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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A kinda pleasant surprise

I will start by saying that I am not normally a fan of chopping down trees, but one totally overgrown Leyland Cypress, partially overhanging my backyard, is not a tree I will be sad to see chopped down.

Earlier this week, whilst finding it very, very hard to concentrate on working (I guess like most folk at the moment) I was completely distracted by an extremely loud chainsaw. My office is at the top of the house with a second floor window overlooking my backyard. Peering up and down the backyards I couldn’t see where the noise was coming from. Then suddenly I noticed movement in the ugly fir tree at the back of my yard.

Man at work.

Hooray, hooray. That horrible tree that shades ALL the late afternoon sun from my yard and drops mountains of acidic debris all over my flowers is going.

After an hour of chainsaw activity it all went quiet. The tree surgeon, Acorn Trees, a local business, climbed down for what I assumed was a tea-break. Incidentally, he’s the same guy who removed the overgrown tree that was growing against my house when I first moved in.

An hour later I thought that’s a long tea-break and looked out the window to see everything all cleared up, packed up and gone. The tree was still standing just four metres now instead of the original 12 metres, but nevertheless still alive! That’s why it’s a kinda pleasant surprise. No shading of my yard and far less acidic sprinkles, but nevertheless still a huge, living root system sucking out all the nutrients from under my pear tree, climbing rose and herbaceous perennials. I think I am definitely a ‘glass half empty person’. Naturally, I have piled on the garden compost last autumn and again the other weekend to boost the soil, but if only that tree had been entirely grubbed up and replaced with an ornamental deciduous native such as a crab apple tree.

So, this is it. Not a very elegant solution, but I suppose that’s what my neighbour’s asked for, a two-thirds reduction. I am secretly hoping my vigorous climbing rose will take off in that direction and sneakily scramble up and cover the stumps with a cascade of summer rose blooms.

Nature drawn and/or photographed – ‘Art Forms in Nature’ Exhibition

It is always a pleasure to visit a thoughtfully curated exhibition.

From top left clockwise: Koelpinia linearis (Compositae), Centaurea Kotschyana – Knapweed, Hamamelis japonica – Japanese witch-hazel, Echinops sphaerocephalus – Great globe thistle, Pale globe-thistle. Photogravures, 1932

And, this was particularly so when I went to see ‘Art Forms in Nature’ at the Ipswich Art Gallery. The exhibition was comprised of four collections of images showcasing nature. The main area had a display of 40 photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt, the main upper gallery showed botanical drawings by Guy William Eves, and two smaller side rooms were devoted to specialist classification imagery.

From the left: Euphorbia – Spurge, Centaurea Grecesina – Knapweed, Cotula turbinate – Water buttons, Buttonweeds. Photogravures, 1932

The photogravures of natural forms by Karl Blossfeldt are fascinating. They are a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition. Each image is beautifully and elegantly framed and mounted, and with discrete labelling (white on black), the main wall of 16 had both a classic and contemporary appeal. It invited closer inspection of each single photogravure.

Phacelia congesta. Photogravure, 1932

It is hard to believe these enlarged close-ups capturing such detail are nearly 90 years old.

I was new to Blossfeldt’s work and am now a fan not least as I know I will be returning to his images for pattern and motif inspiration.

Erodium chrysanthum – Yellow storksbill. Photogravure, 1932

Whilst the downstairs gallery featured a German photographer’s work the upstairs space was filled with work by the local artist and botanical illustrator, Guy William Eves.

Now here is why I think this is a thoughtfully curated show – you walk up a staircase having just examined how the lens captures plant detail to come to a collection of detailed drawings showing how the eye and hand creates a record of botanical forms.

From the left: Iris, Lily Head, Magnolia. Pencil drawings

Botanical illustrations are about accurately recording the form of a plant, and yet at the same time a visual artist, such as Eves, offers us both the required accuracy and a personal interpretation. A myriad of choices are made as Eves develops each representation. His skilfully drawn studies suggest the presence of living material all created through line and shading.

Ferns. Pencil drawings

I think you can see (even in these photos) there is something added by a fine artist when you compare Eves work with the purely accurately rendered scientific drawings and watercolours such as these of flies and fungi.

Fungi – Leslie Green ( 1918-2007), a Suffolk fan of fungi. Watercolour.

And, furthermore, if we compare Eve’s drawings with Blossfeldt’s dramatic, intense photogravures, you might agree that the drawings certainly differ having a more vital and radiant quality.

Lily Head. Pencil drawing

One final point, of course, you are currently looking at all these natural forms several times removed. The artists/photographer have created these works, I have then photographed them (with varying amounts of light and reflections issues, I apologise for the less than optimal quality) and uploaded them to a computer and you are now viewing these images on a screen. Somehow this has deadened their presence. If you don’t get the opportunity to visit this exhibition, I hope you might spare a moment to take a much, much closer look at the next gift from Mother Nature as it crosses your path.

Ornithogalum umbellatum. Pencil drawing

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’

Spring in Benjamin Britten’s garden

The Red House on the outskirts of Aldeburgh in Suffolk was the home of Benjamin Britten from 1957 to 1976.

The Red House from the croquet lawn.
The Red House through some budding mahonia.

Britten shared this extended, late-seventeenth century farmhouse with his partner, the tenor, Peter Pears, until Britten’s death in 1976.

The Composition Studio with first floor window giving views across the orchard.

Many of Britten’s world famous operas and music pieces were composed working in his first floor composition studio. Once when giving a talk he said

At the moment in my studio where I work in Aldeburgh . . . there’s a blackbird making a nest just outside my window and I’m very interested to know whether she’s sitting on her eggs when I should be working.

Benjamin Britten, 1963.
Viburnum, mahonia and ornamental flowering currant are planted along the garden wall of the Red House.

When I visited the garden earlier this week it was full of floral potential and already the gorgeous scent of an early flowering viburnum was wafting across the path on the way to the archive building.

There were buds and tightly furled leaves just waiting to burst given a couple days of sunshine.

The orchard has some old apple trees supporting mistletoe and a variety of new fruit trees that were added in 2008 as the garden was rejuvenated and recreated following the 1950s layout. The orchard has been underplanted with daffodils and pale yellow primulas and hellebores are growing beneath the surrounding hedging.

Receipts discovered in the extensive Britten-Pears Foundation Archive show that in 1958 Benjamin Britten ordered 63 fruit trees, 76 roses and two dozen blackcurrant bushes from Notcutts, the local nursery in Woodbridge.

It was a gentle, pleasant English garden and will be worth another visit later in the gardening year.