The Delight of Winter Blooms

It’s nearly the middle of January and when I was out and about do you think I spotted these beautiful, pale, creamy yellow narcissus in a sheltered front garden?

Or, perhaps I spied them the tucked away in the warmth of a south-facing porch.

But, no these wonderfully fragrant narcissus are indoor plants. They are narcissus ‘Erlicheer’ and are excellent bulbs for forcing. They were a Christmas gift from my sister and arrived in an elegant tin container as bulbs in compost topped with a dried moss layer.

Then over about a month they have grown, a bit Jack’s magic beans, to full leaf and flowers. And, what beautiful scent they have perfuming not just my sitting room, but the hallway and my study too.

Something to cheer everybody during these gloomy times.

Unseasonably mild and the dahlias love it

The October temperatures have been good for the heating bills and good for the dahlias, but, sadly and worryingly, not good for our future as they are another indication of the changing climate.

I thought at the beginning of this month, as I was cutting a couple of sunflowers and a few dahlias for an arrangement, that this was going to be the last floral hurrah for the backyard, but as you can see it wasn’t. We are nearly at the end of the month and I’ve just cut another full bunch of dahlias. The weather has been so mild that even the dinner plate dahlia ‘Belle of Barmera’ has had long enough to produce another three full, shaggy blooms.

Of course it’s not just the dahlias still blooming. There are some roses that can produce the odd flower up to Christmas, but this gorgeous rose ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ doesn’t usually achieve that in my backyard. Sadly, this single stem of eleven blooms will be the last for this year. And, as I conclude this post I have Yves Montand singing the plaintive ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ on repeat in the background. It’s that time of year.

Shrub rose ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. (Introduced 2003)

Better late than never

Back in 1995 I had my first garden. It was the unloved space of a rented cottage in a Suffolk village. It felt like I had won the lottery after a decade plus of flats with and without balconies in London, Frankfurt and Zandvoort.

I have always been a flower person, have found gardening over the past 27 years both rewarding and restorative and have hoped to pass on my passion for gardening to my daughter.

Well, if nothing, it looks like my daughter got the gene for smelling flowers! (Left, me with my maternal grandfather looking on, and right, my daughter in my mother’s garden.)

In my first garden there were the usual cottage garden favourites roses, lupins and sweet peas. However, I also had containers full of pelargoniums which I had learnt to grow and appreciate when I was living in Germany. Every balcony in our block of flats in Frankfurt put together a summer display and we couldn’t be the only flat with empty troughs.

First garden with pelargoniums and marguerite daisies in pots and lupins in the border.

I also grew pots of pelargoniums on the balcony in Zandvoort, Holland, but being on the North Sea coast once the weather turned they really didn’t appreciate the salt-laden wind. However, since I’ve been back in England it has been a case of white or pink or dark red pelargoniums in pots every year. Also from that first garden I have endeavoured to get my daughter interested in gardening.

Now, of course, plants in pots need regular watering and if you have the appropriately sized watering can what’s not to like about sloshing water everywhere. In her early years my daughter did enjoy watering, but was less keen on planting and even less keen on sweeping up and eventually wasn’t keen on anything to do with gardening at all.

Watering . . okay, . . . . . sweeping . . not so much . . . . . . . . . . and. . . . NO just NO!

That was until the local television grew came to film my very tall sunflowers and she took all the credit! She was filmed showing the TV man her sunflowers and was delighted at being interviewed. To be fair in the May of that year she had gone round the garden chucking seeds about.

My daughter interviewed (very patiently by Mike Liggins) on BBC Look East. (Apologies for poor quality as photos taken from the telly.)

My daughter has now left home and as a young adult has, surprise, surprise decided to grow a few houseplants.

Over the years I have carried on growing sunflowers with some years being better than others. About a decade ago I switched to peat free compost for growing plants from seed including sunflowers and I didn’t notice any particular change in successful germination or seedling development. However, this year only three sunflower seedlings out of 30 grew big enough to be planted out in the yard and that was only after pricking out the strongest and transferring them into an alternative brand of peat free compost.

Sunflowers in the backyard, October 2022.

It has been a longer wait and more effort than usual, but eventually the sunflowers have bloomed. Late, yes, which means the autumnal winds have arrived and cutting them down has been necessary, but all is not lost as I do now have a very cheerful display on the kitchen table.

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.