Sustainability…….

……..is not mowing every 4 days because dandelions are popping up therefore, making the place look unkempt.  This in an attempt to maintain the appearance of the front of the property where all the customers and diners come in; everything from parties of 20 red-hatters, to couples enjoying a Sunday brunch, to private parties of 70 Montana scientists socializing together over drinks and a garden view.

Ahh, so the “Eco-Sustainable B&B” and “Farm-Table Restaurant” don’t quite fit the description.  While they are serving spinach and salad greens and pea shoots from the garden behind the restaurant, everything else is coming on the SYSCO truck. 

View of the restaurant from my cabin

Granted, this is the first operation of its kind in Hamilton, MT, but still – this would never fly in Asheville.  If you’re going to call yourself a “Farm to Table” restaurant, I’m used to seeing 4 or 5 local meat entrees, a local cheese source, some varied radish, turnip or beet sides (Spring does limit somewhat what you can put on the local table, but please, not green beans for a spring menu item!)  Even the flour is outsourced while there is a huge Montana Wheat operation just an hour or so away.  So despite the disappointment with the facade of the operation, the garden still holds wonders and new things to learn and consider.

I’m working with “Farmer Paul,” not really a farmer since this is only a garden without the added cyclical elements of bird or beast (heck, there’s not even really a proper compost pile here.)  He’s been gardening organically for about 20 years now and has dealt with Montana soils for the majority of that time.  For starters, despite the dark gray-brown color, working in the soil is reminiscent of building sand castles on the shore; it’s so sandy here! 

My Montana Cabana

Weeds are incredibly shallow-rooted and pull super easily, it drains faster than the time it takes to hang the hose up and you can hear the grit on the floor of my cabin whenever you walk on it. (I have been vacuuming every few days.)  A few amendments had been made before I got here, mostly with ‘Moo Poo’ compost and a top-dressing of a small amount of homemade compost. (Most of the waste from the restaurant goes to the 20 or so chickens – from which we’re getting about 10 eggs a day.  Time for those 4 & 5 year olds to graduate to the stew pot and make room for a new wave of chicks, if you ask me.)

Nonetheless, 2 beds of Spring mix are on their second cutting now (salad greens are what’s known as “cut-and-come-again” plantings, because you can lop off the tops of the growth down to the stem and a couple of weeks later they will have regenerated into new green tips – same shape and all; just watch for the bitterness factor with each subsequent cutting.)  The spinach germination was so-so, but we’re still able to get about 30 lbs. a week.  The pea vines are about 10″ tall now and we spent some time constructing trellises for them out of T-posts with twine strung up at 8″ up-steps to provide support and ease of picking as the vines really take off.  The potatoes (a few varieties from red to pink to blue to purple to a Yukon,) are looking vibrant and healthy and popping up with great regularity throughout all the beds. 

View to the North

Some of our main struggles are upkeeping the beds; last year, before Paul was hired, WWOOFers comprised the entire garden crew, so a few of the projects – though good-intentioned, I’m sure – ended up a little off-kilter.  The raised beds were dug up so that the top soil became subsoil and the rocky/sandy texture of the subsoil became exposed to the air and gave us what we’re predominantly cultivating on right now.  Also, the diameter of the beds is a bit too long, so with each subsequent planting we’re trying to level out the bed a little bit more to make more path space to bed space – this helps greatly with leaning over to harvest or pick and squash potato beetles in the early morning when the back and knees aren’t quite warmed up yet.  We also have many ‘volunteers’ popping up; by that I mean random heads of lettuce popping up in the basil beds, many unknown flowers germinating in the Spring mix bed and a wholke blanket of arugula right in front of the garden gate where we can’t help but walk right across it.  These surprises are due to a falling through of garden maintenance last year and letting numerous crops go to seed, then die back or get tilled under.  So hearty though they are, they’re both uninvited and unwanted in the middle of beds inhabited by such things as bunching onions which need room to grow and bulb out. (Makes you rethink your definition of a ‘weed’ doesn’t it?)

The hoop-house though, is a thing of inspiration.  A layout featuring alternating rows of tomato-basil companion plantings with other rows of cukes, zuchinnis, eggplant and peppers, along with a few pots of rosemary (here in Zone 4-5, rosemary will not get taken out of containers which can easily be used to carry them into the house to overwinter; they wouldn’t even survive in the unheated high-tunnel,) and some starting flats of lettuces, broccoli, kohlrabi, more cukes, fennel and thyme.

Snow caps can last all year; and it's snowed in every month of the year here

Not only is the hoop-house inspiring, it’s also quite necessary here in a part of the country that only has a 3-month growing season.  That’s 90 days people.  Brussel’s sprouts and corn alone can take up to 120 days to mature!  Being resourceful and implementing any season extenders available is crucial to livelihood farming here. (Btw, elevation is at about 3500ft.)

Though the officially recognized frost date is June 1st, Paul says in his experience it’s definitely best to wait until the 10th to plant any frost-wimpy plants – so this week will be a planting extravaganza.  That is, if the rain will hold off for a day!  Here in Western Montana the climate is dry and dry, with a large range of hot and cold.  But ever since I arrived last week, we’ve had at least drizzles every day.  This is both a blessing and a curse for this climate; for one,

My back deck overlooking Sleeping Child Creek

it means that it’s preventing forest fire danger from rising this season, but two, it also means that more low-growth with be dying back in the fall creating more dry brush with a tendency to ignite when the regular dryness sets back in.  This is a relatively micro-example of how cause-and-effect can be far removed from each other.  Also, how you maintain (or not) your garden one season can keep affecting it for many seasons to come. (Just ask the amaranth, aka: pigweed.  It’s seeds can lie dormant in the soil for up to 30 years before deciding to germinate! Just try to rid yourself of that one.)

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