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.

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.

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.

Sunflowers

sunflowers1There is something perennially charming about a jug of fading sunflowers. You can see why Vincent Van Gogh was so taken with them. Famously, he painted sunflowers many times including the seven ‘Sunflowers’ canvasses which were ‘nothing but sunflowers’.Sunflowers-detailOf the original seven sunflower paintings, five are now in museums around the world, one was destroyed in a fire during World War Two and one, amazingly, is still in a private collection. These paintings have been frequently reproduced and used to decorate all kinds of merchandise. I recently spotted these Vans on the Internet.Van-Gogh-Sunflowers-VansWhen I was younger I had a small print of this version below.

Van-Gogh-1888-Tyson-Philadelphia
‘Sunflowers’, Vincent Van Gogh. Arles 1888/1889. Oil on canvas. 92 × 72.5 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, United States.

I copied these exuberant flowers onto a couple of metres of silk which I made into a top.

Nile-1992During the intervening 25 years, I, as well as the top have faded a wee bit, but here’s me earlier this year during the heatwave caught on camera mixing up some dyes wearing my old sunflower silk. It may have been very hot in Ipswich this summer, but nowhere the 45 degrees we had experienced in Egypt.

Me-working

Autumn Sunflowers – Late Arrivals at the Ball

helianthus annuusIt has been a very mild autumnal day here in East Anglia with the thermometer on my sheltered terrace reading 22°C (72°F) at lunchtime. This mild spell has saved my sunflowers (they were planted out too late – my fault, I forgot them) and they are only now just in full bloom. But what inspiration? We can all see why a certain amazing Dutchman worked so hard to capture their intense yet fleeting vibrancy.

I lived in Holland for a short while and when friends and relatives came to stay I used to love to take them to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was so inspired I even had a go at copying his sunflowers and made a summer top from the finished silk.

van gogh sunflowers
Sunflowers, Arles, 1888 – Van Gogh
Caroll S Tyson Collection, Philadelphia

Recently, I found the old top in a box in the loft and was struck by the change in my own style of working. But, I was also reminded of the admiration I had felt for Van Gogh as when you settle to copy a great work of art, even in a very small insignificant way, you notice more of the choices the master has made in creating the original work. Copying is a valuable tool for teaching.

It is not just the colour that is striking as even the sunflower’s outline is unmistakable.

sunflower shadow