Run for the Roses

While browsing around my garden last week, I was surprised that the roses most anxious for spring are two that were not bred for the Northern Nevada climate.

Run for the RosesMy 2016 Portland Rose Festival Parade Roses, started in an Oregon nursery and transported here on faith, are greening up in eager anticipation of the blooming season. Even better, ruby shoots of new growth are forming on the emerald canes.

Like a prize stallion in a run for the roses, I expect that the rich, pink buds of these transplants will burst out of the starting gate before most of my other bushes have saddled up for the race. In fact, I’d bet my last dollar on that.

The value of going first, of not being afraid to bloom while others watch and wait, is a notion that actually occurred to me last summer. On bushes that produce roses in bouquet style, I noticed that typically one bud will explode in a flash of brilliant color while those around it seem to creep toward maturity. It’s as though the one is leading the way saying, “Come on, everybody. If I can do it, so can you.”

Greta Thunberg is like that.

If you don’t know the name, let me introduce you. She’s the 16-year-old Swedish girl who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her fearless and determined effort to raise awareness about climate change. Correction. Her effort to get adults to do something about climate change.

Go FirstLast August, when she first began school walkouts and protests in front of the Swedish parliament, she was a lone figure. Now around 70,000 youth in 400 cities regularly walk out of school on Fridays to demonstrate their concern. And get this. Last week more than 1.5 million kids in 125 countries participated in a worldwide climate strike.

It’s worth mentioning that Greta has inspired this impressive youth movement even with the challenge of Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s on the Autism spectrum, and one of the characteristics is difficulty with social interaction. For one thing, someone with Asperger’s may continue a conversation past socially acceptable norms because they don’t notice the social cues that signal most of us to shut up.

Let that sink in.

Is it strange that a 65-year-old woman who grows roses in Nevada is in absolute awe of a 16-year-old who has captured global attention?

Most of us will never achieve a fraction of Greta’s influence. But we can learn something from her and from my Oregon roses growing in the Nevada desert. They aren’t afraid to go first. And we shouldn’t be either.

Are you holding back on something? Is there a dream that you’ll “someday” pursue or a movement you’ll “someday” support? Are you waiting for someone else to test the waters?

Don’t wait anymore. Jump in. Go first. Bloom first. Or as Dan Fogelberg sang in 1982, Run for the Roses.

“It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance, and it’s high time you joined in the dance.”

Show Up

When Katie, my happy-go-lucky Springer Spaniel, was alive, she and I took a walk around all the paths in our back yard every evening weather permitting. I didn’t always want to go. She consistently persuaded me with her gleeful anticipation.

Katie - Springer SpanielShe’s been gone more than two years, but I can still picture her out there among the roses and the aspens. What a girl. She was never more content than when she was by my side, and she never tired of poking her nose in familiar bushes in the hope of discovering something new.

Her “cute dog trick” (as my mother called it) was to sniff out mysterious creatures in the sandy soil, stare at them motionless like a hunting spaniel that had spied a pheasant, and then pounce. She’d wiggle her butt and her little stump of a tail, spin joyously in circles, and then do it all over again.

We never actually saw what she was chasing, but we decided to nickname them graboids after the colossal sandworms in the campy movie Tremors. She didn’t catch a single one, but she made it her lifelong mission to try.

Katie Hunting GraboidsWith tears in our eyes, this was the last story we shared with our veterinarian as Katie drifted off to her final sleep at the ripe old age of 14. I like to think she’s merrily hunting graboids in heavenly rows of flowers and fruit trees, waiting for me to finally show up.

I still like to stroll around the yard weather permitting. Sure, I’m out there almost daily from spring to fall weeding, pruning, deadheading, and fertilizing. It’s not the same, though, as just enjoying the space.

Sometimes I simply soak up the beauty of the roses I so carefully tend. I take pictures by the thousands and sit on my stone “count your blessings” bench doing exactly that.

Sometimes I see miracles. Once while approaching our ornamental pear tree, I looked up just in time to see a mother hummingbird feed her fledging offspring by sliding her long beak down the little bird’s throat. I stopped dead in my tracks and watched in awe.

