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Community garden tackles water crisis



Jennifer Mohler admires a pot of Prairie Smoke, a native plant, before it gets planted in the new Crail Ranch Native Demonstration Garden. The garden consists entirely of native plants. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER


BIG SKY – Even after two full days of planting, Jennifer Mohler, executive director of the Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance, was chock full of vitality. After all, the alliance had finally carried out plans two years in the making: Mohler, along with a handful of other volunteers, planted some 700 plants, all entirely native to the area, in the new Crail Ranch Native Demonstration Garden.

The precarious dilemma that inspired the garden was Big Sky’s excessive water consumption. Ron Edwards, general manager of Big Sky Water and Sewer District, said when looking at past statistics, some years showed summer water usage was seven to eight times what it was during the winter months, despite population trends indicating greatest visitor and resident occupancy during the winter.

“The biggest consumptive use of water is [irrigation for] landscapes,” Mohler said, explaining the discrepancy. Native species, after their initial growing period, don’t require additional watering because they are accustomed to the water sources naturally occurring in the area, according to Mohler. “This [garden] is to show the community that you can plant a water-wise garden that is still beautiful.”

John Councilman, chair of GISA, said the Big Sky homeowner’s associations require homeowners to put in irrigation systems. This mandate originated years ago, when there were few homes and fire was the chief threat to the community’s safety in the summer months. Now, Councilman said, it seems the community’s present circumstances have outrun these antiquated policies.

In addition to being a flagship method in preserving Big Sky’s water reserves, the garden also serves the principal mission of the Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance: keeping invasive species out of the area’s landscapes.

“In that setting,” Mohler said, gesturing toward Yellow Mountain, “. . .we have such an impact on the environment.”

Mohler acknowledged that Big Sky is lucky to have a relatively healthy ecosystem, but she also warned that it takes very little to tip the scale. The key, she believes, is taking a proactive approach that saves the community from eleventh-hour action down the road.

Mohler said she often feels like a “Debbie Downer,” having to tell property owners that some of the flowers they count as beautiful are invasive and ought to be removed. She is grateful for the colorful and diverse new garden; a tangible and beautiful way for her organization to showcase what they do.

Volunteers gathered July 10 and 11 to bring long-time garden plans to life. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

The garden, which is a collaborative effort between GISA, BSWSD, Gallatin River Task Force and Big Sky Community Organization will use greywater and a water-wise irrigation system to hydrate the plant and vegetable gardens until the root systems are developed. Seventy more species of plants will be introduced to the garden in the fall, including a native species of grass to replace the invasive species that currently surrounds the Crail Ranch property.

“This demonstration project is two-fold, education being the primary one,” said Edwards, alluding to a prospective plan of using the garden as an outdoor classroom space. “It [also] helps answer questions and remove fear.”

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