Bob Sherwood had a vision.
On a marshy wedge of Placerville cow pasture, he imagined a collection of 16 little gardens. Each would be a living jewel, showcasing such specialties as roses, succulents or herbs.
Never mind the rattlesnakes or hungry deer; Sherwood was on a mission of love.
Master gardeners like Sherwood would tend these collections, testing their skills – and patience – while demonstrating to the public what plants and techniques work best in foothill landscapes. They dug trenches for 3,000 feet of drainage pipes and laid down a mile of winding granite paths. They built raised vegetable beds and planted a fruit orchard.
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Honed by thousands of hours of volunteer work, Sherwood’s vision now bears his name.
On Saturday, April 1, Sherwood Demonstration Garden, a project of the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of El Dorado County, kicks off its 2017 season. Every Friday and Saturday through Halloween, visitors can come and get their gardening questions answered by experts. They can see for themselves what grows well in the Sierra foothills and how to tackle the most perplexing garden problems.
“When we started, this was filled with blackberries,” said garden chairwoman Sheri Burke. “It was a mess. We brought in heavy equipment to clear the site, then got to work.”
“The most amazing thing about the garden is it’s 100 percent volunteer sweat and labor,” added Tracy Celio, master gardener coordinator for El Dorado County.
Sherwood, who put in more than 7,600 hours as a master gardener, found the property in 2008 but died in 2014 before seeing the garden’s completion.
“This garden was his idea and design,” Burke said.
Becky Sansoni, a UC retiree who lives near the site, has been a frequent visitor during the garden’s transformation.
“I’m amazed each time I come out here,” said Sansoni as she admired early spring blooms in the shade garden.
Until the opening of this demonstration garden, foothill homeowners had few resources to learn what could survive and thrive in their own landscapes, Burke said. At 1,400 feet elevation, the garden gets more cold – and rain – than its counterpart, Sacramento County master gardeners’ Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks.
“Most of the (Sacramento area) gardening information is aimed at people in the valley,” Burke said. “Here in the foothills, gardening is different. We needed something like this for foothill gardeners.”
To create this showplace, the master gardeners raised $164,000, all through plant sales, donations and grants. They’ll have about 5,000 plants – including many Sherwood garden favorites – available at their upcoming sale on Saturday, April 29.
Owned by the El Dorado County Office of Education, the 1.5-acre parcel sits on the edge of Veerkamp Park and Folsom Lake College’s El Dorado Center. Unused and unloved for decades, the sloped plot at the end of Campus Drive had plenty of challenges besides the blackberry bramble. It includes a seasonal spring that feeds a creek and marsh.
Sherwood turned that obstacle into an asset, making a marsh garden a focal point of the complex. The spring also feeds a pond in the Japanese garden, his personal favorite.
“A lot of people have similar problems on their property,” Burke said of the marsh. “This shows what you can do with it to make it something of beauty instead of an issue. And we love our frogs and toads.”
Around the marsh are an assortment of themed gardens, each with its own unique draw. The cottage garden features an enchanting mix of flowers and edible plants. A butterfly garden lives up to its billing. Perennials get their own blooming showcase as do California native plants. The children’s garden is packed with plants that make kids say, “Wow!”
After several years of fundraising and prep work, serious planting started in 2013. Used were 100 yards of compost and 170 yards of decomposed granite for the walkways. Burke said.
The Sherwood garden had a soft opening in October 2015 and then closed for winter. Its first full season open to the public was last year. But since October, the master gardeners have made several major additions including a large kiosk to welcome visitors this spring.
Still, it’s not complete. More beds are being added to fill odd spaces between the main gardens, Burke noted. A large central area will someday be an outdoor classroom for school tours and other events.
“People are still discovering us,” said Celio, the master gardener coordinator. “Even people in El Dorado County don’t know we exist.”
At its heart, this is an educational garden, she said. It’s designed for teaching and inspiring gardeners of all ages. Every featured plant is labeled. Information on water use and deer resistance is part of that signage.
El Dorado County has 160 master gardeners, all trained and certified through the University of California’s Cooperative Education program. Those gardeners double as docents for visitors, leading free tours and hands-on demonstrations.
“It’s a master gardeners’ garden, not a community garden,” Burke explained. “Not just anybody can come in and pull a weed.”
Sherwood Demonstration Garden
What: A project of the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of El Dorado County
Where: 6699 Campus Drive, Placerville
When: 9 a.m.-noon Fridays and Saturdays, April 1-Oct. 31; plant sale 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, April 29