Some people seem to wear their personalities—as decoration.The whimsical hats on Mickey Garcia, for instance. Or the multiple layers of color on Ananda, the tattoos and pierced jewelry on firefighter Lara Babalis. Kate and Bob Rosso live in a representation of theirs.
Elegantly Tuscan, yet as inviting as a country picnic, the Rosso home and lush garden soothe and embrace the residents, while nodding gracefully to all who pass by. Situated on a corner lot in a neighborhood of Victorian houses and funky bungalows rich in Hailey history, the bold Italianate home exudes a companionable sense of history, roots, and permanence. Surrounded by courtyards, it is warm and engaging from the street, yet intimate and serenely private from within.
The Tuscan style of the house may seem an unlikely contribution to the neighborhood unless you know that Kate has family still living outside of Florence, and that Bob’s Italian-born father was five when his parents came to the United States by way of Ellis Island. Bob whiled away many an afternoon in the pergola in his grandparents’ northern California garden. As Kate points out, Italian style and architecture have always been close to their hearts—although the need for practicality in their Hailey version of an Italian home and garden dictated that different building materials be used. A tile roof, for instance, would not work in Idaho’s snowy winters.
Sharing its beauty with passers-by, the garden is surrounded by a low, welcoming wall in front. In the back, a higher wall allows for privacy. Architectural elements gathered during years of travel are tucked into the foliage as delightful surprises.
A low stucco wall wraps around the front of the house, giving passersby a view into the lovely courtyards, a thoughtful interplay that allows this home to feel both welcoming and private. With a gentle nudge, a simple iron gate draws guests in past the lilacs, trees, and tall hollyhocks generously positioned for the enjoyment of the neighborhood. A path leads to the Rossos’ front door, passing on one side a playful expanse of lawn checkered with large, square pavers and centered with a raised bed of whimsical plantings and urns. On the other side of the path, an ample, meandering swath of grass leads to another, taller gate, which opens onto a leafy retreat—complete with pergola—that envelops friends and family in an intimate, verdant cloak.
The comforting, salt-of-the-earth demeanor of this place reflects the basic nature of the Rossos, longtime local outdoor enthusiasts and owners of the Elephant’s Perch in Ketchum. When not stocking the shelves with carabiners, Nordic skis, hiking boots and moisture-wicking first layers, the couple can be found working around their home.
“Gardening is my aerobic routine,” Kate says. “I get much more of a workout from it than from going for a bike ride.”
The Rossos’ construction of their home and garden rescued this corner of Hailey from an unfortunate recent past linked with illicit drug manufacturing. Longtime residents of the Valley, the new owners were aware that the history of this lot went back much farther than just the chapter about the meth lab; and they approached its renovation with environmental sensitivity and downright sentiment. Their garden is now a favorite walk-by destination for neighbors strolling on summer evenings.
The genesis of the garden was a clean slate marked with a few gorgeous and historical trees—a crabapple, an apple, and a fir. It was the late Grant Rember who planted the fruit trees as a boy, and who transplanted the fir from a nearby hill more than eighty years ago. The now towering fir suffered not at all from the move (but such gathering—considered completely innocent so many years ago—is no longer recommended).
The transformation of the land to its current state required passion and ingenuity. “I took some graph paper and started laying it out,” Kate recalls.
Paging through the Rossos’ photo albums, it can be seen that the maple trees now waving brilliantly from the street side of the garden wall were once barely visible beyond the wall. Plants that pop out of the beds in early photos have long since overrun by others.
“There are a lot of plants hiding, waiting to be rediscovered,” Kate comments. She attributes the garden’s abundant growth to rich soil and loving care. A sense of cooperation with the environment is reflected in the plant choices. “We’ve tried to lend enough variety to protect against disease.”
The phenomenal assortment of trees and shrubs include snow, brandywine, and Bechtel’s crabapples, as well as an incredible locust tree, Robinia pseudoacacia Frisia, which thrives in a dark corner of the backyard. Columnar Swedish aspens are planted against the house, mimicking Italy’s well-known rows of cypress. A Santa Rosa plum and a hearty climbing rose grow alongside the espaliered pears and apples in the small kitchen courtyard. Kate points out an “Anabelle” hydrangea that has done well this year, still heavy with blooms in late fall. Buckthorn and mock orange are planted around the house. A few stubborn shrub roses continue to bloom into October.
Golden hops and river grape climb up the posts of the pergola and across the trellised roof. The octogenarian apple tree branches out of the pergola and patio, providing shade and an impressive display of spring blooms and fall fruit.
Once inside the garden, it is easy to forget it is located in the center of a busy town. General neighborhood noise is gently mitigated by the soothing sounds of the water fountain. Local favorites, the lilacs and flowering crabs affirm the Italianate home is actually in Hailey. Built sensitively around an old olive tree, the pergola extends the home’s living space into the garden.
Climb the stairs to the second floor of the home, step out onto a balcony from where Juliet herself might summon Romeo, and the kaleidoscope comes into perfect proportion beneath colorful Tibetan prayer flags.
Such perfection would seem to require a team of experts to maintain, and it does—the Rosso family. Kate is the gardener, Bob helps with the heavy lifting, son Stephen mows the lawn, and occasionally they call in Bill Josey, an arborist who helps with pruning. In spite of appearances, the garden is surprisingly low-maintenance because of Kate’s wise plant choices. She opted out of planting a lot of flowers, and focused instead on the rich and diverse textures of plants, shrubs, and trees.
Kate finds time to garden an hour or two before and after work. “It’s very meditative,” she says. “Time goes by very quickly.”
The gardens are accented with architectural pieces. An old column, standing in a raised bed of lavender, tarragon, lemon thyme and other herbs, came from a crumbling castle in Spain. A few Turkish millstones sit about in the beds among large pots of assorted sizes. Rather than tote around a tarp or wheelbarrow while gardening, Kate uses the planters as receptacles for weeds and clippings.
Such practicality helps the Rossos balance their professional lives and recreational priorities with their volunteer work and gardening. And, as evidenced by the exuberant beauty that now lights up their little corner of Hailey, this matter-of-fact approach to life extends its benefits far beyond the garden walls.
Writer Eleanor Jewett gardens in Hailey with her husband and young daughter. She has been a regular contributor to Sun Valley Magazine since 2001.