Montana Cottagecore in Zone 4/5
Welcome to this week’s Garden Study Interview! These interviews feature conversations with Garden Study readers like you all about their own gardening rollercoasters. The basics are as follows:
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Name and Pronouns:
Emma Pfeiffer (she/they)
Where do you garden?
Missoula, Montana. I moved here for grad school and have been lucky enough to be able to stay — it feels so enchanted and semi wild. The area is usually quoted as somewhere between 4 and 5, depending on microclimate. High winds prevail from one of the nearby canyons towards my backyard, which is sunny and therefore prone to drought and heat in the summer. A lot of different challenges for one small space! Most of center city, including where I live, is actually quite flat, so that makes things easier, but it also means that I need to find other ways to create interest in my teeny tiny backyard.
In addition to the main garden, this year I had a few planters on my back deck. I had several tomatoes (love sungolds); a few peppers; mojito mint and oregano for snacks and drying; grass for my cat; some perennials (a lupine, a pink clustered veronica, a spirea). I knew that plants were helpful for my well being, but was still pleasantly surprised at how much it positively affected me — especially seeing pollinators.
I'm doing all this on roughly a tenth of an acre in a city block, which gives me the ability to pay attention to all the details.
Can you describe your Montana gardening philosophy? How do you approach it, how do you think of gardening in your mind, what makes it feel valuable to you? When I lived in Montana I’d get so frustrated by those dismal Junes, but I feel like I just needed to stop comparing it to other places I’d gardened and just roll with it.
I really do try to roll with it, especially since a small amount of land in urban Montana has so many different reasons it's not going to be hospitable for everything I might want to grow. I love bougainvillea, for example, but it's way too tropical for any place I've ever lived — maybe someday, somewhere. The June gloom can feel relentless when I want to finally go outside, but it's nice for my aspen trees to have the moisture and I try to look at it that way. I planted some hostas along that northern walkway parallel to the line of aspens because it had been too wet in that part of the yard, so I definitely try to go with what works.
I have a native grass meadow that I'm growing in the backyard, and I've really loved that and it has (no surprise) been really tolerant of all the extreme weather of Montana. It ends up looking like fancy ornamental grass, too. I understand and support the movement to full native plant gardening, but personally I take some leeway as long as what I have isn't invasive and helps to create insect and bird habitat.
So I have a lot of lilacs, both that I planted and heritage ones that predate me. I flanked the largest boulder with a thriving viburnum and a tree type lilac, Charles Jolie, which started as a nursery stick and did really well in its third year here. Ditto a few of the tall mahonia, Oregon grape. It's been slow growing so far, but I'm hoping to have more privacy from the alley as my shrubs mature. Since I love tulips and have a deer fence, that world is open to me and it's been fun so far.
In the front yard, besides the shady lawn, I inherited a well planned combination of Oregon grape and barberry. There was also a weedy zone between the front steps and the barberry where I planted a lot of hellebores and a few ferns. Those are doing great!
I’d love to hear more about how you inherited your family’s gardening plot as a teen.
So I'm originally from an NJ exurb due west of Manhattan, and my parents were able to save up and buy a lovely old fixer upper house that came with some land there in the late 1970s. My academic dad mostly spent his weekends fixing hay equipment, preoccupied with large scale landscaping, and maintaining our little heritage apple and sour cherry orchard.
When I was a little kid, I definitely helped out with gardening in our backyard, and also did stuff at my childhood friends' house who were basically my surrogate sisters. (I remember they had these crazy colored pink drying beans that I helped harvest! They seemed magical.) I think initially my mom kept the garden as a way to unwind from her office job, because her father was involved in the nascent organic farming movement, and it was a way for her to stay connected to that. We mostly grew rhubarb, tomatoes, and green beans for ourselves, though I was very proud to tell everyone that I grew "UH-zinnias" (I thought there was an A in the front of the word because I had misheard it).
