Love them, hate them…doesn’t matter. You will just need to get used to them.

Domestic Bantam Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus); Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus); European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris); House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus); American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis ); Barn Owl (Tyto alba).

I love birds.  I also hate birds.  And therein you catch the gist of my fickle life.  I have a similarly convoluted love/hate relationship with most things in my life:  with men, school, writing, work, summer, cars, winter, men, sports, dancing.  And men.  Did I mention men?  I love and hate them the most.

This fickleness took root long, long ago.

Flash back (way back) to one un-Godly cold winter during the dark ages on the farm in Wyoming.  We all suffered, but it was the livestock that suffered the most.  Sure, my little boy fingers and toes got cold, maybe even numb, when I was sent outside to complete my winter chores – glorious tasks like chopping a hole in the foot-thick ice of the water trough so the horses could have a drink. But at least I had a warm house to retreat to when my work was done.  The livestock?  Not so much.  Barns on a poor, mid-century family farm were unheated.

My unofficial definition of un-Godly cold is when the thermometer doesn’t budge above minus ten ˚F for at least two weeks.  Such was the case that particular winter.  That arctic blast was enough to send anyone and anything to that dangerous dreamland called hypothermia.  That cold wreaked havoc across the farm, laid a frozen bony hand on everything in its path.  The cattle and horses shivered through, visibly miserable and coated in hoarfrost, but surviving.  The large animals were fairly amazing in that respect.

It was our small flock of barnyard chickens that were truly traumatized.  They were not bright enough to find ways to keep warm.  They might have burrowed into straw like the rabbits, or slept crisscrossed and stacked together in a pile, harvesting each other’s body heat like the pigs, or even snuggled up next to a resting cow like the sheep.  But the chickens, with their pea-sized brains, didn’t do any of these.  They instinctively and habitually roosted in solitary slumber on the top of stall walls and among the rafters of the barn, suspended in the midnight air where they were particularly susceptible to the extreme elements.

One brown bantam hen that was no bigger than a softball was forever altered during that winter of our discontent.  The poor thing’s exposed feet froze solidly.  When the cold snap finally broke and her little toes thawed, they simply fell off.  She was left with two stubs, the scaly chopsticks of her lower legs which, minus her feet, were entirely useless for walking.

Despite the objections of my father, who I believe saw chicken soup on the menu, I nursed the little hen back to health.  Mobility proved to be difficult, but she was a fighter.  Over the course of the following spring and summer, with practice and repetition, her wing muscles strengthened and eventually she was able to fly for short distances – no small feat for a domestic chicken; they are typically flightless.

When this little hen with the big heart wanted to go somewhere to handle her pressing chicken business, she would begin flopping along the ground on those two stubs, flapping her wings madly until finally she became airborne.  Her takeoffs reminded me of the National Geographic movies where the tiny propeller plane deep in the Alaskan interior bounces along the rough terrain until it eventually catches its wind and lifts off, veering left into the sunset.  The hen, though, had no flight control.  Veering in any direction was a problem.  Once airborne, the struggling creature would do her best to steer but the results were mostly catastrophic.  She lived a random life, for certain, most often ending up catch-as-catch-can wherever the winds deposited her.

Another problem for the little-hen-that-could was that she had no landing gear.  Every flight ended in a tumble, an ass-end-over-teakettle roll.  We appropriately began to refer to her as the Cannonball, and the name stuck.  After every tumultuous landing, Cannonball would smooth her ruffled feathers and pretend that she had landed gracefully, exactly where she intended to land, and then go about some made-up-on-the-spot chicken business.

That little hen was hell-bent on overcoming any disability the un-God handed her.  She was an inspiration to all of us and we grew increasingly enamored of her as time went by.  We adored her tenacity and, indeed, she became a slight celebrity in our small farming community.  She had her photo published in the Basin Republican Rustler (front page!) and she even won a ribbon at the Big Horn County Fair, a sort of Miss Congeniality award for the sweet, disabled hen.

Isn’t bird love grand?  Now comes the hate part.

While Cannonball was living the spotlighted life of a feathered starlet, her more pedestrian foot-enabled sisters and brothers were systematically and thoroughly uprooting and eating every single seedling from my garden.  Carrots, radishes, corn, squash, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra:  all plucked in infancy, row by row.

At that point, it was my turn to see chicken soup on the menu.

I loved that little bantam hen, but for an entire summer I hated the rest of that garden-gobbling flock.  And for the remainder of my life, it is as though I have been precariously balanced on a karmic bird teeter-totter.  For every good bird, there has been an evil bird.  For every good bird deed, there has been an equal and opposite evil bird deed.  But it’s not limited to birds.  This love/hate, good/bad dichotomy extends to all aspects of my life.  For every good boss, there has been a moron with a mean streak.  For every task that comes easily and gives pleasure, there has been something tortuous and painful that must be finished.  For every good man, there has been a self-centered jerk (most of whom I have referred to as “boyfriend” at one time or another).

Years after the days of Cannonball, far too many years for me to comfortably divulge, I randomly ended up in California’s Bay Area when the former Mr. Perfect was transferred there for work.  I alighted in the suburbs on the “other side” of the Oakland Hills, an ass-end-over-teakettle landing rather like the little hen – she and I both lived a life wherein we were primarily deposited by the winds of fate.  Still, I quite liked the location despite a slowly deteriorating relationship.  My life was off-center, but my garden was beautiful.

While living in Northern California, I had to have a sinus surgery.  No, Honey…not from all the cocaine I’d done.  I wish.  I think I wish, anyway – it certainly would make for a more dramatic story.  Alas, my surgery was to cut out polyps – nasty pendulous sinus growths that must be removed by scalpel every seven or eight years.  If you want to continue breathing, that is.  I chose to continue breathing.

Here’s where  I found myself post surgery:  reduced to mouth-breathing as my hacked-up nasal passages were stuffed with cotton packing and God only knows what else, although whatever it was did feel hard and plastic, like maybe a child’s toy had accidentally gotten stuck in there.  Dr. Handsome had ordered me to avoid lying prone for danger of 1) suffocating; 2) hemorrhaging and bleeding to death.  Thus, I spent the week immediately after the slice-and-dice propped upright amongst pillows in an overstuffed brown leather armchair in the living room – twenty-four hours a day.  The former Mr. Perfect deposited me there to fend for myself as he proceeded to go about his business – elsewhere.  For me, it was shaping up to be the loneliest week of my life, my only companions being a stubborn pain and the pocketful of narcotics I had been handed at hospital checkout.  On that first afternoon of living alone in the lounge chair, in my perfectly delirious narcotic daze, I began to hallucinate a flickering in the back patio lemon tree, visible through the living room window.  Flicker, flicker, flicker.  Blame the narcotics, but it was more than a few hours before I realized it was not me being delusional; there really was something flickering.

I forced myself to pay attention through the delicious narcotic high which fairly begged me to avoid reality and simply return to dreamy, dreamy sleepyville.  Say what you will, but I refuse to apologize for loving that high.  I earned it.  In my acute state of sinus misery, narcotics were the very best buddy a Queen Gardener could have asked for.  Still, I pushed them aside long enough to investigate what the infernal flickering was about.  As the dope haze lifted, I realized it was a wildly painted orange and green Rufous hummingbird building her nest on a low-hanging branch of the lemon tree.

I named her Ruby.

Hummingbirds, I learned, weave their nest, tiny as a child’s teacup, out of small bits of plant matter, like moss and lichens and seed down and the tiniest flakes of bark and fluff, all stitched together with strands of spider’s web.  That’s right, spider’s web.  Stunning.

