A Pruning Story

Autumn, 2018

“i believe in mystery, curiosity, and kindness” ― Dr Linda Caldwell (August 8th, 1950-April 22nd, 2018)

A close friend gave me a Mr Lincoln Rose bush as a parting gift some time ago. I love roses, but I am not a great gardener. With some trepidation, I planted Mr Lincoln and watched how it began to grow against our back fence. The first bloom was a triumph: feisty dark pinks unfurling in elegant perfection. Then, the plant began to struggle. Leaves became mottled and dropped off the Mr Lincoln stem. I persisted in nurturing the thorny stalk, because the gift was precious to me. Eventually two spindly branches sprang from the base of the stem. They began to flourish and green leaves again favoured the back fence. However, there were never any flowers ever again. I had a plant with three sticks: two lined with green leaves, one with thorns. Something needed to be done.

I took a soil sample from the patch of dirt, and a photograph of the location, and went to visit my local garden nursery. I was told the soil was alkaline and there was too much shade for a rose bush to really thrive. In a panic, I bought potting mix, drove home and uprooted Mr Lincoln, transferring the startled plant into a bright red plastic pot. Mr Lincoln and I then drove back to the nursery so the experts could inspect the state of the rose and advise on the health of my rose sticks.

“That’s not the Mr Lincoln”, stated the expert as she pointed to the only two branches with leaves along the stem.

“What do you mean?” I asked, tremulously.

“Well, this solid stem with the thorns is the Mr Lincoln. These other two have sprung from the root stock, and I don’t know what they are. If it was me, I’d toss the whole thing out and start again”, she dismissed.

“But Mr Lincoln was a gift!” I exclaimed.

“Oh”, the expert paused, considering my dishevelled state as I clutched the dirty red plastic pot. “Oh, okay, so it was a special gift?” She softened, shifting her weight to settle in her right hip and tilting her head to one side as she reconsidered her response.

“Okay, so in that case, I’d suggest you get some clean secateurs–be sure they’re clean so you don’t transfer any diseases–and cut off these two leafy ones at the base, and see if the Mr Lincoln will recover. All the plant’s energy has been diverted into this other thing growing, so if you cut it off, that may give it a chance to recover. You never know: it may be okay”. Her smile was less than hopeful.

Disheartened, Mr Lincoln and I drove home. I cleaned some secateurs and sat in the driveway with my red plastic pot, fingering the green leaves and wondering why pruning was so difficult. I took a deep breath and cut off the two stems. All that was left was a brown, brittle, thorny stick with a little dead leaf clinging to the top: an insipid beige flag. It looked dead. 

“I killed Mr Lincoln”, I whispered to no one in particular. 

My husband and children were aghast. 

“Did you get all the roots when you dug it out of the ground?” queried my husband.

“It won’t grow if you didn’t get all the roots”.

“It’s a metaphor, Mum”, grinned my son.

“Why on earth did you do that? There are no leaves left!” exclaimed my eldest daughter.

“Oh, Mum, do you need a hug?” asked my youngest, patting my arm like she pats our dog.

“I don’t know”, seemed to be all I could say. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens”.

The waiting place is not easy. It’s also surprising how busy waiting places can be. I found myself constantly monitoring how often I watered my dead stick, moving my red plastic pot around the front courtyard to ensure exposure to at least six hours of sunshine every day. The insipid beige flag dropped off and I dreaded telling my friend I had killed Mr Lincoln. 

Last week, I noticed something miraculous. Mr Lincoln began looking less and less like a dead stick in a plastic red pot, and more and more like a living, growing plant. The brown stick began turning to pale green. Tiny leaves began to emerge boldly along the stem, sprouting in unexpected places between the thorns. My entire family was entranced and we have now begun to share the daily task of caring for Mr Lincoln. Hope kindled; we wait with budding belief that there will be roses in the spring.


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Image credits:

Photographs of Mr Lincoln’s first rose (L image), 2016, & Mr Lincoln in plastic red pot (R image), 2018, by Lucinda Coleman, reprinted with permission.


This story is dedicated to Linda, who loved many things; flowering things in particular.