Leslie Fowler is a master gardener who has been growing food organically for her family for over 30 years. Today she shares her successes, failures, challenges and valuable tips for gardeners to learn from.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve lived in this valley for 34 years, I have 3 kids and 4 grandkids. I have an acre of land on a beautiful lake. I have a 30 x50 organic garden. And a pretty large orchard there’s like 17 trees, maybe it seems big because it’s just me here, so that seems like a lot for one person!
That’s a pretty substantial size!
They’re fully producing. We’ve had the orchard in for like 20 years now.
What kind of trees?
Primarily apple, different varieties. I do have a pear tree. We had some cherries and some plums one thing or another happened and they just didn’t survive.
We did plant a peach tree one time, people around here were like you can’t grow peaches around here. It was an Alberta Peach, we planted it, babied it, every fall we wrapped insulation around the trunk, and protected it, and finally on it’s 8th year, first year it produced, it was loaded with fruit … Unfortunately there were four main branches, they were so loaded down with fruit, it started to split in the trunk. As soon as we noticed we propped each branch up with a 2×4 and try to support the trunk and we had a wonderful harvest but unfortunately we lost it.
I also have numerous
- flower beds
- raspberry patch
- root cellar to store my crops
I work at a therapeutic therapeutic boarding school and I teach horticulture there!
That’s a grat thing for them to learn, It’s so beautiful out there. So I’m a little bit curious does it make a difference being by the lake.
Well comparatively to town, town will often get a frost about 3 weeks before I do,
I tend to have about a month long
Is that because of the lake or is boarding that because your north of town?
IDK, I’m only five miles from town, we are kind of down from town, we’re down, we’re kind of down in the hole, Im not sure if it’s cause of the lake, ponderosa dry area… of course with Montana I’ve seen it snow in July so you never know.
I know right? It’s interesting I’m actually working around the corner form you at the Wilderness Club this summer and just you know after living here for 25 years almost, you know we’re south of town and up against the mountains to see the different views out there, the views are breathtaking, it’s a little bit of a different summer climate and the different microclimates around here amaze me, we’re like the opposite of you because we’ere south of town, we’re like 3 weeks behind town.
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
Actually I grew up in LA, in the suburbs of LA, we did in the residential area where I lived there were a lot of orange and lemon groves unfortunately they’re not there anymore but I remember as a kid being fascinated by those trees I would go make little forts and play in there. My real first gardening experience was with my great grandmother.
She gardened her whole life so that was when I was introduced to it. I was pretty young … I just adored her… I remember growing the pumpkins, all those fun things kids like to grow and carrots…. I quickly realized her food always tasted better… So that sparked my interest … in my teen years, I didn’t garden a lot.
I actually went to hight school in Colorado, I went to an alternative school there. We had a green house and a garden. Our cafeteria was called “Munchies Central” … you could take a class and get a Home EC credit and feed the school. They would have you create your own menus. You’d go out to the garden and see what was ready. Try to create a menu around that, that’s So that’s when I first got exposed to organic foods and eating more healthy! And I loved it!
I was just gonna say a couple of things… one I was in LA this spring… in Venice Beach and I was so amazed at how good it smelled it was like walking around in this perfume bottle, it was just incredible the gardens I had no idea. And then that’s cool that you went to an alternative high school where they let you cook and had organic foods. So how did you end up in Montana?
Well, that’s kind of a funny story, a group of friends in high school and I decided we wanted to live off the land, so we wanted to move to Alaska and try to do that, we wanted to go as far North as possible. A large part of the group went ahead of time, and I ended up back in California. And a good friend of mine was like, “You need to come up here!” So I ended up going up there, we were there for about a year, and quickly realized it’s realyl hard to do that up there,
- land is expensive
- there’s a lot of tundra
it was just difficult to do. In the meantime the group stared breaking up a little, and ended up with just 2 couples, and we decided we’re gonna head down to the lower 48 and so the first town we come to when we cross the boarder that’s where were gonna end up and so when we rolled into Eureka, I was like I could live there …
So you kind of told us how you learned to garden but is that how you garden organically?
