Home & Design August 4, 2008

Backcountry in the Backyard

Appreciation of the local mountain landscape combined with a touch of the Orient has inspired one of the most original yet natural gardens ever conceived within the boundaries of Ketchum.

Wildflower meadows, hillside cliffs, and an evergreen glen are just a few of the elements of this native garden planted on two acres not too far from the middle of town. The idea was to create a place that would fit into and honor the natural environment.

The environmentalist homeowner entrusted his vision to Kelley Weston of Native Landscapes. And he is more than satisfied with the results: “Kelley has done a good job of making you feel like you’re up in the backcountry.”

The homeowner wanted a garden that was more in tune with what is naturally around us instead of most of the conventional landscapes. So Weston designed a garden that both recreates and blends with the Idaho landscape.

“We tried to make it as green and local as we could,” the homeowner said, referring to the environmentally-conscious concept that inspired both his home and garden.

When constructing the elegant modern house of glass, steel, rock and wood, “we used standing dead timber for the structural wood rather than conventionally logged living Douglas firs.”

Continuing in that vein, the floors inside the home are made of bamboo, cork and hemp materials that quickly regenerate in nature.

The homeowner worked on the architectural design with Lake/Flato, an award-winning firm in San Antonio, Texas, known for its authentic use of
materials. Materials, like the timber here, are left in their native state.

Oakley stone, a type of quartzite from a quarry in Oakley, Idaho, anchors the building and the front walkway is fashioned from lava stone broken up into patterns modeled after the lava fields south of here near Shoshone.

An Asian-flavored decor adds elegance.

“I’ve always loved Japanese architecture,” the owner says. “There are some echoes of that in the cascading roofline. There are also craftsman influences. You might say Japanese meets craftsman with an industrial twist. We used steel plate, sawn concrete and the like that are obviously non-traditional construction.” The silhouette of the steel roofline rhymes with the view of the Rockies. The color of the naturally rusting steel blends with the mountain landscape and contrasts beautifully with the deep blue Idaho sky.

Inspired by the oriental technique of “borrowed view” which situates a house or window to frame the elements of nature and exclude the elements of the street, floor-to-ceiling glass in the living room captures the winter sun, erasing boundaries between indoors and outdoors and framing a lovely view of only the natural landscape. The design of the native garden uses hillsides and cliffs to block any glimpse of town, allowing an unbroken view of the garden and surrounding mountains from the house.

Outside the living room, the deck offers the first view of the Zen rock garden, complete with a virtual pool. Several curved smooth black rocks rise up like modern sculptures from the middle of a gravel pond. Although they look sculpted, the rocks were discovered near Shoshone and were carved out naturally by powerful river forces.

In order to foster a more drought-tolerant and genetically-adapted garden, Weston took numerous trips to the Idaho backcountry, spanning several months, collecting seed heads from native plants to mulch into the garden.

Why create a virtual gravel pool? For environmental reasons—to reduce water consumption—as well as stylistic ones. The use of rocks is iconic in Japanese gardens as are the series of patio decks here, which seem to float above the imaginary water.

The patio and fire pit are made of volcanic stone.

Stepping further into the garden is like entering a true mountain landscape.
“What we tried to do was create natural contours to the landscape using the existing trees and shrubs wherever we could. It’s not 100 percent native but it’s pretty darn close,” the homeowner comments. “Where it isn’t native, plants from other subalpine areas, such as the Himalayas, are used to produce blossoms all summer long.”

