New Leadership: Dara Palmer

On a late summer day, I met with Dara Palmer and her partner to discuss her new leadership role as Montana Master Gardener Coordinator. Since Dara worked with Toby for six and a half years, the transition seems less daunting, although Toby’s and Dara’s personae and styles are very different. We receive benefits of both! Specific goals and attention to detail excite Dara. As a big thinker, she plans to accomplish lots while in her new role.

MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

Incidentally, ‘Dara’ rhymes with ‘Sara.’ Her new position began this past July. Prior to this achievement, she earned her Horticulture Bachelor’s of Science degree from MSU (Bozeman) and has completed all levels of the MG program. She really knows the nuances. Prior to the position as Toby’s assistant, Dara worked as a landscaper and in a greenhouse for a combined total of 12 years, so her depth of knowledge and experience in gardening reign formidable.

Toby has not left us. He continues to write Mont Guides plus bulletins and serves on the weekly Ag Live PBS television show. In addition, he continues as state Horticultural Specialist, conducts workshops, and is very involved with Heritage Orchards in Montana. When clarifying what he continues to do, I wonder how he managed it before and can even keep track with his various on-going duties! We wish him well in his future numerous endeavors and hope he will stay in contact.

Dara shared lots of information about the Montana MG program. Level 3 did not occur in 2016, but in 2017, 25 people attended. In no particular order, Billings, Great Falls, Helena, and Gallatin County boast the most active associations. Bravo, Billings! Gallatin County did not have a County Extension Agent at the time of this interview. Their former Volunteer Coordinator is none other than Dara. I asked about government cutbacks: Cutbacks will not be for the MG program specifically but rather the Extension as a whole, and the final word on those negotiations were not available at the time of printing. Neither people, the earth nor plants remain static.

Many Level 3 graduates request more continuing education, so she is toying with the notion of a gold designation in the future for those high achievers. To do so would serve the purpose of aligning us with national standards, a goal within sight. Dara considers camaraderie the greatest strength of the program, especially when coordinators from across the state meet. Those connections stem from a deep concern for horticulture, her passion. The fun factor must be front and center, too.

As a personal gardener, ornamentals (perennials, trees, and shrubs) interest her most. She had to replant her first real vegetable garden this past spring due to a cold, wet stretch in Gallatin County. Yet it did yield harvest.

Her greatest challenge with the program? IT improvements. She wants to customize the website so it is more user-friendly. I assured her that it is more user friendly than many websites with which I interface! Next on her to-do list is to write a new Level 2 Handbook, although she recognizes that that calling will take years. She longingly describes fine tuning the curriculum, re-writing exams, and new study guides. Based upon Dara’s intensity, I sense that demands on the students will increase. The expectations will be offset by a student manual which spells out steps, so the process registers as attainable. Food donations need to be standardized across the state, also. And less sweaty t-shirts, ah, an eagerly anticipated relief, will arrive soon.

Welcome, Dara, and let us know how we can help to better improve the program for everyone! We can make Montana more beautiful and healthy, one plant at a time.

Submitted by Bess Lovec



Interview: Brittany Moreland

At first I did not think that the person who walked into Honey’s Café in Red Lodge could be Brittany because she looks under 35 years old. She certainly does not fit the current mold of MGs in Yellowstone County, gray haired pensioners that we are. And that aspect addresses what she considers to be a direction the MG program should reach: younger people. She was only able to take the classes after Bob Wicks, her inspiration while in the classes and beyond, started hosting evening sessions. She highlighted the wide interest in the farm-to- table movement that young folks especially embrace.

If you have read previous interviews I have written, parents were the key influence to motivate MGs, and Brittany fits that pattern, but her parents took it to the zenith. Her mom and grandmother canned produce from a huge garden, and Brittany helped. Tomatoes were grown in pots, and they are currently Brittany’s favorite plant along with ground cherries, although she feels excited about the outcome of her apple orchard. I have no doubt that the love of gardening will transfer soon to her two toddlers, as the apple does not fall far from the tree. They are already learning what is ripe in the here and now.

She approached the MG program much like she has proven to tackle any project: Brittany completed all three levels in one year, 2011, made all the more impressive by the fact that she commuted from Red Lodge to do it. This focused and ambitious gal just started a gardening business called Elevated Harvest last fall with her husband. By March, their CSA had 35 customers. Having seven years of employment at the Stillwater Mine behind her must make this step of creating a business all the sweeter.

