Plant of the month – July 2016 – White lavender

Order:Lamiales Family:Lamiaceae Subfamily:Nepetoideae Genus:Lavandula
Type: Hardy to tender, annual to perennial herbaceous plants or small shrubs
Propagation: Cuttings or Seed (won’t come true in hybrids)
Native to: Mediterranean Europe, Middle East and India

Every year I have a new craze for my garden, a plant I never noticed before or didn’t use to like, which suddenly becomes an essential part of my big plan. Last year it was Sedums, the year before that it was passionflowers, and before that all sorts of Buddlejas in different shades of deep purples. These come and go on a backdrop of all times favourites such as Hydrangeas, roses and the lovely Verbena bonariensis.
This year is the year of the lavender. Probably influenced by my recent holiday in Ardèche, where the vast and lush garden was full of thriving lavender plants that attracted more insects of all varieties than all the other plants. I realised that lavender is beautiful, resilient, low-maintenance, can go a long time in the sun without need of watering and to state the obvious it really does smell lovely.
Like most gardeners I have had lavenders hanging around in the garden for as long as I can remember. However, I have no idea what their second names are and even when buying them myself, I picked randomly without realising the wide range of colours or forms that were available.
I don’t even remember buying the white lavender I chose for this July “plant of the month”. Surprisingly, it has a prominent place, in a border by the patio, next to the path, so the smell flutters up in exquisite waves when we walk by and brush our legs against the flowers. The perfume is strong and spreads easily but it is less medicinal, more floral than the purple lavenders I am used to. Unfortunately, because I haven’t been paying attention, I do not know the exact name of my white lavender. I expect that because I got it from a garden centre, it is probably one of the most common white, ‘Arctic Snow’ or perhaps ‘Alba’.

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Now that my interest is piqued, I am looking online to see what specialist nurseries are offering. I am finding some real beauties! I restrained myself so far and ordered just 4 varieties for now, to see how they will do in my garden. In a couple of days I am even going to visit a lavender farm somewhere around Alton.
In the meanwhile, I shall follow the advice I gathered online while looking up “lavenders” and harvest the seed heads in September to fill sachets for the lingerie drawers and the linen cupboard…

Happy gardening!

Somebody else likes having white lavender in the garden...

Somebody else likes having white lavender in the garden…

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What DID happen to the Fabriano Artistico paper?

On the 12th of July there was an intriguing meeting at the top of a spiral staircase, at the R.K. Burt (paper suppliers) warehouse in London: a handful of botanical artists, the boss Mr Burt himself, as well as Giuseppe and Chiara, marketing directors from the Fabriano mill.

The aim of the meeting was for the artists to voice their concerns about the latest batches of Fabriano Artistico: it seemed that our beloved paper had changed, getting more unpredictable, rendering duller colours and generally messing up our washes. Botanical artists are a notoriously picky bunch, but when so many agreed that something was wrong with the paper, the Fabriano managers decided to act, with the help of Mr Burt and art blogger Katherine Tyrrell. I must say that I hadn’t been affected by this plight as much as some others, because Fabriano is not the only paper I use, so I am still working on old, trouble-free stocks.

The meeting

The morning was dedicated to an exposé on paper making by Clifford Burt. It was fascinating – that is a Mr Spock level of fascinating. My inner geek was in seventh heaven as we were shown slides of 19th century machines Brunel would have been proud of and the whole process was explained to us in detail. Extremely large cylinders, cast iron wheels, massive levers and gears, steam and dials, it was all there.

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The 1850’s machines that are used to make the mould-made paper are also used to make bank note paper. As this is done on tender and renewed on a regular basis, the process has to be extremely efficient in order to stay competitive. Giuseppe finished the morning meeting by explaining the changes that were made to the machines recently: in order to facilitate the insertion of plastic strips in the security papers, a device was added to the machines at the beginning of the paper making process. It seems that this has upset the fragile balance of the robust yet delicate machine’s internal workings and they are now regurgitating an altered paper, deemed inferior by the old Fabriano Artistico fans.

Blind test

After a light lunch, we proceeded to a blind test of anonymous papers, coded for identification by the organisers. When Mr Flora’s Patch saw the photos, he laughed at me, saying I looked “dangerously excited”. This is pretty much exactly what I was. The blind test was tremendous fun and as it turns out was also worthwhile and productive. Chiara and Giuseppe were worried that we would all find different results, especially as we were working in different media. Going around the table, Ann Swan, Morryce Maddams and Katherine Tyrrell were working in coloured pencil; Polly O’Leary, Elaine Searle, Dianne Sutherland, Gael Sellwood, Sandra Armitage and Billy Showell and I were painting in watercolour.

