Jan. 11, 2021

7: A Bed of Thorny Roses

7: A Bed of Thorny Roses

This episode tells the story of the early years of my parent’s life together and how the family got into the rose growing business, the motivations, difficulties, successes and failures of that choice

A Bed of Thorny Roses

Early in 1959, my parents, Anne Hall and Fred Nutty traveled into Dublin City. Their destination was a 2nd floor jeweler on O'Connell St. Dad carried £15 in his pocket, a modest sum that would amount to €335 these days. They had agreed to get married and now Dad was bringing Mom to pick out her engagement ring. What she didn't know then and would only emerge years later was the source of those funds.

I don't know Dad's circumstances at the time of this trip to Dublin. 1959 Ireland was a difficult place to carve out a living. Over the prior decade, droves of Irish people, some 15% of the population, had emigrated in search of a better life from their economically isolated island, rampant with both underemployment and joblessness. Indeed, my parents had talked about emigrating to New Zealand around that time. Fortunately things were to change for Dad that year, as he secured a position as Station Manager for the Agricultural Institute in Kinsealy, a small locale just North of Dublin City

The Agricultural Institute at Kinsealy

Whether that employment had been secured at the time of the trip to the jeweler is unknown. What is clear is Dad was short of cash and resorted to radical, some might say cruel action to raise the money for this trip to the jewelers. Mom only revealed the story to me recently, heartsick at the harsh choice. She only became aware of the true details of the story after their marriage when Dad revealed that he had sold his beloved dog Trigger to come up with the cash.

In Dad's pantheon of dogs, no other came close to Trigger. When Dad got to talking about his hunting days he would get wistful when relating stories about this red setter hunting dog. How clever he was, how well he quartered the hunting terrain and how he paid attention to hand signals so as not to disturb the quarry. I have a childish recollection of asking what had become of Trigger to which Dad responded that he's been sold to an acquaintance who had greatly admired the dog's hunting acumen. Apparently the buyer had suggested his willingness to buy Trigger at some point, a proposal that seems to have been stored away in Dad's memory banks. As a child, I recoiled from the story, being a lover of dogs then and to this day. I never asked what caused him to sell his beloved Trigger, maybe I was scared at what the answer would reveal? And only all these years later did I learn the sad truth.

What am I to make of this transaction? It would not have been a decision taken lightly, having observed how fond Dad was of the various family dogs over the years. It smells sadly of both desperation, secrecy and shame. I imagine my 33 year old Dad feeling pressure to provide Mom a suitable ring, wanting to start his own happy home life, desirous to escape a suffocating atmosphere under his parent's roof and being too ashamed to admit that he couldn't afford a ring. More than sixty years later, Mom is troubled by the tainted ring story, wishing Dad had told her of his plans so she could have dissuaded him from a separation that was no doubt painful for both him and Trigger.

Fortunately for Mom, preparations for the wedding were not clouded by this story. She had started out life in the town of Carlisle in the North of England. Her life began in sorrow with the death of her mother Eileen from birth complications, however her maternal grandparents, a prosperous cattle farming family, brought her into their happy household where she was raised as the baby sister of her uncles and aunts. Around 1936, the family had decamped from Carlisle and moved to Dublin. Mom's grandfather Martin Casey, after whom I'm named, seems to have wanted to retire to Ireland, the country of his birth. The move cannot have been without pain, Mom left her father, Arthur Hall, behind and two married uncles who were well settled in England and running the family farm. Along with her younger uncles and aunts, the family settled in the parish of Clonsilla just outside Dublin. Ultimately she would come to live in the suburb of Blackrock where her grandparents finally retired.

St John the Baptist Interior, Blackrock

It was from that Blackrock home, that Mom set out for her wedding ceremony at the church of St John the Baptist on September 23, 1959. She was accompanied by her uncle, another Martin Casey, who was 18 years her senior. This Martin would prove to be enormously important to my immediate family. He had established himself as a successful accountant in Dublin and had inherited the family property at Clonsilla. At certain pivotal points when major financial decisions were being made, Martin would be sounded out and could be relied upon to give a common sense, unvarnished opinion.

Another aunt and uncle would anchor the wedding that day and they too, like Martin would become fixtures in our lives. Mom's aunt Louise Casey O'Brien was maid of honor and her uncle Philip Casey, a priest, would perform the actual ceremony. Following the ceremony there was a reception at the Salthill Hotel in Monkstown where pictures were taken and then the newly weds departed for their honeymoon in the West of Ireland where they stayed at Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle

When my parents returned from their West of Ireland honeymoon they settled initially in Malahide a couple of miles from Dad's new job in Kinsealy. They were not to stay there long as the job came with a house. To that effect, a bungalow was being purpose built next to the Agricultural Institute. This benefit, did come with drawbacks, as the home came rigged with an alarm system which was triggered when the Institute boilers shut down unexpectedly. These boilers fed heat to greenhouses which housed plants that could not be exposed to cold overnight and periodically Dad would be roused from his sleep when the troublesome heating system failed.