Her interest lies in edibles, not houseplants or flowers. Elevated Harvest grows hydroponic (growing in water without soil) lettuce and herbs. With a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Montana (Go Griz!), Brittany has the perseverance to make this business a success. Their lettuce is distributed to numerous vendors in this region. Using no pesticides, herbicides, or sprays, they however are not currently seeking organic certification. They donate produce to the Food Bank and accept SNAP dollars.

What a whirlwind of passion! Her broad experience includes gardening when floating from apartment to apartment during her university years, and working during harvest on a grain farm. Her favorite Level 3 work involved grafting. Successfully grafting apple trees, her participation in the MG program has her volunteering at Farmers’ Markets and helping Carbon County MGs Maggy Hiltner and Marcella Manuel conduct an annual seed swap.

Embrace change. Take the long-term view. Gardening is a palpable act of hope. Try again. Her philosopher emerges; ideas precede actions. I feel like I completed Level 4 of the MG program after this interview! Consider the following definitions: aquaponics- growing with fish; haskap- a fruit from Saskatchewan that can be eaten raw, cooked, or made into juice or wine, it’s bigger than blueberries and without the thorns. Its bush-like structure must be netted from birds, and it grows to one and a half meters tall; REAP grant- Rural Energy Assistance Program. Brittany and her husband were currently applying for a grant during the time of the interview.

Recommended: consider adding Passion & Stir podcast from the Share Our Strength program, which is the backbone of the No Kid Hungry movement, to your cultural intake. Plus pistachio and carrot top pesto is her current favorite in the kitchen. Shiso- a purple leafy Asian herb. On the broader plane, Brittany recognizes that growing our own food is a powerful move which ties into our culture, creating an economic connection with the environment. Will local food become the upper echelon? How can we move to a sustainable local economy? She has been a formative link during the conception phase in creating a food producer co-op with Northern Plains Resource Council. The next generation of gardeners will revitalize and inform us all! Brittany will make sure they do, and let’s thank her for richly adding to the conversation.

To read more about her farm visit, go to: qa-elevated- harvest.

Submitted by Bess Lovec

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


On May 23, a dozen Master Gardeners embarked on the grand adventure of finding the Delane Langton home to tour incredible iris beds he’s cultivated. Last year we were about a week too late…and this year porbably a week too early, but there were still plenty of blooms to enjoy even though, it was a beautiful evening for a tour.

Delane has quite the location. His home is perched on a hill, with gardens cascading over the top and shoulders of the hill. Then he points out another acre over the side that more iris are nestled into. Delane (now retired), is expanding his hilltop garden even more. He explains that the different slope orientations provide for an extended blooming period, the south side blooming first and then the north side blooming later.

The colors and variations were quite impressive, complete with some heirloom varieties. He also has a Moss Mansion iris bed, cultivated when an iris bed at the Moss was removed because the tree’s shade was too intense for iris growing. He took the pathetic looking rhizomes, planted them, gave them some TLC and now has iris plants he proudly claims are Moss Mansion originals.

Also, we learned that when he divides his iris, he doesn’t dig up the whole clump. He usually digs up the mother (or the one that bloomed last year), with the daughters that are on one side, leaving the other daughters in place. He’s had the unfortunate experience of digging all, dividing, and losing all.

I know I’m planning to divide my iris differently than before…and am going to plant the extras on our dry, rocky hillside surrounding our property. I’ve always  marveled at the iris growing on the rims going up to the airport. I now understand and appreciate even more how hardy and tough these beauties really are.

Iris Tour 2 2017

Photos and submission by Amy Grandpre

Master Gardener Maia Dickerson

Maia Dickerson, Preventative Health Specialist, certainly keeps focused on healthy nutrition, whether it is for herself and gardening partner, Nick, the children at the CareAfter School Program, low income adults or the children at the Gardeners Farmers Market. Maia has even started games, one called the Power of Produce, whereby the kids can earn tokens. They can then use the tokens to buy their own choice of food at the market.

Maia spent the first part of her life with her older brother and family in Fairmount, Indiana. She fondly remembers her nearby grandparents’ farm, garden and apple tree. Her grandmother made wonderful applesauce turned pink with cinnamon red hots. She continues the tradition each fall canning her own regular and pink applesauce (if she can find the cinnamon red hots) for the winter.

