Big Sky Country

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

By Therese Ciesinski

Photography by Andrew Geiger

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Big Sky CountryAcross the slough—a barely moving afterthought of the Bitterroot River— lies what they call the Big Garden. In it, they grow beets, broccoli, peas, zucchini, winter squash, and onions of all kinds. Apple trees grow in the center. The beds are mounded soil without frames. Between rotating the beds and tilling, Linda finds that frameless beds are easier to navigate. Pathways are layers of newspapers mulched with straw. She makes her own compost, adding sheep manure and guinea-hen waste and bedding. This year the Big Garden was left fallow for the first time since it was built 18 years ago. Fallow, but not empty; Linda planted a cover crop of Austrian winter peas to help recharge the soil.

“In New Jersey, eggplants and tomatoes were easy. Getting tomatoes to mature here is tough,” she says. “Our standby is ‘Glacier’. You can tell by the name that it’s good for cold areas. It’s not as voluptuous as many tomatoes are, but it’s dependable.” And for the most part, keeping the cold at bay is the aim of Montana gardeners.  Linda learned that “50-pound paper grain bags work wonders retaining heat at night, especially slipped over caged tomatoes.”

While the zucchini and basil varieties the Stoudts grew in New Jersey can withstand Montana’s elements, most of what Linda now grows are varieties acclimated to the shorter growing season and colder temperatures (see “Varieties That Win in the West,” page 52). Necessity spurred Linda’s interest in “the wonders of winter squash and its myriad varieties.” It’s now her favorite vegetable.

Whatever the Stoudts don’t eat fresh, they preserve: tomato sauce, pear and plum jams, pickled beets. Beans, celery, and leeks go into the freezer. Carrots, potatoes, garlic, and onions are stored in the pump house.

Seven guinea hens, garrulous birds that were acquired for the stewpot, received clemency when Linda found they were “more entertaining to watch than TV.” They joined the 24 ducks on insect patrol. Maddie, a beagle, and Sonrisa (Spanish for “smile”), an Aussie/border collie mix, oversee all.

Once summer arrives—their last frost was June 8—the Stoudts make the most of it. Meals are taken in the “summer dining room,” at the edge of an aspen grove. The table is made from an old door, painted green, surrounded by a hodgepodge of colorful chairs. Tucked here and there are quirky finds, most from the property: a cowboy boot turned birdhouse; antlers, smooth as marble, as door handles; wagon wheels made into gates. An old blue truck slumbers at the edge of the meadow, where Elvis, a paint horse, roams. And in the background, Saint Mary Peak never lets you forget where you are.

The garden yields another harvest of a more permanent kind. Linda is a painter, working in oils. Some of her favorite subjects are the vegetables she grows. Dinner’s first stop may be her studio, not the kitchen: An onion is as likely to sit for a painting as it is in a skillet.

“There is a beautiful surface to a carrot or potato moments after it is removed from the earth; it is a fleeting condition before the air dries the skin,” Linda explains. “I marvel at the vital juices that emerge from a sliced vegetable. I am attracted to shiny paint surfaces, and thus the dewy skin of a carrot or slick slice of tomato captures my attention. The act of raising and preparing food, observing the life cycles, inspires my art.”

Linda says her work “reflects the transience of all things.” Gardeners, maybe more than most people, must make their peace with impermanence. We watch as our gardens sprout, bloom, ripen, and fade. It doesn’t matter where we live. Summer is never long enough.

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