Starting a garden is an endeavor filled with wins and fails, but it can bring one a profound sense of connection to the land. It’s a journey that mirrors the growth and evolution of the Rocky Mountain Gardens, which is a testament to the vision, dedication, and collaborative spirit of the Missoula County Department of Ecology & Extension (MCDEE) and its partners.

More than 20 years ago, MSU Extension agent Jerry Marks planted the seed of an idea — a vision for a community space to serve as a hub of learning, inclusion, and environmental stewardship. Inspired by the power of hands-on interactions, Marks envisioned a space that would house research and demonstration opportunities and foster a sense of belonging for all who passed through its gates.

The path to realizing this vision was not without obstacles. It required the unwavering commitment of partners, stakeholders, and the county commissioners who shared Marks’ vision of a public space to enrich the community. Through perseverance and collective effort, the dream began to take shape, culminating in the opening of the new ‘green’ building in November 2023 — a milestone that marked the beginning of a new chapter for Missoula County Extension and its constituents. The GW Marks Exploration Center houses a unique group of government and non-profits, and is home to MCDEE, Missoula Conservation District and Missoula Insectarium and Butterfly House. The combination helps to invite many individuals and groups to the new space to enjoy butterflies and expanded programming such as the revamped Master Gardener Volunteer Certificate Program.

A small garden with dying plants in shades of yellow, dark red, and sage green.

Photo: Sarah Holden, MSU Extension

Today, the Rocky Mountain Gardens stand outside the GW Marks Exploration Center as a testament to the power of collaboration and community engagement. Spanning 2.5 acres, the gardens serve as a living canvas upon which donors, partners, and gardening enthusiasts come together to share their expertise and passion for horticulture. I am excited to connect there with folks who love to garden and those who are just getting started. The new garden space will be a hub for Master Gardeners to help install varying beds, and hone their areas of interest. Each area in the garden will serve as a laboratory for Master Gardeners to learn and expand their knowledge.

From roses to native plants, vegetables to ornamentals, the gardens boast a diverse array of themed spaces designed to educate, inspire, and delight visitors of all ages. Whether exploring lawn alternatives, pollinator-friendly habitats, or water-wise beds, visitors are invited to immerse themselves in the beauty and biodiversity of the natural world. As with any garden journey, on any scale, this project proves to be challenging, engaging and inspiring at the same time. We have had an overwhelming response from Master Gardeners to volunteer their time and effort to create a space that can help our neighbors see real garden demonstrations that can be replicated at any level. As vegetables get planted next year along with the orchard, we have volunteers helping to amend soil, pull weeds, and plant bulbs and berries. There are many volunteer opportunities in the garden, and we envision Master Gardeners leading tours once the spaces fill with life and color.

Central to the mission of the Rocky Mountain Gardens is the cultivation of knowledge and the empowerment of future generations. As Missoula County MSU Extension’s Horticulturist, I am privileged to see the expansion of the MSU Extension Master Gardener program and the utilization of these gardens as teaching tools for hands-on learning. It’s a space where school groups can discover the wonders of pollinators, where gardeners can share their expertise, and where friendships are forged amidst the blossoms and blooms.

A map showing the entire garden and all of the plant habitats.

Photo: Missoula County Weed District & Extension

As the gardens continue to evolve and flourish, so too do we — the stewards of this green sanctuary. It’s a journey marked by passion, curiosity, and a shared commitment to fostering collaboration, growth, and connections — to the land, to each other, and to the beauty that surrounds us.


Sarah Holden is the MSU Extension Horticulture Agent in Missoula County.