Twenty-five years ago, Bill Kozemchak and his wife, Kathy, moved to the Violetwood section of Levittown, a place - let's face it - not known for its lush landscapes.
Even today, most houses in Kozemchak's neighborhood have few plantings out front. But his place, on the corner of Violet and Verdant Roads (pronounced ver-DANT) is a riot of roses - 1,050 of them, 700 varieties, in the ground, on homemade arbors and pergolas, in pots, and lining the walls of his modest Cape Cod on a quarter-acre.
Like a mirage, Kozemchak's garden appears around a bend in the road, a 3D, full-color blast in a bland, one-dimensional world. Finally, we know how Dorothy felt falling from black-and-white Kansas into the Land of Oz!
This week, Kozemchak - known in the rose world as "Bill K" - welcomed the season's first flush of blooms. They burst open about two weeks later than last year because of an unusually cool spring, but the wire has now been tripped. The show of roses will continue into November.
They range from three-inch-tall miniatures with button-sized blooms to 14-foot climbers in a flower cloud. And everything in between: floribundas, hybrid teas, minifloras, shrubs, polyanthus, and old garden roses, those sentimental - and fragrant - favorites for cutting.
And the colors . . .
Kozemchak has pink and red, white, orange and tangerine, yellow, peach, cream, and mauve and maroon. There's a smoky brown number called Hot Cocoa and one whose petals are gold on the outside and red on the inside dubbed Ketchup and Mustard.
There's a rare Green Rose, which dates to the mid-1800s. Its weird flowers are actually modified sepals.
"Flower-arrangers love it. My wife hates it," Kozemchak says. "It's a great conversation piece."
So are the splashy red and white stripes of the climber Fourth of July and the minuscule white dots on the pink petals of Marbree. Crested Moss' fuzzy stems are a curiosity, as are Rosa Rugosa's leathery leaves.
And note the variation in petals. Some roses here have as few as four; others, like cross-sections of cabbage heads, sport 100 or more.
Pretty cool stuff for a retired U.S. Steel worker (23 years) and big-time football fan (Eagles) who does landscaping on the side with his brother. A longtime member and former president of the Philadelphia Rose Society, Kozemchak also exhibits in and judges rose shows in the region and around the country.
He makes as much time as possible, which is never enough, for his 2-year-old granddaughter, Keira. (Kozemchak, 53, and his wife, 52, also have three grown sons.)
This obsession with roses started modestly enough shortly after they moved in, with 10 or 12 planted behind the house. Kozemchak was no authority then, just the son of a man who grew up on a farm outside Pittsburgh and knew everything, it seemed, about growing vegetables and flowers.
"Dad always grew roses for Mom," says Kozemchak, who killed every rose he planted that first year by burning the roots with fertilizer.
So he bought a book and did some homework, and the next year planted 20 roses whose roots he did not kill. Each year, the number grew, from 20 to 75 to 100 and on and on till now he's got the biggest private rose garden for miles around.
"I just fell in love with the bloom itself," Kozemchak says.
He tried his hand at growing vegetables, but inevitably, the veggie patch was converted to a rose rehab. "I'm not a vegetable person anyway. I'm a meat and potatoes guy," he says.
And this will probably not come as a shock, given that this "meat and potatoes guy" is already busting stereotypes of rose-lovers and Levittown, but Kozemchak is not one of those obsessive-compulsive rose-tenders.
Petals on the ground are OK. He deadheads and prunes when he gets to it. When you have more than a thousand roses, who has time to be a fusspot?
"If you're a gardener, you know. This is what nature does. You can't expect perfection," Kozemchak says as we plow through airy piles of pink petals liberated by the morning's heavy rain.
That same breezy attitude increasingly characterizes today's rose-shoppers; they made the Knock Out series a best-seller. Kozemchak, who grows Knock Outs, describes these consumers as wanting easy care, continuous bloom and more disease resistance.
They don't want to spray. And they love fragrance.
Shrub roses have become more popular than the classic hybrid teas, which, though beautiful, often require too much maintenance for modern tastes and schedules.
Breeders have gotten the message, Kozemchak says. Some of the newer hybrid teas have the Knock Out qualities plus pronounced scent and a more romantic, old-fashioned bloom. (Examples: Beverly, Mondiale, Pink Promise, and Tahitian Sunset.)
Neighbors, strangers, garden clubs, seniors groups, and rose societies have found all of this and more in Kozemchak's garden. This week, he hosted a busload of gardeners from Uruguay, whose itinerary also included Chanticleer, Longwood Gardens, and the Morris Arboretum.
Everyone gets the same welcome - a tour of the roses followed by chips, soda, water, iced tea, and lemonade.
"No matter how much money people make, rose people don't care what neighborhood you live in. They come to see the roses," Kozemchak says.
It's a busy time for this rose tour guide, grower, and exhibitor. Come fall, things will quiet down, just as another of Kozemchak's favorite seasons - football - is gearing up.
Truth be told, he's already thinking about the 2014 rose season. He plans to convert more lawn into planting beds and add a split-rail fence on the Verdant Road side.
No question, he'll fill the beds and drape the fence with roses.
The Best of Bill
Here are a few of the roses Bill Kozemchak recommended during a walkabout of his garden:
Prolific bloomers: Julia Child (floribunda) and Fourth of July (climber).
White roses: Sally Holmes (climber); Pillow Fight (shrub), which Kozemchak thinks grows better than Iceberg, a white standard; and floribundas Fabulous and Moondance.
Black spot resistant: Cherry Parfait (grandiflora); Heart 'N' Soul (shrub); Pretty Lady (floribunda).
Fragrant: Hybrid teas Double Delight, Pope John Paul, Neptune, Secret; Ambridge (shrub); Compassion (climber).
Overall health and vigor: Fairy Tale, Knock Out and Home Run series of shrub roses.
For low-maintenance suggestions from the Philadelphia Rose Society: Go to philadelphiarosesociety.org/faq/low-maintenance-roses-for-southeastern-panjdel
Recommendations for food and water: Kozemchak feeds his roses Rose-tone and Epsom salts (for magnesium). And because he exhibits at shows, and has a higher than ideal concentration of plants, he sprays fungicides and insecticides to keep disease and pests at bay.
He uses soaker hoses for watering, when conditions are very dry.
Where to buy: Because it's become harder to find unusual roses locally, he often buys online from: Chamblee's Rose Nursery in Texas (chambleeroses.com); Heirloom Roses in Oregon (heirloomroses.com); John's Miniature Roses in Oregon (johnsminiatureroses.com); Palatine Roses in Canada (palatineroses.com); and Roses Unlimited in South Carolina (rosesunlimitedownroot.com).
To visit: Kozemchak gives talks and welcomes visitors. He can be reached at PinkyKoz@aol.com.
Hungry for more information on roses?
American Rose Society, ars.org
Del-Chester Rose Society (Delaware and Chester Counties), mhuss.com/dcrs
Philadelphia Rose Society (Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery Counties), philadelphiarosesociety.org
Jersey Shore Rose Society, jsroses.com
West Jersey Rose Society (Burlington, Camden, Gloucester Counties), wjrs.org
- Virginia A. Smith