I’ve been pruning roses.
A seminary student came to the farm once and asked about our muscadine crop. There had been little rain that year and a pitiful harvest, but I had read that the sweetest grapes grow in drought years, and told him so.
“That’ll preach,” he said.
I often think of that in the garden, where just about everything will preach if you will listen.
It’s hard to prune. A neighbor stopped by and watched me, saying, “I’ve got a few roses, but I don’t think I can do that to them!” It does feel cruel to take off so much, two-thirds of the strong green shoots, already bushing out at the top. I must conscientiously remember the old lady in the rose gardening documentary. I remember watching my grandfather and sister do this every February. I remember the radical “prunings” in my life and in the lives of others, prunings that felt much more like butcherings at the time. In remembering, I know it will be okay.
Remembering is what gardeners do in the winter; it’s as essential as fertilizer and as nourishing as rain. Without it, no seeds would be planted, no beds mulched over and no roses pruned.
With the bright red Felco pruners, newly sharpened and cleaned, the process begins. First, you look her over. Queen of the Violets, she is called and in her sprawly, confident posture, I remember the thousands of full, heavily scented flowers and the Green Lynx Spider that makes a home in her every summer. I see the trellis we had to build in the ground behind to support her. She is the only purple rose, and she shoots out in all directions, as if she knows her own importance, and strives to make herself seen above the others. I know this rose, but as I squat to see the dead stock, as I look for disease and fungus, as I consider where she must be cut, she becomes fully known.
In pruning out the dead, it must be remembered that the presence of the barren, dry stock is not a failure. Roses are regenerating things. They are always dying, always being reborn. Do not be deceived by the deadness. “It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present to us: it is the very sign of his presence,” was part of a Lewis quote that a knowing friend recently sent me, sensing the discouragement with my own dirt and deadness. And so with the rose. The dead is only seen when the Gardener is standing there, present, and eager to help.
I look for a scar, concentrating on the science of the thing, for this part preaches a bit too loudly for comfort and squirming is not helpful in making a clean cut. A scar is where the job must be done, for there is something in that old hurt that can come alive. With the direction of the cut and the position of the scar, I train the bush to open up, to spread out to the world, not into herself, to form a vessel to receive the sun and rain, and in return to give her gifts to others.
Half an hour later, stepping back to see, I’m glad my neighbor did not stay, for, although I am satisfied, it is a humble sight. I haul the branches to the goats, who love the dark new leaves and the occasional rose-hip. Getting scratched in the process, I smile at the memory of the girl who stepped out of the mini-van in her blue Converse shoes and basketball shorts.
“Umm, why do you have so many thorn bushes?” she asked.
Walking back to the now much smaller, lowlier rose, I do the final thing. It’s silly, I know, but the poetic nature of the painful work I did compels me. Gardening lends itself to fools. “You are Queen of the Violets! ” I say.
If a rose could disbelieve, she does. Yet it is so. Someday soon she will know, even as she is fully known. I hope my neighbor and the girl with the Converses come and see.