Six on Saturday: 25.7.20-Anatomy of a photo

This week I have been aiming for a few decent photos in the garden. There are a few photo competition deadlines coming up including the Countryfile calendar competition. Going off previous years where the ‘wildlife’ has been faked in home-built studios I probably don’t stand much of a chance. But the theme this year is ‘bright and beautiful’ and I have an idea of a photo I wanted. The rules have been changed a bit for this year in that people can enter wildlife photos taken closer to home as we’ve been on lockdown rather than the countryside. So I wanted to try and get a photo of the wildlife in my garden that has brought me comfort during lockdown.

1. The aim

I have been wanting to get a decent photo of the bees on this allium. The allium was randomly placed in Alice’s fairy garden. It is growing out on in its own but the bees are loving it. It frequently has two or three bees on it.

Being out on its own it has the advantage of standing out dramatically on photos as I can angle photos to either have the bright green of the grass of the bright pink of the Hydrangea macrophylla. I knew the combination of a bee, the allium and a striking background could make for a stunning photo.

2. Initial attempts

My initial attempts were taken with my telephoto lens (Nikon-300mm) as the bees were a bit skittish when I got too close and they weren’t settling for long. I can focus this lens quickly for the quick movements of the bees and take shots from a little distance. The results were ok but using such a long lens limited my freedom to compose the shot with the background as I can’t gain the height to get the background how I wanted it. It also lacks the detail I felt I could get on the bees.

3. Lens change

I decided I’d try with the macro lens to get a higher level of detail on the bee.

It’s been a bit of a grey week so the photos are a bit muted. But, you can see the level of detail on the bee went up from the previous photo. However, it lacks the depth of field to have much of the allium in focus.

4. Flash

I’ve been hoping for brighter days, but as they haven’t happened I got the flash out. I don’t often bother with it as I mainly use my previously mentioned telephoto lens for taking pictures of the birds. The flash doesn’t make much difference at those distances. But for this close up work it stops me or the camera shading out the subject. It does add quite a bit of weight to the setup.

The best result with the flash.

5. Diffuser

The flash helps give the extra light to really show off the hairs of the bee but it places all the light in a focussed spot. So I had quite a few photos with the light bouncing back at me or spread unevenly. So I added the diffuser to the lens. This covers the flash and allows some light through but more evenly.

This got me some much better photos. With a little bit of digital editing to increase the colours a little bit more so they reflected the colours the bee and plant really are. I don’t generally edit my photos much after except cropping as I mainly just take photos to illustrate the blog but I was aiming for a particular result here. I was close to results I was happy with.

But they both had elements that were wrong. On this one, the allium is still out of focus. The bee’s positioning meant all of the bee was pretty much in focus though not the most exciting composition. But the bees aren’t that accommodating at poising.

On this one, the position was more dynamic but key elements around the face were out of focus.

6. Tripod

Over the week I’d seen that in the evening the bees become more sluggish and they stay on the allium for longer. I thought I’d try for a few more shots using the tripod to make up for my shakey hands. The camera weighs a lot by the time you add the lens and focussing with the macro is precise. So the tripod allows for less camera shake allowing for things like a slower shutter speed without the photo becoming blurry. With the tripod and flash, I was able to manage a photo with both the bee and allium in focus and the hydrangea background I was hoping for.

I’m unlikely to win as like I already said many of the winners have been staged photos within studios or certainly look that way. Then of the actual natural shots, there have been some far more stunning and technically better photos. Photos of mammals almost all win the public vote. People seem to be able to relate more and go for that ‘cute’ factor. But, I have enjoyed the process of trying for a better photo. If I do get a day with better natural light I’ll try for some more photos. I’ve probably got another few days before the allium goes over. But Amy is complaining that I am on infringing on her photo specialty of macro, so back to birds for me. Thank you if you’ve read this far and tolerated me writing a different six on Saturday again. If you fancy seeing more garden pics or taking part check the participant guide.

Find me on Twitter.

Find me on Instagram.

Six on Saturday: 18.7.20-Bees needs

This week is Bees Needs Week, organised by Bumblebee conservation. There are 5 simple guidelines to help.

  1. Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees.
  2. Let your garden grow wild.
  3. Cut your grass less often.
  4. Don’t disturb insect nest and hibernation spots.
  5. Think carefully about whether to use pesticides.

So, for this weeks six, I am looking at six bee favourites in the garden right now.

1. Hosta flowers

While not a flower people necessarily think of as a pollinator favourite the hostas have been constantly buzzing with bee activity. Great for adding that extra pollen source in the shade.

2. Passionflowers

The passionflowers are about as far from a native species as you can get in the UK. But the exotic blooms are loved by the bees.

