April 3, 2017Vol. 47, Issue 5

Beautiful Blooms Celebrate 60 Years

The George Petersen Rose Garden turns 60 this spring

Horticulturalist George F. Petersen envisioned a beautiful rose garden beyond his own backyard, and in 1957 his vision became a reality on the Chico State College campus.

Purple tiger. Cherry Vanilla. Tropicana. 

The varieties sound as intoxicating as their beautiful blossoms in the peak of bloom. As the George Petersen Rose Garden celebrates its 60th anniversary this spring, its pleasant pathways are as picturesque as ever and as much a beloved part of campus as when they were planted six decades ago.

“Having the responsibility of maintaining and improving the grounds and landscape at Chico State is, at the same time, the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career and proving to be more rewarding than I could have imagined,” said Mike Alonzo, supervisor of grounds and landscape services, on one of the first days of spring.

“The Petersen rose garden is a highlight of this campus, and I will always enjoy watching people strolling through the garden, taking pictures of blooms, watching the bees buzz around, or just soaking in the serene feeling,” he said.

The rose garden first sprouted as an idea by horticulturalist George F. Petersen, who dreamed of a place he could garden beyond his own backyard. The son of John Bidwell’s groundskeeper, a green thumb was likely in his genes—he owned Lindo Nursery from 1909 to 1948, when he sold it to Christian and Johnson Co., and continued to plant private rose gardens for people in his retirement.

Following his proposal for a rose garden at Chico State College, supervising groundskeeper Richard Pessner helped design and plant 400 bushes in 1957 where a cafeteria once stood.

Today, the garden includes 378 plants of more than 60 varieties of hybrid teas, floribundas and grandifloras. They offer not only a vibrant splash of color but an intoxicating smell and picture-perfect place for campus portraits.

None of today’s plants are Petersen originals, but they share similar lineage and popular varieties, such as the iconic red Mr. Lincoln, Chrysler Imperial, and Perfume Delight.

“Some are preserved in a manner that has that feel that the garden has been here since inception,” Alonzo said. “We leave some larger gnarly looking ones to give that impression.”

Every winter, weeks before the spring semester starts, Facilities Management and Services (FMS) brings in a full crew to mass-prune the roses back to their bare canes, creating squat thorny frames absent of any hint of the breathtaking beauty to come. While clearing the way for healthy new growth, the crew sets aside cuttings for anyone who wants to start a garden of their own.

“I owe a great deal of respect to my staff who come together each winter to cut the garden back to prepare it for the spring. Most of them come back with bloodied arms and hands, and a some of them even have a smile on their face,” Alonzo said. “And I owe it to the groundsworkers who have curated the garden before me, and to our current gardening specialist to say that without them, the garden would not look as great as it does today.”

Juan Villegas and Feven Mebrahto take a stroll through the rose garden during the 2016 Choose Chico! event.

Juan Villegas and Feven Mebrahto take a stroll through the rose garden during the 2016 Choose Chico! event.

Garden specialist Jeff Miles is charged with the garden’s care, its third caretaker in 30 years. He checks in a few mornings each week, yanking weeds, clipping flowers, snipping old blossoms before rose hips develop, and checking for insects, rust fungi, and powdery mildew.

His devotion rewards the campus with showy blooms from spring to November. By mid-March, tender new leaves and tiny buds burst forth from canes that had been barren just weeks before.

Alonzo is perhaps most proud that in the last two seasons, the garden has transitioned to a more organic approach. Miles makes a tea to spray the tops and undersides of the bushes to combat pests and disease.

“Like any other garden, we battle aphids and fungus, or need to replace bushes as they age out,” Alonzo said, noting that the tea has been surprisingly successful for pest control, and, like fading blooms, the roses eventually push past their peak and need to be replaced.

The garden also underwent a modern irrigation upgrade this winter. Instead of upright sprinklers that could cause unsightly spotting on the leaves and foster fungus and other problems due to high humidity, a small buried irrigation system now waters the bushes more directly and efficiently, and that moisture will be retained with the addition of new leaf mulch FMS has been composting on the west side of campus.

Eventually, Alonzo, who is a member of the Butte County Rose Society, would love to put in a map that shows which bushes are what variety so people know which ones they prefer. But public picking of roses remains strictly off-limits.

“Everyone knows you just don’t do it,” Alonzo said, noting that Miles is happy to share the blooms as he prunes if someone stops and asks.

For those itching to admire additional roses, Alonzo is quick to note the campus has several less-famous but still fabulous rose gardens, including those at Sapp Hall, Nettleton Stadium, Aymer J. Hamilton, Modoc Hall, and a test garden at the FMS yard.

Press kit art for the film .Stories in Thread: A Tapestry of Hmong Identity.


Brian Brazeal, Anthropology, was the executive producer on Stories in Thread: A Tapestry of Hmong Identity, a student film by Tamara Maxey. Read more.

video still showing campus with a Together We Will banner in the foreground.

Together We Will

On the occasion of her inauguration, President Gayle E. Hutchinson made a bold statement about her vision for inclusive excellence. Watch video.