The garden plot moved around a few times, because my dad was always a little dissatisfied with how much sun it was getting. By the time I was a young teenager, they had moved it again, and also decided to put me in charge of it. (I was invested, they wanted me to practice responsibility, and they were both pretty busy.) That version consisted of two wooden raised beds, with a mulched walkway between them, surrounded by a T post deer fence. My dad put it all together himself. Of course we had Jersey tomatoes — I realize now that I find the earthy smell of the leaves rather comforting, and I have grown a plant or two some years when I didn't have space for a full garden. I also grew a magenta dianthus, blue lobelia, orange nasturtiums — lots of bright colorful flowers.
This worked out pretty well until I went to an enrichment camp in my late teens and it got too weedy. But it was a good run: a chance to have agency over something in a time and place in my life when I felt over scheduled by my commitments to high school, and didn't have a lot of control over everything else.
What’s your favorite nook/corner of your garden, and when does it really shine? Also please, please tell me more about the fairy garden.
I think I have to say that the deck is my favorite corner of the garden. I hope that I did something good enough to deserve it in a past life, because it faces off on the mountains east of town. Working through the backyard has been great, since I can see it from the deck, though I feel more immersed when I am on the pathway through the backyard. But putting a few planters together on the deck itself really integrated things so much that I can't believe I didn't do it sooner. The garden reminds me, however, that everything happens in good time.
As I go, I've been trying to curate an English country garden aesthetic with things that actually grow well here. There might be more nuance here than what I know, but I think cottagecore is heavily influenced by the English country garden look, which was very popular in my tiny hometown. Meanwhile, because it was originally something that peasants did to create beauty in their small space gardens, and later it influenced the look that the gentry wanted — it was a literal example of "gentrification."
A few years ago, I had to have the backyard entirely torn up for a sewer line dig, replacing the original clay pipe that was in unspeakable condition with modern pvc. I took advantage of that to restart the entire backyard concept towards this aesthetic - it had just been deteriorating lawn with a determined crabapple. The man who ran the dig was a lovely man, and as a bonus he helped me get some things planted, as well as placing a giant boulder and two medium ones that were found in the trench. This meant that I had to make a lot of quick decisions about where things went, but I excel at that style of thinking, and it was really fun and satisfying. Everything I've described in the backyard so far is what was reborn after the dig!
One of the ways that I tried to create visual interest and an English country garden look right after the dig was by having a friend of my neighbor's, Jeff, help me lay a stone path that curves around through the middle of the backyard. There's a small landing spot that it goes to, big enough for a fire pit or a small table. At a local used furniture clearinghouse, I was able to score an incredible outdoor statement chair that looks fit for a fairy (but big enough for me), and it anchors the space quite well, especially surrounded by the boulders. It's forever on my list to add more fairy garden touches - maybe next year.
If a friend was starting with a blank slate of a garden in a place with a climate like Montana’s, what three plants would you recommend as steady, reliable workhorses?
I have love love loved my (1) native grass meadow! I had help with weeding it, but three years in, it's gotten to be fairly self sustaining. I let it grow tall until the middle of summer, when I start to worry it's a fire hazard. But it has fabulous roots and as it seeds itself, it really looks spectacular - like fancy ornamental grass. And I grew it from seed from a local nursery!
There's an abundance of (2) Mahonia aquifolium around the front porch, which predates my era here by at least fifty years - it looks wonderfully tall and hosted some baby robins this spring. It's native to Oregon and has a ground cover relative that's a true Missoula native that I see around in the woods. I planted some at the back fence to bring it all together. Also in the front yard, the (3) hellebores have done very well in a cool and shady bed, and the deer haven't troubled them at all. They're a bit of winter sparkle because they literally flower in February.
I usually ask people to name their garden nemeses, but because you live in Missoula I feel like I already know the answer to this question (and the answer is deer). Robust, tall, ravenous deer. How do you deal?
Oh deer! Well, I was no stranger to deer in the part of NJ where I grew up, but they're definitely even bigger in Montana. And they walk right through my unfenced side yard like it's their highway.
So this year I decided to reclaim a forgotten corner of the yard that I noticed got good sun, between the driveway and my neighbor's shed. I put together one of those metal raised bed kits that are probably also all over your feed - it's been great so far. I decided on black raspberries, which are native to the eastern US (more so than me since I'm white) and had them special ordered by the biggest nursery in town.
