Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

  • Post published:11/28/2009
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Peggy Rockefeller hybrid tea rose
Peggy Rockefeller hybrid tea rose

All those who think roses are finicky plants that require fussing and lots of chemical sprays for disease and bugs will be surprised when they visit the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx with its more than 3000 healthy roses.


Curator Peter Kukielski
Curator Peter Kukielski

            I visited the garden last week and spent an afternoon with the Curator, Peter Kukielski, the man who has supervised the renovation of the garden over the past three years, more than doubling the number of roses in the garden and choosing hardy, disease resistant roses making this is one of the most environmentally friendly rose gardens in the world.

            The rose garden, designed by Beatrix Farrand in 1916, but not completed until 1988 after decades of varying interest, is laid out in a sunny hollow. It is now enclosed by new metal trellising with three entries, intersecting paths and a graceful gazebo in the center. There were still large beds of turf so my first question was to ask Kukielski  how he fit so many more roses into the defined space.

            “I just made better use of the space, starting with planting the roses more closely together,” he said matter of factly. He also explained that he used the full depth of the beds which had not been done before. Even though a bed might be 14 feet deep, the roses were planted in a single row. Now the depth of the bed is filled with climbers along the trellis, generous shrubs in the middle of the bed and low growers in front along the path.

            We walked through the main entry where David Austin roses still bloomed on either side of us. “I wanted people to feel embraced by the roses and the garden when they entered,” Kukielski said smiling, and watching me to see if I felt the effect he had worked to create.

            “When I came, there were heritage roses growing by this entry, but they only bloom once a year. The rest of the time it was only green. Now the deep beds on either side of the main entrance are filled with David Austin hybrids which give a long season of bloom,” he said happily as he saw my own pleasure at the loveliness of the roses, even in early November.

            As we made our way to the North Entrance we came to a planting that included EarthKind roses. I have seen this label in nurseries, but had little idea of what it meant, thinking it was some marketing ploy. Kukielski explained that researchers at the Texas A&M University wanted to identify already existing roses with good flowers that were hardy and disease resistant, suitable for planting in sustainably managed gardens. “They chose roses they thought might have strong genes, planted them and watered them for one year. After that they gave them no care for nine years. In the tenth year they chose the first roses to get an EarthKind designation. More have been added since then,: Kukielski said.

            I was familiar with some of the EarthKind roses including KnockOut, The Fairy, New Dawn and Carefree Beauty which grow in my garden. Now I am thinking about which other EarthKind roses I can add.  The directions for EarthKind roses call only for compost and mulching.

            Kukielski said he was particularly interested in the EarthKind roses as well as the relatively new varieties introduced by the German hybridizer Kordes. This old company has been hybridizing for a century, but the newest generation to take over realized that sustainability was going to be important for success in the future. Their hybridizing efforts were to concentrate on disease resistant roses. One of the results is the Fairy Tale series including Kosmos, Cinderella and Brothers Grimm.

            Because New York state has new rules that make many of the chemicals previously used in growing roses illegal Kukuielski has a need, as well as a desire, to grow these new hybrids.

            No matter what variety he plants he said “we take careful strides now to be pro-active with our soils. . . .We do have a fertilization program that is tweaked again and again each and every year.  Primarily we use ‘Rose Tone’ 3 times a year.  I like this product because it is all organic and supplies all 16 essential nutrients.  We also supplement this with some foliar feeding using seaweed extracts, fish emulsions, Monty’s Joy Juice, and/or potassium silicate.  Next year we will be adding a product called Uncle Tom’s Rose Tonic from England.”

            Kukielski explained that the NYBG does have a compost pile and he uses “compost, manure, chopped leaves, and a product called ‘roots’” whenever a new plant is put in.  He also mulches with chopped leaves twice a year.

            Evaluation of each rose bush goes on all year. During my tour we met one of the many volunteers who help keep the garden in good condition. This volunteer was clutching a handful of evaluation forms and he was giving all aspects of the rose careful consideration. Was the foliage healthy? Was there leaf drop or insect damage? What was the condition of the flowers? Was there fragrance?

            I asked if he would give this small white rose a B- or B+ and he said he wished it were that easy.   After some discussion, and with a look at Kukielski, we agreed that a ‘high 7’ was a good mark. The rose will stay in the garden.

            That rose only got a 7, but my day with Peter Kukielski definitely rated a 10!

Between the Rows    November 14, 2009

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