Local Gardeners and Master Gardener Steve and Kelly Pottenger

Jim’s Jungle has been a fixture in town for many years. Recently, as current owners, Steve and Kelly Pottenger, sat down with me at the end of a hot day in the fenced nursery location in front of the West Park Shopping Center, a shopper asked Kelly if they still had new plants coming in. With new plants coming in through the middle of June, I agree with the nice lady – even at the end of the planting season when the garden is stuffed full, it’s still hard to stop coming here to buy plants.

The name of this place is actually Potager’s Jungle, but it is hard to bend a great tradition to fit changing times. Potager is an Old English gardening term that these folks would like customers to become accustomed to as they settle in to the location they hope to make permanent. While Steve, Kelly, and their two kids Katie and Skyler bring years of knowledge to the colorful oasis among the pavement and cement along Grand, they are quick to explain that at home the environment is even more challenging to garden. I wanted to know more about that.

Steve told me right off the bat that at home “the water is not good, the soil is not good, the wind is nasty.” Our place does not look like this, he said with a swoop of his hand. While I can relate to those challenges of rural Montana gardening, I couldn’t imagine desolation where this kind of gardener lives. Of course they garden successfully – they figure out what is most hardy for this area when they take the last of the crop home to plant in those rough conditions. The plants that survive there are the toughest,
and prove to be what they recommend to folks next year that will take whatever the Montana summer can dish out. They have hanging baskets of colorful flowers and mix their own soil for pots full of vegetables, which last year they brought in to the sunny south window and enjoyed tomatoes in the living room all winter!
What are their favorite plants? That was hard for them to pin down, but Kelly’s favorite is gaillardia. She did say when she gardened in the Kalispell area she loved the begonias and dahlias, too. They just aren’t as well suited here. Steve enjoys all plants, but perennials in particular. He gardened in Reno for many years before returning to Billings.

Where did they get the willingness to experiment in these harsh Montana conditions? Both Steve and Kelly grew up with gardening dads and even while doing those unloved weeding chores never gave a second thought to the natural ebbs and flows of the backyard landscape. Kelly spoke of an activity at the local YMCA where she was able to introduce kids to their first experience with gardening. Realizing that there are so many kids who don’t grow up with that kind of daily practice made her appreciate what she had learned from her folks. It makes Steve and Kelly happy to encourage people of all ages to get in the backyard and grow things, and they see many younger folks coming to buy plants to produce their own home-grown food.

They are teaching new generations side by side with their own kids. Katie and Skyler are learning all aspects of the nursery business and have integral parts in the family operation. Steve says Katie is great at the till, and Skyler is a very reliable ‘yard’ man, helping customers and keeping the area running smoothly. They are also learning to practice safety – Kelly and Steve make sure everyone that works in the nursery use good gardening habits: stay hydrated, have access to shade and takes breaks in a cool, protected environment, and be mindful of using good tools and proper clothing.

Steve told me that one of the things he wants his fellow Master Gardeners here to know is how grateful he and Kelly are for their help on Saturdays in May. Handing out the leaflets with gardening tips and taking the time to have conversations with beginning gardeners is a wonderful treat for their customers, and they love to see people become even more interested and confident with the insight from the Master Gardeners who help out there. I let them know that as a Master Gardener I appreciate their business and having access to vibrant healthy plant materials delivered with a smile and thanked them for a lively interview!

Submitted by Corinna Sinclair

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