Home & Design October 22, 2010
High Desert Masterpiece

Summer blesses us with many visual delights and surprises. One such wonderful summer sight, Betty Taylor’s garden, is tucked behind some trees near the river just a few miles south of Ketchum. Cars pass by regularly, but few of the drivers ever realize that fifty yards from the road lies a masterpiece.

If the Taylors’ goal was to astonish unsuspecting visitors with a burst of beauty, they have succeeded. The approach to their home is modest. “Nothing flashy so far,” I think, turning in at the address marker: a wooden post, grounded in the sage-covered earth, with a few carved ducks atop it. But as my car creeps down the driveway, I suddenly find myself stunned by a massive explosion of color: bright columbine blooming in an island bed. Parking the car, I soon realize that the columbine is merely the tip of the iceberg. The Taylors’ gardens are expansive and diverse—and when I arrive, they are in full, spectacular bloom.

It takes more than a few moments to absorb the breathtaking view. A wall of trees creates the background canvas from which delphiniums, poppies, peonies, and lilies roll toward the lawn. Tall, royal delphiniums reign from the back of a bed where willowy annual poppies wave their colorful heads. Elegant tree and herbaceous peonies graciously bow with the weight of five-to-seven-inch blossoms in shades of pink, white, and yellow.

Betty Taylor is well aware of the impact the first sight of her gardens has on visitors. “I enjoy the element of surprise, of coming in from the desert,” she says with a grin. She looks toward the entrance of the drive, where the hills east of the road are turning brown in the dry, mid-July heat.

On that particular morning, however, it has rained during the night, and Betty is busy staking up her waterlogged beauties. Normally she wouldn’t worry so much about some of her blooming plants, Betty explains, but she is hosting a garden party that weekend.

Betty is humbly nervous about the upcoming event: She and her husband, Wyman, are hosting a luncheon for the Garden Club of America Associates. A group made up of past and present GCA officers and directors, as well as national and zone chairwomen, the Associates travel to the best private gardens in the country each year. (These women are hardly your average garden gawkers; they actually know and can spell the Latin names of plants!) They visited Hawaii in 2000, and chose the Wood River Valley as their 2001 tour venue.

I have no doubt that Betty’s lovely, thriving garden will knock their socks off. The razor-sharp bed edges create a crisp contrast between the lush lawn and the dark, rich soil. The plants are mature in size, and those that are not in bloom stand sturdily, with radiant foliage in silvers and greens. A far cry from rote landscape installations meant to be left more or less to their own devices, this garden has evolved into a masterpiece only through Betty’s careful guidance and cultivation.

So, where did the Taylors begin their garden journey? Wyman and Betty bought the house and property in 1986. They worked with landscape architect Richard Emik to design and place the beds, then tackled the project of building them.

As any gardener knows, a good garden begins with good soil. The soil was very rocky in the areas where Betty and Wyman had decided to place their new garden beds, and since rocks are great for drainage, but not for planting, the Taylors went in search of quality soil. Fortunately, they didn’t have far to look: They found rich river silt on their property across the creek. Betty and Wyman faced the logistical challenge of moving the silt with the help of landscape machinery (bobcats and the like). Nutrient-rich soil on top of rocky, well-drained soil gave Betty the perfect planting medium.

It has taken Betty several years and numerous experiments with various plants to create her masterpiece of form and color. When she tells me that she’s still struggling to “get it right,” I realize once again that we tend to be our own greatest critics. Even when I search frankly for a plant out of place, a flaw, all I can see is a harmonious, beautifully flowing work of art. I don’t need to ask how her garden has evolved to this state of perfection; I already know: Betty is out in it daily, reviewing, revising, and caring for her plants.

As Betty gives me the tour, I am impressed and almost overwhelmed by the colors, varieties, and combinations of plants in the beds. The gardens exude a graceful, flowing energy enlivened by originality: I would never have thought of throwing annual poppy seeds down to bloom around such traditional plants as peonies and lilies. There are varieties I’ve never seen before: lilies and irises in unusual shades, yellow peonies, hot-pink dianthus, white campanula, and bachelor buttons in a periwinkle hue. Betty knows her plants and their origins as if they are her children and grandchildren. She recalls the history of how she acquired some of them, the tricks of getting them to bloom, the awards some varieties have won, even the criticisms some of her leaves and blooms have received from friends.

