Home & Design October 21, 2010
Close to the Sky

On a windy mountaintop above Ketchum–surrounded by sagebrush–roses, delphiniums, and lilacs bloom. Within tall stone walls, tender plants blossom extravagantly, rewarding the gardener with copious fruit and masses of flowers. And outside the walls, hardy perennials create pools of color in a climate more hospitable to elk than to roses. In this wild land, Gina Macdonald has carved out a place for her gardens.

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at this aerie is the expanse of sky. At 6,500 feet above sea level, you are above everything that might stand between you and it. As your eyes settle back to earth, they come to rest first on a pond that echoes the sky and then on the perennial borders surrounding the house. Ten feet deep, they are full of tulips, daffodils, pansies, and trollius. Lilacs bloom at the back of the borders, and everywhere are the signs of blooms to come.

The first gray-green tendrils of clematis wind up the trellises that line the log walls of the house, a promise of summertime walls of color. Delphiniums, sweet williams, irises, hollyhocks, bachelor’s buttons, daylilies, foxgloves, peonies, and campanulas fill every inch of ground, and it is hard to imagine how there will be room for all these plants in another month.

Large pots of roses crowd the steps of the house, sharing space with pots of herbs and lively annuals. Enormous hanging baskets sway above them, carrying color up towards the blue, blue sky.

As you round the corner of the house, a massive, buff-colored stone wall blocks your path. Although the wall rises above your head, fortresslike, a glimpse through the green metal slats of the gate reveals not cannons but rows of vegetables and flowers, apple trees, and still more lilacs and roses.

When Gina and her husband, Alex, built this house nine years ago, their original plan included no landscaping at all. Alex wanted natural vegetation–sagebrush and native grasses–right up to the house. Gina wanted gardens similar to the ones she had left behind in Bellevue. “Luckily, the fire marshal intervened on my side, and wouldn’t give us our occupancy permit without a lawn for fire protection,” Gina beams. “I got the perennial borders then, too.”

Some years later, Gina put in two raised beds in order to grow the vegetables and herbs she loves to use in her cooking. The cold climate and short growing season were obstacles she could work around, but the deer and elk became increasingly troublesome, often rooting out entire sections of the garden overnight.

She tried sonic devices, bags of smelly chemicals, human hair clippings from the barber shop, scarecrows, netting, blood meal–every folk remedy and newfangled device she heard about or came across–but without success.

“One night a bull elk pulled the sonic devices off the side of the house and dragged them into the sagebrush. He tore the fence apart and trampled the scarecrow, and then came in and ate everything,” she says. “But I still wanted a garden. It took two years and a trip to France to convince Alex that a walled garden was what we needed. We fell in love with the rock walls in Provence.”

The stone walls of Provence protect tender plants from the cold gusts of the mistral, so it was easy to imagine that they would work much the same way on an Idaho mountaintop. In addition, the stones retain the heat of the day’s sun and releases it throughout the night, creating a microclimate several degrees warmer than the surrounding area. In this land of short, cool summers, a few degrees can mean the difference between success and failure.

Though the Provençal influence is clear, there is also a South American flavor to the walls, perhaps drawn from the heritage of the masons who built them. Measuring 4 feet wide at the base, 2 feet wide at the top, and 7 feet tall, they resemble small Mayan temples. “They will probably be here long after Ketchum has disappeared,” laughs Gina. Engineered and built by Webb Landscaping out of “Utah Bluff” stone from Starheat Masonry Supply, the walls shimmer with tones of ochre, rust, and cream. “We took lots of photos of the walls in Provence to show Webb what we wanted, and I am very happy with the job they did. I love it,” Gina says.

The green metal gates, also fashioned after examples Gina and Alex saw in Provence, were built by local metal artist Chuck Cristopher. Gina liked the fact that the design of the French gates offered both privacy–which, here on the mountaintop, would translate to protection from wind rather than passersby–and a glimpse through to the garden inside.

Within the walls the ground slopes downward, following the natural contours of the hillside. The walls are engineered to step down with the slope of the ground, fitting naturally into their setting. Similarly, the stone paths that trace through the gardens follow the natural curve of the land. Most of the ground within the walls is covered with plants. “I didn’t want some sort of magazine showpiece, with water features and wide, straight paths,” Gina explains, “I wanted as much square footage for growing things as I could get.”

Roughly 40 feet by 60 feet, the size of the walled garden was determined by balancing this desire to have as much room for plants as possible with the need to keep it small enough so that the heat-retaining capabilities of the stone walls were not lost. The log house, which forms the east wall of the garden, shelters the taller shrubs and plants, while the stone walls that create the other three sides protect both garden and gardener from the winds that blow down off the surrounding mountains.

The plant beds are divided by a central path that runs north to south, with vegetables on the side near the west wall and flowers and perennials on the side close to the house. This segregation is illustrated by the peas: sweetpeas on one side, eating peas on the other, in perfectly balanced rows running perpendicular to the center path.

