Perhaps it was the heavy, yellow blooms in her godmother’s garden, or the vast borders in the local park but for as long as she could remember Agnes Earnshaw wanted a rose garden. She drew roses around her exercise books, on her ruler, she even engraved them on the science benches while Mr Finch talked about Brownian motion.
Over the years she developed a collection of rose-related paraphenalia, notebooks, pencils, backpacks, cosmetic purses, t-shirts, socks. In her first flat she had a rose-shaped rug on the sitting-room floor and purchased rose-edged crockery. She bought small, potted roses for the window sill, but they tended to shrivel up and shed their leaves within a fortnight. Never mind, she thought, it will be different in the garden.
Weekends were spent exploring famous rose gardens – Red House, Emmetts Garden – and she kept a copy of Classic Roses on her nightstand.
Finally the day came when she had her own garden. A two-bed terrace in a south-coast seaside town, red and black tiles marking the path to the front door and a tiny pocket-hanky lawn with well-dug borders.
The first autumn she dug the beds through with manure, and spent the mid-winter researching varieties. She ordered Rosa banksiae “Lutea” for the wall and the red Lancaster rose interspersed with the more free-form Great Maiden’s Blush for the borders. Early in February she went out to nestle her young ones into their new homes, breaking the frosted-crust of soil to dig in the bare roots. She whispered tenderly to them about how beautiful they would be, and pressed them firmly into place with her freezing knuckles.
Now the waiting. Each day she looked out of the window, or ventured out into the early March murk to look for buds. The leaves began to sprout, although she didn’t expect much from the young plants. This could take a while.
While she waited she read her subscription copy of Rose Magazine and browsed forums. She cross-stitched roses into cushions and posted rose-scented soaps to her sister for her birthday.
Summer came. The beds were a riot of colour. Poppies and cornflowers emerged from winter’s sleep, sunflowers began their stately climb upwards, planted from seeds fallen from the old bird feeder left in the corner. A honeysuckle crept up the south-facing fence and bees and butterflies crowded its perfumed blooms.
But the roses were not happy. They grew slowly, if at all. Something was amiss. She checked for powdery mildew, made sure they were fed. She posted questions on the Gardener’s Almanac and tested the soil pH. She took temperatures around the garden and sprayed them weekly.
It became a mission. Roses were her thing and she was damned if they wouldn’t grow in her garden. After several years she dug up her first batch of plants and started over. Different varieties, different positions. She enriched the soil and read late into the night, looking for clues as to why it wasn’t working. Meanwhile the poppies and cornflowers came back each year, the sunflowers thrived, the honeysuckle bloomed and wind and bird-borne treasures came to join them from neighbouring gardens, honesty and hollyhocks, aquilegia and leycesterea. The garden was beautiful. But there were no roses.
Finally Agnes had enough. “I have done everything right!” she wailed to her mother down the phone, “I read all the books, I took courses, I had a vision for the garden, I followed all the rules.” Her mother suggested she contact a gardener and see what they had to say.
When she came the gardener wasn’t quite what Agnes had expected. An older woman, dressed in worn corduroy dungarees with white hair whipped into a bun on her head. She came with a shaggy lurcher at the her heels and smoking a pipe. Wrinkling her eyes against the June sun she looked around the garden. She walked around it slowly, caressing the plants that were there and stopping by each rose, as though listening.
Finally she spoke. “It isn’t a garden for roses.” she said. Agnes was speechless. Then indignant, reciting the litany of her efforts. “I hear what you’re saying,” said the gardener, “But did you ask them what they wanted? Look at what else is growing, look at what you have here, this is a garden for poppies and cornflowers, for honeysuckle and hollyhocks, see how they’re thriving?”
Agnes felt confused. For years she had wanted a rose garden. She had planned for it, she had organised it, she knew all the theory, this was her dream! “You need a different dream dearie,” said the gardener, as she left through the side gate, dog at her heels, “You need a dream of what’s here, that’s always the best place to start.”
Agnes went to the shed, her head spinning. How could this be? She fetched a deck-chair and placed it in the middle of the grass. She went to the kitchen and brought back a mug of tea and sat down.For a while she wept, for the lost garden in her dreams. Then, eyes brushed dry with her cardigan sleeve, she took a deep breath in and waited. I will listen to this garden, she thought, I will see what is here.
Maybe it will teach me about my life.