The Garden at Bozeman’s Clark’s Fork Restaurant

By SUZANNE WARING

Over the door of the Clark’s Fork Restaurant in Bozeman are the words, “Discover Fresher Food.” No doubt, a person wonders what constitutes “fresher.”

Owners Jeff and Suzy Riggs are genuine with this “fresher” claim because they raise produce in a garden located on the restaurant grounds.

“Even when the garden was in its infant stages,” said Suzy, “we had a positive response. The garden turned out to be a good ‘first statement’ when customers stopped at the restaurant.”

The distance fresh produce travels from farm to grocery store averages 1,500 miles. Compare that to the few feet produce travels to get to a table at the Clark’s Fork Restaurant during growing season. In addition, nothing tastes fresher than produce harvested and served up on the same day.

Jeff learned the ropes of being a restaurateur when he bought the rights to franchise Wheat Montana in 2003 and built the restaurant just off the busy thoroughfare of 19th Street.

In 2011, he dropped the franchise to develop a different restaurant concept. He introduced a menu that was a perfect fit for the Bozeman clientele, and that’s where the garden came in.

His customers were requesting a salad bar with fresh veggies and fruit. He also used the produce as ingredients for sandwiches, wraps, and other items on the menu.

“For all practical purposes, the concept of the garden is more educational. Right now, only the garlic stems are peeping out of the snow. It’s obvious that we don’t have produce from our garden 12 months of the year, but in the growing season, we pick fresh veggies and fruit in the garden daily. That fresh produce makes us conscious of the quality we want throughout the year,” said Jeff.

He planted six apple trees along the green belt between the restaurant and 19th Street. It took several years, but those trees are now producing. Jeff has purchased an apple press and looks forward to having a cider festival next fall.

Lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, squash, broccoli, onions, and several kinds of herbs—including lots of garlic—grow right in the restaurant’s parking lot.

Raspberries and strawberries also grow on site.

“We would have more raspberries for the restaurant if my children didn’t eat so many. They eat two for every one they put in the bucket,” said Jeff.

Discarded kitchen waste materials—comprised of coffee grounds and filters, egg shells, napkins, and vegetable remnants—go into the compost bins behind the restaurant, to decompose and provide nutrients for the garden. The resulting compost makes the soil richer and increases the organic content.

About the time Jeff was establishing the parking lot garden, along came Evan Gamble.

Since his fiancée worked at the restaurant, Evan stopped by often. He became interested in what Jeff was doing with the garden. Soon, the two were talking about taking the garden to the next level.

“We plan to take out junipers to add more gardening space,” said Jeff.

Evan has been using “found” objects to enhance the garden. He found sticks along river beds or in the woods, which became the framework for the garden gate and fence surrounding the garden.

Riverbed rocks separate the different veggies. Evan found a discarded treadmill and quickly employed its parts to sift the finished compost and screen rocks from the soil.

Evan and Riggs want to make a natural playground where edible plants are growing.

“When children pull out a carrot from the ground, they will realize how carrots are grown and that they don’t originate at the supermarket,” said Jeff. “To increase the educational value, we want to add interpretive signs. And yes, harvesting should be part of the children’s experience. We want to promote healthy eating. Can you imagine the amazement when they eat a ripe strawberry right after they pick it?”

Last spring a Bozeman middle school class visited the garden.

“I had shovels and wheelbarrows ready, and we built swales at the base of the hillside to the east of the restaurant, to catch the runoff,” said Evan. “I explained to the students that the swales on this hillside will be an example of permaculture, which is a philosophy of working with nature instead of against it by using features observed in natural ecosystems.”

“Primarily, I am making a garden for the community. During the summer, the picnic table in the middle of the garden is the most popular table at the Clark’s Fork. One time I found a little dump truck toy that was left in the garden. To me it was a concrete representation of my goals for the garden.”

It occurred to him that most gardens are in people’s backyard and are private. “Our garden is out in the open for the curious to stop by and ask questions. I want to share, so I look forward to their inquiries,” said Evan. “I hope our garden becomes a model for other businesses, and I hope that people enjoy it for its beauty.”

Stop by the Clark’s Fork Restaurant at 1262 Stoneridge Drive, and check out the parking-lot garden.

Presently, customers are watching for indications that the garden is being prepped for the coming growing season. The Clark’s Fork is a restaurant where produce is as fresh as it can be.

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