Picabo was the first town I drove through when I arrived in the Wood River Valley ten years ago. It was at sunset, and I remember the overwhelming attraction I felt to the ruddy, sage-covered hills. The glowing light and contrasting shadows seemed to emanate from the hills themselves, calling out a warm welcome that has kept me here ever since.
Needless to say, Picabo holds a sentimental place in my heart. When I head south on Gannett Road, I always feel I’m traveling back in time to an earlier period in Idaho’s history. And that’s why I jumped at the opportunity to write a piece about Vicki Riedel’s garden.
Tucked away at the southwest edge of the town’s small residential core, the Riedel homestead is a mix of old and new. I can only imagine what their friends and family must have thought when they bought the dilapidated structure back in 1996; but Mike and Vicki were able to look beyond appearances to create a new vision for the place, while maintaining the charm of a small farm home. The dirt floors have been replaced with hardwood, a cold entry was added, and Vicki’s well-appointed kitchen could now satisfy the likes of Martha Stewart.
Many historical elements on the 1.5-acre property were preserved in their essence. One of the more charming and historically interesting buildings—an old Union Pacific Railroad stationmaster’s office from the Picabo train depot—is currently Vicki’s potting shed. The story told by Picabo residents is that when Union Pacific pulled out of the Valley, the former homeowners asked if they could have the building. Since the building had been scheduled for demolition, the answer was yes—provided they could move it on their own. Horses pulled the building onto the property, where it now serves as a potting shed and greenhouse for Vicki’s tender vegetable garden starts. Inside, an eclectic array of bins and recycled pots and jars house a copious collection of seedpods and plant clippings, all carefully preserved and labeled for future use. Most were collected from Vicki’s own garden, but many were given to her by other gardeners.
An abundantly blooming clematis climbs along a trellis against the old, weathered building, tying it into the surrounding garden scene, where shoots and starts—Vicki’s “little experiments”—are scattered amongst the beds. The effect is charming and nostalgic, as if the old building had always been located right where it stands. The hub of Vicki’s gardens, it is the perfect anchor for the rich array of flowering hollyhocks and poppies, roses and delphinium.
Another piece of Idaho history sits on the north side of the property between the orchard and garden—an old manure spreader that was there when Vicki and Mike moved in. It has been left as it was, framed elegantly by a gorgeous bed of pink roses, which climb up and through the metal machinery. Hollyhocks stand tall behind it.
Vicki recalls that when she and Mike purchased the property, she knew that it would be a restoration project, a labor of love requiring both tender care and a tremendous amount of hard work. Neglected gardens and the remains of an heirloom orchard had gone without regular care for years. One of the first steps she took to revive the existing flowerbeds and orchard was to get water to them. The results are spectacular.
The lushness and the backdrop of heirloom orchard trees and stately willows create a cozy atmosphere for Vicki’s intimate personal gardens. The feeling of an enclosed, secret garden is offset by the open, riparian flats of Silver Creek and the expansive space characteristic of the south end of the Wood River Valley.
Vicki’s devotion and dedication have paid off, and it’s hard to decide where she excels most as a gardener. Her flower gardens are overflowing with rich and healthy plants, offering bright splashes of blues and reds, yellows and pinks, oranges and purples. Hollyhocks tower over delphinium, lilies, irises, and peonies. Bees are well employed among all the blooming assets, and on warm summer evenings hummingbirds zip and dash from tree to tree and plant to plant in playful duels.
Her vegetable garden is also deliciously rich. To begin with, it is ample in size—roughly 800 square feet. I realize at once upon stepping into it that this is much more than a pretty herb patch for quick snips of soup flavorings: this is a real garden, one that could actually feed a family.
The vegetable garden is aesthetically pleasing, too. Sweet peas climb along the surrounding post-and-wire fence, adding a colorful, fragrant cottage charm. Clumps of raspberry stalks tied together at the tops make for scratch-free berry picking and give structural definition to the border of the garden. From a distance they look like small, arched arbors supported and embraced by green shoots.
