Pt. Defiance Park Rose Garden

and TRS

The pagoda at the Pt. Defiance Rose Garden in Tacoma WA

Treat Yourself to a Visit to the Pt. Defiance Park Rose Garden

A wonderful rose garden is ready and waiting for you in Tacoma, Washington and admission is free.  The Point Defiance Park Rose Garden is the centerpiece of one of the great urban parks in our country.  Point Defiance Park has an area of 700 acres that overlook Puget Sound and the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge.  Visitors are drawn to the park by a myriad of attractions, including a zoo, an aquarium, a small marina, running & hiking trails,  in old growth forests, spectacular viewpoints overlooking Puget Sound, and of course exceptional gardens dedicated to the special plants that thrive in the region.

As rose lovers, your initial interest will undoubtedly be in the Pt. Defiance Park Rose Garden.  The rose garden covers approximately 2 acres and features a designed garden planted with over 2200 roses, primarily of modern types.  There are approximately 250 varieties in the garden.  The Pt. Defiance Park Rose Garden is a public garden that participated in the AARS Display Garden program for almost the program’s entire existence.

You will still find most of the roses awarded ‘All-America’ status during the last 25 years growing in the garden with other cultivars selected because they grow particularly well in our climate.  The Tacoma Rose Society provides both advice and volunteer labor in participation with Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma.

To reap the greatest benefit from a visit to the Pt. Defiance Rose Garden, you need to know a bit of history of the park.  The land that forms Pt. Defiance Park is roughly triangular in shape with its northern and western boundaries at the shoreline of Puget Sound.  This point of land known as Pt. Defiance has steep, high banks – and overlooks the narrowest passage in Puget Sound.  In the 1860’s this land was set aside as a military reservation.  The city of Tacoma developed several miles away in an area more suitable for industries relying on ships for transport of goods and materials. 

In 1888, Tacoma received permission to use Pt. Defiance as a park.  To the citizens of Tacoma the wild land of Pt. Defiance was far away, and a visit was a real adventure.  By 1890 a street car line was transporting the citizens of Tacoma to the park.  The United States government retained ownership of the land until 1905 when it was deeded to the City of Tacoma.  In 1914, a historic park building, the Pagoda, was built as a street car terminal at what was the end of the line overlooking the Sound at the edge of Pt. Defiance Park.

The current rose garden developed as the refinement of vision by the first Superintendent of Pt. Defiance Park, E. R. Roberts.  In 1895, Roberts put out an appeal to students to bring rose cuttings from home to be rooted and planted in the park.  The newspapers of the day report that the number of cuttings exceeded 100,000 of more that 60 varieties.  For a city with a population of 37,000 these are staggering numbers. 

The Metropolitan Park Board was formed in 1907 to oversee Tacoma’s park system.  They commissioned an update to the Park  master plan by its original architect, S. J. Hare. Following up on Hare’s report, Park Superintendent G. A. Hill created the design for a rose garden featuring beds formed on the arcs of concentric circles.

“beds will be labeled so visitors will have little trouble in learning what kind of flowers fare best in this climate.  There may be in this collection some kinds of roses which have not been given thorough trials in Tacoma.  This garden will prove an experiment ground  in a way.  People can come here this summer and see how the roses grow.  Here the roses will have no special advantages other than those which must be had to expect good results, such as care and soil”
Front Page Story from the Tacoma Daily Ledger Newspaper – April 13, 1913 edition

Though a century old, Hills’ original vision contains all our contemporary goals for a public rose garden.  The garden should provide a source of beauty and inspiration, an opportunity to reflect and learn, and ideally, a place to joyfully experience all these things in an open and inviting place.

An arbor featuring early ramblers and climbing roses is all that remains from the 1890’s garden, but the current garden is an enlarged version of the first designed rose garden planted in 1912.  The garden is roughly circular in form, is planted on a symmetrically sloped knoll, and now has a majestic, rustic gazebo at its center.  Looking from the lower edges of the garden toward the gazebo one is treated to a view of colorful waves of wonderful roses cresting at the central structure surrounded by climbing roses as pillars. 

Looking downward from the gazebo, one’s eyes are led through the central rose garden and outward to other gardens featuring fuschias, dahlias, herbs, a magnificent lawn bordered by annual flowers and, of course, more roses.  The additional roses are found in another circular rose garden bordered by the original rose arbor and featuring miniatures and minifloras with a wishing well as a central feature.

These views provide a feast for the eyes with an accompanying treat of varied fragrances!  The simplicity of this design is in harmony with the natural beauty that is characteristic of the park.  There are no buildings of modern design visible from the rose garden.  The nearby structures include the Superintendent’s Lodge, built in 1897, and the Pagoda, which opened in 1914.  Currently the plantings feature groupings of multiple specimens of each cultivar, placed so the colors compliment rather than clash.  A look in any direction provides a rainbow of colors.

The Tacoma Rose Society, founded in 1911, and the Pt. Defiance Rose Garden, planted in 1912, grew up together. Leaders of the Rose Society also served as elected members of the Metropolitan Park Board. In the mid-1980s an outside organization called attention to the decline of the rose garden; it was still beautiful on a macro scale, but it needed some serious work to restore the heath of the garden and its plants.

The leadership of the Metropolitan Park District reached out to the Tacoma Rose Society and the two groups decided the best way to facilitate the renovation of the Pt. Defiance Rose Garden was to create a regular process of communication between the two groups and to allow rose society volunteers to assist with the routine work in the garden. A decision was made to completely rebuild the main rose garden over a four year period. The rebuilding started in 1987, and in 1989 the results from the first two years were so impressive that the last half of the garden was redone that year.

