifer hedge and it flowered amazingly well. Harrumphing and disappointment have ensued. From the photograph below I think you will probably know that this clematis is not ‘Hagley Hybrid’, but is most likely the very popular Nelly Moser.

Clematis Nelly Moser

Now, I wouldn’t have chosen Nelly Moser myself and it really needs full sun to flower well, but as it happens the two-tone pink of the clematis has picked up the two-tones of the pelargonium, so all is not lost.

There are always some positive surprises in the garden and this spring it has been the abundance and the long flowering period of the aquilegias. By chance it appears they’ve had the optimum growing conditions. Notably they have not been swamped by any of the towering foxgloves as they were, very unusually, totally decimated last autumn.

Aquilegia Petticoat Pink

When I first started gardening in the 1990s I often listened on a Sunday afternoon to Gardeners’ Question Time on BBC Radio 4. In those days the late Geoffrey Smith was a regular panel member offering advice and tips. I always remember one tale he told of how the gardener (the husband!) should cut the first, main bloom from each cluster of flowers growing on a floribunda rose, but not dispose of the blooms in the compost. Instead he suggested, in a jocular manner, giving them as a gift to ‘the wife’. Of course, this removal of the central bloom is a type of early pruning to allow the other three buds in the cluster to fully develop and give an overall better display. ‘The wife’ being grateful for the waste prunings was the sly joke and the audience laughed. I mused then and even more now that perhaps it was the ‘husband-gardener’ that needed to be disposed of in the compost.

Finally, wouldn’t it be lovely if ‘smell-o-vision’ was available as the scent from this little bunch of very short-stemmed, prunings is truly delicious and has perfumed the entire basement.

April flowers now and then

What a difference a few weeks has made? Only four weeks ago it was Friday, 13th March and it was Gold Cup Day at the Cheltenham Festival. It strikes me now as mind-boggling to think that 60,000 people attended the famous National Hunt race meeting, but attend they did, visiting from far and wide. It already seems a long time ago as everybody comes to terms with living in a lockdown.

Today is Maundy Thursday and the weather is beautiful and sunny, but there will be no holiday stays at the seaside this Easter.

I photographed this gorgeous cherry tree last April in Aldeburgh when my sister came to stay. (She had taken a house for this Easter too and we had tickets for Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Snape Maltings, but it’s most definitely stay at home and stay safe.)

However, on a positive note it is always amazing at this time of year what a difference a couple of days of sunshine and warmer temperatures makes to the gardens. Overnight the aubretia is blooming . . .

The first aquilegia is flowering . . .

And, the pear I planted last year is covered in blossom.

Pear Concorde – late-season, self-fertile. A Conference and Doyenne du Comice cross chosen as it will be on it’s own as I couldn’t see any pear trees in nearby gardens for fertilisation.

I particularly value the pear blossom as, like many of us, I am looking for any signs of hopeful renewal during this Covid lockdown.

Honesty in my suburban garden Norfolk. (April 2015)

Compared to my old Norfolk garden I only have a small patch of outside space and it is mostly concrete slabs thanks to previous owners with their ‘low maintenance’ mindset. However, I really must not complain as I do have fresh spring greenery and some flowers too. I deeply appreciate my little backyard during these difficult Covid times when many families live in flats and don’t even have access to a balcony.

Daffodils in Christchurch Park, Ipswich. (A couple of weeks ago.)

Fortunately, we are lucky in Ipswich as, so far, the beautiful parks are still open for exercise and dog-walking.

A carpet of Lesser Celandine in Holywells Park, Ipswich. (last week)

And, you can even bicycle, run or maybe simply stroll along the Waterfront for your daily exercise.

Wishing you all well this Easter and keep safe.

The First Flowers of 2020

Last week in between Ciara and Dennis (that’s the storms) I ventured out into my backyard to check for damage and collect up the debris from the neighbouring eucalyptus tree (still standing). And, to my enormous pleasure I found that the hellebores I planted last year are now blooming.

The Lenten Rose. Helleborous orientalis

Now, I do not normally cut these flowers as with their drooping heads once cut they tend only to look at their very best as single blooms floating in a shallow bowl. A shallow bowl arrangement is fine as a table centrepiece, but in my studio I only have shelf space. The two tables I have are covered with frames, silk and all the associated bottles and jars of dyes with which I am currently working.

