Roses without Chemicals, After Knock Outs


Peter Kukielski speaking at Behnke Nurseries.

Meet Peter Kukielski, former curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanic Garden, who suddenly had to give up spraying when the city banned pesticide use on public lands. So he researched disease-resistant roses, which led him to Germany and the roses being bred by the breeder Kordes.  Interestingly, Germany had outlawed those same pesticides 20 years earlier and had invested heavily in hybridizing roses for disease resistance and other great qualities like fragrance and a long season of bloom.
Peter was happy to discover that thanks to Kordes and the Earthkind testing and certification program here in the States, you can have a great rose garden without chemicals, even one that wins awards, as his did.

In this video Peter shows off the garden and describes the rose trials he conducted there.

The demand for disease-resistant roses was pretty much created and met by one variety we’re all familiar with and have probably grown – the Knock Out. I enjoyed them for a while myself but I bore easily and gave up their space to trying new perennials.  Finding more interesting chem-free roses wasn’t an option that I was aware of.

So what a treat to discover Peter and his book Roses without Chemicals: 150 disease-free Varieties that will Change the Way you Grow Roses, in which he passes on everything he’s learned about this important subject.

Images from Peter’s talk.

I recently heard Peter speaking to the Potomac Rose Society (website under construction), telling the story of the garden’s transformation and actually making me understand the changes in rose breeding over the last 50 or so years. No more breeding for just the cut-flower trade, aiming for the biggest honking long-stems possible. He traced the story of how bans on pesticides and increased consumer concerns about pesticides have changing rose breeding, probably for good.
Peter inspired me to give one or two of his chosen roses a whirl, but where to find them? In an email, he suggested I try the remaining late-spring supplies at Chamblee East Texas. They’ve long been active in promoting and spreading the gospel of Earth Kind roses,  which is a service of Texas A&M.  In a quick interview, owner Mark Chamblee  owner.

He told me that while Earthkind did start a movement in disease-resistant roses, its sales were down. Customers and landscapers are increasingly asking, “Anything besides Knock Outs?” But Millennials are liking the Kordes-bed roses that are pretty and easy while bringing back more qualities that people have always loved about roses.

The Kordes types, though, are filling the gap because like me, customers ask, “Anything besides Knock Outs?” Landscapers ask the same question. And they’re liking the roses from Germany with more of the traditional rose qualities we love (without the fungal disease).

With Mark’s help I narrowed my shopping cart to two roses from Chamblee – Sachet, a miniature, and “very fragrant” according to the catalog, and Fire Opal Kolorscape, a Floribunda, whatever that means. (Rose families and their respective traits have always escaped me.) They arrived looking good and are spending this season in sunny holding spots.  Next year I’ll give them more prominent locations; I have a gorgeous pot picked out for the miniature, with a trailing Sedum.

Folger Rose Garden.

Peter’s Roses to Debut at the Smithsonian!

Now back to Peter for a happy ending. A couple of days before I heard him speak I happened to be chatting with Shelley Gaskins, curator of the Smithsonian’s Folger Rose Garden, which is currently undergoing a total re-do. She told me that in choosing roses for the next iteration of this historic garden she’s relying completely on Peter’s book. In fact, at the public Smithsonian Garden events where I met her, his book was on display.

So I got to tell Peter this story and his reaction was to clutch his heart and declare that “You’ve made my day.” I put him in touch with Shelley and it looks like he’ll be attending the grand reopening of the rose garden later this year.