It was a little bit of an experiment, because they were outside of the wonderful wrought iron fence that a delightful previous owner had placed around my main backyard. Almost immediately, the deer acted like this was their new favorite source for herbal tea, and I ended up having to spray the plants with garlic and onion based repellent and then construct a small T post fence around it, which has worked. Fortunately, I was able to get those interventions handled in time, and the plant that got the worst was fine.
In the front yard, I try to stick to deer resistant plants, like the hellebores, which they have never even touched. I suppose I'll have to do that for the southern side yard, as well - that's the last area I haven't planted. I did accidentally protect a front yard hosta by putting a metal cactus right above it, but most of my hostas are inside the main backyard fence.
What do you most often think about (or listen to) when you’re out in the garden?
This might be a personal cliche, but I think a lot about the quote that people attribute to Voltaire (from Candide) that one must cultivate a garden. I had a pretty surface level read of that when I was out in the yard, gardening my way through my free time in high school. I think I likely found it on a calendar or quote encyclopedia, though I may even have read it in context when I was that young and pretentious.
One thing I notice is that it goes much deeper than I realized then. When I was in high school, I just thought it was a quirky quote from a classic author. But now that I am trying to stay positive in the face of all the world's uncertainties and anxieties, and yet aware of the sometimes impossible imperative to use my privilege to the benefit of more than just myself — I suppose I could say I feel closer to whatever Voltaire might have felt as he wrote Candide. And it does feel fresh and important to me, when I put it that way, to cultivate a garden. It keeps me in touch with the now in a way that's very important for me, given my tendencies to anxiety and rumination, and it also gives me tangible things to look forward to in the short term, almost all the time.
It's also bringing me in contact with the world around me, which is good for someone as caught up in their own thoughts as I can be. Grounding, no pun intended. My neighbor's friend, Jeff, listens to world music when he helps me remove the invasive weeds. But if I'm just out there by myself, I typically just listen to the ambient birds and traffic noise.
What are your future dreams for your garden?
I'd love it if I inspired any of my neighbors to think about habitat restoration! That may be a long shot, but I worry about insect habitat a lot, and if nothing else, I know I'm doing something to that end. Insects and songbirds are pretty small, so you don't need a lot of space to feel like you're helping. Which reminds me that I need to seed more wildflowers for next summer pretty soon. If nothing else, I hope I can get other folks to see the everyday magic of the earth around us.
On a much more prosaic level, I am looking forward to finding some sun loving and drought tolerant plants that are deer resistant to spruce up my side yard. My house came to me with a maintenance backlog of benign neglect and boring lawn, but the side yard is the last frontier (for now). It's been incredibly satisfying to bring it around to be more creative and fun, while also planting stuff that can be a positive part of the environment.
I'm also looking forward to future years of deck gardening, and to my first black raspberry harvest that's enough to do something with - maybe a little homemade black raspberry ice cream! This is a lot more space than I ever thought I'd have when I still lived in Brooklyn, yet also much less than where I grew up. But it's been really fun to vibe with the yard and help it reach its potential and just see the earth's ability to keep on being its rad inspiring self. (I may be a bit of a closet hippie, and it may be that I got that from my mom.)
Finally, this is your chance to crowdsource freely from the Garden Study community. What do you want to ask?
I have to replace an ornamental pine tree that, regrettably, died after our unseasonably hot spring. I'm trying to be mindful of all the challenges the previous tree faced, so I have a laundry list of potential constraints. The new tree has to be heat and drought tolerant in the summer, as well as wind and cold tolerant for the winter. And I can't have something that would get too much taller than 20 feet because of a neighbor's power lines crossing the airspace. I'd prefer something that provided visual interest all year round. I've considered a mountain ash, red maple, rocky mountain maple, Korean dogwood, ornamental juniper or maybe a different type of conifer. So I've got some ideas but maybe this is a good one to crowdsource. ●
If you have questions for Emma….or just have a general gardening conundrum that’s vexing you this week….or ideas about what she should plant….come to the comments!