After a solid winter in Montana that first warm spell is hard to resist. For some of us it’s the bright packets of seeds that start to show up in stores, for some the dog-eared seed catalogues, for others the smell of waking earth puts us right over the edge. We tend to seek out our favorite places to buy garden or seed starting supplies, and one of my favorites is Harvest Tech.

Harvest Tech 2017

When I first got to Billings (about six years ago) I worked down the street from Heightened Harvest. Since then that neighborhood, 1415 S. 32nd Street West, has changed a little (they have new neighbors) and so has the sign out front. Michael Dayton is now co-owner with his wife, Amanda Williams, and they’ve changed the name to Harvest Tech. Mike owned the business with his brother (its first location in the Heights opened about eight years ago) and in late summer last year bought out his interest. On my most recent visit I found the store to be as tantalizing as the first time I saw it.

I have a greenhouse background so on my first visit I couldn’t help but wish I’d lived closer to this place during those twenty years. One can set up a complete hydroponic operation with supplies bought here, but their real priority is natural and organic gardening. Mike kindly granted me a little impromptu time for a quick chat over the counter. I asked if he was a Master Gardener – he was immediately familiar with the program but he (like me until recently) hadn’t been able to put together both the time and the timing to commit to it himself. As I explained my role with the newsletter, we talked about our gardening roots a bit. Mike doesn’t remember NOT gardening, really – “Mom had a 2000 square-foot organic garden” at their home here in Billings, so it was just part of life growing up. He’s lived other places, too, but never really had the chance to garden anywhere but here.

Mike is an avid gardener of things to eat. His preference is to “grow small”, using pots and containers to conserve space and to give each plant the environment it likes best. I asked if he chooses specific species for container gardening, and he said he really doesn’t and that often he finds the fruits and vegetables, like his tomatoes, tend to be sweeter and more flavorful even though yields might be smaller. His eyes twinkled a little, and then I understood what he meant when he told me his favorite part of gardening was eating… He does prefer to start plants from seed but finds it difficult to stay away from the nurseries with all the new varieties and ready-to-plant starts.

We agreed that one of the most challenging things about gardening here is timing plantings with the shifts between winter and spring and spring and summer. Cold frames and the right protection can help, but one of those fast, late spring freezes can overwhelm your plans quickly and set you back to starting over. Mike mentioned that one of his peeves is wind, which can also wreak havoc quickly, burning tender leaves and drying out even the most carefully watered garden.

Mike likes to use automatic watering, called micro-irrigation when used specifically for pots and containers, to address the problems that wind, drought, and heat can dish up. This frees up time and helps him keep things balanced even in the extremes we can endure in our summer months.

I asked Mike what kinds of things he does to avoid the dangers of gardening, like blisters, sore muscles, bug bites, and heat stroke. He had to think about this one for a minute, as if it wasn’t something that he did on purpose. As we talked he realized that he does several things that probably make a big difference in keeping him out of harm’s way. He gardens in the morning and evening, avoiding the heat of the day, but if he has to be out later in the morning or into the afternoon he wears long sleeves, hats, and sunscreen. He wears leather gloves as a rule, as well as long pants and sturdy shoes. We determined this is probably why he isn’t bothered much by bug bites and stings, sore muscles, and other injuries.

I had a great chat with Mike, and I couldn’t help but look around the store and ask what he thought was going to be a hot item this year. It’s tomato blueberry seeds… Yep, I’ll be back!

Submitted by Corinna Sinclair

Master Gardener Interview – Joan Miller

Joan Miller was born and raised in Flint, MI along with her two brothers and family. Her parents didn’t have a garden but did have a nice yard. She taught school in Flint for two years before moving to the mountains in Jardine, MT to teach in Gardiner.

Joan planted potatoes and carrots in Jardine to help with winter stores, except one year a huge grizzly bear ate every carrot in the garden! She had a very good friend across the road who gardened and had a greenhouse. Betty Wormsbecker played a huge role in teaching Joan about growing a garden at 6200’ and first try at canning, which she still does every year. A master gardener program with Cheryl Moore Gough as the instructor was advertised in the Livingston paper; unfortunately the class was filled by the time Joan applied, so in 2011 she signed up for the program in Billings.

