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The Rose Guy

Perhaps this month flew by without you realizing that June is National Rose Month. One person who did not forget is William J Radler. We visit him in his rose boot camp in Greenfield.

You might say the life of Will Radler blossomed in 2000. It was the year his first “Knock Out” bush rose hit the market. But Radler says his passion took root before he was born; his mother was an avid flower gardener.

“She told this story repeatedly – that the reason why I got into plants is because when she was pregnant, she did so much gardening,” Radler says.

An interest in art coursed through his veins too. Perhaps naturally, Radler wound up working for the Milwaukee County Parks System; eventually it was on to the Boerner Botanical Gardens, where he says his job was......

“To give people a little bit of heaven, a little bit of paradise; a place to come and forget about the rest of the world and just see gorgeous plant life,” Radler says.

Until his retirement in 1994.

“Now thanks to the royalties that I’ve gotten from Knock-Out I’m able to create my own small botanic garden with my small staff of 9 part and full-time people,” Radler says.

Radler offers to treat me to a tour; the question is - where to begin? His two-acre parcel fuses garden and park. On the sultry day I visited, a sea of 1600 happy-looking rose plants cascade before our eyes.

Radler and his team raise hundreds from seed in his basement every year.

“And then we replace roses in the boot camp with these new seedlings; so every year we’re getting rid of 300 to 500 old roses to make room for the new ones,” Radler says.

Radler shares the key to creating resilient rose bushes; you’ve got to be brutal. The plant likes “high and dry”, so Radler applies the opposite.

“My garden is in low land; it’s moist; it’s dew come early and leave late; the hot of the hot and cold of the cold; when Mitchell Field says our high is so and so, it’s always higher here and more unpleasant. Roses don’t like heat,” Radler says.

At night, overhead irrigation soaks the plants – whether they’re thirsty or not. Radler collects diseased leaves from the garden, dries tem and then grounds them to a fine powder...

“And then when the roses are covered with dew in the morning, we sprinkle this powder all over; we try to do that a couple times of year to make sure we’ve got good distribution of the disease organism,” Radler says.

Radler also plays with hues and fragrances.

“Other roses that have a quality that I want to add to my breeding program. I’ll incorporate other roses to bring in things my roses don’t have. Like I can’t wait to introduce the first vermillion-colored Knock Out. I don’t have it yet, but I’m still working on it,” Radler says.

When I met him, Radler had successfully brought 23 varieties of roses to market. Since then, he's released two more.

Radler also has his fingers in projects far beyond this 2-acre operation. He’s working with a team in France.Their goal is to breed a yellow rose, that doesn’t fade. The horticulture company Radler works with is keen to cultivate such a variety.

“They want one that’s boldly yellow and they want it quickly. So I’ve got lots of yellows but I don’t think they’d call it a Knock Out,” Radler says.

The hybridizing business can only be pushed to a certain velocity. If they flourish under Radler’s grueling process, roses are then subjected to eight years of trial before they hit the marketplace.

The longer I wander Radler’s world, the more I think it might not be the abuse his roses responding to, but his love.

“Like look at this multicolored one here – isn’t that cool; it starts out gold and it turns pink,” Radler says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.