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Bad news about Sacramento’s beloved Historic Rose Garden

Famous collection may soon be, well, history

City cemetery
Here's how the Historic City Cemetery looked in June, with all the arbors removed and most of the rose bushes cut down. (Photos courtesy Preserve The Cemetery's Beauty)

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, the City of Sacramento’s Preservation Commission will review a 36-page report and recommendations for a five-year preservation plan for the Historic City Cemetery.

That plan recommends the removal of most of the ornamental plants in the cemetery, including the dissolution of the 2-acre rose collection as a “garden.”

To be held via Zoom, the meeting will include public comments via a call-in line. That phone number is expected to be posted Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the meeting.

For decades, the cemetery has been home to three major garden collections devoted to heritage and antique roses, perennials and California native plants. All three gardens are at risk.

Longtime volunteers for the cemetery gardens are deeply concerned.

“We have treated the cemetery with the utmost love and respect,” said Anita Clevenger, who served for many years as the rose garden’s curator. “The report rejects all previous plans, and the listing of the cemetery on the Federal Register, by stating that the modern gardens have no standing as historic features and that the emphasis for the cemetery must be preservation of historic hardscape and landscaping.

“Recommendations are to remove ‘non-historic’ vegetation (prior to 1962 or thereabouts) and replace turf with decomposed granite and plants in plots with mulch,” Clevenger added. “What a barren prospect.”

A Facebook page, Preserve the Cemetery's Beauty, has kept track of changes in the garden and provides links to reports. (Find it at )

City cemetery, another view
Another view of the cemetery, after removal of all
the arbors and trellises.

Attracting rose lovers worldwide, the cemetery rose garden had been internationally recognized as one of the best collections anywhere of rare and antique roses, many not found in any other public space. In 2011, the cemetery garden was among the original inductees into the Great Rosarians of the World international hall of fame as a “living library of rare roses.”

But roses in the cemetery have been a prickly issue since 2016. That’s when the City first issued recommendations that called for the removal of all decorative arches, arbors, trellises, tripods and other metalwork as well as any plants growing in plots or within 1 foot of monuments.

The goal of those changes is to better preserve the stone monuments and restore the cemetery to an earlier historic period, according to city reports and staff.

When those changes were first proposed, the all-volunteer Heritage Rose Group stirred up a fuss that gained national attention. They packed Sacramento’s Council Chambers during hearings and pressed the City Council to save the roses. Initially sparing the roses, the city formed a task force, and a series of studies and reports followed.

Earlier this year, Tom Liggett – a rose expert who worked with the City of San Jose on its historical rose garden – was brought in as a special consultant to the City Cemetery.

Then, the pandemic hit. The cemetery’s major garden event in April was canceled and volunteers were discouraged from working in the cemetery gardens. All 2020 tours were canceled including the cemetery’s popular pre-Halloween Lantern Tours.

Working with city staff and on his own, Liggett chopped down to the ground huge climbers and tree-size bushes. He continued severe pruning through the summer heat, considered the worst time to prune roses. Many roses disappeared along with all 30-plus arbors and arches. Some roses were eliminated from the garden’s 500-plus collection.

Also disappeared: The Historic Rose Garden’s sign and most of the plant identification tags.

According to the city report, “The goal of this work is to meet preservation standards and have all staff and volunteers working towards a shared goal of maintaining these historic cemetery grounds.”

In its report, city staff contended that the rose garden, established in 1992, and its volunteers never had official permission and that the garden was not appropriate for its historical setting.

“Extensive research by staff and consultants have found (that) gardens overlaid on individual plots was not part of the original Cemetery design,” the report states. “Individual plots were the central building block in the Victorian garden cemetery, focusing on the individual interred, not on a collection of plants making up a garden. … Individual plots were never meant to be grouped together to reflect a collection of plants as a ‘garden.’ ”

What will the future Historic City Cemetery look like? With these recommendations, a lot less rosy.

Read the full report:


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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