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In Marjorie Fowlkes' flower gard

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					In Marjorie Fowlkes’ flower gardens,
timing is everything Susan Ewing

    Waves of color ebb and flow like summer tides in
Marjorie Fowlkes’ kaleidoscopic cottage garden. In
early March, the snow cover starts to recede from the
warmest spot (closest to the wood-sided, solar-heated
house), and small crocuses, scilla, and iris pop out of
the dark earth in winter-relieving purples, yellows, and
blues. As the snow rolls back, tulips and daffodils—
bright, welcome swells of them—declare the zone 4
gardening season open in bold washes of yellow, red,
white, and pink. e alliums and catmint flood up next
in a fresh surge of blue. Over the course of the summer
waves come and go: primroses, hellebores, poppies,
lupines, hardy geraniums, Siberian iris, daylilies,
daisies, sunflowers, yarrow, monk’s hood, potentilla,
Maltese cross, lavender, globe thistle, roses, clematis,
mullein, lamb’s ears, bachelor buttons, Madonna lilies,
amaryllis, Joe Pye weed, sedum, and on and on, until
autumn crocus and colchicums signal the imminent
end of the season in a purplish wave goodbye.
    “Every day is different,” says Fowlkes, who recently
retired after 25 years as a student health doctor at
Montana State University in Bozeman. “Something’s
gone over the hill and something new has bloomed.”
Opposite page: Meet Marjorie. One of Marjorie’s phases was
the dwarf evergreen phase, which included this bushy R.H.
Montgomery globe spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’).

     Right: Marjorie and her husband Charless built their house
   in the early 1970s with an emphasis on passive solar heating,
                         and extensive gardens on all four sides.




    One might expect a physician to be a fastidious, academic
 gardener, but one might have to guess again in this case.
 Fowlkes’ garden is exuberant, unbridled, experimental, and
 undogmatic in its eclectic congregation of annuals, perennials,
 vegetables, herbs, shrubs, grasses, and dwarf evergreens. She
 uses words like yank, stick, cram, shove, and poke—as in
“when those poppy blooms are gone, I yank off the foliage and
 stick in some annuals.” Or, “I gradually shoved the vegetables
                                                                           e garden was mostly vegetables in those early years, with
 toward the center of the garden.” Or about a Christopher
                                                                    a few annuals like marigolds (Tagetes) and petunias (Petunia).
 Lloyd article she once read, “He said he crammed cuttings in
                                                                    Her first crop was dismal. Onions were about the same size
 a 4-inch pot with rooting hormone, and I thought, ‘well, that
                                                                    coming out of the ground as they were going in. She took a soil
 doesn’t sound so hard.’”
                                                                    sample to the extension office for testing, and Bozeman being
                                                                    the small town that it was, the extension agent said he already
AN OLD HAYFIELD
                                                                    knew what the problem was. at land had been a hayfield for
   Fowlkes and her husband Charless started the garden when
                                                                    years, he said, and there was no nitrogen or phosphorus in the
they built their house in the early 1970s in what was then a new
                                                                    soil. But Marjorie, being the science-minded person she was,
subdivision off Goldenstein Lane, south of Bozeman. Excavators
                                                                    wanted the test anyway.
dumped a bunch of dirt next to the house during construction,
                                                                       “Sure enough,” she laughs, “no nitrogen, no phosphorus.”
so Fowlkes figured she would make that the garden. “I probably
                                                                    She and Charless put on the recommended poundage of
would have captured more space for it except Charless kept
                                                                    fertilizer for the next year, and have since built up the soil
saying, ‘But where will the children play?’”
                                                                    with endless amendments of peat, manure (llama, horse, and
                                                                              chicken), compost, and even poultry grit, to help
                                                                              break up the clay. Today, her onions come out of the
                                                                              ground big and strong, and the only fertilizer she
                                                                              uses is a little Osmocote on her annuals and hostas.
                                                                              It’s not that she’s necessarily opposed to fertilizer,
                                                                              she’s just realistic.
                                                                                   “A lot of things I manage to do once. But if it’s
                                                                              something you have to do every 10 days, well, on
                                                                              day 20, 30, 40—I’m doing something else. Weeding
                                                                              thistles or who knows what.”

                                                                            A GARDEN SHE CAN LEAVE
                                                                             For Fowlkes, “who knows what” includes sailing in
                                                                            Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands of Washington
                                                                            State, which she and Charless do almost every summer.
                                                                               e lesson there is that it’s possible to have a life and




