The Rose Garden takes me by complete surprise. Newly relocated to Arizona, my husband and I had been out driving when we turned into Mesa Community College and discovered this oasis of abundant color and smells. It has been a long time since I was excited by a rose garden, and I didn’t expect to be impressed by one in this unlikely water deprived environment. But this garden is special: filled with nothing but roses in any direction for as far as I can see. Yet it is in the low desert of southern Arizona.
Once I moved to the desert, I thought I would never see a sizable collection of roses growing in one place — certainly nothing that could rival anything my parents exposed me to as a child or the gardens I had seen since in the Midwest or Europe. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- It is the largest public rose garden in the desert southwestern United States.
- It is the testing site for All-America Rose Selections and the American Rose Society.
- The garden offers a peaceful sitting place, filled with sights and smells.
- Good for gardeners of any age or experience level (or with none at all).
The open garden here is long and narrow, set between a busy urban thoroughfare and the asphalt parking lot of the community’s college. I can sense my husband’s impatience: his foot is tapping and I can feel his eyes staring at me, waiting. Yet my mind is a mush of mumbling as I try to figure out where to go first. That’s his question, too: He asks, “Well, where do you want to start?”
We walk across a short bridge covering a low spot on one end, where someone is napping . In late May, the morning temperatures are already accelerating into the 90s. Surprisingly, I can see oases of shade and the green grass distracts me from the sweat rolling down my nose. The roses are in a collage of circular and narrow planting beds edged only by brick steppers.
Living Laboratory of Rosa
The Rose Garden at Mesa Community College is a self-touring garden with stone ledges and wood seating. Unmarked grassy paths and concrete walkways lead us through the uneven landscape, taking us from sun to shade and back again. One driveway cuts the garden in half, providing access into the parking.
The Rose Garden began in 1974, and has accumulated enough roses to keep any lover of flowers busy, almost 9000 bushes. The hierarchy of types of roses sometimes found in highly structured gardens seems absent. I saw floribundas, shrubs and miniatures rubbing stems with hybrid teas and grandifloras. The trappings of the garden testify to its purpose as a living laboratory: Signage indicates it is an All-American Rose Selections trials site, with rough wooden obelisks for climbing roses standing stalwart and a utilitarian watering system, all in the shadow of the Mesa Community College’s horticultural program.
Volunteers of Deadheaders and Pruners
The leafy trees cast long shadows on the mature end of the garden; in the low desert is shade beloved by plants and people, even roses, which are usually sun-seekers. My husband and I circle around the rose bushes, each of us tip toeing to the brick edgers to snap close-up photos. We hear birds and rabbits rustling around the dry mulch and the undergrowth.
I spy a visitor sitting sipping a drink and ask if I can share his table. The big brawny man calls himself Budda and tells me he is a deadheader. From that brief introduction, gardener to gardener, our conversation takes off. My husband stares off over the heads of roses, or is he rolling his eyes? Although Budda does not call himself one, I guess that he is a rosarian, someone who dedicates his home garden solely to rose bushes.
The deadheaders and pruners are the backbone of the volunteer care the garden receives. We talk about gardening in the desert and Budda shares that he loves the fragrance in the air. He says, “You know the aroma comes from the soil.” Indeed, all the beds are heavily mulched with organic matter, which releases nutrition taken up to eventually produce the bodacious blooms.
Serious Rose Garden
Rose gardens have an air of formality without trying hard. Indeed, they are sometimes misperceived as uppity, and even a casual public rose garden invariably etches out places for serious remembrances. Roses lend themselves to creating a meditative space, a serious garden.
Here, visitors may come to learn about roses they want for their own gardens, or to learn the secrets to growing roses in a desert environment. The sea of varieties gives gardeners much to mull over, and the landscaping provides places for contemplation.
On our visit, I found entire rose collections, as well as individual roses, named for an individual or donated to the garden. Set aside is the memorial garden with flags to honor the United States, Arizona and veterans missing in action.
My water bottle is almost empty. We stare back at the only car in the parking lot, the light from the sparkling sun in a cloudless sky bouncing off the windows. I think I hear my husband ask, “Are we done?” “Yeeeaaahhh, I think so.”
- It is the desert; bring drinking water, wear sun protection and comfortable close-toed shoes.
- Go early in the day, but it is open 24 hours per day/7 days per week.
- Free, but first-come first-served parking in the college’s lot and on the street.
- Pack notebooks and cameras to record plant names and images and remember garden etiquette; avoid stepping in the plant beds, cutting flowers or removing markers.