3. Borage

Borage is probably one of the best flowers for bees currently. The nectaries supposedly refill in about a minute meaning they can be visited again and again. If you wanted a bee magnet for a limited space this would be it. I have both the blue and the white varieties growing and they are equally loved.

4. Hollyhocks

The hollyhocks are coming into flower. The leaves are covered in rust but they are blooming well. The hollyhocks are wonderful for the bees. They enter the large open flower and come out covered in pollen.

5. Single dahlias

While many of the double dahlias may look more spectacular I prefer the singles for the variety of pollinators that enjoy them. Last year these were enjoyed by bees, hoverflies and butterflies throughout the late summer. Here is the first one to open this year being enjoyed by a hoverfly.

And with a bee coming into land.

6. Marigolds

My mass of marigolds has seen many visitors with both honey and bumble bees coming to enjoy.

I am pleased with how many bees are coming in right now. The bumblebees are the most frequent but we are seeing some honey bees and a variety of solitary bees. It is good to know our efforts to provide for them are showing good results.

Find me on Twitter.

Find me on Instagram.

Six on Saturday: 11.7.20 soil science

I have been working on the next unit of my RHS Level 2 in Horticulture and I am currently looking at soil. So to gain a better understanding, I am looking at some of what I learnt to discuss my own garden. The hope being writing about it will cement some of the ideas in my head.

1. Soil type-Clay

My soil in both the front and back garden is clay. If you look at the geological map of my area my street is on a border area where it changes from sand to clay. But mine is definitely clay. You can dig it out and you can mould it into shapes. On the ribbon test, there is no doubt about what I’m working with.  The front is worse than the back but the back has been worked more since I moved in and had lots of homemade compost and other top dressings added. Clay soil is made up of fine particles. This makes it prone to waterlogging. It can be slow to warm up. Clay is usually high in nutrients, although sometimes these are in forms the plants can’t take in. When it is dry it is very difficult to dig as it dries like the bricks that are made out of it. By and large, I have followed Beth Chatto’s creed of ‘right plant, right place’. I have tried to plant things which suit my soil. I have tried plants in the past such as lavender which like a free draining soil by digging in lots of grit and sand. They survive but they don’t thrive so these have largely been removed to grow suitable plants. Plants such as hostas, astrantias and geraniums which are happy in these conditions.

2. Soil pH

I bought a soil probe to get an idea of my soil pH. I’ve tried it around the garden and my soil seems to be coming out around 5.5 placing it more on the acidic side of things. I don’t think it’s accurate though as this would mean my hydrangeas would come out blue and they come out pink. But it is nice to know as most of the larger plants I have should be comfortable within a range of neutral to 5.5 with the exception of the lilac which seems happy enough.

3. Peat free

A lot of the advice on improving soil online and in books still refers to using peat to improve the structure. Using peat is highly damaging to our environment. Peat is one of our best carbon stores so destroying peatland potentially increases climate change. So all my plants grown from seed, potted on and planted up in pots are grown in peat-free compost. I have used two main brands this year. Miracle-gro peat-free has been more readily available again and has been excellent. It has been selling outside Tesco recently which is good to see supermarkets starting to offer peat-free. It would be nice to know the plants they are selling are also peat-free The rate of germination for seeds has been great and plants in pots have grown well.

The second brand I use is Dalefoot composts. They offer compost for specific purposes growing seeds, veg, tomatoes and clay busting. The wool compost has been particularly good for the pots as it holds water well. If you look back on last weeks six you can see some dahlias thriving in it.

4. Clay buster

My front garden soil is compacted clay. When I first started the process of renovating it I had lakes forming in one corner each time it rained and the rate of drainage was incredibly poor. I do want a pond but not one that close to the front door. To improve the situation I did drill a number of holes that were filled with rubble and sand to create drainage spots. In the past, people would have double digged it in. The RHS course does go into the details of how to dig your two trenches, turn the soil, add more organic matter and fill your trenches but this is back-breaking work and evidence suggests it isn’t necessary apart from in the most severely compacted areas. By adding organic matter on the top the worms and other life in the soil will help take it in naturally. I added a top dressing in spring and it has helped. Adding in mulch in this way seems contradictory in some ways as adding a mulch improves water retention but also helps soil structure improving drainage. But the plants here seem to be growing happily and the ground does seem to stay moist now but not waterlogged. The true test will be autumn when we potentially get weeks of rain.

One of the best solutions I’ve found for the clay is adding Dalefoot’s clay buster. This is made from composted bracken. It helps improve the soil structure while also helping release the nutrients in the clay. In theory, a dressing like this only needs applying every other year but this was heavily compressed under gravel and weed matting for a decade or more so it is in need of a bit more work.

I had also left a bit of a dip having dug the dogwood out last week to replace with the Sambucus so I have used some of this to top-dress to feed the new growth and bring the soil level back up. When planting shrubs I normally avoid using compost in the planting hole as this can discourage the plant from rooting properly. If the plant is sat in nutrient rick soil it won’t bother to grow out so I tried to make sure it was sat in the existing soil and then used the fresh compost around the plant to encourage the roots to spread.