                                                                            Left: the microclimate on the north side of the Fowlkes’ home
                                                                            is cool and shady, allowing Marjorie to grow several varieties
                                                                            of ferns and hosta (Hosta), the latter including ‘Frances
                                                                            Williams,’ ‘Gold Standard,’ ‘Big Daddy,’ ‘Bressingham
                                                                            Blue,’ ‘Hadspen Heron,’ and ‘Sum and Substance.’
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       garden both, even in the short but sweet zone 4 summer. Her         work. at gives her a head start on things like lettuce, peas,
       garden proper only needs watering about once a week (which          broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.
       can be managed by overhead sprinklers on a timer), and the             Trying new things, whether it’s a raised bed or a new plant,
       hostas have a soaker hose that also can be put on a timer. So       gives Fowlkes some of her greatest gardening joy. She loves
       when she and Charless travel, she only really needs someone         experimenting, and a history of “phases” reveals her to be a
       to water the pots.                                                  delver rather than a dabbler. ere was the dwarf evergreen
           “I don’t want to not leave town because I have a big garden,”   phase (a bushy R.H. Montgomery globe spruce (Picea
       she says. “You just have to let it go.” When she gets back from     pungens ‘Montgomery’), a conical dwarf Alberta spruce
       a trip, the first priority is getting control of the weeds. “You     (Picea glauca ‘Conica’), and other specimens anchor various
       just get out there and start weeding, and then all of a sudden      points of the garden’s perimeter), the tulip and daffodil phase,
       it looks good again.”                                               and the hosta, shrub rose, fern, and grass phases. Evidence of
           Over the years, Fowlkes has found lots of ways to make          each can be seen scattered through the garden like so many
       gardening in zone 4 work for her, instead of the other way          historical markers.
       around. For instance, the original garden was a single plot            For Fowlkes, experimentation and the confidence it
       that she would plant in rows. In the spring, they would have        engenders go hand-in-gardening-glove. You only learn by
       to wait for the entire thing to dry out before Charless could       trying. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she asks. “If you
       get in there and rototill so she could plant. Invariably, on the    kill a clump of Shasta daisies [Chrysanthemum x superbum],
       late May or early June day they arranged to have a rototiller,      you have to plant another Shasta daisy.” She doesn’t hesitate
       they would wake up to rain or snow. So about 25 years ago           to try plants that theoretically shouldn’t survive in zone 4.
       they started converting parts of the plot to raised beds, and       One of her roses comes from a cutting off her mother’s bush
       now Fowlkes can turn over one end of a vegetable bed by             back in Alabama, where Fowlkes grew up. Her lavender
       hand and plant it, even if the other end it still too wet to        thrives, and who would have thought ferns could do so well

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in a high-elevation, high-latitude mountain valley? e right
microclimate, plus a literal blanket of snow is the key to
pushing zones, she explains—quick to confess that she’s also
killed her share of plants trying to grow things that didn’t
work out, especially shrubs and trees.

 CHALLENGES OF ZONE 4
     When asked about her biggest failures and successes,
 coming up with a categorical failure momentarily stumps
 her, and she has to reach back to the stunted onions of that
 first year or the blueberries that, despite peat and Miracid,
 just seemed to know it was still Montana soil under there.
 It’s not that she thinks of herself as the perfect gardener, it’s
 just that in her mind, terminal words like “failure” simply
 don’t apply.
     “Obviously you try things more than once,” she says.
“Otherwise you wouldn’t do much.” Pessimists are quickly
 weeded out of the ranks in zone 4, where gardening requires
 optimism as much as anything else. “You think, well, next
 year the weeds won’t be as tenacious, or the season will be a
 little longer, or I won’t get hailed out in August.”
     As for successes, rather than measuring achievement in
 numbers of bulbs planted, bushels harvested, or beautification
 awards won, Fowlkes seems to find her greatest reward in
 lessons learned. Like figuring out the secret code of tomato
 plants.
     “It took me several years to realize there are determinate
 and indeterminate tomatoes,” she recalls. Determinate
 tomatoes (often indicated by “det” on the seed packet) grow
 to a certain size, and then devote their full energy to making
 fruit. Indeterminate tomatoes (“ind”), on the other hand,
 continue to make vines and fruit over their entire life span.
 Never-ending vine production is great if you live in Florida
 where you want your tomato plant to still be producing
 in September. But in zone 4, all that vine is just so much
 extraneous photosynthesis—unless you prune the vine.
     “I don’t know how long we’d been here before I read about
 the difference and realized I’d been trying to grow the wrong
 kind of tomato,” she marvels. “ at was an eye-opener.”
     One of the greatest beauties of Marjorie Fowlkes’ big,
 beautiful garden is that after 32 years she’s still getting her
 eyes opened. e rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) plant is
 probably 30 years old, and one of the shrub roses is taller
 than Charless—yet her garden is still a work in progress.
 She’s still learning, still experimenting, and somewhat
 incredibly, still finding ways to cram in yet one more new,
 impulsive possibility.       at’s the fun. Every year—every
 day—is different. Plants come and go, arrangements shift,            In zone 4, perennials are just getting going by June 26, when
 poppies and bachelor buttons migrate. But through it all,           the top photo was taken. By July 31, there are lavender
 one thing is a given: tide after colorful tide will roll in and     (Lavandula), bachelor buttons (Centaurea), and red poppies
 roll out, all summer long.                                          (Papaver rhoeas) for one’s viewing enjoyment.


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