Green-thumb status in basin hard to achieve |

Green-thumb status in basin hard to achieve

Susan Wood
Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune Fiona Cowan leads a workshop on landscape design at Aspen Hollow Nursery.

Gardening can bring out the humility in most people. But even with most people doing it, the sport of leisure may always be a work in progress.

“Let me tell you something about gardening. You never learn everything. It’s like tennis. You’re never too old to play, and you can play anywhere. It can bring you down to earth fast,” gardener Fiona Cowan told two dozen people gathered at Aspen Hollow on Sunday for a talk on landscape design.

Cowan received an internship at Filoli of Woodside, a national trust garden. In South Lake Tahoe, she created the clubhouse garden for Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course.

The National Gardening Association reports 75 percent of America’s households – 72 million – participate in a gardening activity.

But as mentioned in Kathyrn Phillips’ book, “Paradise By Design,” the avidness of those who do it can’t be measured in surveys. It rears its head in backyard conversations between neighbors, over radio talk shows and during workshops offering advice.

Donning her own sense of style with a gardening hat and jean jacket, Cowan launched the third round of summer talks at the Emerald Bay Road nursery with a rundown on the creative thought behind a yard.

She advocates creating designs with harmony by using native plants and texture.

She also suggests using an accent from which to build out and repetition in color and texture to maintain a theme.

“Most gardens need a focal point,” Cowan said, using a striking periwinkle blue table as an example.

A tree – which crops up in yards more often than not in Tahoe – can be used to deflect attention from the neighbor’s house. Blowing the theory that fences make good neighbors, Cowan instead argued that giving your neighbors “something to look at from their second-story window” will create better relations.

She cited one of her Lake Tahoe Community College students building a tea house to create a Zen garden.

When you’re gardening, it’s important to avoid fear of failure – especially with small gardens.

“No, you’ve got to be bold,” she said.

For those seeking rules and traditions, Cowan told the attentive group to try to cluster similar design components and opt to use the oldest of garden-design standards.

“Take a 50-foot by 100-foot lot and make a room outside,” she said.

A constant theme, Cowan endorses using what we have in Tahoe as a means to an end.

For example, Jeffrey pine trees may be dressed up with a bonsai arrangement at their base.

“Indigenous plants look nice together,” she said, reminding the local crowd they live in a Mediterranean climate that demands drought-tolerant plants.

Vegetables make up a whole other matter in Tahoe. They’re difficult here to maintain because “you have to grow those that mature in 60 days.” Along with the cold temperatures that drop 1 degree for every 250 feet in elevation, the short season represents a major challenge for Tahoe gardeners. That’s why many said they seek advice.

“I gave up years ago,” Terri Freeman said, sneering over spending about 20 hours a week on the task of growing vegetables.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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