5. Ericaceous compost

While I have generally planted plants that suit my soil and conditions, there are some plants I like that don’t suit my conditions. I particularly like Acers though they don’t suit my conditions perfectly. While they are fine with the clay soil unless it is completely waterlogged and they are ok with the pH of my soil which seems to be slightly acidic they don’t like the winds much. For this reason, I have a number in pots where they can be moved to more sheltered positions than I can allow in my borders. Acers prefer more acidic soil so by growing them in a pot I can give them ericaceous compost to give them the most suitable conditions. This is my first time using Dalefoot’s ericaceous. It is made from sheep’s wool and bracken. This is supposed to contain a good level of nutrients suited to Acers as well as having the moisture retention they need. The pot is glazed. This makes it less breathable than a plain terracotta pot which lose more water from the sides. This should help with the water retention to help with the water loss from the sea winds.

6. Sequestered iron

I have had a number of acid-loving plants that have suffered from yellowing leaves, particularly those in pots. I believe this may be down to chlorosis, a lack of iron. This can be caused by a number of factors such as poor drainage or that the nutrients are in the soil but in a form the plants can’t access. In my case with my clay soil, I think poor drainage and possibly overwatering may be to blame. It has been so windy recently I have been watering to try to prevent the scorched leaves and crisped edges. To try to rectify the problem I have given the plants a liquid feed with sequestered iron to try to get the darker foliage back. The bottle suggests a feed every 2 weeks during the growing season so I’ll see how these are doing in two weeks.

I’ve just about finished the assignment for this part of the unit. I just have my plant profiles to work on over next week. So I’ll be looking at another 14 plants in-depth. My plant knowledge is increasing rapidly. I need to cover a variety of plants. So far I haven’t done enough annuals of roses so may need to look at more of them.

Find me on Twitter.

Find me on Instagram.

Six on Saturday: 4.7.20

It’s been a wet, grey week here on the North East Coast. I’ve not needed to do much watering all week, which is nice but it’s been too wet to do many other jobs. I’m working through clearing one corner of the garden ready for a second shed. Alice is reaching the age where she has lots of outdoor bits that need storage. So the second shed is just going to be a small one for some of her bits. The lilac has had a good prune this week and a few other things need pruning now they’ve flowered. I had some good news earlier in the week. We had entered a competition for Grow Your Own for Welfare Week and we heard back to say we have won £500 worth of vouchers for woodblocx. I think we’re going to use it for a bench with a planter built-in.

1. Sweet peas

I didn’t grow sweet peas last year as I was limited for seed growing with building work and I regretted it through the summer seeing everyone else’s photos. I got two types on the go back in February. One was a Johnson’s mixed bag, the others were air warden. They are a bit of a mess growing up the obelisk but lots of blooms are coming.

I’ve been able to start cutting for small vases inside.

2. Sutton’s Dwarf Broad Beans

The broad beans are coming along well in the veg patch and I should be able to start harvesting. They’ve been an easy grow with minimal fuss.

3. Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’

I’ve dug out a dogwood that hasn’t been doing much for a while. It didn’t quite fit with what was going on around it and the stems weren’t the most exciting for the winter interest they can give. To replace it I have got a Sambucus Racemosa. Bought from my local peat-free supplier it’s a bargain as they offer free delivery so I was able to restock on Dalefoot compost as well. I have a Sambucus nigra opposite and it has grown well. They offer nice foliage, pretty flowers and they are tolerant of my sea winds. This is going to be going between two Acers, ‘Osakazuki and ‘going green‘ and I think the colour will look good amongst the other two. It’s only small currently but they shoot up fast. I’m going to be planting up the undergrowth with some of the patio pots to clear it ready for the builders. So it will probably end up with a few hostas and heuchera surrounding it. Large rounded foliage to contrast against its jagged leaves.

4. Dahlia-charity purchase

This dahlia was for sale in a charity box outside someone’s house round the corner. It was labelled as pink dec. I don’t know any by that name but it’s a very nice vibrant colour.

The flowers seem to be more of a double variety without the open centre for wildlife like my favoured bishops but it is looking pretty on the patio where we can see it out of the window.

5. Fuschia-Trudi Davro

I took cuttings of this Fuschia a few months back. The parent plant suffered during drought but this one has gone onto flower quite happily. It’s a trailing Fuschia designed for hanging baskets or for the edge of large pots. I haven’t got anywhere in mind for it right now but it’s looking nice currently.

