Archive for the ‘Flowers’ Category

Walking with Roses


I have ignored my blog and all of you who like Gardening with Helen while I was on retreat in India for two and a half years, but now I’m back. Those of you who have joined, I would love to hear why you like the site, so please post comments.

Roaming with the roses…

The first thing I did (after saying hullo to the weeds in my garden…) was walk the peaceful streets of Hobart with my camera, photographing and smelling the glory of roses that clamber over fences, smother doorways, peak through windows and reach out to greet and grab you with their beauty, thorns, fragrance and eternal charm.

Of course, roses have been photographed to death, so I tried to find new ways to bring out their beauty and personality. Here are a few of the roses I met, adorning homes, holding their faces to the sun and seducing their owners and passers by alike.

(next post I’ll tell you about my garden after two years, and of course I’ll need to tell you about plantish things to do with my time in India. Please prompt me with feedback, comments, contributions and nagging!)



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I was born in Christchurch in an old wooden house opposite Hagley Park. Number 9 Bealey Ave to be exact. In a recent moment of oddness I saw a photo in the paper of a mansion in Bealey Ave being demolished after the earthquake. I have no idea of the fate of number 9 and hadn’t really thought about it until seeing that news item. My relatives in other parts of Chch have liveable but rather cracked houses with everything falling everywhere all the time and life in a weird state of shakyness. My cousin sent me a very cool, eerie You Tube of amazing teen boys skateboarding the broken landscape –  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2bvozq-KK8

I wrote this bluebells story a good few years ago when I had a column in The Organic Gardener magazine. Then someone suggested I offer it to the Christchurch Press and they published it too. So it’s been around a little and is due for more recycling… Rosie in the picture is my niece.

Rosie in the Hagley Pk Bluebells, 1988ish

Bluebell Memories

In autumn 1964 a young doctor took his three small girls, a couple of trowels and some bluebell bulbs to the park across the road from their Christchurch home. He recalled the magic of the bluebell woods of England, where he had lived in early childhood and again as an adult.

On that day – let’s say it was a cool, bright day, the southern sun weakening as it dropped lower in the sky; let’s say it was a breezy day, blowing the leaves of autumn across the green grass in the ever-changing patterns of life; let’s say it was a happy day, when this family was bound close by its hope and freshness – on that day, the father and his daughters dug small holes in the turf, popped a bulb in each, pressed down the rich soil of the Canterbury Plains and crossed the road back home again.

Autumn miracle

I wonder how many times that winter they rugged up and crossed the road to play in the park, feeding the ducks on the River Avon, riding their tricycles along the path, tossing leaves off the bridge into the gentle waters, then running to the other side to watch their leaf-boat float downstream.

I remember doing those things as a child, and I was the youngest, only three, so it must have been often, and happy. But I don’t recall thinking about the bluebell bulbs lying still in the deep cold of a Christchurch winter.

Our mother is Irish and Dad had promised to bring her home every seven years. That year they made their first trip back. The children and grandparents had never met. We set off on an enormous ship, while the bluebells waited patiently for signs of spring. We crossed the equator, and King Neptune came on board, bearded and brandishing his trident. He climbed out of the sea up the side of the liner, and threw my eldest sister into the swimming pool. I missed out, because I couldn’t swim.

I don’t think we walked in bluebell woods that year, but the next trip was made in spring, and I remember a fairyland forest in Ireland, carpeted in blue.

In the summer of 1965 we moved to Sydney and the bluebell planting was forgotten. The bridge we rode our bikes across now took us to the beach. We dug in the yellow sand and spent summer encrusted with salt and zinc cream.

Me with family, Manly, 1960s

My parents planted bluebells in the warm, sandy seaside soil, but the clump was unimpressive, a delicate reminder of lands left and homes that were past. We kids collected Christmas beetles and cicada shells instead of flowers.

I have never been back to Hagley Park in the spring, but I know that every year the green grass is transformed into a rippling sea of blue. I recently had visitors from Christchurch.