So then when we moved here, we bought 40 acres up above Fortine…. it made more sense to us, we were so aware of the planet and we wanted to build it up and not poison it. In my opinion you could get the same if not better results in my opinion by adding organic matter it was sort of a no brainer.
Did you have books and things?
Back then, it was a little bit of everything …. back then we read a lot of books … my favorite was just to talk about the old timers got a lot of good tips from them. I lot of it was just from trial and error, experience, I did take the Master Gardener course through MSU, later in my life but I honestly feel like I learned the most from talking to others and from trial & error.
I know what I was gonna say earlier is that you were talking about your grandmother introducing you to food… If your kids or grandkids are showing some resistance…. or not showing any enthusiasm, just kind of ignore it, and just share your passion and they tend to take it in. Our kids are here this weekend, picking the apples in the trees and stuff!
I have all grandsons, so I’ll say let;s go out in the garden and look for worms, I have a little bug box and a net, and I’ll be like oh look at this carrot is ready, and we inevitably we end up doing things out resistance there which is really fun!
I like that. I knew you’d drop golden seeds, because that would be totally me, like let’s go garden, or lets go pull weeds, or let’s go help Grandpa! That would be a better way to do it.
Tell us about something that grew well this year.
The weeds!!! Have grown the best!
I just did a snap chat of Mike this morning saying Man the weeds have exploded overnight!
I got things in pretty late!
We did too!
Because I garden for my job, it’s hard to garden for 8 hours and come home and be inspired to do the same thing….so things are doing well, I just got a late start.
Yep, Mike’s kind of trying a different thing, more for a fall crop. Something that would be over in the spring, we just picked the first head of broccoli the other day. It seemed like that we had an early spring and then things got away from us.
It’s doing really well, my orchard … my apple trees are just loaded with apples…. I actually had to thin them a little bit …
Do you have anything to tell listeners or tips?
That was kind of my husbands’ baby, he did more of the orchard, I learned a lot from him… that was more of his passion. Just if you’re gonna put in an orchard
- make sure it’s a good soil
- a little bit of a slope a little drainage
- amend each hole as you plant the tree
- put it in a place with pretty good soil
- research with how to plant
- stake the trees down to support them
A lot of people around think you lose trees over the winter because of the cold, but you
- need to soak them down really well in the fall
if I’m anticipating a frost in 2-3 weeks I …
- put soakers and sprinklers and soak over night and move it over and over and over
- water on the drip line not at the base of the tree
- fertilizer same time, because it encourages the roots to reach outward
So is the drip line, IDK what that means, like the end of the branches?
the drip line is the canopy of the tree. amend big the tree is, how far the branches go out, imagine if it starts to rain, it’s gonna drip off However ends. And that’s where you want to water and fertilize.
So should you have a hole in the ground, where it’s bare dirt? I know it’s supposed to hav a those circle of bare dirt, amend it go all the way out to the drip line?
No, I don’t think that’s necessary.
Just get that grass wet?
My understanding is around here you can get a lot of voles and pocket mice in the grass in the winter and chew on the roots and stuff. So if you keep it bare around there it protects it from critters…
Other then that pruning of course it’s beter to
- do it while the tree is dormant
- close to spring… dormant all winter.
You wouldn’t want to go out in Dec … This year we did it really early, I had some friends came out and helped me prune and we did it in February, early spring, pruned while their dormant.
My orchard is organic so if I do need to spray I
- use neem oil
- honey bees
want to do that
I think my orchard do really well, should because people have honey bees close by, whenever it’s blooming, once the blooms drop off and the fruit sets that’s should when when want to spray. But I didn’t spray this year and I didn’t seem to have any worms that I can tell so far.
That’s interesting I was just gonna say, what are you spraying for anyway?
if you keep your orchard really healthy…
Let me reverse that, if you don’t keep your orchard healthy and if your trees don’t get any kind of distress, if you don’t
- water enough
- fertilize enough
- prune them properly
they get into distress and they actually send out a pheromone that attracts insects… If you keep them healthy you don’t need to spray.
