Rostraver couple turning the page on glory days of plant breeding
Sarah Zolock’s well-worn straw gardening hat reveals her silver hair through a hole in the top.
“I want the hat like that,” she says smiling. “It lets the air through the crown better.”
Along with her husband Steve, she conducts a tour of their expansive and beautiful garden, explaining the intricacies of plant breeding. The crowd just had reunited for a group lunch to reminisce about the trip we all took to Italy together. They were visiting the garden as a treat after the meal.
The Zolocks have created and registered more than 165 unique daylilies and more than 50 new hostas in their breeding program.
“It takes eight to 10 years to find a good hosta,” Steve says as a waterfall gurgles in the background into a pond surrounded by many of their hostas.
Their Rostraver home is not only surrounded by these diverse and wondrous hostas, but the circular beds throughout the landscape are overflowing with hundreds of colorful daylilies of every size and shape imaginable. Walking around the beds reveals the details of the blooms. Inspecting each one closely would take hours, but each one has something different and remarkable about its blooms.
For 23 years, the couple has been breeding and growing these plants. In recent years, the pair has worked to add what are referred to as “teeth” to petals and sepals of the daylily flower. They look sort of like ruffles around the edges, which adds something special to the blooms.
The retired school teachers have dedicated their lives to creating new cultivars and passing them along to fellow plant lovers. Anyone who has ever worked in a garden knows it takes dedication, so it’s hard to believe only two people care for this one.
“I grew up on a dairy farm; you just work seven days a week,” Sarah says proudly. “That’s what life is all about, is sharing your work with other people.”
The visitors are in awe, listening intently as Steve holds up a deep orange flower sporting a light apricot throat, which also showcases the teeth he spoke of earlier. He’s explaining the specifics of how it was created and accentuating the importance of good record keeping. The table in front of him is filled with notebooks detailing the plant parents used in the breeding process, along with other details. Sarah opens another book, which specifically shows lots of slight variances in the shades of color that best describe a new variety when submitting it to be registered.
“We had a lot of fights over the correct color of the flowers,” Steve says laughing.
When asked if their love of plants is more about gardening or science he says, “I think it’s the joy of gardening, it just happens I have some knowledge of science. You have to be interested in both.”
As he continues his lesson, Sarah chimes in with a chuckle, “It’s better than going to a psychiatrist.” Looking across the garden at his wife, Steve pauses and says, “If it wasn’t for Sarah, there’s no way I could do all this. It’s a lot of work.”
Time marches on
A big “for sale” sign sits in front of the house, meaning it’s time for another chapter to start for the Zolocks. Steve has artificial knees and there’s just too much to do.
“We need to begin to downsize,” he says quietly. “We’re not spring chickens anymore.”
In between those hundreds of blooming daylilies are little blue flags, marking the plants they will take with them.
“I don’t really want to leave it,” Sarah says, looking off into the distance. “We cannot keep it in the condition that it needs to be kept in. It’s time to move on and do something else in life.”
After visitors take turns ringing a huge bell in the garden for good luck, Sarah reflects on the couple’s life in the garden.
“This has been the most glorious thing that you could have in your life, to live here, work here and share this with my family, husband, children and grandchildren. It’s wonderful. It doesn’t get any better in life.”