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Excerpt: 'Otherwise Normal People'

Cover of 'Otherwise Normal People'

From Chapter 1: Clarence's Containers

Clarence Rhodes's front door is blocked by the copper blossoms of 'Playtime'. The path leading up to the door is barricaded by peach 'Marilyn Monroe' and mauve 'Cologne'. His short two-car driveway is so narrowed by apricot, pink, and scarlet blooms that his Chevy Astro van barely fits between the flowering walls. And the garage? For six months of the year, it's full of gardening paraphernalia. For the rest of the year, it's full of roses.

Clarence Rhodes has the round lined face of a midwestern corn farmer and the rolling infectious laugh of the Wizard of Oz after his secret was discovered. Clarence's own secret is evident to anyone who has ever seen the floral display that almost hides his gray-shingle cape on a tree-lined residential street. He is simply wild about roses. So wild that he grows two hundred tender hybrid teas in cutoff ten- and twenty-gallon plastic trash containers and about fifty hardier varieties in the ground beside his back patio. He is immoderate perhaps, but if you know that the root of the name Rhodes is rhodon, the Greek word for rose, his passion seems inevitable.

I also grow roses. But I live in downtown Portland and raise only two winter-hardy 'Henry Kelsey' climbers amid other perennials in my postage-stamp yard. I planted them to honor my cousin Kelsey, who lives three thousand miles away. When the late June sun warms the merlot blossoms' spicy scent, I inhale with gratitude. Yet I don't love these roses more than my 'Munstead' lavender or 'Mount Fuji' phlox. So I have driven out to tree-lined Capisic Street to meet Clarence. I want to understand his passion.

Clarence's story begins with the love of a husband for his wife. "When we moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to Portland, Maine, in 1968, my wife thought that we were moving to the end of the world." Clarence is both amused by the ridiculousness of her thought and appreciative of its accuracy. To cheer her up, he came home one day with twelve rosebushes. Clarence is as thrifty as he is thoughtful, so he collected bricks from a neighborhood school that was being demolished and built a patio off the back door. Beside it, he planted the roses. It was summer and a heady scent drifted in the kitchen window; his wife, Phyllis, unpacked her bags.

Phyllis appreciated the flowers, but she enjoyed people more than plants. So when he spotted a notice for a Maine Rose Society meeting, off they went.

"Our first year in the Maine Rose Society, I met a man who lived up in Livermore Falls. Know where that is?" I nod. Livermore Falls is north of Portland near the Maine — New Hampshire border; it is deep in ski country.

"Well, that guy grew six hundred roses. Six hundred roses in a place where winter lasts through May! I thought, 'There's a man who likes a challenge.'" As Clarence heads out to a shredder that's set up near a massive compost bin at the end of his property, I hear him say, "I like a challenge, too."

In a trice, it seems, he and Phyllis joined the American Rose Society (ARS), a national organization founded in 1892 to promote the cultivation and enjoyment of roses. It is the largest specialized plant society in the country. They joined two local ARS societies as well and soon were traveling to California, Oregon, and England to attend national and international rose conventions. By way of explanation, Clarence says, "Everybody has to do something." And then, "You get involved."

With that he switches on the thundering shredder and directs me to pour an oversized paper bag of leaves into its maw as he pushes them through with a stick. When the last of the leaves has joined the drifting pile of brown confetti at our feet, Clarence shuts off the machine. He wears work-stained khakis, lace-up work boots, and a white T-shirt topped with a pink long-sleeved thermal undershirt covered by a baby blue long-sleeved Polo shirt finished with a deep pink wool cardigan. A bright blue nylon feed cap covers close-cropped white hair. The lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses are coated in a chaff of shredded leaves and grass.

A wiry man appears suddenly at the top of the yard pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with rose cuttings. He has the narrow, granite-serious face of Yankee legend. His red and black checked wool jacket flaps open as he pushes the top-heavy load around a towering spruce tree.

"Just dump it there, Howard." Clarence gestures toward a spot to the left of the shredder. Without speaking, he dumps and trundles his rattling, empty wheelbarrow away.

"Pruning his sister's roses. He'll be back."

