My Garden: Rose Extravaganza in an Olive Grove
This magnificent rose garden was created on the site of a family olive grove, which has been owned by the same family for half a century. Located in the San Joaquin Valley, this olive grove was originally developed by the railroads, before recently being transformed into orange groves.
This truly spectacular rose garden is in California's San Joaquin Valley, at the base of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Owner Christopher Whelan, a lawyer, who now owns the farm along with his siblings, created the rose garden in an old olive grove that has been in his family for decades.
The roses—beautiful and extravagant—are part of a larger story of the land, which has slowly been transformed from a working olive grove into an orange grove, with these 10 acres left as family property.
Click to the next slide to start reading our Q&A with Christopher Whelan and to learn more about the remarkable story of these roses planted in an olive grove. —Claire Lui
Are you the owner of the garden? Do you live with anyone else?
I now own the surrounding grove and garden. It is in the original “home place” of our family farm. It is where I now escape to “stop and smell the roses.”
Before I planted the “new rose garden” in 2000, the property had a few roses planted by the original owners in the early 1900s, and roses planted by my mother soon after my parents purchased the grove and home in 1956.
How long has this property been in your family?
Over the years my parents acquired more acres of olive trees and at one time we had more than 400 acres of olives in California. We were extremely busy growing olives with little time for roses. However, now only the home place with the surrounding original 10 acre grove remains in the family.
I, my brother and my oldest sister are lawyers, and two sisters are teachers. My mom raised olives, lawyers, and teachers by herself after my father died in 1971.
What is the size of your garden?
The rose garden is spread out over approximately one acre in a 10 acre olive grove.
See more Bay Area gardens.
How would you describe the style of your garden?
There is a combination of formal and natural planting of roses. Some of the roses are controlled in well-maintained beds. Others grow in their natural form with hardly any pruning, and some of the climbers exuberantly grow into a few of the olive trees.
Did you work with a landscape architect?
No. I designed it, after a great deal of study of roses.
A Princess Grace of Monaco rose.
Did you have a sort of philosophy or mission statement in mind when planning your garden?
My philosophy and mission was to incorporate the new rose garden into the existing grove and make a rose garden that would have fit a farm house built in the early 1900s.
How has your new plantings been incorporated into the old garden plan?
It was also my goal to blend the rose garden of Old Garden Roses and David Austin roses into olive grove without taking out trees or destroying the original feel of the grove. I focused on very fragrant, disease resistant, and reblooming roses for the new rose garden.
'Ferdinand Pichard' rose
Can you tell us a little bit more about how the old garden and the new garden blend together?
Near the house a few olive trees were hit with verticillium wilt, and instead of cutting them down I used the framework of the old limbs to support climbing roses. I expanded the rose garden into the family garden area where we used to have a vegetable garden.
Fifty or so years ago this was the scene of intense competition between my younger brother and I as to who could grow the biggest watermelon and the tallest corn.
Lady Banks roses grow on the olive trees.
Does your garden have any unusual qualities, such as a unique location?
The olive grove is approximately 100 years old and one of few original old olive groves remaining in Tulare County, which is the heart of California’s olive industry. Approximately 4 years ago, 700 to 800 acres of similar old olive groves surrounding our farm were bulldozed out and replaced with new orange trees. That was a very sad time.
There was nothing we could do to stop the destruction of these ancient and still productive trees. The process was moving so fast we only able to find one person who could act fast enough to transplant some of the trees before they were ground up into sawdust.
Can you tell us about how the garden has changed over the years?
I loved growing up in a secluded “organized forest” with row after row of massive old olive trees as far as you could see. The openness created when the old olive trees were torn out and replaced with small oranges was hard to get used to, however, no blossom smells better than an orange blossom. The new orange trees are doing quite well and in about five years they should be a good size.
A view of the orange trees through a grove of olive trees.
Can you tell us the names of some of the plants you used in your garden?
The rose garden is almost entirely Old Garden Roses and David Austin roses.
The olive trees are almost 100 year-old California Missions that were grafted over to Sevillanos (those are the large olives) in the early 1960’s. In addition to the roses we also have oleanders, clematis, wave petunias, peonies, and a wild flower garden.
How old are the plants in your garden?
Some parts of the rose garden are very old. One Lady Banks is probably 80 to 90 years old. My mother’s additions are 40 to 50 years old. However, most of the roses I put in 10 years ago.
Whelan titled this photo: "Seconds before the attack by the giant red rose arch."
How would you describe this color palette?
Dark green and pastels of the roses against a backdrop of the green and gray of the olives.
Any particular challenges with this space?
Fortunately, growing a garden here is ideal. We have excellent soil, level ground, and good water and weather in Tulare County.
This county holds the distinction of being the most productive county in the United States in terms of agricultural revenues.
How do you think this garden reflects you and your family?
We are all show-offs! The garden in the springtime and the rest of us in front of a jury or in a classroom!
Can you tell us a little bit about the area?
It is in an exclusively agricultural area.
The main crops in the surrounding area include: olives, oranges, walnuts, almonds, prunes, pistachios, persimmons, figs, and pomegranate groves; vineyards of table grapes, raisins, and kiwis; and row crops of cotton, corn, grains, and melons.
Can you tell us a little about the history of your garden?
This area of about 900 to 1000 acres of olive groves was originally developed by the railroad almost 100 years ago. The railroad then provided 10 acre parcels to its employees for their retirements. The original owners were three sisters who worked for the railroad. In their early years they farmed by mule (for years we would find horseshoes in the groves) and they would go into town once a month by horse and wagon to get supplies.
The masterpiece is finished! Now how are you going to change it next year?
I plan to expand the garden and focus on trees and vines commercially grown in the area. They will be planted for their beauty from a landscape design perspective, but more importantly, also be productive and edible, such as pomegranates, fig trees, and grapevines, all of which surround us.
There are also plans to expand the garden in the next few years so it could be used for family events.
When were these photos taken?
Throughout the seasons during the last 3 years.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful garden with us!