Nick and Maia met in Mexico while she was volunteering and he was on winter break from school in Reno. Maia was working in Arlington, VA and was in Mexico to assist researchers in their study of mangroves and crocodiles. Through friends she made in Mexico, she was able to get a job in Reno as a wildlife educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Maia and Nick talked their landlord into letting them use the front yard of their apartment as a garden. They grew tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and strawberries. Eventually, it just became a beautiful strawberry bed. Actually it wasn’t a bad thing because it allowed them to invite friends over for strawberry parties which included strawberry shortcake, chocolate dipped strawberries and margaritas.

When they moved to Billings seven ears ago, they bought a house, raised beds soon followed suit. They have five raised beds which contain tomatoes, peppers, herbs, tomatillos, bok choy, onions, beans and salad greens and maybe a flower or two.

Maia studied in suburban Philadelphia, Belize and Flagstaff, AZ to get her degree in environmental science. Maia originally took Master Gardener classes to learn more about plants that grow well in Montana. She was attracted to the Care After School Program volunteer activity because she enjoys teaching children about plants, animals and other things in and around their environment. From time to time she also has opportunities to teach kids about where food comes from, food miles and the importance of local healthy food.

What Maia didn’t realize along with most of the public is how much our community relies on master gardeners for different projects all over town. She would like to take the class again just to learn more. The winter Care After School program and the summer Gardeners Market at South Park are two projects she thoroughly enjoys. Her advice to other gardeners is to have fun and experiment and get involved in community projects. Thank you for your service and teaching.


Submitted by Sheri Kisch

A Level-Headed Gaze

On a blustery day, Christine Smith (completed MG Level 3) and I met over coffee. She serves as the Treasurer of Yellowstone County’s MG Assn., and that role could not be in better hands, since accounting is what she does professionally as a financial consultant for a national bank. What struck me as the strongest about her is a no-nonsense approach to gardening and about anything else we discussed. With a steady, straightforward gaze, perhaps borne from flat Midwestern plains, Chris faces reality
head-on, in blunt language. She consciously attempts to be objective in both
her work and gardening.

“Don’t be afraid to dig things up and move them around.” Her theories include the notions that gardening is a path, a process, in which we never reach our goals. Having raised two boys, she neglected houseplants but “employed” her sons to garden when they were growing up, and they still garden on their own as adults. The practices keep filtering down from her grandmother, a pickler, who “picked all the baby ones.” She finds pleasure in eating the products of her efforts, Chris’s greatest joy in gardening. However her appreciation doesn’t stop there. She loves teaching children basics about gardening at Riverstone’s Healthy by Design Thursday afternoon markets in South Park during summer months. Chris helped develop the activities for that program, which is constantly being refined.

Chris waited until her boys were self-sufficient before taking MG classes in 2011, but her training started long before that. Her knowledge was fleshed out by more than grandmothers and her father. She took horticulture in high school, and the description of the content struck me as sophisticated for any age group. Her teacher introduced the concept of public and private spaces, illustrated by having front yards as aesthetically pleasing while backyards are the zone for clichéd statues and personalized memorabilia. And Chris grafted in high school. An advanced program seems reasonable in an agriculturally based economy such as where she grew up in Minnesota. Her quest to take MG classes was to learn the truth, plus she values the social aspects.

She is moving towards hardy perennial xeriscaping. Her skill set defies our region; Chris grows grapes and modified her grape jam from a chokecherry recipe. Even though her marigolds were eaten last year, and she recalls 2016 as a bust due to grubs, she is far from burnt out. Her tomatoes were fine, so hope keeps springing eternal. “I like experimenting. Learn something every day. There are no guarantees.” Working the Farmers Market booth gets tough when answers to questions are elusive, but she “only takes what I can do”, but that is a lot!

Not only does Chris serve as the Association Treasurer and Healthy by Design Coordinator, she also organizes with Gail Tesinsky the courtyard planter by the Courthouse, in memory of veterans of Yellowstone County. Both of her sons serve in the U.S. Air Force, a fact that Chris quietly shares. Anemones are reseeding themselves there. Yellowstone County would look and feel quite different were it not for the modest wisdom and countless contributions of Chris Smith.


Submitted by Bess Lovec