It took Ruby a few days to complete her nursery, during which she flickered back and forth, back and forth, adding this and that and then a tiny bit more of this.  It was a slow process and I was half-way through my narcotic prescription before she had finished her masterpiece, the colorful baby crib securely tethered to a twig just beneath a large lemon leaf that later served as a rain umbrella and sun shade.  Ruby knew what she was doing.

Maybe it was the drugs.  Maybe it was just that I desperately wanted to feel less alone in my life.  For whatever reason, that little bird became a source of light in those, my darkest hours.  She was a tiny, pulsating beacon of positive energy.  She emanated a pure, natural love and sense of purpose that flowed through me and sustained me as I recuperated.  Writing this now, I realize that I come across a bit like a crazy old Queen Birder, but I honestly believe that I might have fallen into a significant narcotic and loneliness fueled depression had Ruby not kept me entertained with her lively, light energy.

Two days after she finished construction, there were two eggs.  Fifteen days later, there were two naked baby hummingbirds that looked something like large, clumsy ants wiggling in the bottom of the nest.  Three weeks later, the babies fledged.  I, too, flew back to my normal and increasingly dysfunctional life, breathing restored.  Also restored, though, was a basic faith in the healing power of nature.  To this day, when faced with a dark moment, I try to remember Ruby sewing her beautiful nest and always when I do, things feel lighter.  Wherever you are, Ruby, I love you and I thank you.

Not all nesting birds are as gracious or as giving.

In the first years of my District of Columbia inhabitation, before the distance between us grew irreconcilable, the former Mr. Perfect and I shared a miniscule second story loft condo in a turn-of-the-century brownstone.  It was a cute, albeit tiny, historically significant home that included an upper-level step-out balcony, just enough space for me to be able to affirm that, indeed, I had a garden.

A male European starling chose to claim a nest site beneath a loose ceramic roof tile just above this tiny balcony.  At first, I found it romantic, the way Mr. Starling perched on the corner of the pressed metal decorative railing and did his clown-like starling dance to attract potential Mrs. Starlings.  So cute.  I giggled as I watched him from behind a drawn blind, like a backwards Peeping Tom who peered out rather than in.  I was happy for him when the one true Mrs. Starling showed up, and together they began building a nest.  Happy, I was, until those little black monsters proceeded to tear every leaf off a baby orange tree, uprooted my Mexican sunflower seedlings, and pinched my baby marijuana plants off at ground level.  What were these, DEA birds?  My opinion of them was quickly souring.

Still, I thought, we are all co-inhabitants here on Planet Earth, and it is my duty to try to live with the newlyweds.  I covered the replacement plant babies with chicken wire, but those lovebirds were as tenacious as the legless but determined Cannonball. They would not take no for an answer, going so far as to wrestle off the chicken wire in order to pinch off the second planting of sunflowers and marijuana seedlings.

My admiration for them was quickly morphing into something ugly, a process that replicates in my life with alarming frequency.  With men as well as birds, history has proven me fickle.  Sort of like those damn starlings, it is most often the very quality that attracts me to a man that ends up being the issue I finally hate the most about him:  the infamous straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Like a former Mr. Perfect who at first thrilled me with his silent independence.  Later, it would come to feel like willful, ignoring negligence.  Fickle, fickle me.

I won’t go into detail about the eventual disposition of Mr. and Mrs. Starling, those feathered fiends who had the nerve to repeatedly damage my plantings.  Let it suffice for me to say that they were dealt with and in the new, starling-free world, my tiny balcony garden flourished.  The orange tree and Mexican sunflowers and marijuana and I were all better off without them.  But true to my fickle form, my bad experience with the pair of them doesn’t mean I always and automatically detest starlings.  Far from it.

One of the most beautiful sights in the natural world is a starling murmuration, which occurs with regularity in the autumn months across the wide-open spaces of my Wyoming youth.  Even though the starlings are year-round residents and do not migrate south for the winter, in the colder months they gather in huge flocks (perhaps to huddle together during the un-Godly cold spells).  Come late afternoon, as the autumn sunset approaches, the flocks take to the air, twisting and turning like one living organism, painting a surreal image of suspended reality.  It is a beautiful sight and not one easily forgotten.  The magnificent swirling patterns of a murmuration mirror the unavoidable patterns of the cosmos.  It is a fickle flush of feathers against a clear blue sky.

Birds can add to your gardening experience, or they can ruin it.  You can love them, or you can hate them.  One thing is for certain:  if you have a garden, you will have birds.  They may be there to help you, hauling away beak-loads of aphids or caterpillars or other harmful pests to feed a nest of hungry hatchlings.  Or they may be there, as hummingbirds are, to pollinate your crop.  Or your birds may be feathered demon spawn, showing up just in time to steal your blackberries, to swipe your carefully-laid seeds, to maliciously snip off your infant marijuana plants with scissor-sharp bills.  Or, simply to shit with surprisingly good aim and a perverse sense of humor on your freshly washed car (a particular bane to my friend Carl).

You may invite them.  Despite my whining and crying, I have never had a garden without a birdhouse.  Earlier this spring, my bird condo was visited several days in a row by a charming pair of red-headed house finches.  I kept my fingers crossed but they eventually decided on something with better rent.  But not before they plucked the mandevilla vine clear of every single aphid.

Or, your birds may be squatters who insist that it is their garden, not yours.

You may love them, or you may hate them, or both.  The two-sided, love it/hate it secret to living with birds, I believe, is to first embrace their lovely aspects – as does my friend Myke, who describes with childlike glee the hummingbirds and gold finches buzzing about his mountain garden, oblivious to the fact that it is his garden.  Perhaps it is he who is oblivious about whose garden is whose.  Secondly and just as importantly, you must either find creative ways to deal with the sometimes destructive nature of our avian friends, or make peace with it.  Excepting Mr. and Mrs. Starling, I am a proponent of the latter.  To do otherwise seems foolhardy.  I have seen many a tree draped with tinsel and foil and huge fake plastic owls in the delusional hope that a handful of cherries can be saved.  All to no avail, as I have also seen various birds collecting the tinsel to decorate their nests, or sitting atop the plastic owls in order to get a better vantage from which to pluck cherries.  Real birds know a real owl from a fake owl, and rightfully so.  My friend Matthew tells a harrowing story of a nighttime exchange between barn owls…a rasp followed by a whistle, answered first from one corner of his darkened back yard, then another.  He was truly frightened, much more fear than a stationary plastic owl could ever generate.  The birds know that difference as well.

As I grow old(er), I realize that it is, indeed, our responsibility to live in harmony with the other living beings inhabiting our planet, including the birds.  As I write this, my peaches are nearing perfect, tree-ripened glory.  This has not gone unnoticed by the birds.  For the past few days that same pair of perky red-headed house finches who visited last spring but opted for a better location have dropped by toward evening to cautiously peck at a peach, testing for ripeness.  I understand that they may get one, or two, or even half of my harvest.  But if I pay attention, I, too, will catch the moment of ripeness.  I will get my share, and they will get their share.  It will be my way of thanking them for the organic aphid control.

Birds remind me that it is indeed possible to love and hate something at the same time, to simultaneously desire and to be repelled, to be unable to live with or live without.  They remind me that it is possible for love to transmogrify into something ugly and resentful, but that it is also possible for hate to transform into something beautiful and poignant.  For me, birds exemplify the world of endless possibility.  They are a physical reminder that the two opposite ends of any spectrum might at any time twist and turn until they meet, until they murmurate into a new, fantastically complete cosmic connection.  For me, birds are the living embodiment of all endless, opposing possibilities.


