As a child growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I used to walk to elementary school each morning, back in the early '70s. For the first few years of school I made the trek with my big sister, but by the time she moved up to junior high school I was old enough to make the 3/4-mile walk by myself.
It was then that I started exploring the neighborhood, finding different routes to school. But being in no hurry to get to Mrs. Phillips' vocabulary lessons, I was easily distracted along the way. One of these diversions was a distant neighbor's rose garden, whose exquisite blossoms captured my attention one early spring morning. What had seemed like a mass of prickly vines the week before had turned into a collage of giant flowers blooming down the side of a split rail fence.
I can still remember standing on the curb at the corner of the fence, wanting to get a closer look at the blooms that beckoned me with their beautiful colors and shapes. The trail of roses ran from the street down the driveway toward the house. There were so many of them in different colors of reds, yellows, pinks, and whites! But I was afraid to trespass onto an unknown neighbor's lawn. Surely something so beautiful on someone else's property was off limits to a little boy like me. I could already imagine the house's inhabitants watching me with suspicion through their living room window. So despite my fascination with the show of roses, I went no farther down the fence line before resuming my walk to school.
As I repeated this routine on a daily basis, I gradually mustered enough courage to inch my way onto the lawn, to get a better look at the roses farther down the fence. The soft, creamy yellow petals that curled over a center of golden stamens invited me to come even closer. Checking the windows of the house and seeing no one, I cautiously put my little nose into the middle of the blossom, and breathed in deeply. The fragrance must have been intoxicating, because the next thing I knew I was moving further down the fence to see the next rose, and then the next one after that. I could have stayed all morning, but to avoid any trouble with my fourth grade teacher, I managed to pull myself away, knowing that I would be back again the next morning.
Day after day I bounded out of the house on my way to school, anticipating the roses that waited for me along the way. So long as no one was watching, I would stop and admire the blooms. As tempting as it was, I never plucked any flowers, though I may have picked up some spent petals that had fallen to the ground. Even in their wilted state, their silky softness was irresistible to the touch.
Like my sister before me, I eventually went on to junior high school – and went there by bus. My unknown neighbor's rose garden was no longer part of my morning routine. But as I grew older, I harbored a desire to grow my own roses. Although I worked in a nursery after my family moved to New Jersey during my high school years, it was not until I grew into adulthood and bought a house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia that I tried my hand at growing roses.
I purchased a rose book at the local garden center, and was surprised to read that I had to dig such large holes. So following the instructions, I took a spade into the backyard at the foot of the mountain where I lived, and proceeded to dig. I plunged my spade no more than six inches into the ground before hitting solid clay. I tried two or three other spots, but always hit the same bed of clay. Although my how-to book explained how to build a raised bed as an alternative, the drainage never proved sufficient, so I put my dream on hold.
Years later, I gave my rose ambitions another try after moving to New York's lower Hudson Valley. Taking my spade into the backyard, I was anxious to discover the quality and content of the soil beneath my grass. I soon found out that my entire yard was just a thin layer of topsoil poured over "hard fill" consisting of a combination of crushed stone, asphalt chunks, broken bits of concrete, and the unusual yellow bricks that paved the local roads at the turn of the last century.
Undeterred, I decided I could use the exercise, and I dug enough holes to plant over 150 roses around my home. With a combination of shovels, pick axes, pry bars, and sledge hammers, I managed to unearth tons of debris that had to be hauled off in trucks and replaced with amended soil. Since then I've moved into a new home and brought many of my roses with me. Today, my garden thrives, and reminds me of the roses that inspired me as a child.
A few years ago my retired parents relocated back to my hometown of Winston-Salem. While visiting them a few years ago, I took a drive to see the old house where I grew up as a child. As I entered the neighborhood, I turned down the street that I used to take on my way to school. I wanted to see if I could figure out which house had all the beautiful roses all those many years ago. As I came over the crest of a hill, I was amazed to see the corner of an old split rail fence still standing at the end of a familiar driveway, with roses in bloom. Further down the fence was an elderly gentleman tending some flowers in his yard. I pulled over to the side of the road, and sheepishly stepped out of the car and onto the old gentleman's yard. He looked up with a curious look in his face as I cleared my throat to introduce myself.
"Good afternoon," I said.
"Is there something I can do for you" he asked?
"I used to live in this neighborhood about 40 years ago. Have you lived here long," I asked?
"Oh, yes. We've been here for more than 50 years," he answered.
"Well, then, I owe you a great debt of gratitude," I said. He looked at me with a puzzled expression, so I explained. "You see, when I was a boy, I used to walk past your yard on the way to school, and would always stop to admire your roses. They made such a lasting impression on me that I vowed one day I would grow my own, and today I have more than 100 of them in my garden in New York."
"Is that so? My goodness! I can't tell you how many children I've sent home after school with bouquets for their mothers," he said. "But I don't know of any of them who went on to grow their own rose gardens."
"You still have the old fence," I said with a smile.
"Yes, there are still a few climbers left on those rails," he said. "But I'm afraid I'm too old to care for them like I used to. It's tough to bend over and prune them any more."
"Well, at least those daffodils behind you look pretty good," I said.
"They should; they're plastic," he explained!
I laughed, and asked if they held up well in the southern humidity.
"Yes," he said, "but they still get mildew," he said with a sly grin.
We walked over to the old fence, and he explained how he had grown and cultivated many roses over the years. One was a hybrid he propagated himself and named "Old Salem" for the restored Moravian village where the city originated in the 18th Century. It almost made it into commercial circulation, but like so many before, it was too prone to blackspot.
We chatted for a few minutes before I took my leave, but before I did, he told me I had made his day.
I smiled in return, and told him he helped make my garden.