Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Chat with the Idaho Gardener

Mary Ann Newcomer, The Idaho Gardener

Here's a Little Confession: I was trained as a Master Gardener in Idaho, but as a newcomer to these growing conditions, I still have plenty to learn about gardening here. That's why I was delighted to chat with another Newcomer recently . . . Mary Ann Newcomer, to be exact.

Best known as The Idaho Gardener, Mary Ann is a third-generation Idahoan who really knows her state. Alongside her popular blog - http://www.idahogardener.com/ - she writes a monthly online gardening column for Mary Jane Butter's Farmgirl Connection Newsletter. She's also called "Dirt Diva" on Boise's River Radio Station (94.9 FM), where she dishes out gardening tips and humor regularly.

Mary Ann is a self-described "plant geek," who is trained as a Master Gardener and Advanced Master Gardener in Idaho. But she says her greatest accomplishments are the demonstration gardens she helped create for Idaho Botanical Garden. Here's what else she had to say during our chat.

Question: What demonstration gardens are you helping create at Idaho Botanical Garden?

Answer: In the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of overseeing the installation of the Contemporary English Garden. Boise's growing conditions are very different from England's. So, it was an interesting challenge to research and select plant varieties, which provided the look and feel of an English garden, yet were better suited to our arid climate.

The last few seasons, I've worked with Ann DeBolt and Tim Zofran from the Idaho Botanical Garden to create the Lewis and Clark demonstration garden. It's a gorgeous garden, if I do say so myself. Here we're using Idaho native plants and their cousins to show how these low-maintenance plants can be combined to create sustainable, colorful gardens in the home.

Question: As a third-generation Idahoan, what common gardening mistakes do you often see newcomers make?

Answer: People new to this area often want to plant their sentimental favorities, like rhodies, fuschias, aspen and weeping white birch. Sadly, this arid climate with its intense light and alkaline soil conditions are not always what they are used to in their gardens.

Question: What makes gardening in Boise challenging? What makes it rewarding?

Answer: A lack of water and lean soils are some of the biggest challenges we face in Boise. Creating lush-looking gardens in spite of the high desert environment is my biggest reward.

Fortunately, we're located in Idaho's banana belt. (Boise is UDSA Hardiness Zone 6.) So, our winters aren't as severe as in other areas of the state. Also, we can grow wonderful fruit trees in our valley. I've espaliered apple and pear trees in my garden, which provide delicious fruit in the fall.

Question: What are some of the biggest surprises people tend to have about gardening in Boise?

Answer: Well, the main surprises are often the negative ones. For example, pastels don't work well here, unless you live in the older parts of the town where there are more trees. In the foothills and open valleys, our bright harsh light calls for more bold colors in the garden. We have such low humidity, it causes great stress on plants not acclimated to this region.

Question: What's the best advice for starting a garden in Idaho?

Answer: Get a soil test. No really, I mean it. Learn how to work with the Idaho environment, not against it. That's the best way to create a stunning garden here. Know the lay of the land.

Question: Anything else you'd like to add?

Answer: Even if you don't like playing in the dirt, Boise still offers plenty of ways to get outside. Hang out at the Idaho Botanical Garden and listen to live music in the summer, or experience the garden decorated with thousands of lights in the dead of winter. Check out our city parks too. They are truly some of Idaho's gems.

Learn More:
Mary Ann's blog - http://www.idahogardener.com/
Mary Ann on Twitter - @idahogardener
Idaho Botanical Garden - http://www.idahobotanicalgarden.org/


  1. Very insightful post expressing ideas from my two most favorite Idaho gardeners.

    From the far north of Idaho I will weigh in with some minor variations...we also have very shallow soils...but a bit more moisture and far more chill.

    Some zone 5 plants that thrive in Boise area will not tolerate our northern winters. The difference in N vs. S Idaho is extreme...almost should be separate states!

  2. Very good points, Dan. Thanks for bringing them up. Meanwhile, you have my admiration for withstanding the winters in Northern Idaho. Congratulations!

  3. Very nice! Mary Ann is a great gardener and a helpful friend. She's also a great resource for all things gardening, especially if you live in arid Idaho.~~Dee

  4. Hi Dee, Kim and Victoria:

    Thanks so much for your comments.

    Dee, you're so right re: Mary Ann. She has been a wonderful resource for this newcomer to Idaho. All best, Teresa