Roses and Me

My mother visited me last night in a dream. I told her that I was sorry that I may have killed two roses bushes when I pruned them too severely.

She told me what mothers always tell their kids: don’t worry, that you learn as you go and that even if I made a mistake, some mistakes are worth making. She added that I was fortunate that I didn’t have to chase away the neighborhood dogs who killed the two bushes she had planted at the end of our suburban driveway.

I smiled at that. Unlike most on our street, I didn’t grow up with a dog. Those that trotted by our house dutifully paused to sniff the rose bushes, and other plants my mother arranged around our house. Perhaps they lifted their hind legs out of respect.

When my mother saw one about to tinkle, she rushed out of the house. Before she reached the stricken plants, the dog walkers had pulled their beasts away, but the damage was done. The roses at the foot of our driveway died.

Those in the back survived. She planted about a dozen in a square of soil, each about a foot from the other. I had just enough room to move my toy trucks through what my imagination turned into giant Sequoias. I had to be careful: thorns could snag my clothing and scratch my skin. I couldn’t understand what she saw in these ugly, nasty little things, covered in shiny green leaves, until the weather warmed and they began to bloom.

Then the Japanese beetles would descend and my mother dumped a white powder on the leaves that killed maybe two beetles. She also forbade me to play near the plants because this powder was poisonous and the beetles had to die. Those that didn’t ate holes in the leaves and attacked the blossoms. By August, it was all rather awful.

Because of this, and seasonal hay fever that turned my nose into a sneezing mess, I grew up with no affection for horticulture. My mother, on the other hand, found salvation in it. She was entirely self-taught and filled every room in the house with plants. After she died, my wife took some of those plants to our house, where they continue to grow.

For many years I believed I assumed that whatever genetic proclivity my mother had for helping things grow had skipped me. I thought I had a black thumb and harbored a general loathing of the outdoors. My allergies gradually faded as I grew older, giving me the ability to fire up the lawnmower and give a haircut to the tiny patch of grass in front of my suburban house.

I also developed a taste for landscaped gardens. On a rather extravagant date, my high school sweatheart (who became my wife) and I went to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. When my son was a baby I strolled him through the Azalea Garden behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and deeper into Fairmount Park. I was lucky enough to be on the grounds of Versailles on the rare day when the fountains were turned on. When I spent some time living in New York City, I walked through Central Park as many times as possible, getting to know all the bridges and overlooks.

Best of all was Dumbarton Oaks, a landscaped garden at the top of a hill in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Go there and you’ll enjoy how the neoclassical elements close to the grand house slowly unravel into a fantastic wilderness that, like most gardens, looks so much better than the real thing. I later discovered it was an important work of Beatrice Ferrand, America’s first female landscape architect.

But I resisted any attempt to put living things in the ground. A neighbor stared at the back of my house and agreed to help me trim the shrubs. He drove his car to a woodsy area and loaded the trunk with plants he said “were fun because they’re free.” A single leave of English Ivy clinging to one of the root balls soon spread itself all over the front, and back, of the house. I was curious: why was it called English Ivy? Did it have something to do with British imperial history?


Shortly before my mother died, I found out that someone in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (of which she was a proud member and patron) named a rose after her. I tried to find out what it was. I even called and e-mailed the society. They never responded.

What was it about roses that made my wife–and my mother–so interested? I really didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, until my wife and I drove back from a long, early springtime day in Washington, D.C. and, to my surprise, she steered into a garden center. A few minutes later we came back with a David Austen rose called Princess Alexandra of Kent.

I didn’t know roses had names and I had never heard of David Austen. All I knew was that my wife liked roses and, having bought her cut flowers frequently, I was happy to see her enthralled with this big, potted snarl of dark green leaves with tiny green buds on the top that were about to bloom.

David Austen roses were special, my wife assured me. Austen was the world’s most famous breeder of English roses in the world. So, for birthdays, anniversaries and for no other reason than to make her happy, I bought her more.

