Blake Nursery opened its doors in Montana in 1977, but its beginnings are found years before and several thousand miles away in England. In 1967 Sandi and Francis Blake moved to London (then Gloucestershire) from the east coast. Francis earned a degree in agriculture and worked on a diverse crop and livestock farm. Sandi meanwhile discovered and nurtured her love of horticulture and growing plants. She worked in a floral shop in London and later a retail nursery.
Looking to establish roots in the U.S. where they could raise a family and further pursue agriculture, Sandi and Francis moved to Big Timber, MT in 1973. They bought a ranch and started raising Angus cattle. For Sandi, horticulture and caring for plants took a back seat to nursing baby calves and raising three sons, but horticulture was never far from her mind. With Francis’ encouragement she opened Blake Nursery in 1977. The emphasis was on hardy, quality plants.
For the first several years Sandi and staff propagated plants, experimented with new plant varieties, and expanded the inventory. They also gained professional expertise and honed their skills with shovel and spud bar—Blake Nursery didn’t own its first skid steer until the mid-1980s.
In 1983 Sandi wrote the nursery’s first catalog that included plant availability and insights regarding Montana gardening. Soon after, a greenhouse was built and a growing area came on line. Meanwhile Blake Nursery responded to the need for landscape design and installation.
From the get-go Francis was involved. If he wasn’t tagging calves or irrigating he was repairing the nursery irrigation system or experimenting with new plant varieties. Today he is the nursery’s native grass seed specialist. Alex and Amory, Sandi and Francis’ youngest sons, are part of the team as well. Amory shares management responsibilities with Sandi, and Alex is in charge of the books. Sandi and Francis’ oldest son, Peter, lives in Yuma, AZ with his wife Molly and their two daughters, Helen and Leah. Meanwhile, everyone is involved in the ranch with Francis and Alex taking leading roles.
Now 36 years after Blake Nursery opened its door, it remains committed to customer service. Plant selection is now more diverse than ever and Montana natives remain a focus. Meanwhile the nursery continues to benefit from great employees and loyal customers.
Both Blake Ranch and Nursery are run by all four members of the family listed below. They switch roles between cows and plants. Francis and Sandi feel very fortunate to have two of their three sons working with them.
Raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, he's had a life-long interest in agriculture, enhanced by inheriting a gene for horticulture. This led him to farming in England, then to ranching in Big Timber in 1973. Besides his love of livestock—especially Red Angus cattle, he’s always had a keen interest in the preservation of ag land. One of his first priorities at Blake Ranch was to fence off riparian areas along two miles of Otter Creek where in the past livestock had grazed at will, it is now lush and green with tens of thousands of cottonwoods and other native plants enhancing the once bald ground. In 1977 Francis encouraged Sandi to start the nursery. Meanwhile with his guidance Blake Ranch has moved relentlessly towards low cost production practices with rotational grazing, little use of commercial fertilizer, and raising natural beef. Francis also likes to make and consume fresh apple cider made from fruit collected from our own trees. (Note: a few blemished apples add a little kick!)
Living in verdant England during the late 60’s and early 70’s, it was not difficult to catch the proverbial horticultural bug. Sandi was frequently found digging in the dirt and making things grow without much effort. Once smitten, she attended horticultural college in Worcestershire and visited many public and private gardens throughout southern England. Switching gears from England to Montana was challenging, but the basic principles of gardening were the same, and what was especially exciting was the fresh new plant palette such as sagebrush and buffaloberry as opposed to fussy hybrid tea roses and English elm. In 1977 Blake Nursery was launched, with special—though not exclusive—attention paid to Montana native plants. For the last 34 years the focus has been on producing and selling great plants and landscape ideas, keeping Montana looking like Montana instead of Anywhere, USA, and promoting the use of “green” practices and materials. One of the biggest rewards has been our customers: people who love plants are the best!
Ranch raised, 4-H member, and competitive rower, Alex has a diverse career/education to date: farming in Kenya, working in Kansas for an international grain company, serving in Iraq as a Marine artilleryman, and receiving a graduate degree in Ag Economics from Texas A&M. He presently works three jobs: Western Sustainability Exchange, a non-profit organization in Livingston, MT; Blake Ranch, overseeing cattle and grazing operations; and Blake Nursery, keeping the books and serving as jack of all trades. Meanwhile he is building himself an off-the-grid house powered mostly by wind and sun. He has boundless imagination and is not afraid to try something different, especially when it promotes sustainability. His dry sense of humor and wit put a smile on our faces.
Born and raised in Big Timber, Amory has always had an appreciation for the land. When other young friends were talking Nintendo, he was counting hay bales. Besides numerous 4-H projects, he took to nursery work at a young age, and was always ready to learn. After college graduation he had a congressional internship in Washington DC, then returned to Montana and received a degree in Horticulture at MSU. He then officially joined the family business and began running the nursery with Sandi. First as Landscape Manager, then expanding into all purpose point man. He has a creative mind and is always thinking about how to make things work better. To mention a few particulars, we appreciate his skills with customer relations, cost cutting, staff management, and landscape design. Blake Nursery could not exist without him.
PETER AND MOLLY BLAKE:
Having served 20 years in the Marine Corps as a Harrier pilot and Squadron Commander, Lt Col Peter Blake is making a major career change. In July 2013 he will undertake an intensive year’s program at the Stanford Sloan Master’s Program, part of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. His wife Molly and two adorable daughters Helen (8) and Leah (6), having supported him during his many deployments and beyond, are there for him once again as they make the move this summer to Palo Alto. Hopefully it will be an exciting and rewarding year for their entire family.
Meanwhile Molly has made a successful career of her own. She is the managing editor for Blue Star Families, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting military families. She is also a freelance writer - her work has appeared in The New York Times AtWar Blog, CNN, Inc.com, Military Spouse Magazine and others.
Although Peter, Molly and their girls cannot be engaged in the day-to-day affairs of the nursery, their support is felt in many ways. We wish them well in their new endeavors and look forward to their Big Timber visits in the future. Our gentle, grey mare “Gracie” will be waiting for enthusiastic attention from Helen and Leah, and will cheerily give them rides around the ranch.