To Put Down Roots

To Put Down Roots June 3, 2024

a red rose
image via Pixabay

I wasn’t supposed to buy a rose.

I was supposed to buy two tomato cages, to cage my last two tomatoes, plus a cheap seedling to fill the empty patch in the middle of the vegetable garden. But as I wheeled my shopping cart through the back of the garden center, I saw a shelf of rose bushes marked down to five dollars each.

I have never grown a rose in my life. I don’t plant perennials. Why would I buy perennials for a house I don’t even own?

We could be gone at any time. We’ve been in a state of “could be gone by any time” since we moved into this place in 2015. The lease was for one year, and then the landlord never renewed it, so according to Ohio law we rent from month to month.  Every summer since then, except the two where we didn’t have a garden at all, I’ve planted garden vegetables and not known whether I’d still be there to harvest them. I only planted the strawberries on a whim in 2020 because I was trying new things when the store didn’t have the plants I wanted in stock. Up until last year, things being what they were, the only thing I wanted was to flee our house. I daydreamed of winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune from a long lost relative, and leaving in the middle of the night, never to see Steubenville again.

This year, it’s different. This year, I’m content. I love my remaining neighbors. I’d like to stay. This house is a hundred years old, ugly, and in need of some maintenance. I’m always afraid that the next thing that breaks will be unfixable, and someone from the city will nail a “condemned” sign to the house and command us to go live somewhere else. I’m afraid the landlord will pass away or give up on being a landlord, and whoever owns the house next will make us sign a lease for a much worse monthly rent than the pittance we’re paying now.

I stopped to look at those roses.

One of them had a blossom. It wasn’t a ladylike tea rose. It was a bright vibrant shade of cool red that wouldn’t suit me if I wore it as a dress. I sniffed–there was a tiny whiff of smell there– not the rich perfume of an old-fashioned climbing rose, the kind I’ve always wanted to grow once I got a house of my own, but not nothing. It was a shadow of a ghost of a memory, a hint, a tease. I thought of growing up in Columbus, just three blocks from the Park of Roses. I used to walk between the beds of extravagant roses, pretending I was a queen, while my next younger brother climbed that great big weeping willow tree and jumped from the highest branches. I always yelled at him that he’d hurt himself, but he never did. My mother used to joke that he had super thick bones.

The memory made me sad.

Next thing I knew, the rose was in the cart.

I finished the shopping and the other few errands with the rose sitting in the passenger seat of Serendipity.

When I got home, Adrienne came out, carrying the guinea pig. The pig went into the strawberry patch, to help me cull the plants. They have nearly finished their first crop of fruit of the year. They’re getting brown spots. I had been researching this to find out why I hadn’t gotten a second crop on my Everbearing strawberry plants last year, why they were coming down with ugly brown freckles instead of giving me more than one crop. The answer seems to be that they’re sending out runners instead of making blossoms, and because I let them flood all over the patch like a field instead of growing them in rows. The crowding is attracting strawberry blight, a fungus. Weeding carefully, ripping out all the new runners, and clearing out the center of the patch to make room might help.

Adrienne and I surveyed the yard, trying to find a place to plant the rose before I started on the strawberries. Nothing ever grows in the planter near the back porch because it’s too shady. Nothing can grow by the front porch because of those scrubby trees the landlord’s handyman hasn’t removed yet. The garden beds don’t have a good spot for a showy perennial. Around the patio with the sandbox wouldn’t work, because there’s a layer of concrete that used to be a driveway under the topsoil there. A rose can’t grow in the shadow of that big lilac bush that came with the property.

Finally, I selected a spot at the end of the sidewalk, near where Jeanne the Guardian lives under that weird side outcropping of the porch. It was right near the boundary line of the stalking neighbor’s old house– you can see the place where her fussy grass ends and my clover and creeping charley begin.  “Right here,” I said. “We need a hole here. This is the place. I’ll dig up the grass around it later and make a little flowerbed at the end of the walk. ”

Adrienne took custody of the shovel.

I ripped out plant after plant, coating my hands in what was left of the ripe fruit down by the roots. The guinea pig nibbled on the leaves with her teeth. Between the two of us, we removed about four square feet of blighted strawberry runners inside the sixteen square foot strawberry patch, leaving the healthy plants in a square around a bare black rectangle. She ate her share, and I threw my much larger contribution on the compost heap.

Adrienne hacked at the grass with the shovel for a few minutes to no avail. Finally, she got a knife and skinned the top layer of grass off the ground, roots and all. She hacked again, at soil that was almost entirely pebbles and clay. Put the rose’s root ball into the hole– about half as deep as it needed to be. Took the ball out and hacked at the soil again.

I caged the tomatoes. I planted the cucumber seedling I’d bought to fill in an empty patch. Now, the vegetable patch was full.  The last seedling I had to plant this year was a watermelon– my own bush watermelon seeds had mostly failed except for one tiny seedling, so I bought another watermelon seedling from the garden store. But when I got it home, I realized this was not a bush sugar baby watermelon. This was a crimson sweet: a larger melon which needed much more space. I’d kept the seedling on the porch, not knowing what to do. Now I did. I planted it in the great big bare place where my strawberries had needed the breathing room. I had no idea whether that would work, but it may.

Adrienne knelt to examine the hole, and started digging rocks out by hand. There were rocks nearly as big as her hand in the ground. This whole neighborhood has the most terrible soil; I’ve been babying it with compost and chicken bone meal fertilizer for years to get any yield at all.

Thinking of the soil made me remember to turn to my compost heap. You have to turn the heap every so often to aerate it, or it won’t break down into soil properly. Adrienne was still using my shovel, so I used my hands and the gardening spade Jimmy’s boy had given me. Blighted strawberries and kitchen waste, grass and weeds and shredded cardboard, a haystack of the grass I’d raked after Jimmy cut it– all were turned over, and the half-decayed matter underneath went on top. The top layer was burning hot, radiating life.

I went to wash my hands, and brought out a pitcher of water and a cup. Adrienne finished digging her hole. She unwrapped the root ball, carefully reserving the instructions; then she drank the water as I planted my rose.

The instructions said to backfill the hole with half the old ground soil and half potting mix, but the soil was so terrible that we used all potting mix. They said to pile the soil up to the “bud union,” a term I had to look up on my phone. The bud union is where the hybrid canes are grafted onto a root.  I piled the soil up to where I thought the bud union must be. We didn’t have any mulch, so I ripped up the paper that had wrapped the rose and used that.

We stood back, almost reverently, and stared at that tacky red flower.

It felt like we’d done something magic– as though we’d performed a ritual, and all that was left was the incantation.

It felt like I ought to pray.

I whispered a petition: that I could somehow make my peace with the God who has been with me in every trial, even though the church where I met Him has completely ruined me. That I could somehow continue to find the peace and happiness I have begun to discover out here in Appalachia, even though it used to feel like an exile. That, even though it’s impossible, I could find a way to buy this house from the landlord, fix it up for myself, and stay here.

If there are any roses left on the clearance shelf, and any money to get them, I’ll get another rose tomorrow.

And we’ll see where we go from here.




Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.










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