Life's Voices: A Lifelong Creator Of Floral Beauty

Jan 1, 2018

Milwaukee native Will Radler’s life mission has been to share the beauty of flowers.

Growing up on city’s north side, he poured over his grandmother’s rose catalogs. “I think I became a garden critic when I was in my single digit years,” Radler says.

His mom was an avid flower gardener. Even before he can remember she took Radler to Boerner Botanical Gardens. “My mother has a picture of me in a buggy. Do you remember buggies?” he adds with a laugh, “Yeah, I’m that old.”

Radler would eventually direct Boerner Botanical Gardens, but first, he studied landscape architecture and then landed his first job with Milwaukee County Parks. “Because I was so into plants, if there was any project involving (them) they usually gave it to me,” he recalls.

Within a year, Radler’s boss introduced him to the show dome – that was in the early days of the horticultural conservatory in Mitchell Park.

“The arid dome wasn’t even completed at that time. My boss said he was showing me around with the idea of me eventually designing the shows there," he explains. "I thought, 'No, that’s not going to happen.'”

But happen it DID. Radler remembers feeling like a kid in a candy shop. “At that time the budget was quite high so we would put in a concrete pool and the next show it would be ripped out and we’d have dump trucks of sand come and change the elevations, change the walks, build new fantastic props - It was an exciting time for me.”

I never, ever, ever thought I would be director of the place one day. No idea. I was in paradise.... my dream job.

That time was only eclipsed when he became director of Boerner Botanical Gardens. Circling back to roses, “getting the friends group established was really a highlight. Seeing the people of the community coming together to celebrate used to be called the rose festival,” Radler recalls.

He retired in 1994. "When I retired I started worrying about being recluse in my home and in my garden," he admits with trepidation.

But what you don’t know yet is the SCOPE of Radler's garden - just 5 minutes from Boerner, his two acres have become a “boot camp” of sorts. His goal was to breed roses - beautiful, fragrant and of equal importance, resilient roses.

I'm trying to create roses that don't need pesticides. It's not only to save work, it's also to be environmentally conscious.

“I over water them. Unlike normal rose gardeners, I collect diseased leaves, turn them into a powder in my blender and then sprinkle all of the diseased leaves all over my roses," he explains. "My object is to make sure every rose gets equally bad treatment so in the fall I can tell which ones are the best ones.”

Credit Star Roses and Plants

In 2000 Radler’s first “Knock Out” (his trademark name) hit the market. Since then he’s developed 33 more varieties with the Coral Knock Out among the most recently-introduced roses.

Today a number of his creations grow at Boerner Botanical Gardens.

“They’re converting the rose garden to a low maintenance rose garden and the way the breeders including themselves are incorporating the size of the hybrid tea and the perfume of the old roses and all of the exciting new colors into low maintenance models,” he notes. "It’s just going to make gardening ever so much more fun."

These days a full-time gardening team assists him at his living laboratory.

Radler's philosophy is everybody should be able to enjoy what he’s cherished his entire life – whether at home or  in a public space. “A little bit of paradise, someplace to forget about your cares and just immerse yourself in the beauty of a really nice garden.”

An aerial view of a portion of Will Radler's garden.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio