Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

Reflecting pool in the Denver Botanic Gardens

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best display gardens I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to impress, and impress me it did, with its distinctive spaces presenting plants from all parts of the world.



Located at York Street, the Denver Botanic Gardens unfolds gradually, as step by step one beautiful garden flows seamlessly into another. There are 17 arid gardens showcasing plants that thrive in Colorado’s dry climate, internationally inspired gardens, ornamental gardens, shade gardens and water gardens. And that’s not all – there’s an ornamental vegetable garden and countless garden ‘vignettes’ in between, enough to make your head spin with all the horticultural inspiration.

Here are some highlights of the different gardens I visited.

The O’Fallon Perennial Walk

I love to meander, so we didn’t bother looking at the map and within moments found ourselves at the base of the O’Fallon Perennial Walk. Backed by a hedge of formally pruned native juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), the impressive border featured many of the plants I use in my designs back East. There were generous drifts of colorful bearded irises, yarrow, perennial geraniums, lime green lady’s mantle and ice blue amsonia (Texas Star) along with roses, boxwood and barberry, to name just a few.

Apricot Iris germanica

Aside from the beautiful plants, the cool thing about this border is its design. The hedged borders are angled so that the views from the north end (viewed in photo) make the south end appear farther away than it actually is. I also couldn’t help but notice that the plants were double the size I’m used to seeing – must be the dry Denver air!

Next up were a series of gardens called the Romantic Gardens. The Tuscan-style Schlessman Plaza features rustic stone columns, stucco walls and a pair of brick and stucco pavilions. The formal beds are planted with perennials and shrubs and flanked by ornamental crabapple trees.

Schlessman Plaza

Ornamental crabapples at Schlessman Plaza

The Fragrance Garden features raised beds of bright-colored perennials including  Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Dianthus ‘First Love’, Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue,’ Monarda ‘Marshall’s Delight’, Nepeta and copious amounts of Love-In-A-Mist (Nigella) all accented by the silvery foliage of Buddleja alternifolia ‘Argentea’ (Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush) and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. The drought-resistant plants and shrubs are further enhanced by the grey stucco wall.

 The Fragrance Garden

Rounding a corner, we stumbled on an elliptical garden centered on a brilliant red and yellow Chihuly sculpture. The sunken garden entitled The Ellipse features roses from the May-Bonfils Stanton collection along with hydrangeas, lilies and daylilies chosen to coordinate with the jewel-toned glass (which reminded me of a red hot poker flower). The sculpture was specially commissioned for the Denver Botanic Gardens and installed in 2014. It is called ‘Colorado.’

The Ellipse in honor of Nancy Schotters

Path bordered by Sweet Alyssum that encircles the Ellipse

Reflecting pool at the end of the Fragrance Garden

The Herb Garden, to the left of the Fragrance Garden, was designed for ‘health and culinary enjoyment’ according to the brochure. The garden is maintained in collaboration with the Metro Denver Herbalists and includes basil, thyme, oregano, lavender and lemon verbena and other Italian herbs. Some of the herbs are used to make soaps and other herb blends that are sold in the Garden Shop.

Herb Garden medallion made of Wooly Thyme

Close-up of the medallion

Adjacent to the Herb Garden is the Scripture Garden, a contemplative space filled with plants that originate in the ‘Fertile Crescent’; the area common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Many of the trees, shrubs and flowers symbolize the various faiths’ religious stories. This includes a stand of olive trees whose species is native to the Mediterranean area. Unable to withstand the Denver winter, the trees spend the coldest months indoors in the garden greenhouses.

The Scripture Garden

From this quiet area we headed to the Space Pyramid, a futuristic-looking grey and black mosaic pyramid located at the heart of the garden. The Pyramid is home to a 60-inch spherical globe that simulates how the earth looks from space.

Space Pyramid and fountain at Denver Botanic Gardens

Adjacent to the Space Pyramid is the Ornamental Grasses Garden. Who knew there could be such variety? The beautiful garden encompasses a wide variety of traditional and new ornamental grasses including Indian ricegrass, switchgrass, cutleaf staghorn sumac and compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) a native to the eastern plains of Colorado.

Ornamental Grasses Garden

The sculpture in the back is called ‘So Proud Of My Children’ and was created by Nicholas Kadzungara.

I loved this garden space with a sheet metal sculpture by Alexander Calder entitled ‘Polygons on Triangles.’ It was the perfect counterpoint to all the torch lilies.