After teaching in Gardiner for 12 years and then Mammoth for 16 years, the Mammoth School was closed in 2008. Joan and her husband, Christopher, moved to Bridger, Montana. Christopher began building a fence for a garden with 11’x7” posts and large gates to accommodate heavy equipment. Remember they were used to gardening with buffalo, elk and bear. She had attended a class on square foot gardening at the Billings Public Library and chose that format for the new garden. Christopher made her 11 – 4’x4’ boxes and 3 – 2.5’x8’ boxes. She also has a 12’x32’ open area in the enclosure as well. Outside the fence is where the rhubarb, compost and more flowers reside. She was told by some “old- time” gardeners that only 85-90 year old ladies have flowers in a vegetable garden. Her brother-in-law practices “no till” gardening and she is trying to implement that method even though the old guys rototill their gardens every year and have beautiful produce.

It would be easier to list what Joan doesn’t plant, but her favorites are beans, carrots, potatoes, eggplant, cabbage, onions, cukes, tomatoes, acorn squash and raspberries. She loves sweet peas, sunflowers of all kinds, coneflowers, black-eyed susans, lungwort, Lady’s mantle, and geraniums (of which she brings about 20 pots into the garage for the winter). She also has roses as a living memory of her grandfather from Poland.

Joan has spent her volunteer hours at the Special K Ranch, Geranium Fest and Farmers Market. She is currently the president of the Community Bloom, Etc. garden club which cares for the flower beds and tubs at the Bridger Library. She also belongs to the Big Sky Iris Club.

To new members, she says “be brave” and try new things. You should also be prepared to put in the work (Joan calls it play for a better frame of mind) if you expect to garden. Whatever you do, do it with love…. planting, weeding, keeping things tidy. Your garden can become a place for miracles. Sounds like a perfect place for an outing. Thank you for sharing, Joan.


Submitted by Sheri Kisch

Master Gardener Interview – Nick Nicoll

Nick Nicoll was born in Scotland and lived there with his family until arriving in Boston at one year, 10 days old. He lost his two sisters at an early age and his father passed away at an early 47. His mother and brother are still living in the US.

Nick’s wife, Vicki, works in an accounting office and they have three children ages 29, 25 and 21. Two are working in art and the youngest is studying microbiology.

Nick returned to Scotland for a year when in the fourth grade and remembers his grandfather’s Victory Garden, the smell of the soil, the garden shed with all the tools and watching plants grow. He also traveled all over the world while in the Air Force, opening new ideas and learning from different countries. He likes to take classes and happened to see one advertised for Master Gardeners about six years ago. The information he gained about soil, amendments, compost and trees was just what he was looking for. He very much likes science and learning.

Nick is also a people person and enjoys meeting and working with other gardeners at field trips; classes; and the gardens at the Zoo, Metra, St. Andrew’s; and judging at the Billings Clinic Science Fair. He is a “tree guy” and found the classes from Master Gardeners on pruning, growing, planting and seeing the “old survivors” in Billings very useful.

Insects and disease are the most challenging aspects of gardening for Nick (you’re not alone). To have everything growing well till one morning you see white (powdery mildew) on the zucchini is disheartening. Nick has kept a log when gardening. He notes what was planted, when, where, problems and harvest. Is the plant worthy of trying again or not?

His favorite garden vegetable is Sweet Baby Girl tomatoes – the sweetest cherry tomatoes. He has also been growing Globe Thistles so that he can use their likeness as part of the logo for his business. The garden area and compost spot have had to move a couple of times in the past years to make room for sheds to hold wood that will be made into furniture and other items, his first creative passion. Nick is an artist and has recently started painting. I just had to ask the question from PBS’s “A Craftsman’s Legacy”, “Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman?” He is artist first and as a craftsman is able to bring his inspirations to life.

We are very lucky to have such a knowledgeable person as Nick with our Master Gardeners group.

Submitted by Sheri Kisch

Featured Master Gardener Gail Tesinsky

Gail Tesinsky is not a person; she‘s a force of energy. I kept holding myself to the chair, thinking I would fly around the room at any moment from so many ideas during the interview. Her blond hair, bright eyes, red sweater, and bound-less enthusiasm really brightened that gray afternoon! She does not recall not gardening. Having been raised in a family of ten, everyone participated in growing flowers and vegetables. Her preferred way of learning is hands-on. Working with her hands brings her joy. She is a former hairdresser, transferring many of those manual skills plus knowledge of design and aesthetics to her rock and vegetable gardens.

