Episode 41: Lisa Stewart | Montana Gardener who’s mastered the mountains and the prairie | Eureka, MT
I have a real treat for listeners today as my guest is a dear friend who I have known ever since I very first moved to this area back in 1991 caring for me when I was sick, sharing her food, and teaching me about parenting and surviving in this difficult area. It’s truly an honor to introduce Lisa Stewart who has helped so many people in our community opening her gracious home, feeding us, raising amazing children, homeschooling them at times, donating so many volunteer hours the ultimate woman living off the earth, hauling water from the creek, splitting firewood, canning 1000s of cans of food, and living a very wholesome life.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I realized when I was preparing for this that I’ve lived in the valley for 30 years. I’ve grown a garden in a deep shady moist cool mountain location for ½ of that time, and a prairie full sun in a dry location for the other half. And I kinda feel like I’ve mastered both of those.
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
I grew up in the great state of Wisconsin where the top soil is literally 6 foot deep black earth, I always like to say “you can throw a seed at it and it will grow something spectacular!”
My mother grew up on a farm so she always had a garden. I think I’ve been in the garden since I could sit.
My very first garden in Montana was way up there deep in the mountains, hauling water in 5 gallon buckets, from the creek. I’ve always had the luxury of a big garden.
My problem was the range cattle, and in Montana they range pretty much anywhere unless you fence the cows out, because it’s your obligation to keep the cows out and we had this garden that we protected from the cows. In August, we had visitors and we left for 1½ hour to go to the lake and when we came back the garden was gone.
What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?
I’ve never considered gardening any other way, but it’s not a thought I carry with me. I think it must be a lot of work, and more work to keep up with pesticides would be harder.
Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?
There wasn’t really a question, when I moved here I would say I was a back-to-the-lander. There was no questions I was going to garden un-organically. Everything was used.
How did you learn how to garden organically?
Well I studied and read all the time. I think that going from a life in a rural place but a different rural life to a life of living off the grid is a big adjustment. There wasn’t a big adjustment. We didn’t even have a phone so reading was essential.
Tell us about something that grew well this last season.
I grow an heirloom garlic, given to me from an elder, it had been grown in the valley for 30 years. I’m pretty protective of my garlic crop. 400-600 cloves per year. If my garlic crop is doing good I’m doing good. I give a lot away. I replant a lot. I use a lot. I consider it a real gift.
Plant garlic in the fall, harvest in August generally. You have to dry it really well, and you need to keep it cool and not moist, fairly dry. When I give it to people to start their own beds with, for every clove you get a bulb. So I times everything I plant by 8.
I have 24 raised beds. 5 beds full of garlic. Maybe plant about 2 inches deep. Mulch,
The first year we grew garlic here on the prairie planted about 100lbs or more and didn’t mulch it and I lost almost, I saved it by the seed.
Like an onion or any type of allium, if you let it go to seed, what garlic produces is as big as a ball, like the size of a pea, some people cut that off and let the energy go to the bulb. I tend to cut about ½ my crop and keep the other half because I will never ever be without my garlic seed.
Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?
Gotten into growing flowers. Dahlias and gladiolas are the things that I love, I have a greenhouse so I can afford that pleasure. Every year I buy a different color or shape or size and it’s like a little treasure hunt to see what comes up.
Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.
I continually struggle with those cool crops, lettuce, spinach. I can get first crop in early spring, but after that I get really hot and really dry and really windy. When I lived in the mountains I could grow it all season, now I can grow the other stuff.
Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.
Garlic. If I don’t grow anything else, I’m doing garlic. We had beautiful beautiful beds of garlic up in the mountains.
Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate
Anything that’s over 90 days. Mother nature really plays with us here and we have short seasons to begin with. I remember one year, I had a beautiful garden going and getting 6 inches of snow on August 20. It wasn’t necessarily the snow as much as the weight of the snow that broke it. I would plant short season things, lettuce, spinach, radishes, peas. Most things you can find a 90 day or below seed. A winter squash is pretty hard, a tomato that’s hard, those are 100+ days.
