Little in my garden has caused me as much dithering as my rosebush – and believe you me, there is plenty of competition.

Almost since I moved into my darling 1915 bungalow a few years ago, I have had visions of its bare, underloved street facade softened by a rosebush or three, carpeted in splashy, fragrant blossoms.

My first plan, for rosa rugosa, went south, or perhaps east, when I learned they are Asian, not Mainers at all. That I could live with – though I am trying to plant native flora in my garden in order to encourage native fauna, I am not absolutist. But once I learned that the bush is invasive, I couldn’t in good conscience bring myself to plant it.

All last summer, I rued, I hemmed and I hawed. And I planted nothing in the rose line.

Roses in bloom at Peggy Grodinsky’s home – something that once seemed unlikely to the new gardener.

Fall, then winter came. Unlike my foxgloves, my rose fantasy survived the cold, and at the Maine Flower Show in March, I was drawn to a talk on New England roses like a bee to catmint. Though the talk was informative and entertaining, the precise, expert questions from the audience spooked me. I left in my usual rose-induced state – suspended between longing and intimidation.

If I couldn’t manage a finicky rose, surely I could carry off a “beginner’s rose.” But each variety I met that qualified lacked scent. About the only thing I was sure of where roses were concerned was this: A rose without fragrance is like a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips.

Over dinner in April, my friend Kerry Michaels, a garden photographer and garden writer who lives in Freeport, listened to me ramble on about roses. She made a face. It was not an encouraging face. They’re too difficult, she said. They’re too prickly, she said. Don’t do it, she said. She suggested hollyhocks for that bare spot out front instead.

And just like that, after two years of excruciating indecision, I gave up on roses.

FOUND OBJECTS

In fact, it was freeing. My reimagined front garden bed was a beauty, pleasingly unkempt and overflowing with beloved perennials: hollyhocks, peonies, coneflowers and cosmos.

Fifteen days passed in this horticultural reverie when …

… on a beautiful spring evening, while walking to a local restaurant, my partner Joe and I happened upon five neatly labeled boxes on a neighbor’s front lawn. Each held an unpromising collection of sticks and dirt that claimed to be a rosebush. Free, a sign said. I resolutely walked on. But the boxes were still there after our dinner, and my resolve crumbled. I pulled out my smartphone and Googled the handwritten names on the cardboard labels – ruby Meidiland and Bonica. Easy care, I read, good for beginners.

Apparently, I was meant to have roses after all.

We lugged two of the boxes home and plunked them down on my front lawn, and for the next few mornings, I watered the boxed roses heavily.

At the Portland Farmers’ Market, I sought advice from the woman at Old Sheep Meadows Nursery, an Alfred nursery that specializes in heirloom roses. She frowned and then, inexplicably, guessed my weight (accurately, a little low, which was only polite). “Jump!” she said, just as inexplicably, fixing me with a no-nonsense, “do as I say” stare. I jumped. Do that, she said, pointing at me in midair, where you intend the plant the roses. “You must sink 7 inches.”

Grodinsky tripped across some boxed-up rosebushes – all scraggy stalks and dirt – left on a neighbor’s lawn with a sign that said “free.” Of the three she took home and planted, only one produced blooms. This photo shows leaves sprouting on the plant that eventually bloomed. “I was ridiculously excited about them,” Grodinsky says.

“Seven inches!” she repeated.

Roses, I learned, hate compacted soil; it needs to be so loose that were I to actually try that jumping trick, I’d sink. She lectured me on double digging, peat moss, cow manure, wood ash (did I have a wood stove? did a neighbor?), sloping beds and …

“See?” I interjected after 10 minutes. “This is exactly why I am nervous.”

“I am giving you the rules,” she replied sternly. “If you were going to do algebra, you would have rules. If you are going to plant roses, you have rules to follow.”

I emailed my friend Molly from Texas, a garden writer and rose whisperer. She emailed back a long, reassuring note: “I have a rose named Sweet Pegge that is actually named for my Brenham friend Pegge Bogle, whose husband bought the naming rights at a charity auction … but it reminds me of all the Peggys I know and love, including you,” she wrote.

“Anyway, I am so sorry you are having rose stresses. Gardening should be relaxing and fun! These people to whom you have been talking sound like the type who give roses a bad reputation. They do not have to be hard.”

Clarence Rhodes in his yard, framed by his remaining Robusta roses.

There followed a detailed page-long rose primer. If I ever get rose-naming rights, I shall call mine Sweet Molly.

COMEDY OF ERRORS

A few days later, I returned home from a visit to O’Donal’s Nursery in Scarborough, (organically) armed to the teeth – with advice, bonemeal, peat, one item meant to encourage rose roots to grow and another to encourage the rest of the plant. I had assured the nice lady at O’Donal’s that, while I had no idea what I was doing, these roses were easy care, so I would be fine.

