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Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants: Elva Manquera-DeShields

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Photo courtesy Sanctuary OneElva works with students from Central Medford High School to harvest basil and tomatoes for ACCESS.
Photo by Rhonda NowakElva Manquera-DeShields increases access to gardens and gardening through her work as program manager of the gardens at Sanctuary One.
Photo courtesy Sanctuary OneStudents from Central Medford High School helped build some of the raised beds in the learning garden at Sanctuary One.
Photo by Rhonda NowakElva shows one of the raised beds in the learning garden at Sanctuary One. The lid and metal screen keeps ground squirrels out of the bed.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about women gardeners in the Rogue Valley.

“It is hard to open yourself up to new experiences if your mind is full of toxic feelings, but smell cuts through that effect. It is the most powerful and primitive of our senses because the nose is in direct communication with the amygdala and the centers for emotion and memory deep within the brain.”

— Sue Stuart-Smith, “The Well-Gardened Mind,” 2020

When Elva Manquera-DeShields was growing up on a small farm in Riddle, a huge lilac bush grew by the corner of her house. In the spring, when the flowers were in bloom and the windows were open, Elva remembers, her whole house smelled of lilacs.

She didn’t know why the fragrance of the flowers was so satisfying, but the memory of those smells and the happy feelings they evoked stuck with her. Today, in her role as program manager of the gardens at Sanctuary One in the Applegate Valley, Elva provides multisensory experiences with plants for children, teens and adults.

Sanctuary One at Double Oak Farm outside of Jacksonville is a refuge for all kinds of animals: dogs, cats, horses, goats, pigs, even alpacas. The mission of the nonprofit organization is to provide a place where “people, animals and the earth work together for mutual healing.” As part of the goal to promote environmental stewardship, Sanctuary One has about 35,000 square feet of garden space.

Elva works with schools, service organizations and other groups to bring visitors to the farm’s learning garden, permaculture garden and fruit forest. The learning garden has about a dozen vegetable, herb and ornamental beds, including a bed called the sensory garden. Several raised beds were built by Eagle Scouts, students from Central Medford High School and volunteers at Sanctuary One.

Most of the produce grown in the garden is donated to ACCESS emergency food pantries. Produce for the farm animals is donated by local grocery stores, but the farm animals provide manure for the garden compost bins. I asked Elva what she thinks people gain the most from being in the gardens.

“For a lot of people, being outside in a calm, beautiful place is very therapeutic,” Elva said. “Getting to work with their hands, being in that environment and knowing that what they’re doing is also benefiting someone else, gives people something to look forward to.”

One of Elva’s favorite activities is to teach visitors to the learning garden how to make comfrey tea as a natural fertilizer. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is an herbaceous perennial with a long taproot and large root system that can pull up nutrients from deep in the soil. That’s why the plant has high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as many trace elements. Elva shows visitors how to soak comfrey in a bucket of water for a few weeks, drain off the liquid, and then apply as a foliar spray and soil drench to garden plants.

“I really enjoy helping people learn new techniques that they can take home and use in their own garden,” Elva said. “A lot of people in the groups do not have space for a garden, so this is where they get to grow food to help other people.”

Elva sees her work at Sanctuary One for the past two years as a rewarding culmination of her lifelong love for the natural world and her educational background (she earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from OSU and a master’s in environmental education at SOU). I asked Elva what her goals for the gardens are in the next couple of years. She said she hopes to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible raised beds, and she wants to turn the orchard into a food forest by planting berry bushes, edible ground covers and root crops along with the fruit trees.

Elva is always thinking about new ways to bring people and gardens together. “Many people don’t get the opportunity to experience nature,” Elva said. “One of the things that I love about my work is that I get to bring nature to them.”

Elva’s favorite plant

“I love any plant that flowers and attracts pollinators. We have a pollinator garden at Sanctuary One and I love watching all the insects buzz around from flower to flower.”

Women who have inspired Elva

“Alexis Nikole Nelson has been an inspiration to me. She finds uses for plants that are anywhere. I love that she connects people to nature by showing them what they can find in their own neighborhood. She is an amazing educator and all-around fun person.” (Nelson runs a popular TikTok program called Black Forager, where she shares food foraging tips as she explores her neighborhood in Ohio.)

Stories that have inspired Elva

“What inspires me is when I see stories about city gardens and the success they have providing education and fresh fruit and vegetables to a community that may be in a food desert.”

For more about Elva and her work with gardens and plants, check out this week’s Literary Gardener podcast at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.