JOY & WONDER AT ELEVATION, ISA CATTO'S MOJO GARDENS in WOODY CREEK, COLORADO
This week on Cultivating Place we gain a little perspective with a lot of altitude as we begin a two-part series on Gardening at Elevation in Colorado.
Isa Catto a fine and textile artist, gardener, and writer. A mother/partner and activist living in Woody Creek, Colorado, Isa's multi-faceted high elevation gardens are steeped in generations of family, in connection to community, and in love of place - they feed her creativity and her soul.
Isa’s Mojo Gardens - name for a beloved dog - are featured in Under Western Skies, on which I collaborated with photographer Caitlin Atkinson. For the full write up and photos of Mojo Gardens from Under Western Skies, Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast, scroll down.
Isa’s gardens include an open range ornamental garden, a cut flower garden and an enclosed vegetable garden, and her art, her contribution to community, and her gardens go hand in hand.
I am delighted to be joining Isa in Aspen this summer as the Jessica Catto Dialogues speaker for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies on August 11. For more information on that and to register, click here: ACES EVENT
EXCERPTED FROM UNDER WESTERN SKIES
WOODY CREEK CANYON, COLORADO 39.16°N, 106.53°W ELEVATION 8000 FEET The Place The Rocky Mountains, the dramatic 3000-mile-long ridge forming the eastern edge of what’s known as the Intermountain West, are powerful, snow- capped symbols of and influences on life in the West generally. Running from British Columbia to New Mexico, through Wyoming and Colorado, these uplift mountains formed by tectonic plates col- liding many millions of years ago form the Continental Divide. To one side the rivers and watersheds flow east and ultimately to the Atlantic, and to the other they flow west and to the Pacific. The western third of Colorado is defined by the topography of this range and a majority of the entire range’s tallest peaks are found here. Colorado’s “high country” refers to that lushly treed, snowy territory above the foothills and below the timberline.
The Roaring Fork Valley is carved out of the western slope of the Colorado Rockies by the Roaring Fork River, which runs northwest from its source at around 13,000 feet in the alpine zone until it feeds into the Colorado River past Glenwood Springs. The seventy miles of the Roaring Fork River run through mountain meadows, rich mountain scrub, and coniferous forest higher up and sagebrush steppe, grasslands, willow, and cottonwood (Populus fremontii) in the lower reaches. The colorful mosaic of trees and shrubs of the higher elevations include scrub oaks, serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), and moun- tain mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus), mixed forests of spruce, fir, and pine, and ancient shimmering colonies of white-barked quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). These all thrive in the higher elevations’ sunny cool summers and sunny cold winters and are adapted to the 20 inches of rain and, on average, more than 150 inches of snow each year.
For gardeners here, heavy snowfall, voles, marauding elk, winter winds, and frost dates that run from August to June are all parts of life. (One gardening source reports that “Gardeners can be confident of no frost from July 23 to August 1.”) Thankfully, so are big trees, expansive mountain views, and spectacular displays of seasonal color in the forms of spring greening, summer wildflowers, and autumn foliage.
The Person Fine artist, textile designer, writer, and philanthropist Isa Catto Shaw has been visiting this area of Colorado since spending summers here as a girl with her family. For many years, Isa and her husband, the writer Daniel Shaw, lived and worked in New York City, where she tended a rooftop garden. Isa became sick with a variety of autoimmune issues, which catalyzed their move to Colorado in 2004, as “a one-year experiment.” The experiment on their sloping 17 acres of woodland and open grassland/meadow became their life, and now includes Isa’s studio, Daniel’s writing desk, and the collab- orative cross-pollination with the wider community of plants, animals, and people.
Isa and Daniel initially worked with a landscaper who “literally ripped us and our topsoil off,” says Isa. The group “graded” the existing topsoil away and charged them for the “thin layer of compost” they returned. Not surprisingly, the subsequent plantings failed to thrive across the board. Isa’s sister said to her, “If there’s one thing you are, it’s resourceful.” Isa took this to heart. This misfortune “was composted into opportunity,” Isa says. She dug in, read, researched, and became a zealous composter, burying all household waste “bones and all,” coffee grounds, truckloads of manure from neighbors, paper, and cardboard directly into the soil all around the site to slowly rebuild what had been lost.
Isa says, “I grew up in a family with a strong conservation ethos. I don’t see the wildlife as foe. The voles do churn up a lot of stuff, but they are not the enemy.” Isa works to be “a good citizen of the landscape” as she had respect for the land ingrained in her. Her current garden has deepened and emphasized that respect. “It’s about reverence, and sanctuary, and hospitality. It’s not just about bringing people to your garden, but bringing all life.”
The Plants When Isa was ready to move forward with a new master plan, she turned to Sheri Sanzone of Bluegreen Studio for a world view that was more in line with her own. She also took inspiration from her mother’s long-established mixed perennial garden— just next door—and from the dense herbaceous and woodland borders on all sides of the family home. “The upper Roaring Fork Valley has lots of really interesting [micro] climates and environments,” explains Sheri. “Depending on where you are, different rocks, different exposures, different hydrology, and therefore plant communities are expressed. And Upper Woody Creek is unique in being at the top of the valley running to the Roaring Fork: it’s an interesting microclimate that enjoys a lot of sun without getting too hot. It is not a dry landscape. You can’t see little Woody Creek, but you know it’s there, and this influences the plants you see. Having the view of the Elk Mountains, the valley floor, and the valleys beyond is inspiring. You know right where you are.” Sheri’s work with Isa in 2011 and 2012 helped kickstart building the garden around the concept of a color wheel based on Isa’s art. Though the garden is very different now and much bigger, the underlying scheme germinated from Isa and Sheri’s collaboration ended up including 350 different perennials.