We tested the papers from different brands and different batches for resilience, ease of lifting, colour saturation, behaviour of washes and glazes as well as reaction to different techniques.

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The results

I was actually surprised at how consistent the results were: we all identified our favourite as the old Fabriano Artistico Hot Pressed. We also all had problems with the more recent batches. This was exactly what Chiara and Giuseppe wanted: a clear description, illustrated with our painted swatches and notes – which they took away back to the factory- giving them a much better idea of what has changed and what they are aiming for with their modifications. As they described it, their job is now to reverse engineer a paper that will be back to the pre-2014 standards. They gave me the impression that they truly cared about this and that they would work on it until they can give us our old favourite paper back, which I trust they will. A quick tip on the 2016 batch: I tried painting on the back and it gave me much better results than painting on the top. So while we wait for the 2017 batch, this might be a way to alleviate our predicament.

My thanks again to the organisers of this enlightening day, to Clifford for hosting the event, to Chiara and Giuseppe for listening to us and to the other guests for the good company.

Happy painting!

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Lazy like a Sunday morning

I know that it’s not the exact title of the song (sorry Lionel), but it is how it feels this morning… I love a lazy, sunny summer Sunday morning breakfast in the garden.

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This 31st of July 2016 is a perfect morning on the South coast of England.

The sky is a flawless intense cobalt blue, and at 10am the sun is not yet strong enough to burn but just enough to warm your skin. There is a gentle breeze swaying the Verbena and scabious but leaving the roses and Hydrangeas as still as in a photograph. The lavenders and scabious are buzzing with all sorts of insects and multicoloured butterflies, all excited at the freshly opened flowers.

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Even the birds look lazy this morning. They perch on the feeder but spend more time looking around, having less than usual frantic conversations while occasionally pecking a seed, more often than not dropping it on the head of the grounded pigeon.

I treasure these fleeting peaceful moments, when you indulge in the beauty of your surroundings and take time to appreciate nature, even domesticated as it is in a suburban garden, in all its exquisiteness and magnificence. It brings to the front the good things in your life, forgetting for an instant the sad and painful times we all have scattered through our existence, as well as the terrible current state of the human world.

This morning my world stops at the garden’s walls and it’s full of sun, filled with a thousand flowers, humming with bumblebees and fluttering with a dozen butterflies, turquoise dragonflies, a few sleepy sparrows, a cooing dove and my dad’s homemade jam.

My little paradise on Earth for a few hours…

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Which is the best eraser?

I often get questions that start with “This is a stupid question but…” or “This may sound stupid…”

Stupid questions are the essential ones; the questions people are worried about asking because they think everyone else knows the answer. But they don’t! And they really wish they did, so don’t be afraid to ask…

Our second question – asked by Bing Aling on my YouTube channel- is about erasing, an all important part of drawing:

Which is the best rubber to use?

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A collective pile of erasers from my holidays in Ardèche

I have several rubbers for different purposes, but the one thing they have in common is that none of them are made of rubber. A rubber rubber can smudge a lot and make the paper irretrievably dirty. A plastic rubber on the other hand, erases smudges well and leaves the paper clean. However, if used too much or too hard, it can damage the paper. This is where the putty comes in. A putty rubber is much softer than a normal one, but doesn’t erase strong marks.

Here is my platoon of erasers:

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  • Plastic rubber (PVC and phthalates free): for larger areas and stronger marks. Be gentle with it to avoid damaging the paper
  • Tombow Mono Zero: still a plastic rubber, and still PVC free, this allows for tiny marks, such as lifting highlights or even some veins
  • Putty rubber: a lot softer than the others, this is good for large areas of soft marks, including brushing lightly on top of a painting to erase pencil lines, as demonstrated at the beginning of this video on my Flora’s Patch YouTube channel:

There are several types of putty rubbers, with different degrees of softness. I like the Maped grey, very soft and gentle. It does get messy on a hot summer day so keep the plastic wrapper to avoid melting squidgy mess under the fingernails.

Keep the questions coming; I will answer them, whether directly or with a blog post or video.

Happy painting!

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Plant of the month – June 2016 – Rosa ‘Jasmina’

Order: Rosales       Family: Rosaceae     Subfamily: Rosoideae

Genus: Rosa          Type: Perennial        Propagation: Seed, plant propagation, cuttings, grafting

Native to: Mostly Asia, some Europe and North America

This rose is a spectacular rambler with such vivacity that I have to hack through it after the first flowering in order to stop it from invading the whole garden. She happily climbs up and runs along the wall, over the patio screen and flowing onto the trellis, shadowing the pavement on the other side. I can see that she is now making her way towards the arch, cunningly overtaking the passionflower, the honeysuckle and the Rosa ‘Calypso’.