“You know the bluebells in Hagley Park?” I asked mysteriously. They nodded yes, no doubt having never wondered whose mind had the vision and whose hand had disturbed the soil.

“My father planted them,” I said proudly. They looked at me in amazement, as if I had just revealed a truth of creation. “There should be a plaque,” I added thoughtfully. “There should be a plaque.”

Plaque or no plaque, each year the soft drifts of blue reflect the sky and herald the transformation that is spring. Children like us play in them, and like many of the best things in life, they are taken for granted and their origin is their secret.

I am thinking now of a park down the hill from where I live in Hobart. There are daffodils below the silver birches, but no bluebells….Perhaps next autumn when the sky grows cool and dull, I will take the children, and some trowels, and some bulbs and plant more than a plaque.

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My new favourite gardener has a wild lily garden in the back blocks of Hobart. His name is Rod and he breeds and sells lilliums and narcissus. Rod calls himself a ‘naturist’ and that seems accurate. He’s a bit of a hermit but actually loves a good natter. I had to write to him snail mail to make contact, which was in fact so refreshing. He wrote back promptly, sending me multiple copies of his bi-annual newsletter, ‘The Trumpeter’ and naming a few dates in January that I could visit him.

So when I got back from India I phoned his sister (3 doors down from Rod) and we set a date. When I drove through the gate of ‘Glenbrook’ I forgot I was in Hobart. It was as if I had suddenly been teleported into a deep, forgotten valley in a remote part of Tasmania. Rod’s little cottage nestles against the bush of this flank of the Wellington range – which is owned by Rod’s family, who keep it so that the wildlife will have a home. The cottage is barely visible – “I’m trying to get the plants to take over,” says Rod.

His sister is there, and I’m served more than I can eat by way of little sandwiches, homemade cakes and cups of tea. Everything is delightful and kind and friendly and in spite of Rod’s reputation as one who shuns society, I could not have felt more welcome. They just want to hear about India, while I am itching to do my interview. But having said that, chatting about India is something I can do without much encouragement. A chook walked across the carpet as I helped myself to more cake while describing my dip in the Ganges at Varanasi, much to their impressed astonishment.

Now that I have whetted your appetite, I’m going to show you a picture and sign off, because I have to go and pick someone up to take them to the Wielangta forest, which any locals reading this will know is a worthy excuse.

To be continued…

Rod tenderly shows me his lilies.

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Have had some wonderful blog posts all formed in my mind, but they have stayed there… It happens when I’m gardening. Beautiful words and thoughts form as I weed and plant and till the good old soil. What I need is to write it then and there, because by the time I finish in the garden, I don’t want to go on the computer. They don’t go together well for me. When I’m all doused in nature, the call of the keyboard grows faint and is easily ignored.  Oh well.

This spring is so full of growth – I have watched the cherry blossoms burst into intense pink glory, dissolve into a carpet of pink snow upon the path, and now rot into brown mush. Must be time someone swept I guess. Under the cherry blossom and extravagance of old bearded irises sings loud and bright, there were sweetest lily of the valley before, sending wafts of perfume everywhere.

this iris bud fell into the fallen blossom. After the photo, I placed it in a water bowl, it opened and shone for a couple of days before shrivelling into a crinkled, crepe thing.

I have picked the largest rose I ever saw, a Mr Lincoln, and more are coming. It’s of course a classic velvet crimson thing, and was a gift to me from Patsy Hollis, who loves roses and words, and to whom I mentioned my fondness for Mr Lincoln. The roses I grow are all gifts, except my Iceberg, which I bought because I was feeling left out of Hobart’s obsession with iceberg roses. Coming along is Pierre de Ronsard, recent gift from the garden of a wonderful friend who thought she was moving, so gave me her roses, then changed her mind, but lets me keep them. Two x Pierre to adorn the brand new rather raw fence, and a couple of David Austens about to reveal themselves.

Soon I go to India. Some travellers are coming to mind house and garden. I hope it can be their

Light on Columbine

haven for a while, and that from its kind welcome they can go out exploring Tasmania, returning to the gentle realm of the garden. There will be raspberries soon, and the goji berry has flowered! We will see if it comes to anything.

