Irises: lush in spring, water saving in summer

Bearded iris – Iris germanica – originated somewhere in a Mediterranean climate, not Northern Europe. That means that they grow with little or no care here in California, as long as the soil has adequate drainage.

If someone asks you which is better adapted in Northern California, an agave or a bearded iris you would answer…. the iris! Agaves are water conserving desert plants, but most come from places that get summer rain and are dry during our typically wet, cold winters.

As Mediterranean plants, irises flourish when they have rain, then go dormant over summer – just like our native plants. Since they have the same cultural requirements as many natives, you can even grow them together if you’re not too much of a purist about plant origins (they’ll grow with your agaves, too). Most of the time, natural (non-drought) rainfall is enough to keep your irises happy.

The best time to photograph irises is after a storm in soft, diffuse light. A macro lens doesn’t hurt, either – it lets you zoom in on the details and discover the flowers as objects of abstract art.

The yellow irises are native to California, so they don’t have beards. The don’t seem to need them. Native irises are much lower and more compact than bearded iris, and are more suited to the front of the planting area, near a path.

Bearded iris can be dwarf or giant, so you need to know what your plants will do before you stick them in the ground. Our experience with dwarf varieties has been mixed, some being fussy, some blooming later than the taller varieties. There are many, many varieties of irises available from specialty nurseries with all the colors of the iris rainbow: indigo, midnight blue, ultramarine, cerulean, yellow, white, brown, chocolate, mocha (the colors get more creative when the flowers are in fact some shade of brown)…


The wildflowers are here!

With all the rains come lots of wildflowers. These are typical early spring wildflowers growing over much of Northern California. Most can be grown in gardens from seed, bulbs or plants… well, maybe not the poison oak…

I don’t know which species all of these plants belong to. Maybe that’s good, since I can just appreciate them as they are.

Wildflowers are typically best photographed early in the morning or on overcast days. This gives more saturated colors and eliminates shadows. The exception to this is California poppies; they close if they’re not in full sun. The workaround is to shade them for the photograph or shoot in HDR if there’s no choice.

It’s also good to shoot multiple shots using different apertures (f/stops): a small aperture (large f/stop) will add detail to the flower at the expense of cluttering up the background. Shooting with your lens wide open throws most of the flower out of focus for a softer, dreamier effect.

If you plan on doing this kind of thing a lot, invest in a camera with a good macro lens, and save your phone for selfies. The dynamic range on a serious camera gives much better quality images than cell phones, although this may change as phones get more sophisticated (dynamic range is how many levels of brightness the camera can capture).

Autumn in the Central Valley

Did autumn come late this year, just as everything else arrived in advance? It’s been a warm year, and cooler temperatures were late to arrive, waiting until mid-November to put on the chill. With low temperatures finally hitting the high 30’s (high fives in celsius, more fun to say) the leaves flipped their color switches and blasted into color. 

These trees are mostly maples, not especially drought tolerant, but for some reason it seems that fall color and drought tolerance are a rare combination. Chinese pistache and staghorn sumac aren’t thirsty, but the maples appreciate regular water. Still, as trees they’re less demanding of frequent drinks than lawn and more tolerant if they have to go without, within reason.

The best time to photograph these colors? Just after a rosy sunset. The sky color intensifies the leaves and since there’s no direct sun, there’s no contrast. This creates a glowing effect, almost surreal. Any wind makes the leaves blur, sometimes artistically (so does twisting the camera during the shot, as was done for one of the red maple photos).


Gerberas, hydroponics and photo processing software

Those beautiful Transvaal Daisies you see in the florist probably didn’t grow in soil if they were produced in California. They’re cultivated in a special hydroponic growing medium, wetted regularly with a nutrient solution, and kept in the perfect conditions inside a greenhouse. The result is spectacular, at least until the flowers are harvested for the cut flower trade.

These photos received standard processing… scroll down for their alter egos

Needless to say, this is a colorful dream, not a drought-happy landscape plant: they’ll survive with minimal water, but they will look dessicated and not flower well if at all. Those long stems only happen if the plants get ample water – with minimal water the flowers tend to appear under or in the leaves. There are  landscape varieties that are more compact and easier to use, but they should either be grown as annuals, in a greenhouse, or in a mild winter area where they’ll be appreciated in a small, regularly watered hydrozone – or grown using hydroponic techniques.

I wonder if they could be grown using recovered shower heat-up water with nutrients added. The water could then be poured into a hydroponic reservoir and pumped through the plants in a cut flower garden for lots of summer color.

Beyond Reality: image transformation

Why play with alternate processing? To create a feeling, an illustration of the flowers that moves beyond strictly accurate representation. Perhaps to evoke the flowers as a memory, change the perception of when they were shot, eliminate the color to focus on their structure or prepare them for use in something more illustrative then representational.

The first set of images used normal processing. These don’t.