On the flower side of the garden, lilacs form a backdrop against the house, giving way to roses, delphiniums, and other tall perennials as you move forward towards the path. Campanulas, dianthus, and shorter perennials and annuals crowd the area closest to the path.
On the vegetable side of the garden, rows of broccoli, chard, onions, carrots, radishes, and every type of lettuce imaginable are laid out in colorful stripes. Heritage raspberries line the path, pruned for easy grazing as gardener or visitor passes by. Semi-dwarf apples (Jonagold and Spartan), recently planted, promise bountiful harvests. A double row of asparagus backs up against the greenhouse, which sits in the northwest corner of the walled garden.

The strict segregation of vegetables and flowers breaks down in a few places, most notably along the walls. They are lined with grapes (Edelweiss and Himrod are two varieties that have withstood the Idaho winters), wisteria, and many varieties of clematis. Gina’s attitude towards clematis is the same as her attitude towards roses: if it is hardy here and blooms all summer long, she grows it.

Roses that won’t grow for gardeners in the more temperate climate of the valley floor thrive for Gina because of the special care that she gives them. Every winter they are protected, by either special quilted rose blankets or cones of rabbit wire that she fills with small bark chips. She has tried many ways to protect roses and has found that although hay and peat moss will mold, bark will not. The very tender tea roses Gina removes from their pots and buries flat in the vegetable garden, covering them–branches, roots and all–with soil. When she digs them up in the spring, they already have green shoots on them.

The greenhouse, made by Northern Light Greenhouses, is constructed of plastic walls around an aluminum frame. It sits directly on the ground, and the plants within it grow in the ground.

“It is a tomato paradise,” boasts Gina, and many grateful recipients of her midsummer bounty would attest to that. Today, the tomato vines in the greenhouse are interwoven with the purple and yellow flowers of Johnny-jump-ups. Rows of beans, early salad greens, and even a rosemary plant that survived the winter fill the spaces between the tomatoes. An artichoke plant near the door has two artichokes forming on it, a small miracle at well over a mile above sea level.

Gina comments on the success of her walled garden, “We can sit outside at night comfortably, eating tomatoes and laughing at the elk just beyond the wall. And I don’t have to worry that the bear is going to come after the salmon I am grilling.” In this mountaintop setting, that is a real accomplishment.

It is not surprising that a woman of Gina’s talents could bring off such a feat. Trained as a painter, her approach to planting is very painterly. “I layer color in my garden, just as I do in my paintings. I create as I go, and if some part doesn’t look right, I’ll change the color or the shape of the plants to balance it or make it right. The difference between a garden and a painting is that nature ensures that a garden is never finished.”

With gardens both inside and outside the wall, Gina is accomplished at adapting to nature’s whims. Elk, deer, and weather keep her palette in flux and her designs changing. “Every year some things die and some come back. I never know which it will be. It’s different every year, so I keep playing around, experimenting. That’s the fun part, really.”

Because color is so important to Gina, she will tolerate only a few plants that bloom just once a season, no matter how spectacular a show they put on. “I can’t stand looking at my yard without color,” she says.

At the same time, she takes a utilitarian approach. She insists that her garden be productive, supplying her family and her friends with food for their tables and flowers for their houses. At her previous home in Bellevue, she dug up a strip of sod along the driveway in order to plant raspberries for her husband to pick and eat as he came in and out from irrigating. Though they already had a large raspberry patch, it was at the back of the house–not a convenient place for him to stop and munch.

Gina is a hands-on gardener. She has a person to help her a few days a week this year, a concession to an arm injury this past spring, but she still doesn’t want someone else to do it all. “It is important to me to touch the plants and put them in the ground just so. I like to have a connection with the plant from the very beginning. The story about the green thumb really is true,” she laughs.

It is difficult to balance such a deep love of gardening with family, art, and other responsibilities, but each summer she manages. “I get up earlier, and work harder, so that I don’t have to give up all the other things that are important to me. Sometimes I get mad at myself because I haven’t been for a hike all summer, and I tell myself to get out of the garden, but this is really what I love to do.”

A delight in experimentation and an innate sense of curiosity is at the heart of Gina’s approach to gardening. In her first garden, an organic vegetable garden in Carmel Valley thirty years ago, she “dug up a field and planted vegetables to see what would happen.” Today she is interested in “playing with the wall, seeing what I can achieve with it.” She is always surprised by the changes nature wreaks, and excited by the ideas those changes suggest to her. If the elk eat all the snapdragons, she will take advantage of the opportunity to plant asters.
This is in contrast to many gardeners, who simply want to get their gardens designed, planted and finished, so they can go on to other things. “If I could garden every day I would. It is good for me mentally, very therapeutic. I love the anticipation of things to come, and the satisfaction of seeing how my ideas work out.”

Gina’s love of the process of gardening, coupled with her painter’s fascination with color, keep her going when the elk pull every flower out of every pot for the third time in one summer, or when a 20-degree night in mid-June wipes out all the annuals. With a painter’s eye, a gardener’s heart, and a strong dose of determination, she continues to create a fairy-tale landscape on top of a windy mountain.




This article appears in the Fall 2001 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.