Family Portrait Circa 1965

I don't remember the alarms, but my older siblings Stiofán and Ann do. We were all born in the first half of the 60s and collectively this was our first home although my memories of the place are vague. I suppose it's not a surprise that my recollections are fragmentary, as this was my home for the first 3 years of my life. We lived walking distance from the local church, St Nicholas of Myra, which Mom attended periodically on weekdays. Even then, I was not a huge fan of church going, the expectation of reverential silence and ritualistic response was stultifying to my childish mind. I recall being glared at by an older, scarfed woman for some breech of behavior which only deepened my distaste for the boring cold church. The only satisfactory part of the experience was the exit and the walk back to the haven home whose red tile roof and brick trim I could see in what seemed to be the far off distance to my chubby short legs, but in truth was little more than a quarter mile distant from the church.

The Bungalow at Kinsealy

I'm somewhat fuzzy on Dad's duties as the Institute Station Manager, as are other members of the family. My sister Ann recalls, that in the early days, the Institute had livestock which needed daily care, she also suggests that its likely Dad was responsible for the coordination of the facility's workmen. It seems that Dad's responsibilities evolved quickly over the early years and soon he was heavily involved in tomato research which was one of the Institute's first successes. Now tomatoes were certainly not new to Ireland at the time, but given Ireland's dubious Summer weather, this sun loving crop could not be grown consistently at scale in the outdoors. The solution was to produce the crop indoors in glasshouses which was something not done in Ireland at the time. Apparently Dad played a successful and significant role in this project and the Institute's research and proof of concept production seeded an important new area of agricultural production in Ireland.

Following his success with the tomato research, Dad was seconded to the Institute's horticultural unit which had been established in 1962. It was there that he made his mark and where he would remain for the rest of his professional life. The term horticulture is somewhat amorphous. A basic understanding of Latin tells us that it refers to the cultivation of a garden - hortus being garden and culture, self evident. Wikipedia defines the term as the cultivation of plants, mainly for food, materials, comfort and beauty. In the Institute, it seems the unit was focused on research into decorative plants. Needless to say, this is a massive area of research and the young unit must have had difficulty in defining the specific area of research. It seems one conversation in this area at the time would lead to a decision that would change the course of my family's life.

My sister, Ann, tells me that while casting around for worthwhile projects, some of Dad's work colleagues suggested that research into large scale rose production might be worthwhile. Roses could be sold as bushes for gardens, to provide cut flowers for floristry, their petals are the ingredients for rose water used in both perfume and as a flavoring agent, even the fruit of the plant, known as a rose hip can be used for medicinal purposes and to make jam. While the virtue of multiple sales channels of the versatile plant was apparent, some unnamed co-worker opined that production of roses could not be done at scale in Ireland as there were multiple challenges that would need to be solved for a plant that is notoriously finicky. That opinion seems to have won the day at the Institute, however Ann advises that it served as a red flag to the bull that was Dad. While the Institute turned it's attention to other matters, Dad decided to pursue a side project to disprove the accepted wisdom.

Barney Johnson, a friend of my Dad, owned a garden center called Marlfield on the South Side of Dublin. They'd met during Dad's abbreviated college days and had stayed in touch. Barney, who would go onto to become Ireland's first gardening TV star, was likely attuned to the emerging demand for decorative plants. This emerging appetite was fueled by the expansion of Dublin's suburbia during the 1960s. As Ireland emerged from the economic isolation of prior decades, housing estates mushroomed around Dublin, each house with an attendant garden calling out for some beautification. It seems roses were in fashion at the time and market supply was poor giving pricing power to producers. Whether Dad approached Barney or vice versa is unknown, but a deal was struck and Dad contracted to deliver rose bushes to Barney. I don't know what the numbers looked like on this deal in terms of units or price, but Dad started up a rose business which would dominate family life for the next decade.