I know the English have their ivy, but I didn’t know the difference between an English rose and any other country’s. When we went to Paris, we visited Malmaison, the rather small villa on the outside of Paris that Napoleon Bonaparte shared with his first wife, Josephine Beaharnais. Though Napoleon had tried (and failed) to breed roses, Josephine succeeded and acquired a collection, of which one, called Souvenir of Malmaison, is named in her honor (legend says it came from her original collection). I saw some roses at Malmaison that, I guess, were French. Later I learned that Souvenir of Malmaison is one of the fussiest roses ever.

Alas, Princess Alexandra of Kent died in our garden (I found her a replacement). Another rose called “hot chocolate” is thriving. Crown Princess Margaretta didn’t do well at first, but now it is proudly climbing our fence. Falstaff, a rose I bought to honor the famous Shakespearian blowhard, also struggled, but is now taller than I am. Among our other Austens are Gentle Hermoine, Port Sunlight, Lady of Shallott, Princess Anne, Windermere (a town we visited in England’s Lake District), the Lady Gardener (in honor of my wife), Empress Josephine and another one whose name I’ve forgotten. We also bought roses from other breeders, some we found at a discount at Home Depot and Lowes. They have names like Old Timer (I guess that’s me), Twilight Zone, Bliss, Ebb Tide, Mr. Lincoln, Maggie (my wife’s nickname), Moonstone, Electron (my wife is a scientist specializing in physics), and Ringo Starr.

Some of our roses don’t have names. They are red, white, pink, coral and orange. Last year, as they bloomed, the air filled with fragrance of extraordinary beauty–that did not bother my allergies.

And the Japanese beetles left as alone.

One has a special name. Called Peace, it was bred to commemorate the end of World War Two. This one also struggled for a while and, yes, I made the joke about giving peace a chance and…

A few days ago I noticed the first red shoots emerging from the root. Yesterday some green leaves popped out. I should have told my mother about this one in my dream but I was disappointed about the two roses that we lost.

Or did we?

We have a section of our garden, way in the back, where we put things that we want to come back. We have good soil back there. We water regularly and add fertilizer. I planted the gnarled roots of those two, stood back and thought about how springtime can be such a surprise: we forget about so much of the stuff we experience, and then, we don’t expect it, they come back. When the air is cool, the sunlight bright and a fresh wind blows through what little hair you have left on your head, to hope for things, no matter how seemingly impossible, irrational or just plain foolish, can bring a different kind of peace.

I pruned those roses so severely because a sudden frost had turned what was green a dark, dingy brown. I remembered how beautiful those roses were last year, and wanted to cut off the dead shoots to make way for the new.

And if nothing new emerges, I will embrace my mother’s advice: some mistakes are worth making.


Dirt Truth

After a while the soil sticks to your clothes and your skin, but you’re oddly proud. You’ve been thrusting your hands in mulch and fertilizer, flicking away the occasional slug, bug and–though you’ve been told they’re good for the plants–worm. You pack the soil around the base of a green thing, careful of the thorns. Every so often you stand back and gaze at what you’ve done, confident that by putting thing in the ground, you’ve made the world a better place.

How much better? Voltaire infamously ended Candide with a shrug: though ours is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, about the best thing you can do when bad things happen is go home and tend your garden–if you have one.

My mother had one. After a summer rainfall her rose garden smelled of coffee because she read somewhere that used Chock-Full-‘o-Nuts (the HEAVENLY Coffee, for those who remember the slogan) was a great soil enhancer. Our suburban house was on a corner bounded by three streets, so we had a little bit more than the typical quarter-acre and my mother planted it up, with a big circle of flowering annuals and perennials, a row of evergreens in the back and a few ornamental fruit trees whose rotting fruit stank up the yowling lawn mower that yours truly had to push once a week (sometimes twice in the spring and fall) while sneezing my guts out because I was allergic to just about everything that bloomed.