The Metro Parks staff has always had individuals with a great deal of education and experience in horticulture. They performed and supervised the hard work of rebuilding the garden, and an advisory committee of members of the Tacoma Rose Society made recommendations about rose varieties that would do particularly well in our climate as a compliment to the All-American varieties.

During the rebuilding period, many volunteers from the rose society became active participants in the care of Pt. Defiance Rose Garden. It soon became clear that all signs were pointing toward improvements beyond our wildest dreams. A ceremony to rededicate the rose garden was held in the summer of 1990. Like the garden renovation, the ceremony and the following celebration were spectacular.

Buoyed by the efforts of both Metro Parks and the Tacoma Rose Society, it was natural to keep all of the volunteer activities going. For about the next five years, there was no reason to suspect that another “opportunity for growth” was just around the corner. A large tract of undeveloped land bordering Pt. Defiance Park was sold to a developer of a housing tract. Much of the land was cleared, and this displaced a herd of native deer.

Since there were no fences protecting the park, the deer just moved down the street to what, for them, was a great new home – complete with a salad bar of succulent roses. We knew we had a problem and public sentiment was apt to be on the side of the deer. After trying motion activated lights, sounds, and sprays of water with little or no success, we even tried a security guard with a dog. None of these fast and low-cost “remedies” worked.

In an encouraging demonstration of their belief in the value of the rose garden, to Pt. Defiance Park and the Tacoma Community, the board of Metro Parks approved the purchase and installation of a fence that would be tall enough to keep out the deer, that would allow easy access to those wanting/needing to be in the garden and that would neither shade the roses, nor interfere with the natural appearance of the park. The fence, 10 feet in height and 1200 feet in length, was installed in 1997. The fence has done an excellent job in meeting all the needs listed above, even though volunteers see deer grazing just across a park road from the garden.

In the renovation period, a practice of purchasing varieties suited to our area instead of focusing mainly on the All-Americas was instituted. The Tacoma Rose Society continues to work hard to raise the funds needed to sustain the process of planting roses best suited to our climate. Fundraising is important, but of far greater value to the rose garden is the amount of volunteer work done in and for the garden by individuals from the Rose Society and the general public. These volunteers all feel they receive more than they give.

If you ask any rose enthusiast in the Tacoma area where they will be on the first Saturday of March, they will immediately say ” I’ll be reporting for pruning duty in the Pt. Defiance Park Rose Garden.” By this date there is a low likelihood of any additional hard Spring freezes so it is safe to prune. The day kicks off with an educational session for all interested attendees. Experienced teachers cover the rationale and techniques of pruning. Questions are answered and everyone is given an opportunity to join in the fun of pruning. With 35 to 50 volunteers, the job is finished by noon.

If it is true that an army runs on its stomach, it is no less true for an army of rose garden volunteers. We have apotluck lunch in the historic Pt. Defiance Park Superintendent’s Lodge enjoying great food and fun with our pruning buddies. It is no wonder that people keep returning year after year.

In the summer, from mid-June until after Labor Day, volunteers meet each Thursday from 4 to 6 pm to deadhead, and to generally make sure the garden is ready for the increased number of visitors during the weekend. We also keep a close watch for any problems that need our attention, or the attention of a park horticulturalist.

These late afternoon sessions are publicized, and we attract new volunteers and members of the community who bring questions about growing rose. The Rose Garden is the perfect place to deal with these questions – like being in a living library of examples and answers. When the work is finished, all who are interested go to a fast food restaurant to continue discussions that began in the park that day or a month ago. We need to keep that army of volunteers well fed!

The Tacoma Rose Society raises funds to support the rose garden and its mission by holding a plant sale on the third weekend of March. Of course, the featured plants are roses, with a supporting cast of perennials, shrubs, and trees that are popular with local gardeners. All the plants are donated from rose society members, members of the community, and nurseries we support with our patronage. The proceeds from the sale go to the purchase of new and replacement roses and also for other rose garden needs.

As an affiliate of the American Rose Society, the Tacoma Rose Society takes its educational mission seriously. Our work in the park rose garden creates many opportunities to fulfill this mission. Metro Parks Tacoma also has an educational mission that they take most seriously.

One of their goals is to have informative and educational signs placed in all of the significant features of their parks. The Tacoma Rose Society created and paid for such a sign, and it was unveiled in the early summer of 2012. The sign provides brief information on rose types and cultural practices and contains what is hoped will be a timeless reference to further information on the TRS website.

TRS deadheaders with our new sign

A quote from Hare’s 1911 Pt. Defiance Park Master Plan is used in documents related to the centennial of the park. Though the quote refers to a specific park, the overarching sentiments are broadly applicable.

20″Probably no other city in this country has such a beautiful natural park. Its setting and relation to the city are unique and ideal . . . every citizen of Tacoma should feel it is a duty and a privilege to become one of its guardians.”
Hare’s 1911 Pt. Defiance Park Master Plan

Along with regularly experiencing the beauty of the Pt. Defiance Rose Garden, the volunteers also gain inspiration from the friendship of fellow volunteers, the opportunities for learning and education, and upon reflection, the sense of satisfaction associated with being a guardian of a valuable and most special place. We can hope that we are but a very intermediate link in a chain of guardians that will extend beyond the foreseeable future. We are given these gifts by our special rose garden, and we know that other ARS members across the country receive the very same gifts from those public gardens in which they serve.

Sources: Barbara & Bruce Lind, Metro Parks Tacoma, TRS Members, Tacoma Historical Society