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Flash in the Pan

How the Garden City got its garden back



By the bonfire at the Pagan Farmer Solstice Party, I received word that one of my favorite non-profit dogs is up to some new tricks.

An amoebic entity, Garden City Harvest (GCH) is always ready to send tendrils into new chunks of fertile ground, always on the lookout for new ways to grow food and flowers for Missoula. “It’s really happening, big-time” drawled Barndragger, leaning on his beer.

Hmm, I thought, might be time for Chef Boy Ari to update his file with a visit. I chose the River Road Community Garden, one of several GCH outposts in greater Missoula.

As I arrived, a menacing palate of gray was gathering over the Clark Fork, exhaling wind at a furious pace. Cottonwood tufts were flying sideways like monster snowflakes into a troop of merry harvesters in the field.

Greg Price, organizer for the River Road garden, carried a box of beefy spinach leaves to a large wooden spool that serves as a table. “I’ve had good luck with spinach,” he understated. Unlike most spinach in Missoula, his hadn’t bolted yet. I chowed a leaf the size of eastern Montana that ate like a meal. Also on the table were some buff-looking cabbage heads and snap peas, lean spikes of green onions and a kaleidoscope of radishes that’d put an Easter basket to shame.

Many hands help Price to grow this food, including Missoula Youth Homes, church groups, pre-release adults and others. Almost everyone benefits from the experience, not least the people getting fed.

Season-long “GrubShed” members pay for weekly shares of vegetables throughout the growing season. They can also purchase a winter storage option, which just might be Missoula’s best deal on food. Dig these numbers: For $175, you get 100 lbs. of onions, 50 lbs. of winter squash, 50 lbs. of carrots, plus beets, turnips and bushels of freezable crops, including corn, string beans and greens. Ten thumbs up.

And then there are the Volunteers for Veggies, lighthearted and dirty-handed locals from all walks of life, working for food and having fun. Anyone can join. Everybody is a winner.

Garden City Harvest donates 30,000 pounds of food annually to the Missoula Food Bank and the Povarello Center, which direct the food to the hungry. What you can accomplish in a day—or a lifetime—with good food in your belly dwarfs even the dreams of Community Gardens Director Tim Hall, unloading bales of straw from a pick-up. Hall describes the next GCH project to come on-line: a garden at the Meadow Hill Middle School—aka a hands-on agriculture lab and snack machine. “Every school needs a garden,” he said.

Garden City Harvest also maintains a flower garden on Mullan Road near Reserve, as well as the ASUM garden at Dornblaser field, plus the Sinking Garden of East Missoula. “With more to come,” Hall promises.

And there’s the Mothership, the PEAS farm, on Duncan Drive in the Rattlesnake. While growing food for 70 weekly shareholders, as well as the lion’s share of GCH’s yearly food donation, the PEAS farm is the classroom for UM’s Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society. PEAS students earn college credit while learning how to grow organic produce. With the recent completion of a beautiful straw-bale barn—including a kitchen that might make Martha Stewart’s prison cell look like, well, a prison cell—the PEAS farm has become the GCH showpiece.

Meanwhile, spots like the River Road garden have taken over the fertile, semi-chaotic leading edge, with order quickly emerging from the broth. Rows of onions, leeks, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, corn, greens and peas were looking robust, if not neon-exuberant, in the gathering storm.

From behind a fence, a neighbor’s goat bleats. Volunteer for Veggies Sandra Koelle looks up from a bucket of liquid fish, gazing beyond the scattered houses that all seem to face different directions. “The disarticulated feel around here is part of the charm,” she said.

Barndragger and Price were in the corner of the field at the blue and pink pumphouse, attempting to prime the disarticulated pump, but mostly spraying themselves and swearing. I strolled the other way, toward the community garden plots.

The plots are available to Missoulians for $25 a year, and GCH supplies the tools, manure and water—and sometimes even seeds. One plot had corn up to my thigh, ten days before the 4th of July.

Terry and Pat chatted while tending their gardens—a common practice. Terry said to me, “See that area to your right there? No, not there. Yeah, there.” My eyes finally found the plot with nothing but four shades of violet. “Nothing grows there except flowers,” he said. “It’s really weird. You want some flowers?”

I popped a few in my mouth. Terry’s eyes got wide. “You can eat those?”

“Yup,” I said, “they taste like wintergreen.”

Call 523-FOOD for more information on Garden City Harvest.

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