She even had a compost heap in distant corner by the neighbor’s fence where I dumped grass clippings, withered pieces of plants, vegetable fragments that weren’t good enough for the salad bowl and whole chunks of hedges that fell to the trimmer’s electric scream. After a while the pile would lose its fresh-cut chlorophyll aroma and become a darkening, malignant mound that gave off steam on cold winter afternoons, which, I was told, meant that all this organic matter that normal people put in the trash (except for the coffee grounds) was transforming itself into stuff she could scatter over the flower beds and around the trees next spring–with ground-up stuff that smelled like the wrong end of a cow from bags marked humus (not to be confused with the Middle Eastern bean dip).

Did the flowers bloom? I guess they did. Another of my sneezy outdoorsy jobs was watering them, after which I had to hose myself down because, as much as my mother loved fertile, loamy, fragrant dirt, she wouldn’t have it inside, unless it was in a pot nurturing a houseplant.

My mother became a member of the Pennsylvania horticultural society, attended the annual Philadelphia Flower Show religiously and filled nearly every horizontal surface of her house with plants. Some of those plants are in my house today.

And they’re doing just fine.

I did not inherit my mother’s green thumb. For many years I hated going outdoors because of my allergies. As I grew older, my allergies ebbed. I could survive the few weeks in the spring and fall with over-the-counter remedies.

Then I married my high school sweetheart, who, despite allergies, loves plants that bloom, especially roses. After buying a few supermarket bouquets, I went with her to a garden store where she took home a pot of a thorny bush called Princess Alexandra of Kent. This, she told me, was a David Austen rose, from the famed English rose breeder.

She bought bags of soil and asked my help putting it in the ground. Some of the dirt creeped under my fingernails.

The Princess, as we called her, did well for a while but, for reasons we still can’t figure out, perished. She was replaced with a Crown Princess Margreta and a Falstaff (both Austen roses). Both had slow starts. Margreta almost perished but Jan nursed her back to life.

And I bought more roses. We planted one spectacular bush called Tequila that became the marvel of the neighborhood. That led to more Austens (Windermere, the Lady Gardner, Port Sunlight and a few more Crown Princesses so we could grow them up our fence), a tree rose, a mini rose with small pink blossoms, a dwarf rose (a little larger than a mini) with orange blossoms, roses without names, roses found on a discount shelf at Home Depot, roses with such names as Paradise, Super Hero, Old Timer, Twilight Zone, Ebb Tide, Empress Josephine, Maggie, and Ringo Starr. Did you know Ringo had a rose named after him? We haven’t bought the Paul McCartney yet, but…

One rose whose name we forgot is now the Kai rose, for our grandchild.

I discovered I’m a sucker for plants with great names. In our garden is something called a Starship, a Turtle Head, a King Tut, and a Bengal Tiger. These aren’t roses. In fact, I’m not sure what they are, or what they’ll look like when they bloom.

But they’re growing and, a few days ago, when I was digging holes in the front, some people stopped and told me how nice the garden was. I invited their kids to smell the roses. “Always smell the roses,” I said, quoting a golfer who was actually misquoted (he never said anything about roses but, I guess when you’re a good golfer, people think you say marvelous things).

I stuck my nose in one of the roses and, though I’d smelled them many times, I felt like my grandchild when he ate ice cream for the first time. He said, “wow” but wow wasn’t enough.

After putting the gardening tools away, and watering the what I’d planted, I came into the house, cleaned myself up and watched the TV news. I saw terrible things happening elsewhere. If it isn’t violence, it’s horrifyingly bad weather.

We don’t get any violence on our street and, for reasons I don’t understand, the floods, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires have not found us. Several years ago a few feet of snow came down from the heavens. My back ached as I shoveled (a similar ache to how I feel after lifiting up big bags of ORGANIC garden soil) and I had that heartbreaking moment when I had cleared the driveway and the municipal snow plow truck roared by and put a new wall of white where I had briefly glimpsed the open road.

But I dug us out and we were okay.

I look at the news on TV, online and in the newspaper that arrives every morning, and I wonder, how are my wife and I so lucky?

Then we go outside and tend our garden.