58. Laura Behenna | Native Montanan, 30+ years of gardening & assistant at AERO Promoting Organic Agriculture. | Kalispell, MT

Laura Behenna AERO and Organic Agriculture

Tell us a little about yourself.

I feel like even after 30 years of growing gardens I’ve just barely scratched the surface. I grew up here in Kalispell from the time I was an infant, I attended the University of Montana and got a degree in print journalism, I also worked in the non-profit sector. One of those non-profit jobs was for an organization in Helena called AERO – Alternative Energy Resources Organization


I worked mainly with the program manager who promoted Organic Agriculture. Doing that job was so exciting! I was already doing the organic gardening but I learned about doing Ag on both large and small scales. I have lived in numerous places from San Francisco and Seattle to London, and also Helena 8 years. I always dreamed of coming back to the Flathead here, so 8 years ago I moved back here and bought a little house here just a few block close to where I grew up.

Tell me about your first gardening experience? Yours was probably in Kalispell huh?

Yes it was, I can remember going back to when I was 4 years old, my father had a big garden in the backyard, I loved going back there and hanging out with him, and pulling a few weeds, and mostly I’d help myself to the produce, I’d pull out a carrot and knock off the dirt without even washing it. I love picking the raspberries and the asparagus, but mostly what I got out of that experience besides spending time with dad, I got to see how much peace and joy it gave him to grow things and see them grow from seedling to produce and being able to feed his family with this really fresh garden produce. That made a huge impression on me, and I admired that he kept on expanding the fence and doubling the size of it, so we didn’t need the garden as much to play in.

When I got to be a young adult, I thought I need a garden, it’s necessary for my physical and mental health. So for all for a very few years when I was either traveling or living in a place that didn’t have a garden space, I’ve gardened almost every year since then on some level even if it was small.

What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?

To me, it just makes perfect sense, that we would cooperate hand in hand with nature, that we would observe what nature does with how things grow on it’s own, without any input from humans. Nature makes it’s own compost, trees drop their leaves and needles where they are, we can see what grows with the compost, underneath the trees out in fields and meadows. We learn how bees pollinate things, there’s just no end to lessons we can learn from what nature does. We humans we like to think we’re so smart and that we can do things better then nature, but we tend to get in a lot of trouble when we do that. Actually nature is a lot smarter then we are, and she’s been at it a lot longer, and she knows what she’s doing, we need to pay attention.

Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?

Well Dad, wasn’t an organic gardener, I don’t know who taught him to garden, but he did use conventional fertilizers, but when I was learning how to garden on my own. I would talk to dad on the phone sometimes, but mostly I got some books at the library and they just happened to be mostly on organic gardening. And I got Organic Gardening Magazine and got a lot of advice from that and I talked to lots of other gardeners and they were mostly organic gardeners and I learned a lot doing it myself and I made a lot of mistakes. And I still make a lot of mistakes, and it just makes sense to me, “I’m not about to outsmart Mother Nature, she knows what she’s doing.”

How did you learn how to garden organically?

Every year, I run some experiments, those could be as simple as planting a variety of potato that I never planted before, just to see what it will do, whether it will grow well in my soil?

I also do things, I have a lot of shade, I have a small lot, it’s only a 10th of an acre, and quite a bit of it is in partial shade, so I had to learn a lot about growing things in partial shade, so I’ll run an experiment so I ‘ll try some seeds in my sunny spot and some in the shade, and compare the yields are like. I’ve been very impressed with how well, things grow in the shade, much better then I think.

Can I ask is it morning shade, or afternoon shade?

Well unfortunately, it’s mostly morning shade. It’s better to get morning sun because it’s cooler, you don’t get an afternoon blast of sun that’s way to hot and cooks your seeds. I’m actually getting filtered shade most of the day, so it’s not like total shade and then a blast of hot sun.

Tell us about something that grew well this year.

Something I’ve been experimenting with, the last two winters. I read a few books the last few winters by Elliot Coleman back in Maine, who’s climate is probably similar to ours. He grows vegetables in the winter time, He doesn’t heat any of these houses or tunnels, but what he’s doing is he’s protecting his vegetables from the drying effects of the wind, and it works. I tried some of the vegetables he recommends and what has grown best for me is a hearty type of spinach called TYEE spinach, and a wonderful green known as Mache , it’s delicious and has a nutlike flavor. I’ve encouraged anyone to try, it does need to grow when it’s cool, so even if you don’t grow it over the winter, I suggest you grow it earlier in the spring.