Barney Johnson: Ireland's first gardening TV star

My abiding memory of this time, is surprisingly not of our Kinsealy home, but of trips out to my Uncle Martin Casey's place in Clonsilla. Dad had arranged to use some of Martin's land for the rose operation, I'm guessing Martin offered some of his land rent free and Dad, a child of the Depression would have been cost conscious and happy to take advantage of that kindness. Martin likely wanted to help my parents as they started out on their life together and I imagine the extra money was a helpful supplement to a growing family, but to understand Dad, is to know that he was not particularly motivated by monetary incentives. He was more driven by the intellectual and operational challenge of proving that roses could be grown at commercial scale. Money would simple have been one barometric reading in confirming a proof of concept, it was not a goal nor ever would be in Dad's life.

I remember little of Dad's work at Clonsilla, my childish mind was absorbed by the rather grand property which consisted of a farm, a fine garden and was patrolled by a fearsome and large French Briard called Magoo. Briards function as both herd and guard dogs and since the Clonsilla property lacked sheep, it seems Magoo's activities were limited to keeping visitors in check which, in my case, frequently resulted in flattening me on the ground while applying unrequested tongue administered face cleanings

A French Briard - Similar to Magoo 

Dad's work at Clonsilla would have been arduous. The production of a rose crop requires 18 months of lead time and multiple phases to deliver a saleable plant. The cycle commenced in the Spring when the Winter cold released it's grip on the ground and the planting of rose stocks began. A rose stock acts as a host plant for the fancy varieties that produce the dramatic blooms desired by buyers. These fancy roses however are the product of multiple generations of cross breeding called hybridization and while the blooms produced are fabulous, the cross breeding has created plant roots which are delicate and weak. 

Rosa Laxa: Lindley, J., Rosarum monographia (1820)

To combat this problem, rose growers start by planting a hearty rose variety, known as a stock, which has the virtue of a strong root system. In Dad's case, he used Rosa Laxa which he sourced from Holland or Denmark. The planting itself was a two person job comprised of a digger and a planter. The digger handled a spade which was driven into the ground and then pushed forward to open up a slit into which the planter snaked the stock root into the opening. The spade was then quickly withdrawn and the ground tamped down by boot to firm the root into the ground. Repeat this process a couple of thousand times over a number of weeks and you have the beginnings a crop and a planter with an aching back as I can confirm from personal experience.

By the Mid Summer, these plantings are well established and ready for a grafting process known as budding Budding involves creating a T-incision in the stock's trunk, peeling back the young soft bark and inserting a bud from the desired rose variety known as the scion. The incision is then closed up with a plastic patch which protects the wound from the environment and holds the bud in place. In time the bud will bind to the host plant fed by the stock's robust root system.

T-Budding Schematic - Comming Technique Used in Rose Cultivation

The budding process can only proceed when fueled by a supply of scion material harvested from mature rose bushes of the species desired by the rose grower. The material comes in the form of "bud wood" which consists of rose stems containing multiple buds. However rose stems are accompanied by thorns which must be stripped so that the "budder" can quickly access the buds during the grafting process. One of my first jobs, as a child, along with my older siblings, involved the removal of thorns from bundles of bud wood delivered daily by Dad as he scoured the country for scion material from friendly gardeners.

While Dad may not have been interested in the making of money, he had a deeply embedded belief in controlling costs and focusing his energy on the most critical aspects of any process he worked on. In the early years he likely did the budding, but as the operation increased in scale he could not source both the scion material in addition to budding duties. Both jobs had to be done simultaneously and so he needed to hire skilled help. 

Through his network of industry contacts he made contact with a number of young Dutch students experienced in Holland's rose growing business and had them come to Ireland. The student's got to make a little money and when the job was done, they had the opportunity to explore the country in the late Summer. One of the students, Sjaak van Nierop was godlike, a giant of a man, about 6' 5", with long blonde hair and beard that would have been current with this late Beatles era. How Sjaak managed to scrunch himself up, to do the dexterous, back-breaking budding work at such incredible speed, is still unknown to me. His work rate was tremendous with 30–40 thousand roses done in around 6 weeks. Sjaak would go onto be a family friend for years to come and visit periodically long after my family ceased rose production.

By the beginning of the following spring, the grafted buds start to push their way through the patch and sprout from the rose stock trunk. What was originally a simple Laxa rose has now transformed into a kind of "Frankenbush", part Laxa and part scion rose. At this point, all the growth above the sprouting bud is cut back, leaving just the scion growth now fed completely by the robust Laxa root system. Next time you look at a rose bush, take a look at the base of the bush and see if you can spot where the stock rose was cut back.

