Gardening on the Northside

This week, we’re sharing an article on the Northside Garden, written by gardener Marnie Craig.


Tall sunflowers wave cheery salutations over a patchwork sea of intent. In late summer, each of the 97 garden plots in Missoula's Northside Community Garden reveal a harvest of aspirations — manifestations of dreams, ideals, personality traits and a desire to do something right in the world. Right, for some, is neat and orderly rows; for others, it appears to be simply throwing seeds over their shoulder and hoping for the best. Some garden spaces flourish with attention while others get left to the whim of weeds and insects. Square 15-by-15-foot sections of earth reflect the times, complexities and cycles of life in the Northside neighborhood.

Jenny Ferguson has been gardening since she was a young girl. She learned from a neighbor and contributed to her family by bringing home bunches of carrots. She has been at the Northside Community Garden for 18 years. “I have been with the garden longer than I've been at a job, longer than I've been a parent, longer than I have been in a house,” she said. “It has been a constant for me.”

Ferguson is on the garden’s leadership committee. These volunteers manage a small budget, maintain the community plots, and encourage communication and participation with work parties and pot-lucks. So she takes it personally when people take things from the garden, or when gardeners are inconsiderate in their use of the space. She is also the compost guru. When weeds get tossed in the compost pile and garden debris and household food waste end up in the weed pile, it makes more work for her, but she understands it’s all part of a community learning to work together.

Ferguson likes watching the bees load themselves up with pollen in the large yellow squash blossoms, and she enjoys growing lettuce because it reseeds itself from year to year. “What I love most is being out in the open in the spring, working in the soil,” she said.

Last year she took over an abandoned plot with a huge row of kale. Every Monday she made a big shredded kale and cabbage salad with onions, ginger and toasted sesame oil to feed her son’s cross-country team and their families. The kids appreciated the healthy alternative to donuts and pizza. Making a dish for a potluck of over 100 people each week can be expensive, but gardening helped stretch her grocery dollars. 

Communities created neighborhood gardens in the U.S. in the 1890s to help feed unemployed and hungry laborers. The 35-year-old Northside Community Garden is part of a growing network of neighborhood gardens in Missoula organized by Garden City Harvest. Genevieve Jessop Marsh is the non-profit’s community outreach director. She thinks the purpose of Garden City Harvest remains strong: to grow food while building community and making food accessible for people of every income.

Marsh lives in the Northside neighborhood and started gardening there when she was in graduate school. She said there has always been a waiting list for community garden plots, especially inside the city. Neighborhoods are asking for more gardens. This year they added a new garden and construction on the 12th begins this fall, but she thinks the organization has reached a limit based on current funding and manpower. 

Surveys show more upper and middle-class people in Missoula utilize community gardens than before, but the majority of gardeners are low income. "Missoula is growing and neighborhoods are in flux,” Marsh said. “People can't even afford housing in the Northside anymore.”

The Northside working-class neighborhood emerged near the end of the 1800s because of its proximity to the Northern Pacific Railroad. A thriving neighborhood economy and wholesale grocery district collapsed in 1965 when the interstate highway came through. Today, the Northside Community Garden is bound by a cemetery, a softball field, and young homeowners restoring small historic houses. The garden has a new ten-year lease on a lot originally slated for gravesites. 

The garden hosts a new timber-frame shed for shared tools, a solar food dehydrator and a composting system. Each member agrees to contribute at least three volunteer hours per summer to help maintain common areas, which include a vegetable plot for neighbors who aren’t able to garden for themselves, fruit trees, and shared patches of squash, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries.

Danielle Farley’s dog Zeke relaxes in one corner of a small garden square, eyes intent upon his human companion sitting in the dirt between papery husked tomatillos and staked tomato plants. A graduate student at the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics, Farley has grown food in community-based agriculture for the last 10 years. This is her first season gardening for herself. She eats what she grows and shares the rest with her friends. 

With her curly hair pulled back she smiled down at invading bindweed vines and purslane. The garden is a bit messier than she likes because of her studies and research work on campus. Tugging at a deep root she said, "I enjoy getting my hands dirty and feeling the soil." 

A rhubarb plant came with her plot — a remnant from a past gardener. Farley experimented by adding strawberries and rhubarb to sun tea as an alternative to the common dishes made with rhubarb that use a lot of sugar. "I love tomatoes but they are just starting to come in,” she said while unearthing another weedy taproot. “Since I don't get a bunch of tomatoes each one is precious, but the kale and Swiss chard have been feeding me all summer.”

Farley is from the Midwest, but she has grown food in California, Washington and Idaho. She thinks Montana gardeners have a unique ideal of self-reliance, where feeding oneself is a form of resistance to capitalism and industrial farming. Farley enjoys gardening, but she grows food because she needs to eat. As a grad student, her income level makes her eligible for SNAP. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helped her buy seedlings from the local farmer’s market this spring. 

Ethan Marston is a self-published sci-fi writer, an AmeriCorp volunteer at the Missoula Food Bank, a husband to Ally and a father to Elsie, his opinionated three-year-old daughter. He wears pink floral patterned wire-rimmed glasses, a ginger-red beard, and long red hair. He smiles as he spots a cucumber as big around as his arm. Marston has eaten more vegetables this year than ever before—a healthy change.

This is his first year growing food. A friend gave him tomato, pepper and broccoli plants. He planted green beans, carrots, spinach, and cucumbers from seed. In one season, he learned to thin carrots as the summer progressed and to stagger spinach plantings to make the crop more manageable. He admits he is good at watering but not weeding, so he learned to mulch with newspapers and straw to make weeds less annoying. 

He enjoys watching what other people do with their gardens. He thinks some people must have a lot of time on their hands because their spaces are amazing. "Then there are people who are weird, growing nothing but corn in a small plot," he said. “I am from Illinois where I saw huge expanses of corn. It's strange to see corn growing in a little square, but I like making fun of people."

Marston adores the lavender plant that came with his plot. He and his wife made a lavender simple syrup to mix with Bailey's Irish Cream and club soda to create a creamy lavender cocktail. He hopes to get the same plot next year. If he doesn’t, he will plant lavender in a pot. He likes to pick a leaf so he can smell it when he walks around the neighborhood with his daughter.

House sparrows make cheeping sounds as they flit between sunflowers feasting on seeds. An aloof gray and black tabby cat sits among the lower canopy of garden plants — watching. Golden and red cherry tomatoes light up the green and provide gardeners with lingering explosions of sweet and tart. The air smells like wet earth. Even neglected plants sit up a little taller and branch out a little fuller from autumn rain.

The season is ending. Genevieve Jessop Marsh and the Garden City Harvest team will begin planning for the coming year and evaluating the needs of their community. What does Missoula need next, more gardens or more education, or both?

With shorter days and full pantries, gardeners lose interest in the everydayness of maintaining garden plots and look forward to putting them to rest. They pull weeds and plants and replace them with cover crops or mulch. Some, plant garlic bulbs and protect them with straw. Beets, carrots, and kale will survive the impending frost. Rhubarb and lavender will lose their foliage, while sugars and salts in their roots protect them from freezing. Earthworms will hibernate as microbes and fungi prepare the soil for another season. The color and light of summer will fade into whites and grays  — and the garden will sleep.