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Mary's High Altitude Cottage Garden

Gardening on the Lake Tahoe's West Shore is no easy task. An average of 35' of snow falls annually and snowmelt doesn't come until late spring. The growing season is short and the soil contains few, if any, nutrients. It's acidic from the pine trees and it's so hard it doesn't drain well. But from snow melt to snow fall Tahoma resident Mary Catalano's high altitude cottage garden captivates passerbys with its wild display of colors and textures. Locals put her street on their daily walking route to see what has bloomed each day. She is one of the West Shore's most popular gardeners who not only loves to garden, but loves talking about it, and showing it off.

Speaking of her garden, Mary smacks her fingers and sighs at the mention of every blue, red, yellow and green which form the magical tapestry she's created. She has lots of suggestions for others starting a garden in Tahoe. Rocks found on the property can be used for natural looking borders for the native plants already growing: flowering manzanita, wild rhodademdrum, thimbleberry, ferns, yarrow, lupine, and indian paintbrush. With the heavy amounts of snow garden lighting can be costly to maintain, so lots of white daisies add luminosity to the garden at night.

Mary suggests dressing up the natural garden areas with wood statuary, decorative bird feeders, and willow furniture. "Add some fun to the yard too by recycling an old clawfoot bath tub, dresser, toilet, or tires for containers. Oh, and old tennis shoes! Poke holes in the sole, fill them with pebbles, potting soil, and succulents. I like to use them to lead guests along the pathway to the front door." Mary also fills her garden with orbs, shells, corals, and driftwood to remind her of her coastal roots. She even keeps seaweed handy to sniff when she feels nostalgic.

For colorful flower displays, vegetable and herb gardens, Mary recommends using small raised beds at least 18" deep, filled with topsoil, compost and manure. It's important to choose spots with no heavy snow load (from the roof or snow plow).

Almost anything can grow in Tahoe, given the right conditions and care. But, gardening requires constant maintenance. First of all, there is little or no precipitation from May until the end of September. It's an extremely dry climate, so plants need a lot of deep watering. It's also important to pinch off old blooms so the plants don't become leggy. Mary stresses cleanup as a part of the daily maintenance. If you don't pick up the leaves and blossoms and just leave them on the deck or in a pile in the yard, the next morning there will be thousands of bugs around which will eventually make their way into all the plants.

Mary has her own form of pest control: she pokes an unchewed piece of Juicy Fruit gum down gopher holes. For slugs, she puts a small amount of beer in a tuna can, places it under the leaves of the plant at night and in the morning, it's filled with drown slugs. She does the same each night until they are gone. For aphids, she uses garlic spray.

Meandering along the hand layed rock paths of Mary's garden, over the bridge, through the arbors, and along the boardwalk, an artful arrangement of verticals and horizantals flow with the eye.

Though Mary may put an occasional vase of fresh flowers on the table, she prefers to hang them to dry. In winter, her indoor garden inspires her to make dried floral arrangements and free form pressed flower pictures for family and friends.


Intersperse hearty dogwoods, golden chain trees, quaking aspen, Japanese maple, shasta daisies, daffodiles, tulips, snow in summer, sweet woodruff, and sedum into the natural landscaping. This will make a strong basic garden, fairly easy to care for. For a full sun perennial garden: lupine, oriental poppies, peonies, black-eyed susan, delphinian, stock, ladies mantles, Jacobs ladder, and sweet williams do well.

Popular annuals include: sunflowers, cosmos, geraniums, California poppies, snapdragons, petunias, vinca, periwinkle, Johnny jump-ups, lobelia and alysum.

In part shade, plant columbine, pansies,and violets. Arbors in sunny areas can be decorated with hearty varieties of climbing roses, honeysuckle, whisteria, sweet peas, hops, and lilacs.

Interview by Jill Beede
Photos (top to bottom): Dick Singer, Pat Davi, Deb Arborgast

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