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Beyond Organics is all about gardens and ecology – why we need to bring nature conservation into our gardening and how to do that. I wrote it because I felt that organic gardening needed to develop a more deeply ecological set of values which recognises that gardens are part of their local ecosystem and should be managed with that in mind. I realised that some organic gardening techniques can be environmentally damaging – for example, the run off from excessive use of organic fertilisers next to waterways or natural bush can encourage weed infestations. Inappropriate planting choices require high inputs of nutrient and water and may give little back to the environment – such as growing hybrid roses in a humid climate with poor soils.

The idea behind Beyond Organics is to minimise the inputs to a garden and maximise the positive contribution it makes to the environment – this might be about local biodiversity, planting for birds and insects, avoiding plants that have been harvested from the natural environment and growing your own food to reduce food miles.

There is a short history of gardening through the ages and in different cultures, bringing us to the question of what is appropriate gardening in these times of ecological crisis? Historical horticultural sins are exposed – the mass clearing of orchid populations in South America during the Victorian orchid craze and more recently, the decimation of Turkish hillsides by the harvesting of bulbs such as cyclamen for the European bulb markets and the taking of mature cacti and succulents from delicate desert ecosystems in North America for ‘instant’ gardens.

My highly respected friend and accomplice, Peter Cundall, wrote the foreword and did me the honour of launching the book at Fullers Bookshop, Hobart in 2005.

My beautiful book, Beyond Organic

Here’s what he thought of Beyond Organics

Extracted from foreword…

Beyond Organics is the book that had to be written and Helen Cushing has done a brilliant job. She goes outside the garden, yet still links our gardening activities with the natural environment. Every organic garden, although healthy, different and seemingly quite separate, is still a vital part of a world environment which is clearly deteriorating rapidly. In short, we can’t have one without the other and there is no such thing as a garden in isolation…

‘Beyond Organics’ is a powerful call to action. The message of this book is quite clear. We can no longer ignore the fact that our gardens are part of a natural world. The spread of organic growing methods has been inspiring. Now let’s take the next vital step and start gardening ecologically too.”

Beyond Organics launch. See anyone you know?

Here are some good bits from reviews:

From: The Weekend Australian 2/7/05 Review by Christopher  Bantick

“Those looking for a book that extols the virtues of gardening organically will find something here that goes much further: it is not so much about how to garden as one that asks why many people garden with environmentally compromising habits. She offers a philosophy of the primacy of working with the environment rather than gardening for fashionable effect by taking “caring gardeners beyond organics and into a deeper ecology of gardening.” Integral to this is the awareness that the kind of gardening we may do could be unhelpful for the wellbeing of the planet.”

From: Good Reading Magazine (print and online)

http://goodreadingmagazine.com.au/index.cfm?pg=BookDetail&ISBN=0733315755

The Good Reading Magazine gave Beyond Organics a five star (outstanding) rating in its June 2005 issue.

In the reviewers words, “This is a very generous book, infused with warmth and sense of purpose – it deserves a place on every bookshelf in the country.”

From: http://www.no-dig-vegetablegarden.com/ ecological-gardening.html

‘When we begin to think of the combined size of gardens, rather than individual size, new possibilities begin to emerge in terms of their ecological role.’

This is a quote from my new favourite book “Beyond Organics: Gardening for the Future” by Helen Cushing.

Cushing goes on to describe ways to do this by creating natural habitat for the birds, insects and small animals that are native to your area. Building up the soil to create a vibrant ecosystem that will naturally thrive and survive while natural habitats are being wiped out… the concepts really smacked me between the eyes. It’s worth considering gardening ecologically. (end extract)

in action giving a talk about choosing flowers that support biodiversity

So, if you want to read the whole thing, let me know! It costs AUD$25 from me ($29.95 RRP). Postage in Australia is another $5. Elsewhere it’s more. You can pay into my Helen Cushing Paypal account or ask for my banking info to pay that way. I’ll go away now and figure out how to put a paypal button on the blog…

Have tried and so far failed to put PayPal button into blog. Some technical hitch… So in the meantime, write to me if you want to buy the book and we’ll make a plan.

Somehow it’s already the 1st of July and in Tasmania that means DEEP WINTER. The garden is mostly dozing, although some wonderful self-sown things are coming up in masses. Namely, some obscure greens I picked up from the herb lady at Salamanca market last spring. One is called Miner’s Lettuce, which our always helpful friend Wikipedia tells me  is Claytonia perfoliata, also known as winter purslane. It has most delightful round leaves and tastes green and earthy. I let it go to seed, as I do so often, and as autumn fell into winter, a million green dots came through. I left them of course, just in case they were friends and edible friends at that. Sure enough, I can now go with my scissors and snip masses of the wee cotyledon sprouts, like mowing a lawn with snippers. Elsewhere they are growing with more room, and so becoming shapely and wide armed, though tiny arms of course.

