Just south of Ketchum, as you approach the junction of Idaho Highway 75 and Gimlet Road, a simple sign marks the turnoff for the Sawtooth Botanical Garden to the east. This 5-acres oasis showcases native and cultivated plants that thrive at high elevation and dramatizes the calming effect gardens have produced throughout human history.
The Sawtooth Botanical Garden celebrates the multiple biomes of south-central Idaho. A biome is a naturally occurring community of flora and fauna in a distinct habitat. According to an SBG brochure, south-central Idaho has five distinct biomes, Sagebrush Steppe, Lava Rock, Alpine, Montane, and Riparian. The garden showcases flora of all five.
The Sagebrush Steppe, dominated by Western big sagebrush, is prominent in the intermountain west. The Lava Rock zone represents areas covered with geologically recent lava flows. The Montane zone, which envelops the garden, captures mountainous regions dominated by lodgepole pine and aspen stands. The Alpine zone represents flora found above the timber line, featuring an array of miniature wildflowers, while the Riparian zone refers to the interface between land and a river or stream. In the Wood River Valley, aspens, desert willows, and marsh grasses dominate the Riparian.
While the original SBG plan from 1995 celebrated this biodiversity, a serendipitous event in 2005 dramatically reshaped the garden. In 2005, Ketchum resident Kiril Sokolof, an influential investment strategist, Buddhist, and friend of the Dalai Lama, spearheaded an effort to bring His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, to the Wood River Valley to deliver a healing prayer. This was to be done on Sept. 11, 2005, the fourth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
To commemorate the event, Sokolof commissioned the creation of a 400-pound Tibetan Prayer Wheel, which he hoped to install in Ketchum. No government entity was comfortable housing the Prayer Wheel because of concerns over separation of church and state. Sokolof turned to the Sawtooth Botanical Garden. What emerged was a plan to build a special Garden of Infinite Compassion within the Sawtooth Botanical Garden to house the Prayer Wheel.
The garden’s Board of Directors turned to celebrated landscape architect Martin Mosko of Boulder, Colorado. Martin was owner of Marpa and Associates, a 30-year-old landscape design company that had won over 50 prestigious national and international design awards. Martin was a Zen Buddhist monk, abbot of the Hakubai Temple in Boulder, and author of “Landscape as Spirit, Creating a Contemplative Garden.” A Yale graduate, Martin had studied with Japanese Master Gardeners and had been credited with blending elements of Buddhism and Japanese design into American landscapes, creating contemplative and harmonious settings.
Martin’s plan for the SBG was daring and involved a river (using recirculated water) to rotate the Prayer Wheel, which itself would be suspended over a sunken rock garden, surrounded by an aspen grove and alpine plants. For the rock garden and surrounding landscape, an incredible 400 tons of boulders were brought in from Montana.
The construction of the garden, under the direction of Mike Olenick of Big Wood Landscape, was somehow achieved in under five weeks. On Sept. 11, 2005, the Dalai Lama addressed a crowd of over 10,000 at the Wood River High School in Hailey. On Sept. 12, His Holiness visited the Sawtooth Botanical Garden and blessed the Prayer Wheel.
While the Garden of Infinite Compassion is but one section of the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, it dominates. Buddhist principles of generosity, ethical behavior, tolerance, patience, perseverance, concentration and wisdom permeate the philosophy of the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, its programs and goals. The garden offers an array of educational programs on horticulture, nature, art and wellness. There are courses on plant identification, native plants, plant care, environmental stewardship and health.
The Sawtooth Botanical Garden is a visual and spiritual treat, its charms carefully juxtaposed against Ketchum’s rugged mountains. Of its many virtues, one that I find particularly impressive is its aggressive use of hardscape. Few homeowners do much with hardscape features, and yet, what a difference those features can make on a garden’s visual impact. Pathways, rocks, boulders, statues, fountains, all add contrast in texture, verticality, coloration, and line. The strategic placement of boulders within the Sawtooth Botanical Garden helps replicate a natural wilderness. Indeed, the garden’s hardscape features, starting with that dramatic use of boulders, add beauty, structure, and environmental authenticity. The SBG has also partnered with local art groups and has incorporated several statues that blend seamlessly into the landscape.
I strongly encourage residents of Magic Valley to visit this beautiful garden, open dawn to dusk with entrance fee of $5 per person (honor system). As we soldier through this pandemic and wait for an anger-fueled national election, what could be better than spending an hour or two in a garden built on principles of harmony and peace.