A secret place.

Among at least 100,000 species of trees in the world (no one seems to know exactly how many there are):  Salix x sepulcralis, Salix babylonica, Salix alba, Quercus bicolor, Quercus palustris, Populus sargentii, Picea pungens, Citrus x lemon, Citrus x sinensis, Ginko biloba, Prunus persica, Ficus carica, Acer negundo.

            –Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

My sixth grade homeroom teacher was Mrs. O’Neill, a tall redhead with impeccable, albeit matronly, style.  I had a bit of a boyhood crush on her.  OK, more than a bit.  Never mind that she was going on sixty and had been married for an eternity to the town’s Fire Chief, or that I was only eleven and already the seething embers of flamboyancy sparked.   Crushes happen, period.  It’s a fact that they don’t always make sense.

I blame my unquestioning acceptance of her poetry choices on this youthful infatuation, for it’s another truth of crushes that they make one turn a blind eye.  Although I was only eleven years old, I possessed a prescient knowledge of who I was to become in the years ahead and there are certain key images contained in Mr. Kilmer’s infamous tree poem that directly conflicted with that foresight.  A less enamored boy might have resisted.

Lets talk boobs.  Knockers, hooters, bazooms.  Your mammary glands, ma’am.

Mammals have them – Mrs. O’Neill had just taught us this fact, shocking us with the new knowledge that we were thusly defined.  However, even a recently-illuminated eleven-year-old can intuitively understand that boobs aren’t his thing.  Further, any farm boy worth his weight in oats knows that trees don’t have them.  Burls?  Sure.  Boobs?  Never.  After all, the country cliché is “colder than a witch’s teat in January”, not a “beech’s teat”.

Reality check aside, had I not been blinded by my adoration of Mrs. O’Neill, I might have allowed myself to be rightly repulsed by the references to bosoms and flowing breasts (my sincere apologies to my lesbian sisters and my heterosexual brothers, but just imagine if your sixth-grade homeroom teacher had subjected you to poetry describing penile imagery, flowing or not).

Still, Kilmer’s classic was the poem that Mrs. O’Neill tucked into my tiny mind as she led the class out of homeroom and into the neighborhood one stunning autumn day in Basin, Wyoming, early October, 1969.  And in my state of total adulation, I simply followed.  Like a love-struck, wagging puppy.

The sharp October sky was a perfect backdrop for the radiant autumn leaves, and the twin steeples of the First Baptist Church punctuated the postcard-perfection with white exclamation points.  Norman Rockwell might have wet his knickers had he witnessed the wholesome American goodness of it all.

Our assignment for this idyllic amble through our hometown?  Look at the trees – really look at them.  Make sketches. And when we returned to the classroom, we were to produce, using watercolors, a greeting card with our favorite autumnal tree on it.

In retrospect, I think Mrs. O’Neill had her own reasons for this afternoon stroll.  Thirty rambunctious sixth-graders just back from summer vacation corralled in a stuffy afternoon classroom might drive even a saint like Eleanor O’Neill a bit batty.  Bless her heart; I now believe she just needed some fresh air and some wide-open space to absorb our considerable communal noise.  But it was a beautiful walk, and one that is still with me all these many years later.  I can clearly remember the sun warming my ruddy face and glistening off the Aquanet in Mrs. O’Neill’s bouffant.  I can recall the smell of someone burning leaves in the distance; I can recall the smell of the Aquanet beginning to melt.

But most importantly, it is the first time I remember really looking at the trees.

And I have never stopped.

I chose to study for that sixth-grade assignment a Weeping Willow (Salix x sepulcralis) which was still turning color, the leaves partially the translucent summer tint of green lemons, but overlaid with the bright yet pale autumn tone of ripe lemons.  In the brilliant glow of mid-afternoon, the effect was as though it had been stripple painted, ripples of yellow and green cascading down from a heart-shaped crown in elegant, citrus-hued arches.

If I dare say so myself, my card was the best of show.  It was the only one that Mrs. O’Neill chose to send to the county fair the following summer, along with the best of the best art projects produced by our small school district’s students throughout the academic year.  It probably didn’t hurt that it was in her front yard that said Willow weeped.  Regardless, I won a blue ribbon

The Weeping Willow also painfully reminds me of one past torrid incidence wherein I was tossed to the curb by a cowboy paramour.  This was during the years I lived in Denver, the Mile High City where hats and boots and country music reign supreme.  We’ll call my caballero Crazy Bill because, well, he was crazy (probably still is) and his name was Bill (certainly still is).  That crazy, crazy cowboy fool.  No blue ribbon in that one.

After the dumping ritual, I couldn’t get enough of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”.  I listened to it obsessively.  In fact, the endless repetition of that song gave the depression more legs than it had right of.  That song kept the heartache walking long, long after midnight.  Seems the sustenance of the blues is an outcome particular to listening to sad country music, a fact I was clueless about at the time.  Funny, isn’t it, how youth prefer self-flagellation to moving on?  Yes, funny.  I can’t stop laughing..

To this day I can get misty when I hear the song and imagine a heartbroken Ms. Cline singing it (that sad, sad movie didn’t help).  Perhaps it is late one evening after she and Charlie Dick have been fighting more virulently than usual.  Maybe he left with another woman.  Patsy is wearing tight, black, fitted pants and a red country-girl jacket with white fringe.  Her bouffant is shellacked with Aquanet.  She is walking and wailing – after midnight!  Eventually she ends up in front of Mrs. O’Neill’s house and when she sees Mrs. O’Neill’s and my tree, she suddenly stops.  And then sings, “I stop to see a weeping willow, crying on his pillow, maybe he’s crying for me.  And as the skies turn gloomy, night winds whisper to me, I’m lonesome as I can be.”

To this day, the Weeping Willow, which is a hybrid of the Peking Willow (Salix babylonica) from China and the White Willow (Salix alba) from Europe, is one of my favorite trees.  I say “one of” because, well, I am a fickle Queen Gardener.  I have many favorite trees.

In the spring, I love the Maples as they burst forth with their tiny (some say nondescript), red-pink flowers, soon followed by their helicopter seeds, a fascinating example of seed-distribution evolution at its best.  At my advanced age of cough-cough, I still enjoy playing with them, tossing them to the breeze and watching them spiral hither and yonder.

During the summer months, my favorite tree may very well be the lone historic Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) lording over the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and T Streets in Washington, DC, in a tiny fenced park that was commissioned solely to protect the health of her root system.  This tree is billed as the oldest and largest living Swamp Oak in The District, and she is certainly a stately specimen.  It is no wonder there are plans afoot to install four-hundred Swamp White Oak trees in the newly constructed September 11 Memorial Plaza in Manhattan.

When fall blows in, I can’t seem get enough of the other Oaks, with their leathery bronze leaves and the falling acorns that ping off car hoods and thunk to the ground as I wander the city.  Acorns are abundant here in The District, as many of our streets are lined with Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris).  No mystery there:  the Pin Oak is native to this area and seems very well adapted to the rigors of city life.  They are numerous and pedestrian in the city I love, but still I never tire of them or their acorns:  because Mrs. O’Neill taught me to really look at the trees, I understand.

Every autumn I gather a few of the fallen nuts to arrange in the cracked white marble ashtray with a bronze squirrel relief that I snatched from my mother’s house after she passed.  Squirrels and acorns:  a match made in heaven.

