Local Spotlight

Vail’s Not so Secret Garden(er)

“All gardeners live in beautiful places because they make them so.”
Joseph Joubert – French Moralist

The poetic nature of life’s garden becomes toil for some, a sanctuary for others.

Without question, Vail pioneer Diana Donovan falls into the ‘other’ category, having spent a lifetime cultivating new growth wherever she called home, always finding refuge and solace amongst her plants and flowers.

Today’s world takes her, along with local legend husband, John, down to their 400 acres of summer solitude west of Vail known as Squaw Creek. This is where she traditionally begins each Memorial weekend planting her wide rows of lettuce, carrots, turnips, radishes, cabbages, beets, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, rhubarb, asparagus, peas, spinach, turnips, strawberries, raspberries, lots and lots of herbs and, of course, potatoes.

Those are the family favorite.

“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
Mohandas K. Gandhi

As the pictures gracing these pages show, a Donovan garden is truly a labor of love, although growing enough food to feed an ever-increasing family is not exactly a negative side effect.

Everything that grows, whether it’s a Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine, a fragile flower or a family’s firstborn, starts off as a tiny seed hidden from view.

Diana’s connection with the Vail Valley began back in January of 1965. Having just recently graduated from college with degrees in archeology and sociology, she was patiently waiting for her dream job to come knocking on her parent’s door in Evergreen. Instead, family friends and Vail founders, Barbara and Bob Parker, asked her to come up to Vail for the winter and be their nanny.

Growing up with three younger sisters, Diana had quenched all desire for any more babysitting, but was eager to try something new, so she found herself living with the Parkers in a bottom bunk bed up on Forest Road and taking a day job at the Nightlatch Lodge (where the Mountain Haus currently resides, just north of the Covered Bridge).

Because Diana’s father was in the military, the family moved around constantly (two years and eight months was her record in one place), and the first thing her mom would always do in a new home was plant a garden. It was as if she immediately was putting down roots, declaring to the land, “Hey, we’re here!”

But just as soon as the radishes would be ripe Dad would be transferred, leaving the next occupant to always get the benefit of her mother’s gardens. Still, the habit, or hobby, or process – whatever you want to call it – “took” with a young Diana.

So in that spring of 1965, she found herself, for basically the first time in her young life, without a garden to tend.

Little did Diana Mounsey realize that she was also planting her own personal roots that would continue to flourish for the next 48 years, and beyond.

“If you have a mind at peace And a heart that cannot harden, Go find a door that opens wide Upon a lovely garden.”

It was in August of 1968 that Diana, now Mrs. John Donovan, planted her first garden in the Vail Valley. It was on a tiny plot of land next to her rented Texas Townhouse (on the creek near Manor Vail), where she received permission to take out what little grass existed and replace it with her version of naturalized sanctity.

That summer, 1968, Diana went around to the old homesteads in the valley, gathering plants like rhubarb and asparagus to continue her love for gardening in this up-and-coming new world known simply as Vail.

“I’ve never bought a grown plant in my life,” she says with obvious pride, “they’re always salvaged from someplace.”

A short two years later, Diana and John welcomed the fruits of their own cultivation in the form of John Jr., followed in 1971 with Matt, before making the move to the house they still live in today, just east of Vail Village.

It was here that Diana gardened exclusively for the next 34 years, growing everything, except potatoes.

“Potatoes took up too much space,” she says, “But you can feed an entire family of five from this one garden.”

And in 1978 the Donovans did indeed become a family of five, welcoming daughter Kerry, thus completing their family garden for years, until three beautiful grandchildren cropped up over the last decade or so.

Flowering, growing, producing – three things in which the Donovan family excels.

Like seeds in the ground, a town, especially a new one, needs to be carefully planned out and nurtured.

Beginning by serving on the Town of Vail’s very first Town Council in 1966, John continued until 1980. Diana served 14 years on the Planning and Environmental Commission, took a few years off, and then, too, was convinced to run for Town Council. She won, of course, and served six years before hanging it up for good in 2005. This just happens to be the same year she began gardening in earnest up at the ranch in Squaw Creek.


