For their retirement years, Steve and Susie Jones dreamed of a life of wine and roses. They found it in Fiddletown.
“The moment we walked in the door, Susie said, ‘This is it!’ ” Steve said at their Amador County home.
On 5 acres of oak-studded rolling hills, the couple grows hundreds of roses, concentrating on rare varieties and personal favorites. They also make their own wine from homegrown grapes.
“I always thought my perfect retirement job would be pouring wine at a tasting room, so I do that, too,” said Steve, who works part time at Amador 360 in Plymouth. “We talk wine; it’s lots of fun. I just did my first wine judging at the State Fair for home winemakers.”
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Who knows where their zinfandel and barbera will lead? The Joneses already travel the world as ambassadors of roses.
This summer, they’ll be talking hybrid teas and floribundas in Slovenia and Croatia, then cruise the Danube with an eye out for climbing roses on ancient castle walls.
“In 12 years, we’ve visited 40 countries in the name of roses,” Steve said. “By the end of the year, we’ll be up to 50.”
Steve, 63, is a longtime leader in the country’s gardening community. A former president of the American Rose Society, he’s also the immediate past president of the World Federation of Rose Societies. Besides being a rose collector and expert, he’s a hybridizer, creating his own new rose varieties.
Roses have taken the Joneses to every continent except Antarctica.
“The world federation includes rose organizations from 39 countries,” Steve explained. “We share information on rose research, disease control, species, new varieties. We help each other grow.”
Among their recent stops were major rose gardens in France, Japan and Argentina. These public gardens often feature thousands of bushes including many rarities. With an encyclopedic memory for roses, Steve remembers the names of almost all the varieties he’s personally seen.
At several stops, Steve served as a judge at rose trials, evaluating new varieties not yet introduced to the public.
“I’m always discovering something new and beautiful,” he said. “That’s why my own garden keeps growing.”
In addition to other rose lovers and hybridizers, they’ve met royalty and world leaders.
Steve cites a favorite example. At the dedication of a new rose, he met Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco at their palace gardens. The new rose, created by Alain Meilland, was named in Princess Charlene’s honor.
The royal couple were approachable, down to earth and very gracious, Steve noted. The prince also had a sense of humor.
“I told the prince, ‘Your English is impeccable,’ ” he recalled. “He replied, ‘Of course! My mother was American.’”
That’s when Steve remembered that Prince Albert’s mom was actress Grace Kelly. But the good-natured prince put Steve instantly at ease.
“I’ve met the nicest people around the world, all because of roses,” Steve said. “We all share the same passion.”
The couple never imagined that roses would open doors around the globe.
“I never really traveled before I met Steve,” Susie said. “It’s a blessing I don’t take for granted.”
Before retirement in 2013, Steve worked 32 years for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, focusing on air pollution in Southern California.
Living in Valencia near Six Flags Magic Mountain, the couple got into rose growing as a hobby more than 30 years ago. Steve founded the Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society in 1992. From that start with a local rose group, he became a regional, then national and eventually world leader in rose societies.
“I just kept moving up the chain,” he said.
When they moved to Amador County, they brought hundreds of roses with them, all transplanted by hand. Steve still keeps most of his miniature roses in pots, lined up as a railing on the edge of their home’s deck.
Susie leaves the rose care to her husband. She prefers to smell the roses, not prune them.
Her favorites? “All of them, probably some more than others,” Susie said. “I really like Sheila’s Perfume for the fragrance. It’s also one of the first to flower.
“I tend to like things that are a little bit unique,” she added. “I like ones with more than one color or with striping such as Purple Tiger; it catches my eye. They’re just a lot more interesting.”
The best part? “Steve does all the work; this is his garden project,” Susie added. “I just get to enjoy them.”
Steve has as many roses as rose friends he’s met around the world. Every rose in his garden comes with a story; where he first saw that variety, who created it, how he came to love it.
“I grow all sorts of different roses, so something is always blooming,” Steve said. “I have 430 bushes in the ground at the moment.”
That number will grow. The Joneses have a lot more room.
For each addition, Steve builds raised beds out of concrete blocks. That helps with the foothills’ rocky landscape.
“I prefer raised beds,” he explained. “It’s so much easier on the back – you’re not always bending over – and the knees. It also gives you full control of the soil.”
His favorite fertilizer is “pony poop,” provided by a nearby stable owner.
Tall fencing keeps friendly deer away from the roses. Instead, the Joneses constantly battle other wildlife.
“Turkeys are my biggest enemy,” Steve said. “They dig into beds, looking for bugs, and disrupt everything.”
In the process, the big birds trash any roses that get in the way. Plant markers get buried. Turkeys can really make a mess, Steve noted.
Meanwhile, other birds are welcome. Their garden brims with busy hummingbirds.
“People said, ‘You’re moving to the country? You’ll be back. Give it a year,’ ” Steve recalled. “I haven’t even been back to L.A. I don’t miss it. We have everything here.”