Gail has worked at a Laurel greenhouse for eight years, so the MG class was a mere enhancement of a long relationship with gardening. The business recently changed ownership. The new owners recognize and cherish her knowledge, while she appreciates their willingness to learn. Not only has her learning about gardening come from work and experimenting on her one-and-a-third acre, sun room, and greenhouse. She has taken numerous online gardening courses, often through the ‘provenwinners’ website, to keep herself growing. In her greenhouse, she winters cannas, geraniums, and petunias. I imagine they’re busting out right now from her attentiveness!

For the future, Gail looks forward to the upright petunias which are being developed as I write. She has so much knowledge that I only have space to share some top-tens: never use fresh manure (I assume due to pesticides not having had time to break down), and chicken manure is the best if you use any at all; pots are great for the elderly, so they don’t have to bend so far. Gail grows tomatoes and cucumbers in pots. Pay attention to low temperatures in the spring, since some annuals, notably coleus, do not tolerate temperatures in the 35-45 F degree range. She didn’t used to cut back perennials because they fed birds and served as protection, but she does cut them back now, and they perform beautifully. And insect infestation is typically preceded by extreme temperature changes. Consider neem oil and vinegar to address insects. Lamium is her favorite perennial, partially because it adjusts to varying light conditions. What a wise sage she is! Another super idea – her grandchildren have a Grand-children Garden. Will she consider adoption?

I hope too that Gail teaches a class on gardening where deer live. She’s a walking fount of information. ‘Fine, Fuzzy, and Fragrant’ plants keep them away. The best plant for shooing them is Datura. Keep apples cleaned up to keep deer visits infrequent. Squirrels help with knocking down apples! If provided the opportunity, deer will ruin apple trees. She also hangs CD’s in her yard to spook them away.

In her words, she loves the MG program. Her involvement included the Moss Mansion and the Zoo, where she donated plants, although in the past few years she has worked primarily with Chris Smith on the downtown courtyard. In her spare time… where does she get it? She races cars and works at Michael’s during dormant season. She draws the line at irrigating and mowing, leaving those tasks to others. And the true mark of a Master Gardener: her favorite television show: don’t call if AG LIVE is airing.


Interview by: Bess Lovec

Featured Gardener Andrew Marble

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

Featured Master Gardener – Rick Shotwell

I really like Rick’s approach to gardening, unlike mine.  I constantly feel like I should be weeding, have weeded, or plan to weed.  His yard does not synchronize with his quote about weeding, though!

Rick can’t remember when he hasn’t gardened because, as he says, there is something about Shotwells and tomatoes.  His uncles routinely competed with each other for raising the best ones.  His grandfather went so far as to sneak out of the nursing home and plant tomatoes among the shrubs.  Rick has no idea where his grandfather got the tomato plants or seeds.  This tradition apparently will continue, since his granddaughter latched onto his cherry tomatoes and told her mother that she wants to grow her own food.  Rick saves seeds from tomato plants and rotates the plants’ locations to maintain the family competition.

He finds satisfaction in growing his own food, and currently produces corn, cucumbers, and hot peppers for a mutual friend of ours, plus other vegetables.  Rick experimented with corn this past summer but considers the results poor due to lack of enough sunlight.  He plans to change the direction of his cucumber trellis from north/south to an easterly/westerly direction.  So this Master Gardener, who took the classes twice, continues to learn and grow.  The MG Program consistently promotes modesty:  When I first phoned Rick, he claimed to know nothing, an understatement if there ever was one!  The MG program introduced him to different ideas, and he means that in a positive slant.  Taking the classes twice helped to solidify the information for him.  I plan to do so as well.  My first round of classes felt like my face was in an open fire hydrant.  I only recall random snippets.

His greatest challenge is finding enough area in his urban setting.  He has reworked it, putting in sprinklers and re-sodding his front yard three years ago.  And earwigs taking root in his corn this summer provided another challenge.  From a design standpoint, Rick claims that anything looks good in a pot, and that is where flowers go at his place.  He prefers keeping lilacs trimmed.

During his four years in the U.S. Navy, Rick was a brown water sailor, which means he worked in the coastal waters, including two tours of Viet Nam, although he prefers discussing gardening.  In reflecting about his eight years as a Master Gardener, he found particular pleasure while helping with the Special K Ranch.  Lately Rick volunteers at the Metra.  His advice to gardeners is to enjoy the process and be patient.  Did gardening teach Rick patience, or is he truly a patient person among few?  My inkling is the latter.


Submitted by Bess Lovec