I’d like to think I appreciate everything in life as much as I appreciate my garden. I’m not perfect, but I do try. Especially as I’ve grown older, and life has naturally grown shorter, the value of walking in constant gratitude has come into sharper focus.

It’s not just about rare moments like seeing the Northern Lights or your daughter in a wedding gown. It’s the everyday gifts – the majesty of a fiery sunset, a song that unexpectedly touches your heart, the last poignant lines of a soulful book, your goofy dog romping in the snow.

Maybe the best thing we can do is live every day like we’re hunting graboids. It doesn’t matter if the prize is something no one else can see, or that we may never actually catch it. We can still delight in the chase. We just have to show up.

Katie in Snow

Ships Were Not Built for Safe Harbors

Years ago, when I moved into a house that already had a handful of rose bushes in the front yard, I knew next to nothing about caring for them.

Three by the porch were so overgrown that, if not for the colors of their blooms, might have been mistaken for one bush. They were wedged into a tiny flower bed against the garage wall and were beginning to creep over the front path.

By the time spring advanced to summer, the creeping had become invading, and the canes were as unruly as morning hair. It was time to do something.

I had a limited array of garden tools at that point. A couple of trowels perhaps. Definitely no pruning shears. I did have an electric hedge trimmer that had come in handy at my last home where the front yard was ringed entirely with dense, woody shrubs. I plugged it in and started to work.

Now that I understand roses a bit more, I’m haunted by that day. The scream of the trimmer, the flying bits of cane, the flittering pink, white and red petals. The memory is like a blood bath in a horror flick.

I suppose the trimmer would have been acceptable if the bushes had been hedge roses planted for the specific purpose of creating a sculpted border. These were climbers, and they deserved better.

If the roses felt battered or betrayed, they never showed it. They quickly bounced back from the massacre and flourished. Thankfully, by the next year I was more educated and had the right tools. I apologized to the bushes season after season with by-the-book deadheading (angled cut above the first five-leaf set) and carefully pruning them so they would grow upward instead of sideways.

When I moved again several years later and decided to grow a rose garden from scratch, I had enough practice that I wasn’t afraid of the challenge. I had learned that roses are hardy enough to rebound from almost any amateur blunder.

It seems it should be easy to transfer that insight to other aspects of life – to venture forth into unchartered territory unafraid of making mistakes because, well, mistakes are rarely fatal. Instead, most of the time they are the stuff of wisdom and growth.

This is as true as any truism in the annals of human history. Why else would generations of poets, songwriters, and authors repeatedly shower us with reminders about the value of sailing boldly out of safe harbors and taking roads less traveled?

And since they’ve said it so often and so well, why do we still need reminders?

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer to that. As for me, I look in the mirror and ponder my inner fears practically every day. It’s no surprise that the woman looking back rarely utters a helpful word. When she does, she smiles a knowing little smile and simply asks, “Do you remember the day you took a hedge trimmer to those roses?”

Ships Were Not Built for Safe Harbors

(With headline credit to John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic, 1928, A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.)

Playing the Odds

If you’re a gardener, you probably know where you live on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

In the high desert of Northern Nevada, I’m in Zone 7a where the mercury can reach as low as zero in the winter.

Knowing your zone is a little like knowing your banking password. It unlocks valuable information about the plants and trees you should choose if you want your garden to survive the coolest season.

It’s also a little like gambling. You’re playing the odds.

You see, the designers of the zone map understand that not every winter follows the norm and not every plant responds to the elements in the same way. They hedge their bets by saying their designations can steer you toward plants that are “most likely to thrive” in your zone.

Even with that disclaimer, I’m quite fond of the zone map. Without it, I might actually have given in to my fascination with Hawaii and tried to grow my favorite island flowers in the desert. Maybe I could be successful with hibiscus since there is a hardy variety in addition to the tropical. However, the fragrant petals of the delicate plumeria would surely perish, as would the glossy anthurium (whose name falls woefully short of its exotic beauty).

Yes, the zone map is why our yard is as attractive as it is. Desert-friendly honeysuckle, moonlight broom, wisteria, forsythia, and roses are as close to a guaranteed jackpot as one can get around here.

Unfortunately, as the zone map gurus have said, there are no solid guarantees in the garden. Or in life. Every day, it seems, we’re faced with choices that force us to play the odds. With some, if you choose the wrong path you can try again. With others, you get only one roll of the dice.

