Looking for the perfect patch for his hobby, Baldo Villegas bought a little 2-acre ranchette in Orangevale and got to work.
The pastures were filled with star thistle. Side yards were overgrown with weeds.
"This one stretch was a jungle you couldn't walk through it," he recalled. "English ivy was 2 feet deep. Every possible seedling was growing wild. I cleared it out so I could plant."
Four years later, his garden has become a nonstop floral show. Nicknamed Baldo's Acres, the garden features more than 2,500 roses, with about 1,500 planted in massive beds. The remainder are in pots, waiting for their space.
Rows of fragrant yellow and pink floribundas line the street. Passers-by can smell them before they see their bright colors.
"I asked the neighbor what she liked," Villegas said. "She said yellow and pink. So that's what I planted."
Villegas, 64, got hooked on roses about 25 years ago on a dare. During a local rose society meeting, Villegas who had only a few roses at the time disagreed with a panel of learned experts about the use of pesticides and fertilizers. They challenged him to prove he could do better. Within three years, he won top honors at their rose show.
A state entomologist for 34 years, Villegas decided to devote his retirement to gardening, particularly roses.
Baldo's Acres has become a mecca for local rose experts, who marvel at its diversity. They also like Villegas' approach to growing roses with little if any pesticides.
"We are so fortunate to have Baldo," said Charlotte Owendyk, past president of the Sierra Foothills Rose Society. "He is so knowledgeable about both the rose and insect worlds. Baldo's Acres is a haven for both."
Villegas uses his garden know-how to attract beneficial insects such as lady beetles and lacewings that help take care of his roses with little use of pesticides, Owendyk said. "That's even more important in that most gardeners have a 'don't spray' garden."
Owendyk has seen Baldo's Acres grow from the bare ground up.
"Baldo's Acres is unbelievable," she said. "The extent and variety of roses that he grows is amazing. When you walk through the garden with him, he will name roses as you pass them by and talk about the pros and cons of that rose.
"But that isn't all; he has an extensive fruit and vegetable garden as well as a garden just for beneficial insects," she said. "Last year, after a swarm of bees came, he adopted them and now has five hives."
Besides a large kitchen herb garden and vegetable beds, Villegas planted 60 fruit trees, dozens of blueberry bushes, scores of blackberry vines plus a compact vineyard of table grapes. To attract diverse beneficial insects, he incorporated more than 800 varieties of perennials, shrubs, bulbs, annuals and plants other than roses into his landscape.
Wild turkeys make themselves at home, too.
"They treat Orangevale like a big buffet," said Suzy Villegas, Baldo's wife. "They know who feeds them."
Suzy's horse who now has her own thistle-free pasture inspired the move to the larger property from another Orangevale home, which featured about 700 roses. Villegas moved more than 400 bushes, too.
The horse supplies endless fertilizer, Villegas noted. "I use lots of horse manure. That's my secret."
He digs the manure into new beds before planting and also makes mulch.
Contrary to their finicky reputation, roses are pretty easy, Villegas said. "Roses love sandy loam, but they really need mulch."
Villegas uses compost as mulch and then lets worms incorporate the nutrients into the soil. He waters his roses about 10 minutes every other day with a combination of drip and traditional irrigation.
"They're all on timers," he said of his irrigation system. "That's the only way I could do it. Otherwise, roses pretty much will take care of themselves."
To bring order to his roses, Villegas tried to plant them in alphabetical order.
"That way, I can remember them," he said with a smile.
But new bushes keep expanding the beds.
"He's always adding," Owendyk said. "If he sees a rose he doesn't have, he'll ask for a cutting."
Said Villegas, "I have all the odd ones, because I get around. I love the newest of the new. When I started this garden, I called (a major nursery) and said, 'Send me one of everything you have.' "
With a national reputation, Villegas speaks to rose societies throughout the nation. Hybridizers ask him to test new roses. Two miniflora roses Baldo (an orange blend) and Baldo Villegas (white with a red edge) have been named for him by hybridizer Whit Wells.
One large bed of his garden is filled with roses with no names, just hybridizer code numbers.
Jolene Adams, national president of the American Rose Society, knows Villegas and his roses well.