During the winter months it is often the barren Elms that catch my attention.  They are the contortionists of the tree world, their rough-barked grey limbs swerving above in uncontainable loops and curves.  They are particularly romantic when coated with a topping of freshly fallen snow or dangled with the million sparkling crystals of an ice storm.

And of course a list of my favorite trees would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the Wyoming State Tree, the Plains Cottonwood (Populus sargentii), those rough-skinned mammoths who watched over the western-migrating settlers, showed them where water was to be found, provided shade in the heat of summer, gave logs for the building of cabins, and provided wood for heat and light in the darkness of the long Wyoming winters.  Not to mention their waxy, heart-shaped leaves which in the evening breeze produce a most unique, soft rustling sound.  Those leaves murmur and I can identify their love song long before I have spotted the tree.  It is a melody that settles my psyche better than chicken soup.  Or Xanax.

One friend (who is known for his love of Xanax, oddly enough) is slightly obsessed with the Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens).  He is slightly obsessed with many things, but that is not the point here.  Regarding his desires for a Colorado Blue Spruce, although the Arbor Day Foundation website says the tree should grow where he lives in Virginia, two have been planted and two have met their demise in his back yard.  I will not go into the tale of how the one theoretically romantic mid-winter planting, a couple’s holiday activity, nearly ended in a battle to the death, one partner armed with a shovel and the other’s only defense a locked door, but rest assured that twenty-five years later, both remain alive and they are still coupled.

I am certain that the trees’ untimely deaths were not due to lack of care; when my friend is obsessed, Xanax or not, he does not take his task lightly.  Rather, his back yard must be a sort of micro-climate, too hot or wet or dry or windy, something fatal to the Colorado Blue Spruce.  My friend swears he will never again plant one – it is too heart wrenching for him to watch them die.

Micro-climates are fascinating.  They are unusual, sometimes tiny spots or locations where something that shouldn’t grow, does, simply because some topographical or geological or even manmade feature provides what it needs (or conversely, something does not grow for one reason or another even though statistically, it should, like my friend’s Colorado Blue Spruces).

When the former Mr. Perfect trundled me off to California’s Bay Area, we landed in a locale that was deemed “just a little too far north” for citrus trees to flourish.  However, in the micro-climate of my back patio, both a full-sized Lemon tree (Citrus x lemon) and an Orange tree (Citrus x sinensis) thrived.  They were planted on the south side of the house and grew over a concrete slab, thusly warmed in the winter months by the reflected sun.  I was provided with lemons year-round, and more than enough oranges that all came ripe at once, causing me to stretch my limited culinary prowess to include orange pie, orange cake, orange sherbet, orange vodka, orange everything.

Orange you glad you now understand micro-climates?

Setting those aside, should you find you have a slot itching to be filled by a tree (everyone, get your collective mind out of the gutter), the Arbor Day Foundation website is an excellent resource (  You can review photos and stats of all sorts of trees, which should help you settle on which specimen your little heart desires most – depending, of course, on what qualities you are primarily seeking:  fruit?  shade?  color?  flowers?  bird haven?  This selection process should be carefully undertaken, as trees are undeniably the most permanent installation in our garden.  Their planting should not be taken lightly.

The Arbor Day Foundation’s site can help you determine which species will meet your needs, fit the space you have available, and which varieties thrive in your hardiness zone.  You can even order the sapling of your eventual choice at a ridiculously low price.  Trust your old Queen Gardener:  if you are looking for a tree, this site is worth a look.  Just be mindful of your micro-climes.  And avoid planting the tree with your partner.  Or at the very least, ensure that he has taken his Xanax first.

If I had acreage, I would have one of every kind of tree possible.  But therein lays my problem.  Until the current Mr. Perfect’s ship comes in, my “acreage” is more “footage”, as I garden on an eighth-floor balcony.  Still, I grow trees.  I tend an Orange tree, an unidentified evergreen (oh, Lord, how I have tried to identify), a Ginko tree (Ginko biloba), a Peach tree (Prunus persica), and a fig tree (Ficus carica), all potted.  I grow them in a variation of bonsai, not the twisted little souls you see at table-top, but larger, up to eight feet tall or so, but maintained so that they are manageable in limited space.   I stunt them.  As I write, I am looking at my beautiful stunted Peach tree with its thirty-some peaches slowly ripening in the July summer heat.

This stunting is not an easy process, and not one that is advised for the gardener who eschews labor or doesn’t care to glean an elementary understanding of the process of plant growth.  This is because it is not entirely a simple process (is any worthwhile process simple?), and it does require some physical work.

The problem with potted plants, trees in particular, is that they become root bound.  Their roots grow continually until the pot is filled with roots, not soil.  When that happens, the roots strangle themselves and the top of the tree suffers and eventually the whole thing dies.

Just remember this:  from infancy onward, a potted tree must be moved to a larger pot each time the top begins to appear oversized compared to the container.  It’s that simple.  You see, like all things in life, this is a matter of balance.  The top and the bottom must be matched

Again, all of you – minds out of the gutter.

Most potted trees grow to this unbalanced/root bound state about every two or three years, unless there was an unfortunate and inappropriate container choice to begin with.  Hint:  when you first obtain the tree, repot it into a container (one with drain holes) that is two-or-three inches wider and taller than the pot it came in.  And then repot again, as I said (repeat after me) every time the tree’s top seems to outsize the container.  And repeat again:  for most trees, this is about every two or three years.  Once a tree reaches roughly the size you would like her to remain, you will begin the semi-bonsai (stunting) process.

Again about every third year, your stunted tree will require three things to stay at her same size and in her same container: to be repotted, to have her roots pruned, and to have her top pruned (the top may be pruned as necessary between repottings to maintain shape and size).  It can all be done in one fell swoop, often best accomplished in the early spring before there is any show of leaf activity, but possible during any phase of the growth cycle except active fruiting or flowering.

Carefully remove the tree and root ball from the container.  This is where the “labor-intensive” part plays out.  An eight foot tree in a twenty-plus-inch container is heavy.  Very heavy.  You may need help.  Muscular help.

Just imagine . . .

Back to task:  shake off any loose soil, and then carefully remove at least half of the more stubborn soil from the root ball, being careful not to overtly damage the roots.  Then, take a deep breath and prune the exposed roots back to about three-quarters of their original mass (use a standard hand-held pruner).  You will also prune the top of the tree back to a (repeat after me, again) c-o-m-p-a-r-a-b-l-e size.  Go slowly and pay particular attention to shape.  Remove first any crossed or damaged limbs, then evaluate.  If the tree is shrub-like, it is usually best to open the middle of the tree to allow for air circulation and new growth.  If the tree is more of an upright, single-trunked variety, the usual configuration is Y-shaped.

Then repot.  Note that these planting instructions also apply to a new, free-range sapling being planted in an out-of-doors location as well as for the routine repotting of a growing sapling as you wait for her to attain the size you desire so you can begin the stunting process.

First, pour one or two inches of pea-gravel in the bottom of a pot with good drainage (if planting a tree in the ground, just dig an appropriate hole and forego the gravel).  In the center, on top of the pea gravel, make a mound of soil.  Spread the roots over that mound, positioning so that the portion of the tree’s trunk that should be at ground level will be at ground level when the pot is filled with soil.  Use a high-grade commercial potting mix and fill around and over the roots, tamping gently to compress the new soil.  Water thoroughly, after which you may have to add more soil due to settling.

If the tree is not dormant when you undertake this stunting process, she may wilt and pout for a day or two.  She may drop a few leaves.  Just keep her moist and spare her from direct sunlight and, presto, she will survive.  When she does you can name her Gloria Gaynor and drape her in sparkly disco gear.  Hey, hey.