Take my effort to keep breast cancer at bay.

I was diagnosed with Stage 1B invasive ductal carcinoma in September 2017. My doctors promptly armed me with the cancer version of a zone map. Based on the law of averages, I needed a mastectomy or a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, and five years of a hormone suppressant.

Not quite satisfied, I took their zone map and piled on everything I could dig up about the latest trends in breast cancer treatment. Some of it supported the standard protocol. Some of it didn’t. In the end, I unlocked enough information to accept my doctors’ advice on an à la carte basis. I had the lumpectomy, refused the radiation, and started taking the hormone suppressant.

So far, the odds are working in my favor – more than a year with no recurrence. I know it’s too early to call “Jackpot.” Five years is the standard milestone for celebration. Let’s say I’ve managed to spin three cherries, and the machine paid out enough for me to keep playing for a while.

What the heck. I’m feeling lucky. Maybe it’s finally time to take a chance on that hardy hibiscus.



I didn’t have to plant a rose garden to understand why my favorite time of year has always been spring.

Like a welcome friend, it arrives about a week before my birthday. In its open hands are the gifts of warmth and beauty. And as the days of the season progress, the gifts only grow more glorious.

I’ve never met a single soul that doesn’t drink it up; not even if they vow their favorite season is summer, autumn or winter.

And that’s as it should be.

After all, every season has its splendors. Summer’s long days of emerald grandeur melt into autumn’s dazzling display of flaming hues, which gives way to winter snow sparkling in silvery moonlight. There isn’t a month of the year that lacks some redeeming majesty.

And yet, every season also harbors potential calamities. Gentle spring rains can become downpours that produce flash floods. Balmy summer temperatures sometimes escalate into oppressive heat that dries out the landscape and intensifies wildfires. Autumn and winter winds may usher in crushing storms and murderous frost.

We are obliged to experience it all. The rapturous delight and the depths of dreadfulness. The sweetly sublime and the supremely sad.

As I write this, my rosebushes are wearing dreary shades of ginger while they stand stoically in heaps of dark gray mulch. The air is sharp. Nothing is stirring except the occasional desert rabbit. Spring seems a lifetime away.

It would be easy to slip into melancholy about the state of the garden or worry whether all of my rosebushes will survive to bloom again. Neither response would be of much use against the ebb and flow of nature.

Rather, I will regard the shades of ginger like comfy flannel pajamas, the gray mulch like a woolen blanket, and the stillness like a peaceful night that invites pleasant dreams. I will replace worry with awe at the wisdom of the ultimate Spirit and the living Earth. I will rest assured that the endless Universe knows what we need and when we need it.

If my words seem more soulful than usual, it’s because the Universe is busy teaching me and mine a divine lesson. The class has only just begun, so I haven’t much to say specifically about it. That day will come. In the meantime, I will roundup my musings with these thoughts.

Every season has its purpose. I’m hardly the first writer to utter those words, and I surely won’t be the last. It’s a truth that dates to the beginning of time, and it will go on being true until the end of time.

Somewhere in the middle of that breathtaking beginning and evolutionary end, it’s up to us to find the meaning and the joy in each new day – no matter whether it seems sweetly sublime or supremely sad – and grow with it.

If the garden can do this from season to season, so can we all. Indeed, like roses in springtime, it is our destiny.Pink Rose With Water Droplets

The Resilient Spirit

While transplanting a rosebush last month, images of resilience flickered across my thoughts like scenes in an old home movie.

It started with the rosebush, which I adopted from a friend a little over a year ago. A rich pink variety, it once adorned the patio of the home she shared with her mother. After her mother passed away, she relocated to be close to other family and the rose couldn’t go.

Now, my friend would be the first to acknowledge that the rose wasn’t in great shape. It was little more than a stump with a few sprigs of green and was covered in aphids. I understood. When you uproot your life, plant care tends to go to the bottom of the priority list. As my husband and I loaded the pot into our Jeep, I reassured her that the bush would be fine. Secretly, I wasn’t so sure.