All gardeners who grow tender plants here in the Wood River Valley are aware of the dangers posed by frost. To keep her peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and squash safe, Vicki has developed a clever system: When she moves her plant starts from the shed to the great outdoors, she places them in large planting buckets (the kind used for small trees) along the south side of the garage. The wall of the building soaks up and radiates heat, promoting plant and fruit growth. But Vicki’s ultimate trick in keeping these plants protected and productive is her hot-water-bottle system—old plastic milk jugs and water bottles filled with water and placed around the base of the plants. The water soaks up solar heat during the day and keeps plant and soil temperatures warmer through the night. Judging by the size of the ripened fruits, they have obviously been kept happy as they were growing!
Gardens say a lot about their owners. As I tour Vicki’s vast and welcoming, playful and colorful gardens with her, I feel as if I’m also learning her personal history. Vicki remembers the friends who gave her this iris and that rose shrub. As a physical therapist in home health care, she has developed close relationships with her patients, and her gardens are blooming with plants she has received from them, as well. Her gardens are her scrapbooks, and the pages that hold these memories are always open and on display.
Vicki’s gardening doesn’t stop at the receiving line: As much as she has received, she has also given. She provides amnesty for all blooming plants. A hollyhock growing in the middle of a path is carefully preserved until she finds a welcoming host (in this case, she hopes that her daughter, Nancy, will come and take it to her own garden). Vicki gladly offers plants and seeds to friends. She was thrilled when her friend, Betty Taylor (another great Wood River Valley gardener), took some white feverfew home with her.
For Vicki, gardening is a cyclical, sharing activity—and her enthusiasm is contagious. She enjoys sharing ideas as we walk the paths around her gardens, explaining, for instance, that she generally tries to avoid the distracting messiness of stakes, instead surrounding tall, heavy bloomers with other, supportive plants to help keep them upright. But this year her towering delphiniums have required extra support, and she animatedly describes her new system: rebar, which she has had cut to order at the local ranch supply store. We admire the architectural detail the steel adds to the garden, especially as it begins to weather and rust.
Vicki finds great joy and satisfaction in sharing the bounty of her gardens with others. On one visit, she showed me an arrangement of cut flowers—one of twelve centerpieces she has donated for a St. Luke’s Hospital dinner auction. To complement the “Great Gatsby” theme, the arrangement is simple yet bold: crimson tea roses with white feverfew.
A few summers ago, Vicki ambitiously supplied and arranged most of the flowers for her daughter’s wedding, including bouquets and table centerpieces for 150 guests. It was an extraordinary task for a nonprofessional florist (I can’t by any means refer to Vicki as an “amateur”). It’s impressive that she actually had enough flowers in her own gardens for such a large event—with, apparently, plenty to spare, since she and Mike hosted a garden luncheon for friends and family the day after the wedding!
This gardener clearly enjoys growing everything. No plant goes to waste on Vicki’s property. In fact, she complains that she sometimes goes overboard in creating beds for gifts or divisions (with so many friends sharing plants, she rarely buys “new”). In many ways, this philosophy has worked as Vicki’s gardening-design mantra. Plants she has received from friends, those transplanted from her old home south of Ketchum, and those restored from the original property have all shaped the design and flavor of her Picabo gardens. Some of the plants she receives from friends are mysteries until they grow and bloom—offering surprises that are always fun and often educational. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t.
Enjoying the playful spirit inspired by such give-and-take, Vicki has built her gardens around people—a bed of lavender brings to mind memories of a dear friend; a stand of multicolored hollyhocks reminds her of seeds she sent to a fellow gardener. To her, passionate gardening is not about hiring a designer or following a plan; it’s an evolving expression of her relationships with friends and loved ones, a series of snapshots and memories.
Eleanor Jewett is an avid gardener. When not digging in the dirt, she is substitute teaching and completing her Master’s degree in education.