I have started my own tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers. I grow in the green house right now cukes, all kinds of peppers, tomatoes, and sometimes if I have room I’ll grow some melons.
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.
Weeding is not my favorite job and is continual. I can be a lazy gardener, and look at it and say oh, not today. I always get more then I need so I must be doing something right.
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
I like to plan it and I like to plant it. It’s always a good feeling to have my seed in the ground. It’s very grounding feeling in a really busy life that sometimes can get kinda crazy at times. the most grounding thing I do is gardening and growing food, that to me is the bottom line to everything. I find that when there’s a lot going on in a busy life with lots of people going in and out of it, and big projects with a lot of things going on, gardening is the one thing that centers me, and the food that comes out of it, is something that I get to share with people. I have fed a lot of people at my table over the years and the majority of food comes out of my garden.
Tell us about the best crop you ever grew.
One year I remember actually growing acorn squash from seed. Planting seed in the ground and harvesting wheelbarrow loads.
What made that so successful?
Mother nature and the grace of having a longer season.
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
I remember getting grass clippings to mulch my garden and an elderly woman said if you put grass clippings in your garden you will grow grass and of course I do.
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what could you not live without?
A shovel, I can do pretty much anything with a shovel, you can’t dig a hole with a weeder but you could probably weed with a shovel. Now I buy short tools, which are kinder on my body.
Do you have any secrets for preserving food-making it last?
I have always canned a lot, a few years ago got a big root cellar, and purchased a home-made commercial dehydrator about 10 years ago.
We have a couple 100 fruit trees so I dry a lot of fruit.
I can pickled beets, green beans, pickeld asparagus, and pickles, fruits regularly, homemade soups that I keep all the time and I can on a regular basis. You can pretty much find me canning any time of year. I generally have beef vegetable soup, which is my vegetables and organic beef, split pea and chili.
The biggest secret is setting aside the time, and doing it from beginning to end and pay attention to your canner.
Root cellars are the best thing ever. My root cellar is really large, it’s poured concrete, it has 3 different rooms to it. One side is my side, it’s all food, my garlic bulbs, my flower bulbs. The other side is all of the cooking utensils it takes me to preserve food. And wine. Some foods you can store together, some you can’t. There’s a lot of humidity to fruit, and there is not to other things like you wouldn’t want to store your garlic together. They are a cool dark spot so your food keeps longer.
Do you have any special techniques for cooking weird or unusual foods?
Pickled asparagus with garlic seeds
My theory is to have about a jar a week, so that’s about 52 jars a year. I’m always searching out organic asparagus which is kinda hard to find. The thing I do put in my asparagus is garlic seed seed. In Wisconsin asparagus is so prolific that people actually mow it down in their yards!
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
The center of a head butterhead lettuce, a delicacy. It’s just the finest thing you can eat. That would be my first crop early in the spring, but it gets way to hot here now. I did grow a lot up in the mountains. Space them far apart. You don’t want one lettuce touching the other lettuce.
A favorite internet resource?
A place that I go to more for enjoyment then questions is a site called Davesgarden.com
It’s a community for this area, or other areas. I like to look at other people’s gardens.
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend:
My go to book for gardening is: The Essential Kitchen Gardener by Frieda Arkin
Final question- if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
If we just did away with pesticides would make a huge difference. Those of us that live with clear pristine water, no other water compares. Water is pretty critical. The worst part of traveling is the water out there in the world. We better figure out our water.
(I found this post I wrote on my Jackie Beyer artist blog last fall about water if you’re interested)
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
My tip would be one of my very favorite things to do, if you have access to a community garden and you have permission, go explore a community garden, they all have different personalities, everyone gardens differently and grow what it’s important to them. If you talk to different gardeners they’ll shed some light on what they’re growing. I try to go to a community garden any time I can.
My very favorite one that I have come across is in Portland, OR ~ that is going down a hillside. I got to meet the fella who was kind of the manager of the garden. ½ of it is private people’s gardens but across the road is a church garden and everything they grow.
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