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New Roses for an Old Garden : Descanso to Rejuvenate, Upgrade Aged 5-Acre Site


The Descanso Gardens Guild plans to replace the popular but aged rose beds at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge with colorful gardens portraying the history of roses.

Thousands of diseased and dying rosebushes, many 40 years old or more, will be uprooted and discarded in an 18-month project to rejuvenate the famed five-acre rose garden.

The guild, a 5,000-member support group, launched a campaign Friday to raise $1.5 million for the project, to begin in November. More than $250,000 has already been pledged, said Gail Boatwright, guild president.

Renovation of the rose garden is the second phase of a plan to upgrade and expand the 165-acre, county-owned former estate of newspaper publisher E. Manchester Boddy. The thousands of roses, camellias and native plants, most planted in the 1940s, attract more than 170,000 visitors each year.

The guild last year completed the $350,000 first phase of the renovation by expanding a pond into a 1 1/2-acre lake, complete with a waterfall and nesting areas that provide a bird sanctuary.

More than 4,000 rosebushes representing every species in the world will be planted in the new garden, expected to be finished by spring, 1993, Boatwright said. Unlike most public rose gardens, which display plants in formal rows and patterns, the Descanso garden will feature 17 different, informal themes chronicling the history of roses from their earliest medieval cultivation through the European Renaissance to modern times.

"It will not be just a pretty garden, which it will be," said project designer Steven Smith of Lawrence R. Moss & Associates of Montrose. "It will be a comprehensive international garden, superior to anything known in California."

Scenes will include a garden of all white roses, a Children's Secret Garden with a hidden maze and miniature roses and benches, the Mission Garden featuring a fountain in a courtyard, and Josephine's Garden, honoring Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and well-known for her love of roses.

The project is one of the most ambitious to be undertaken at a public park in the country, public officials and botanists said. Many of the rare species in the existing garden will be saved and replanted in the new garden, Boatwright said.

An open-air educational pavilion for flower shows, classes and other events will be the focal point of the garden, which also will feature thousands of annual and perennial flowers, trees and shrubs.

The renovation is needed because the soil has been depleted of nutrients since the garden was planted in 1948 and the bushes and vines have been ravaged by exposure to full sunlight, Boatwright said.

The old soil will be replaced with new topsoil. A drip irrigation system will be installed to conserve water.

The garden will feature a serpentine roadway, bridges, streams, fountains and other water elements. Trellises, arbors and archways will reflect different architectural influences and provide protection to plants, Smith said. A Braille trail will also be incorporated in the project.

Tom Carruth, research director of Weeks Roses, an Upland breeder and hybridizer, said the Descanso garden will be similar in size to the Portland Rose Garden, considered one of the best in the nation, and larger than other famous gardens in Tyler, Tex., and Chicago.

Susan Moreland, spokeswoman for the American Rose Society, said the Descanso garden has shown unusual longevity without renovation. The society is renovating the 118-acre garden at its headquarters in Shreveport, La., planted since 1974.

"Roses mature and don't produce as well," Moreland said. "They are damaged by the weather, by the same type of things that happen with a yard at home." She said more than 5,000 rosebushes in 60 gardens at the society headquarters are being replaced in an 18-month project.

Despite criticisms from visitors to the garden during the renovation period, she said volunteers from the 18,000-member organization were quick to raise the needed $75,000 in materials. "We had $80,000 in donations three months before our goal," Moreland said.

Smith said the redesigned Descanso rose garden will present "a relaxed, informal setting, much in the style of the Descanso Gardens area." He said the new gardens will be "less maintained, with bushes even growing in brambles along stream beds." Volunteers and designers have spent almost two years developing the plan.

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