Saving the roses


Our rose garden

We might have lost our Centennial Rose Garden, which has been maintained by volunteers from the Olympia Rose Society (ORS) since 1988. Have you ever visited the rose garden? It is located next to the historic Schmidt House in Tumwater.

The garden includes species cultivated in Ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia; bushes grown from cuttings that traveled the Oregon Trail; bushes popular when Washington became a state, and contemporary roses such as the "All American" by the American Rose Society; hybrid perpetuals, and China Roses. It started with 100 bushes from the old community center, 100 bushes donated by local nurseries, and 100 heritage bushes. It is one of the few remaining projects completed in the Washington Centennial Celebration.

The garden now contains a collection of more than 230 bushes, including 63 varieties. Represented are some of the finest examples of Hybrid Tea, Grandiflora, and Floribunda roses as well as Shrubs, Polyanthas, Miniatures, and Heritage roses.

They promised a rose garden

The Olympia Rose Society created the garden in 1978-80 at the old Olympia community/senior center. They moved it to the Schmidt House in 1988. The next year, 1989, it was crowned the Centennial Rose Garden and dedicated to the state’s centennial celebration, with First Lady Jean Gardner as the honored guest speaker. In 1991, the Centennial Garden Foundation was formed to fund and provide volunteer labor through ORS, to maintain the garden.

Lovingly tended

The garden has been tended by Olympia Rose Society members for 45 years, from the detailed work of rose pruning to fundraising for an eight-foot fence to deter flower-eating deer. Its membership literally “aged out,” and the society closed its books in April 2023.

A rosy idea

When the ORS dissolved, the garden was orphaned. Since it exists on the grounds of the Schmidt House, which is owned by the Olympia Tumwater Foundation (OTF), arrangements were made to transfer ownership from ORS to OTF. Dr. Gary Ritchie, the other few remaining society members, and OTF Curator Karen Johnson were concerned for the garden's legacy. Rose gardens need tending. How could OTF manage? They came up with a brilliant idea for a new program and with the support of the OTF, took off.

In the search for new volunteers, Gary and Karen contacted the Master Gardeners of Thurston County (MGs). Midge Price, president of the MGs, saw that the rose gardeners and the MGs had many aligned interests. After an introductory meet-and-greet at the Schmidt House, Gary and the few remaining members of the Olympia Rose Society, who have, over the years, tended the rose garden, are sharing their expertise with Thurston County Master Gardeners. Both the old and new volunteers are each assigned their own bed of roses to maintain for public display.

A great team

Whether a long-time fan or as of yet uninitiated, please join me in giving thanks to a great team:  Gary, the Rose Doctor; OTF Curator Karen Johnson; local Master Gardeners volunteers; and the remaining former members of the Olympia Rose Society, which operated from 1954 to 2023. Currently, the Centennial Rose Garden team includes: Midge Price; Ron Backman*; Barb and Rod Baker; Pat Ream*; Bill Hansen*; Charley Barron; Dorothy Taylor; Doreen Milward*; Gary and Marilyn Ritchie*; and Paula Nelson*.

(*Asterisks indicate former ORS members who have volunteered in the garden for up to 35 years, and the others are Master Gardeners now stepping up to the plate.)

Gary explained, “We currently have 10 beds in the Centennial Garden and each one is tended by a person or couple. We could use a few more volunteers!”

More about Gary

They say that a person who loves his job never works a day, which may apply here. Since 1980, Gary, a professional biologist and Master Rosarian, has served the Rose Society in a number of leadership roles, even assuring the proper legal dissolution at the end.

After receiving a Ph.D. in forest biology from the University of Washington and serving two years of active duty in the US Army, he joined the staff of the Weyerhaeuser Company in Tacoma.

His career appointments included environmental impact analyst (US Army Corps of Engineers), senior research scientist in forest ecology and reforestation (Weyerhaeuser Company), and formerly Affiliate Professor of Forest Resources (University of Washington).

He worked 29 years as a PhD research biologist in plant physiology and ecology for Weyerhaeuser. During that time, he edited several books and published over 150 conference proceedings papers, book chapters, and scientific reports - many in refereed (peer-reviewed) journals. He also served as a reviewer for seven international plant science journals. In 1976, he was awarded a Congressional Science Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He retired in 2001 as Senior Scientist.

Around the rose bush

Gary has grown roses in the Olympia area for 45 years. He was among the first to be recognized by the American Rose Society as a Master Rosarian in 2004. In 2007, Gary was named the “Outstanding Consulting Rosarian” for the Pacific Northwest District and was subsequently awarded both the Bronze and Silver Honor Medals by the American Rose Society. For close to 25 years, he has written a popular column called “Inside Roses” for the American Rose Magazine and has written quarterly columns on Rose Science in the Northwest Rosarian. He has also been giving lectures on roses and plant science throughout the northwest for a couple of decades.

In 2020, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest District of the American Rose Society, and in 2021 a Presidential Citation from Robert Martin, ARS President.

Two books

He has recently written two books, available through Inside Plants: A Gardeners' Guide to Plant Anatomy and Physiology and The Rose Doctor: A Key for Diagnosing Problems in the Rose Garden.

And, yes, gardening

Gary and his wife, Marilyn, the parents of two adult children, live on the shores of Puget Sound near Olympia, where they enjoy boating, sea kayaking, model aviation, hiking, traveling, and, yes, gardening.

Watch in early summer for the re-opening of the Centennial Rose Garden at the Schmidt House, 330 Schmidt Place, Tumwater, WA, just off Custer Way. It is free and open to the public daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Shirley Stirling, of Lacey, writes about good things people in Thurston County are doing. If you’d like to nominate someone to be profiled, contact her at or comment below.


2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • PeteKmet

    Thank you, Shirley, for helping to preserve a piece of Tumwater's History.

    and thank you to all the volunteers that are maintaining this priceless gem!

    Monday, December 4, 2023 Report this

  • *What a delightful article! Thank you, Shirley!

    Monday, December 4, 2023 Report this