Sunday, February 13, 2011

Meet Gerda Brooker of Victorian Gardens

Born and raised in Dusseldorf, Germany, Gerda Brooker, completed school, including earning the equivalent of an MBA and met her future husband there as well.  She immigrated to the U.S to marry her sweetheart.  Shortly after that the couple moved to Puerto Rico for several years.  They spent several years in Puerto Rico, before moving back to the states, eventually settling in Ohio.  To be more specific, they settled in the Cleveland area, where they raised two children.  Gerda got a job at a local radio station, where she would produce and record up to 14 hours per week of shows, from classical to talk radio to hit parade, all in German.  During her time in Cleveland she also worked with a travel agency.  In the late sixties, she and her husband split up and she met and married Malcom Brooker Sr. in 1973.  She had two children from her first marriage and he had three, instantly increasing the size of the family.  In 1980, Gerda started her own travel agency, which she decided to resign from several years later to focus on the more domestic side of her life, like cooking, cleaning and raising children.  Malcom and Gerda began their love affair with daylilies in 1994, after meeting and touring Steve Moldovan's gardens.   He then directed them to other great sources for daylilies, like Bill Munson, David Kirchoff, The Salters and Stamiles, which of course led to them meeting The Kinnebrews and Dan Hansen, etc.  To date they have registered 96 cultivars.  In 2002 Malcom Sr. passed away from a very brief, but very brave battle with cancer.  The loss of Malcom didn’t stop Gerda from carrying on the work they both loved to do.  Malcom Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps and when he’s not working as CEO for a local insurance agency, he’s hybridizing and introducing his own registrations.  These days Gerda splits her time between hybridizing, her book club, the five children and nine grandchildren.  She says, “As for me, I am in for as long as God allows me to function and breathe.”
Michael Bennett x Shallow Waters (future)

In 1994, while back in Germany helping to care for her mother after hip surgery, Malcom called and  said  "Guess what I am doing?"  As it turns out, he was pollinating everything in the garden and at that time they had already amassed a sizable collection from other hybridizers.  After returning to Ohio, Gerda jumped on the bandwagon too.  “All in all we were a team but did our separate thing. We would ask each other questions and share out thoughts, and tried to be the first one out  in the garden at hybridizing time to make a cross on that last bloom of a particular daylily. My husband always beat me to it. I accused him of going out at 3 in the morning with a flashlight, prying open a bloom to set pollen on it. We both laughed about that. I have heard it said a few times that my husband would have been one of the greatest hybridizers around, and I believe it, too.”  This was the beginning of Victorian Gardens.

She credits four outstanding hybridizers as being the biggest inspirations and mentors, but there are so many more.  First is Steve Moldovan, he offered immediate encouragement, praising Gerda’s eye for color and detail.  She says it was Steve that taught her those things to begin with.  “He would bring me to a seedling and say "Look at this, there is so much going on in this flower" He would point to the eye, the nuances of colors, and all the intricate details in the pleating and ruffles etc.I still do this to this day.”  David Kirchoff is a charming and intelligent man and his advice for the Brookers is “IT IS DAYLILIES, ENJOY AND DON'T FRET!”  You can’t mention The David and not mention Mort Morss in the same breath.  How can you not like someone who names a daylily after you?  “I do see Mort as much of the backbone of Daylily World and both their talents combined make it what it is. A great place to visit, and some of the most wonderful daylilies.”  Mike Holmes, he knows so much about daylilies because he talks to everybody and retains the important facts.  His enthusiasm will get you going every time.  Larry Grace lends his keen business sense, loyalty and work ethic and his great hybridizing talents.

These days, Gerda is breeding more for eye patterns with teeth.  “When I see the daylily bloom at actual bloom time, all my plans from the previous day might go out the window.”  Keeping her breeding program in mind, she uses only the best (in her opinion) eye patterns, color clarity and plant habit she can get her hands on.  “After many mistakes, I have learned Great x Great does not always produce Great.  So it is what they call, luck of the draw.”  While she breeds for bigger and better, but still likes to keep the excitement of hybridizing alive at bloom time, sometimes the surprises are better than the expectations.  She tries to use fresh pollen, but as always sometimes has to rely on frozen pollen.  Pollen is collected and stored in the freezer the same day.  

Crosses are marked with plastic bread tags.  Seeds are dried in stackable  After six weeks in the fridge they get planted into trays.  When they first started out in hybridrizing, Gerda and Malcom would make and plant around 14,000 seeds every year with a germination rate of around 70%.  Now the number has dropped to a much more manageable 1,000 with a 75-80% germination rate.  Malcom Jr. does between 8,000 and 10,000 seeds every year.  The introduction rate is somewhere around 1%, but “getting there is half the fun.”

All seedlings receive a number when selected for evaluation and are transplanted to a separate ‘keepers’ bed.  All beds are numbered and have six rows each.  The rows are listed A-F and Gerda maintains and inventory list.  If a selected seedling remains selected after three years, it is eventually lined out and increased for registration and eventual sale, depending on the rate of increase.
ABBA X 53399  32ht, x 7 inch (future)

Gerda lists deer as the biggest challenge faced in her display garden.  Liquid fence  just make the deer laugh and they ask for their daylilies with a little bit of hot sauce to bring out the flavor.  The location is good for visitors, so the deer are tolerated…poorly.  Seedlings, however, are grown on a piece of family property a few miles away that is surrounded by electric fencing.  The gardens and seedlings are a bit much for just one or two people to deal with on their own and Gerda mentions two outstanding paid employees, but there are also the grandchildren who come to help with shipping and weeding, among others.  Michael Bennett, who worked there for ten years, until Gerda pushed him on to bigger and better.  A fellow daylily lover, Mercy Ermakov, shows up when needed despite her own busy family life.

While reluctant to name a ‘crowning achievement’ (as has everyone else) she does list some of her favorite introductions Sweet Isabella (one of my favorites), Princess  Sophia, Michael Bennett (very nice), Rolling Thunder and Echoes Of Love.  Then there are the ones she introduced for Malcom Sr., Ironman, River Of Light, Secret Weapon, Belle Cook and Reach for The Sky (another of my favorites).  Gerda tries not to take any aspect of this hobby/business too seriously, which has ‘run amok’ in her yard.  “I do, however, strive for excellence in every order I ship.  I have learned lots from previous mistakes and my goal is to ship double fans with an excellent root systems on the new introductions.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to registering seedlings.  While beauty is important, so is plant habit, branching, height and bud count.  “I have seen a lot of changing trends in everybody’s hybridizing programs.  It is a fashion show to me and mostly the newest fashions are the most popular, with some of us still appreciating some of the outstanding oldies.”  Gerda says the AHS is running things very well, providing all daylilies with recognition.

Victorian Garden is an AHS display garden and is open for visits starting the end of June and the garden is open all season.  A phone call ahead of time is greatly appreciated.  The website for Brooker introductions can be found here
Garden June 2010

Seedling bed at the farm





1 comment:

  1. Love Brooker daylilies... nice to put a face with a name. Thanks