The first flowering didn’t last very long this year because the rain spoiled the tightly wound flower. Once the water gets in, the flowers get heavy, droop and then rot quite quickly.

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There are many reasons for my liking this rose so much: the pale, delicate pink blush is the very picture of an English rose; the profusion of luminous blooms brightens up the patio, even in the shade; the sweet perfume is dizzying; the flowering goes on all summer, as long as I deadhead regularly and trim the long shooting arches; the sparrows love to play hide and seek in the tight foliage, feeling protected by the thorns and the intricate network of branches.

I also like the fact that it overflows over the garden wall. Sometimes as I walk to my car, I see people walking by on the pavement stop and stand on tiptoes to smell the blooms. I have even seen some of them cut a stem and take it away. I don’t mind… I like to share the beauty of Jasmina and it saves me some work when pruning time comes.

So if you are looking for a rambler with strong stems and an abundance of flowers, I would definitely recommend Rosa ‘Jasmina’. May she give you happiness for years to come.

Happy gardening!

Article in Artists & Illustrators

I have an article in the Artists & Illustrators magazine summer edition.

The article is what they call a “masterclass” and the subject is a sunflower. Here is a preview of the first 2 pages:

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Happy reading!

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A list of slug-proof plants

As my garden is completely organic, slug pellets are prohibited. The organic status makes sure we have plenty of birds and lots of happy bees, but we also have a healthy population of snails and slugs. We also heard from the Hampshire Wildlife Trust that hedgehogs are dying by the thousands, killed by second-hand poisoning, after eating poisoned slugs and snails. The consequences are dire: apart from the tragic all time low in hedgehog numbers, this in turn causes a proliferation of gastropods.

Because we don’t like to kill things, even ugly squishy slimy slugs, death traps are not an option either in the Flora’s Patch garden.

As for snails, I actually quite like them, especially the small stripy ones.

The only way left is to plant things they find disgusting or too hairy or spiky for them to climb on. Over the years, the strategy seems to have paid off. The population has naturally been reduced by the lack of delectable food supplies. However, in this year of 2016, slugs seem to be doing particularly well, with a democratic surge that seems to defy the laws of nature.

Fortunately, there are plenty of plants that the snails and slugs will not eat, enough to make a beautiful, nature friendly garden.

Here is a list of plants I have successfully grown so far (I will update each time I find something new):

Agapanthus

Allium

Aquilegia

Bergenia

Buttercups

Daisies

Erigeron

Eryngium

Erysimum

Euphorbia

Ferns

Forget-me-not

Fuchsia

Geranium

Grasses (the ones I tried anyway…)

Honeysuckle

Hydrangea

Japanese Anemones

Hellebores

Jasmine

Lavender

Lilac

Mallow

Paeonies

Passion flowers

Pelargonium

Penstemon

Poppies

Roses (Thank goodness, a walled garden without roses is like a kiss without a moustache- that’s a French saying, I’m not sure how well it translates…)

Scabious

Verbena bonariensis

Veronica

Wild primrose

Wild strawberries

Wild violets

If you are a Hosta collector, it might be a problem…

Please feel free to use the comments if you know plants that can be added to this list.

Back to hedgehogs: we have a walled garden, so no hedgehog can find his way in. We are looking to kidnap one from somewhere but no opportunity has so far arisen.

HEDGEHOG APPEAL: if you know a hedgehog in need of a home, please let us know. The garden is walled all around and completely safe and there is plenty to eat. They might have to fend off the odd attempt at stroking or cuddling or being fussed at, but they are spikily well equipped against this kind of things. Thank you…

In the meanwhile, if you haven’t already seen this, it’s worth having a look. If I do get a hedgehog, I will definitely try to feed him carrots:

YouTube link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn0flJnBXD0

 

Is there a right side to watercolour paper?

Stupid questions are the essential ones; the questions people are worried about asking because they think everyone else knows the answer… But you know what? They don’t! And they really wish they did too…

Our first question- thank you Beth- is about watercolour paper:

Is there a right side and wrong side to paint on?

The answer is… not as such. I like “Not as such” because it means “no” but kind of “yes” but not quite. The reason I am not-as-such-ing you is that both sides are paintable but they are different and the extent of the difference varies between brands.

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saunders spray

Two main criteria will determine the difference between the two sides of a watercolour paper sheet: texture and sizing.

