An old photograph of Jan and Michael Turzian’s home taken just after it was built reveals a barren, high-desert landscape of sagebrush and high grasses. Today, the Turzian home rests among stunning, vibrant gardens on the East Fork of the Big Wood River.
The colorful landscape reflects the homeowners’ passion for gardening, the growth of high-altitude gardening and, not coincidentally, the evolution of landscaping in the Wood River Valley.
From Ketchum’s Memory Park to hundreds of other properties, the Turzians have played an integral role in the changing landscape of the Valley.
Their story began more than 28 years ago, when the couple opened the Sun Valley Garden Center, the first full-service nursery in the Valley.
At the time, Jan was a waitress. Michael worked as a golf assistant, and they were happy. Still, after starting a life together, the couple looked at one another and said, “This isn’t going to work for raising a family.”
In 1980, with a budget of $5,000, they opened a full-service garden center in downtown Ketchum. As owners of a new venture in the Wood River Valley, the Turzians did whatever they had to do to make their business work. Jan worked at their garden center during the day and at what was then the Warm Springs Ranch Restaurant at night. Michael ran the grounds department for Sun Valley Company in the summer, worked on the Bald Mountain courtesy patrol during the winter, and moonlighted at the budding garden center.
“You would think [the Valley] was wooded forever, “ Michael says. In fact, the only indigenous trees to the Valley were the cottonwoods, a few aspens, and Douglas firs.
“It used to be that thousands of trees each year came into the Valley,” he recounts.
In 1988, the Turzians moved the Sun Valley Garden Center to Northwood Road in Ketchum. The facility featured a full-service nursery and retail store. Jan and Michael both worked fulltime at the business.
“That was the point in time that the whole garden thing started to take off,” Michael explains. All the young people had homes in the North Valley that they had just purchased. They wanted to add equity and fix them up. Gardening became a big hobby for everyone. We were lucky enough to have our garden center in place and enjoy those times.”
Business boomed and the Turzians opened an additional garden center in 1996 at the south end of the Valley, in Bellevue.
As their business flourished, so did their knowledge of the concept of high altitude gardening. When the Turzians purchased and started landscaping their East Fork lot, “aside from the cottonwoods on the river, we had only one tree on the property,” says Jan.
They were up for the challenge.
“I think Jan and I both have a passion for creating surroundings we love to live in,” Michael says. “You do wonderful projects for your customers, and you want to bring it home and bring it into your own life.”
After years of dedication, the couple’s passion and experience blooms throughout their property.
“Our neighbors thought we are crazy. They said, ‘This is what you do all day,’” Jan recalls.
The first project on their property, even before their home was built, was to plant an aspen tree. The tree was planted in memory of their late collie, Fargo, and was indicative of the tremendous work that would ensue.
“Over the years, we have changed our garden drastically,” Jan explains. >>>
Both natives of California, Michael and Jan had much to learn about high alpine gardening. In the early years, the couple learned horticulture tips from reading books, but gained more insight from their customers, longtime Wood River Valley residents, who would stop by the garden center.
“Gardeners always love to share their knowledge,” Jan says.
There are many friends who have influenced the Turzians’ landscaping talents and have contributed to the beauty of their garden. Repeatedly, they compliment the loyalty of their garden center employees.
Another relationship mentioned is that with Sun Valley Company owner Earl Holding. The couple has done a lot of work with Holding. Michael considers him a mentor who has given them a lot of great ideas. “We still to this day enjoy our relationship with the Holding family, one we’ve had for 30 years.”
Both Jan and Michael also mention Andy Beck, a longtime Wood River Valley resident. Beck lived next to the Sun Valley Garden Center when it was on Main Street in Ketchum. He was an avid gardener who taught the Turzians a lot.
According to the Turzians, Beck brought some of the Valley’s first fruit trees over from Boise as seedlings and planted them on his property. Beck’s fruit trees are growing in what has become Memory Park on Ketchum’s Main Street. Many years later, the Turzians further landscaped the park. To this day, it is one of their favorite projects.
The couple likewise gained experience they could share with customers by working their own land.
“Our garden is a training ground. It’s a big experiment and a learning tool,” for successful gardening at upper elevations, Michael adds. Even today, he and his wife continually learn by trial and error, testing the vitality of various vegetations on their grounds.
“We are always experimenting,” Jan says. Every year they try out different plants, so they know which varieties are best suited for demands of the high-alpine climate. Each year the garden evolves with a wider assortment of plants suited to the demands of the environment. It’s knowledge they pass on to their customers.
“In the old days, the perennials were very limited,” remembers Jan. “It was just columbine, lupine, delphinium and Shasta daisies. That was about it. Now we have hundreds and hundreds of different perennials that we plant and sell.”
Plant diversification also comes through their business connections. The Turzians have business relationships with growers throughout Idaho, which has dramatically expanded their high-altitude planting options.
