Photos by Dustin Holmquist
On driving through a residential neighborhood in West Missoula, this boulevard planting had caught my eye already in summer: There’s a sure skill visible that went into the creation of an attractive, naturalistic Rocky Mountain landscape scene that combines interesting earthen shapes and boulders, shapely conifers, appealing forms, and long-lasting textures. I made a mental note to myself to drive by to see it in winter and seeing it now covered in mounds of snow, I was even more intrigued. Even now this property holds its interest, and I thought: “Someone is taking advantage here of every square inch to create a garden.
Winter gardening in West Missoula
When there’s so much thought given to the boulevard plantings and they hold so much appeal even now in winter, what might the interior garden look like? How is the snow affecting the design there?” I feel privileged to meet the designer Billie Gray of Gracenote Garden and be invited to see the interior of her garden, after enjoying a good lunch with her while she was talking about her work.
Billie Gray’s amazing garden
It started for Billie Gray some 50 years ago when she and her husband bought an old homestead on 2 lots, close to the heart of the city on the Clark Fork River. There wasn’t much on it except a couple of 40 ft rows of raspberry bushes and a forest of trees, most of them overgrown or sickly and unsuitable to the clay soil and dry, hot summers.
The first order was to make room for a garden for her growing family. The tight “stockade” of Arbor Vitae that surrounded the house was cut down to let light in and free the view into the future garden; the ailing Birches were cut down, too. All in all some 30 trees were removed. She set out to create an ornamental garden and went about learning about low-maintenance plants for the Mountain West region.
Billie’s garden today
When seeing Billie’s garden today and listening to her describe what she created over the 50 years since those early times I can feel the passion for plants and gardening that has nurtured her throughout and that has been a faithful engine in her work.
As I had anticipated, the garden seen from her favorite window in the dining room is no less appealing than her street yard. There is such a variety of forms and contrasting shapes and textures; the snow adds romance and suspense to it, and the eye is soothed and tantalized anticipating the colors and textures it will see when spring melts allow blooms to happen again. Yet it is restful, with the muted colors of foliage against the glowing snow. The undulating, elevated “empty space” in the center lets suspect that there’s another mounded border hidden here, perhaps with a boulder, waiting to reveal its treasures, while leading the eye to upright shapes of the Alberta Spruce in the background that contrast nicely with the leaning Juniper seedling on the right and the horizontal branches of an early blooming Heather on the left. The cat knows where the garden trail is, and her tracks lead the eye around to where Billie planted a border of Asters and Phlox, Lilies and Iris that will stand tall along the grape stake fence.
Her garden is her life
Billie tells me, “The garden is part of my life; I’ll do it until I drop. There’s something about being in the garden that grabs me; I have to get my hands in it. There are a lot of connections. I get to watch the birds, the way the wind moves things, smell the fragrances as they move around and blend. “
What she loves most about gardening and designing here are the seasons, when every 2 weeks all changes, with the shifting light or temperature. Sometimes when the light is right, the colors of the flowers glow, and with fading light, the foliage of the trees looks different. She employs a lot of shrubbery; shrubs are important because “they have character”. Many of them carry their berries late into winter, shining above the grey and white of the snow, and attracting birds with their food. Flowers will provide fragrance, texture, colors; bulbs will come and go.
The garden was a family place: The kids had their roots here; her husband’s parents who lived with them enjoyed picking the Raspberries or cutting their daily bouquet of “posies”.
“Gardening is a spiritual thing: Working and just being. Making a garden has so many levels of activities; it is so essential, so important for people. For some people, it’s not important but that’s too bad; they’ll miss something so essential to who they are, where and how they are. It’s so basic to us. In big cities, people don’t have that relationship … they have been cheated.”
She built connections to various organizations, and sometimes Outward Bound, a leading provider of experiential and outdoor education programs for youth and adults, would send groups of Kids to see her place; some of them were quite taken with the idea of gardening. Sometimes her husband Bob, who was a janitor in a nearby elementary school would bring groups of kids to fish in her Koi pond, now devoid of fish – “I’m not going to keep feeding the raccoons!”
Her professional career started with work in several local nurseries; she took classes with the Missoula Garden Club in flower arranging and design; as she sees it, “flower gardening is an offshoot of flower arrangement”. She started to work as a professional landscape designer in 1972 and has been involved since then in various functions in the local garden scene. She still practices landscape design, serves as Garden judge, and teaches landscape design at the MSU Extension Office and its Outreach Program. She has also been selling garden plants that she digs up as seedlings in her own garden or that she orders in as starts and grows up, at the Missoula Farmers Market. You can reach her at 406-543-3480.
Her garden plan developed when seeing the wonderful high altitude gardening scheme in the garden of a good friend who was a floral arranger and taught at the Missoula Garden Club. She had a really good eye and interesting plants in a lovely setting; from her, Billie took her inspiration.
As the path winds through the garden, new scenes open as screens and plant “sentinels” such as the Spire Arbor Vitae mark the transition from one section into another. In the planter beds on the perimeter of the lawn, there will be lots of Iris and other flowers everywhere, mostly perennials and some annuals that reseeded themselves, such as Flanders Poppies, Snapdragons.
She quit growing lawn along the boulevard years ago and kept only a small circular lawn in the backyard. “Lawn allows the eye to rest and offers great possibilities in allowing other things to be displayed. A patch of grass is good for kids, but acres of lawn are at this point not what we can do any longer; grass takes too much water.”
On the boulevard, after cutting several large European Birches that were ailing, it was found that the trunk flare at the cut-off presented a 5 ft diameter “wood plate” that made planting over it impossible. So Billie resorted to importing soil, boulders, and rocks. “There’s so much clay in this area, rich in minerals, hardly any organic matter, heavy, it’s deadly like cement in summer; you can bounce a pick-ax off from it. If you can’t amend it (which would necessitate deeply working in large amounts of amendment), Go Up”!
Seeing her garden Billie Gray has inspired me with these lessons:
- Glean garden design ideas and design inspiration from the surrounding mountain landscape, and mimic our natural environment with mounds, rocks and boulders and durable, resilient and beautiful plants.
- Think of winter berries that will attract wildlife and delight our eyes as they are standing out against the snow. Consider Rosa glauca, Hawthorne, Hedge Cotoneaster, Choke Cherry, Barberry and Serviceberry (if we don’t harvest those berries first!). Also, consider trees with exceptional bark or branch form such as Contorted Filbert that stands out against the snow.
- Don’t forget conifers and other “evergreens” that are not just green; they’re available in yellow, such as Gold Thread False Cypress, and blues, like Dwarf Blue Spruce, and all colors in between. Nowadays growers offer a myriad of attractive forms and sizes, including many dwarfs. They are really important for a winter landscape and they make good focal points all year-round.
- Get inspired by the Montana natives as well as other plants for the Mountain West region, sold in or ordered through our local nurseries. Or enjoy seeing them in their growing environment at several excellent Montana Arboretum and Botanical Gardens (see my Resources page on this website).
- Winter is a good time to see where your landscape is missing focal points. The solution to enhancing your winter landscaping might not be a plant at all. Garden sculptures such as a trellis screen, bench, arbor or obelisk, and even a birdbath are really essential.
- Go about it with passion, but also with patience and the belief that you “can do it”, and that even in our tough climate and otherwise difficult growing conditions you can create lasting beauty and let your inspiration flow.
- And most of all, know that this passion can be with you all your life.