6. Hydrangea runaway bride

I’ve moved my two runaway brides into the pots either side of the front door. They were in pots on the patio but as mentioned the patio needs clearing ready for builders. The plants in these were looking a bit tired so I’ve moved the hydrangeas in. I reckon I’ll probably only be able to grow them on in these for a year or two but it’s a pretty addition to the step.

Unlike other hydrangeas, these were bred to flower along the stems so they can produce more flowers that many varieties.

Lots of work to get on with around the borders. The area the Sambucus is going into needs some work. The climbing roses need a bit of training in. They’ve flowered beautifully this year but need a bit of training to ensure they do again next year. I’m going to be trying to get the garden in order as much as I can before the builders return to minimise damage.

Find me on Twitter.

Find me on Instagram.

Propagating heuchera

I had posted on Twitter to say my heuchera cuttings were coming along well and  I was asked how I had grown them. I started these a few months back and they are starting to root. Heuchera are super foliage plants and make up a good part of the permanent foliage tapestry in my front garden. The leaves are usually evergreen and normally manage to stay looking good through winter. They work well in pots on their own or as part of pot displays. However, after a few years, they can get a bit woody and leggy so it is useful to keep a supply on the way as it can be costly to replace some varieties. Heuchera are also vulnerable to vine weevil. So if your plants are attacked it can be a way to provide insurance for their survival.

1. Propagate by division

The easiest way has to be by division. If you have a nice big clump that has been growing a few years you can dig around it and lever it out. Then slice the root ball into several parts. I favour doing this in spring so the divided plants have time to put down roots before the next winter. Once you’ve dug out a section you can either dig the divided parts back in around the border or grow them on in pots. Either way, I aim to keep the root ball slightly above the soil surface to avoid rotting. I generally divide leaving a big section in the space it came out of and then pot up the smaller sections in pots. This way I can make sure they remain moist while they put on roots. I like to water in trays so the soil gets to soak up the water but without getting waterlogged. This is probably one of the easiest and most reliable methods for dividing but you will only get a few extra plants a year. So it is quite slow. For most people, this won’t be an issue as you probably only want a small number of extra or ones to replace leggy ones.

I divided this heuchera marmalade in early spring. It had claimed a good section of the border and I wanted to clear the space for another plant. Rather than waste it, I divided it leaving a section of the heuchera in the border.

Then the divided section has been grown in a pot where I can keep an eye on it to ensure it isn’t drying out while it forms roots.

2. Propagate by seed

If you are looking for a mass of heuchera you can grow from seed. You can get hold of seed either by collecting seed from your plants or you can buy seed. If you collect seed they generally won’t come true from seed, so the offspring may not look like the parent. Palace purple is one of the exceptions that I have found self-seeds from time to time. If you want to buy seeds Chiltern Seeds offer a few varieties in several colours and I’ve generally found reliable. To grow the seed they need a free-draining seed mix. The seeds themselves just need to go on the surface, a light watering and then a tray lid on. They normally take around 10 days to germinate. If they don’t you can place them into a colder space for 4-6 weeks before returning to warmth. While it may take a year or so to get plants up to size this gives you the option to grow a large number of plants. However, there isn’t the selection of buying from a nursery.

3. Propagate by cuttings

I have been growing my heuchera cuttings in a really useful box. I mixed a compost using a peat-free multipurpose, a little bit of grit, and some perlite to help water retention. The compost mix goes in the bottom of the tub and the lid seals in the moisture. I watered before taking cuttings so the cuttings were going into moist but not waterlogged compost. I took cuttings in spring. Some sources recommend autumn after flowering. However, I prefer spring as the cuttings then have the warmer period of the year to put on roots. I only take cuttings from plants that have plenty of growth on that can spare a few stems. I take cuttings from the younger growth choosing smaller leaves. These won’t lose as much water and the juvenile growth seems to root better. I make holes in the compost mix with a small skewer. The cuttings are dipped into rooting powder and then placed into the holes. I try to position them almost on the soil. Leaving just a small gap so they aren’t resting on the compost to avoid rotting. The box lid can go on and then the box needs to go somewhere shaded. This went under my plant display table and has been left there for a few months. Every so often I’ve lifted the lid just to check they are ok and removed the ones which have shrivelled. The majority of the cuttings seem to have taken and I can see roots three months on. These will be grown on until I can either see they have a decent root structure or that they are putting on new growth.

I hope that’s helpful to those of you who asked. Heuchera are great foliage plants. As I said already, they are great for pots and for winter interest. They work well in shade and are great for wildlife. There is lots to like about them and they come in a whole kaleidoscope of colours. If you are looking to buy some I would wholeheartedly recommend Plantsagogo. Vicky and Richard offer an amazing range and they hold the National Collections for heuchera, heucheralla and tiarellas. An impressive feat for a very wide-ranging species. And they are always very helpful in offering advice. They are very useful plants and I wouldn’t want to be without them.

Find me on Twitter.

Find me on Instagram.