The San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, an early victim of budget cuts, becomes a case study as thousands of people help restore the weed-choked park to its former glory.
Reporting from San Jose — The letters were terse and ominous, their warning unmistakable. Your garden, they said, is on rose “probation.”
Years of budget cuts and municipal neglect had taken their toll on the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, the horticultural heart of the Silicon Valley, where generations had graduated from high school, exchanged wedding vows or simply found a little bit of sweet-smelling solitude.
That was 2007 and weeds had grown as high as the tree roses. Herbicide used to whack them back had instead decimated the flowers, the Double Delights and Queen Elizabeths, the Wing Dings and Koko Lokos. Beds first planted during the Great Depression were cracked and dry.
Do something, said the rose police (aka the Public Garden Committee of a group called All-America Rose Selections) or pay the price. To any rosarian worth his pruning shears, the threat could not be ignored.
So Terry Reilly, an electron microscopist who retired at 38, and then-neighbor Beverly Rose Hopper (her real name) sprang into action. Reilly viewed the garden’s rescue as nothing short of a political campaign, his role akin to a Karl Rove of the botanical set.
Guerrilla marketing, robo-calls, a volunteer, Reilly figured, could save a garden dedicated to America’s national flower, a bloom that’s “there in times of sorrow. It’s there in times of joy . People get tattoos of roses. They don’t get tattoos of petunias.”
Reilly holsters his rose clippers, whips out his iPad and slides his finger across the shiny screen, showing picture after picture of a regional treasure mired in deep decline.
There’s the Peace rose, smuggled in from occupied France during World War II, its branches brown and bare. Dream Come True is a stunted little nightmare. Dried weeds billow over the 5 1/2-acre park like gray cotton candy.
Battered by the dot-com bust and the Great Recession, San Jose has slashed its budget every year for the last decade, eliminating 2,054 positions and cutting $680 million in all. There is no relief in sight.
The rose garden was an early victim of the meltdown, in such disrepair by 2007 when only 20% of the bushes had been pruned that its neighbors complained to their new city councilman, Pierluigi Oliverio. In his first month in office, Oliverio held a news conference in the disheveled park, calling on the city to outsource its maintenance as a money-saving test.
Neighbors cheered, unions griped and the City Council gave the proposal a thumbs-down. So Reilly and Hopper stepped in, forming Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden and adopting the park. With Oliverio’s help, they persuaded the city to allow volunteers to take on duties it had largely abandoned.
Reilly also contacted All-America Rose Selections, a nonprofit group of rose growers that accredits public rose gardens throughout the country. The organization sends judges to evaluate more than 130 gardens, 17 of them in California.
Reilly wanted the evaluations as ammunition in the fight to save the garden. He was stunned when he called.
“They said, ‘Well, geez, you guys have been on probation for like three years,’ ” Reilly recounted as he strolled the garden paths. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Send me those letters.’ What had happened was those were being sent to the gardener on duty, and she was basically putting it in her pocket, not letting anyone know.”
Those letters, he said, were “the smoking gun.”
And so, the campaign began in earnest that September.
“Free the Roses!” was the rallying cry. Reilly and Hopper leafleted their neighborhood, beseeching supporters to weed and deadhead in an effort to spring the blossoms from probation.
More than 150 people showed up, and 250 came to the January 2008 pruning, the majority promising to help on a regular basis. Reilly built a website with a PayPal function so people could donate money and indicate an interest in volunteering.
He shot video of the industrious volunteers and posted it on YouTube, along with a primer on pruning that stars Hopper and has had more than 90,000 hits to date. He built a database of volunteers, plotted their addresses on Google maps and realized that the neighborhood problem was generating a far-flung solution; volunteers were traveling for hours to help “send the roses to rehab.”
By spring of 2008, Reilly and Hopper were calling the army of unpaid gardeners the Master Volunteers. The corps was trained, decked out in bright green vests and deputized to garden whenever the fancy struck them.
“My favorite time is in the evening, after a glass or four of wine,” said Reilly. “You come on over after dinner deadhead roses and bask in the beauty.”
Right before Christmas 2008, the rose garden was sprung from probation. “I have never seen involvement like this,” then-rose society President Tom Carruth said at the time.
The rose growers were so impressed and so worried about the health of other public rose gardens that they wrote up the San Jose example as a national case study.
“The parks are considered extraneous expenses in times of economic stress,” Carruth said recently. “Almost every public garden in the United States is undergoing that very same pressure.”
But as the case study pointed out, in San Jose “a dramatic turnaround was achieved and the garden was restored to its former glory.” The moral of the story? If San Jose could do it, so can you. Already, gardens in Oakland and New Britain, Conn., have taken up the San Jose playbook.
By May 2009, less than a year after getting off probation, the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden was chosen as a rose society test plot, one of 10 in the country where roses of the future are planted, inspected and judged before they go on the market.
Eight months later, Reilly and Hopper enticed 935 volunteers out on a bone-chilling January morning for the resurrected garden’s winter pruning. The gardeners whacked the 3,500 or so bushes back in about an hour and a half. They called it “pruning at 33 RPM,” which in this case meant “roses per minute.”
But the biggest challenge to Reilly’s organizing skills came in 2010, when the rose society announced its first competition for America’s best rose garden. Garden supporters would vote electronically from April to July and judges would visit the finalists.
Reilly set up Wi-Fi in the garden, staffed a booth with volunteers and laptops, and wandered the paths, shoving his iPad at anyone willing to vote on the spot. He printed 5,000 sandwich wrappers urging diners to vote for the garden and gave them to a local lunch spot.
The once-ratty rose garden got more than double the votes of its closest competitor and was named America’s Best Rose Garden a year ago. The rose society isn’t planning another competition soon, but if it does, Carruth joked, “we’ll have to disqualify San Jose, because their volunteer force knows how to vote like mad.”
The garden turned Reilly into a campaigner and Hopper into an advocate for an essential human need “a place,” she said, “that is free and open to all to refresh their spirit and renew their soul.”
And what about those volunteers, the 3,700 or so rose lovers who have collectively logged more than 31,200 hours, work that acting Parks Director Julie Edmonds-Mares said has “transformed” the garden?
Late in the afternoon on a Thursday in autumn, Myles Tobin, who has logged 1,960 hours in the garden, is training the newest recruit. Harry Garcia, with 1,850 hours, saws deadwood from a vast stand of Artistry, a coral hybrid tea rose. A trickle of blood dries on his sharp cheekbone, souvenir of an errant thorn.
Girija Satyanarayan has traveled nearly two hours from her home in Milpitas, switching buses in downtown San Jose. She likes to make it her routine four or five times each week.
The roses, she said, “adopted me to take care of them.”
“In the mornings,” she said, “when the sun just falls on these aromatic ones, the first whiff of scent is heady. It is just beautiful. I come to catch that.”