Big Sky Country

Defying unruly weather and a short growing season, Montana gardeners grow and prosper.

By Therese Ciesinski

Photography by Andrew Geiger


Big Sky Country Most folks, it’s safe to say, when looking to retire somewhere new, choose a place where the weather is warmer, drier, or at least similar to what they’re used to. Given the choice, most of us would take short sleeves over snowshoes, Palm Beach over the Bitterroots. Linda and Bill Stoudt did the opposite. The Stoudts lived much of their lives in Camden, New Jersey. A cross-country drive in 1985 brought them to Montana.

“We did not know a soul in Montana, but the land had a definite pull,” says Linda, an artist who spent 6 years as part of the installation team at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So in late 1993, when Bill retired after 30 years teaching high-school Spanish, they moved to the outskirts of Stevensville, a small town near the Idaho border, 35 miles south of Missoula.

This land has its pull, but it pushes back, hard. Bill Stoudt’s “Toto, we’re not in Camden anymore” moment came on a visit in 1992: “I passed a garden laden with corn and tomatoes, ripe and ready for picking. The plants were dusted with snow. I was amazed—it was August.”

All gardens prosper or fail at the whim of the weather, but when it comes to gardening calamities, Montana is an overachiever: hailstorms that turn ripening crops into broken pulp, snow in August, frost by Labor Day, below-zero temperatures, and smoky wildfires that block out the sun for days on end. “Sometimes the weather can bring you to your knees,” Linda says. Perhaps not coincidentally, Montana is also one of the country’s least populated states.

At 3,200 feet above sea level, the Stoudts’ property lies at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains. The Bitterroot Valley is known locally as the “banana belt,” because winters are milder and summers cooler than in the rest of the state. The climate is “not terribly cold or terribly hot,” Linda says—as long as you don’t consider 14 degrees below zero terribly cold.

Gardening has long been a part of Linda’s life. “I was a member of the Camden City Garden Club and loved the connection the community gardens gave to people, nature, and each other,” she says. Their row house had only a small yard; the open space and abundance of light in Montana frees Linda to garden on a bigger scale.

Now, 18 years later, six gardens, all organic, dot the property. Some nestle against structures, absorbing the reflected heat; others stand independently. All are fenced against the white-tailed deer that stroll around like photogenic eating machines. Only a fraction of the property’s nearly 10 acres is in cultivation, but its productivity is such that the Stoudts eat largely from the garden more than 10 months a year. That’s no mean feat when your growing season is a scant 12 weeks long.