Meanwhile across the way in another bed the healthiest crop of corn salad is glowing from the soil, such deep green glossy and perfectly formed beautiful leaves, and next to it, land cress is taking over, no need for flowing streams of water cress, though of course, that would be divine. The rocket is also bursting out of the ground wherever it can, keeping me supplied with peppery sprigs. There are still dandelions to keep me extra healthy, and lo, the nasturtium rounds of course! All these kindly leaves are there for the picking, with no effort from me, just as the parsely, chives and other standbys are really finished. Sometimes it’s worth doing nothing much. Let the seeds fall, and let the seeds grow. Nature understands itself much better than we do.

The garlic is also spearing through the surface, as are old faithful broadbeans. I am having fun with new beds as I have a fab new fence which I neglected to tell you about. It’s amazing construction was one of the things that kept me preoccupied outside and away from this blog. My fab new fence means that I am inspired to keep its lovely boundary lines clear and the best way to do it is with gardens, so in they go. More landscaping is underway, with rocks and sleepers and helpers.

A  little Eucalpytus leuhmanii is planted just above Charlotte. Charlotte’s nest is now underground, she died in April. The tree is a special one, it was a birthday gift, and now it is a memory tree. She grows well, and Charlotte rests well. I posted photos of her on Facebook, so that’s where you’ll see her.

Another tree planted this winter is a fig – took the cutting from the other fig, which has had misfortunes but was also a gift a few years ago. And a new border is at the front of the property, edged with marvellous rustic bits of the old fence. Look out for bits of the old fence everywhere, including in the fire that burns us warm inside these winter days and nights. Will do photos that show these things shortly. The new border was a great effort of mine, a great frenzied effort of dividing and digging and watering the holes and planting the divisions, all the way along the street edge. The name of the plant escapes me, it’s one that always does. Gets a starry blue flower followed by blue berries arranged along an arching and slender stem, it’s a native plant with clumping abundant leaves and it’s name is… tell you next time.

Now it’s me that dozes, have had a long and productive day working up an idea that maybe one day I’ll be able to report to you happily about! It’s a garden thing, and a writing thing, so it’s allowed on this blog.

Subha ratri – that’s Nepali for good night xxx.

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

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

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

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.

I’m back…

Well I’m back from my Garden Writer’s Tour of Northern Tasmania with stories to tell! But more recently I’m just in from my own garden with dirt under the fingernails and a belly full of berries. All that driving and visiting left me soil and weed deprived, but now I am content. You see,  I reclaimed a path which got lost while I was in India (see blog 1 Paths are for People…). The path, which runs between two veggie beds, had been left in the care of one teenager and one ex-teenager.  I refer you to blog 2 (concerning the resemblence between teens and nasturtiums). I scraped away weeds, I discovered hidden gifts, spread satisfyingly old compost, and planted bright new broccolini seedlings, which sit there now, full of hope and wonder at the feel of the endless earth beneath their tiny roots.

The gifts were a sweet surprise. Last winter a kind friend gave me some Lloyd George raspberry canes. I had just been reading up on varieties and had LG marked out as an old fashioned one to look out for, then having been in my thoughts, they suddenly arrived in my life. I didn’t expect fruit this year but little bursts of flowers have been appearing and this is my second taste of raspberries that collapse like an offering of  pure flavour and softness in the mouth that is blessed with their arrival.  Then low and behold I lifted up my new gooseberry bush which had developed an unplanned lean and there hung a shiny round fruit! I had always thought they needed cooking with sugar and then chilling with custard to be edible but I sucked out the smooth innards of this one and it was very good! Maybe next year we’ll make gooseberry fool like my mum used to, when the bush is better grown and my picking bowl is filled.

I haven’t nearly finished all there is to tell but I must away to an opening. It’s of interest to you – a new book shop in Hobart – Just Tassie Books. All books are by Tasmanian authors. It’s an authors only event, so I got an invite and Bob Browne is doing the opening honours. Speaking of books, if anyone wants to buy Beyond Organics, I have quite a few box fulls and am a lousy distributor but good at filling orders when they do come in. I sell them cheaper than the shops… let me know if you need any… it’s still a good book.

A bientot, will be back tomorrow with photos and travel tales.