Big Sky Country

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

June 22, 2011

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.

Across 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.

Varieties That Win in the West
Organic Gardening asked Linda Stoudt to choose the vegetable varieties that perform and taste the best in her climate-challenged garden. Here, in her own words, are her top picks and seed sources:

‘Boltardy’ beet. I was pleasantly surprised with this beet; I usually grow ‘Bull’s Blood’ or ‘Early Wonder’. We canned pickled beets and made a nice horseradish-and-beet relish. (Pinetree Garden Seeds)

‘Fin des Bagnols’ bush bean. These are beautiful, prolific beans. We eat them as if they are asparagus, with our fingers. (The Cook’s Garden)

‘Giant Red’ celery. This tall vegetable with red stalks pleases the eye and palate. The flavor is assertive—not for those who like mild tastes. (High Mowing Organic Seeds)

‘True Black Brandywine’ tomato. This is the most beautiful tomato, and the flavor makes me swoon. Because of its size, it is a challenge to grow, but I have had remarkable success using areas that provide residual heat in the cool nights. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Kailaan (Chinese kale). This brassica did very well under row covers. The mild taste compliments pork and chicken. (Botanical Interests)

‘Ailsa Craig’ onion. This long-day onion keeps well for us, despite what catalog descriptions say, and does not become sulfurous. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds for seeds; Dixondale Farms for plants)

‘Krantz’, ‘Sangre’, ‘Carola’, and ‘Rose Finn Apple’ potatoes. I usually save tubers for planting each year. There were lunkers to behold last season. (Seed Savers Exchange and local sources)

‘Marina di Chioggia’ winter squash. Although the short season does not allow for the sugar warts to form, the squash harvested has been excellent sliced and grilled with olive oil and herbes de Provence. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)