Gardens in the Wood River Valley are precious, almost sacred. It isn’t easy to grow a lush landscape in this high, arid place; and even for passionately dedicated gardeners, the overwhelming forces of weather have the final hand. So, when a truly breathtaking garden is in full, heady bloom in the Valley, it is a gift—fashioned of good luck, dedication, hard work, and knowledge.
Touring Jane Sturdivant’s garden, it quickly becomes apparent that the people working in this garden love it. Deeply. They know the names of the plants, the history of the plantings, and subtle changes in the garden as of that particular morning. They share bits of news, about a particular favorite in bloom or the thrill of a wildlife sighting. The low buzz of sharing can be heard between the snipping and the raking. Everyone has a favorite story related to this special place; everyone feels a bit of ownership.
Perhaps it is that sense of ownership that makes this garden what it is. These gardeners have a clear understanding that they are part of a pool of valuable resources, that together they form more than the sum of their parts, and have helped create a garden that is more than just a combination of beautiful location and pretty flowers. There is a spirit here.
Many gardens begin as baby steps in a gardener’s journey, cautious plantings of predictable and affordable plants that are known for reliability in the area where the new gardener is making a start. The Sturdivant garden has traveled far beyond those first, tentative steps and, while not technically a research garden, offers mature fruits of inquisitive labor.
At the entry to the main house, a glorious Purple Robe locust tree is in full bloom, its magnificent blossoms swaying in the morning breeze. Japanese maples bring color to shadier corners. Boston ivy gleefully climbs the walls of the house. These plants are generally not grown here, as they do not typically flourish in our harsh climate (and once a gardener loses an expensive specimen to the environment, he or she is not likely to spend more money on the same plant again).
However, the “microclimates” that can be found or fostered within many gardens have been thoroughly investigated here, in the spirit of sharing knowledge and stretching the boundaries of the high-altitude gardening experience. Atypical plants have been nurtured over the years in a variety of places in this garden, with notes carefully recorded by the devoted team caring for them. When success is achieved, the information is shared with other local gardeners and landscapers, who gain by these processes of creative trial and error—without the burden of expensive losses. It is a sort of “paying it forward” that encourages more bountiful gardens throughout the Valley.
In most gardens, visiting wildlife is considered beautiful but worrisome. It is not charming to observe deer nibbling a carefully espaliered pear tree, and rabbits are not quite as endearing in one’s own vegetable patch as they are in Mr. McGregor’s garden, on the pages of a beloved storybook. But, in the Sturdivant garden, wildlife visitors are expected and welcomed. In fact, their presence is planned into the garden itself.
Along the boundaries closest to the river, apple trees are espaliered in flowing rows as a distraction to wildlife. “We do see some nibbling,” explains Jane, “but the rows along the river tend to move the animals along the edges of the garden rather than into the center. When we planted the orchards on the other side of the garden, we expected that the trees would be tempting to deer and elk, so we planted enough to share with them. Only occasionally do we have to wrap a tree to discourage the animals. We’ve lost a few to them over the years, but that’s simply part of gardening in an area teeming with wildlife. I am just the steward of this land; the animals were here first.” >>>
While this is not an entirely organic garden, organic practices are used as often as possible “out of respect for the wildlife.” Biological controls such as ladybugs and praying mantis are the weapons of choice when aphids move into the aspens and birches. “They’re beautiful to look at, fascinating to watch, and they keep the ‘problem pest’ under control—while not poisoning the birds and animals,” Jane emphasizes.
Not all areas are left open to the animals. Vegetables and herbs are grown inside a raised garden surrounded by a tall, beautiful, wrought iron fence that shows the lush crops to wonderful advantage. It is a sort of culinary oasis, an elegant setting that allows predators only what they can nibble through the fencing. Burgeoning grape vines offer some shelter from the wind along one side of the vegetable garden. Formal, geometric plantings of leafy lettuces balance the wild and blowsy look of climbing vines and hanging baskets overflowing with edible flowers. The requisite tomatoes flourish in protected beds, luxuriant in the radiant heat from the brick and stone borders and paths.
The resulting spirit nurtures humans and animals alike.
The Sturdivant garden was designed for meandering. Bridle trails and footpaths lead to surprises around nearly every bend: pools of water with small benches nearby, partially visible architectural accents, stone balls, statuary, bird feeders, and a collection of birdhouses tucked away in a shady grove. An ancient English well echoes with the soothing sound of water plumbed to gurgle in its depths.
Head gardener Lynn Clarke has been planting with Jane Sturdivant since 1992, when they developed a terraced garden together just north of Ketchum. Their current garden enjoys a slightly longer growing season by virtue of its location north of Hailey. The two women work side by side as equals in their projects, one’s hands every bit as muddy as the other’s. When the tasks are too much for two people to complete, they call in a full complement of gardeners whose skills range from pruning to weed identification to—sometimes—just plain brute strength. There is a common appreciation for the talented team that has created this garden, and a tangible sense of stewardship for the very space it fills.
Sharing the garden is one of Jane’s greatest joys. She talks about it easily, with insight and enthusiasm. Jane and Lynn’s efforts are often focused on preparing the garden for special events, many of which are open to the public. Last year, the Sun Valley Summer Symphony fundraising gala and world-class equine events were held on the property, offering the experience of the garden to hundreds of attendees.
As a thriving whole and in its wondrous details, the Sturdivant garden seems nearly miraculous—evidence of a fortunate combination of many factors, not the least of which is generosity. Every other garden in the Valley serves to gain by the lessons and the knowledge gleaned here.
Managing Editor and artist Deb Gelet has been a passionate gardener for over two decades in the Wood River Valley.