All You Need Is Love

Volunteers bring life back to Historic Rose Garden

By Anita Clevenger
April 2020

The renaissance of the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery is a remarkable volunteer success story. In the words of the Cemetery Master Plan, the cemetery was “barren and lifeless” until volunteers transformed a “neglected burial ground to a vibrant historic cemetery that is a horticultural attraction.”

The plan states a vision for the historic cemetery, recognizing three major areas devoted to gardens: Historic Rose Garden, Hamilton Square Perennial Garden and California Native Plant Demonstration Garden.

When I started volunteering in the rose garden 18 years ago, the cemetery was full of life. Not only did volunteers work in the three gardens, they cared for hundreds of other adopted plots. Volunteers welcomed and assisted visitors, and conducted an active program of history and garden tours, classes and events.

Founded in 1992, the rose garden is a collection of more than 500 roses from historic sites throughout California that are allowed to grow large in the style of 19th century pioneer plot cemeteries. Old roses and Victorian funerary statuary and monuments are a perfect combination.

The rose garden was one of the most inspiring, beautiful and romantic spots I had ever known. Climbing roses clambered up trees, extended over arbors, wrapped around tripods and fountained over supports. A team of volunteers continuously tended the garden, working to preserve its living library of roses, educate the public about them and add beauty to the cemetery. The garden received two international awards for this outstanding effort. One of its many foreign visitors, the president of the United Kingdom’s Royal National Rose Society, said it well: “I feel surrounded by love.” 

My son and daughter-in-law were married beneath their favorite cemetery rose arbor last April. Many wedding guests expected a somber, funereal atmosphere. Instead, they were stunned by the beauty of the setting.

Most of the wedding guests didn’t realize that city staff had directed the removal of all supports and climbing plants from the cemetery several years earlier, and set requirements to move, remove or cut back many other plants. Their rationale was questioned during heated statements to the Preservation Commission. Rose lovers throughout the world pleaded for the roses to be saved. Staff agreed to a moratorium until revised horticultural guidelines were developed cooperatively.

The good news is that a much-improved set of guidelines was finally approved a year ago. The bad news is they were never implemented. This past winter, staff brought in an outside rosarian who vigorously pruned all of the roses in the collection. The climbing roses within the cemetery were cut back severely, and most of their supports were removed.

Roses are tough. They will grow back, some stronger than ever. However, the amount of bloom will be significantly less this spring, and the beauty and romance of the garden may never be the same.

The wedding guests also didn’t realize that cemetery volunteers were under siege, with staff demanding that volunteers sign a very restrictive agreement that included a gag order. I could not bring myself to sign it, and was dismissed as a volunteer the day before the wedding. Other garden volunteers throughout the cemetery chose to leave, feeling that their efforts were neither appreciated nor supported. Staff got the control they wanted, but at a steep cost.

A few rose garden volunteers proved they are as tough as the roses. They signed the agreement and continued to work in the garden, hoping to preserve the roses and beauty of this unique garden, develop a cooperative relationship with staff and rebuild a volunteer team. I and others supported them behind the scenes, advising and helping to plan and conduct tours and events sponsored by our parent nonprofit, the Old City Cemetery Committee.

We’ve propagated some of the best roses from the collection for the annual Open Gardens and Rose Sale, scheduled for April 18–19. Every year, people line up excitedly waiting for the sale to begin.

Even though its gardens are diminished, the cemetery is still a beautiful and historic place. It can have a renaissance once again if staff embraces history, horticulture and volunteers in accordance with the Master Plan. Roses can regrow. New and better supports can be installed. Volunteers can be encouraged once again. All you need is love.

The Open Gardens and Rose Sale will be Saturday, April 18, from 9:30 a.m.–2 pm, and Sunday, April 19, from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. at the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery at 1000 Broadway. For a catalog of plants for sale and schedule of events, visit or the Facebook page.

The next UC Master Gardener Open Garden will be Wednesday, April 15, from 9 a.m.–noon at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center at 11549 Fair Oaks Blvd. in Fair Oaks.

Anita Clevenger is a platinum Sacramento County Master Gardener. For answers to gardening questions, contact the UC Master Gardeners at (916) 876-5338 or, or visit Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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