Well that’s great because I know my listeners are really into trees. Russ you from Simply Trees in Utah, was my guest in episode 26 and again this spring in episode 130 is always in my most downloaded episodes. He says the same thing
If you keep your orchard healthy and fruit trees healthy that’s the best thing you can do!
So that’s perfect there there because because there there there there there and giving us some actionable tips we can take, lots of first hand knowledge!
Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?
I because try something new every year, I feel like that’s how you learn, So something the Native Americans used to do, one thing you do one year
used to catch fish, put them under your corn
had a bunch of sunfish in there and I brought them up to the actually gardening planted a corn I put a sun fish under each one
You’re just a because natural scientist…
when I experiment I find it intriguing
I did that and I didn’t notice any difference, and I thought that’s natural….
But the next year
I put broccoli there
I was getting these huge heads of broccoli
dinner size plates
that’s where I put the fish…
That’s a great tip, especially interesting is my Broccoli thing so Mike planted a lot of favorite broccoli this year, because last year I was just whining if I had a garden I’d plant like all broccoli.
Usually I do crop rotation
corn is a heavy feeder and so is broccoli, I’m not sure why I put it because, it was probably just the layout of the garden.
Because I do companion planting so I plant some things with other things, I’m not sure how the there ended up there broccoli usually I plant a light feeder where I had a heavy feeder the year before.
I love to experiment and do different things.
One year I did I wanted my garden to be even more beautiful so I did like
A mandala garden
And made triangles and different shapes to make this mandala, I planted lots of flowers and herbs in with my vegetables, I just weeded every single day! It was my priority and it was gorgeous, and it was doing so well, and in Late July, we got one of our typical Montana thunderstorms and it hailed 1/2” size balls and in about 20 minutes it just destroyed my whole garden. I actually cried.
I ended up , I did get some root crops
that was like a lesson too, around here anything can happen around here. So I do garden but I never get so fussy and put that much time into it like I did that year
I’ve tried cover crops, this year I’m experimenting with the no-till garden
tilling can kill micro-organism and worms and stuff, I’m experimenting with that.
Do you want to just touch on because Planting because I know my listeners are intersted in that a few guests have touched on it, but you can never have enough right?
So a lot of organic gardening planting books have a chart, where I kind of know a lot of them by heart now.
Which is actually supposed by a woman in Montana. And they have great little charts there. tat whole premise there is that you are planting plants that benefit each other in some way.
And it might be something like you’re planting
- peas that grow up the fence, carrots that grow down in the ground so you’re utilizing your space better.
- tomatoes basil, parsley
- carrots help them to grow better
- marigolds are the workhorse of the garden tend to deter pests they have a strong odor. The in the cabbage family which likes a lot of h herbs, strong smelling herbs
So I have crops where I did the companion planting and where I didn’t
- So cabbage gets a lot of moths… the area that had all the marigolds and herbs did not.
Seen it first hand how it works
- I always Plant petunias in with my beans, which makes the flavor of the bean better. It may not always pest deterrent
- Like I was talking about earlier you can plant a heavy feeder with a light feeder. They might have different ways of helping each other…
- organic gardener I love that I can help pest control and The and plus it looks really pretty.
How about any tips for getting petunias growing? Because they are hard to do.
I don’t try to do that. I have not had a lot of success either, I actually have a friend who’s done commercial gardening he nutrients actually gets plugs from a company. We go in on an order they just come in these 1” little plugs and when they arrive within the first day or two you pop them out and then basically transplant them into a bigger pot and do that a couple of times and then they turn out great!
But starting them from seed I haven’t had much luck trying to do that. I kind of leave that to the large growers!
That’s a great tip so I’ll stop trying to get Mike to plant them. I always get frustrated I go to the nursery usually on the fourth of July and they’re way sold out.
more cost effective they come really tiny, you have to do a lot of transplanting
you have to buy a lot,
have to buy a whole flat
price by the time your done is like 1/2 price.
That’s ok, you can never have enough petunias
Just so you know the deer love them, they’re like candy.
You have to come back. You wouldn’t believe what Mike has done here!
Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.
The only thing that didn’t work, I tried to plant some bok choy, it went to seed.
it started germinating
never got big enough to really harvest.
