Don’t be afraid of restraint when shaping plants, teenagers

05/02/2012 12:00 AM

05/01/2012 3:21 PM

A few rose bushes in front of our house have grown tall and gangly, thorny and unkempt.

They look like that because I’m not a gardener and never claimed to be. I’m not even sure what variety these bushes are, though neighbors who have wandered past and marveled at the mess of red-velvet blooms — careful to hide any disapproving glares — have suggested some type of Knock Out.

My friend Debbi, a fabulous gardener, tells me not to be afraid to prune them back. She knows how garden shears, like meat cleavers and sewing machines, make me nervous — something about the permanence of each decision and snip, the danger of making irreparable mistakes.

“Just shape it,” she explains, foolishly believing the directive is simple, as if she had said, “Just breathe,” or “Just blink,” or “Just eat the ice cream.”

“Like this one here,” Debbi says, pointing to a branch stooped nearly to the ground, its blooms resting on the lawn. “It’s too low. Just get rid of that one.”

So simple, I think. And yet.

My daughter is a full-blown teenager now, as graceful and beautiful and intimidating as that rose bush. She’s seven months from her 15th birthday, the age of high school drama and Taylor Swift ballads.

My son isn’t too far behind, nearly 12 and testing limits, smart and funny and unfailingly, sometimes shockingly, male.

I ruminate on children and the nature of adolescence, and I stare at those roses.

So similar. And hardly simple.

Typing “how to prune a rose bush” into my computer, I found a five-minute how-to video from Utah State University Extension. The unnamed gardener began his lesson with a little philosophy:

“When I talk to people about pruning roses, normally what I say is, we worry too much about what we’re going to prune and not enough about what we’re going to keep,” he says.

“We have this cutting instrument in our hand, and so when we head out to the rose, the first thing that’s on our mind is cut-cut-cut.

“Normally what I want to do instead: Either put the cutting thing down or put it to the side, and look at the rose, and figure out what I’m going to keep.”


Put the cutting thing down.

Look at the rose.

Figure out what to keep.

So much of what we hear and see and read about raising teenagers is about control. Supervision is crucial. So are boundaries. Shape, shape, shape. Prune, prune, prune. Cut them way back and start over if you must. It’s the key to orderly and vigorous growth.

I like the idea of letting go a little, letting them grow, pruning with nail clippers instead of a machete.

Turns out Debbi was right about my roses. The hardiest of shrubs, all they needed was a little careful cutting back, and their burgundy blooms are as pretty as ever.

The Internet video was helpful as well, particularly the part where the guy cuts back a rose cane, shrugs and says, “You know, it’s Mother Nature. It’s a plant, and it’s never going to be perfect.”

Imperfection, if you ask me, is even more beautiful.

About Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne writes about family life on Thursdays. She has covered local news for The Eagle since 1990. Suzanne is a native of North Carolina and earned an English degree from North Carolina State University.

Find her on Twitter: @suzannetobias

Contact Suzanne at 316-268-6567 or by emailing her at

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