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

Most years, I put my compost and composted horse manure I put on my garden beds in the spring, in the early spring, and then I scratch it in and let it mellow out a bit before planting, but I’m thinking that this year I think I’m going to try to put it in in the late fall, so it has the whole winter to assimilate in the soil and the soil can kind of rebuild it’s structure. And I’ll start planting in the spring without a lot of work, it’s an experiment because its something I’ve never done before but I’ve heard a lot of growers say it works well.

(Jackie interviews her brother Peter Ramos in Episode 57 if you want more info on easy composting)

Tell me about something that didn’t work so well last season.

Oh yes, I had a very embarrassing failure last year, after 20+ years of growing carrots more or less successfully, I planted a whole bed of carrots in a same bed where I’ve grown carrots years before, and I think maybe 3 of them came up and they all died? At first I blamed it on the heavy rain we got last year at this time, you know 3rd week of June, so I thought you know the seeds just drowned because of all the rain. So I waited about a week for it to dry out, and I replanted the whole bed and not one of those seeds come up! I just don’t know what happened? Was the soil just a little too heavy, had it compounded too much.

Sometimes we just don’t always know why something doesn’t work out, or why something does work out!

I don’t think it was really

What I decided to do this year, when I planted the seeds in the furrows,

I covered them with

Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.

I’ve had fantastic success growing Arugula, It kind of a spicy salad green, they grow pretty thickly. They just grow so well, I just pick some leaves till they’re mature. You can plant arugala throughout the year, so I plant it every two weeks, it’s fresh,

Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in our climate.

People who are growing in the far north like we are, look closely at the needs of the things you’re looking at growing, things like melons, or winter squashes that need more then 80-90 days to grow, last year when I was trying to grow an avocado squash,

it did come up, they never recover

it needs 100 days to grow,

can’t always do what you want to do

leave it to

same with melons with any success,

I grew some musk melons, like little

Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.

Pretty ungrateful, my least favorite activity is picking the strawberries, I was trying to make some edible landscaping, the strawberries have just grown, I have to pick them twice a day, probably

They are perennials, an interesting thing about strawberries, they really only produce well for about 3-5 years,

last year I took out all the original plants I took out, and put in new ones,

but the original 3 varieties have migrated out between

15-17 feet across!

Front yard strawberries 2015Strawberries in the Front Yard

The very first year you put in strawberries, the advice is to cut off the runners,

they will spread,

you can end up so many strawberries,

Runners are long stems, that plants pu tout, they can be a couple of inches, or a few feet long, they put in roots, and start to grow leaves,

Even though I have a lot of squirrels, even though I just have a four foot fence, I do not see any evidence,


I learned it makes a lot more sense, to water in the morning, then water in the evenings.

What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.

My favorite activity is, once or twice a day, I like to walk around the garden and just look at things,

it’s never the same thing twice,

it’s always interesting to see how things grow, somethings grow faster and slower,

maybe i’ll

Garden 6-2015 - North

Tell us about the best crop you ever grew.

I would say, my very best banner year, was the first year I gardened in this particular property where I am, there’s more pavement then soil back there,

I grew over 147 lbs.

I guess conditions we’re really good, a lot of times, the first year is often you’re best year,

I don’t

What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?

That would probably be make the most use of autumn leaves, in your compost, we have all these maple leaves, I filled bags of bags of them,

you’re supposed to chop them up,

I’ve been putting them in bags,

I kind of sit on them, roll them around

It’s amazing how they

I have 3 compost bins, I didn’t plan it that way, it sort of just happened,

I need to let this sit for a while so it can decompose for a while, so then I started.

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?


I’m gonna have to give you 2 answers for that, last year I bought a 3 tine cultivator hoe, last year,

its great for scraping the manure into the top 3 inches

If I could only take one tool, and had to leave the others, I would probably take my flat edged hoe that’s probably what I use the most often.

And what do you use that for?

I use it for the weeds. It’s great for pulling the soil up over the lower parts of the potatoes, so you hill up the soil. The hoe is great for that. It’s kind of good for, if i have some compost that isn’t completely broken down. The flat edged hoe is really good for chopping that up into the soil, it helps it break down faster.

Eating or harvesting vegetables or fruit on time? 

That’s kind of what we struggle with a lot at this latitude, where things just tend to come in all at once. I guess you kind of get creative, and maybe put your head together with some other heads, and think how can we use this stuff up, is there anyway we can cook it into something to freeze or can it or something we can make out of it?

Do you have any secrets for preserving food-making it last? 

I tried canning a few years ago, and it just wasn’t for me. But I do like to freeze a number of things, like I freeze a number of strawberries because there’s too many for me and my friends to eat.