All through the subsequent Summer, the new sprout grows quickly and transforms into a fully fledged rose bush. By the Autumn when growth stops and the leaves die back, the bush is now ready for sale and transplanting. As the weather grows cold and the days shorten, the rose grower "lifts" the bush from the ground. The earth is shaken from the roots. My sister Ann, then just a little girl, recalls working on this job with Dad. As he lifted the bushes she would carry the freshly dug, bare root plants to the field headland where they were placed in a pile to be tied with twine in bunches of a dozen and then cut back to prompt future growth density and facilitate transportation.

All this multi season work was done by Dad while holding a full time job at Kinsealy Institute. Mom recalls Dad returning home after a full day of work, grabbing a quick bite to eat and then making the 15 mile drive to Clonsilla to do whatever the rose growing cycle demanded at that point in time. Despite the strain of this schedule, Dad appears to have impressed at his Institute job and was promoted from his job as Station Manager to Experimental Officer. This promotion created a dilemma as the housing provided by the Institute had to be vacated for the new Station Manager. Rather then renting a home, my parents found a nearby holding a little over a mile distant from the bungalow. Mom had a nest egg, an inheritance of her Mother's dowry which she used to purchase this new property. This land located in the townland of Mabestown had a three room cottage, some outbuildings and a little less than 5 acres.

While my Mom's dowry had paid for the land purchase, the cottage left much to be desired by 1968 standards. There was no plumbing and little in the way of heating. My Mom's Uncle and Aunt, Philip and Louise Casey loaned money to build a three bedroom home. While work began on the house in the spring of 1968, we moved into the old cottage. This move proved to be an exercise in 19th century living and its attendant problems. I recall going with Dad to the local village pump to fill up a water barrel. The pump was a mile distant from Mabestown and without a car, we would have had to resort to a well on the property. The well proved to be a fascinating play area replete with water skaters, frogs and eels and while the wildlife was of interest for me and my siblings, I imagine the potability of the water was questionable.

The absence of the Kinsealy bungalow creature comforts was felt even more acutely with each visit to the outhouse, which had been established in one of the old stable sheds on the property. Even as a three year old I was cognizant of this deterioration in the family lifestyle and still shudder when I think back to bathroom trips which seemed particularly drafty when the weather wasn't so good. I have no idea how Mom dealt with it all, it must have challenging keeping three small children clean and fed in the limited circumstances. Her abiding memory, when we discussed it recently, was getting ready for bed one evening and pulling back the sheets only to have a couple of mice to pop out. Then she recalled the weekly disposal of the outhouse bucket contents which was Dad's chore and remembered my siblings and I finding this aromatic event to be particularly fascinating as we followed Dad in single file to the burial site in some kind of poop parade.

Fortunately the challenges of cottage life came to an end before the Winter set in and the freshly built home felt extra luxurious with bathrooms, plumbing and central heat. With the completion of the new house, focus shifted to the land and it's preparation for roses and the shift of the associated operation from Clonsilla to Mabestown. I still remember one miserable Winter day when the whole family was out on our freshly harrowed field clearing stones which would get in the way of planting. I was cold and unhappy in a petulant four year old way. It was a raw, wet, windy, Irish day and the frigid weather penetrated my bare hands as I carried cold stones to a central pile which was to be collected and trucked away. I didn't understand the purpose of that miserable activity and I imagine Dad was not inclined to explain how our efforts were helpful to him and the family as a whole. He wasn't given to encouragement for a bewildered four year old, I only sensed an expectation to do one's duty and execute his commands in an unquestioning way.

By the following spring, planting had begun, but not in the traditional way. Dad was forever looking for ways to save labor and speed things up. He had noticed one of the neighboring farmers planting cabbage using a planter gizmo towed behind a tractor and realized it could be used for rose stocks and so when the land softened that year he arranged for use of the machine. Jack Seery, a sweet man, who worked with Dad at the Institute and helped out around Mabestown along with my brother Stiofán took the seats at the back of the machine. A plank was placed between the two seats on which my Sister Ann sat. Ann's job was to unbundle the stocks and hand to Jack and Stiofán. I remember watching this for the first time with the green monster rising in my gullet wondering why I had been adjudged insufficient to help with this fancy new machine. Years later, Ann told me how miserable she had been, chilled to the bone as she handed out the stocks, the only saving grace being the occasional tea break when a flashed, hot, sugary, mix was shared by all the participants

There is a picture somewhere in the family home of my brother Stiofán standing at the top of the Mabestown field. The roses stretch out in in neat rows behind him, yellows, whites, reds and even a dubious blue called Blue Moon which I recall as more of a purple. The variety names come flooding back to me even though 50 years have passed since I was picking thorns off bud wood, Superstar, Uncle Walter, Queen Elizabeth, Chicago Peace. Dozens of varieties were grown and at peak production, around 40,000 rose bushes were under cultivation. Some varieties were detested by me as they were thornier than others and so the bud wood preparation was more arduous.

