My husband calls it "topsy-turvy gardening" — me writing about gardening in Montana for a column called Diggin' Florida Dirt.
I laughed at Ben's great gardening joke until I realized it probably wasn't one. Has he ever heard of the Topsy Turvy Tomato Planter? I doubt it. I've never tried it. But I do know that it works — with some effort. Turning Montana gardening upside down is lots easier, especially with help from Angie Olsen, the exceptionally artistic owner of Angie's Greenhouse in Columbia Falls, Mont.
But first, some background.
I flew out to Glacier National Park in Montana on July 31 to meet Ben, who'd headed off July 1 on a solo Man Trip. He left home with a carload of Bob Seger CDs, fishing poles, lots of new, white V-neck T-shirts, and his trusty road atlases (remember those?).
Ben retired a few months ago, but I'm far too young for that, so I planned to join him for just a week.
For you travelers: Ben says he's glad Glacier was the last stop of his rambling road trip. If it had been his first, he says, he'd have been disappointed in all the rest. As for me, a Vermont native who would risk it all to buy bootleg bottled mountain if I could, this stretch of the Rockies tucked up in northwestern Montana proved dangerously addictive.
Whitebark pine trees, some approaching 1,000 years old, climb the higher reaches of the park's 175 mountains. Those peaks glisten with ice tiaras year-round. Sadly, the glaciers are melting. The number of true glaciers now stands at about 25, down from 150 in 1850. Some scientists predict they'll all be gone by 2030. (So you better go soon!)
Cedar, hemlock, spruce, birch and cedar trees shade many of the park's lower 1 million-plus acres. Where fires have cleared the canopy, you can find more than 1,000 native wildflowers. When I visited, lavender fireweed blooms ruled.
Gardeners up there are in zone 4a. They're likely to get their first frost at the start of September and their last in June. While that sounds outrageously brutal to me, I found we share many of the challenges Montana gardeners face.
"The No. 1 problem customers have is weeds; we have quite a few noxious weeds," says Angie, 41, whose family moved to Montana from Washington state when she was a teenager.
"We have big challenges from the weather, too. … I just had a gardener bring in a leaf from a plant that he thought was getting eaten by something. The leaf was torn; it hadn't been eaten. I told him there was probably a hailstorm when he wasn't home."
Angie lures passers-by into her nursery on Highway 2 with colorful blooms spilling from old trucks: a panel truck, a Model A that belonged to her father-in-law, a pickup she bought at a tractor show.
"People will lay down in the road to take pictures," she says. "I found a picture of my trucks on Pinterest!"
She can't plant annuals and perennials in the soil around the vehicles because it has been ruined by salt sprayed on the highway in winter. She came up with a fix that should also work for those of us with uncooperative "soil": landscape fabric. She puts it under the trucks, under their hoods — everywhere — and creates pockets for the plants.
"I put potting soil on top of the fabric (in pockets), and when the soil gets bad, I just clean it up and replace it," she says.
Landscape fabric also comes in handy for the vertical gardens she creates by screwing together two wooden pallets, flat sides out, and attaching them to posts in the ground. She lines them with the fabric and adds potting soil and a drip line.
"My husband told me it would never work!"
Angie, the mother of five children, ages 8 to 19, says the part of her job she loves best is getting creative.
"You have to have fun with gardening. Finding ways around the problems — and we all have them — is part of that," she says. "It should never feel like work!"
Visit Angie's Greenhouse at angiesgreenhouse.com.
Glacier National Park, (nps.gov/glac) is open year-round but most facilities are open only late May to early September. A highlight of the park is Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 48-mile architectural masterpiece that traverses the mountains. Tens of thousands of native plants are propagated each year for use in the park. The native plant nursery generally is open from April to October, with tours conducted at 10 a.m. Tuesdays.
Reach Penny Carnathan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check her blog at www.digginfladirt; chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt or on Twitter, @DigginPenny.