I love my potted trees, but when Mr. Perfect procures the proper acreage for me, I very well may love my full-sized trees even more.  One specimen I know I will plant is a Box Elder (Acer negundo), which is actually a mid-sized, quick-growing Maple species.  In my youth, oh those centuries ago in prehistoric Wyoming, a lone Box Elder tree jutted at an angle out of our farm’s pig sty and loomed above the barnyard.  The Box Elder is known to prefer wet, fertile locations, and that fairly well sums up a ditch bank pig sty.  This tree’s angle of growth and the placement of its lateral branches made it a perfect climbing tree, a veritable ladder.  At about thirty feet above the ground there was a fork in the main trunk, creating a seat that perfectly cradled a young boy’s body.

Look, Ma!  No hands.

There, solitarily suspended in the leaf-cooled, green-filtered air, watching the multitude of black and red Box Elder bugs go about making baby Box Elder bugs, I whittled away many a disappointment, heartbreak, and punishment, but also reveled in my youthful accomplishments.  It was my secret, lofty place, and while not quite a tree house, it was at least a tree lounge.  I adored it.

Children, especially the urban children I am witness to these days, grow up differently that I did.  I sound like my father in saying that, but in this case what he said has been proven to be true.  Times change, children change.  They grow up faster now-a-days, and this instills in me a certain sadness about them.  By all appearances, they have never been taught to really look at the trees, have never found their private tree to climb.  They are not afforded an opportunity to experience what it is like to have no more expectation than to lounge, young and free and in a tree.  More’s the pity.

Fallow Season

Idle hands may be the devil’s workshop, but they are sometimes the writer’s best friend.

Early spring.  The rusted metal of my old spade slashes the soil’s crust as I prepare the garden spot behind my old house.  This postage stamp of a plot has lain fallow for years, resting, reclaiming nourishment from the mulch of each autumn’s leaf debris.  I coax the first matte-brown shovelful from its snug earthen bed, releasing the topsoil’s lurking potential.  The clod lifts, rolls over, and breaks down to fertile loam.  I swear it sighs in relief, and when its fecund scent rises as grit to my nostrils, I inhale

As I toil in the fresh air of the new spring day, scenes from my life filter through my mind.  I squirrel these away like seeds saved in the bottom of a paper envelope, vignettes and scents and quotes and conflicts all duly logged into the creative bank account and bound to find their way into one piece of work or another.  Eventually.  For although these ruminations are a latent packet of inspiration for a writer, I don’t tarry over them now.  In truth, I am creatively tired.  In this, my fallow season, as my spirit is regenerated and my life is lived, I rest my mind with this garden work.

(The above essay appeared in slightly different form in “Bylines:  A Writer’s Calendar”, October, 2006.)


Wyoming Wild Rose – Photo Courtesy of Carla Marie Mowell.

Rosa woodsii and Rosa foetida persiana (among the hundreds of species, and the thousands of individual hybrids and cultivars)

Rose Etta Mae Peterson Mowell (February 27, 1895 – February 9, 1988)
Shirley Illene Mowell Lassiter (September 11, 1929 – November 19, 2007)

Big Horn County, Wyoming – July, 1985.  Several years have passed since my last hometown visit, and Mom is taking me to call on my grandmother.  She forewarns; first as we drive the five country miles to the “Old Folks’ Home”, and again as we walk the antiseptic hallway to Grandma Rose’s room.  But the creature I see propped in the bed rattles me.  It is rail thin, wide-eyed but unfocused, bushy-haired.  This is not the tidy Baptist grandmother of my memory.

“Everett!” this banshee exclaims.

“It’s Jackson,” Mom corrects her, matter-of-factly, and continues in the same breath to me, “she hasn’t slept in weeks.  She would feel better if she slept.”

My mother makes this trek twice a day; my grandmother refuses to eat for anyone else. By the time it is over, Mom will have done so for fifteen years.  Today she wears the weariness of motherhood turned upside-down like a wrinkled, every-day dress.  Still she straightens the bric-a-brac displayed on Grandma’s metal hospital-room dresser.  She dusts the large-number clock and calendar, the ceramic bird figurines, and the family photographs in pretty silver frames.  Mom hopes these familiarities will kindle Grandma’s memory.

But Grandma’s memory sparks only randomly.

“Everett, where have you been?” she asks, impatiently and in a girlish voice.  Everett is her brother.  He died of emphysema sixteen years ago.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Mom says.  “I need to talk to the nurses.  Sit, keep your Grandma company.”  She gestures toward the dull green vinyl bedside chair as she shuffles the weight of her responsibility through the doorway.

Grandma stares at me, silently.  I stare back, uncomfortable, unsure of what to say.  I haltingly reach for her hand.  The dry skin crinkles at my touch, like a delicate handmade paper that is too fine for any real use.  Blood surges through the veins that snake just below the crust of her crepe forearm.

Not so long ago these hands held me firmly as I struggled against a face-washing.

“Grandma, it’s me, Jackson,” I peep, bird-like.  I am overly cautious with this familiar yet strange character.

“Can we go to the pond, Everett?  Take me to the pond,” she coos.  “Mama says I can wade if you watch out for me.”

“Grandma, look at me.”  I try to sound gruff, authoritarian, but my voice breaks and comes out a pleading child’s.  She looks anyway, and smiles.

“I love you, Everett.”

“I love you, too, Rose,” I answer automatically, impulsively.  Alzheimer’s blurs the roles and I follow suit.  Grandma chats as a ten-year-old girl and I listen as her older brother, and even though I can’t comprehend the medical complexities that relegate her to this reality, we meet here.

For half an hour, I visit her world, until her chatter dwindles and her fingers flutter in mine.  She naps, peacefully, such as a girl who has spent the afternoon with her brother might nap.  I rise to leave but as I cross the threshold to the hallway, I hear the child’s voice behind me.

“Good night, Everett.  I love you.”

“I love you, too, Grandma.”

(The above essay was previously published in Temenos, the literary journal of the University of Central Michigan, under the name “A Wilting Rose”, May, 2007.)


There is no way I can write about Roses without mourning the loss of my beloved Grandma Rose and my beautiful mother, Shirley.  Roses, for me, conjure up all kinds of vivid memories of these two, and like the emotional wreck I often am, I sometimes cry.  Not to worry, dear readers, they are as often tears of joy as they are tears of sadness.  I was blessed in so many ways.

It is not only me who has this visceral response to roses:  all of my friends, when the flower of love is brought up, tilt their head to one side and get a distant look to their eyes.  And then they commence reminiscing about their father’s rose garden or their grandmother’s favorite white rose or the red roses draped over the casket at their boyfriend’s funeral or the beautiful lavender roses at their first wedding.  Roses, it seems, hold a prominent place in our cumulative memory, especially when associated with those we love, whether that be our biological families or our chosen families

The Wyoming farmhouse I grew up in housed a lot of people who were biological family – seven brothers, when all were present.  And three parents:  my father, the disciplinarian; my wonderful mother, the counselor; and my maternal grandmother, Rose Mowell, a hybrid of both approaches.  Grandma Rose didn’t physically live with us, but she was present in my life most days, and was just as much a force in my development as either of my parents – more so than my father, truth be told.

It was Grandma Rose who chugged up our unpaved lane every Sunday in her lemon yellow 1952 Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe, first making sure we were in our Sunday best, then checking our fingernails and behind our ears for cleanliness, and finally giving us each a nickel for the collection plate before driving the lot of us to church.  Not just Sunday School, but church – as in all-day First Baptist Church.  We started off respectable, but soon enough it was yawn, yawn, fidget, yawn.  Then we got a stern pinch from Grandma Rose, and we were once again all good posture and dutiful attention.