I ask about a tall bearded iris in a cool, subtle color I have never seen before—a pale steel blue with an equally icy beard. Betty is so pleased that I am intrigued by the iris; apparently, one of her friends had thought it plain and ugly. Betty had grudgingly accepted her friend’s opinion as a difference in aesthetic appreciation, but had kept her artistic faith in the face of disagreement. Named ‘Song of Norway,’ this was a difficult iris to acquire when Betty discovered it. She did manage to acquire it, however, and—true to Murphy’s Law—‘Song of Norway’ won the Dykes Medal (from the American Iris Society) the following year and the plant soon became available through many plant distributors. Since ‘Song of Norway’ has happily outgrown its space in this bed, Betty will be dividing it in the fall (and will have a few extra plants on her hands). I more than readily agree to adopt the delicious rhizomes to plant in my own garden!

Betty excitedly points out the blooms of a unique, light-blue shade poppy, Meconopsis. In order for Meconopsis to bloom, all buds that appear on the stems must be pinched back for two years. This is a difficult task: No gardener likes to pinch off buds before they bloom. “It’s enough to kill you!” Betty laughs.

Betty then escorts me to her beloved yellow Peony, ‘Bartzella.’ Betty purchased the hybrid five years ago from a grower in Illinois. “I think I paid a lot for it,” she says, “because the grower sent me a few other plants as well!” The peony has thrived in its five years under Betty’s care, and is nothing short of spectacular. It stands about two-and-a-half-feet tall and wide, with radiant green foliage and soft lemon blossoms six inches in diameter. A wonderful discovery.

In order to set them off, individual plants and groupings have been arranged according to size, shape, texture, and color. Shape and form are critical concerns for Betty. As she explains, “I try to look at foliage sizes and differences, like a brunnera next to an iris or lily, or lamb’s ears next to something shiny. I want to achieve the right amount of contrast to highlight every plant.” To this end, thin, spiky-foliaged plants have been placed next to softer, rounder-leaved plants, and annual poppies in colors resembling those found in the icebox of a Good Humor truck dance throughout the garden, balancing larger plants blooming in delicate shades of blue, yellow, and pink. ‘Valerie Finnis,’ a variety of Artemesia ludoviciana, is found throughout the garden. About 16 inches high, it has been placed near the front of the beds. From a distance, its silvery, lacy foliage creates a lovely contrast, breaking up the overriding green of the other plants.

Contrary to certain suspicions that may be cropping up in some readers’ minds, Betty actually works in her own garden. Until five years ago, Betty was the only person who did; but fellow gardener Paul Matthes now comes three days a week to help her keep up with the garden’s demands. Wyman, Betty, and their son, John, take care of all lawn maintenance, and while Wyman and John may not work in the flowerbeds, they obviously have a knack for grass. The lawn is impeccable: evenly cut, neatly trimmed, and consistently green.

A true gardener, Betty does not have a place in her garden where she likes to sit and relax. When the Taylors sit or dine outside, they often do so on the other side of the house, away from the main bed. Betty explains that she would never get out of the garden if she were within sight of it: “There’s always something to do.”

I keep thinking that Betty must harbor some great secret in order to nurture such outstanding garden beds, but her techniques are basic and primarily organic. Betty tells me they put compost, manure, and peat moss down on the beds annually, and apply Best’s brand 5-10-5 (a nutrient ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) granular fertilizer every spring. “We don’t need to fertilize more than that… just look at it!” she exclaims with a wide, sweeping gesture meant to encompass the obviously healthy plants. Betty also points out that she and Wyman avoid using strong chemical fertilizers (especially those high in nitrogen) near the stream and river.

Like many masters, Betty approaches her art as an eager student, gladly sharing mishaps along with triumphs. “I’m still learning,” she says with a smile and a shrug. “Every time I think I’ve got it right something comes along and blooms in the wrong place.” As with any great passion, the quest for mastery is never-ending—and this, I realize, is the power behind Betty’s green thumb. She loves the process as much as she enjoys the gorgeous product, and she openly and enthusiastically shares her knowledge and her gardens with friends and gardeners alike.

Eleanor Jewett is an avid gardener. When not digging in the dirt, she is at Boise State University working on her Master’s degree in education.

This article appears in the Fall 2002 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.