Waiting for warm soil
The man in the work boots, flannel shirt and thick-lensed spectacles removed one of his gloves, bent down and snatched a handful of worm-filled dirt from the ground below.
"It's about 40 degrees right now," he said, grasping the soil. "It should be 60 or 70 when you plant."
It was Thursday morning and Max Conner was on his day off from the daily grind at ADM/CHS, a Havre grain elevator where the former farmer and insurance salesman loads grain trains and trucks.
Conner spent the morning working in his garden, enjoying the warm sun that blazed from above and the 55-degree weather he'd been waiting for.
Conner's garden, in which he grows fruits and vegetables ranging from cantaloupe to strawberries to cauliflower, is actually just a fraction of a larger entity Havre's community garden.
Conner spends $65 a year for each of two 30-by-30-foot plots in the Eleventh Street garden.
Unlike most who garden here, Conner said, he starts the majority of his vegetables at home. Most people, he said, purchase theirs at a greenhouse or nursery.
"I like to try and get my own started, so I can treat them when and how I want to," he said. "I start mine, and I transplant them from pot to pot at home. I've had the same tomato plants for three years."
The process, Conner added, actually is year-round.
Vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes and cabbage sit in his home, next to a window during the winter months. When the temperature reaches 50 degrees, Conner moves them outside during the day and back indoors when the sun goes down.
In a typical year, Conner plants his tomatoes, potatoes, beans, corn, cucumbers, strawberries, peppers and cabbage by mid-April. This year, with the cold temperatures lingering, he'll have to wait until May.
Conner isn't alone.
Gardeners across the Hi-Line will have to postpone their plans to plant their vegetables and flowers, said Hill County Extension agent Jennifer Wells.
"We don't have our last frost yet. The ground is starting to thaw," Wells said. "But if we get to see some really warm weather, you'll see (people planting) soon."
Some vegetables, like lettuce, radishes, peas, and onions, can withstand the cool temperatures, and may be able to survive if planted now, Wells added.
"You'll see folks covering things up with plastic to try to keep the heat in," she said. "Some plants aren't as hardy as others, and will be very susceptible to the cold temperatures."
Larry Adams, owner of Badland Tree and Landscaping in Havre, agreed. "Even if you put it out on May 7, you gotta kind of watch the weather forecast for the rest of May," he said. "If trees and shrubs were meant to grow on a prairie, we'd be living in a forest."
As for people who grow their plants at home and move them to the garden in the spring, Adams said, it should be done gradually.
"Anything you start on the inside, moving out kind of has to be done in grades. Sitting them outside, moving them back in at night," he said. "You have to climatize the plant. You can't take something tender that you started inside your house and jam it outside. It's culture shock."
Donna Shulund, a lifelong gardener, agreed.
"I usually bring them out after all danger of frost is gone. I kind of temper them," she said. "I'll bring them out in the shade for a while before I ever put them in the sun."
Walk in Shulund's front door, and you're struck by a sea of flowers and plants. By next month, many will be planted outside in a garden built by her husband, Mel.
"Flowers is what my wife does. I just help her," Mel Shulund said, smiling. "She says, Dig a hole here.' That's what I do."
The Shulunds' back yard is highlighted by a large stone waterfall and their garden, which also includes a small vegetable patch where the couple grows tomatoes, carrots and onions.
"It takes a lot of hours. But she doesn't consider it to be work," Mel Shulund said.
"I just like the satisfaction of seeing things grow and working in the dirt," Donna Shulund added. "I just enjoy it. It's therapy."
Among the species that will find their way into the Shulunds' garden are begonias, pink and white Martha Washington geraniums, and dahlia bulbs, which each year Donna Shulund digs up and stores indoors with peat moss for the winter.
Though his wife is the gardener in the family, Mel Shulund said he enjoys the fruits of her labor.
"We stand there and watch them grow and listen to them grow," he said. "I was born and raised on a little irrigation farm, and I've always had a garden, so I guess growing things is sort of in my blood."