Howard did return three times that afternoon; each time pushing quietly up the hill, tipping and departing without smiling, speaking, or for that matter, despite his advanced years, breathing hard. Why waste unnecessary words when you both know what you are about? And when Clarence is talking to a woman you don't know, why interrupt?

We stand at the top of the backyard slope beside the silenced shredder, looking down past the sixteen-hundred-square-foot vegetable garden to the riot of color that encircles Clarence's home. Over 150 roses rainbow around the back of the gray-shingled house — apricot 'Midas Touch' jostles cream and pink 'Gemini'; pale lemon 'Elena' glimmers beside coral-blend 'Brigadoon', whose piquant scent Clarence had wanted me to inhale as we'd walked by.

"I have the best soil in Portland." He gestures toward a homemade green wooden compost bin beside the shredder. "That's why." The bin holds at least thirty oversized wheelbarrow loads of compost.

You don't want to put rose-cutting compost onto roses, as it might spread disease. So the compost made of cuttings, all thirty wheelbarrows of it, gets forked into the vegetable garden every spring where it helps to create the deep, dark, worm-wriggling soil at the end of Clarence's spade.

"I don't use a tiller; do it all by hand. That's my exercise."

Clarence will be seventy-six on his next birthday. "Let me show you another pile of stuff."

We walk over to a second compost system, this one made of two-inch-thick boards bolted together to create a three-bin sixteen-by-four-foot container. I have been admiring this construction since I arrived. I teach a composting course at Portland Adult Education and am always looking for inspired compost systems to show my students. This one runs along the left side of Clarence's yard, separating his land from his neighbor's. He has graded the container to stay level despite the slope of the hill and flanked it with roses. It is a Rolls Royce of compost bins. It is beautiful.

Clarence agrees. "Nothing nicer than good looking compost."

Inside the bins, he has sixteen feet of the best compost I have ever seen. He digs a short-fingered, muscled hand into the uppermost bin and stirs up a mass of what looks like damp, finely broken leaves. "This summer's leaves and grass; nothing else. I shred it, dump it in, and leave it be."

I make astonished noises. He nods.

"Some people turn their compost. I believe that's a matter of how much ambition you have. I prefer to wait."

"Let the worms do your work?" I ask.

"That's it."

The center bin holds last year's leaves and grass, and the third bin contains gardener's gold: three-year-old bittersweet-chocolate-colored, leaf-mold compost. Not an exorbitantly priced little plastic bag of preciousness, you understand, but loads of the stuff. He uses it to mulch his roses, or, as he says, "dress them up a bit."

"We went to the Spring National Rose Show the first year we belonged to the American Rose Society. Our first trip to California. The roses there were unbelievable. The color, the size, the..."

He trails off in remembered wonder, then gives his sturdy shoulders a shake. "So I decided to see if I could grow California roses here. That's what I call any big, colorful hybrid tea — a California rose."

Hybrid tea shrubs are the traditional florist's rose with large, urn-shaped blossoms on long stems. This class, or group of roses, originated in 1867, when the House of Guillot in Lyons, France, crossed a tender tea rose with the sturdier hybrid perpetual and created the largest and most popular class of roses of all time. 'La France', which had intensely fragrant, silvery pink blossoms, is recognized as the first rose to combine the delicate petals and ever-blooming habit of tea roses with the large blooms and sturdy growth of hybrid perpetuals. The ARS Handbook for Selecting Roses gives 'La France' only an average rating, but if you want to grow a piece of history, it's available from nurseries that specialize in old-garden roses, or OGRs.

Hybrid teas bloom continuously through the growing season and come in a peacock array of colors. In an effort to breed ever brighter blossoms, hybridizers have often sacrificed scent, which is a recessive factor easily lost in cross-breeding. As a result, unlike 'La France', many modern hybrid teas have no perfume.

Clarence, though, loves the sweet aroma of old-fashioned roses, even though he doesn't like the old roses themselves. So when each year's catalogs thump through his mail slot, he pours over them in search of new hybrid teas with nineteenth-century perfume.

The enormous number of bare-root hybrid teas sold by local nurseries and chain retailers demonstrate their lasting popularity, yet many are only semihardy, which means that they need winter protection in cold-weather climates. Growing "California" hybrid teas in Portland, Maine, where winter lows can dip to -20 degrees F demands imagination, precision, and orneriness.

