Archive for the ‘Mentions India’ 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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Tree Liberation – Tales of the Mighty Brush Box 

 The brush box, Lophostemon confertus, is perhaps my favourite tree, not merely because of its beauty and strength, but because of the ways we got to know each other and the experiences we had together.

Our relationship began when I moved house at the age of 4 or 5. The tree at the front gate was easy to climb, its strong, smooth trunk curving over the sandstone wall at just the right height for clambering into. My sisters and I spent many important hours occupying its branches, our minds busy with games now forgotten. Christmas beetles, cicadas, bull ants and cupmoth caterpillars also inhabited that tree. These ‘hairy caterpillars’ are one of nature’s more bizarre creations, looking like a two-headed Chinese dragon in a colourful street festival. Their brightly patterned bodies with four bunches of orange stinging hairs at each end are a temptation to children, but a warning to wiser predators. ‘Don’t touch’ is the best invitation to a curious child, and so we were stung and became wary, but kept sharing the tree.

I don't have a pic of Brush Box just now, so here is the biggest tree of them all - the Great Banyan Tree, Botanical Gardens in Kolkata, India

There was another brush box, its trunk rising straight up from an old concrete slab that seemed to merge with the grey sandstone surrounds. We could not climb this tree, but its canopy was dense and its shade deep. It was always cool under there, for picnics, water fights, hand ball, bike riding, reading. Dad had a different relationship with these trees. They both grew up into the power lines that connected to the house.

Extension ladder in position, in his working bee overalls he would disappear into its dark greenery with various hand saws and pruners. Soon the branches came tumbling down, and our job was to drag them away. I had no idea then that this was a brush box. I had no idea then that it was planted under power lines all over Sydney and other Australian cities, where it was routinely mutilated by tree lopping teams. I had no idea then that it in its natural state it was a magnificent forest giant that yielded a superb smooth, pink timber which a few years later would spark controversy in the rainforests of NSW, spawning a debate and protest that ultimately led to World Heritage status for the rainforests of NSW.


I was 16 when I went to my first logging protest. It was at Terania Creek, a remote end-of-the-road location in a lush subtropical valley in northern NSW. I can’t remember how I ended up there, but suddenly I was camping in a paddock with a bunch of hippies. There were guitars and vegetarian food at a camp on the forest edge. The forest was rainforest, hung with vines and soft with the swaying elegance of Bangalow palms. Stands of brush box, the result of disturbance over a thousand years ago, led to a debate over what defined rainforest. The NSW Forestry Commission said rainforest did not contain hardwoods. The brush box is a hardwood, therefore this was not a rainforest and logging it should not be an issue. I stood on the freshly severed trunk of a tree that may have been 1,500 years old, surrounded by the devastation caused by its premature crash to earth, listening sadly to the chainsaws busy on another such tree of life. I knew then that the discussion about how to define a rainforest had little to do with reality, and that politics, whatever side you were on, was only a tool.


On my return to the city I made the connection between these forest giants and the crew-cut street trees which I had barely noticed before. These 35m trees were planted under power lines because they recovered well from pruning. Logical at some level I suppose, like the argument for logging them.

Some years later, as a horticulture student I made a study of rainforest regeneration. As a practical component I collected and propagated the seed of rainforest plants. The brush box was one, and as my forest of seedlings sprouted in the shade house there was no question about whether or not it was a rainforest species. It was in that year that the Wran Labour Government halted the logging of rainforests in NSW, nominating them for World Heritage listing. Terania Creek was part of that nomination, along with the surviving brush boxes, whose gorgeous timber had sparked the direct action movement that doggedly followed the log trucks and chainsaws until at last they were gone.

You can easily visit Protestor Falls in the Nightcap National Park, which includes Terania Ck. The sounds are of rushing water, bird song and the breeze in the canopy. But when I stand there, I still hear the chainsaws and the defiant songs of the activists whose courage is remembered in the naming of the waterfall, and who drew inspiration from the helplessness of the brush box, strongest of trees.

