Arts & Entertainment

Beyond the Green Thumb

For these locals, gardening is a form of art

There isn’t much of a distinction between Ann Schroeder’s house and her garden.

In fact, she refers to her property as an individual unit made up of interconnecting parts. “This is the house-and-garden,” she says, indicating the open-air porch that spills out into a woodland-inspired garden, which spirals down to the Swan River. In the case of Schroeder’s backyard, a river really does run through it.

It’s easy to see why Schroeder’s home and garden have been featured in the magazines Big Sky Journal and Mountain Living. Her house, which was built over the course of two years with 155 tons of stone from Plains, is immaculately curated and uniquely designed so that each room offers an unobstructed view of the garden while blending into the garden itself.

On Saturday, July 29, Flathead County residents will have the chance to explore Schroeder’s house and garden, as well as four other Bigfork gardens, as part of the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center’s first annual Summer Garden and Art Tour. Schroeder’s property inherently lends itself to exploration.

“There are walkways everywhere inviting you to walk around,” she says.

Stone steps and pebble paths branch off in different directions, taking you through evergreen and birch trees and flowers of all different varieties while offering glimpses of the river below. The garden, although cultivated by Schroeder and her team of two gardeners, has a natural feel to it.

“I wanted to feel like I was walking in the woods,” Schroeder says. “And this garden shades gradually into the woods.”

In the same way, the garden merges seamlessly into Schroeder’s home. None of the windows have treatments and all of the walls are painted with a “quiet natural coloration,” dissolving the boundary between indoors and out. Furthermore, there aren’t any doors between the rooms, which creates a free-circulating atmosphere reminiscent of the many garden paths and invites you to walk through the house to admire the arrangement of furniture and art on the walls and books on the shelves.

Schroeder, who has an art degree from Stanford University, worked in furniture and interior design for many years, which is evident in the aesthetics of her home. “It’s what I do,” she says.

This statement also holds true for Joe Schletz, who first learned landscaping in the 1970s while building speculation houses in Lake Tahoe and hasn’t stopped since. His most recent project, a Zen garden constructed on a steep incline, will also be showcased on the BACC’s Summer Garden and Art Tour.

Gardening and peace have always been related for Schletz. In 1985, he embarked on an innovative project near his Kalispell home that was named Peaceful Gardens upon its completion in 2000. Dedicated to the elderly and disabled, the gardens featured wheelchair-friendly paths and waist-high beds of dirt that allowed those with back problems or who were unable to bend over to plant strawberries and flowers.

Two years ago, Schletz moved into his mother’s Bigfork home to help care for her as she grew older and, in his free time, built the Zen garden in her backyard.

“What led to this garden being interesting was the fact that it’s built on a hillside,” Schletz says, unlatching the formidable wooden gate that opens into a beautiful pavilion. Hanging overhead are two wooden dragon heads, carved in the 18th century.

Joe Schletz closes a gate as he shows his oriental garden. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The garden is terraced, with multiple levels on which to walk and take in the surrounding views from different heights. Schletz built bridge-like structures out of wood, bamboo and recycled tepee poles, which lead you through the garden, past the fish-stocked pond, past a bonsai tree and transplanted beargrass, to the top of the property. The reward is a breathtaking view of the Swan Range.

The bamboo fences and strategically planted trees serve a second purpose: to block out the street, highway, cars, and light pollution. This allows Schletz to be with and in nature as privately and peacefully as possible.

For Schletz and Schroeder, the art of gardening is ultimately the art of cultivating peace and reflection.    

“My garden brings a great deal of peace to my life,” Schroeder says. “I’m very happy tending it. It’s quieting. It’s rewarding just to watch things grow.”

The Summer Garden and Art Tour will take place on July 29 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Each of the five sites will feature Montana plein air artists, glass art from Lee Proctor, a raffle, and live music. A reception will follow at the Harbor Village Pavilion at Eagle Bend from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person for a self-guided tour or $40 per person for a VIP trolley tour that includes a gourmet lunch. Tickets can be purchased at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center or Swan River Gardens. For more information, visit or call (406) 837-6927.