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Woodland Park Rose Garden: A natural gem

Posted by: Kiley Jacques, Senior Rose Gardener

Whether you are a native Seattleite or a visitor to the area, if you haven’t made your way to the intersection of Fremont Ave and N. 50th St, you ought to add it to your list of things to do. It is there you will find the South Entrance to Woodland Park Zoo and one of Seattle’s oldest treasures.

Established in 1924, the city’s 2.5 acre Rose Garden was developed with the intention of serving as a “civic garden.” It was to be a place for urban dwellers to enjoy a serene respite as well as learn about roses that perform well in our Pacific Northwest climate. The garden has always had an educational aspect to it and, to this day, that mission remains strong.

At a time when issues of global environmental sustainability are at the fore, it is exciting to see efforts being made in our shared backyard. Here, in our beloved garden, we have implemented a new and holistic approach to natural landscape management. The idea is to look at the garden as an interrelated set of conditions all of which should work together to produce the healthiest possible environment for growing roses.

To this end, we began with our soil. The first step, no matter one’s ultimate gardening goals, is to test the existing soil to determine just what growing medium has been established. Different plants have different needs so it is essential to find out what you have in order to know what you need to do (or not do) to create the right conditions for optimal plant health. We have consulted soil experts and continue to test our soil every 3 months. It is important to keep track of changes in the soil’s chemistry and biology to determine if things are moving in the right direction. The key to healthy soil is the right balance and availability of nutrients (for the intended “crop”), proper pH levels, the existence and activity status of beneficial microorganisms, and good moisture content. These are difficult things to measure without professional guidance so I recommend our visitors contact for their individual testing needs.

We have also considered the specific needs of roses. In addition to healthy soil, they prefer deep watering and good drainage, warm/dry temperatures (not always the case in the PNW!), regular fertilization, proper pruning for maximum air circulation, winter protection, and seasonal upkeep. We have thus, among other things, switched to an underground watering system; we choose varieties that do well in our temperate climate (and continue to replace those that prove otherwise); we apply pulverized fish fertilizer in small doses each week (much as we take supplemental daily vitamins rather than large singular doses of found deficiencies); we prune very hard at the end of February to remove all diseased foliage from the garden and encourage lots of new growth each Spring; we mulch all crowns each fall to prevent freezing; and, of course, we deadhead, deadhead, deadhead in order to provide our visitors with the longest show possible.

I am often asked how we control insect pests. It is an easy question to answer: we don’t have any pests. When a landscape’s natural life forms and cycles are left alone, a balance of prey/predator is usually the result. That is the case in our garden. Black spot, on the other hand, well…it’s our arch nemesis! So, what do we do? We concentrate on plant health care and control what we can. When disease sets in, we get rid of the worst of its victims and tolerate a certain level of imperfection. Rust, Powdery Mildew, and Rose Mosaic Virus make brief appearances during the growing season, but they are usually restricted to a few isolated varieties (which we may ultimately eliminate if they begin to succumb entirely or their aesthetic value is too seriously compromised). Remember: a picture perfect rose is most likely doused in pesticides. Which would you rather, a bit of Black Spot or a toxic environment?

This may all seem very labor intensive but, truth be told, roses are pretty hardy and they do most of the work on their own. With our overall view of the garden as a whole system, we take it one step at a time, one season at a time. We have every reason to believe our new approach is working. For proof, come to the garden and see for yourself!

Photos by Agnes Overbaugh and Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.


Anonymous said…
Kiley, you do an awesome job in the Rose Garden! Keep up the good work.