The steep slope was graded for circulation routes for family, kids, dogs, and any elk that might move through. Planting plans used green mulch—ground- covers and other smaller plants—to hold soil and to retain moisture around larger plants and to decrease open soil. Another technique well suited to Isa’s garden style and location was combining the nonnatives that Isa had sentimental attachment to with many native plants, as both temperature and wildlife protection for the nonnatives.
The garden, which Isa dubbed Mojo after a beloved dog, has evolved into a dynamic living space. In many ways, though, her garden is a means of “honoring those who came before her, a way to compost grief.” Many of Isa’s garden plants came from her mother’s garden—some her mother gifted to Isa, and some Isa collected after her mother’s death. “She was very proud of her garden; and she had a lot of lupine, columbine, delphinium, Jupiter’s beard [Centranthus ruber], Maltese cross [Silene chalcedonica], and Shasta daisies [Leucanthemum ×superbum].” When her sister died, Isa similarly transplanted her sister’s small collection of bulbs, to which she adds a “king’s ransom” each fall. Now “there’s a hillside of daffodils and tulips in spring. It’s such reassurance to see my sister every day in the spring and my mother every day in the summer.”
“You wake up and see the mountains and there’s this invocation to be vigorous,” Isa says. “It is something of a masculine energy or sensibility—inspirational, power- ful, but a little intimidating too. The mountains are so wild and untamed.” There’s beauty in that, but also a demand for respect. “I don’t want to conquer them. There are constant reminders that you are not the top of the food chain and of your place in the universe. That’s good. We damage our planet in so many ways—inadvertently mostly—humility is good. Making things grow in a world of loss is a great balancing act.” Isa’s artistic eye helped to determine the curved pathways and offer clear but unspoken direction in the space. She designed wooden arches, crafted by local artisan Ryan Skarpetowski, as wayfinders and visual clues for the eye. The highest arch is at the top of the garden, at the boundary between the cultivated and the wild. As a device, she also wanted each arch to be a “sculptural, lean element marking a sacred threshold.” Isa does not cut down the garden in the fall so wildlife can forage through the winter. “The seeds float around, softening the edges of the garden even while there’s a clear boundary.” Every other gardener told Isa not to let elk strip her native dogwood, but “it feeds them, and the dogwood comes back more vigorously in spring.” Isa has watched plants she was not sure would survive assert their own “intelligence,” as over the years they have “drifted through seed or rhizome to where they want to be.” She says the beasts and birds help, “as if there’s some hidden electricity that directs it all.” And Isa credits the elk and birdlife “with their patterns of foraging and distribution” for how her garden now mimics the best wild natural plantings around them.
Isa refers to the daily dialogues she has with the garden as “gardening by gut.” Several garden areas now dot the property, including a relatively new enclosed kitchen garden that Isa calls the Bluebird Garden for the western bluebirds who congregate on the fence line there. Elsewhere groves of aspen and conifers form islands of canopy over sweeps of interplanted smaller trees like dogwoods and old fruit trees, hedge shrubs, including willow, serviceberry (Amelanchier), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana var. demissa), old-fashioned lilac (Syringa vulgaris), and native roses. Then there is the wild rumpus of flowering perennials: brilliant orange oriental poppy (Papaver orien- tale) interplanted with towers of hybrid lupine (Lupinus), “sky high” delphinium, vivid magenta and pale pink peonies (Paeonia), upright false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum), alliums, campanula, spreading catmint (Nepeta), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), hardy geraniums, and snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). She notes with pride how “asters native to the area have self-seeded. Lupine that grow a little here and there inside the garden and just out of it have crossed and crossed back.” The result of Isa’s efforts is dynamic, colorful, and above all, meaningful.
Isa joined me from her home and garden, the cabin reserved for Aspen Words writers-in-residence each summer, just a garden path ramble away, her Isa Catto Studio likewise. The elk mentioned were away for the summer. You can follow Isa on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram @IsaCattoStudio
Photos courtesy of Caitlin Atkinson, from Under Western Skies (Timber Press, 2021). All rights reserved.
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JOIN US again next week, when we travel from Aspen to Vail Colorado where we are in conversation with the Director and Head of Horticulture for the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens – a remarkable high elevation display and research garden, and leaders in the conservation of North American alpine plants, and in the international study of alpine plant environments and their responses to our changing climate in crisis – listen in!
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Thinking out loud this week:
Every time I speak with Isa, the first time interviewing her for Under Western Skies and then again for this episode of Cultivating Place, I am reminded again of the many lessons of the garden – brought to us daily in relationship to its plants, its seasons, its connection. Lessons well known by us all – but maybe a good idea to remind ourselves of anew sometimes – lessons like joy and wonder, tempered by humility, lessons of hard work and consistency, lessons of paying attention, of the wisdom of collaboration and teamwork with others – like elk and deer, gophers and birds, beetles and bees – and human neighbors too. Lessons like the Tao of compost, of generosity and contribution back in a beautiful colorful fragrant feedback loop of reciprocity – articulated perhaps most eloquently by Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass.
All of this echoed for me over and over in Isa’s stories of garden, of family, of place.
The other lesson of the garden that come up for me in this conversation with Isa is that of balance – ongoing and every present and dynamic balancing. For Isa, this comes up in direct relation to place.
“You wake up and see the mountains and there’s this invocation to be vigorous,” Isa says. “It is something of a masculine energy or sensibility—inspirational, powerful, but a little intimidating too. The mountains are so wild and untamed.” There’s beauty in that, but also a demand for respect. “I don’t want to conquer them. There are constant reminders that you are not the top of the food chain and of your place in the universe. That’s good. We damage our planet in so many ways—inadvertently mostly—humility is good. Making things grow in a world of loss is a great balancing act.”
That’s gardening growing life in a world of loss = a great balancing act.
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