The San Jose Municipal Rose Garden can be seen in full bloom on Mother's… (Terry Reilly / Friends of…)
Reporting from San Jose -- The letters were terse and ominous, their warning unmistakable. Your garden, they said, is on rose "probation."
Years of budget cuts and municipal neglect had taken their toll on the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, the horticultural heart of the Silicon Valley, where generations had graduated from high school, exchanged wedding vows or simply found a little bit of sweet-smelling solitude.
That was 2007 and weeds had grown as high as the tree roses. Herbicide used to whack them back had instead decimated the flowers, the Double Delights and Queen Elizabeths, the Wing Dings and Koko Lokos. Beds first planted during the Great Depression were cracked and dry.
Do something, said the rose police (aka the Public Garden Committee of a group called All-America Rose Selections) or pay the price. To any rosarian worth his pruning shears, the threat could not be ignored.
So Terry Reilly, an electron microscopist who retired at 38, and then-neighbor Beverly Rose Hopper (her real name) sprang into action. Reilly viewed the garden's rescue as nothing short of a political campaign, his role akin to a Karl Rove of the botanical set.
Guerrilla marketing, robo-calls, a volunteer, Reilly figured, could save a garden dedicated to America's national flower, a bloom that's "there in times of sorrow. It's there in times of joy…. People get tattoos of roses. They don't get tattoos of petunias."
Reilly holsters his rose clippers, whips out his iPad and slides his finger across the shiny screen, showing picture after picture of a regional treasure mired in deep decline.
There's the Peace rose, smuggled in from occupied France during World War II, its branches brown and bare. Dream Come True is a stunted little nightmare. Dried weeds billow over the 5 1/2-acre park like gray cotton candy.
Battered by the dot-com bust and the Great Recession, San Jose has slashed its budget every year for the last decade, eliminating 2,054 positions and cutting $680 million in all. There is no relief in sight.
The rose garden was an early victim of the meltdown, in such disrepair by 2007 — when only 20% of the bushes had been pruned — that its neighbors complained to their new city councilman, Pierluigi Oliverio. In his first month in office, Oliverio held a news conference in the disheveled park, calling on the city to outsource its maintenance as a money-saving test.
Neighbors cheered, unions griped and the City Council gave the proposal a thumbs-down. So Reilly and Hopper stepped in, forming Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden and adopting the park. With Oliverio's help, they persuaded the city to allow volunteers to take on duties it had largely abandoned.
Reilly also contacted All-America Rose Selections, a nonprofit group of rose growers that accredits public rose gardens throughout the country. The organization sends judges to evaluate more than 130 gardens, 17 of them in California.
Reilly wanted the evaluations as ammunition in the fight to save the garden. He was stunned when he called.
"They said, 'Well, geez, you guys have been on probation for like three years,' " Reilly recounted as he strolled the garden paths. "I said, 'Are you kidding me? Send me those letters.' What had happened was those were being sent to the gardener on duty, and she was basically putting it in her pocket, not letting anyone know."
Those letters, he said, were "the smoking gun."
And so, the campaign began in earnest that September.
"Free the Roses!" was the rallying cry. Reilly and Hopper leafleted their neighborhood, beseeching supporters to weed and deadhead in an effort to spring the blossoms from probation.
More than 150 people showed up, and 250 came to the January 2008 pruning, the majority promising to help on a regular basis. Reilly built a website with a PayPal function so people could donate money and indicate an interest in volunteering.
He shot video of the industrious volunteers and posted it on YouTube, along with a primer on pruning that stars Hopper and has had more than 90,000 hits to date. He built a database of volunteers, plotted their addresses on Google maps and realized that the neighborhood problem was generating a far-flung solution; volunteers were traveling for hours to help "send the roses to rehab."
By spring of 2008, Reilly and Hopper were calling the army of unpaid gardeners the Master Volunteers. The corps was trained, decked out in bright green vests and deputized to garden whenever the fancy struck them.
"My favorite time is in the evening, after a glass or four of wine," said Reilly. "You come on over after dinner … deadhead roses and bask in the beauty."
Right before Christmas 2008, the rose garden was sprung from probation. "I have never seen involvement like this," then-rose society President Tom Carruth said at the time.