The Care and Cultivation of Climbing Roses
My Second Son Spreads His Roots
Though I have the proverbial “green thumb,” a love for all things gardening, I’ve never been good at growing roses.
Rose growers know this flower is temperamental and highly reactive to its environment. Everything has to be just so—the soil acidity, the need for watering at specific times, the constant threat of a multitude of diseases, and the susceptibility of attack from all kinds of insects specific to roses, Over the years, every rose plant I planted, I’m sad to say, died.
Gardening is therapeutic for me, and puts me in a meditative state of mind. Watching something grow from a small seed I planted actually brings forth a feeling much like what I experience when I think on my children. Watching my plants grow, transplanting, watching them spread–flowers, houseplants, herbs–inside and outside. And to this day, I continue experimenting with every plant I grow, in any way I can think of.
My first love of gardening sprung from helping my father as a young child, planting flowers and vegetable seeds in neat little rows.
In elementary school, I was part of a group of five kids able to take high school courses early, and one experiment we did was recording the growth of green bean seeds in different situations, like sunlight vs. none, and I became fascinated. In college, I used horticulture to fulfill my science obligations. After moving to Michigan, I fell in love with MSU’s Children’s Horticultural Gardens, and every time I visit, I’m inspired to return to school just so I can walk the gardens any time.
My house is filled with houseplants (shout out to Mom and Dad for inspiring me!) I learned how to can fruits and vegetables later in life (shout out to my mother-in-law Esther for teaching me!); and I even home-brew komboucha, a probiotic, tea fermented by a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, comparable to the yeast starter for sourdough bread), that basically resembles a giant mushroom, floats and grows in black tea and sugar, and looks and feels like a jelly-fish. Komboucha has been brewed for thousands of years and works in the gut like vinegar (if you don’t know how, Google it). I have become a komboucha moonshine queen!
However, I still don’t do well with roses. Until my climbing roses, that is.
For some reason, the climbing roses I planted did not die. In fact, they have survived and grown hardy, and they continue to grow in front of my house to this day (going on seventeen years). I learned new tips, like spotting and cutting away “shooters,” branches that shoot out of a main stem but never flower. (Some gardeners call them “suckers.”) Shooters suck nutrients away from the buds and blooms–the “fruit.” Yet I wholly acknowledge many ways I nearly killed my climbing roses. Summers where my roses bloomed but faded quickly. Sometimes they needed attention because of black spot or some other fungus, but I was too busy to care for them the way they needed. Over the years, I admit, there were times I missed shooters and ignored insects or a fungus, all of which can spread through the plant quickly and devour leaves and buds if not treated. Yet, my climbing roses continue to climb.
Climbing roses also like to fight. They have thorns which are different from regular rose bushes. Climbing roses have true briers. The kind of briers I could imagine surrounding a castle with a sleeping princess inside, briers no one would want to battle. Their thorny branches cling and catch and don’t let go. The thorns implant themselves into any open skin, throbbing painfully until removed. They catch in my hair, on my coat, my hands, my face. Trimming the branches is a battle of wills.
And no matter how hard I try, I never walk away without scratches and thorns to remove. I have nearly succumbed to these thorns more than once, thinking of throwing down my sheers and just letting the plants go wild. Still, I watched these roses grow taller every year, nearly fifteen feet over ten years, into a complete and beautiful arch above the front door of our old house. And when we moved, I wrote into our sellers contract that the roses were coming with me.
Unfortunately, my father didn’t get that memo, and in the middle of a crazy-hard day of moving a house of four young children (one a baby), I told my father, “We still have to dig up the roses.” Mind you, my father knows his plants. He is responsible for my early exposure to gardening. He knows how to prune. And in a moment of moving madness, my father cut my fifteen-foot beauty down to two feet with one swift clip of the sheers. In his defense, he didn’t know of my plans (obsessions), and he apologized. (I forgive you father!) It’s only a plant after all … and pruning helps promote growth …
In that moment, knowing there was nothing I could say or do, I simply turned, went back into the house, and continued packing boxes. I may have cried. I don’t remember. I think I was in shock.
And yet, my roses grew at a much faster pace at our new home, and today, they are hardier than ever! I have given away splices and grafts that have taken root and blossomed in the yards of friends and neighbors. Growing roots, spreading–reminding me exactly of my second son, as I have seen upon him entering college. It hasn’t always been easy, as I have watched him learn to cultivate and care for his own fruit and branches, just as I had to learn to care for my roses.
So many things I could have done better over the years, or sooner. I could have cut off diseased branches and shooters before they had time to suck life from the main plant–but I just didn’t know.
Yet my roses thrive and blossom. My first climbing rose continues to burst forth every summer into a gorgeous displays of deep red flowers. And I have since started cultivating wild roses, pale pink in color, which I have divided and replanted into beautiful columns of sweet-smelling loveliness all around our new home.
As with Adam, I see the rose petals he leaves behind wherever he goes—with perhaps a few thorns. I watch in amazement his spreading roots, wishing I would have done better at times, regretting my mistakes, but learning from each one. And I learn with you, learn from you, as I continue watching you grow into a man, thanking God every day for the blessing you are, and watching with pride as you go forth into this world.