Clarence knew that desiccation kills faster than cold, so he built long containers to cover his tender roses using a product that soaked up and released atmospheric moisture. This ensured that plants inside the containers never dried out.

He hands me a six-inch remnant of the Styrofoam-like product. "It only lasts a few years, though, and I decided that it was too expensive to keep buying. Or maybe they stopped making it. I can't remember. Anyway, I had to find another solution."

He made tunnels covered with heavy duty plastic. The plastic tunnels were too hot on sunny winter days. His roses fried.

He built long containers of pressure-treated board and plywood that he anchored with weighted ropes.

"Here!" He lifts a weighted rope from a collection in his work shed at the top of the garden. "Made them exactly the right length to drape from one side over to the other with the weights barely touching the ground." Clarence is a retired electrical field-service engineer. He loves to solve problems, but this wasn't the solution. His roses shriveled from dehydration.

The next year, he covered the hybrid teas with leaves collected from his neighbors before covering the plants and the leaves with the wood-and-plywood tunnels. That year, the roses lived.

"The thing is, my wooden tunnels are heavy and they are only twenty-four inches high. Every winter, I have to prune my roses back severely to fit inside the containers. Can't make the containers bigger or I'd never be able to carry them around." He steps out of the shed. "I want to grow roses like I saw that first time in California. Huge roses!" He lifts a hand to shoulder height to demonstrate.

He tried planting his roses in whisky barrels that could be wheeled into the protection of the garage for the winter. He could grow tender hybrid teas as big as he wanted, but the whisky barrels were a back-straining pain to move.

"And they fall apart after ten years," he adds.

The eureka moment arrived nine years ago in Home Depot. He was on his way to the lumber department when he walked by a display of gray forty-gallon Rubbermaid rolling trash bins. Most people see garbage container. Clarence saw lightweight, nonrotting, wheeled rose container. He bought six.

Today he has thirty-six. He transforms them into twenty-gallon containers by cutting off the top half. He drills drainage holes, fills the containers with a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite marketed as ProMix BX, plants them with the most vibrant hybrid teas he can find, tops the planting mix with a dressing of compost, and sets the pots in front of his house where they stop traffic.

One bag of ProMix fills two containers. Each container costs fifty dollars. Clarence is as thrifty as any Mainer by way of Maryland and Ohio can be. After a few years he switched to less expensive ten-gallon black plastic containers. They are almost as durable. One bag of ProMix fills four. And the plants grow just as well.

"It's just that they have no wheels," muses Clarence, momentarily downcast as we survey the forest of container roses in front of his house.

With or without wheels, in early December he moves all two hundred containers from the yard into the garage where they stay until the last week of March, when he rolls them back out into the driveway. Storing his hybrid teas inside keeps them alive and reduces the need for drastic pruning. The protection also gives him a week's head start on the season.

"June is the big rose show month," he explains. "This far north you need all the help you can get."

A rose show is a competitive staging of roses grown by amateur exhibitors in their own gardens. It is the floral equivalent of a dog show. Instead of grooming and showing canines, rose exhibitors groom cut flowers to the peak of perfection and display them to the public in judged competition.

Such shows are an English import. The National Rose Society of Britain held its first one in 1858. Thirty years later rose enthusiasts in Portland, Oregon, followed suit. In 1913 the ARS began to help local rose societies manage their competitive exhibitions, and in October 1935, in San Diego, California, the ARS hosted its first national show.

The ARS now sponsors three national shows a year — Spring, Fall, and All-Miniature — and helps coordinate the annual competitions organized by over four hundred affiliate local societies and the districts that oversee them. As its name implies, the ARS All-Miniature, held in midsummer, is devoted exclusively to miniature varieties. Minis are three- to eighteen-inch-high plants with correspondingly tiny blossoms. Exhibitors at the ARS Spring and Fall Nationals may show any of the tens of thousands of existing named varieties within the thirty-five classes, or categories, of roses recognized by the ARS. However, only hybrid tea — the type that Clarence grows — are eligible to win the top awards of Queen, King, Princess, and Best of Show. An exhibitor such as Clarence could conceivably enter blooms in every local show within the district, the district show, and all three national shows. Rose-growing weather is fickle, though, and transporting cut flowers long distances is chancy. Most exhibitors enter three to five shows a year.

