Peter Kukielski is the former curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden and the author of “Roses Without Chemicals: 150 Disease-Free Varieties That Will Change the Way You Grow Roses,” published by Timber Press in February. He’s also a new year-round resident of Maine, with homes in Portland and Cushing and a fledgling consulting business. We called him up to talk about how he became a rose expert, what he’s planting this spring and how he manages to grow roses entirely without chemicals.

GEORGIA ROSE: When and how did this rose obsession start? “Do you have two days?” Kukielski said with a laugh. Kukielski grew up in Tucker, Georgia, and went to school to be an actuary. He even practiced it for a few years, but they were dark times. “I had a 10-year stint in my life where my family was sick and dying,” he said. His father got sick, then his grandfather, then his mother and finally his sister. He was just 30. “I remember waking up and thinking, ‘I don’t have anyone else to take care of anymore, and I don’t know what to do with my life.'” He decided to do “something that was beautiful after being through something that was not beautiful.” Along came flowers and working toward a landscape design degree.

RUN FOR THE ROSES: He got a job in Atlanta with a landscaping company, a big one, that catered to the owners of high-end apartment buildings. The manager of the company asked one day, “Does anyone know anything about roses?” A client had a very troubled rose garden, maybe 25 pathetic plants. “I raised my hand,” Kukielski said. What he knew came from his grandparents. “I just remember them puttering around with their roses. If my grandmother had been a knitter, I probably would have learned knitting.” By the time he left the job with that Atlanta landscaping company, that once-troubled rose garden had 1,000 blooming roses. His manager asked him what he did. “I said I gave them water and fertilizer and some of my grandmother’s love.”

IS THAT ALL? Gardeners who aspire to grow roses often end up disappointed, Kukielski said. They spot some stunning rose in a catalog, order it and then watch it die. The next year they get the same catalogue, are enticed again and try again. “You sing to them and dance to them and then what happens? They die again,” Kulkielski said. “I tell people, ‘I get it. I have been there.'” But, he said, it doesn’t have to be that way. “My point is that a rose is a rose is not a rose. Maybe in Maine, we don’t try to grow the same roses as in Florida.” Intense hybridization methods have made it hard for roses to adapt to growing in different areas. “Roses have been around 34 million years,” Kulkielski said. “They are a tough plant. It’s just that we messed them up.”

FORM OVER FUNCTION: The idealized rose in the mid-19th century was one with a very pointed bud, the classically romantic rose form, with petals tightly wound together. But roses in nature have only five petals (think of Maine’s omnipresent rosa rugosa, which Kukielski describes as “a great example of genetics developed toward a regional climate”). The modern hybrid is far from a five-petal affair. “We’ve tucked it. We’ve nipped it. We’ve stitched it. We’ve done everything possible to that form.” As a result, roses tend to be highly temperamental. “Right now you buy a rose and right next to it, there is a bottle of fungicide.” But by studying rose genetics, he developed ways to choose roses that are disease-resistant within specific climates. That’s how he succeeded without chemicals, he said.

IF HE CAN GROW IT THERE: After a decade in the horticulture business in Atlanta, Kukielski was ready for a new challenge. He found it at the New York Botanical Garden, where he became the curator of the rose garden. Once again, he eliminated the roses that weren’t going to work in the Bronx and planted hundreds of new varieties that could handle a New York winter. “That was the mission,” he said. His successful tinkering, gradually weaning the collection off pesticides by replacing plants with new varieties, earned him a national reputation – the New York Times described him as “in the vanguard of a national movement.” The relocation to Maine year-round has taken him away from the Rockefeller garden, but he’s definitely not done with horticulture professionally. He plans to consult (visit his website, millennialrosegarden.com for more information). When he left New York for points north, “I left the garden in a really good position.”

WHAT’S GROWING? At the summer house in Cushing he shares with his partner, Drew, Kukielski said he’s planting a rose “allée” of about 80 plants in two rows, a landscaping technique intended to lead the eye. In this case, that would be toward the water. All the bushes are just one variety, Purple Rain. It’s a pinky purple that was a favorite of Kulkielski’s at the New York Botanical Garden. “It was just incredibly disease resistant. It has a lot of joy about it.” In Cushing, though, the water views and land speak for themselves. “I really have to put the brakes on with filling it with flowers because it doesn’t need it.” Their new home in Portland’s Deering neighborhood featured a “blank slate” of a garden, but on the day we talked Kulkielski, was planting about 50 roses. Next up: companion plants that attract beneficial insects.

LET IT GO: His major piece of advice to home gardeners is to be merciless about a failing rose. “The rose industry would like you to spray with every chemical out there,” he said. “If I had a rose that needed all that stuff, I decided it was just too labor intensive and it needed to go. If you have those roses in your garden, maybe they are not worth having.”

 


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