The fence is also about to be clad in PEAS, which are climbing nicely and will feed the houseminding travellers, and hopefully Scarlet Runner Beans, the shiny deep coloured seeds of which are planted, but not yet up. Will they come through before I go?

I have a million photos to show you, am just uploading a couple. At least I have written.



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All day I’ve been writing the Marjorie Bligh article so my word brain is used up.  At times like these, we need flowers, and a little help from previously published work…

Lily in the Sky

“For many gardeners the source of inspiration is an aesthetic one. They want to create and be surrounded by beauty… As a creative art, gardening uses the bounty of nature like no other form of human expression.”  from Beyond Organics, by me.

Winter Rose, Helleborus, Bonnie Banks garden, Tamar Valley

Winter Rose in the Sky

Feet in the water, reaching for the sun: Louisiana water iris

Eucalyptus leucoxylon rosea, a delightful small tree for the garden

Eucalyptus ficifolia: bowls of nectar

“In Australia, eucalypts are the most important tree genus in the wild, and ditto in the environmental garden. In the ecological profit-and-loss sheet, they give and give and give, and their needs are easily met due to the sophistication of their adaptations to survival. Their blossoms, nectar, pollen, leaves, seeds, sap and even their wood are all food sources to myriad birds, insects and mammals. The food matrix on a eucalypt is complex, as the feeders themselves attract many predators… Nesting sites, nesting materials, perches and shelter are all provided in abundance by eucalypts, especially old trees and hollows.”  from Beyond Organics, by me.

Colours of Australia: Kangaroo Paw

Kangaroo Paw in the sky

“Flamboyance is for the birds… Give them big red flowers dripping nectar and a strong stalk to grip onto, and they will take pollen to your neighbour, no questions asked. Think of the Australian grevilleas, kangaroo paw, bottle brush and most magnificent, the NSW waratah – radiant, sturdy, nectar-rich and with pollen strategically placed for brushing onto the bird’s nead or neck.”  from Beyond Organics, by me.

Water Lily dreaming

“Water means life. Research has shown that a reliable source of clean water is the single most important factor in attracting and keeping birds in gardens. Using birds as a biodiversity indicator, it can be assumed that overall biodiveristy goes up when there is a water supply such as a pond or birdbath… The combination of water, flowers and humidity also brings more insects, which, of course, attract more birds… Providing water helps maximise the potential of your own plot. In this way you create opportunities for other life forms.” 

from Beyond Organics, by me.

Beyond Organics: Gardening for the Future by me, Helen Cushing is available from me. Next post will be about it and how to purchase from me. If you are desperate for it before then, please let me know and we can make a plan to get it to you quick smart!

Beyond Organics being launched, 2005

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Both kids are out for the evening. Interestingly, upon return from the supermarket with multiple bags of shopping now covering the kitchen floor, all sense of domestic obligation has suddenly evaporated. No-one wants to know what’s for dinner… time to blog…

The undisturbed shopping bags seemed quite peaceful...

As it’s a summery Saturday I spent the entire morning at Salamanca market, arms being stretched by bags filled with very sweet and very cheap strawberries and cherries while I indulged in pleasant and drawn out conversations with long-lost friends. One of them was the purveyor of the cherries. I stayed chatting so long that people started asking me for half kilos and I ended up packing bags for her while we caught up. It was Sally Dakis, of ABC radio’s Country Hour, wife of  Chris Wisby, also of ABC broadcasting fame – while he’s on air from 6am, she’s out selling the cherries he’s been farming all week. I shared an office with Chris for a while during my Gardening Australia days when I was an itinerant desk-occupier. But that’s another story.

The point is, I shall dine on those fruits while I blog, as no-one else needs dinner. The bags on the kitchen floor look very peaceful. Let us think GARDEN instead.

It’s high time we discussed zucchinis. In languages other than Australian, I believe they are known as courgettes. Same thing.