  • Sizing: the size is the glue that is added to the paper to make it stronger and also less absorbent, so that you don’t feel like you are painting on blotting paper. Most papers are sized INTERNALLY, while the pulp is being made, and EXTERNALLY, after the paper roll is made and pressed.
  • Texture: the topside of the paper is called the felt side and the underside the mould side. The mould is made of wire, so its texture is more regular than the felt side. On some papers you can see the wire mesh pattern imprinted into the texture, on the underside.

If we consider the three main manufacturers of watercolour paper – St Cuthberts (Saunders Waterford) for the UK, Arches for France and Fabriano in Italy- their papers are sized internally and then they go through a bath to be sized externally, so both sides are coated equally. This means that as far as sizing is concerned, there is no difference between the two sides.

For the texture, the situation is not quite as straightforward…

Both sides are paintable but they look slightly different: because of the wire, the mould side has a regular mesh texture while the felt side has a random texture. Some artists prefer to paint on the topside and others prefer the underside. As for what the manufacturer intended, it depends on the brand. Saunders Waterford expects the painter to use the felt side but Arches and Fabriano favour the mould side.

cuthmill1To summarise, papers do have a topside and an underside but not really a right side or wrong side to paint on. The best way is the way you like best!

To finish with, this is where I am asking for your help: this series is interactive so please ask away! You can ask questions in the comments section of my YouTube Channel Flora’s Patch, or send me an email, or leave a comment on my blog or a message on my website by going to the contact page. Thank you and happy painting!

My thanks to Catherine Frood from St Cuthberts Mill and Clifford Burt from RK Burt for their help in my research.The photos are from St Cuthberts Mill.

There will be a follow up to this post, with two rather exciting events: in July, I am going to a meeting at RK Burt with the Fabriano envoy, to discuss how their new machines have affected their papers and to do a blind test of different papers. This should be very interesting. Then later this summer, I have been invited to visit St Cuthberts Mill, having a tour of the paper making factory, which I am also very much looking forward to.

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Pigment Spotlight- The non-granulating French Ultramarine aberration

When I heard that there was a new, Non-granulating French Ultramarine, my heart missed a beat. It definitely didn’t feel right.

I had that feeling you get when a long trusted and beloved friend does something so bad you didn’t even know they were capable of it.

My favourite blue had stopped behaving like it should and my understanding of pigments was being tested.

It reminded me of the story of the fox and the scorpion. A fox is about to swim across a river, when a scorpion asks: “Please can you help me? I need to get to the other side of the river but I can’t swim. Will you carry me on your back?” The fox is not too keen on the idea of carrying a lethal creature on his back. “How do I know you won’t sting and kill me?” “Well, it would be very stupid of me. If I sting you while you swim across the river, you will drown and I will die with you.” The argument seems irrefutable, so the fox agrees to help the scorpion. As they reach the middle of the river, the scorpion stings the fox. With his last breath, the fox asks: “Why did you do this? In a few seconds I shall be dead and you will die with me!” The scorpion answers simply: “I am so sorry, I couldn’t help myself, it is my nature…”

French Ultramarine granulates; it is its nature.

With some trepidation, I started my research into the so-called non-granulating French Ultramarine. Within a few minutes I was relieved.

Non-granulating French Ultramarine is NOT French Ultramarine at all. It is a mixture of Phthalo Blue (a very good non-granulating blue) and Dioxazine Violet, a controversial violet that has not performed well in lightfastness tests when used in watercolours.

The pigment French Ultramarine PB29 doesn’t even appear in the formulation. It couldn’t, because it would make it granulate! Granulation is its property, its quality, its raison de vivre. You can’t take that away from it. Like the scorpion who can’t help stinging the fox, French Ultramarine can’t help granulating. The extent of the granulation varies depending on the technique used, the paper’s texture and which other paints are mixed with it, but it never disappears. As French Ultramarine was invented as a substitute for the celestial Lapis Lazuli pigment- which itself granulates enthusiastically- it doesn’t really make sense to want the annihilation of the granulation process anyway.

Because PB29 is not part of this paint at all, it absolutely shouldn’t be called French Ultramarine. This is, at best, misleading. At worst, a dishonest market strategy to sell a new paint. It could be called French Ultramarine Hue, which is what manufacturers do when a paint is the colour of a particular pigment but doesn’t actually contain any of it. Even better, it should have a completely new name, without highjacking the fame and success of the long trusted – and bestselling- French Ultramarine.

I also object to the fact that this is a mix of two pigments, which is a step backwards compared to a single-pigment paint, especially as one of the two is unreliable.