Clarence is not a national exhibitor, but he attends national shows, which are held in different locations each year, in order to visit gardens and stay in touch with his wide circle of rosarian friends. He also goes so that he can watch top exhibitors groom and show the newest varieties. Occasionally, he serves as a judge or teaches a technical seminar during the convention.

He does exhibit in local and district shows. Recently he transported ninety cut blooms to an ARS Yankee District show on Cape Cod. He also took a five-foot 'Love and Peace' shrub to an ARS Fall National in Washington, DC, where its size, glossy leaves, and bright red-rimmed yellow blooms confounded other growers.

"Until they walked up close, they thought it was a fake." He adds that 'Love and Peace' flowers are too garish for his taste, but he features it in his sidewalk display because it's such a car stopper. A natural showman, then, if not a national exhibitor.

Exhibitors do it for the glory. There is no money in showing roses — no cash awards, no endorsement contracts for Felco pruners. Prizes range from crystal bowls and silver-plated candlesticks to paintings of roses and engraved wooden plaques. Some major awards, such as the Spring National's Joseph J. Kern Trophy, are represented by massive crystal vases and gold-trimmed urns. But these prizes may be kept by the winner only until the next show and they cost so much to insure that most exhibitors content themselves with a framed certificate that is theirs to keep.

Instead of money and valuable prizes, exhibitors battle for the thrill of the win. Their delight in winning is certainly heightened by the pleasure of beating their competitors. After all, they have just spent hours grooming their blooms for the show in a room full of colleagues determined to defeat them. But in its purest sense, winning also represents individual excellence. Like golfers who trek the links alone in bad weather, driving and putting toward perfection, exhibitors strive to create the most perfect bloom for its own sake. They love the challenge of doing something difficult well, and doing it better than other people. They are rewarded by the affirmation of their superior rose-growing and rose-grooming skill, and with fame within the rose-crazy community.

Rose shows are popular worldwide. The World Federation of Rose Societies currently includes thirty-six member countries. As you might expect, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, and the United States are members, but the federation also includes societies from such dissimilar locations as Pakistan, Slovenia, and Uruguay. All member countries have rose societies that host competitive shows, and most welcome any exhibitor willing to pay the entrance fee and fly their blossoms around the world.

Other people devoted to one species, such as orchid or dahlia enthusiasts, also stage public shows. Yet rose lovers hold larger and more frequent events than any other group. They also are more likely to have a single-species garden than other plant aficionados — in other words, they are more likely to grow only roses than a rhododendron specialist is to raise only rhodos. Stephen Scanniello, the man who made the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Cranford Rose Garden into a must-see venue, says that "roses are the only plant that is varied enough to comprise an entire garden."

In part, this is simply because there are so many types of roses. The ARS recognizes thirty-five rose classes, or groups of roses that share common characteristics. Within each class are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individual named varieties, such as the floribunda 'Iceberg' or the climber 'New Dawn'. One Web site has compiled an extensive, but not exhaustive, list of the best-known. It currently contains over twenty-eight thousand varieties, including 1,993 hybrid perpetuals, a large scented shrub that first became popular during the nineteenth century. Over nine thousand unique hybrid teas appear, and almost four thousand floribunda, a continuously blooming cluster-flowered plant that resembles a hybrid tea.

The rose is more geographically adaptable; appears in more sizes, colors, shapes, and blossom types; and blooms over a longer period than any other flowering plant. Like Scheherazade, she tells a thousand tales, captivating us by adapting to our desire. If we wish, she will become an unscented five-petal pink micro-mini that fits on an indoor windowsill, or she can transform herself into a fifty-petal apricot climber that envelopes the front porch in a swoon of fragrance. It is almost impossible to resist the wiles of such a chameleon, and it's doubtful we have ever tried. Rose passion is as ancient as the plant that inspires it.

Excerpted from Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening. Published by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright Aurelia C. Scott, 2007.

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Aurelia C. Scott