The mystique of gardening |

The mystique of gardening

No, this isn’t one of those philosophical columns that ends up with me saying we do it for the love of nature and beauty and spiritual contentment.

This is just a straight-forward question that needs answering. I’ve spent most of the day gardening and I’m exhausted.

My knees are muddy, my scalp is bloody from an encounter with a vicious rose cane, my hands have been punctured (even through thick gloves) by stubborn blackberry vines that seem to know that if they grow out from under a large rock you can’t dig out the roots with a shovel.

Despite having put food on the table for over 30 years as a garden writer, I sometimes have serious doubts about the sanity of people who do this stuff as a hobby.

I guess it’s coincidental that my skepticism about gardening happens every year when the roses need pruning. We’ve just finished that task around our house, and now the old, old timers up at the ranch house need tending to.

But in a way, this is my fault.

Back in the days when my dear friend was re-establishing her home at the family ranch, I made it a point to bring up – and plant – the test roses that were sent to garden writers for evaluation. Most initially had only a number for evaluation, then they’d be given names if they got a warm reception from the test panel.

In any case they were free roses for the woman who would eventually become my wife, but I have to confess that when planting them I felt a little sorry for that “someone” who would be doing the pruning every year. And now that he is me. (Obviously the roses made a big hit.)

Having had UC Master Gardener training and having written many stories on the proper way to prune roses, I know the rules of the game, particularly for the popular hybrid teas: Prune to an outside bud, remove ancient canes, cut out crossing branches, try to develop a vase shape and remove inner clutter to allow good air circulation.

And I also know that roses DO NOT have thorns! They have “prickles” which can be snapped off with pressure from the side. True thorns (like those on pyracantha) start below the cambium layer of the canes.

With all that knowledge, you’d think I would be more enthusiastic about our national flower. Sadly, that’s not the case. The number of rose gardens that have truly impressed me over the years can be counted on the fingers of one hand. (And our own, despite its rustic floral charm, is not among them.)

Actually, I’m a little early with the pruning routine this year. Up here in the foothills it’s generally a good idea to wait until March, but ours were budding out early because of the unusually warm weather we’ve been having this winter.

Other years I usually delay the process until my helpmate says something like, “Well, (long, wistful sigh) I guess it’s about time I pruned the roses … “

We begin the process together and then she’ll say, “I’d better go fix us some lunch.” And somehow after lunch, it’s just me, the dog, the radio playing “oldsies” and about 50 rosebushes out there.

Once, following the Highway 49 collision that broke both my legs, I mentioned in my column for the big paper in the valley that I’d be pruning the roses from a chair because of my accident, and several kindly rosarians from the Sacramento Rose Society volunteered to come all the way up to Grass Valley to help. (For those unfamiliar with rosarians, the care and management of roses is religion to them. Nothing less.)

One of the gentlemen preferred pruning the roses without gloves. (See? I told you: religion.) He said gloves got in the way.

“Who pruned these roses last year?” a female rosarian asked.

“I did!” I said with a measure of pride.

She nodded and said nothing in reply but her eyes said, “I should have known.”

The plants were pampered that year, but have had to tough it out ever since. As have I.


Another challenge for gardeners, this time in Hawaii, comes in the form of a quarter-size tree frog (coqui) which arrived on a shipment of plants from the Caribbean.

According to an item in the most recent Weiss Brothers Nursery newsletter, the frogs that arrived in 1988 squawk day and night at a noise level of 80 to 90 decibels. That’s as loud as a vacuum cleaner! And their population is exploding, as evidenced by news they’re even living in a parking lot of a hardware store in Iwilei. They feed primarily on insects, which sounds beneficial, but that deprives many of the island birds of food. Caffeine spray was used at first to keep them in check, but that didn’t get past federal pesticide regulations. Now citric acid food additive is being used.


Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, a trained master gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

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