Roses (left to right): Blue Moon, Uncle Walter, Queen Elizabeth, Superstar and Chicago Piece

I'd like to tell you that I enjoyed my childhood roses experience and helping out, but in truth I hated it. Flicking thorns from bud wood stems was an unfair drudgery to my childish mind. I resented it terribly when there were vastly more interesting games to play and explorations to be had. 
The beauty of it all though, would occasionally penetrate and drive my sourness away. At times the scent of the roses would waft over and wrap around me on a warm summer day and I would realize how special it was. To this day,  when I smell rose water perfume I flash back to the blooming field of my childhood and a pang of nostalgia envelops me. The beauty was not lost on others. My Sister Ann recalls a lady who would show up periodically when the roses were blooming and lean on the field gate sometimes for an hour or two, taking in the blooms and enjoying the scent. One day Dad noticed her and invited her into the field. She was from Sheriff Street in the heart of Dublin and had taken the bus out from the city to enjoy the flowering field and so Dad walked with her through the rows laid out by him with his surveyor precision, telling her the names of the varieties and cut a bunch of roses for her to take home on the bus. She was delighted with it all and it is a good memory of our Dad.

The Last Rose of Summer at the National Botanic Gradens in Dublin

There is a rose bush, just inside the main gate of Dublin's National Botanic Gardens. Strangely, it is imprisoned by a railed, circular fence. The enclosure protects this modest but special bush from visitors who want to snag a bloom as it's said to have been cultivated from an original forbear which was the inspiration for Thomas Moore's song the Last Rose of Summer. Thomas Moore (1779 - 1852), often referred to as the Bard of Ireland, had visited the gardens of Jenkinstown Castle in Kilkenny and saw a late, long blooming rose. The pink flowers, or likely singular remaining flower, stirred the bard and yielded the romantic wistful lyrics and melody that are still recorded 200 years later by both traditional and classical soloists. It seems that an enterprising member of the Botanics realized the virtue of having this rose would be attractive to visitors and must have sought out the bush at Jenkinstown and taken a cutting. An early example of Irish 19th century promotion perhaps?

Thomas Moore 1779–1852 and Rosa 'Old Blush' the Inspiration Variety for the "Last Rose of Summer"

My Sister Ann tells me that Dad was called upon by folks in the Botanics to rescue this bush. Cultivated roses, do not have a very long life and so periodically have to repropagated every 10 to 20 years. And so when the time came to replace the deteriorating bush in the Botanics, Dad's rose growing reputation resulted in a request for assistance. Whether this rose is an actual genetic, lineal descendent of the original spotted by Thomas Moore, is a matter for conjecture. Whatever the case it yielded a beautiful song which I'm delighted that my niece, Rosa Nutty agreed to record a cappella in memory of her Grandad

Through the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Dad continued to successfully grow roses and the future appeared to be bright, until it wasn't. The bottom fell out of the market in 1972 or 73. My siblings Ann and Stiofán differ on exactly why this happened. Stiofán recollects that Woolworths got into the rose business and imported cheaper bushes from England, while Ann attributes the collapse in sales to simple market saturation. Dublin, despite it's growth, was a smaller place back then and there had to be a ceiling on how many bushes could be sold to suburban gardeners. Which sibling version is correct doesn't really matter. Perhaps there is truth in both recollections?

I recall a dour day when Dad had a tractor come by the rose field to plough thousands of unsaleable roses back into the earth. It had to be heartbreaking, watching the destruction of 18 months of effort. Things had changed and sometimes the best one can do in these circumstances is to recognize the fact and switch to more productive efforts and so Dad switched gears and we all followed. 

I'd like to tell you that I enjoyed this time of roses, but they were work, and I was often a surly child when faced with the chores that surrounded this effort. For me this bed of roses came with thorns, for Dad it was a massive effort which stretched across all seasons culminating with the arduous work of lifting the bushes after he got back from his main job in the Kinsealy Institute. In those wintery month evenings in Ireland, with the Sun long gone he labored by tilly lamp, often alone. It was an extraordinary effort and was no bed of roses for him either. Without his effort my family would not have had the future successes that were to be visited on us all and for that I am deeply thankful

I'll pick up this story in the next episode when I will finally tell the story of the Trinity Birch. I had planned on doing so in this piece, but another story intruded and had to be told first. 

Until the next time, you have been listening to The Nutty Chronicles and my name is Martin Nutty