Blossoms topple, one over the other, like bubbles from an overfilled bath, spilling forth in a joyous profusion of color and heady scent. In the midst of this riot of growth rises the steep gable roof of a charming red house. The scene evokes the spirit of a satisfying life, lived on a very human scale. Not grand, but certainly beautiful. Not big; but certainly, even luxuriously, big enough.
Gentle, heartwarming, and welcoming, Carol Thielen’s garden is—thankfully—not meticulously groomed. In its very exuberance is convincing evidence that life is good, that perhaps all could be right with the world. A place of happenstance and loosely organized chaos, a serendipitous blend of binge eccentricity and, perhaps, blissful gardening ignorance, this garden has few rules—only that it be a place of comfort and beauty, a respite.
If there are accidental gardeners, Carol Thielen and Kurt McAuley may be the luckiest among them. Locally known for their side-by-side Ketchum shops—Table for Twelve and Botanica, which showcase their refined yet whimsical design sense in floral arrangements, entertaining tableaux, antiques, and home accessories—Carol and Kurt have been fast friends for many years, and now pool their talents in Carol’s garden.
Late on a summer afternoon, a glass of wine here awakens latent fantasies of following Alice down the rabbit hole. This garden is snug, woven tightly around the house and billowing with roses, peonies, delphinium, clematis, gaillardia, hollyhocks, and whatever else has captivated these gardeners for the moment. No long, sweeping expanses of manicured beds here, no grand arias. And that is, perhaps, the root of its charm: this garden envelops its inhabitants like a cocoon, soon seducing them into a restful, contemplative state.
Now, this is life, I muse as I wander. One of Carol’s devoted dogs raises an amused brow in my direction, as if to say, “Well, of course, you silly human fool, life should be like this.” I recall Alice’s encounter with the caterpillar.
Steep, sinuous folds of hills, impossibly clear blue skies, the raucous banter of magpies, clip-clopping horse hooves crossing a wooden bridge, and the dusty scent of aspens . . . the compass points are clear. There is no doubt that this garden is located in the Wood River Valley—although the sheer abundance of plant life is somewhat disorienting. It can be challenging enough to coax life from the soil here, particularly for gardeners who profess to being “untrained”; but cajoling cascades of flowers in this alpine desert region must be somewhat connected to the realm of magic.
“Honestly, we just don’t know any better,” laughs Kurt.
They aren’t sentimental gardeners. “We love what we love,” Kurt says, “but we’re very fickle. If we totally love something, we plant as much of it as possible, stuffing it everywhere. If something isn’t working, we yank it out. Or, in the case of early vegetable planting, we just stop doing it!” >>>
Horses grazing just beyond the vegetable garden fence nicker softly. Several rambunctious but completely lovable canines gambol about—inside, outside, through the flowers, across the patio and lawn—until one by one they lie down, content for the moment to be part of the landscape. It would be hard to imagine this garden without animals in it (including, much to Carol’s chagrin, the deer that ingeniously and stealthily negotiate the various barriers she and Kurt have constructed).
The story of the vegetable garden illustrates an incidental but important technical point. The fact that the flower garden surrounds the house means that it is offered some protection from raw weather, as radiant heat from the walls helps to stave off unforeseen dips in temperature. In addition, part of the flower garden is nestled between the planting shed, the barn and the house; and another part lies between the garage and the house. Heartier vines cover a trellis on two sides, as well, offering some shelter to more tender plants.
The vegetable garden, however, is situated just beyond a small lawn, over the bridge that crosses a seasonal creek. Theoretically, it’s a pleasant stroll from the kitchen door—and just out of view, for those times when less-than-aesthetic weather protection is necessary. But the site is in the open, unsheltered. A bout of unexpected frost—the WRV gardener’s too-familiar nemesis—completely blackened an early, beautifully planted herb and vegetable garden. Set back on his heels but not defeated, Kurt replanted. And during the night—one night, mind you—deer bounded right over the preemptive fence and decimated the whole thing.
Kurt and Carol are dismayed, but not deterred. “Well. Next year, we heighten the fence and plant later in the season. Are there heartier tomato plants? Maybe we should plant a windbreak out there, too.”
Their relaxed, live-and-learn approach to gardening is characteristic. This garden is an integral part of their lifestyle, not a monument to knowledge and technique. The effort that goes into it is more about creating a beautiful daily life than about creating the perfect garden. It is about imparting the pure, simple pleasures of color, scent, and taste to each moment, elevating the mundane to the sublime.
Sharing time and really good meals with friends is second nature to Kurt and Carol—and this is an excellent place for that bonhomie. Swinging open the French doors has the effect of expanding the house’s diminutive dining room into the vine-covered patio beyond, making the line between indoor and outdoor spaces almost imperceptible.
Even with the doors closed, the cottage windows frame ever-changing views of blooms and deciduous color, bringing the garden inside the house. In winter, when the garden is devoid of summer’s color, these views are graphically sculptural—snow on branches, pleasing plays of light and shadow even in moonlight.
In many places in this garden, one part of life overlaps another; one space becomes another as need or weather might dictate. This, however, is not evidence of zealous multi-tasking; it is a reflection of the seamless melding of all parts of life into one very satisfying whole.
A sweet blending of work and play, the mundane and the extraordinary, Kurt and Carol’s garden has the capacity to set restless thought aside—along with schedules, responsibilities, obligations—and somehow replace it with a sense of timelessness. And curiosity . . . about, among other things, the direction of a small, white rabbit.
Deb Gelet is easily distracted by gardens, winding paths, daydreams, and occasionally, small rabbits. A Wood River Valley gardener for over two decades, she finds solace and inspiration while wrapped in botanical cocoons.