By Hannah Combs
Jean Wright developed her passion for gardening from necessity, according to her daughter Bev Kee, first growing food during the Depression years, later adding perennials and flowering vegetation “to her repertoire.” By trading plants with friends, “she could make a beautiful garden out of next to nothing,” says Bev.
The art of creating beauty from the earth has a long tradition in Bonner County. Some gardens serve a practical purpose, from the Depression’s kitchen gardens and the victory gardens of World War I to the back alley raspberry bushes and plum trees, overflowing with ripe fruit in the summer. These gardens were designed to feed us, but can’t help showering us with beauty too.
And then there are the gardens that are designed to impress, like that of Cora Clagstone. Cora moved to north Idaho in the early 1900s with her husband Paul, and they established a sprawling cattle ranch near what is now Athol. A former Chicago socialite, Cora adapted quickly to the hard work of farming life, but she believed that women should take time for themselves to embrace the simple joys of their homes. In a public speech she encouraged all women to keep a garden, saying, “You will find the care of it the greatest pleasure, for not only will a few minutes a day do much for the flowers but for yourself as well.”
Thanks to the profitable cattle business, Cora was one of a handful of “privileged pioneers,” according to her daughter’s memoirs. This meant she had almost unlimited resources to design the garden of her dreams. What started as a simple flower border along the house evolved into a full-fledged English garden, with a formal layout and cottage-style blooms. A horse team spent three days leveling the ground in preparation and laying down several tons of manure. At the center of the garden was a custom-built sundial, which Cora said “adds much to the picturesqueness besides keeping good time.” At one garden edge, she had a simple pergola of rough timbers “on which I have old-fashioned roses, clematis and bittersweet growing.” The enormous effort had been worthwhile: “The pleasure of caring for this garden, and, when busy sewing, looking out over its mass of blooms, is enormous.”
The pleasures of gardening have bloomed for generation after generation in Bonner County. That’s what happened for Bev Kee and her siblings, learning to love the soil from their green-thumbed mother. Bev, now a gardener herself for many years, sees the practice as a form of art. She says, “It is fascinating to visit friend's gardens, or public gardens, and study the style and uniqueness of each garden. No two gardens are alike; they are the artistic personality of the creator.” With the landscape as the canvas and plants as the medium, every choice of color or curve of a pathway “adds style or character to each owner’s garden.”
Bev believes the joy of gardening lies in sharing plants and starts with neighbors and friends. Not only does it bring people together, but it gives the plants stories that they carry from garden to garden. She says, “I particularly love the ability to design a new garden for someone using transplants from my gardens. There are many a garden in Sandpoint that have been created by someone pulling up their van or pick-up and hauling away enough transplants to start their entire garden.”
Maybe you are a garden artist, adding dabs of color to your masterpiece every spring. Maybe you can’t wait to divide starts among your friends and neighbors in a few weeks. Maybe you’re hoping you can keep just one plant alive with your less-than-green thumb. Whatever the case, take pleasure in your garden. As Bev says, “Plant it, move it, share it, remove some, change design, repeat. Unlike a good book, it never ends.”