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This Sacramento garden is worth a cross-country trek

Stephen Scanniello smells Madame Plantier, a Victorian variety of rose growing in his New Jersey garden.
Stephen Scanniello smells Madame Plantier, a Victorian variety of rose growing in his New Jersey garden. MCT

Stephen Scanniello loves Victorian roses. So much so, he’s willing to travel 3,000 miles to prune some famous plants.

Scanniello, chief rosarian of the New York Botanical Garden and creator of iconic landscapes, can’t pass up an opportunity to visit Sacramento’s Historic Rose Garden in the Old City Cemetery.

“I’ve made at least four or five visits,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s one of the most beautiful collections of heritage roses I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen the best all over the world.”

A “rock star of roses,” Scanniello will spend this coming week in the Sacramento area, drawn by roses that date back more than a century. Besides visiting several local gardening clubs, he’ll conduct two pruning workshops next Saturday, Jan. 13, at the historic Old City Cemetery.

“We are thrilled that Stephen is coming across the continent once again to share his expertise in pruning climbing and other types of garden roses,” said Anita Clevenger, curator of the cemetery’s rose garden. “Not only do we learn better rose pruning techniques in his workshops, it’s so much fun to hear the stories from his lifetime of caring for roses of the East Coast’s rich and famous. Somehow, we all feel a bit more glamorous after his visits, and inspired by his support of the Historic Rose Garden’s rose preservation efforts.”

Scanniello, who has rubbed green thumbs with such garden-loving celebrities as Julie Andrews, has been instrumental in saving and re-creating gardens from the 1800s. Among his current restoration projects are the rose garden at the Hamilton Grange, the Harlem home of Alexander Hamilton, and Elizabeth Park, the nation’s oldest public rose garden in Hartford, Conn.

His interest is not just the roses, but sharing them with others.

“A lot of people are paying attention to heritage roses now,” he said. “People are getting tired of landscape roses and they’re again interested in history.”

Considered among the world’s best collections of Victorian-era roses, Sacramento’s cemetery rose garden contains many varieties not found anywhere else. Its 500-plus bushes need special attention and care – Scanniello’s specialty. (He’s also president of the Heritage Rose Foundation.)

“These roses are perfect for a naturalistic setting, but you can’t treat them like (modern) hybrid teas,” he said. “They have individual requirements, but that’s part of the fun. In some cases, it takes some courage – and some blood.”

Especially if a thorny climber was allowed to go several seasons without tending.

“The banksia that grows to the top of the tree? Don’t worry about it,” he added, referring to the cemetery’s 60-foot tree-topping banksia rose. “That’s what that plant wants to do – and it’s trained.

“At the Sacramento garden, it’s a chance to teach better ways to train roses,” he added. “You’ll go home with a better feeling about heritage roses and roses in general. How you cut that stem applies to all kinds of roses, not just the antiques.”

Founded in 1850, the cemetery and its gardens have been a decades-long work in progress. For many years, the 30-acre site looked abandoned with waist-high weeds. Volunteer preservation efforts helped restore the public cemetery – the largest of its kind in the state – to its earlier grandeur and created the large public gardens dedicated to heritage roses, unusual perennials and California native plants. In November 2014, the cemetery was named a National Historic District.

“When I first went there years ago, I had no idea it hadn’t always been that way,” Scanniello said. “Everything feels so right, like (the gardens) have been there a long, long time. They belong there.”

New irrigation coming soon

The cemetery gardens are feeling love from locals, too.

“Our historic City Cemetery rightfully is one of the jewels of the city and also the state,” said Councilman Steve Hansen, who has pushed for preservation of its gardens and historical monuments. “I believe we need to make some investment in the City Cemetery to make sure its gardens and monuments can still be enjoyed by generations to come.”

Two years after a blooms vs. tombs controversy that cast some doubt on the future of the gardens, things have settled down.

In 2017, city crews finished a topographical survey, a first step in irrigation improvements to a system installed 60-plus years ago. That retrofit could cost an estimated $500,000.

“The overall project is fairly expensive,” Hansen noted. “We’ll break it into phases and do it that way. We hope to see progress in 2018.”

A cultural landscape technical advisory committee has been formed by the city to tackle such prickly issues as where bushes can grow in relation to monuments.

“Things are moving along very well,” said Hansen, whose district includes the cemetery. “The committee has worked through a lot of challenges.”

Recent redevelopment on Broadway and the neighborhood surrounding the cemetery has helped push renovations along.

“All that is significant,” Hansen said. “The cemetery is one of the city’s first parks. It’s been brought back into the consciousness of the people.

“Instead of being left for dead, this garden was brought back to life,” he added. “That’s really through the strong advocacy of the volunteers and thanks to their dedication to the treasure that we have.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Pruning with a master

Where: Historic City Cemetery, 1000 Broadway, Sacramento

When: 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. next Saturday, Jan. 13

Admission: $10 donation

Details: www.cemeteryrose.org

Highlights: World renowned rose expert Stephen Scanniello demonstrates how to care for large climbers and old garden roses while sharing stories of preservation and restoration.

Also: Meet Scanniello at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, at a presentation hosted by the Sacramento Rose Society, Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento. Public welcome; admission is free.

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