Nevertheless, even though I knew they wouldn’t last long, I did cut two stems. I then spent some time fiddling around propping up the blooms using some blossom-bearing twigs of an evergreen shrub (Viburnum tinus) finally making my first vase arrangement of homegrown flowers for 2020. Incidentally, it wasn’t just the first flowers that were picked, but the first caterpillar was also sighted.

A very green caterpillar

Although I don’t have space to grow bulbs for cutting myself, there’s no reason not to buy a bunch of Cornish-grown daffodils. At this time of the year they last a good week and absolutely brighten up my basement kitchen.

Daffodils all the way from Cornwall.

And, of course also at this time of year a stroll through the Old Cemetery finds the crocuses in bloom . . .

. . . but what’s all this noise? I raised myself, camera in hand, after kneeling for a crocus close-up, to find myself amidst a startled murder of crows. Wrong exposure and not in focus, but, for once, I managed to capture a half-dozen of the birds as they wheeled away. All rather spooky!

Sunflowers – A Litmus Test

Last month I mentioned that I’d been over-optimistic about growing flowers in my backyard. As it has turned out, the sunflowers have provided the evidence for precisely what kind of conditions prevail across my patch during the course of a spring to autumn flowering season. I grew two varieties, Black Magic and Evening Sun, from seed and planted all the seedlings out at the same time in two different aspects.

There were seven seedlings planted at the end of the yard in a bed facing south-east and another seven grown in a narrow strip against the south-west facing fence.

Both varieties were supposed to grow to the top of the fence, about six feet tall, providing blooms that would be easy to cut. The plants in the back bed were weedy and only four made it to flowering, rather disappointing, and it has confirmed my suspicions that the soil in that bed is markedly impoverished. Yet both varieties in the south-west facing strip grew and grew and grew, and it became clear that they were obviously well fed, but was there more to it than that?

They all eventually flowered although the flowers at the top of these nearly 12 feet tall plants have not been easy to cut. Their unexpected height has been mostly due to a significantly richer soil in this bed. However, I can’t help but feel their height has also been as a response to the light shade that occurs during the couple of hours in the middle of the day courtesy of the neighbouring, fully grown eucalyptus tree.

Really, I should not moan as I have never had so many sunflowers all at once – almost enough to sell bunches from a bucket on my front steps!

As is often the way the yellower variety, Evening Sun, nearer to Mother Nature’s original, has grown and flowered more than my favourite the very dark red Black Magic.

Sunflowers ‘Black Magic’ with dahlia ‘Black Jack’

Growing sunflowers has been a useful litmus test indicating the quality of growing conditions across my garden. Additionally, it has also turned out that the handful of them planted in the front garden weren’t up to much, but then I had seen what the builders had ‘tipped’ onto that small patch! At least next year I will have a much better idea of what to expect. And, with a bit of luck and after my efforts during this coming winter to improve the soil, I will have a small crop of medium height sunflowers easy to harvest.

Not a bad selection for the beginning of October – sadly the pears are not homegrown.

Since I wrote this post on Monday the recent storm with high winds and heavy rain has brought down the tallest sunflower. That’s another pot needed then.

Photographing Early Autumn Flowers

If we are honest there are signs and hints of the coming of autumn that occur most years during the course of the average British August. So the recent drop in overnight temperatures and the cooler, misty, damp mornings should not really be a surprise. Here, in East Anglia, as normal, plenty of late-summer flowering plants are still going strong.

Sunflowers ‘Evening Sun’ and ‘Black Magic’ with ammi visnaga and verbena bonariensis

I thought I’d take this opportunity to cut quite a few blooms, gather them together in different compositions and take photographs as a record for future work. I love the colours, individual forms and the various combinations. In my backyard the sunflowers are just getting into their stride and I have so much ammi visnaga finally blooming (after a late start from seed) that it is beginning to look like a weed infestation.

(I couldn’t bear to bin this image, so I photoshopped the creamy white jug heavily reducing its brightness.)

In the bright light on the kitchen table where I usually have any current ‘jug’ arrangement, my loose sunflower bunch looked okay, but when I came to take more formal photos with a dark background the cream jug dazzled and distorted the composition.

Hunting around for something less white I remembered my mother’s copper kettle and switched the bunch to that instead. Annoyingly, in the process of rearranging the flowers into the new container several of the sunflowers dropped all their petals.

