Your Ultimate Guide to Cultivating Gorgeous Roses, According to a Flower Farmer Who Grows Them for a Living
Gracie Paulson's childhood dream of having an intimate rose garden just like her grandma's grew into something far greater: Today she has 10 acres of breathtaking organic blossoms that floral designers order by the truckload. She shares her path from nine-to-fiver to California flower farmer, and her tips for cultivating your own blooms.
Gracie Paulson's great adventure started innocently enough. In 2012, after 12 years as a digital marketing and brand development specialist in New York and New Jersey, she moved back to California near her hometown of Pasadena, aka the City of Roses, the site of the Rose Bowl. She had missed the West Coast and couldn't wait to plant a garden. "I wanted it to be filled with as many roses as we could fit, with sage and lavender in between," says Paulson, who has been obsessed with the flower since spending time in her grandma's and uncle's plots as a kid, picking her favorites out of their large collections to carry around with her in a basket. "They're so feminine and romantic," she says. "Their fragrance is unlike anything else." Sticking to a tight budget, she and her husband, Ryan, a jazz musician, spent weekends resuscitating their three-quarter-acre yard in Thousand Oaks, which offered little more than dead shrubs and a broken irrigation system when they bought the property. The pair quickly planted around 500 rose bushes.
In the spring of 2016 (roses start blooming in April in Southern California), Paulson got her first inkling that she had a gift. She’d started posting images on Instagram, and local florists began messaging her. Ever on the hunt for varieties with more character than imports ("no personality and grown with too many chemicals," Paulson explains), they wanted to know if her stunners were for sale. "I was like, 'No, no, no. I have a career. This is a hobby,'" she recalls. But after giving bouquets to several designers who reached out and being told they were the nicest they'd ever seen, something clicked, and the couple took a giant leap of faith: She quit her job in 2017, and they rented two acres of nearby farmland and quickly learned how to package, process, and ship perishable goods. If gardening at home had been a challenge, farming proved much tougher. The couple worked 18-hour days, seven days a week, harvesting blooms, running back and forth to the house, and staying up well past midnight answering emails. But it was worth it. "Looking back, it was a really magical year," she says. "It was just us. I cut every stem with my own hands."
Five thousand bushes, around a hundred varietals, and about a hundred orders a week later, the couple still couldn't meet demand. So two years ago, they moved to a 10-acre former horse ranch in Santa Ynez, in the charming flatlands of Santa Barbara County. Grace Rose Farm now grows 26,000 plants, ships nationwide wholesale and retail, and employs 15 people at the height of the season. Ryan still runs the farm operations, while Paulson keeps her nails cleaner, channeling her other skill sets: branding and business strategy. She's still waiting on that dream garden— the land just outside her house is still bare, no lavender or sage. But she certainly did get her roses. "They took over," she says. "Just not in a way I'd ever imagined."
Cream of the Crop
An Embarrassment of Riches
Of the many varieties Paulson grows—some of which are labeled here—she says "Evelyn" roses, another David Austin cultivar, are unparalleled. "I believe this is his best rose," Paulson says. "No other smells as remarkable."
A Labor of Love
Paulson and her husband, Ryan, stroll down a path lined on either side with "Evelyn."
Tips of the Trade
Paulson is a pro when it comes to growing roses—and her sage tips will help your own flourish. First, she recommends giving the plants at least eight hours of direct sun. Find the brightest spot you've got, and put them in the ground once all chance of frost has passed.
You also have to set them up for success: Dig a hole twice as big as the roots, and backfill with a mixture of native soil and compost. Roses grow in anything, admits Paulson, but they thrive with good drainage and plenty of organic matter. Then, serve them a feast. In addition to fish emulsion, compost, and organic granular fertilizer, Paulson swears by nitrogen-rich alfalfa pellets, which she purchases from her area farm-supply store. She follows a schedule she learned from local rose-society pals, feeding on four major holidays: Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day.
And while roses can handle some drought, but do best when they're kept evenly moist. Dig your fingers down a few inches. If the soil is dry, it's time to water. As for pest control? Home growers don't need chemicals for great roses, says Paulson. Since hers have to be picture-perfect, she relies on organic repellents, including horticultural oil in the winter and spinosad, a bacterium that keeps insects at bay, during the growing season. At the end of the season, Paulson suggests cleaning up any fallen leaves and adding a fresh layer of mulch to minimize overwintering pests and disease.
Cut and Enjoy
Here, Paulson harvests the cultivar "Love Song." For maximum vase life, she cuts flowers when the sepals (the five leaf-shaped structures around the flower) bend down but the petals are still closed. She recommends giving stems a fresh snip at an angle once they're indoors, and changing the water daily. If kept out of direct sun, they should last up to six days.