Connie's RoseDetermined to give it my best shot, I babied the rose every day for weeks. Pretty soon I noticed that the aphids were gone and new growth was visible on the stump. Pretty soon after that, a few buds burst open in pink glory as if to say, “I’m still here!” Today, in its permanent spot in our backyard garden, it’s the most prolific bush in this year’s late summer blooming season.

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me. Any good rose authority will tell you that they are incredibly hardy and able to regenerate from nearly every adversity Mother Nature or humans can throw at them. Nevertheless, I find the resurrection of my friend’s rose entirely amazing.

On transplant day, as I swirled native and enriched soil around the bush, I thought of the storms I’ve personally weathered – financial ruin, a broken heart, the loss of loved ones, breast cancer. However, my trials pale in comparison to the two women who most shaped my life.

My mother lost her partner and provider in 1970 when my father suffered a permanently debilitating mental breakdown. Although devastated, she managed to find a job, sell our house, and move us into a by-the-month motel until she could rent something more suitable. Over the ensuing years, she advanced at work, bought another house, and enjoyed retirement at the Oregon coast for 14 years before spending her last 12 with me in Nevada.

My mother-in-law lost her 13-year-old daughter in 1971. Little Marsha was severely disabled from Rett’s Syndrome, a disorder that was completely unknown when it suddenly struck her in the late 1950s and wasn’t widely recognized until many years after her equally sudden death. My mother-in-law somehow carried on without ever knowing what exactly had taken her child. She went back to college for a master’s degree, became a spiritual counselor, and helped a number of hurting souls before she passed in 1988.

My friend’s rose is a beautiful reminder of how we all have the capacity to bounce back from the worst of circumstances. What is your favorite story of resilience?

Listening: The Gold Standard

It wasn’t an accident that the first two posts in this series were about hearing my garden speak to me. If today’s entry was my last and only chance to impart what I’ve heard, it would be about the importance of listening. Far and away, it’s the number one thing I’ve learned out there among the roots and canes and blossoms and thorns.

It might seem that listening is an odd thing to do in a garden. The senses that draw us there, after all, are sight and smell. We want to behold the beauty of the landscape and inhale the fragrance radiating from the blossoms. We expect that all we will hear is the quiet.

Spring 2012Yet, it is deep in the quiet, with our hands in the dirt and our senses awake, that messages materialize in our minds. Metaphorically speaking, it’s like a science fiction story in which luminescent beings from other worlds communicate with awestruck earthlings through telepathy.

Or maybe it’s not metaphorical at all. Maybe it’s just one lovely, Godly creation mingling with another.

It’s funny, then, that the high insight about listening actually came before I even had a garden. It was my husband’s idea to carve out a portion of our backyard for roses, and it was my mother’s idea to plant many varieties. If I hadn’t listened to them 10 years ago, I might now have half a dozen yellow and ivory bushes tucked along the fence line. As it is, the yard is flush with 32 bushes producing blossoms of almost every color of the rainbow.

I’m hardly the first person in your life to tell you to listen. Your parents undoubtedly did because, of course, they knew best. Your teachers, your scoutmasters, your coaches all wanted you to listen, too. You grew up with it. You may have embraced it, but it’s also pretty likely that you rebelled against it at some point. I can only imagine the number of times in my youth that I thought or said, “I’m not listening to you,” and hungered for someone to listen to me instead.

Today I believe that, if meaningful communication is a marriage of listening and speaking, listening is by far the better half.

In business, government and communities, the best ideas are most often the result of people sharing their thoughts, listening to the perspective of others with a stake in the outcome, and blending the most promising concepts to solve problems.

In relationships, listening is the foundation that supports you through good times and bad. It’s the cornerstone of friendship. It’s the gold standard of parenthood. It’s the spark that keeps the flame burning between lovers.

I suppose it’s a bit of a paradox that I’m writing a blog that begs readers to listen to me while I extol the virtues of listening to others. Perhaps it’s a nod to my rebellious youth. Perhaps it’s something else. Next time I’m out among the flowers, I’ll see what the garden thinks.

There’s Nothing Better

cropped-pink-rose-with-water-droplets2.jpgRoses blooming in my garden often make it to my Facebook page, prompting friends to shower me with compliments about my green thumb. The response is flattering, but it makes me chuckle. If only they knew what a disaster I used to be.

