She keeps Jail Industries’ plants alive in the pandemic

A lot of people humanize their pets, but horticulturist Colleen Wheeler takes the interdependent connection to new levels. She unapologetically anthropomorphizes her plants.

Consider Sunchocola, a sensuous cherry tomato with a smokey flavor.

“If Sungold grew up and got class and threw dinner parties,” is how she describes the irresistible juicy tomato she never fails to grow season after season.

That’s not to say Sungold, everybody’s favorite pop-it-in-your-mouth garden candy, hasn’t also captured her tastes and a permanent spot in her summer garden, even if it doesn’t have the ravishing orange and “tawny shoulders ” of Sunchocola.

“It falls into that group of tomatoes you could pretty much put in a blender and pour it out in a dark closet and you could still somehow manage to get fruit off of it,” she said. “It will take abuse like nobody else. “

Wheeler has firm and colorful opinions about her plants and has no tolerance for anything that rates only a “meh” on the taste meter. So if you visit the Nursery at Jail Industries — they’re holding their first open house and plant sale Saturday, March 19 — expect the best.

“Every year I go and talk to my plant-nerd friends, and there’s lot of us. I hear about what they’re growing,” said Wheeler, who for 18 months has been heading up the nursery located at the North County Detention Facility , an annex of the Sonoma County Jail that has been emptied during the pandemic.

“Sometimes it’s something as silly as a name that ticks me. I usually buy five to six new varieties I’ve never tried before. I’ll bring them home and try them myself and make sure they’re something that does well.”

She also tries to stay in touch with some of the customers who take certain plants home. Wheeler is assessing more than taste — she wants to know which varieties are thriving, or not thriving, and where, in a county with so many microclimates. This is her market research.

“I’m making sure I’m asking a lot of questions of the people who have grown them. If they’re in a fog-belt area, I want to know how it does. Or if they’re in a really hot area,” she said. “There’s a lot of, let’s say, market research, bringing the customer into the trial process. Last year I brought in a variety that just sounded fantastic. It had a fun name. But it tasted like garbage water . So I’m not bringing it in this year.”

“Garbage water” is a term she throws out frequently to dismiss flavorless tomatoes that promise more in their appearance than they deliver in taste.

“I like feeling successful in the garden, and I feel like tomatoes are an excellent gateway. … (C)lose to 85% of people who do home veggie gardens have tomatoes.” she said. “So they’re terribly popular . They’re fun to see out in the garden. Before they even get in the kitchen, they’re this lovely eyeful. I really like having the colorful and striped ones, only if they can also bring the flavor.”

With some 6,000 varieties of tomatoes in the world, Wheeler is forced to be picky. She winnows her selection for sale down to 50 by selecting varieties that are not only flavorful, but are early-fruiting, long-fruiting or disease-resistant.

She loves varieties that are no-fail, so even newbie gardeners or busy people who benignly neglect their gardens can experience success. Everything she grows is held to a high performance standard for Sonoma County gardens.

Keeping the garden going

Since the pandemic began, Wheeler has run the nursery alone, doing almost everything herself to keep it going until low-risk inmates can return.

“I’m a lone wolf,” she admitted with a grin. But she acknowledged getting essential help from the Sonoma County Master Gardeners and support from the sheriff’s department and Five Keys Schools & Programs, for whom she works.

The county contracts with Five Keys to operate a high school program in the main jail, as well as to oversee Jail Industries, a vocational program that for years was under the Sonoma County Office of Education. When the longtime instructor retired and it became difficult to find a replacement, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office put the program out to bid and awarded it to Five Keys, which provides educational and employment help and community support programs for underserved communities, including at 25 jails.

For some 30 years, the nursery at Jail Industries has served as a vocational program for low-risk inmates at the North County Detention Facility. But after the bail requirement for low-risk people was ended to reduce crowding during the pandemic two years ago, the nursery was closed and remains closed indefinitely, said Sgt. Brian Gallaway, inmate services coordinator.

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