From Rev. Barbara’s Couch (October 2020)

by the Rev. Barbara Threet

Just about every one of my roses has buds! And a few have even had blossoms!

That should not be unusual in mid-September. But this year, it is, and I am rejoicing.

Last April, when I finally accepted that I would not be traveling in the summer, I decided to plant some roses.  Before I started seminary I had a very large collection of roses, which grow very easily in the Santa Cruz area where I lived for a few years. While I was in seminary and living in an apartment in Berkeley, roses were out of the question. When I moved back to Massachusetts, my yard was really too shady, and then I began traveling every summer, so roses were forgotten – roses do like attention!

It was hard to let go of travel. I was really excited about my plans for summer 2020. By April, all the pertinent plans and reservations were long since made and confirmed, and it was wrenching to cancel them all. As a consolation, I suppose, I decided to order some roses, about a dozen of my favorites.

They arrived when Jackson & Perkins thought roses could be planted in Western Massachusetts, and according to the broad-scale planting guides, they were right. Except our microclimate is several weeks behind the general region, so the plants had to be coddled for those several weeks before the ground was thawed enough to plant, and the nights warm enough so the little things would survive. One didn’t make it at all – turns out this climate is just too harsh – but the rest slowly leafed out, and by early summer, they looked promising.

But we have sheep. And one afternoon we arrived home from a very stressful day – the earliest foray to Home Depot since March – to find that the sheep had breached the fence and were munching their way across the lawn, focusing on my roses in particular. Most of the leaves and several of the branches had been eaten off, and every single one of the promising buds was gone. I was angry, and far more heart-sick than roses generally warrant. But in the time of Covid and so much loss, it just felt like a final straw. And, like Covid, there was nothing to be done, no way to turn back the clock to ‘before’. No amount of anger, or grief, or sadness, raging about the unfairness, or anything else, was going to change the situation. We reinforced the fence, I cursed the sheep soundly (though they didn’t listen at all), and I figured out how to prune sheep-damaged roses.

One of them never recovered: it was the weakest plant to begin with, and loosing every single leaf and more was simply its death knell.  But the rest slowly began to put out new leaves, slowly grew new branches, slowly seemed on the road to recovery. Until – the Japanese beetles hatched. I’d sort of forgotten about such pests: in Santa Cruz those many years ago, our free-range chickens wandered through the rose gardens eating whatever bugs they could find and fertilizing along the way. Here in Massachusetts, our chickens free-range in the fields with the sheep (they couldn’t seem to learn to stay off the porches, and that wasn’t so pleasant). So I did battle with the beetles. I picked them off and put them in soapy water, sprayed with an organic spray, squashed them directly with my fingers, bought milky spore to put down in the fall to kill their grubs to prevent an infestation next year, and used very un-ministerial language to tell them what I thought of them. And slowly, they disappeared, or at least were greatly diminished. A few plants bore actual roses, but the flowers were quickly tattered by the beetles, and the whole rose experiment just felt like a microcosm of everything else happening in the world.

By early September, the plants were all looking about like they should have looked in early July, bushing out, lots of new growth, and several tiny developing buds. A week ago a few had actually blossomed- what joy! – and then, a cold snap. Forecasts were for three nights of temperatures around freezing. I didn’t want to risk breaking the stalks with the buds on them, so I carefully put stepladders over some of them, one per rose bush, with sheets draped over and anchored. Others were covered with a variety of old drop cloths propped up with sticks: my grandsons laughed at the ‘ghosts’ in the yard. As it turned out, we had four nights of frost, two of them down into the mid-20s (we really are in a cold microclimate), but the days have been sunny. Last night the forecast didn’t include anything below 40, so I risked leaving them uncovered. And this noontime, as I write this, buds on four different plants are opening into roses! The first blossom of the year for each of them! And if the forecast is correct and there’s no frost in the next week or more, buds on at least three more are likely to have time to open too!

Especially this year, the roses have been teaching me, and now they give me hope. There has been setback after setback, some predictable, some completely out of left field. Careful planning only went about so far. Adjusting, paying attention, some level of acceptance and even resignation were in order. Getting creative was required (the step-ladder ‘ghosts’ were really quite eye-catching!) Not every rose made it, and at least a part of that was because I planned for Santa Cruz rather than Plainfield, and bought one variety that I later learned rarely survives in this climate. But eventually, flowers are coming, slowly. And in ways, these are much more meaningful than those in the large garden I had before which grew almost without effort. I’ve had to pay more attention, deal with more frustration and figure out how to adapt, worry more over unexpected obstacles, and nurture them along with more care. Now I know better what to do for next summer – and I have roses (albeit only a few) now!

And our lives will make it through somehow too. Not as we’d planned, and we’ll need to adapt and adjust, let go and try something different, fight back with determination and even accept some loss.  But if we keep on doing all of this, eventually we’ll get through, just as these roses do. May it be so. 

Shalom and Salaam,
Rev. Barbara

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