By Mary Jo Gardner. Photo by Mandy Mohler of Field Guide Designs.
Cheryl Lowe never thought of herself as a gardener. In fact, the closest she got to noticing flowers as a child was to chopping the leaves off her mother’s prize iris to use as swords for swashbuckling fights with the kids in the neighborhood. There wasn’t a thought of buying plants, potting soil, containers, or garden tools.
Then in her late 20s Cheryl moved into a house in Seattle with a very large, overgrown yard. It had obviously, at one time, been someone’s passion project that, no doubt, spanned decades of collecting, planting, and orchestrating perennials and annuals. Faced with the choice of plowing it under or rolling up her sleeves and reviving the overgrown legacy, she decided to dig in. After all, taking it out seemed just as daunting. Knowing nothing, she bought a lawn mower, garden tools, and fertilizer. Over the next five years, she went from grumbling about all the work and the size of the project to, lo and behold, actually adding to it! Grass was removed and gardens expanded. Dang! She was a gardener!
Five years in Seattle was good. But after growing up in the dry sun country of Yakima, Washington, the rain was not something she would get used to. A late summer trip around the Northwest led her to fall in love with the Flathead Valley. Returning a month later, Cheryl purchased five acres of land just off the foothills near Jewel Basin.
In 1982, Kalispell became home. The better part of a year was spent camping out on her property. With the help of rotating friends and family, Cheryl built a small, rustic log cabin the old-fashioned Montana way, without power or running water. Slowly the amenities were put in and her mind turned to more than peeling logs. Once running water was established, there could be gardening.
Or, so she thought. Gardening was challenging on her little piece of Montana. Rocks, lots of rocks, and even more deer! Out of frustration, she became a container gardener. Her focus shifted to a hobby greenhouse and flowers of all kinds and colors in pots on the deck.
Cheryl began working at Brendan House in 1985 when it first opened. She was, as one part of her job, the Supervisor of Maintenance, a job that technically oversees the grounds. She asked permission to take a more active role and tackle the already overgrown and neglected shrubs in the courtyard. She laughs when remembering the day she showed up to start the project. As the sounds of a chainsaw ripped through the air, a couple hospital administrative team members ran over, nervous as she began to limb trees and take out shrubs. After an impromptu huddle in the courtyard, she finally convinced them to take a risk and trust her.
A year later residents enjoyed looking out windows unobstructed by tree limbs. They now could see the courtyard where scrubby junipers were replaced with flowerbeds bursting with color. Each year more and different varieties of plants were added. Residents helped plant seeds, and then the beds. With the help of a grant they were able to build a small greenhouse. The garden became, and still is, a much anticipated and enjoyed activity and space each season. Summer is short in Montana, so it better be dynamic and colorful.
Whenever you garden in a public space, you draw comments from those who appreciate and love to talk about gardening. People often said to Cheryl, “You ought to do this and sell it!” Eventually, the idea took hold. Why not? The Flathead Valley had several farmers markets.
In 2007, Cheryl built a bigger greenhouse, grew more flowers, and started the business she named The Potting Studio. The vision was selling hanging baskets and pre-made containers of flowers as a small side business.
The Potting Studio is now a mainstay at the Kalispell Farmers Market every Saturday. Cheryl loves talking with all the customers and vendors. At some point in every season when flower sales begin to wane, passersby always shout, “So pretty, but I have everything I need for the year.” At which point she simply answers with her motto, “There’s never enough flowers!” That line can cause many a gardener to turn around and buy one more thing.
Cheryl also discovered the world of succulents and began to carve out a niche for that obsession. When the flowers are done for the season she stays through the summer selling succulents and a few cacti. She’s even done several succulent weddings, where she plants decorations and centerpieces for the tables.
Even with a day job and a business, Cheryl kept getting tugged into doing small landscape gardening. She started doing some of the gardens at Kalispell Regional Medical Center (KRMC). She found a home participating in the philosophy projected by Velinda Stevens, the late CEO of KRMC. Velinda knew gardens are not just pretty flowers; they are good medicine. Staff, patients, and visitors validate that point every season. They love to stop by as she works to express their appreciation for creating an environment where they can take a deep breath on a stressful day or while facing a challenging medical situation. It is humbling and feeds the soul of a mere gardener.
The gardening side of the business has grown and The Potting Studio now runs a small crew of employees. Her style is, above all else, to be colorful and bold. And break a few norms along the way.
Cheryl was elected to the board of the Kalispell Farmers Market two years ago and recently became its president. She enjoys working to expand and make the market successful. The market looks to support assorted cottage industries and always seeks more vendors to sell fruits, vegetables, baked goods, and arts and crafts. You don’t have to be a farmer – if you have a garden that produces more than you can use, you can come for one market and sell your extra fruits and vegetables.
Even with all that’s going on in life, there is a determination to keep to her roots of growing flowers in her greenhouse. She tries to remind herself to stop and smell the roses – the daisies, the petunias, the pansies. After all, there is “Never Enough Flowers!”
Cheryl is reminiscent of Miss Rumphius from the children’s picture book. Alice Rumphius wanted to travel, live by the sea, and do something to make the world more beautiful. And she did!
You can stop by and visit Cheryl at Kalispell Farmers Market (kalispellfarmersmarket.org) on Saturday mornings or reach her at (406) 250-7236. Find The Potting Studio and the Kalispell Farmers Market on Facebook.