Jim Kelley welcomes visitors to his Dunwoody garden through an arbor bordered by a hedge of the deep pink polyantha rose 'La Marne.' The dentist has about 275 old garden roses that bloom from early spring until winter.

[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 5/1/03 ]


Antique varieties give Dunwoody dentist time to smell the roses

Jim Kelley had had enough.

For 20 years, he'd fussed over 500-plus hybrid teas -- spraying, fertilizing, pruning, watering, mulching, deadheading. The crowning touch came when a hard freeze claimed more than 200 of the plants.

So six years ago, when he and his wife, Nancy, built a new house in Dunwoody, they took advantage of the yard's blank canvas and tried something new -- or rather old, as in old garden roses.

"Atlanta is the worst place in the world to grow hybrid teas because of our great fluctuation in temperature," says Kelley, who practices pediatric dentistry when not gardening.


That, combined with disease and funguses that hybrids attract, has sold Kelley on the old-fashioned varieties -- generally classes of roses that existed before 1867, when the first hybrid tea was introduced. Old garden roses not only are more disease resistant than hybrids but in many cases more fragrant and varied in color and form. But the big draw is that many are repeat or continuous bloomers, offering gardeners flowers from March until the first frost.

Now with 275 of the plants, Kelley's garden is a blaze of color for three seasons. This rosarian's no purist, though; his garden contains roses bred in the early 1900s and, yes, even four hybrid teas. But it's the old ones that steal his heart -- and those of an ever-growing number of gardeners.

"Old roses are really picking up," says Kate Stonefoot of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which just renovated its rose garden to emphasize the old varieties.

Kelley has seen that rose garden evolve from its beginnings in the early '60s in Piedmont Park, before the botanical garden even existed. As a volunteer, he worked there every Friday, helping to spray hundreds of teas.

The experience was great training for a gardener, who learned how to grow roses by reading, touring gardens and joining the Greater Atlanta Rose Society.

"I've always been a gardener but mainly for what I eat," says Kelley, who grew up around farming in Hogansville.

He can credit -- or blame -- his father-in-law, a big rose grower, for starting him on roses. When the Kelleys bought their first house, the young dentist planted 12 hybrid teas, and things just spun out of control from there. He was so green at flower gardening that "I planted my roses like corn, all in rows," he admits. "Now, I like designing with them."

Light pink blossoms of the old prolific climber 'New Dawn' sprawl over nine arches along the driveway, bordered by a hedge of the deeper pink polyantha, 'La Marne.' In a large bed out front, the pale pink blooms of 'Marchesa Bocella,' a hybrid perpetual that blooms continuously, are paired with the deep pink 'Nearly Wild,' an old floribunda.

In the back garden, six climbing tea roses, the white-blooming 'Sombrueil,' rise above borders of perennials including daisies, veronica, phlox and oriental lilies. And a 'Fairey' shrub rose pruned like a tree anchors a bed of chartreuse 'Creeping Jenny' ringed by a hedge of crimson barberry.

A friend, Nita Jo Rountree, helped Kelley design the garden, but all of the work has been his.

"This was a clean slate but all flat and nothing but hard clay," he recalls. "It was a challenge, but it was neat because we took our time and got the foundation right, the drainage right and built the soil up 18 to 20 inches."

Kelley had 32 truckloads of planting mix (pulverized pine bark, sand and topsoil) hauled in, each yielding 120 wheelbarrows of promise. "The soil is now like coffee grounds," he says.

He believes that preparation is responsible for the garden's success -- that and opting for the old varieties of roses. "You get such performance from them, and I love all the different forms," he says.

Kelley's roses do get black spot and powdery mildew, so he continues to spray, every 20 days. But disease and fungus don't affect them nearly as much as they did his hybrid teas.

A drip irrigation system, timed to activate at 7 a.m., takes care of the watering, and Kelley fertilizes every three to four weeks from April through Labor Day, using Miracle-Gro, Mills Magic and Sta-Green. His wife, a first-grade teacher, relieves stress by helping with the weeding. "Thank God, Nancy likes to deadhead because I don't," he says.

His biggest enemy? Deer.

Kelley, 58, figures he puts in 20 hours a week in the garden, but he's not complaining. He limits his practice to a 10-hour/four-day work week. "I probably see 50 kids a day, and when I get home I can't wait to get out here," he says, surveying the garden.

But he's no obsessed rose addict. "By the first frost, I'm sick of it all and ready to start my woodworking," says Kelley, an accomplished furniture maker.

Teeth, roses and jigsaws make for a full day, which begins at 5 and ends at 9 -- "except on Thursdays," he says. "That's my night to play the guitar and banjo at the Red Light Cafe."

With passions like these, who has time to coddle fussy roses?