There’s nothing like a colorful subject, an iPhone and some post-processing software to create multiple versions of the same image. After basic processing in Lightroom, the images get duplicated and handed over to Exposure for a bit of fun. These images were “shot” on vintage “films”, transforming the iPhone into a film camera, at least virtually. This is a great thing for artistic illustration, maybe not so much for depicting what the flowers actually look like – although this depends on the film and the chosen effects. It’s easy to pick an old version of a film, add scratches, “age” the “paper” and play around without ever touching an enlarger or mixing baths of chemicals. Having worked with film in the old days, this is a lot of fun – since any process or technique you can imagine is available just by setting the desired parameters.

Photographing hummingbirds in action

The first thing about getting shots of hummingbirds in action is getting up early, before sunrise. That’s when they go for a drink and quick dip in the fountain. A few sips of water and a splash on the face and they’re ready for a day chasing insects and sipping flowers.


The second thing is: don’t move. If you stay absolutely still, you can get quite close, although the birds will probably still react to the click of your shutter. With the camera on a tripod, focused on the bird, cable release or remote in hand, you should not have to move to get the shot – since the birds are coming to the fountain, you’ll know pretty much where they’ll land.

If you want to capture all that iridescent color, you need the sun behind you (or a light source that won’t scare the bird). The bird will also have to look right at you for the best effect. Tricky!

If you don’t have a fountain, you need to pick whatever flowers the birds are visiting and camp there, shooting until you get the shot you like. Early or late in the day is better, and pay attention to where the light is coming from if you want an iridescent bird floating over colorful flowers. Be persistent: this is not an easy shot and you’ll be shooting a lot of images just to get a few good shots (or only one).

High ISO, a large aperture and a telephoto lens that can focus on small birds relatively nearby are the other requirements. If you have a giant, powerful telephoto lens you might need to add an accessory so you can focus closer than normal.

Hummingbird at fountain

If you have a simpler camera, turn off any non-optical zoom function – this just adds noise to your image. Focusing might be an issue, since fast-moving hummingbirds don’t sit around and wait for the focusing system to lock on. So shoot a lot of pictures – way more than you think reasonable, and delete all the ones that didn’t work. If you’re lucky, you might get two or three shots that you’ll love. The rest will most likely be perfectly focused plants in the background and a blurry blob (the bird) in the foreground.


The Big Photo Day

When we designed and built our garden, it was to test new ideas, build things that contractors told us wouldn’t work and create more living spaces for ourselves, birds and insects. The cats benefitted, too. We think of it as a mad landscape architect’s lab, still unfinished around the edges but with the main elements in place.

Now, it seems that a crazy, wild around the edges garden is worth talking about. A major local magazine is doing a story on our crazy, unconventional, untrimmed garden.

Cat on photo bags
I claim these items as my territory!

A photographer arrived, with sacks full of Alien Bees, camera bodies and lenses. The cat wasted no time asserting her territory, camping on one of the equipment bags and making sure her claws were sharp.

We did all kinds of silly poses. Some with “petit syrah” in fancy glasses (no drinking on the job here; the stuff was really pomegranate juice). We played roshambo. We told fish stories. We looked at birds, we sat by a fire, at a table, strolled around the garden. The shutter clicked. There’s probably at least 1 gigabyte of outtakes just of our mugs. Hopefully there will be a jewel of a photo in there somewhere. We won’t know until the magazine comes out.

We were supposed to look comfortable and relaxed, sipping “wine” and conversing casually, as though there were no guy standing about ten feet away snapping away with a 5D. We were not supposed to look cold, like it was 72° F instead of 60°.  Our tiny fire gave off more of an atmospheric smoky effect than actual heat.

That’s acting, I suppose. It seems like they’re always filming hot steamy tropical scenes in cold weather, so here we were in a similar situation. A taste of Hollywood, right in our own backyard.

As for the garden, it got shot to doll rags, as Louie L’Amour might have said. Afternoon shots, wide angle shots, telephoto shots, evening shots, almost-night shots filled in with remote strobes set high upon light stands.

hanging lanterns over deck
The deck at dusk


Gatinais landscapes, France

Small villages perch atop low hills, surrounded by rolling fields of sunflowers, wheat and beets punctuated with blue flax and other crops. This is the Gatinais region, not too far south of Paris. Nestled among the fields are river valleys, punctuated by pine and heather forests growing in almost pure sand interspersed with rounded, weathered rocks that often look like abstract sculptures.

This is a region of agriculture, not tourism. Burcy, where these photos were taken, has no shops of any kind, so any missing groceries require a trip to Puiseaux, about 12 minutes away by narrow roads winding through the fields. Bread is delivered in a small truck; just listen for the horn in midmorning and run out the back gate (the bread from Puiseaux is better, though).

Before the rain returns

The rain should be back, after a too long absence, its coming announced with a spectacular display spreading across the formerly cloudless sky.

Frosty Abstracts

One of the harder frosts of the year left all kinds of miniature abstract art scattered around the garden.

New Year Sunset

The great thing about winter is interesting skies and deciduous trees. That’s kind of two things, but when you put them together the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. What is the sum of sky and tree? Behold!

The camera used here isn’t sophisticated. Just a simple digital point and shoot with a tiny little sensor. It does at least have enough manual control to throw some mojo into the shot, mainly setting it to underexpose and transform the trees into silhouettes. There was a bit of fiddling with ISO and shutter speed to try balancing image noise with shutter speed.