Gardening happens all year round, and because the winter months are quite different here in Montana than they are in more southern locales we tend to seek out good conversations rather than weeds this time of year. I was able to catch up to Andrew Marble of Billings Nursery and Landscaping in December and he was gracious enough to grant me some phone time for a few questions and a nice chat about local gardening and landscaping.
Before I called Andrew, I took the time to do a little research on Billings Nursery with a visit to their website. It’s a really lovely site that gives a great nutshell history of the four generations of the Marble family that has created and sustains a great gardening resource for the greater Billings area. Second, third, and fourth generations of Marbles with their unique interests and talents (Andrew loves landscaping and construction, Jason is a pro with edible plants and home gardening, Richard is the nursery man and Bobbie masters small landscapes and beds) give the business a broad base from which to serve their customers. Sixty-four years and running – that‘s a fine run indeed. While Andrew isn’t aware of any certified Master Gardeners in the Marble bunch, he’s been eyeing the program for some time and is considering making the time for a class or two this year to meet more of the fine folks involved in Yellowstone County.
With all that experience and diversity, there is a wealth of advice and knowledge at hand. What is the most common mistake that these professionals see folks make in the garden and landscape? Andrew was quick to note that over-planting, specifically of woody shrubs and trees, is a very common tendency that causes folks problems. Though there’s a time and place for ‘cottage garden’ style, planting too densely leaves plants susceptible to insects and disease, results in a wild, unkempt appearance, and keeps the plants from developing to their full beauty and potential. He’s also a big fan of drip/automatic irrigation, but he observes that many customers still tend to over-water. Because we are in high plains desert with generally heavy soils, the plants that do best here don’t need or tolerate daily watering. While willows might love that, few other items in the lawn or garden will do well when the ground is saturated. It is better to have automatic systems set to run no more than every other day on turf (longer, not more often when it’s hottest and driest) and never more than once a day on garden areas.
I asked Andrew if there was one or a few simple things that anyone can do in the front yard to make it look great, even if they don’t have the proverbial ‘green thumb’. His word was ‘declutter’. Simplicity is attractive, he said, and low- or no-maintenance is just not realistic. Doing the weeding, trimming, and pruning that keep a front yard looking great is easiest when plants are not crowded (see question one) by each other or structures. Diligence when keeping areas free of seedling weeds and trees that come in on the wind pays off great dividends in the long run. Weed fabric is a great barrier for mulches and as a base when creating new landscapes, but they do not mean you will not have weeds. Choosing varieties that are more compact and that require less water is also important to having a yard that is most often performing at its best. Today there are many fun varieties of conifers and shrubs that require little to no pruning and low to moderate watering, and many cultivars of common garden favorites that do well in low-water xeriscapes.
This is one of the things that Andrew finds most positive about gardening in the last two or three decades – the great new cultivars that help more gardeners be successful in maintaining attractive and healthy spaces. While native plants are important and have a place in any ecosystem, most folks are unwilling or unable to deal with what it takes to manage a purely native landscape. Having cultivars available that are more compact for small yards, that are more drought or disease tolerant, and that spread less vigorously than their native ancestors make healthy, inviting spaces more accessible for more gardeners.
With the snow covering the landscape and my time with Andrew ending, I wanted to know what he felt was most important in preparing the hardy plants in a yard and garden for a Montana winter. “Balance,” he said. Cold temperatures are not such a big deal – it’s the quick freeze from a warm period or a vigorous freeze-thaw pattern that can wreak havoc. Finding a balance between withholding water from deciduous trees to induce hardening off in the fall and watering conifers well to prepare for the cold in the same landscape can be a trick, for certain. It’s even important to water those conifers during mild open (not snowy) spells in the middle of winter to keep those needles hydrated and healthy.
Thanks, Andrew, for taking the time to chat. May your gardens rest well!
Interview by: Corinna Sinclair