Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Smile Bed

    Mignonette, Polyantha  1880                The two-room cottage

When I began sharing my thoughts on roses, gardening, and gardeners, I promised to share some of my experiences of people and the roses that inhabit their gardens. Few things in my life have given me so much joy as the garden with the 'Smile Bed'. Its story began in the early 1980s when Jim and Dotty Walters fell in love with a Queen Anne Victorian house just outside of Healdsburg, California. They spent many years restoring the house and its two-room cottage to their former glory, with great patience and a dream that one day they might live there, in the grey lady they had so much respect for.

By some great stroke of fortune they found me, and asked me to help to make a garden—one that embraced and honored the old houses. We chipped away at it, Dotty and I, with Jim always at the ready to manage the clearing and hauling, always cheering us on. To the music of Pavarotti and Callas, ringing from a portable boom box, and the devoted encouragement of my Bassett hound Nigel, we cleared a space in the woods, carved out a laughing patio of brick, shifted ancient camellias and towering fuschias, planted and then dug and divided and planted again the offspring of our favorite perennials and ground covers, until one day we stood back and knew that the garden was right. The old grey lady was smiling.

The remnant of an old lawn set with a noble flagpole became our anchor. And in the lawn we set three circles for planting; one around the pole, and two more for company (and because we liked the notion of planting in threes.) In the lower two circles I chose as a centerpiece a Polyantha rose, Mignonette. This old French variety was introduced just at the time that our grey lady was built. Its tiny flowers of snowy white bloom in clusters and scent the air.

A garden evolves over the years. Mistakes are corrected, sometimes several times. New perspectives offer fresh ideas that sometimes transform a thing you've done well, but not quite well enough. Twenty years after our three circle beds were made Dotty invited me to take another look—was there anything we were missing? Below these two beds a long shady border had been planted in the lee of a cypress hedge. It had always seemed a bit narrow, and lacking in drama. I suggested that perhaps the long bed should be expanded upwards to connect with our Mignonette circles, and Dotty and Jim agreed. It was a small expansion, but one that brought perfection. We made a curving line that swept upward from both ends of the long border, skirted round the circles and curved back downward again. Dotty looked at it when we finished and declared, 'it's the "smile bed"!'

We could all use a smile bed with our roses. Dotty and Jim have kept me smiling now for 25 years with the joys of sharing roses and wines, families and friends. Santiago, who tends the garden now, and helped with its creation from the start, makes me smile with the loving care he gives the roses, and the masterful pruning he does of all the smiling, rosy inhabitants.

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