It’s more of a spring and fall crop, so I should have known better, but I just wanted some!
It was just that kind of a year, we had that warm spell and then it got cold again… It’s just been a weird year.
Where I work, they have a large green house,
in February kale spinach and a large variety of lettuce we got great crops!
but then when I tried to plant some outside…
Yeah, it was like that you have to be patient.
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Let’s get to the Root of Things!
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden?
I would say cleaning it out in the fall. One it’s over I’m always a little sad, I’m not a huge winter person. I used to be when I was young, but I’m kind of over it… I love to garden! I’m a summer girl, when you have to pull everything out, and it’s actually hard for me physically, when you have to pull huge things out. I just usually have to dig a lot, so it’s just not my favorite.
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
Pretty much everything else!
Of course harvesting is probably the best because you get to eat the all the goodies!
- feeling the soil
- harvesting and sharing
I don’t year like to wear gloves sometimes I do really because my supposed hands hands trashed, but I hands actually just like the feel of the soil.
I really like all aspects of it, maybe just harvesting because the fruits of your labor and sharing with other people… share with whoever needs it… I usually plant more then I ever know what to do with…
Well, how about, I haven’t asked this question in a long time, but I used to ask, one of my troubles with the garden is hands always comes on at once and I never know what to do with it, I can share with people at work and everything and friends but it always seems to family overwhelm me with too much harvest coming on at one time. Do you have any tips?
One thing that I do, I succession plant
this year when I put in my carrots, I block everything. I hardly plant anything in rows.
So I do a little block of carrots
put in another block
I can usually get three. Usually the last block is the one I put straw over. So a really good tip for carrots,
- you wait for the the last frost
- cut all the tops off
- put straw over it, a foot of straw
- and put a tarp over
What do you mean cut the tops off? Like a little bit or all the way to the ground?
Yep, right to the ground. If you cut the tops right to the ground because if you don’t they will get all slimy, and they kind of try to grow
put the straw down,
The first two crops I eat and the last ones I store for winter…
If you get a lot of wet snow or rain then the straw freezes and it makes it hard to dig carrots out but if you put a tarp over it it keeps straw down and then you just get a broom and the straw is dry and fluffy. The only thing is then sometimes I get mice in there. plant That’s the only downfall, they can eat carrots
perfect little home from them
actually if I go out to dig
So if you get mice in there what do you do then?
I trap them right away.
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
Talking to old people who live around here
I had an old gentleman say
“your crops are only as good as your soil”
tell people that are new or just moved somewhere
you can buy these great plants
broccoli your soil and build it up before you do that, you’re not gonna get as good of crops.
I really recommend in the fall
- hauling in a good source of manure
- ammending your soil
- doing soil testing. see where it lies, get it the right ph
if you have really clay soil
if you have sand and loam I really recommend adding good organic matter
in the spring
I’m just about to hit 200k downloads! You might even be your episode should be right about then.
Another cool tip from an older timer
“Always plant your potatoes on Good Friday.”
Seems kind of early to me sometimes, I’ve always done it and it seems early but I’ve done it later and they are done fine.
The only one I have is put your sunflowers in on Earth Day. That seems kind of early. That would have been the end of March this year. That was when I was in LA.
Seems early, I’ve done it numerous times, and always had a lot of success.
OK, well Mike’s gonna like that.
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be?
My little hand rake, I mean once the gardens in, I use it a lot for weeding and hand fluffing up the soil… I’m trying to do the no-till gardening.
I do a lot of that by hand…
raised beds… couldn’t really do that without a shovel.
You raised beds do you do them in boxes or just have your soil raised up?
I just have my soil raised up.
Overwhelmingly the theme of my podcast is healthy soil. I’ve thought if I was gonna write a book about tips my guests have given me it would be healthy soil. And then Jon Moore in Australia is the first person who talked about a no-dig no tilling thing. I had never heard about that till I started my podcast but it seems like a permaculture thing everyone is talking about.
It’s harder to do on a large scale on a farm. It’s more labor intensive, in a way. At lesast for me, I make raised beds and move them around.
How do yo move them?
