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.

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.

Lady Drury’s Melancholy Pines

Of all the 61 painted panels that originally covered the wall of Lady Drury’s closet at Hawstead House, only one panel was painted without an emblem or a motto. This ’empty’ panel, consisting of a hilly background and two Scots pines, offers a melancholy scene.

The Reverend Sir John Cullum did not discuss this particular panel at all in his eighteenth-century account. Perhaps he simply considered it an unfinished section. However, the twenty-first century scholar, H L Meakin, suggests the ‘blank’ panel may have been deliberately left empty to encourage spontaneous meditation.

It is also possible to read the two, stark, thin pine trees as visual metaphors for Lady Drury and her husband. They’re standing mature, living apart from each other within a dark and hilly landscape. After all they had existed in a world of challenges and grief following the loss of their young daughters.

Bottom panels painted with herbs and flowers.

More generally, in her summary of Lady Drury’s closet, Meakin offers ideas from Seneca and Montaigne as well as current research considering the lives of early modern women. She suggests there was not a simple division between the public and private spheres, and proposes this tiny, private room offered a space to both think about as well as retreat from the wider world.

Despite the gloomy appearance of the ‘pines’ panel, I find the silhouetted trees make a compelling composition.

Scarlet pimpernel and wild pansy

And, I also admire the painted herb and flower decorative panels displayed at the bottom of the panel collection.

Deadly nightshade and dandelion

These panels show bugle, corn marigold, speedwell, dandelion, deadly nightshade, honeysuckle, scarlet pimpernel, wild pansy and a wild strawberry plant.

Wild strawberry
Bird’s eye speedwell, corn marigold, bugle
Honeysuckle

Overall, the panelled room is both intriguing and inspirational. So inspirational I decided to paint a series of neckerchiefs using the two pines, the scarlet pimpernel and the corn marigold. Here’s the first of the series showing how the scarlet pimpernel rapidly morphed into a larger, less delicate flower to balance the composition.

Painting finished and now ready for steaming.

Come on more spring flowers please!

Last month we had strange weather. February had days feeling like spring and I saw people walking around in T-shirts! In climate terms a week of warm weather in February is disturbing.

However, March, so far, is turning out to be more like a usual March. It has been very, very windy, but that hasn’t affected these British grown tulips. They come from some of the extensive glass houses in Lincolnshire. Growing under glass has enabled British tulip growers to compete with imports from overseas and there are no air or sea miles. Growing under the protection of glass also lengthens the season for growing all kinds of cut flowers. Have you noticed how stocks (Matthiola incana) have joined the buckets of roses and lilies commonly available? However, for us domestic gardeners in East Anglia it will be another month before even the tulips are blooming in full force.

This bunch of tulips lasted well over a week before fading away.

This year I resisted the temptation to plant seeds in February. I am holding my nerve even with the indoor sowings. I am trying to avoid weak, leggy seedlings as I don’t have a greenhouse to provide consistent good daylight.

It is early days in the ‘new’ old backyard and too dreary to photograph with piles of rubble left behind by previous owners. Although it is a small space, it’s going to be a long old haul to sort out, but some pots of pelargoniums and dahlias, and a mini swathe of hardy annuals should at least add some colour for this summer.

Looking forward to having bunches of cosmos and dahlias – hopefully.

Expecting the best, I have already had a poke around in the pots of the overwintered dahlias and, fingers crossed, so far they’ve come through the winter. From now on I just have to watch out for early slug damage to the tender new shoots.

At last I have a rough plan, you could, at a stretch, call it a design for the backyard. It has been just over a year since I moved in and I have been observing the sunlight and shade patterns and I can see I have my work cutout to achieve any kind of flower garden. Disappointingly, there’s more shade than I had expected, not least from the enormous eucalyptus tree three gardens down.

It is a long-established tree and is easily 10 feet or so taller than the surrounding three-storey houses. As I write, its upper branches are violently whipping around, bending this way and that in the strong winds. It is really quite inappropriate for a Victorian terrace backyard and it overhangs six gardens. I am guessing it was originally planted to screen out the neighbours at the bottom of the garden and has just been left to grow and grow by a series of non-gardening homeowners.

