Debbie Croft: English roses find a home in the Sierra Foothills

October 4, 2013 

Situated at 12600 Yankee Hill Road, outside the historic town of Columbia, is Rosemary’s Roses. This rose garden and nursery are a labor of love for an English woman named Rosemary Sawyer.

As a child she tagged along with the gardener and groundskeeper where her mother was employed, letting her love of roses bloom. All her life she’s enjoyed playing in the dirt.

Rosemary and her family moved to America when was 8 years old. Grateful for new opportunities, her family worked hard and raised Jersey cows.

Rosemary was a good student and a 4-H all-star. Several years later, at the California State Fair, a young man named Ron Sawyer saw Rosemary, the Jersey Queen, handing out ribbons. He instantly fell in love.

Everywhere they’ve lived, Rosemary always found space to grow roses.

When retiring to the foothills, they brought 320 roses with them.

On five acres of rugged, overgrown land stood a neglected Tudor-style home. The house caught Rosemary’s eye, of course.

She calls it Rose Manor at Thorny Bend.

“All English homes have names,” she said.

Clearing the land, planting new seeds and restoring the home took a few years. For her birthday one year, Ron bought her 30 yards of compost. She was thrilled.

Once her roses got established, she shared cuttings with friends and neighbors. It wasn’t long before they decided to start a business.

“She’s the rose person,” Ron said, “But I enjoy the roses just as much.”

“And we love welcoming people here,” Rosemary added.

The property is now the beautiful home to an orchard, a flowing fountain, sprawling grass lawn, a very tall fence – to inhibit deer from munching on all the greenery – and a garden and nursery of rare roses.

Engraved in steps behind the house, leading to the one-and-a-quarter acre garden, are lines of verses from Rosemary’s favorite poems.

The stairs, greenhouse, flag pole and gazebo were built by Ron.

The garden is separated into color-coded sections and divided by types. Paths were designed to follow the topography of the land. In front of each plant is a metal label containing the name, the type, the date of introduction and color.

Among the floribundas, grandifloras, polyanthas, miniatures, hybrid teas, minifloras, climbers and shrubs are blooms in almost 20 colors, plus multicolored and variegated. Rosemary claims each one is special and all are her favorites.

The garden contains over 1,400 rose bushes. Many are heritage or old garden roses, which are highly fragrant.

“Own-root roses have a much longer life than budded or grafted roses,” said Rosemary. “They can live up to 100 years or more.”

These roses also have a greater chance of surviving harsh winters. Although the branches may freeze to the ground, they will spring back from the roots and bloom the following summer. Budded/grafted rose plants will die from the cold and leave only rootstock.

Her David Austin English roses combine desired characteristics of old blooms with repeat-flowering of modern roses.

As a hybridizer, Rosemary has registered 18 roses, which are only available through her nursery.

She is an American Rose Society Accredited master rosarian and horticulture judge who can answer any question about roses. Her travels have taken her around the world to conferences in New Zealand, France and Japan.

She also established a local rose society.

Rosemary’s Roses is holding a fall open garden event. From Tuesday through Oct. 20, the garden and nursery will be open from 10a.m. to 4p.m. each day. For $5, visitors can tour the grounds and bring a picnic lunch to enjoy in the gazebo or at a table under the large oak tree.

The Rose Nursery is open year-round, where more than 600 roses are available for purchase.

Typically, the garden is open for private tours from May through October. Those interested in visiting should call ahead at (209)536-9415, to schedule an appointment. More information can be found at www.rosemarysroses.com.

“It’s impossible to have a formal garden in the Sierra foothills, but this is an informal, formal garden,” so says the owner of Tuolumne County’s largest rose garden.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at composed@tds.net.

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