A tale of two San Jose rose gardens
The Heritage Rose Garden in San Jose is in dire need of volunteers. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

When visitors hear “San Jose Rose Garden,” they likely picture a lush field of roses growing over a well-manicured lawn.

But that’s not what they see at the Heritage Rose Garden, which has fallen victim to neglect, vandalism and even arson over the last year.

“We desperately need a few new serious volunteers who will start taking over positions that others have retired from,” said Jill Perry, curator of the collection for South Bay Heritage Rose Group, which helps manage the rose garden. “Hopefully we can build it up again once the COVID scare is over.”

Located on the corner of Taylor Street and Coleman Avenue near downtown San Jose, the Heritage Rose Garden is a stark contrast to the Municipal Rose Garden located a mile and a half down the street on Naglee and Dana avenues.

The two gardens emerged at different times and from wildly different philosophies, Joe Salvato, deputy director of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, told San José Spotlight. The conservancy manages the Heritage Rose Garden along with the city and the South Bay Heritage Rose Group.

“We think of the two gardens as complementary collections,” Salvato said. “Variety-wise, in terms of individual species, there’s a lot fewer species of roses in the Municipal Rose Garden.”

Christian Paquet, a volunteer at the Municipal Rose Garden since 2016, removes older blossoms from a rose bush. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

The Municipal Rose Garden, built in the 1930s, was created as a display garden with roses that have bigger, showier blooms. The garden is a destination for picnics, parties and weddings.

But this wasn’t always the case, according to Terrence Reilly, founder of the Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden. The nonprofit group of volunteers manages care for the Municipal Rose Garden, along with a single full-time worker paid by the city.

Reilly said the Municipal Rose Garden lost its accreditation in 2005 due to the poor state of its rose bushes, which necessitated a ramping up of volunteers. Then-city councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio rallied for a change in the city’s law to allow for unpaid volunteers to tend to the garden.

“They did allow a change to allow volunteers to come in and companies to come in and help,” Reilly said. “Volunteers were needed, particularly with budget cuts.”

The Municipal Rose Garden has an annual budget of $340,000, according to Daniel Lazo, spokesperson for the city’s parks department. Meanwhile, the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy receives $99,000 annually from the city, which helps maintain Heritage Rose Garden.

A couple sits near the Municipal Rose Garden fountain on July 13, 2021. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Reilly said he respects the Heritage Rose Garden’s role as a collection of rare varieties. The downtown garden features a few nearly extinct species, some of which are hundreds of years old.

“The Heritage Rose Garden is not a display garden, it is a botanical collection,” Reilly said. “Those folks that are botanists or rose-curios or really involved in rose societies, they will go there, they’ll search it out.”

Salvato said the Heritage Rose Garden also emerged with a different landscaping philosophy. The garden, established in 1995, was designed to use recycled water instead of potable water, and is less reliant on commercial chemicals for weed and pest control.

Perry said she’d like to see the Heritage Rose Garden become a tourist destination like the Municipal Rose Garden, but there are a few obstacles. First, a fence needs to be erected around the garden to protect from vandals and other criminals. Perry said an arsonist set fire to some rose bushes just last month.

“People can walk through there any time of day or night,” she said.

A pathway at Heritage Rose Garden is cracked and in need of repair. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Salvato said the conservancy plans to dedicate more of the garden’s budget to upkeep of pathways and pest control. He said the group wants to plan for a “place-making” feature—similar to the fountain at the Municipal Rose Garden—that would allow people to easily identify the location in photos.

“Things that give the garden a bit more presence and definition and a sense of place,” Salvato said. “We’d love for the Heritage to have some elements like that that help give it more of an identity.”

Perry said two essential Heritage Rose Garden volunteers retired last year, a supervisor of other volunteers and someone who oversaw the nursery. She said in addition to volunteers, the garden could also use a full-time worker to tend to weeds and irrigation.

“The weeds got overwhelming, so mostly we’ve had volunteers pulling weeds rather than dealing with the roses,” she said. “We’ve been piddling along with a very small volunteer group during this past winter and spring… We can handle a lot more volunteers now.”

Readers can sign up to volunteer at the Heritage Rose Garden through the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy’s website.

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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