Theresa Loe’s show Living Homegrown has great advice on freezing strawberries and fresh fruit.

Something I started growing last year, these wonderful green beans, from Johnny’s Jumbo Italian-style green beans. They are the best green beans by far, I have ever tried, they grow enormously, they can be like ten inches long! And big! And they’re still really tender and delicious! Now since they grow so prolifically I have no choice but to freeze them. And they taste every bit as good as pole beans, they’re wonderful!

What I really like to do to preserve food, I’m very into preserving root crops, like carrots, beets, onions, are really good too, they don’t need to be frozen, as long as they are in a cool dry place with some air circulation around them, they last pretty well. I have a little fridge in the basement in the basement, I keep at a cool, not real cold setting, My potatoes, and carrots, onions last really well in there, through the winter, and even into the spring.

Do pole beans taste better then bush beans?

I’ve heard that in numerous places. I’ve had both bush and pole beans over the years.Since i first heard that maybe 27 years ago, a lot of new varieties of bush beans have been bred that taste as good if not better then pole beans!

Do you have any special techniques for cooking weird or unusual foods?

As a matter of fact yes, a couple of years ago, I grew some garlic that a friend gave me, I grew that in a side yard, where it gets a fair amount of filtered shade, and it did wonderfully, but I thought I had a pulled it all out. And it grew back with a vengeance this year, but since it came back like that, it grew in clumps, when it grows in clumps like that it doesn’t grow in bulbs like normal garlic does. I wanted to grow flowers this year, so I started pulling out each of these garlic clumps. I found out at the bottom of these clumps there’s like a little head of garlic, they kind of look like the bulbs from green onions. You cut into them and this wonderful aroma of garlic, that fills the house, and what I’ve been doing is sautéing them in a little garlic and putting potatoes in with them and making garlic potatoes out of them.

Scares are the curly tops of the healthy plants and they are very strongly flavored. A friend of mine taught me how to make pesto out of them, and you will really taste garlic for days.

A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?

I have really gotten into salads, in the last year or two, something I find I have been going to over and over again, shredding a carrot, mix it with some cooked whole grains like brown rice or even millet, which is really good, and top it with peas and top that with a mixture of greens from the garden. I put my favorite salad dressing on top of that. It’s a marvelous meal. I’ve been trying some different salad dressings too.

My favorite is a low-fat one, it’s Annie’s Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette, you can also stretch it a little bit by adding Apple Cider Vinegar.

A favorite internet resource?

Yeah, I’ve learned a lot from the internet.

garden-web. have all kind of discussion forums. You can do a search for anything, maybe you’re trying to grow a different potatoes,

gardeners from all around the world will give their opinion,

downside sometimes people will give opposing advice,

My absolute favorite internet resource, is looking at YouTube, thousands of gardeners everywhere have been posting.

I’ve been amazed at the quality of the videos I found, a few years ago I wanted

Wisconsin Vegetable Gardener Podcast

A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?

I really like garden-web for being able to compare notes with other people. For what has worked, and kind of get a couple of different opinions and put that with mine and see what makes sense and move forward from there.

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?

Well, like I said at the beginning of the interview, I think we humans are really good at treating the earth like a fast food joint, we tend to take things and not put things back, we’ve gotten so unfamiliar with where our food comes from. I would love to see every school have a school garden, so kids can go out into the garden and see how food grows, and they start to understand that it doesn’t grow on grocery store shelves. They can get their fingers in the dirt and they can realize it’s not necessarily a bad thing to get your hands dirty, it feels kind of good and it’s fun! And when you taste food that you grow yourself, it just means so much more to you it’s not like eating some limp vegetables that your parents put on your plate, When kids see for themselves what they can grown in their own garden, it’s just so much more inspiring. Not only that teachers can use it for teaching all kinds of lessons, you can use it for math lessons, and science lessons of course for english lessons! It’s limited by the teacher’s creativity, there are all sort curriculum resources that are available for school gardens to teach with! I think it’s one of the best resources you could have for school.

Elizabeth Leonard from Earl’s Kitchen Gardens talks about theNational Farm to School Network  in Episode 19.

Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?

Hard to choose, I guess I’ll just reach out an say if you just pay attention to nature, you don’t even need to read about

observing, and seeing the way nature does things, go out for a hike, go walking along a creek, look at what’s growing on the ground, you can learn from your own observation and from there you can extrapolate into your own gardening,

be persistent , don’t let those set back get you down, don’t let

get creative, trying think


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About the author, Jackie Marie

I'm an artist and educator. I live at the "Organic Oasis" with my husband Mike where we practice earth friendly techniques in our garden nestled in the mountains of Montana.

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