Archive for the ‘spring’ 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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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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Finally I am back, only to find that summer is over and the maple leaves are starting to colour up in spite of the unseasonally warm weather. I have been back into the Zucchinis with a Bad Attitude post and addded some more practical info plus photos showing male and female flowers and their attendant bees. From now on I’ll be including practical growing info to go with the stories. This was always my aim – to be useful as well as (hopefully) inspiring and entertaining. And now to the maples, and a story from a springtime past…

A Mug Full of Maples

Maple colours

Every so often I decide to go for a walk just after I’ve made a cup of tea. So I take the tea with me. Taking a cup of tea for a walk makes passers by smile. The empty cup is also the perfect container for bringing home the inevitable bits of plants I can’t help collecting.

The several groves of Japanese maple dotted around my garden started off as seedlings brought home in such a teacup.

There is a very fine park down the hill from where I live. A creek runs busily through it and great gums balance on the sandstone cliffs behind, as do brightly clad, long-limbed rock climbers. The park, however, is unashamedly non-native. In spring it is a glory of rhododendrons, pink blossom, dancing daffodils and youthfully-green birch buds. In summer, the soft grass somehow stays cool and damp in the dense shadow of great, thick conifers whose dark, wide branches swallow up children as they hide and play in the hidden belly of these long-haired trees. And in autumn, while the birches cast golden leaves from silver limbs, the Japanese maples take the main stage in the ceaseless beauty pageant that defines a well-planned garden.

Art of Nature

Their leaves, like stars reflecting a fiery sunset, stay and stay on the elegantly held branches, only letting go at the last minute, when winter is but a calendar page away. The seeds, however, have wings to fly. Once ripe, clinging to the twiggy tree will do them no good. Better to take their chance on the autumn breeze before coming to rest on the wide earth waiting quietly below. There they settle, soon lost to sight under fallen leaves and frost-bitten mornings when walking tea drinkers are less than few and far-between.

My walk must have been in the flower-studded spring. The lost seeds had not been lost after all. They had pushed up en-masse through the cool, wet soil and rotted leaves below the largest of the Japanese Maples.  A handful were easily pulled up, fitting snugly into my mug. I transplanted them first into pots and the following winter into the garden.

Somehow my garden, which is basically filled with native and food plants, would have to tolerate the vanity of a few groves of these exotic beauties. So far, we are surviving that struggle quite well, the garden and me.

Practical:  Acer palmatum Common Name: Japanese Maple

General: A small, highly ornamental, deciduous tree. There are literally 1000s of cultivars and sub species.

Climate: Prefers cooler climates and doesn’t cope well with extra hot weather or drying winds. The leaves will burn and desiccate under such conditions.

Sun: Full sun is okay in a cool climate but light shade is often preferred. If you are in an area with hot summers, then some shade is essential, especially in the afternoon.

Soil: The soil needs to be kind! Your maple will thank you for a soft, moist, well-structured, well-drained soil. Otherwise it will struggle.

Water: Regular and adequate.

Propagation: Seedlings are easily grown from seed collected in autumn, chilled through winter, and sown in spring. The results will be variable in terms of leaf size, autumn colour and how long the leaves are held. My seedlings have demonstrated this. If you are keen to have lots of seedling maples, here’s what to do: collect fresh seed in autumn; de-wing it; soak it for 24 hours in warm water; place in a ventilated (ie a few holes) plastic bag with some moist peat and refrigerate for 3 months. Ensure that they do not dry out. Some of the seeds may have sprouted by the time spring has come. Carefully relocate into a container of moist, slightly acid seed raising mix. You might need to use tweezers. A poly box or tubes work well. The container should have depth so that the roots can develop uninhibited.

Alternatively, pay an early spring visit to a tree in a cold shady spot and chances are it will have a thick crop of seedlings coming up through the ample leaf mulch it shed in autumn. This is much easier than doing it yourself!

Asexual reproduction is usually by grafting and tissue culture (commercially). Sorry, can’t go into all that just here. The Internet will be your friend and help you with such technical projects.

Management: Plant with love and care into a well-prepared hole in winter. If the roots have been pot bound then prune them back so that there are no bends. Cut back the top accordingly. Nurture lovingly when spring is in the air, never let it dry out, mulch the soil and keep it free of competition. Once established the Jap maple is hardy in a cool climate but will never like hot dry winds or extreme heat days. Pruning is only needed if you want a certain shape.

Uses: A superb small tree to beautify the garden, the courtyard, the anywhere.

Nature's Random Beauty

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