As I mentioned the other week the dahlias have been flowering well and the more you cut the more you get – my kinda plant! And, as you can see, the verbena bonariensis eventually grew to its full height and began to flower despite the less than ideal conditions.

Scarlet red decorative dahlias (no label on tubers but a bargain price!) with dahlias dark red ‘Karma Chocolate’, pink ‘Blue Bayou’, orange ‘Tangerine Dream’, and clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ finished off with a couple of sprigs of verbena bonariensis.

There’s not really enough hours of full sunlight in my backyard to create a flower-filled space bursting with colour. In all honesty I think I have been overly optimistic about what I could grow successfully.

Scented, old-fashioned sweet peas and cosmos ‘Purity’ – all grown from seed.

I did plant out the sweet pea seedlings in the best, sunny position available, the prime site. They have flowered reasonably well, but despite doing my usual trench preparation I’ve definitely had less flowers than I did from my old ‘suburban’ garden. I have a feeling I need to make some serious efforts at soil improvement this winter. That will mean adding garden compost to the depleted backyard soil perhaps with the odd handful of chicken manure pellets and finally topping off with a mulch. Additionally, any spare compost mix will be needed to beef up the small area at the front of the house too. No doubt by next spring I will be enthusiastically sowing flower seeds again optimistically hoping for a glorious display all summer.

Mid August is Definitely Dahlia Time

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.

Cosmos ‘Purity’, ammi visnaga (bishop’s weed) and sweet peas cut before the wind and rain.

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.

Dahlias ‘Bishop of Canterbury’, ‘Black Jack, ‘Blue Bayou’, ‘Emory Paul’, ‘New Baby’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’.

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.

Pollinator at work – Mr Busy Bee still visiting the fading agapanthus.

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.

Flowering favourites, July 2019

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.

Single hollyhock in Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

Of course summertime is the season of plenty in the flower garden and there really, really must be some to cut for the house.

A spray of the rambling rose ‘Ethel’ (planted as a bare-root rose this spring), a mophead from the old hydrangea and a couple of old-fashioned sweet peas.

Disappointingly, there are not as many as I would have hoped, but it is a start.

The second and last spray of the rambling rose and a mophead from my newly planted hyrdrangea ‘Schneeball’ and a few old-fashioned sweet peas.

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.

First of the dark red dahlias to bloom – dahlia ‘Black Jack’

It can all be a little disheartening, but that’s the standard trials and tribulations of gardening.

I don’t have a photo of the old hydrangea in the front before the rain, but I saw my next door neighbour has posted a couple of pictures on Instagram.

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.

And, a few more sweet peas, dahlias and clematis and the salvaged hydrangea blooms in the background.

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.

Beginning to take shape – at last

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.

Not long after the tree surgeon’s visit.

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.

Concrete finds from my tiny backyard.

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.

Just maybe, just maybe this urban concrete backyard might become a garden.

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.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Canterbury’

Flower Arranging: A Competitive Activity

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.

This arrangement ‘In Memory of Edith Cavell’ by Maggie Morton won Best Use of Colour, First Prize and Best in Show.
This arrangement won Second Prize. The judge commented “A delightful pedestal with great movement depicting your chosen subject. This needs a stronger link to the base of the design”. Area Judge, NAFAS.
Third Prize was awarded to Julia Morley for ‘In Memory of Kevin Beattie’. The judge noted “A beautiful design depicting your chosen subject. Maybe a few less accessories would improve the overall look of the arrangement.”
This was my personal favourite “Remembering David Hockney”. This arrangement, despite having an interesting palette, was not to the judge’s taste who commented “An unconventional approach to a pedestal design. The landscapes are rather flat and would be improved by using bolder local flowers.”

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.

Bearded iris with white alliums as part of a nursery display.

If you would like to see a more contemporary approach to flower arranging have look at the displays produced by florists The Flower Appreciation Society.

From then to now

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.

Columbines (aquilegia vulgaris) decorate this page from the Isabella Breviary, 1497, Flemish. MS18851, f.124

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.

Irises decorating the Bourdichon Hours, early 16th century, French.. MS 18855, f.33

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).

Iris from illuminated page of The Huth Book of Hours. 1485-1490 Flemish. MS 38216, f130v

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.

Irises bringing some colour to the raised vegetable beds at the local 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.