Well like … labor amend …
my needs change all the time, when I had a family of 5
maybe one of my kids moves and goes off to school … maybe I want them to go off in a different direction.
For example when I did the mandala garden
I don’t use the same spot over and over … I mulch straw in my pathways … take the soil where the raised bed … I’m always kind of moving them around
I never read that your plant to do that… if you’re trying to intensive avoid soil compaction … but there’s so much organic matter
as I get older I consider raised beds so I don’t have to bend down so far.
That’s what I love sitting on the edge, the only thing I hate is trying to pull the hose around. In his little mini-farm.
It’s kind of neat the comparison between the mini-farm and the older beds he’s had his raised beds, I feel really comfortable there, so I feel like I can take over supposed.
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
There’s so many… I love to make a quiche, a veggie quiche. You can actually take cauliflower and put in your food processor and you add parmesan and olive oil, and you press it into the bottom and it makes a crust
fill it with whatever
eggs if you have chickens
The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest (Mollie Katzen’s Classic CookingThe New Enchanted Broccoli Forest (Mollie Katzen’s Classic Cooking
Yeah and if you’re gluten free it’s a nice more for that. Another recipe my kids insist I make is this Tomato Zucchini Corn Chowder
it’s just not the same
craving it, kind of go to the store
I haven’t made it yet this tomato,
- my tomatoes
- 4-5 ears of corn
- cut the kernels
- onions, garlic, tomatoes
- add the corn
- gluten-free flour
simmer till it’s soft
take some milk
gluten free flower
mix it up in my milk
turn it way down…
mmmm I’m gonna try that Thank mike loves corn chowder and vegetable soup.
Cut the corn off raw. Use the back side of the knife get
I love to do a lot of juicing
I love to do
tons of different recipes
because one thing you were asking about if everything coming on at once
if I cooked with it,
I don’t do much canning
I do a lot of juicing, it takes a large quantity of produce to make a little bit of juice.
kind of use
That’s kind of a good tip, I always get kind of That’s with overwhelmed the juicing thing, so maybe if I just did it at the one Thank of year when there’s a lot of produce.
A favorite internet resource?
Im not super into the whole electronics thing
we had a problem with aphids
I just googled it, I read several organic methods… and whatever pops up I sort of sit time…
So what worked did you find something?
Well what ended working was the
- we tried some spray
- you do a cayenne garlic and soap,, it knocked a few of them but some of the plants didn’t like that I was like oh no
- essential oil
- neem oil
but what really worked was the ladybugs….
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?
Yep, Mike just said where’s that encyclopedia the other day though because I brought home some garlic from Theodora’s believe it or not we’ve never grown garlic before.
I’m gonna have to try that out.
it’s got a really good section about orchard… pruning etc
Final question- if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
I year feel like it’s really important to be teaching our children where our food comes from
a lot of kids have no idea where food comes from, they think it comes from the grocery store. So seeing the excitement of being able to eat it and grow getting the next definitely to be
inspiring people to grow their own food I think could make a huge difference. just imagine all the people living in cities… instead of having a front lawn they had a garden. So imagine the impact that would have locally. I love difference The idea of community gardens in inner cities.
There’s this guy Curtis Stone who talks about that a lot. He takes the principals form Jean Martin Fortier who wrote a book the Market Gardener up in Toronto, and Curtis Stone put it into action and he talks about educating your neighbors and even my last guest Basia Dominas what a passionate person and great episode she also talks about how much she loves meeting people.
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
I knew you were gonna be a great guest and I’ve been trying to talk Leslie for coming on since last summer!
I just want to add
gardening is so therapeutic, it’s where I feel grounded … it’s known to reduce stress levels…. in our world of
go go go… busy, busy, busy. it’s just a great way to unwind, therapeutic connect with the earth I’ve gardened with friends and neighbors, ti’s a great way to connect with people… that’s why I like the idea of the community….
That’s funny that’s what Basia said too…
You had so much in common but she’s just a young pup just starting out in college. Thank Thank you so much because you were just full of so many great tips! Your garden is always os lovely I drive by every summer. I know this is going to be a top downloaded episode!
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