New garden club sows seeds of connection
By Drew Myron
It was a long and lonely winter, and Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler was dreaming of spring when she put out a tentative call to local gardeners. The response was immediate.
Within hours, her Facebook feed filled with enthusiastic growers wanting to connect. Within days, Sherman County Garden Club had 90 members and continues to grow.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” says Jessica, who lives on a 20-acre farm outside of Wasco. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The newly formed Sherman County Garden Club is an informal network of area gardeners who come together— online and in person—to trade tips, seeds, starts and resources. The club has chapters in Rufus, Wasco, Moro and Grass Valley. It aims to connect each area, organize its volunteer efforts, trade information, answer questions, and hold meetings and events.
Spanning 830 miles, Sherman County is one of the state’s least-populated counties, with fewer than 2,000 people inhabiting the windswept farm and ranch landscape. A sense of isolation, combined with challenging growing conditions, calls for camaraderie.
“It’s really important to get people out of the house, especially in rural areas, and get to know your neighbors,” Jessica says.
With help from her husband and family, Jessica tends a 1-acre plot of herbs— including yarrow, lavender, calendula, rosemary, sage and mints—as well as a vegetable garden. She harvests the herbs for specialty soaps and body care products she sells under her Gorge Wildcraft brand.
A writer, small business owner, and mother of twin boys, Jessica is skilled in organizing, but even she is startled by the club’s immediate success. She introduced the idea in February and was quickly surrounded with questions, suggestions, and enthusiasm from both newbie and expert gardeners eager to learn and connect.
Seasoned growers throughout the county stepped up to serve as garden leaders: Cindy Brown and Liz Cranston of Moro, Ree Ella von Borstel of Grass Valley, and Brittany Dark of Rufus.
Gardening can be a real challenge in this hot, dry climate, says Cindy, 4-H youth development and education coordinator for Oregon State University’s Sherman County Extension.
“For most Sherman County gardeners, dealing with the wind is always a challenge,” she says. “Plastic and fabric coverings for plants are hard to keep secured. Wind breaks are important, especially for small plants or those like corn, which actually stop growing temporarily when hit by wind. Soil dries out rapidly, and sprinklers can be hard to place as the water blows all over the place.”
Cindy says wildlife is another challenge. Deer eat plants, especially flowers; mice, gophers and voles destroy roots and bulbs; and birds, such as pheasants, quail or crows, pull up seedlings.
Conditions vary substantially within the large county.
“Gardeners in Rufus and Biggs are lucky,” Cindy says. “Sandy soil warms up earlier, and the lower altitude combined with warming influence of the river gives them an earlier spring and a longer growing season than folks elsewhere in Sherman County.”
The north end of the county, near the Columbia River, has a U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zone of 7b, which means temperatures don’t usually get lower than 5 to 10 degrees in an average winter.
“Once you come up the canyons from Biggs and Rufus, north Sherman County is zone 7a, with winter temperatures not lower than 0 to 5 degrees,” Cindy says. “Once you hit higher elevations mid-county, like around Moro, Grass Valley, and Kent, you are in zone 6b with winter temperatures that can get to minus 5 to 0.”
Higher elevations have shorter growing seasons, as measured by the time between frosts. The average annual last frost dates in the county range from mid-April in Biggs/Rufus to mid-May in Wasco to late May for Moro, Grass Valley, and Kent. Fall frosts can be as early as mid-September but are usually mid-to-late October.
Cindy gardens south of Moro on alkaline soil, and grows in the garden and greenhouse. Her crops include beans, peppers, tomatoes, corn, onions, garlic, spinach, lettuce, kale, asparagus, herbs, berries, and 20 semi-dwarf fruit trees.
Cindy is excited about the club and sharing stories, ideas, seeds, and plants.
“It is very important to have community connections and in-person gatherings, and we have greatly missed this in the past two years,” she says. “I am looking forward to learning how others deal with challenges that I may have, such as better ways to germinate carrots.”
Robin Burgess of Grass Valley is new to the area and struggles to garden in her new location.
“I’ve never lived in a high desert area,” she says. “I thought I knew a bit about gardening before. Since coming here, I’ve decided I don’t know nearly enough. I love raised beds vegetable gardening, bulbs, and roses. I’m looking forward to learning some great tips and skills from some wonderful gardeners here.”
Though the name and vintage-like logo hark back to a ladies club of long ago, Sherman County Garden Club is new, inclusive and open to men, women and families. The group has meetings and events scheduled through the fall, with presentations, speakers, goodies, raffles, seeds and plantings to share.
“We plan to have four lunch meetings per year, one in each town, with sort of a garden party vibe,” Jessica says. “This is low pressure. This is not another chore or another boring meeting. We’re keeping it fun.”