Charles Conn is a patient man. Others might have rushed to the garden center for a cartload of quick-fix annuals to tide them over until their new garden matured. But Conn has watched his native-based landscape gradually come into its own over the past four years, reveling as tiny columbine seedlings volunteered and a family of foxes set up housekeeping in the rock wall.
Though for most of his working life a businessman/entrepreneur on the West Coast, Conn’s years living under the big sky in Idaho have fostered a deep appreciation for natural processes and what grows wild in every nook and cranny. As he says, “You can’t live here without loving the environment.” Now the senior adviser for conservation programs at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, when it came to his own plot of earth, Conn wanted to be as conscientious about stewardship at home as on the job.
He hit upon the ideal team in Native Landscapes, a design firm based in Hailey, Idaho. Founded by landscape ecologist Kelley Weston, the firm’s forte is a seeming oxymoron — “designed natural landscapes.” This approach of interfacing native ecosystems with design, and overlaying this onto a client’s needs and ideas, has resulted in gardens that are regionally appropriate but also beautiful. As Karen Sherrerd, the firm’s landscape architect, puts it: “Clients are finding that they can have a good-looking landscape with less maintenance and water. And it can work on any scale, even small in-town properties.”
Native Landscapes’ philosophy is also the antithesis of the “turf-and-tree” model that has long held sway in Sun Valley. And the firm’s history of being green puts them at the forefront of a paradigm shift in attitudes there about landscape design. As business manager James Gillespie puts it: “Our growth has been extraordinary over the past five years. The time is now for people to think more about the context they live in. And there’s a greater understanding of what a sustainable landscape means.”
Not only has the “golf-course aesthetic,” as Conn refers to it, become a costly construct in Idaho (maintenance, fertilizer, pest control), but water restrictions — with communities starting to pay for water, and acreage and gallons-per-day limits being set for irrigation — are making it incongruous. With a typical 15 inches of precipitation a year (much of it in the form of snow), the region is putting a premium on water.
Weston’s plan of attack when designing any garden is, “First, start with a landscape that doesn’t need much water.” The Conn project includes drought-tolerant plants, a well-designed irrigation system, a series of landform “channels” to move water through the landscape, and a sophisticated underground method of monitoring soil moisture. As Sherrerd says, “The garden can essentially have the water turned off and still look lush.” Symbolic of this respect for the value of water is the ultimate drought-tolerant landscape, a Zen garden, situated at the back of Conn’s rustic, Asian-vibe home.
In addition to being water wise, Native Landscapes also makes a point of addressing the full spectrum of sustainability issues as part of its mission, including the use of local materials, no fertilizers or herbicides, preservation of natural areas and creation of wildlife habitat. For this project, all the materials were sourced from within 100 miles, such as basalt pavers and compost from a community green-waste program. Though the site was more than 90 percent disturbed by previous landscaping efforts, groves of cottonwood and aspen were protected during the implementation of the new project. And a common sight from the house windows includes plenty of birds, with moose, deer and bear wandering through. (Conn says any nibbling is a reasonable price to pay — “the plants usually need pruning anyway.”)
One thing Native Landscapes is widely known for is its penchant for native plants, and on the two-acre Conn property, which in a nod to a cluster of cabins formerly located there, Conn calls “the Hideaway,” four distinct ecosystems native to the region are intentionally represented — an aspen community of groundcovers and subshrubs, a conifer forest, a riparian strip that winds its way through the garden and the sagebrush steppe.
But the inclusion of regional ecosystems is only part of the picture. An earlier iteration of the landscape had left a 15-foot-high, U-shaped berm around the house, useful for blocking a view of neighbors, though a significant challenge for Weston and Sherrerd. But the design team and Conn saw an opportunity to amp up the diversity of flora and fauna by resculpting the berm to create an interlocking patchwork of mini ecosystems, including talus fields and rock outcrops. The once-obtrusive earthwork now blends seamlessly with the natural surroundings, mimicking the hilly topography in the distance.
Plants for the project were carefully sourced as custom-grown plugs or seeds, from 5-foot-tall Great Basin wild rye to buckwheat to penstemons. Native Landscapes even has federal permission to collect seeds from the wild, allowing the firm to tailor plants to suit specific conditions such as elevation, moisture and exposure. Weston himself hand-seeded several of the 15 or so sages in the garden. As Conn says: “Every time we tried to go outside Kelley’s core planning, we got into trouble. The stuff that works is the stuff that belongs here.”
Illustrative of Native Landscapes’ meticulous process, to create an accurate aspen grove as a backdrop for a picnic area, the team measured and graphed the sizes and distributions of the native species in a representative plant community in the wild. As Sherrerd puts it, “We mapped the aspen matrix.” Replicated on the Conn property, it had the look of a thriving young aspen grove even from its installation.
All Weston and his group ask from clients is a suspension of any gotta-have-it-now habits. Says Sherrerd, “Just have faith in us for three to five years, and you’ll have a full-on native garden.” Hence the need for patience. But Weston and Sherrerd insist that an “incremental transformation” (beginning with the soil) is the most ecologically sound approach and the one most conducive to long-term success. Sherrerd adds, “If you step back, the macro view is that each landscape is a piece of the overall ecology, which is what draws people to the region in the first place.”
GO WILD WITH NATIVE PLANTS
Close to Home: Of the thousands of native plants out there, the ones most appropriate for your garden are those closest at hand. While many plants termed “native” can be found wild in a general sense (in North America, the U.S. or a given state), they might not actually occur in your particular area. Buy plants and seeds (always from reputable dealers) from as locally based a source as possible.
Macro and Micro: Keep in mind both the broader ecosystems for your region as well as microhabitat opportunities. This will give your garden a wider diversity of species, both plant and animal. Even on a low berm, the north-facing and south-facing sides will offer different conditions for different plants.
Community Effort: While it’s tempting when planning a garden to just cherry-pick natives that you are partial to, individual species don’t grow in isolation. They occur in plant communities, typically with the same “companions” found together across their ranges. The main reason for this is that the members of these communities all thrive in the same conditions of soil, moisture, light, pH and temperature. By combining plants that naturally grow together in the wild, a landscape not only “looks right,” but the soil prep and maintenance needs will be consistent.