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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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The Bodhi Tree

I’m back from India again. Amidst the noise and drama of 1 billion + people, are  an infinity of sacred sites. The Bodhi Tree is one. This is the site of Buddha’s enlightenment and the current tree is a descendant of the original. It’s the centrepiece of the town of Bodh Gaya, a little place in the state of Bihar, which is renowned for deep poverty, corruption, banditry and general dodginess. I go to Bihar each year, in spite of these harsh judgments, and find amongst the darkness the most peaceful people in the world, yogis of vast wisdom. So, there’s more to Bihar than meets the eye.

The Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment

The Bodhi tree – Ficus religiosa – healthy, with spreading, generous branches, the most worshipped tree in the world. I am into tree worship – after all, they make this Earth habitable. So my pilgrimage was to the tree, more than the temple or the philosophies of Buddha in which it is now embedded. He sat under a tree, resolving not to budge until he attained the answers to the problem of human suffering.  Those answers came, and his brilliance became the most gentle major religion of the world.

I paid my respects to the Bodhi Tree. And I wondered why Buddhists of the world build temples and place statues of the Buddha in Bodh Gaya but don’t plant trees everywhere. This sacred place was so dusty that people have to breathe through face masks. Ponds of disgusting, stagnant water had no trees around them. Beggars with bodies unbelievably deformed from polio crawled about in those dusty streets. There may be answers to human suffering in philosophy and meditation, but being a practical girl, I felt that some more trees and some sabin vaccine would certainly help.

I digress. May the tree live long and be an inspiration for earth friendliness, which relieves the suffering of all sentient beings.

I’ll tell you more soon about encounters with other miraculous plants in India. Photos coming.

And I must report on my visit to a wild lily garden in Hobart, inhabited by a rare one who calls himself a ‘naturist’ and has lived his values quietly for a long life.

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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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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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‘Paths are for people’ has become part of my gardening philosophy. You see, they are easily taken over by border plants, by scurrying ants, by moving earth and by… slime. Or variations on slime, such as moss, which looks like fairyland so we are tempted to keep it, but we don’t live in fairyland, so ultimately, when it starts to take over and mud happens and mess happens, it has to go, because paths are for people.

Welcome, be led up the garden path...

It’s mid-summer where I live in Tasmania. Throughout winter and spring it rained and rained and rained all over again. It was wetter than tears, and the ground filled up with this wet, bringing  joy to roots tired of the decade-long drought. Now the sun is out and the days are long and bright. Ground full of water + days long and bright with sunshine = excited plants growing madly in all directions!  This of course = paths overgrown with arching branches, abundant leaves and opportunistic grasses. They all reach longingly into the wonderful open space that paths represent to them. Tender-hearted gardeners are prone to being romantic about the freedom of this rambling plant-stuff, but this will not do, this will not do! ‘Paths are for people,’ you must keep repeating, as you take the shears and slice through, as you take your little machete and hack through, as you take up your nicely sharpened and beloved secateurs and snip through. Whatever your tool, whatever your armoury, follow up with rake and broom, and see the welcome results! Let the path lead you, as this is the purpose of all pathways.

Paths are for people

Paths are the definition and the navigation. Let them be a lovely shape all of their own, the plants can help create this shape by your judicious and systematic pruning and restraining. Keep the identity of the paths clear and the garden will communicate with you.

I was recently in Sydney. Now that is a city with a lush climate. I was helping care for an ill relative. Part of this ended up involving path clearing, as the sick person could no longer cut and sweep, and others who were able were too busy caring. All in all I ended up clearing 3.5 paths belonging to all manner of relatives. Two were veritable bush tracks, one had the all-important job of guiding dhobi wallahs to the clothesline – heavily laden with the basket of wet washing, one needs a clear path, a clear entrance and the line itself, needless to say, needs the sun that comes with clearing. The 0.5 was not so much a path, because that courtyard garden is too small to have a path, but it was an edge, a boundary, and in need of definition.

Then I went to India, where I swept the paths of sacred grounds, and where I stood with my feet in the great flowing pathway of the Holy Mother Ganga. Finally I came home, to find that some kind friends had done clearing for me, just as I had cleared for others. And this morning, as I swept the path at my own front door, I heard a rustling in the leaves which made me pause. It is a sound I have come to know. I had disturbed a fat blue-tongue lizard, who ventured out and strode away along the path to hide again. Paths are for people, but fat lizards are also welcome.

Gateway to the holy Ganga, India

Pathway to the holy Ganga, India

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