Houseplants were the worst. I had such a bad reputation around the office that a couple of co-workers once marched up to my desk and took my last, withered something-or-other to their wing of the building to resuscitate it. Their parting words were, “You are not allowed to have plants anymore.”

Several years later, when I became a team manager, my staff proudly presented me with a rather large, hearty potted plant that they imagined would thrive in the sunlight streaming through the window in my office. A close friend and longtime colleague stopped in her tracks when she saw it. “Do they know you?” she asked.

Outdoor plants have fared better under my guardianship, but when I was a young wife and mother living in the Pacific Northwest my heart wasn’t really in it. It’s not that I let our yard go untended. I filled flower beds and pots with petunias and impatiens every spring, and I dutifully deadheaded the rhododendrons someone else had long ago planted along the side fence. I just didn’t have any interest in doing more than necessary.

My husband had the same mindset. Mow the lawn, trim the edges, pull the weeds. That was sufficient. We used to snicker quietly about our retired neighbor who seemingly spent all spring and summer pruning his roses and nurturing the rest of his well-manicured yard. “Doesn’t Mr. Peterson have anything better to do with his time?” we wondered.

More than 20 years later, I’m retired, and I understand. There isn’t anything better.

It didn’t actually take retiring for me to finally get it. The realization crept up on me over the 10 years we have spent in our current house in the high desert of Nevada. The backyard was nothing but sand when we moved in; now it’s an oasis of trees, pathways, shrubs and statuary. In the southwest corner is the rose garden where my efforts are happily rewarded with bursts of color from spring through fall.

It’s not only the flowers that make working in the yard worthwhile, however. Every time I get on my knees to weed and fertilize, every time I trim spent blooms or prune canes, I absorb a certain wisdom. Not just about gardening. About life. About writing. About myself. It’s as though the garden is a classroom, and the roses are my teachers.

My only regret as a born again gardener is that I didn’t get it when we lived next door to old Mr. Peterson. What a lovely thing it would have been to sit together with a glass of lemonade and swap stories from our gardens. What did he learn out there among his flowers? I can only wonder.

The Garden Speaks

I don’t remember the day or even the year, but I’ll always remember the moment my garden first spoke to me.

Our house was newly constructed when my husband and I bought it in 2008. I loved the interior – everything fresh and modern with plenty of room for us and my elderly mother. I hated the property – a third of an acre of barren sand and dust in the middle of a high desert subdivision. It didn’t hold a candle to the place I had wanted and we had argued about. That old rancher, perched on a hill overlooking town, was in serious need of renovations but had the most glorious acre of flowering shrubs, tall pines, and willowy trees that formed a natural arbor over the path leading to the front door.

“The land speaks to me,” I pleaded with my husband. “We’ve moved so many times over the years. When I was standing there among the trees, I felt like I was home.”

His actual response eludes me now, but it was something practical, I’m sure. Something like, “The house is speaking to me, and it says it’s more work than we can handle. We can do our own landscaping at a new build.”

Combined, our handyman talents would fit on the tip of my index finger, so I knew he was right. We went with the new build. We moved in just as winter was coming on, so the backyard remained a sandy wasteland until spring when we began picking out pine and crabapple trees at our favorite nursery and anchoring trellises where honeysuckle and wisteria would grow.

One day, when my husband was laying out rock paths that would eventually wind through our desert oasis, he suddenly stopped and asked if I wanted a section of the yard for a rose garden. The thought hadn’t occurred to me, but I immediately agreed and began dreaming of yellow roses climbing up the fence and heirloom roses with names like Queen Elizabeth and Sugar Moon circling a sunburst locust tree.

Of course, landscaping is expensive and cultivation takes time, so it was a few years before I had a real, honest-to-goodness rose garden. The kind that you can get lost in when you’re on your knees sifting fertilizer into the soil or pruning wayward canes. The kind that takes your breath away at the height of spring. The kind that speaks to you as you walk among the beauty.

20180729_060748 (2)Indeed, it was spring when my breathtaking garden first spoke to me. And, indeed, I was walking among the beauty. I remember stopping short when I heard the whispering. I remember just standing there for the longest time quietly listening. I remember what my garden said.

“You’re home, Laurie. This is home.”

And it was.