Seeds: Rose mentor Carruth says go for the scent

Anyone who loves roses owes Tom Carruth a bouquet of thanks.

Not only did he have a hand in making many favorite flowers, he has helped shape public gardens and how visitors learn through sensual delights. His handiwork can be seen (and smelled) here in Sacramento as well as throughout the nation.

“The No. 1 question people always ask in a rose garden: Where are the fragrant roses?” said Carruth, who is working on the garden of a lifetime. “So the varieties I chose for replacements are oozing with fragrance.”

With an eye (and nose) for what excites gardeners, Carruth offers advice that can be adapted to any space.

Renowned as a hybridizer, Carruth created many of the best-selling rose varieties grown today. He’s credited with introducing more than 100 varieties, including 11 All-America Rose Selections (AARS). Among his all-star catalog of roses are Scentimental, Cinco de Mayo, Hot Cocoa, Wild Blue Yonder, Strike It Rich and Betty Boop.

There will be more new releases – even though Carruth no longer works at Wasco-based wholesale grower Weeks Roses. Keep an eye out for Diamond Eyes (a velvety black-purple miniature with a distinctive white splash) and blushing-pink You’re The One (another miniature due for 2014 release).

“It takes eight to 10 years to get a new rose to market,” he said during a recent visit to Sacramento. “So people think I’m still working as a hybridizer.”

Last year, Carruth left Weeks Roses to tackle one of the most famous rose gardens in the country: the Huntington Library’s rose collection in San Marino. Carruth took over as curator of the Huntington’s 3-acre rose garden with more than 4,000 bushes.

Originally planted in 1908, the Huntington rose garden was long on history, but also in need of some intense editing. Some climbers had not been pruned in more than a decade. Other rare bushes had almost withered away.

“Some things were in terrible shape,” he said. “The roses were holding up the trellises. When we pruned, we found there was no trellis left.”

One arbor proved a major pain – literally. It was covered with the old-time climber Mermaid, a variety that has “fish-hook thorns that really dig in,” Carruth said.

“I’ve seen one Mermaid take over and kill a 30-foot tree,” he said. “... Mermaid had formed a 4-foot-thick thatch on top (of this arbor). When we started pruning, we discovered it wasn’t one bush, but 30 – and they hadn’t been pruned in years!”

Mermaid’s wicked thorns had scared away less-intrepid gardeners, and Carruth knew it would be a continuing battle. So he replaced Mermaid with a friendlier alternative, Renae. Besides being almost thornless, this free-flowering pink climber is very fragrant – just what people want.

Other intensely fragrant roses that Carruth used liberally include Julie Newmar (a very tall ruffled amber yellow hybrid tea with pink accents), dusky mauve Memorial Day (another tea), the old-fashioned Colette (a pink Romantica) and Eyes For You (a pale pink Hulthemia with a purple eye).

Carruth had planned to make changes slowly, but Mother Nature sped up his timetable. A massive windstorm struck the Huntington gardens last year.

“Hurricane-force winds knocked down 400 trees,” he said. “There was unbelievable carnage on the garden, but on the bright side, we’ve got mulch for years, and it opened up vistas that hadn’t been seen in 80 years.”

That mulch comes in handy with so many roses. As a water saver, it also helps the garden’s new drip irrigation work more efficiently.

“Our irrigation system was based on 1930 technology,” he added. “We’re updating that to 2013 technology where it’s programmed by my iPhone.”

To add more interest to the rose garden, Carruth’s crew planted thousands of bulbs under the bushes: freesias (that smell as sweet as they look) and reblooming irises, sparaxis, ixia and daffodils.

“Bulbs help soften the squareness of the rose garden, and they bloom when the roses don’t,” he said. “Freesias are so easy to grow and look so natural. The repeat-blooming iris will bloom five or six times a year.”

Carruth also played a large part in the recent restoration of the McKinley Park Memorial Rose Garden in Sacramento. “The last time I saw it, it was still a work in progress,” Carruth said. “But now, it’s just been transformed.”

While he was with Weeks Roses, Carruth helped McKinley Park garden volunteers get new bushes (either through donation or deep discounts) for the garden makeover, coordinated by Ellie Longanecker. Originally planted 84 years ago, the McKinley Park rose garden now has about 1,150 healthy bushes. New favorites such as the buttery yellow Julia Child (another AARS winner developed by Carruth) mix with old standards such as Iceberg.

Carruth noted how well all the roses looked so late in the growing season. In early November, the 1.5-acre garden was still full of flowers. New perennial beds along the edges of the garden attract beneficial insects and add to the garden’s year-round beauty.

McKinley is once again a place where people can learn about flowers and maybe find a new favorite – if they take time to smell the roses.

“It’s the complete package,” Carruth said of McKinley. “I’m really, really pleased with how it’s turned out. It’s wonderful to see.”