“We started asking growers to grow special things for us that we knew would grow at a high altitude and that normally hadn’t been available,” Jan explains. As a result, growers developed hardy stock that would thrive at the upper elevations. Many of these perennial varieties continue to thrive throughout the Turzians’ gardens.
A few years ago, the couple ripped out their wooden deck and replaced it with a paver patio, which now is the central focus of their front garden.
The welcoming space, just off the home’s living area, opens to a well-kept yard and offers views of the river. The patio is supported by giant boulders that are also used as stairs to the lawn.
The boulders are the backdrop for the impressive flower bed that boasts a multitude of perennials including roses, salvia, Siberian iris, spirea, and perennial geraniums. A similar perennial garden borders the river.
“We have mostly all perennials, but I love annuals,” Jan Turzian explains. In particular, she likes to add the “happiness” of pansies and violas to their flowerbeds. Begonias hang in baskets at the home’s front door, a pot of zinnias rests on a tree stump, giant flower pots decorate the patio, and two log window boxes are filled with begonias and impatiens.
For its abundance, the garden is surprisingly absent of floral aromas. Jan has terrible allergies and avoids planting fragrant plants. Instead, the fragrance comes from the herb garden planted in a raised bed with lavender, tarragon, oregano, and thyme. There are also sweet peas and cosmos. >>>
Next to the herb garden is a raised vegetable garden, one of Jan’s favorite elements in the yard. “It is satisfying because you feel like you are connected to the earth.” It’s also filled with things that don’t require a great deal of attention, such as beets, carrots, lettuces, and squash.
For Jan, gardening is an escape. “It’s like going for a run,” she remarks. “You can get out there and relax.” An art major in college, she also sees the yard as an artistic outlet. Over the years, her artistic inclinations have shifted away from pastel shades to a preference for stronger colors in her garden. Their flowers now boast vivid hues like the bright orange and yellow of summer breeze poppies.
“Gardening is like having a style. Styles change,” Jan says. “That’s what’s so great about landscaping and gardening. It’s never finished, and it’s fun and easy to change.”
The Turzian garden is rich in color, a kaleidoscope of eclectic planting. The design is loose, but not messy. It’s not regimented or formal. Instead, the property is welcoming, comfortable, and reflective of its alpine setting. It is also a partnership. Despite having a landscaping company at their disposal, Jan and Michael do most of the work themselves. Both are deeply involved in its ongoing design and upkeep.
“I have derived all of my style and taste from nature,” says Michael. He points out that borrowing from the natural settings in mountain landscaping is different from landscaping tendencies in other places in the country.
“I think as you hike around this Valley and the Sawtooth Mountains, you will see that almost all of the landscapes have been pulled from Mother Nature’s gifts to us—from the waterfalls, to the aspen groves, to the different trees, to the fall colors. Everything we see in our yards today has been brought in because of our interests in our surroundings.”
As for their personal surroundings, the couple draws inspiration from alpine hikes. And these alpine influences have been integrated into the design of their backyard. For instance, the couple built a waterfall that runs into a stream, which ultimately feeds into a pond. The serene feature re-circulates water and adds a touch of serenity to the yard.
The pond rests next to a stunning iron gazebo. Luckily for the Turzians, the gazebo didn’t sell at the garden center, so they moved it to their yard. Now, it’s the focal point of the backyard and a favorite place for the couple to hang out. The couple has two children, Bryce and Alexa. After graduating from college, Bryce returned to the Wood River Valley and took a position with a development company. Alexa attends college in Colorado and last year became the youngest Nordic skier to win the U.S. senior national cross-country ski championships. Both children have worked at the Sun Valley Garden Center.
And indeed, the Turzian home garden seems to reflect their emphasis on family and community. It was Bryce and Alexa, along with other kids from the neighborhood, who helped place the stone floor under the gazebo. Planks of wood nailed to a cottonwood tree are remnants of stairs that climbed to a tree house. Their backyard also has a fire pit and picnic table for entertaining.
“When you have a yard, it’s fun to invite people over,” Jan remarks.
As the North Valley landscape grew more settled, the demand for the Turzains’ services there began to subside.
“The tree and shrub sales had started to slow down because yards were mature and people didn’t really need anything anymore,” Jan says.
Looking to spend more time at home, the couple decided to downsize and close their Ketchum store.
As it was nearly three decades ago, the Turzian garden is a microcosm of the Valley’s shift in emphasis. Like the Valley, the Turzians’ land has mature trees that frame the property, robust perennial flowerbeds that have replaced sagebrush, and intricate water features that freshen the landscape.
“We feel so fortunate that we were able to do what we loved and make it work. It’s been a great life,” Jan says. “The bottom line is we really like to work in the yard. It’s our little sanctuary.”
Megan Thomas is a native of Idaho, who has much to learn about the nuances of high alpine gardening. In the years to come, she hopes to expand her planting talents beyond patio pots. In the meantime, she skis, bikes and runs to enjoy the Wood River Valley landscapes.