As you may have noted from other chapters, “the Baptist word” didn’t “stick” in my case, no matter how hell-bent Grandma was on ensuring that my soul was saved.  However, what did stick with me were the day-to-day examples of genuine loyalty, gentle kindness, hard-headed perseverance, and the dedicated work ethic that both my grandma and my mother exhibited, easily, without effort.  It was just who they were, naturally.

Being the sissy boy of the bunch, I was most often to be found in the kitchen with Mom and Grandma, or, if we were at Grandma’s house “in town” instead of on the farm, in her garden tending the flowers with her.  In reality, although I lived a life surrounded primarily by men, it was these two wonderful women I identified with most.  It was my mother and my grandmother who molded with their strong country hands my budding persona.  I credit them with teaching me how to be me.

Both of my parents accepted who and what I was, and gave their approval.  I believe my Grandma Rose might have, had she lived long enough to see my contented life, even though she was of a different time and culture.  Regardless, the love I still feel for her, and the love I know she felt for me, could never have been diminished.

My father’s family lived in other parts of the country, and rarely visited.  We can color them gone, out of the picture.  But my mother’s family was local, and we were entwined in the way that rural, extended families are.  We saw them often, all except for my mother’s brother, Uncle Glenn, who lived abroad and married a Bolivian woman.  Uncle Glenn and Aunt Flora Linda, very exotic in mid-century Wyoming, visited each summer, bringing with them my beautiful cousin Carla Marie with her pure Latina complexion and gorgeous dark hair.  I maintained an innocent and unspoken crush on Carla Marie throughout childhood, until puberty and hormones arrived and her crush was shoved aside by not-quite-so-innocent crushes I developed on various boys.

To this day I believe it is a direct result of Carla Marie’s early influence that I have such a weakness for Latin men.

In the small town environment of my childhood, where all kinds of social ties were easily maintained, I took for granted the concept of “family” connections.  But Grandma Rose kept note of the jumble of intermingling, of marriages and births and deaths, and could connect the dots and prove to me that I was related by blood or marriage to just about anyone in our tiny community.  Grandma Rose knew the value of family.  She remembered who begat who and who married who and who was whose third cousin twice removed.

The family of roses, the plant, is entirely a different story.  The truth is, I need a Grandma Rose in order to comprehend their genealogy.  It is just a tiny bit bizarre that this flower, which is so often linked to poignant memories of family, has such a convoluted and commingled history that it is all but impossible to trace the lineage of any single cultivar.  And it is no help that the reference materials are packed with conflicting information.  What some books classify as a hybrid perpetual rose, others classify as a Bourbon.  How is the home gardener to be certain, when even the rose experts can’t agree?  Still, in a general way, it is possible to follow the basic progression of rose variety development (most of which, it is noted, occurred in France and China).  Deep breath, and, in a nutshell…

…prior to the eighteenth century, there were two distinct types of cultivated roses:  the European and the Oriental.  The European varieties, of which there are thousands of cultivars, these roses having been tended since the days of ancient Rome, have certain traits in common.  This is largely due to the purposes for which they were historically grown.  They are blessed with an unforgettable perfume (rose attar), more powerful than most people accustomed to the modern hybrids even realize is possible.  This made them the key ingredient in potpourri, or the “rotten pot” as it was known – an ugly name for such a beautiful purpose.  European roses were developed primarily for scent, secondarily for show.

There was also a third purpose.  These western varieties, which bloom only once per summer, also bear large, red, orange, or black rose hips, or seed pods, which have been utilized throughout civilized history for two primary purposes.  In a culinary sense, rose hips are used to make jams, jellies, soups, marmalades, syrups, pies, breads, and wines.  They have also historically been used medicinally.  The hips (or haws, as they are sometimes called) of the Dog Rose (Rosa canina) and Japanese Rose (Rosa rugosa) have the highest concentration of Vitamin C of any plant material known – higher than any citrus fruit.

These traits of strong perfume, a single blooming period per summer, and edible rose hips give the European roses a recognizable kinship with the wild roses, and, indeed, they bear a marked physical similarity.  It is said that even if the petals are multiplied a hundredfold, they still resemble the flowers of wild roses.  And like wild roses, these ones are as hardy as rocks, weather and disease resistant, lasting forever and often growing as big as trees.

Oh, but I love the wild roses.  There are few things more spectacular or meaningful to the Queen Gardener.

Along the lower elevations of Shell Creek and other Northern Wyoming waterways, the Wyoming wild roses (more formally called Woods Rose (Rosa woodsii)), erupt with fragrant, flattened, pastel pink blooms every June.  When I was a child and throughout my turbulent teen years, my mother and I made elaborate excuses to get away from everyone else to treat ourselves to long, special, country road drives, in order to bear witness to their glory.  It was our secret, an annual mother-son mutual admiration bonding outing that lives on in my memory:  just the two of us, the wild roses, and intimate, heartfelt conversation.

The flowers of the Wyoming wild rose are single, meaning there is only one row of petals – five, to be exact – surrounding a bright yellow center.  Although it has once again been several years since I last visited Wyoming, since my Mother’s funeral, in fact, I am confident these beauties have continued to burst forth every June.  When in bloom, their scent overtakes the mid-summer breeze and the flowers, as I experience them, are more gorgeous than any of the over-exaggerated hybridized and cultivated rose varieties.  Pink, simple, and delicate.

I love them so much that more than once during my adolescence, I dug up a few of the young shoots and transplanted them to the farm, where they immediately withered and died.  My mother gently and lovingly explained to me that some wild things simply don’t like to be cultivated.  In later years, following one miserable failure of a relationship or another, she would repeat the same words.

Wild roses are laden with symbolism.  In ancient Rome, those in charge placed a wild rose on the door of any room where a secret or otherwise confidential discussion was taking place.  The subsequent phrase “sub rosa”, or “under the rose”, used world-wide by contemporary government “agencies” and their attendant legal types, means to keep a secret or act covertly.  In fact, in many Catholic churches, the confessional booths are decorated with carved details of five-petalled wild rose blossoms to symbolize that whatever happens in the booth stays in the booth.

The wild roses of Wyoming are not secretive at all, however.  There is nothing covert about them.  They grow in huge, impenetrable brambles that provide a safe haven to many little feathered and furry friends, as their arching, entwined red canes are armed with a staggering number of prickles.  They provide a sensually-scented fortress for our lowland wildlife friends.

Here’s one interesting tidbit, and then I swear to eventually get back to the boring stuff:  roses do not, technically, have thorns.  Their armor is prickles, or outgrowths of the epidermis.  A thorn, like that of the citrus or Russian Olive trees, is a specialized branch or twig.  Prickle and thorn are not the same, but this doesn’t matter, I say.  To be stabbed by either hurts like hell!  Pardon my French.

When Grandma Rose heard me swear as a child – most likely a word I picked up from my older brothers and didn’t quite understand – she dragged me by one arm to her always-sparkling bathroom and placed a bar of bath soap in my mouth until it foamed and burned – to clean out the dirty words, she said.  At times I ran to my mother to woefully protest, but my mother just waggled one finger at me and, with a simple shrug of her shoulders, reminded me that it was my duty to not only meet her and my father’s standards, but Grandma Rose’s as well.

