AmeriCorps volunteers working under some ominous-looking storm clouds. PHOTO BY KEELY LARSON

The Crail Ranch Demonstration Garden is a go

Volunteers showed up to plant native species in four different garden plots

On Thursday, the Crail Ranch Demonstration Garden officially broke ground in the most literal sense of the phrase. Ground was upturned and broken up consistently in order to plant the 700 plus native species that had been waiting in their containers for a few days. If someone was a novice gardener, they showed up without sunscreen on and without gardening gloves. Thankfully, a blue bucket full of a variety of cloth gloves was available for sharing, and friendly AmeriCorps volunteers offered up their sunscreen.

Newbies were given a quick planting tutorial by Jennifer Mohler, the plant nut, herself. Plants needed to be placed deep enough in the soil so the tops of the plants were level with the surface of the soil. Pop the plants out of the holders; if this did not work as easily as one would have expected, the plant could be rolled lightly on the ground until the soil loosened up. Next, give the roots a nice massage. Once the roots were nice and loose, they were placed in the hole, level to the ground, and pressed down firmly to avoid any air pockets that may develop. Lastly, cover the plant with dirt that was removed to make the hole. With all of that knowledge, “you can dive on in!” Mohler exclaimed. Mohler made the whole process totally manageable so anyone could come enjoy as may hours as they like planting native species and absorbing all that precious Vitamin D. 

The idea for this garden was born in 2017 when the caretaker of the flower garden at Crail Ranch reached out to the Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance (GISA), concerned about which plants were weeds and which were not. GISA concluded over half of the “flowers” in the garden were invasive species. The project description of the Crail Ranch Demonstration Garden explains the garden’s goals as showcasing water conservation, providing pollinator habitat, enhancing biodiversity, demonstrating the beauty of sustainability, enhancing the historic Crail Ranch site and complementing other conservation efforts throughout the area. Four garden sites are included in the design and areas of rest and reflection will be provided for visitors to enjoy the beauty of the garden. It will also serve educational purposes to students, locals and tourists, advising about sustainability and water savings over time.

Gardening with strangers is suitable for carefree small talk. Where are you from? What do you do? What did you get degrees in? All of these questions flowed through the air as did the scraping of shovels, the shuffling of dirt and the delightful tweeting of birds overhead. Mohler sprinkled intermittent tips about planting throughout the effortless conversation with the ease of a person passionate about this type of work. The conversation made one feel connected to the people they were surrounded by, which in turn connected a person to the work they were doing. 

Thursday afternoon was focused on planting the biggest garden plot, as the smaller ones were completed earlier. This plan had been on the books for awhile, but like most construction projects in Big Sky of any sort, it was totally weather dependent. “We really were, scheduling wise, at the mercy of the weather, and then next came Big Sky Landscaping that had to excavate all the paths you see around us that go down to the big cabin down there, so it was quite the job” Mohler explained. She was unable to give much notice to her dedicated group of beginning plant nuts, but once she was given the go ahead, an email blast and Facebook posts were made. It worked. A solid group of gardeners donated their time and energy to get this project done. The graciousness of Mohler was felt every time new people appeared.

“To make sure it was beautiful and done professionally, we did hire a landscape designer who was very kind and gave us a deal on her services,” Mohler described, explaining how she knew where to put each individual plant. The beauty of the garden is important to Mohler not just for aesthetic purposes, but to really demonstrate to people that native species are just as lovely as those invasive, daisy-looking weeds people like to pick and place on their tables. The visual appeal can get people interested, and once interested the sustainability and conservation conversations can follow.

Mohler got the plants for this garden from Robert and Laura Dunn, owners of Westscape Wholesale Nursery, who specialize in native plants. The Dunns have also sold Mohler plants for more personal projects, like the new garden she and her husband are planting to better hide the propane tank at their house. “My husband got some really beautiful wood that he then built a fence (out of), but he cut out the Bridger mountain outline in it that mirrors our Bridger mountain view,” Mohler verbally painted. She definitely turned her husband into a “plant nut,” too, and she is still working on getting him on the “horse nut” train. “Luckily he’s the garden vegetable nut,” she said. Her sneaky way of getting him on the “horse nut" train is by reminding him what good fertilizer horse manure makes…

This new home garden will be Mohler’s “own personal learning garden,” as it includes some native species she is not totally familiar with. “I love natives. It benefits the pollinators way more than others,” Mohler reemphasized. Cathy Gunther, who has been at the garden since 9 a.m. Thursday morning, chimed in by saying how much easier they are to take care of than noxious species. They take substantially less water to thrive and do not require any fertilizer. 

There are some super-volunteers who have been with Mohler all morning long. The sunscreen-giving group of AmeriCorps volunteers were supposed to spend their day building houses for the affordable housing project for teachers. After that was postponed, they were reassigned to trail maintenance, gardening and other projects throughout town. Gunther, “gets the award of the day for sure,” Mohler professed. Gunther dug most of the holes in the largest plot of land and barely stopped for breaks. She would talk about going to get a Gatorade and 15 more minutes would pass before she actually did. “I’m sick about work. I like it, it feels good,” she admitted.

Gunther’s husband got a little “weed crazy” and reached out to Mohler for help. Mohler assisted by explaining how to answer the ongoing question: “do I kill it, do I keep it?” “It’s as much of a learning process for me as far as wanting to build a native garden,” Gunther confessed, even though she seemed like a seasoned professional. At the end of the planting, she is hoping to buy some of the remaining native species from Mohler to use herself. A good motivator for Gunther? Knowing she really earned that beer she plans to have when she is done. 

Speaking of beer, Mohler hopes to host wine and weed fundraisers at the garden and potentially a farm-to-table type of dinner, using produce from the vegetable garden onsite. The idea of throwing some table clothes over a few picnic tables, having bouquets of native flowers as centerpieces, hand-picked vegetables tossed into salads and sitting down with a glass of wine under some Montana summer sunshine sounds like an ideal way to spend an evening in Big Sky, admiring the exceptional landscape we get to experience every day.

Comment Here