This Virginia Beach man cares for hundreds of roses, all at once

Matthew Gobla, Rosarian at Huntington Park Rose Garden, shears faded blooms off one of the 700-some bushes under his care. (Alison Johnson/HNNDaily)
Matthew Gobla, Rosarian at Huntington Park Rose Garden, shears faded blooms off one of the 700-some bushes under his care. (Alison Johnson/Southside Daily)

The job of a rose cultivator is always on the tricky side. But at the Huntington Park Rose Garden in Newport News, nothing topped the year that the deer invaded.

About 1½ years ago, a hungry herd began feasting on new flowers at the popular oasis off Warwick Boulevard, perhaps driven in by tree-clearing work nearby. They were undeterred by anything Rosarian Matthew Gobla tried, including fishing line barriers and mixtures of rotten eggs, dried deer blood and hot pepper sauce.

“It was devastating,” says Gobla, of Virginia Beach, who has maintained the three-acre garden since 2014. “Luckily they eventually moved along. Basically, I would choose any other problem over dealing with deer again.”

Open since 1970, the Rose Garden near the James River Bridge features approximately 700 bushes and 60 varieties of flowers, along with walkways, trellises and a central gazebo. Free to visitors, it also offers classes on rose care and charges just $100 for special event reservations, which draws about 20 couples to wed there each year.

“The reservation time is usually for the entire day, sun up to sunset,” notes Douglas Kennedy, superintendent of Parks Facilities, Maintenance and Landscape Services for Newport News Parks, Recreation & Tourism. “It is a beautiful place.”

Gobla’s job – and it’s a year-round task – is to keep it all looking beautiful.

High-maintenance blooms

The Rose Garden property was donated to Newport News in 1924 for recreational use and later became part of a since-razed housing development for shipbuilders during World War II.

Gobla is the only employee dedicated to rose care, although various Parks staffers pitch in on needed maintenance. A former curator at Norfolk Botanical Garden, he inherited a love of gardening from his grandmother and studied Landscape Horticulture in college. Roses, he notes, “are quite a challenge. On the other hand, seeing them bloom is such a big reward.” He works part time, about 29 hours a week.

May tends to be a particularly beautiful month at the Garden, after the first spring bloom. HNNDailyphoto/Courtesy of Matthew Gorba
May tends to be a particularly beautiful month at the Garden, after the first spring bloom. (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Matthew Gorba)

Rose bushes need fertilizing once or twice a year, pruning every February – or at least every other one – and regular “deadheading” to shear off faded flowers and promote new growth. Gobla’s busiest time is actually winter, when he prunes and fertilizes. The second-busiest is late May and early June, full of deadheading after the initial blooming cycle. Late fall is slow, mostly requiring only basic weeding.

Other than the occasional thorn prick – and one tick that Gobla found on his cheek during the deer episode – the biggest occupational hazard is the sun.

“Roses should be planted in full sun locations,” Gobla says. “So, lots of sunscreen, and always a hat.”

A challenging climate

Hampton Roads’ humid climate can be tough for roses, as some types are prone to fungal diseases. Those grew well here decades ago when fungicide sprays were cheaper and less controversial, but gardeners who don’t want to use toxic chemicals should consult with experts to avoid them. At Huntington, Gobla is gradually removing about 10 less disease-resistant varieties and relies only on occasional herbicides for tough weeds.

A lavender Poseidon rose in full bloom in July. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
A lavender Poseidon rose in full bloom in July. (Alison Johnson/Southside Daily)

That’s not all: Roses also are susceptible to rose rosette, an incurable viral disease spread by a wingless mite that deforms plants. Infected bushes need immediate removal. Japanese beetles can appear mid-summer, too, but gardeners generally can pick off bugs and drop them in soapy water to kill them. As for deer, Gobla doesn’t recommend roses at homes with nearby herds and no tall fencing.

Overwatering is a common rookie mistake, he adds: “Roses like a good drink of water in dry periods, like about a week of no rain, but they don’t like overly wet soil.”

The easiest roses for beginners are Knock Out, Pink Knock Out and My Girl, all shrubs with pink-hued blooms that are disease-resistant and more forgiving of lapses in fertilizing, pruning and deadheading. Two easier highly-fragrant types are lilac Orchid Romance and pink Savannah.

The Queen Elizabeth rose has a light, sweet fragrance. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
The Queen Elizabeth rose has a light, sweet fragrance. (Alison Johnson/Southside Daily)

As for Gobla, he lives in a townhouse in Virginia Beach and has just one rose bush.

“A Knock Out,” he says with a smile. “I’ve got enough roses to worry about.”

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John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.