After a certain period of tearful foaming, when the punishment meted out matched the seriousness of my sin, Grandma Rose softened and allowed me to wash away the Lux-tasting nastiness with cool water.  Eventually, as she always did, Grandma Rose forgave me with a hug and a handful of the cookies she dutifully baked every Saturday morning to ensure that little hands reaching into her Aunt Jemima cookie jar didn’t come up empty.  She produced only two varieties, but to this day peanut butter cookies with fork prints on the top or chocolate oatmeal no-bake cookies are nearly as potent for me as roses in conjuring memories.

Finally Grandma sent me scampering outside – unattended (!), as those were more innocent times – to contemplate the garden and my no-longer-filthy mouth.

But back to the roses – to the budding European vs. Oriental dilemma.  The Oriental roses began arriving in Europe during the eighteenth century aboard ships from China loaded with goods from that part of the world, including tea.  There is some question as to whether they were given the moniker “Tea Roses” because of this association, or because of a tea-like scent.  Personally, I have never smelled tea on these roses, but I am hardly a qualified judge.  I’ve never been a fan of tea:  I’m as American as they come, preferring instead to start my day with several cups of strong coffee.

Grandma Rose, while primarily of German ancestry, was also as American as they come.  She got me jacked up on coffee at a very early age.  I have memories, almost photographic in detail, of pulling a chair up to the mottled gray Formica and chrome dinette set in her tiny, cluttered kitchen, at no more than six or seven years of age.  There I enjoyed copious amounts of the previously-mentioned cookies dipped in a coffee, evaporated milk and sugar mixture (so much sugar it was syrup, really) served in a chipped beige porcelain mug.  Meanwhile, Grandma Rose and my mother would make “grown up talk”.  I pretended not to listen, but learned oh-so-much about the life of adults.

I’ve since stopped using the sugar, and have switched to 2% milk.  My aging body has slowed down and doesn’t burn the fats and sugars as it once did.  But I still enjoy my coffee.  And two of my all-time favorite possessions are my grandmother’s battered stove-top coffee percolator and the Aunt Jemima cookie jar from her kitchen.  After Grandma passed, my mother saved them both for me because she “just knew” I would appreciate them.  If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

But, again, back to the roses.  The Orientals, or Tea Roses as everyone soon came to call them, were shockingly beautiful to western rose growers, with their impossible colors, their beautiful shapes, and their ever-blooming habit.  The breeders of the Orientals grew them solely for their looks, and cared not a whit for any other trait.

The true Tea Roses are tropical plants, not hardy outside of southern climes, and that was their primary fault relative to growing in this “new world”.  They have no gene to alert them to approaching inclement weather, and will not go dormant.  They go on blooming and blooming until the first freeze, and then they die.  Their second fault is the lack of rose attar, meaning they don’t really smell like roses.  Their third fault?  They are susceptible to every known rose issue including blight, insects, rust, mildew, cankers and black spot, to name just a few.  The list is virtually endless.  They are a difficult lot, something like the African Violet:  too beautiful for words, too high maintenance for reality.

It was only a matter of time until some bright soul thought to hybridize these two varieties in hopes of getting the best of both – the hardiness and the perfume of the European varieties and the ever-blooming quality and refined form of the Orientals.

Quite like mixing the right amounts of blue and red to come up with the perfect shade of lavender.

The funny thing is, while rose enthusiasts were diligently trying to make this occur, it happened quite naturally, by accident!  French settlers had planted the old world Damask rose (Rosa X biferia) and the Oriental rose called Old Blush (Rosa chinensis) together in hedgerows on the Ile de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean.  As any living species is known to do, even on occasion the Queen Gardener himself, they mated.  Seedlings produced from this idyllic tryst reached Paris about 1822, and the Bourbon roses were born.  They were called “Hybrid Teas”, and they were essentially the beginning of the downfall of the old world European garden roses.

A different rose arrived on Western shores at about the same time as the Orientals, around 1837, this one from Iran.  This is a rose that, somehow, again, naturally and in the wild, hybridized, with stunning results.  This variety is quite appropriately named the Persian Yellow Rose (Rosa foetida persiana), a lively, bright, sunshine-yellow rose that belongs to the family of fetid roses, so named for their lack of rose perfume, replaced instead by a scent that some find disagreeable (the Merriam-Webster definition of fetid is “having a heavy, offensive smell”).

This hardy, wildling specimen was a favorite of the westward-migrating American settlers, as it is disease and weather resistant and transports easily.  To this day, it can be found growing feral and unattended all across our country – in rural cemeteries, at the site of abandoned homesteads, and in the overgrown municipal parks of old-time settled villages.

Grandma Rose had a large Persian Yellow rose bush in the corner of her front yard, and it bloomed once every summer in vivid, bee-covered profusion.  To this day, a yellow rose can bring a tear of joy to my eyes.

Funny thing:  other than standing back in appreciation, I don’t remember Grandma Rose providing much care to this rose bush.  I don’t remember her fertilizing, spraying, pruning, watering, or in any way nurturing that rose, which heroically withstood both the arctic Wyoming winters and the desert-like summers.  For all I know, some forty-plus year later, alone and abandoned, that rose bush still squats on the corner of that lot in Greybull, Wyoming, blooming on cue every summer as though Grandma Rose and I were there to adore it.

I also don’t remember its scent being anything close to fetid.  As I remember it, the fragrance was slightly licorice-like, and the foliage itself had a definite apple scent.  I found it to be most agreeable.  One man’s fetid is another man’s licorice, I am lead to believe.

As the Persian Yellow is wont to do, Grandma’s bush sent out countless suckers every spring.  In fact, the only rose tending I remember Grandma offering that bush was the annual digging out of the suckers.  I transplanted several to various locations on the farm and they always took root with ease, beautifying the fencerows and orchard and surviving all the harshness that being a wildling threw at them, including one pasture bush which was routinely eaten to ground level by apparently steel-toothed horses.

Motherly advice aside, it seems there are wild things that do, indeed, take to domestication.

But back to the roses.

We left their family history at the time that the Europeans had been commingled with the Orientals, resulting in the first Hybrid Teas, the Bourbons.  Oh, if only well-enough had been left alone.  The Bourbons possess all of the positive traits of both parents (like Grandma Rose!).  They are at once voluptuous and delicate, heavenly scented and perfectly formed roses, as if they had been pressed into a teacup.  They are hardier than the Orientals and ever-blooming, unlike the Europeans.

However, as if we all didn’t know, well enough is never left alone.

In each succeeding step of rose development and hybridization, a loss was registered along with whatever gain was achieved. In the 1920’s, the Hybrid Teas were crossed with the Polyanthas to make Floribundas, and then in 1954, the Floribundas were re-crossed with Hybrid Teas to come up with Grandifloras.  None of these have any perfume so to speak of.  They are susceptible to every rose disease that comes along, and grow on vines so unwieldy that the average small garden cannot accommodate them.

Oh, so many things the Queen Gardener could say about things too large to accommodate, but these things should be left to the reader’s imagination.

Imagine, if you will, a stout German farm boy . . . never mind.

Those conducting the early rose breeding programs had two obvious choices:  go with the European values of hardiness and perfume, or with the Oriental value of delicate/difficult beauty.  The Orientals won that battle, and to this day rose breeders continue to take that approach, developing unusual, sometimes shocking and unnatural new colors and shapes and continuing, bit by bit, to breed all perfume and hardiness out of modern roses.  Such is our loss.