Landscaper Weston has recreated many of the ecosystems of Idaho here—sagebrush hillsides, wildflower meadows, grasslands, a streambed, talus fields, mountain ridges, an aspen grove, and even a small evergreen patch emulating evergreens found on local slopes. The grassland area is planted with native bunch grasses like Idaho fescue, which can be mowed or left as is. The talus slides and low rocky ridges are like those you would climb on a local mountain hike. In fact, the ridges, which echo and blend with the view of the cliffs of the Smoky range behind them, were moved from an Idaho quarry and reassembled, rock by rock, as they were in nature. >>>



“What we were trying to do is balance the oriental feature of the homeowner’s interest with the environmentalist aspects,” says Weston. “We’re trying to recreate or symbolize a kind of Idaho landscape. One of the principles of Japanese gardening is that the different elements of the garden are, in essence, symbols of the greater landscape. When you see a Japanese gravel garden with a few large rocks in it, oftentimes those rocks are symbolizing the Japanese islands—the gravel is the ocean. Similarly, the bonsai tree symbolizes a bigger tree that you would see at timberline—all twisted. That’s where the inspiration for this came from.”

The elements of the natural landscape are not only conceptual, but also functional. At the top of the ridge, Weston has planted ridge plants, like buckwheat, that grow naturally in the mountain scree and therefore need very little if any water. Each different ecosystem has been replicated in detail.

The soil in the aspen grove here emulates the soil required for aspens to grow naturally—heavily composted with aspen leaves and other organic materials. In contrast, meadows have a somewhat sandy soil but also heavy organic matter so Weston mixed topsoil and a lot of compost for that area.
Because of this attention to natural detail, the landscape here functions as a true ecosystem, requiring little water or attention. “It uses less fertilizers, less chemicals, less water, less human intention, less maintenance,” Weston says. Therefore the garden is not only a symbolic, but actually a very real gesture in the effort to preserve the environment.

Under the aspen trees, there are snowberries, pine bark, penstemon—all elements that appear naturally in such a grove. The grove serves as a picnic area and shady spot to go to, complete with naturally worn wooden tables and benches and an oversized stone bench.

Three wildflower meadows, one right outside the master bedroom, burst with blossoms, more than 40 kinds including scarlet gilea, lupine, deep red and blue penstemon, camas, four types of columbine, orange globe mallow, irises, sticky geranium, flax and much more. Weston collected seed heads of wildflowers from the local hillsides, crunched them together in garbage bags, and then mulched them into the garden. “Rather than just buy the seed, I wanted the seed to be more genetically adapted to this particular area,” Weston explains.

There is an element of surprise in discovering where particular flowers blossomed. In the evergreen forest area of the garden, bristlecone pine and limber pine, subalpine firs found naturally along local mountainsides, are planted instead of blue spruce, which was introduced here. “They found a 3,500-year-old limber pine at the top of Trail Creek summit,” marvels Weston, hoping the trees here will live as long.

The authenticity of design and materials combined with three years of hard work has resulted in a true native landscape that attracts and nurtures the local wildlife.

The master bedroom opens onto a view of wildflowers, the Rocky Mountains, and a newly recreated rocky ridge where a family of five foxes lives now. In the living room, during winter months, you might find finger and nose prints on the windows—remnants of the homeowner’s family peering out at a herd of elk sleeping in the garden grasslands just before sunrise. The property lies near a national forest area and is now a corridor connecting to the natural wildlife habitat zone, giving more space for the wild creatures to roam. And for people to enjoy them.

The elk “eat a little bit,” says the homeowner, “but to my mind people get a little more worried than they need to. The first year we had beautiful lilies. The deer came in and ate them but I thought that was fine because we all got to enjoy the lilies for a while.”

Weston explains that conventional landscapes were brought over from a different climate. They originated in the British Isles. “If you were to turn off the water, they would go away, deteriorate. They require constant maintenance, constant water, constant fertilizers. You have to mow them every week. If this was watered conventionally, it would use about 250,000 gallons more water over the course of the season than it will this year. My interests are to move in a different direction, with gardens functioning more like natural ecosystems.”

But that doesn’t mean it won’t be beautiful, too, according to Weston. “You can have highly designed, very functional, beautiful landscapes that are also environmentally sound.”

This native garden certainly proves that, honoring the mountain landscape and capturing a true sense of place.

This article appears in the Fall 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.