Susan Cooper’s move to Idaho in 2015 meant saying goodbye to her large, sprawling garden in California. The transition was difficult. She still mourns some of the plants she had to leave behind: bachelor buttons, sweet peas, roses, lilies, sunflowers, clematis, jasmine, dahlias, poppies and cosmos.
Her first year as an Idaho gardener included learning to grow plants in a new USDA zone (the Treasure Valley ranges from 5 to 7, depending on whom you ask) and contending with different soils and insects. But in that short period of time, Cooper has managed to transform her small, sheltered backyard in a historic Caldwell neighborhood into a private sanctuary filled with color and an artistic mix of perennials and annuals. She shares her home with husband Chris Cooper, director of the Nampa Library, and “beloved shelter dog” Buster, a Yorkshire terrier/Maltese mix.
Cooper is an artist who has taught community art in the past. She’s seen the healing qualities of making art, but also of gardening and growing plants.
“Gardening saves people’s lives,” she says unequivocally.
She has company in that belief. Her son farms. Her daughter works with a community gardening project for homeless residents in Santa Cruz, Calif.
“We deeply believe in gardening as a way of enriching and changing lives. In changing people’s inner selves,” Cooper said.
But for all of those beliefs and investment in others’ creativity — Cooper’s garden includes mosaic stepping stones made by former students and a bird sculpture made by her grandmother and other folk art pieces — Cooper considers her own garden a private place. It’s calm and quiet, save the occasional whistle from a passing train and the sound of the breeze rustling through tall zinnias and baskets of trailing vines.
“Even my neighbors seems to understand. They can easily see over the fence but if I’m out there working or sitting, they will pretend they don’t see me,” she laughed.
“When society ceases to satisfy, there’s always the garden. That’s where I find a lot of peace.”
Advice from an artistic gardener
1. There’s such a thing as too much color, even for an artist: Cooper loves lots of color and her garden reflects a loose, “sprawly” style that reflects the gardens she saw as a child growing up in Virginia. The family frequently took Sunday drives to the outskirts of town, away from the manicured, contained lawns kept by gardeners. Cooper fell in love with the modest farm house gardens she saw, “the real flower gardens.”
When she started planting her own gardens, she opted for a loose, colorful style, one she’s learned to pare back a little.
“Artists can be too exuberant with color. My gardens looked like crazy quilts,” said Cooper. “My early efforts were much nuttier.”
Over the years she’s honed her color palette. A typical favorite mix: a peach-colored rose next to something that’s low and blue (nepeta, lobelia are possibilities), next to something that’s lacy and white (maybe an artemesia with a silver leaf). Or she might go with a chartreuse creeping Jenny next to something that’s coral next to something “orangey-pink.” (Nasturtiums would fit the bill on both counts.)
2. Know your soil: Cooper credits an article in the Idaho Statesman for telling her she needed to get a soil test through the local extension office to really know the chemical make-up of her flower beds. (Store-bought soil test kits aren’t as reliable.) Once she got her results, Cooper didn’t try to remedy each chemical deficiency. She just bought lots of good compost and mixed it into her beds throughout the yard. In California, she had always fertilized with high-nitrogen chicken manure. She learned her soil in Caldwell was already high in nitrogen.
“Without the soil test, I would have just kept doing what I was doing,” said Cooper.
In addition to knowing her soil, Cooper also swears by a favorite fertilizer, MAXSEA All Purpose Plant Food that she buys through mail order.
3. Look for new challenges: Cooper is an experienced gardener. (One telling example, she has an amaryllis bulb she got when her daughter was born. She’s managed to make it rebloom for 34 years and counting). But even she has new things to try.
This year, she’s going to start composting. (Visiting IdahoStatesman.com/gardening to watch videos about composting and to see last week’s article from Idaho Botanical Garden expert Sierra Laverty.)
“I love that, love having worms, watching things decompose.”
She has also mostly gardened in sunny spaces but wants to learn more about shade gardening. (Something that everyone should learn since home landscapes mature. Trees grow and create more shade.) She inherited lots of hostas in a side bed but wants to enhance them with other shade lovers. (Japanese anemones, columbine, coral bells, sweet woodruff are all possibilities.)
Private as she is, Cooper also plans to get out and see more gardens this year. She’s a fan of the Idaho Botanical Garden. For those of you who like to plan ahead, IBG’s annual tour of private local gardens, now in its 30th year, will take place on Sunday, June 11. This year’s tour will focus on the Boise Bench. Learn more at IdahoBotanicalGarden.org.
4. Take risks: “On Facebook, people will talk about being afraid to plant things,” said Cooper. “But gardening involves a lot of risk taking.”
Plants are expensive, but again, they’re not, compared to other forms of entertainment. In most cases, a gardener can buy two small perennial plants for the price of one movie ticket.
“I’m more likely to try things. I planted a lot of things that said they needed full sun, but they did OK in the shade,” she said.
A good general rule: If you really love something, give it a try, even if conditions aren’t perfect. Just like that tender perennial that isn’t supposed to live through an Idaho winter but does, it just might work.
5. There will be challenges: Cooper has found that the biggest challenges in transforming from a California gardener into an Idaho gardener are Treasure Valley heat and bugs. The increased dry daytime heat in this area means you have to water smart — infrequently, but deeply, so plants can grow an expansive root system.
“I talked to an old-timer who would laugh at me for sprinkling my garden. I was used to more natural moisture in California,” said Cooper.
Earwigs have been an issue in Idaho as well.
“In California I would just laugh at them. But here, they’re an infestation,” she said.
Watering deeply in the morning, not at night when moisture-loving earwigs come out helped curb the infestation, she said.