In its 17th season, Rattlesnake Plants melds experience and learning

Merriann Bell, owner of Rattlesnake Plants in Lyle, holds Maggie, one of three cats that roam around her nursery. Bell is in her 17th season as a grower of vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

Taking a ride up Lyle’s Old Highway 8 onto Canyon Road leads to the source of some of the Gorge’s happiest gardens.

Rattlesnake Plants is entering its 17th season overall and its fourth at its location off of Canyon Road. Previously, the nursery was located off of Husum’s Rattlesnake Road, where it gets its name.

“We didn’t own the other place, so that’s why we moved, because we bought this place,” Bell said.

Rattlesnake Plants provides starters for more than 150 varieties of organically grown vegetables, herbs, and flowers and rests on about a half-acre in four greenhouses tucked along a serene hillside. Bell meanders from greenhouse to greenhouse or to her barn and chicken coop tending to her fragile charges as her cats, Maggie, Mouse, and Gracie follow along and flit among the buildings.

It hasn’t always looked this way. When Bell and her husband bought the property it was a junk yard covered in rusting cars, broken glass, and old tires that took six months to clean up.

Plants haven’t always been Bell’s passion, either. Originally she attended the Culinary Institute of America and became a professional chef and pastry chef, which gave her the opportunity to travel all over the world, including when she took jobs in Eugene and eventually Hood River.

“When you start to age, even if you’re a traveler, you tend to want a home base. Somewhere in my 40s I felt that was what I wanted,” Bell said.

Rattlesnake Plants became that home base eventually, but before establishing her business she cavorted around the world, including five years in Antarctica. In the late 1970s Bell was hired by the National Science Foundation as a cook and then went back again with Greenpeace between 1987 and 1990.

“I loved it so much. It is the best thing I have ever done in my life,” she said.

The 1980s also allowed Bell to explore a serious interest in horticulture for the first time. Though she had been interested in gardening since she was a child working in the garden with her father, Bell learned some of what she knows about growing plants today from time spent in Vermont living in a tent on an employer’s property while working his market garden.

During that time, Bell was also able to learn some of the tricks of the trade from famed proponent of organic farming and her boss’s best friend, Eliot Coleman. She learned everything from mixing soil and fertilizer to running a greenhouse during that time.

“I picked up bits and pieces of their information and that’s what’s allowed me to do this job,” she said.

In 1993, Bell made the permanent move to Hood River and was ready to give up cooking professionally for the sole purpose of wanting to be outside.

“I hated being inside. I love to cook. I cook all of the time, but I hate being inside,” Bell said.

That led her to work for Good News Gardening for a few years while taking on side projects here and there, but in 1999 decided she wanted to go into business herself and so Rattlesnake Plants was born.

Bell’s starters are available for purchase at her website. Pre-orders must be placed by certain deadlines and pickup dates are scheduled by Bell. Her starters can also be found at Mother’s Marketplace in Hood River.

“There are five pickup dates and they’re two weeks apart and start in the middle of April and end in the middle of June, so that accommodates people who live in warmer places that can plant in April and people who live in cooler places who have to plant in June,” Bell said.

For the first 14 years of her business, Bell also took starters to the Hood River Saturday market on the regular, but will not be doing so this year.

“It was a big operation and after years of doing that I said ‘I’m tired.’ It was way worth it, but the actual packing and hauling became more of a drag every year. I’m almost 60 years old, so I’m entitled to back off a little,” Bell said.

Though all of Bell’s starters are grown by Oregon Tilth standards, Rattlesnake Plants is not certified organic, and that’s just fine with her.

“I grow to the same standards that organic growers adhere to,” she said.

That seems to be the case when it comes to her customers, as well. Bell said every winter she looks forward to seeing the people who buy her plants year after year and that their support has kept her growing, both in the dirt and as a business.

“My plants are super, super healthy and that’s because of the tailoring of the soil and fertilizer to accommodate the particular plants that I grow,” she said. “I really like and appreciate my customers. I’ve hardly lost a customer over the years and have become quite friendly with them and miss them over the winter.”

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