Anyway, with the town noticing a gaping hole where there always seemed to be a Donovan, daughter, Kerry, was elected in 2009, and is still serving today.

“I never decided to stay,” Diana responds when asked at what point she realized her early life of constantly moving had come to an end in ‘65. “I just never decided to leave.”

“All of the sudden you realize you’ve built a life, and it’s here. I think the same thing about building the town. It’s not that we built a town, we built what worked for us being mindful that we had to have a resort in order for us to stay here, with the natural environment that everyone was really in love with.”

The Town of Vail wasn’t built as much as it grew. And with the help of the Donovan family, it is continuing to do so.

Creating any garden, big or small, is, in the end, all about joy.
Julie Moir Messervy

The ranch has four gardens altogether, with the biggest being about 30 by 75 feet, and the other three combined about the same size. High fences surround each to keep critters out, but the Donovan dogs are always around, so it’s really not a problem.

The original cabin on the property burned down many years ago, but luckily the family had acquired and moved a late 1800’s cabin, which originally stood in Avon, to a small chunk of land they owned along the Eagle River back in the mid-70s. Upon purchasing the ranch, the cabin was moved once again, and now sits at about the same elevation as their house in Vail (8,150 feet), quietly enjoying its own version of retirement. It has neither plumbing nor electricity, but was upgraded enough back in 2003 to “make sure marmots could not get in.”

Electricity did finally find its way to the property, but only goes as far as the barn so the chickens have heat during the winter.

Yes, Diana raises chickens as well, and compliments the cluckers with a mid-sized herd of Scottish Highland cattle, which look strangely like overgrown English sheepdogs with horns.

But it’s the gardens that still provide the passion. Diana has to be extremely careful, yet make quick decisions on what to plant, when. “It always freezes between June 10th and 15th,”she explains, showing her decades of Vail Valley experience, “so you don’t want anything that will get killed by the frost to sprout until after that.”

Even with such detailed knowledge, weather changes from year to year require a constant balancing act for certain plants to develop properly.

“Last year there was such a difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures that you had to cover the zucchini, but we still ended up with very few… yet the year before we had zucchini coming out of our ears,” Diana says.

While stressing the importance of never planting something in the same place twice, every year Diana tries something different, with her particular nemesis being tomatoes.

Alaskan Siberian tomatoes in separate pots to be exact, as they are “supposed” to do well in cold weather, but they rarely work because the nights are just too cold.

Same for most peppers, as Diana says, “You can freeze one by blowing on it with an ice cube in your mouth,” but she still considers tomatoes a personal challenge most years.

Yet that’s it, three months at best for a growing season, except for the stuff under the ground though, that you can dig out of the snow, like potatoes.

That’s the family’s favorite.

“Grandchildren, poems, my garden…”
Julie Andrews (when asked to list a few of her favorite things,
Parade Magazine, Dec.27, 2009)

“It’s rewarding,” Diana says, reflecting upon her seven decades of sanctuary spent in gardens.

Diana had always skied in the winter, but does not play golf and never cared for tennis. Gardens are her hobby, her passion, her lifelong refuge from the toils of life as, yes, even in beautiful Vail, Colorado, life can have its trials and tribulations.

The people that came here in the beginning were “across the board overeducated and very smart,” a common trait that she is convinced help Vail succeed.

“People didn’t come here to drop out, they came for the quality of life from day one, and money wasn’t necessarily in that equation,” Diana says. “I asked John after we got married, ‘How much money do we need?’ and he said, ‘Enough to be happy,’ and that’s exactly how we’ve conducted our life…it’s not how much we made, it’s how much we didn’t spend.”

Like each of us striving to cultivate a fruitful and successful life, some settle for simple gardens while others take risks, daring to grow in untested soils. At the risk of sounding contrarian, Mrs. Donovan, you have ‘spent’ your entire life ‘making’ something, from gardens…to a family…to a town, and done exceptionally well with all three.

You are indeed living proof that we reap what we sow.

Gardening is the slowest of the performing arts.