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.

Growing towards the light

It might be August, just, but it looks as if the weather has decided that that’s it for this summer. I suppose we can still hope for a few bright and balmy days in early autumn.

As a child when we used to come to Suffolk for our family holidays the neighbouring back garden was full of one type of flower – hollyhocks. The entirety of their little plot was hollyhocks. I suspect now that they were mostly self-seeded as it was an open area of free-draining soil and hollyhocks seem to do well in our part of the country. Ever since then hollyhocks have been in my top ten of favourite flowers. Wherever I have been gardening I have tried to squeeze in a few of these essential, cottage garden beauties.

This year I have had pink, white and a very dark, dark red and they have all managed to flower. It is just as well that I took a moment to get some photos of these naturally tall plants before Storm Francis blew in.

Hollyhocks aren’t the only tall flowering plants I’ve grown in my backyard this year. As usual I have grown some cosmos from seed. The packet for this pink variety definitely said ‘dwarf’, but they have grown to over five feet tall, searching for the light. I do think they would have started blooming much earlier and remained dwarf if they had full sunlight all day. As you can see from the almost ‘ethereal’ photo above, the plants only get full sunlight in intermittent bursts. Obviously, this has not been enough and the plants have become etiolated.

At least most of the pink cosmos eventually flowered, but then Storm Francis decided to take down a few plants pulling over the pots at the same time. Luckily, and surprisingly no pots were broken and who doesn’t appreciate having plenty of cut flowers to bring indoors.

Concrete yard or garden?

It’s one of those everyday, standard gardening problems – how to deal with the backyard of the classic Victorian terraced house. Famously, these yards are long (or longish), narrow, rectangular spaces, frequently shaded by taller urban buildings or inappropriately planted, large overgrown trees.

Daylilies, cosmos and ammi visnaga in pots.

My problematic space has been made worse as over three-quarters of the ground has been covered with concrete in one form or another by previous owners. Luckily, when I moved into this house as I was able to bring with me all of my pots from my previous gardens, but sadly none of the old plants that they had contained.

Bronze leaf dahlia and courgettes in pots.

This is now my third summer here and my second where I have been able to get to grips with the ‘garden’ and plant up the pots. They are all now in use and I even have a couple of courgette plants cropping in containers.

I have tried to take a full garden photo in the garden, but without success. However, I have managed to show nearly all the yard from an upstairs window. I would just say that if I had unlimited funds this would not be my solution to the long, narrow backyard problem. To begin with there would definitely be no concrete, however there would be water, a brick path, tall trellises across the narrow space and flowerbeds where plants could be planted directly into the soil.

View from the first floor back bedroom window. Hydrangea and a couple of clematis in pots.

You have probably noticed on the right of the above picture a corner of a slate roof that looks very much the worse for wear. It is the roof of the partially derelict outhouse. The surveyor who produced an extensive (Dickens’ length) report on this house before I bought it, assured me, much to his surprise, that the brickwork was sound. Although he did add that the roof slates were perished and the woodwork was decayed and rotting. I call it the Urban Folly!

The Urban Folly.

Time for the scented and the colourful

Although the weather has not been quite what we would want for July, the flowers in my backyard are flowering well, especially the sweet peas. Naturally, flowering plants like plenty of sunshine, but not necessarily tropical temperatures and this is certainly true of sweet peas.

This is the fifth bunch of this size I’ve had over the last three weeks – and their fragrance is intoxicating.

Good daylight is essential and I have planted mine against a southwest facing fence. However, to flower well they prefer cooler temperatures, moist soils and a feed once a week with tomato food or similar. It’s been a good season so far for them.

Of course, the heavier rain showers ruined the delicate pink roses and also battered the big old hydrangea. The larger, soaking wet mopheads weighed down some of the sappier stems as the whole bush became a drooping mass of pink mopheads. I nipped out and cut back some of the stems where the flowers were hitting the ground. The plant’s loss was my gain and I filled a vase with them together with a few white lilies that have also done well this year.

One flower that can be cut for the house, but is too much of a faff for me, is the daylily. I prefer to leave them doing their thing in the garden. At least their blooms speckled with rain made a vibrant, almost zingy photograph.

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.