From trial-and-error to master gardener

Scott Swanson

Gardening has always been part of Brenda Winslow’s life, but it’s taken more priority in recent years, as she’s become a Linn County Master Gardener.

“I would be out in the yard with my mom, working on the garden when I was a little girl,” said Winslow, now 58. “Weeding under protest.”

Two years after she and Keith Winslow were married, they bought the house she now lives in, next to Oak Heights School on Elm Street, where Keith eventually became principal.

“I had half an acre to do whatever I wanted, so I just started experimenting,” Brenda said. “Little by little.

“I’ve killed so many plants over 36 years. I’ve learned by trial and error. But I’ve just loved it.” 

Nearly 20 years ago, a windstorm damaged a stand of “huge fir trees” behind her house, and the Winslows decided to take down 36 of the trees to keep them from falling on the house or the school. 

That opened up more space for gardening.

Woodshop teacher Ben Dahlenburg and his students built her a greenhouse in that space and she planted a big vegetable garden. Well, maybe not big by Master Gardener standards, but big enough. 

“If I was a typical Master Gardener, this would be full,” Winslow said, gesturing at her backyard, which still has a grass lawn wedged between the veggies, the greenhouse, raised garden beds – and rose bushes, which are everywhere on the property – 128 in total.

Most Master Gardener participants tend toward vegetables and fruits, but Winslow likes flowers the most, she said.

“Roses are my favorite,” she said. “They bloom in May until October. I love peonies, but, hey, they only bloom three weeks and then they’re done. Roses put on a show all year long.”

Her favorite, she said, is the Eden climber that ascends most of the way up her two-story back wall.

It had just finished a “burst” of blooms as a visitor eyed it last week, but it was still covered with healthy pale pink-and-white-colored blossoms.

“These will all fall off and then there will be another burst,” she predicted.

For years, Winslow gardened as a hobby while she operated children’s ministries in local churches, eventually starting her own children’s ministries consulting business. But along the way, her daughter Sarah and sons Andrew and Kyle graduated and moved on to college.

She decided to take the Master Gardener class, offered by Oregon State University Extension, “11 or 12 years ago,” she said.

“I had always thought about becoming a Master Gardener when I retired,” Winslow said. “I had to call the Extension from time to time. “Then I thought, ‘Why wait until I’m retired? Why not do it now?'”

For years she and other local Master Gardeners have staffed booths at local farmers markets, but the Extension shut those down last year due to COVID-19, since gardening advice didn’t fall under the state’s guidelines for what was permitted in the markets during the pandemic shutdown.

Meanwhile, Winslow found herself in retail, selling gardening supplies at Hoy’s Hardware during the gardening seasons. Hoy’s owner Greg Mahler had been urging her to help him get a gardening center started at the store, she said.

“He just drew up for me this idea he had in his mind for a garden center. He said, ‘You can have it. I’ll stay out of your hair.”

She’d retired, officially, by that time, but though “I thought it would be great to be away from people,” she soon found she missed interaction with the public.

That was four years ago, and things have taken off in the garden center, she said.

“We’ve expanded it every year,” Winslow said.

She recruited fellow Master Gardener Barb Andrew of Lebanon, a colleague at the farmers market info booths, to help her out, so there would be expertise on the premises seven days a week.

“People came in leaps and bounds, after they found it,” she said.

Winslow said gardening is a never-ending learning process, and she enjoys helping people figure out answers to their problems. She said Garry Burks at Santiam Feed and Garden is another knowledgeable resource for local gardeners.

“Bugs, slugs, snails, that kind of thing,” she said, adding that she recently discovered a new anti-pest strategy: diatomaceous earth.

“It works amazingly,” she said.

“People don’t know what to do. We can take them to a shelf, and say, ‘OK, this is what you need.’ We always, always try to come up with something as natural as possible.”

The master gardeners work in a freelance capacity, she said, handling the ordering, consulting with Mahler when necessary, but pretty much running the garden center by themselves.

“All my life I did children’s ministries with churches, but I’d actually gone to college for accounting and biology (at George Fox),” Winslow said, noting that she also works for local bookkeeper Heather Search during the tax seasons.

“All these years later, after I’m retired, I do taxes and bookeeping for Heather during the winter, and I do master gardener during the summer. It took me 30 years to finally get around.”

Her three adult children, all married, are evidencing green-thumb interests, she said. Sarah, the oldest, lives in Nashville, Tenn., where she is a personal assistant for country music star Miranda Lambert.

“She’s a big gardener,” her mom said. Kyle just bought a house in Sandy, where he’s also “quite the gardener,” she said.

“Andrew probably would, but they live in an apartment.”

She said her yard is every-changing, and Sarah noticed that on a recent visit.

“She was walking through the yard, saying ‘That wasn’t here when I lived here. That wasn’t here when I lived here.'”

Last week Winslow was busily working in her yard when a visitor stopped by.

Honeybees crawled busily over a wide variety of flowers and bushes nearby, particularly on a purple sedum bush.

“Bees love it here,” she said.

So does she.

“Anything to do with dirt, being in the dirt – I just love it.”