In recent years, however, it seems that the heritage roses have been making a comeback, based on the number of varieties available for commercial purchase.  But this is probably not in time for the average backyard or urban gardener.  The bushes are huge and the fragrant blooms make only a brief appearance once each summer.  Without sufficient space to camouflage their gigantic barrenness for the remainder of the year, these relics are relegated to a life spent in large-scale formal rose gardens and conservatories.

Sorrowfully, the rose breeders’ drive to hybridize and modify didn’t stop there.  On the other end of the spectrum they have developed the miniatures, true hybridized roses which grow to no more than one foot and come in any color and blossom configuration a gardener desires.  They are truly a potted plant, but here’s the problem:  they are advertised as border or bedding plants.  However, like most hybridized roses (except, possibly, the Persian Yellow and Bourbons), they must be deadheaded, sprayed, fertilized, checked for blight and spots and bugs, and pruned . . . all from a position of laying horizontal on the ground, I am assuming.  This Queen Gardener is much, much too old to be lying on his side in the garden caring for something that, in reality, isn’t going to thrive anyway.  I can’t even keep them alive in their pots!

Still, every single time I pass the display at the nursery or, even worse, the local grocery store, I am compelled to purchase one.  They are so adorable in their miniature-ness.  This time, I think to myself, every time, it will last.

It never does, always succumbing to a quick demise within days.

Some roses, given my experience with the suckers of the Yellow Persian, require very little from us, yet still survive.  These are like my Grandma Rose, who migrated to Wyoming from Missouri, lived in a tent on a river bottom until appropriate housing could be arranged, then put down roots and raised her five children despite her husband’s leaving and enough depression-era adversity to make rose blight look like child’s play.  These ones are meant to thrive; others, not so much.  They quickly depart, like every miniature I’ve every purchased.

If I had endless garden space, I would attempt to grow the old world garden roses.  They are hardier, less labor-intensive, and generally present fewer problems for the gardener.  Besides reminding me of better times passed, they are, quite frankly, much less likely to turn up dead.  They fairly well care for themselves, and it is this Queen Gardener’s opinion that the brief bloom every summer is worth the months of nothing if for no other reason than their heavenly perfume.

However, the moderns, for all their demands, are sometimes so beautiful in form and color that they cannot be passed over – something like my obsession with the miniatures.

Like fetid vs. licorice, one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain.

Whichever rose you choose, there are three basic rules for its initial planting. Follow them, and you might (might!) be rewarded with blooms. They will be perfumed, on huge vines, and show up only once per summer if you chose an old world garden rose, or relatively unscented but colorful and constant should you choose one of the modern hybrids.  Regardless of your liking, the three rules are:

1.  Buy quality bushes, preferably locally grown.  If that is not a possibility, look for a reliable mail order nursery and know your hardiness zone.  Plant in the early spring.  If you are planting bare-root roses, make sure that they have been soaked in a bucket of water for up to 24 hours before planting.  Remember that once a rose is established, with proper care and a dose of good luck, it can last at least ten to fifteen years; much longer if it is one of the old world, European, varieties.  It is best to be certain the rose is in a location where it will be welcome in years to come.

2.  Plant the bush where it will receive at least six hours of good light in well drained soil in a location where it is at least minimally protected from strong winds.

3.  Feed a little (with 6% nitrogen, 8% phosphorus and 6% potassium), but not until the second year, and then only feed once or twice a growing season.  Water a lot (A LOT!) until the bush is established.  After that, unless drought sets in or you do, truly, live in a desert, the bush will probably be happy with standard landscape watering.

I know, dear reader:  that’s really seven or more rules compressed to look like three.  But trust me, just like any relationship, it’s not quite as simple as presented, and not quite as impossible as it seems.  Of course, you may also need to deadhead, spray, shape, contain, worry over, winterize, pray about, and light candles for (or in memory of), but the three(ish) basics hold true and many a beautiful rose bush has been long-lived because of them.

But, wait!  What does one do with that rose after it is established and threatening to engulf the entire back yard, prickles and all?  Well, let me give you a few more basics (very basic) about pruning, but first a story.

Experience has taught me that these are no steadfast rules to pruning roses.  I once had a boyfriend who was obsessive about pruning.  He was obsessive about many things, but for now we will just leave it at pruning the roses.

Any summer evening he could be found in the back yard of his rental home that came complete with a variety of heritage and modern roses, shears in hand, cutting away that which he – no rose expert! – deemed undesirable.  Mind you, eventually it was I who deemed him undesirable and subsequently snipped him out of my life, but then that’s another story, entirely. We are discussing rose pruning, not Queen Gardener sanity-preserving pruning.  The morale of this tale is, he clipped and clipped and clipped, with not even a basic knowledge of what to cut and what not to cut, and every summer the roses bloomed, regardless.

Should you develop an obsessive need to prune, here are a few basic tips to help you keep your snippiness in check.

If growing the miniatures, and they live longer than the seven days I am accustomed to, just give the entire bush a “hair cut”.  Just a few inches all around.  If yours is a climbing rose, just affix it where you want it to grow and prune very gently, without disturbing the main laterals, as best you can so that it will accommodate the space you have provided it.  As an aside, do you know that they, the climbers, don’t really climb?  They lean.  And it is your job, as rose-tender-primario, to “affix” them here and there so they won’t come a’ tumbling down at the first robust gust of wind.

If it’s a rambler you are pruning, my advice is:  don’t.  Just let it ramble.  In Denver I once bought a house with a lengthy side yard fence completely buried by rambling roses.  Around the middle of June, these bushes produced a beautiful, moderately-scented and pastel pink bloom, small in size but grouped in clusters of four or five blossoms all along the length of the gracefully arching canes.  They transformed the fence they leaned over into a veritable pink snowdrift.  I never once pruned them other than to remove dead or damaged wood and they rewarded me every June with that fencerow of pink.  Stunning.

If your rose has finished blooming, and like many urban gardeners you need to save space, prune with caution.  Again, don’t prune anything until after the blooms have fallen, and then remove dead wood and weak or stunted new growth first.  Then, if pruning an upright variety, shape appropriately but try not to remove more than just about one quarter of the top of each upright cane.  And always cut just above a “bud eye”, the visible node above a leaf steam or branch where new growth originates.

With that scant advice, I leave you to tend this flower long known to symbolize so many different things in so many different cultures, from a name for the colors pink and red in several languages, to English rugby football, to royalty and death and family.  Foremost, though, roses are a universal symbol of love, beauty and virtue, as illustrated by their sacred role to the Goddess Isis, whose rose appears in the classical allegorical novel, The Golden Ass.

Oh, what a Queen Gardener wouldn’t do for a Golden Ass.

But that longing aside, the rose of Isis is described in the novel as “the sweet rose of reason and virtue”, and eventually this rose, through love and devotion, saves the hero Lucius from his belabored and bewitched life as a donkey.  I am not golden, and certainly not an ass, but to my dying breath I will believe it was my sweet Grandma Rose’s and my beautiful Mother Shirley’s “reason and virtue” that saved me from a life that, quite frankly, could have ended up a belabored disaster.

These are the women who taught me to be true to myself, to honor both my biological and chosen families and to uphold my personal faith.  They taught me to keep my posture upright and my mouth clean, to work hard and love harder.  They taught me to appreciate the life I have been given.  They taught me to take the time to smell the roses.  The ancients may have linked the rose to their goddesses, Isis, Aphrodite and Venus, but the Queen Gardener will always link roses to his personal goddesses:  Grandma Rose and Mom Shirley.

May there be abundant sweet roses where they are now, Wyoming wild roses for my mother and Persian Yellows for Grandma Rose.  And there, in the serenity of the roses, may their God rest their remarkable souls in peace.