If you want a non-granulating violet-biased blue, Phthalo Blue Red Shade (or Winsor Blue Red Shade for Winsor & Newton) is the best one. It is pure, not granulating at all, intense and lightfast. You can add a touch of Permanent Rose if you need your blue to be more on the violet side.

Don’t fall for the Non-granulating Non-French Ultramarine deception. It’s a chimera. Enjoy the liveliness of a beautiful, pure, genuine, granulating, PB29 true French Ultramarine.

Ratings:

Useful range of colours                   0/5

Sufficient lightfastness ratings      1/5

Level of saturation                           2/5

Irreplaceability                                 0/5

Total: 3/20

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The Birdbath Coup

“It will never work”       “They will completely ignore it”       “It will always be filthy”

That was Mr. Flora’s Patch’s verdict on the general usefulness of a birdbath. Eventually he gave in, probably because it was easier. On a sale day at the garden centre, I got my birds a bath and proudly installed it by the birch tree where the feeders hang. We filled it with water and sat in the patio, with an anticipatory stance that was probably enough to scare the birds away even if the new, unfamiliar structure wasn’t going to.

Within twenty minutes, 3 species of birds had tried their newly discovered, dedicated feature: the first one, surprisingly, was the pigeon (he is usually a bit of a scaredy cat); the second one was the blackbird (frantic as usual); the third one was the robin (always nosy that one…)

The unexpected entertainment factor is that every bird has its own bathing style.

The dove and the pigeon’s disparity

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birdbathpigeon1blog The graceful dove and the clumsy pigeon

The prettiest bathers have to be the collared doves. They sit on the ledge and try one foot first. They look like a 1920s young lady in a rather stylish pale grey bathing costume with a little black collar for good effect, extending her pointed toes to test the temperature before risking a full bath. Compared to the fat pigeon who lands straight in the centre with a big flop that sends the water over the edge, the collared doves are the most graceful creatures on Earth. When several visit together and sit around the edge, they look like a live incarnation of Pliny’s doves. It is magical.

The robin’s little engine

The wildest is the robin. He gathers momentum first by standing on the rim, looking intently at the water in great concentration. Then he jumps right in, plunging his head under water before coming up in a great bust of energy, the beads of water rolling down the back of his neck and flying in great arcs from the tip of his wings. He flaps his little wings so hard that he actually uses them as a method of propulsion, sending him right across the bird bath in half a dozen strokes, turning at the end and swimming back to his starting point like a tiny feather duster gone mad. He then comes back to rest on the rim for a minute, taking a breather before going back in for another wild bath. When the night falls, he flies up to the birch tree above, exhausted and happy, ready to fall asleep in a wet fluffy ball and dream of being a flying fish in a dish made of stone and carved roses.

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The slightly blurry robin

The blackbirds’ back crawl

As usual, the blackbirds, both Mr. and Mrs., are rather energetic. Unlike the tidal wave of the pigeons, their effusions are like a rainbow of droplets. They manage to shake every millimeter of their body all at once, making the most of the cool water on a hot sweaty day. They come out looking disheveled and disappointingly not much less stressed than they were before their swim.

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The hyperactive blackbird

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What?!

The goldfinches’ day out

Yesterday for the first time the birdbath was invaded by a flock of goldfinches, chatting away noisily as they shared the pool Roman style, on what looked like an organised spa day trip for small colourful birds. Unfortunately they were moving so fast that I never managed to get a single picture of the group in focus. I expect that their exciting chattering could be heard in a two-mile radius.

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The sparrows’ disappearance

The sparrows actually like to go underwater! They sit on the edge for a bit, evaluating the depth of the pool, then they take the plunge and completely disappear, flat on the bottom, until suddenly their little heads emerge over the rim. They make me feel like a lifeguard on duty, ready with my resuscitation kit! As several of them do this together, I wonder if they’re holding some kind of competition, Le Grand Bleu style…

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Can you see me?

Sparrow underwater antics

Ta-daaaa!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sparrow aquatic antics

There are still some inhabitants of my garden who have yet to get their feet wet: I have never seen the wrens, the blue tits, the great tits, the long-tailed tits or the greenfinches capering in there. I am keeping an eye out and will update the post if I catch them.

I wish the squirrel would have a go as well. I bet that would be funny!

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Pool party, the Pliny’s way…

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…The real ones

I must admit, one of the arguments against the birdbath was justified: it IS always filthy and a bit of a chore keeping it clean, but worth every scrub of the brush for the constant spectacle it offers.

I shall finish with the rudest of them all (no surprise there!)

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The mooning pigeon (He totally knew I was there…)

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