Finishing on a more optimistic note I am looking forward to more of this

and many more of these!

My daylily potted up in Norwich, transported and transplanted and forming a healthy, vibrant clump with shoots already over three inches tall.

At last a few blooms

Sweet-peas-dahlias-1As we are almost into September the temperatures have finally dropped enough for my sweet peas to bloom. They were an impulse purchase, reduced to clear at the DIY superstore when I was buying yet more paint. In all honesty they were planted too late, in too small pots and then were unfortunately hit with the heatwave we experienced this summer.

Mantlepiece-basementApparently, high temperatures cause sweet peas to pause their flower production, they prefer cool nights and cool days, so that would be a normal English summer! But finally, yes, they are blooming.

Sweet-peasAnother impulse purchase of desperation back in May were some random dahlia tubers. They too have eventually begun to bloom displaying ‘surprise’ colours mostly neither colour combinations nor shades I would choose if picking from a dahlia catalogue.

The very dark red ones are fine and can stay, but I have been busy in the backyard ticketing the rest, yellow, messy yellows and muddled pinks as ones for the compost at the end of the season. Somehow they just made the dreary backyard (not even a work in progress as yet) look even more of a dump. However, when I chopped off all the flowers and brought them in (any flowers indoors are better than no flowers at all) I was genuinely surprised that they made a passable arrangement.

Dark-red-dahliasNow I have the dilemma of whether to keep them or not. Mmm, actually that will be probably not. If I had more space or an allotment where I could grow flowers just for cutting I would, but in such a small backyard all plants will have to work hard for their space and fit into my overall scheme.

Yellow-dahlias-bunchOh yes, there will be an overall scheme, but, deep sigh, it is all going to have to wait at least another year.

 

 

 

Where are the flowers?

Garden-poseyWhere are the flowers? Well, certainly not in my backyard. Disappointingly, this is the second summer for me in my 20 plus years of gardening that I have not had a patch of earth yielding some floral delights. The fencing was only erected last week so at least now I can begin to see ‘defined space’ (or lack of it) to plan some planting. As a stop gap I have stuck a few pelargonium and sweet pea plugs into pots, but they went in rather late and show no signs of blooming yet.

Feeling flower starved I trotted down to the local florist. I think like many small businesses old fashioned florists have had their casual, walk-in trade almost obliterated by the big supermarkets undercutting them. It seems to have left florists with the traditional wedding and funeral business plus the odd corporate event. The consequence of this change in retail habits has resulted in some florists, understandably, reducing the range of flowers being stocked in their shops. I was disappointed with what was on offer especially considering that we are in high summer. Dispiritingly this is the best I could manage

florist-flowers.jpgand the arrangement includes stealing a blousy hydrangea bloom from the single surviving shrub at the front of the house.

The local park has offered more treats for the florally deprived with swathes of English lavender contrasting with clumps of achillea.Park-lavenderAnd, last month there were field poppies blooming cheerfully in the unexpected heatwave.Hairy-stemsHowever, back home it was a disappointing and scentless flower situation until a visiting friend came to the rescue with a gorgeous scented posey of flowers from her garden.Sweet-Peas-daisiesSweet peas and cheerful daisies. I really don’t think you can beat homegrown flowers. In this case there are no air miles, very few road miles and no excessive irrigation and/or glasshouse heating costs. There is just a delicate, visual treat and an intoxicating, seasonal scent filling my workroom.Cheerful-daisies

The Romantic Rose for Valentine’s

Romantic-rosesWhen folk consider flowers for Valentine’s Day, the perennial favourite is the red rose. I think there is something intensely romantic about a single, velvety, dark red rose, but if I were to be receiving a bouquet of roses, I think I would prefer pink roses.Romantic-roses-2The bonus with giving or receiving roses is many are fragrant too, with most of the old fashioned varieties perfuming a whole room with their beautiful, rich scent.

Of course, as you may have already guessed, I don’t just love old fashioned pink roses, but pink blooms in general and find them a great source of inspiration for my flowery silk scarf designs. And with that in mind, here’s a jug of last summer’s dahlias providing just such stimulus!