“They always say that,” she said skeptically.

Joe and I dug holes – well, he dug them. We amended the soil, packed in plenty of peat and compost, mulched, watered heavily, and we prayed to the rose gods – well, I did. Mysteriously, the two boxes of roses we’d taken held five bushes. I planted three and gave two to my neighbor, Tony Donovan.

Before putting them in the ground, I’d foolishly removed their labels, stashing them in my office so I could add them to a plant list I keep. Now I’d no idea which was the Bonica and which the ruby Meidiland. That would not be my last or worst mistake.

Joe’s sister Kate, an excellent gardener, told me to avoid planting the roses where snow would fall on them from the roof. Er … A week after the roses went into the ground, I was unpacking groceries when I came upon the unopened package of Roots 1-Step at the bottom of the bag. Um …

For the next several weeks, I watered and waited and waited and watered. My garden diary entries for this time period all are some variation of this:

“Roses still look like sticks.”

“I check the roses every single day. Twice a day. Sometimes more. If devotion + concern counts, maybe they’ll make it. Nothing.”

“Still nothing.”

All over Portland, opening rose blossoms taunted me from other people’s gardens – big and blowsy, trim and orderly, in hedges and alone, climbing or not, red, white, yellow, pink … Even a bush in full and glorious bloom on the nearby weedy lot where a mobile home once parked. There is nothing to it, they seemed to say.

Then, two and one-half weeks on, one of the three bushes I’d planted began to produce leaves. Leaves! Just a few, then a few more. It wasn’t long before the scrappy little fighter sported a full coat. And if the glossy leaves weren’t exciting enough, on June 12, she produced a bud! A BUD!!! (In my gardening journal, there are nine exclamation points.) A few days after that, there were five buds, showing the faintest glimpse of pink. It was the Bonica, “an irresistible variety of shrub rose,” according to the website Gardenia.

Longtime rosarian Clarence Rhodes with his sole Robusta rosebush at his Portland home.

BED OF ROSES

The still-bare branches of the other two didn’t look dead, but they didn’t look alive, either. As I write, they remain in this state of suspended part-green, part-brown animation, to my eyes a plant coma they aren’t likely to come out of. Clarence advised me to leave them be for now and just see what happens, a gardening philosophy I can get behind. He didn’t hold out much hope, though.

Clarence Rhodes, this is, a famous rosarian who turns out to live just a block away. (He was a major character in the 2007 Aurelia Scott book “Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Obsessive and Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening.”) My neighbor Tony decided I needed to meet Clarence. Tony had borrowed a fat photo album from Clarence that holds some 250 photographs of roses, and he gave me the album and suggested I return it.

So late last month, I walked over and found Clarence, now a spry 89, on his knees in his perfectly manicured front yard – the edges of the hedges so flat and straight I wonder if he used a level – re-seeding the lawn.

For an hour, we talked roses. It turned out he had six other equally fat photo albums filled with their pictures. Did I want them? I politely declined, but he insisted I take two recent issues of America Rose: The Magazine of the American Rose Society.

Some of Rhodes’ photos of roses. At one time he and his wife traveled around the country and the world visiting gardens and judging rose shows.

Clarence started growing roses, he said, after he moved to Maine from Cleveland in the 1960s for an engineering job. The rose garden was a gift for his wife, an attempt to cheer her up – she was dejected about the move. But as their roses took root outside their modest 1950s cape home in Rosemont (honest to god), so did their new lives. They raised a son and a daughter. They became deeply involved in the Maine Rose Society (now disbanded). They traveled around the country and around the world, visiting rose gardens and nurseries, judging rose shows and forming deep friendships with fellow enthusiasts. His wife died in the early 1990s; the rose gardens he started for her lived on.

Clarence showed me his backyard – more perfect lawn and a big, extraordinarily neat vegetable garden with enviable soil. He dug up a giant, impeccable head of romaine lettuce and gave it to me, first carefully rinsing the dirt on its roots back into the garden.

For years, Clarence had as many as 250 rosebushes outside his house – 250! – some in the ground, some growing in 10- and 20-gallon plastic buckets that he overwintered in the garage. Showstoppers all, judging by the photo album. A few years ago, he stopped growing roses. It wasn’t fun anymore, he said.

Today in that big expanse of lawn, Clarence, like me, has just a single rosebush.

His, a Robusta, is big and thriving (of course), more than living up to its name.

Mine, wee and pink, with a name that sounds like a pharmaceutical company, is the stuff of anxiety – and hope.

 

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