The plant, the zucchs, the garlic that grew there before them, and some friendly nasturtiums

The important point here is that they are a vegetable with a potentially bad attitude. It’s tempting to compare them with the adolescently undisciplined nasturtiums – lacking regular attention, they get away and do their own thing. But the comparison doesn’t quite stand. Zucchinis have to be watched for a different reason. They look innocent enough, but they have a cunning streak, and if given less than half a chance, very quickly develop an oversized ego akin to that of the alpha male. To avoid this, you must visit your plants daily and eat their babies!

If you don’t, you can be certain that one fruit, most likely hiding under a leaf (bit like Adam?), will start doubling its dimensions daily. This display of dominance is at the expense of the plant’s overall productivity. The alpha-male zucchini demands all the plant’s resources for its exponential, self-centred growth. Its sole motive is reproduction. Left to its own devices, that so-called zucchini will soon become a marrow. The marrow is not what you want. The marrow is full of large seeds, the flesh around them is stringy and mushy at the same time, the flavour is non-existent, the skin is thick and hard, like a shell. That’s right, it has become thick-skinned, domineering and devoid of endearing qualities. Know anyone like that? Would you want them in your garden? I think not.

At the back is the one I found under a leaf - on the way to alpha-maledom

The only culinary solution to the marrow is stuffing ie you scoop out the unwanted stuff and stuff in things that taste good. In my experience, we often don’t get round to stuffing. The thing hangs around the kitchen, or shed, or back verandah, taking up space while you prepare better meals, meals with subtlety.

What we want from our zucchini plants is to eat its babies. Toddlers at the most.  A small zucchini is a good zucchini. I reiterate, you must visit your plants daily, preferably in the morning. Why morning? Because they need help with sex, and that’s when it’s possible. Incidentally, this applies to pumpkins as well. If there are no bees and you do nothing about it, there will be no zucchinis and no pumpkins. The window of opportunity is brief, and morning is the time. Let us talk botanically now.

These plants, known as the cucurbits, have separate male and female flowers. The flowers are wide open in the morning and then they close and shrivel. It’s easy to tell the girls from the boys. The girl flowers are held on a stalk that is a baby version of the mature fruit ie a mini-zucchini. The parts inside the flower are complex compared to the male’s flower parts. The male flower is held up high and proud on its long stem, no babies to hold it back. Inside the flower there is just one prong of pollen held up to the sun and the bees. It is that prong of pollen that you must steal. Here’s how…

  • Break off the male flower at its stalk;

    Male flower on the left, female on the right

  • Ruthlessly tear away the petals;
  • The pollen stalk is now exposed;
  • Rub the pollen stalk onto the female flower parts;

That’s it! You have fertilised the flower and the fruit will set. If the pollen is not transferred by you or a bee, the baby zucchini will soon look sickly, go rotten, and fall off – failure to thrive.

Zucchini management is an important aspect of vegetable growing. If you handle them well, the rewards are many. It’s a simple formula – help with the sex, eat the babies and curb their alpha male urges.

On a sunny morning the bees should do the work for you. Here they are pollinating a female flower.

This bee is headed for the pollen stalk of the male flower.

Practical: Cucurbita pepo; common names: zucchini, courgette, summer squash

General: A summer crop, very easy to grow and bears abundantly. Needs quite a lot of space as it sprawls around continually increasing its spread.

Climate: Zucchinis thrive in dry heat with adequate moisture at their roots. Humidity results in mildewy leaves and shortens the productive life span.

Sun: Full sun is best, less is okay.

Soil: Well drained with good moisture retaining properties and plenty of organic matter and nutrients. Incorporate compost and other organic fertilisers before sowing. Mulch well to keep soil cool and moist.

Water: Regular water is needed for good growth and production. Large leaves soak up lots of sun for fast summer growth but also lose water quickly. In humid climates it’s essential to water the soil not the leaves as mildew will be a problem.

Propagation: In spring sow the large seeds where they will grow or else in small pots. Protect from snails, slugs and rats as they germinate. Given good conditions the plants will quickly establish and grow very fast.

