It took Theresa Shaw by surprise when her oldest son gained an interest in gardening five years ago. Fifteen-year-old Michael Shaw hadn’t shown much attraction to the activity until that point, but he has remained committed to the task over the past half-decade.
His commitment has paid off. Last month, he won the sole proprietorship category in the first Sheridan County Youth Business Ventures Competition and a $500 prize. Shaw named his small business “Hortus,” which means garden in Latin, one of his favorite school subjects.
Shaw began gardening when his family moved to its current home about 6 miles east of Sheridan on Highway 335. He sells all sorts of vegetables and gourds, including pumpkins, winter squash, watermelon, corn, peas, potatoes and lettuce.
Most days, Shaw weeds the garden for a few hours in the morning with his younger brother, then transplants and waters the produce in late afternoon and early evening.
His production has increased over the years, and he currently works on about 10 plots and a pumpkin patch.
Gardening is a significant time commitment, but Shaw is fine with that.
“I’m not sure why, but I do (enjoy it),” he said.
Pumpkins are Shaw’s favorite things to grow. Decorative gourds — a relative rarity — were his most popular item at farmers markets last year.
“There aren’t very many vendors who sell decorative things,” Shaw said. “I liked ornamental pumpkins a lot. It’s hard to find them, so I thought it would be good to grow them.”
The family keeps most of the food, but Shaw sells a fair share at farmers markets throughout summer and fall. Shaw has also sold organic heirloom winter squash to the Good Health Market since fall 2016.
Good Health Market co-owner Keith Klement said the vegetables add fall colors to the store. Customers enjoy the squash for both consumption and decoration.
“It provides a nice little niche of a time that’s kind of both fun and flavorful,” Klement said. “They’re kind of unique in how they look and they have a good, quality taste. They’re things that you don’t normally see in your everyday grocery store.”
Shaw controls most of the garden’s produce. He has learned a lot over the past few years, especially the importance of starting early and the hobby’s inherent unpredictability. He mainly planted pumpkins and gourds in the first year, most of which were destroyed by an early frost. The second year, most of the garden was ruined by a hail storm.
“When I first started, I wasn’t really successful,” Shaw said. “It was fun but it didn’t work very well. I was still learning, and I’m still learning now. It takes a really long time to get good at this.”
Shaw said the toughest part is figuring out priorities and timing. He grows mostly transplants that he puts into the plots when the soil is ready. That has been an issue because of semiregular rainfall this year, which makes it difficult to plant anything for a few days. Planning ahead can also be challenging because the growing season depends heavily on weather.
“There are so many different types of vegetables and some are similar but they all have different needs and are planted at different times,” Theresa Shaw said. “There are just a lot of plates you have to keep spinning.”
Clarke McClung is chair of the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and was one of the youth business ventures judges. McClung said Michael Shaw’s practical experiences stood out in the competition. Shaw also demonstrated the specific need for additional funding to improve his business.
Shaw asked for better netting during his youth business ventures presentation, which will shield the crops from hail and prevent birds from eating the corn. If Shaw can show his prize earnings have been put to good use, he will receive an additional $500 in fall.
McClung is excited about a young person like Shaw selling fresh food because most local producers are older in age.
“It’s like, ‘Who’s going to grow some produce down the road?’” McClung said. “So, to me it’s kind of cool that maybe he will — it may not be here — choose to do that either as a hobby or as a career.”
Although it surprised his family initially, Michael Shaw has a growing business on his hands.