"Baldo is what we call a 'rose nut.' " Adams said affectionately. "He hasn't seen a rose he doesn't like, and if he can buy them, he'll get two!
"He tries out all the newest ones and checks out the rose fads as they come and go. He then can let the rest of us know how various roses perform in his area."
As a judge, she's seen hundreds of Villegas' roses in competition.
"Baldo puts a lot of time and effort into his hobby," said Adams, who lives in Hayward. "He grows wonderful roses, and they show the care and attention they have received. They are big and beautiful, a compliment to their caretaker."
At the recent Sacramento Rose Show, Villegas won 24 trophies including best of show with the dark red hybrid tea Always & Forever.
Villegas' favorites keep evolving. "My all-time favorite is probably Playboy," he said of an orange-blend floribunda. "But I also love Blueberry Hill (a lavender floribunda); it's very fragrant and just blooms and blooms and blooms. I also love anything with stripes."
His current project: "I got rid of the (front) lawn so I can plant more roses," he said. "Instead of mowing lawn, I'll have something I can enjoy."
Gardeners could use more folks like Villegas, Adams said.
"Baldo is a great ambassador for the rose," she said. "Each person who learns from him knows they are getting pearls of great price from a master of this hobby. And in turn, they grow better roses and encourage others to also grow and learn about roses."
Villegas' enthusiasm is contagious, she added.
"He reaches out to others and shares his roses," she said. "And we soon realize he has roses in his heart."
Which are the best rose varieties to grow? Local rose expert Baldo Villegas recently compiled this list of can't-miss roses for the greater Sacramento area. Because many people choose flowers by color, he broke down his picks into a rainbow of common rose colors, including blends. All are hybrid teas unless noted. Not all are commonly available.
Here are Villegas' recommended roses:
Teas: Black Magic, Grand Amore, Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Wellan, Olympiad, Veterans' Honor, Blake Hedrick, Always & Forever, Dick Clark.
Other: Pinnacle (F), Ketchup & Mustard (F), Lavaglut (F), Priscilla Burton (F), Caliente (M), Robin Alonso (MF), Power Point (MF), Altissimo (C), The Squire (S), Home Run (S).
Teas: Isabelle, Eternal Flame, Gold Medal, St. Patrick.
Other: Light of Day (F), Goldquill (F), Sparkle & Shine (F), First Impression (F), Julia Child (F), Walking on Sunshine (F), Sunsprite (F), Monkey Business (F), Simple Splendor (M), Baby Love (M), Behold My Sunshine (M), Peter Alonso (M), Sunglow (MF), Lo & Behold (MF), Mary Alice (M), Molineaux (S), Charlotte (S), Golden Celebration (S), Tequila (F), Limoncello (S).
Other: Playboy (F), Vavoom (F), Easy Does It (F), Playtime (F), Mardi Gras (F), Cricket (M), Brenda Lee (M), Tulsa Town (M), Mary Pickersgill (MF).
Other: Ebb Tide (F), Blueberry Hill (F), Incognito (M), Alysheba (M), Memphis Blues (MF), Dr. John Dickman (MF), William Shakespeare 2000 (S), Wild Blue Yonder (G), Out of the Blue (S).
Teas: Hot Princess, Gemini, Secret, Andrea Stelzer, Enchanted.
Other: Nicole (F), Dancing Pink (F), Sexy Rexy (F), New Zealand (F), Johnny Bechnel (F), Marriotta (M), Tomboy (M), Camden (M), Magic Show (M), Pierrine (M), Mother's Love (M), Joy (M), Moonbeam (S), Joasine Harnet (OG), Wise Portia (S), Trevor Griffith (S), The Reeve (S), The Miller (S).
Tea: Randy Scott.
Other: Class Act (F), Fabulous (F), Climbing Sombreuil (C), Grace Seward (M), Irresistible (M), Peter Cottontail (MF).
ROSE VARIETY KEY
F: Floribunda. M: Miniature. MF: Miniflora. C: Climber. S: Shrub. G: Grandiflora. OG: Old garden rose.
www.sactorose.org: Villegas maintains this website, shared by two local rose societies. Find tips for rose growing, places to see or buy roses, a guide to rose pests and disease, rose-related events and much more.
www.ars.org: Official site of the American Rose Society. Find lots of links and rose information.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.