Management: Apart from the obvious needs for water, weeding and mulching, the most important thing is to keep picking the small fruits. Visit your plants daily for two reasons: if there are inadequate bees you need to hand pollinate (see above); regular picking means constant supply. If you allow one to grow into a marrow the flowering will be affected as the plant’s energy goes into producing one big fruit with mature seed for reproduction. That is all it really wants to do, so if that’s going on, the need to keep throwing out new flowers ceases.
Uses: Both flowers and fruit are edible. The flowers are quite delicate and need harvesting in the morning. They only last half a day and then close and wither. Both male and female flowers can be harvested, the males being held on a long stalk while the females are attached to the mini-fruit. The mini-fruit and flower can be picked together. The fruits should be picked after only a couple of days growth as their flavour is superior when young and there are no seeds, just soft white flesh. Their uses are many: slice then grill, fry, barbecue, steam or add to soups, stews, curries, pasta sauce etc. Overgrown fruits are best grated for use in fritters, cakes and breads. Grated is also suitable for salad use.

India sunset

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As gardening writer for the sumptuous magazine, Tasmanian Life, I am privileged to visit and interview Tasmania’s finest gardeners and wander in their gardens. I am ever in awe of their accomplishments. Here’s a glimpse of last weekend’s journey to the north.

yes, they are elephants...

On Friday Tasmania was hot and filled with cricket. I phoned renowned rosarian Susan Irvine from Deloraine, as per my instructions. “Your timing is good,” she said. “Ponting just got out!” The last I had heard of Ponting’s score was the day before when he was not out for 143.  Some 20 hours later he had only just gone, with over 200 runs! (background for the uninitiated: Ponting = captain of Australian cricket team, is a Tassie lad and it was Oz vs Pakistan in Hobart).

That was the last word on cricket as I entered the genteel world of Forest Hall and its roses. Forest Hall has a blue roof, which is something I have always coveted. It is old and made of deep blocks of stone, a building that belongs in its landscape. Lovingly restored by Susan and Bill who came from Victoria in the mid-1990s,  it is set in a classical parkland of oaks, elms, lindens and other gracious trees more than 100 years old. The backdrop for Susan’s rose obsession, which completes the English fantasy, was uninhabited, becoming derelict and seemed to be waiting for her to find it.  So while Bill went fly fishing, Susan got  planting.

Summer roses at Forest Hall

There are a lot of roses here. About 800 in fact. Many of them are species roses which means they have simple flowers, a spreading habit and gorgeous rose hips. It is Susan’s mission to preserve both species roses and Alister Clarke roses. The latter are named after their breeder, another Australian passionate about the belle fleur. He took it upon himself to breed roses for Australian conditions, using Rosea gigantea, from Burma. European breeders had never used this stock as it was frost tender. Alister died in 1949 and his roses were lost to the public. Rosa gigantea had big babies and although the shrubs thrived in our wide brown land, they were too big for the average suburban block. Susan sought them out, saving them from obscurity. With many acres to play with, Susan has been able to plant an abundance of both species and Alister Clarke varieties. Unlike many modern roses, they don’t need much maintenance so a vast private collection is not a burden.

If all this plus the books she has written hadn’t been enough to convince me of Susan’s devotion to the rose, there could be no doubt when we stood in front of a towering mass of some species or other and she exclaimed, “And this one has the most wonderful thorns!” Sure enough, it did! Here they are for your eyes…

Wingthorn Rose - simple white flowers, wonderful thorns and great hips!

Shiny red rosehips - the only excuse you need to grow species roses

I am out of time, though not out of tales to tell. For more on Susan and her flowers, keep tabs on Tasmanian Life as the full story will eventually be there with many more glorious pix. I have yet to fill you in on the baby elephant hedge pictured above (it’s not Susan’s) and my time with housewife extraordinarie,  self-published author many times over, the one who crochets hats from plastic bread bags and mats from old stockings… she has a cult following, is going on 93 years old and is an inspiration to Barry Humphries and his friend Dame Edna – I am of course, refering to Tasmania’s Marjorie Bligh.

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