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North Boise garden offers mini-retreats

Walking through Ann Guardiola’s yard is like exploring the different rooms of a house – small spaces with distinct personalities and purposes. There’s a circle of mossy rocks around a fire pit, a place to hold Tiki parties or to “sit and meditate.” There’s a courtyard created by the parallel walls of her house, equipped with a barbecue, speakers and dining table, looking out on a fountain and greenery. There’s a hot tub next to a wall of bamboo, which thrives beside the warmth.

The space has come a long way from six years ago, when Guardiola remodeled her 1921 home in Boise’s North End, tore down an old garage and found herself with dirt for a backyard. She had attempted gardening starting in 1988, when she bought her first house, but admits, “I really didn’t have the eye for it. I still really don’t.”

So she turned to Kecia Carlson, principal designer and general manager of Madeline George Design Nursery off Hill Road. Guardiola came in with ideas about what she wanted – a place to entertain, privacy from nearby neighbors – and thoughts about the types of plants she found appealing, such as pine trees. Carlson took those wishes into consideration, along with practical matters, including the size of Guardiola’s yard and the fact that her dog would need adequate grass and space. All of that went into her final design plan.

Carlson said she tried to stay true to the architectural style of the home, a bungalow, with a simple design, mixing evergreen hedging with classic perennials. Over the years, Guardiola has acquired a “nice, tight collection of plants,” she said.

Guardiola said she wanted to include a number of plants that stay attractive even when covered with snow – things like boxwood shrubs and bay laurel, as well as plants like rosemary, which has evergreen needles.

“It’s nice to have that green in the winter,” she said.

Lavender, daylilies, roses and gold thread cypress add color to the garden when the weather is warmer. Carlson said some of her favorite plants are included on the grounds: electric blue cedars, ‘Limelight’ hydrangea and hellebore. She also lists ninebark shrubs, which Guardiola said she was initially skeptical of. But Guardiola said she learned that plants she didn’t immediately respond to were more appealing once she saw how they looked mixed with other things.

Carlson notes that Guardiola’s garden is able to transition from Asian inspiration to native, high-desert plants because of the way it is separated into distinct spaces. She encourages anyone who needs help trying to create a landscape plan to break up their yard into sections – “bite-size pieces” – and give them each a name or theme to help organize the space and to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the task ahead.

“It makes it more fun,” she said.

Guardiola’s garden has evolved over the years. It took her a while to fully embrace Carlson’s insistence that it was good to experiment with plants and move them around if they didn’t work right away. She accepted that gardening involves a lot of trial and error. And she said it was helpful to work with a designer – someone to offer solutions to problems and a different perspective. For instance, a door on the side of Guardiola’s home was Carlson’s suggestion. The pathway in Guardiola’s courtyard is made of blocks of salvaged sidewalk Carlson got from a friend.

Carlson also told Guardiola not to be afraid to plant more in the front of her home. Before, Guardiola said, she had kept plants close to the walls of her house and away from the edge of the sidewalk – just as most of her neighbors do. With Carlson’s guidance, she extended the planting area farther into her front lawn.

This is advice Carlson gives often. She doesn’t know why people tend to limit planting to the border of their home but says it can give houses a compressed feeling. Planting farther out adds more depth to the property, she said.

Guardiola is planning to sell her home – but not before expanding her garden by adding succulents on the hot, sunny south side. Without hesitation, she says she will undertake a gardening project in her new space as well.

For now, she enjoys the “private little space” she created in her small, urban backyard – a sanctuary for reading the newspaper in the morning or holding parties. She hopes it shows other people who don’t have a lot of property what is possible.

“You can do a lot with a little space,” she said.

Allison Maier worked as a reporter in Montana and New York before joining the Idaho Statesman, her hometown newspaper, as a copy editor.

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