Another view of the orange and yellow torch lilies, so striking popping up from among the grasses.

June’s Plantasia showcases the plants and planting traditions of Asia. River rocks, designed to mimic the flow of water, cover the paths and change direction depending on where you want to walk. For example, the direction of the river rocks on the bridge matches the direction of the stream below.

River rock path in June’s Plantasia

Close-up of river rocks

Allium silhouetted against a black rock in June’s Plantasia

Here are some garden vignettes near June’s Plantasia

Iris ‘Wake Up Call’

The Dwarf Conifer Garden displays the largest collection of Jerry Morris’ dwarf conifers in the world. Morris is internationally known for his groundbreaking work with conifers, including the development of species with more desirable traits like bluer foliage, longer needles and better disease resistance.

Jerry Morris Conifer Garden

A secluded spot nearby.

Compared with all of the greenery we had just experienced, the Rock Alpine Garden was a breath of dry air. This garden features plants from high elevation regions around the world. The landscape includes over 2000 different plant species. Rugged rocks add to the garden’s appeal.

Rock Alpine Garden

The Gates Montane Garden was created in 1961 by S.R. DeBoer as a tribute to the late Charles C. Gates.  It is designed to mimic the mountain setting of the Gate’s property in Bear Creek Canyon. The shady woodland path is a nice contrast to the Alpine Garden with its mix of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Columbines in the Gates Montane Garden

The Plains Garden depicts what the Denver landscape looked like prior to development. The majority of the seeds were procured from within 30 miles of Denver and represent such signature plants as Blue Grama grass, Buffalo grass and Liatris punctata (spotted gayfeather.) This garden survives on precipitation alone.

Plains Garden

Water plays a dominant theme in the Denver Botanic Gardens through which it meanders, alternately taking the form of streams, reflecting pools, fountains and water courses. We stepped out from the Plains Garden to encounter a large paved space crisscrossed by water pathways. Known as the Monet Pool, the water garden features an impressive array of waterlilies, lotus and cattails.

The Denver Botanic garden is a world leader in aquatic gardening and variety and breadth of aquatic plants.

The Monet Pool

The Potager, or Kitchen Garden, is encircled by the Monet water pathways. The edible plants are arranged in ornamental patterns.

Le Potager

These gardens are only a fraction of what you can see at the Denver Botanic Gardens, which brings new surprises with each passing season.

At the time of our visit, the gardens were embellished by sculptures by Alexander Calder. For more information on the gardens, click here for the Denver Botanic Gardens website. And don’t forget to visit the Conservatory for more eye-opening experiences.


Having A Ball With Alliums (Ornamental Onions)

Allium giganteum, also known as Giant Onion 

They look like they’re right out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on naked green stems. I love to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they encounter the colorful spheres for the very first time. Drought tolerant and virtually disease and pest-free, alliums (also known as ornamental onions) are a sure bet if you’re looking to liven up your garden.

Partly due to the fact that they appear to hover, alliums add a big dose of fun to almost any garden setting. Teeter-tottering above other flowers, their purple flower heads act as key accents throughout the perennial border. In formal gardens, they inject a note of whimsy, while in more informal settings they make a dramatic statement, forming unexpected color combinations with other plants in the garden.

Alliums in a spring garden

We have Rosemary Verey, the famous British gardener, to thank for introducing the world to these beautiful flowers. Her famous Laburnum Arch at Barnsley House is today one of the most iconic garden images. Created in 1964, the design centers on a tunnel of golden chain tree flowers under planted with dense rows of purple alliums. The cascading yellow flowers atop the deep purple floating orbs has been reproduced in one form or another for decades.

Rosemary Verey’s famous Laburnum Walk


The allium family is a genus of flowering plants that has hundreds of species, including onions, garlic, scallions, shallots, leeks and chives.  While most have been cultivated for centuries as food crops, the ornamental onions are grown strictly for their decorative qualities. A word of caution, though; the bulbs may look like onions, but they are not edible.

Allium gigantum poking up among pink roses

Since they are spring bloomers, allium bulbs need to be planted in the fall (once the soil has cooled.) I plant mine just after the leaves have fallen. Six months later in late spring, just when you’ve all but forgotten them, basal rosettes with giant, paddle-shaped leaves start tracing patterns on the soil in the garden.

Soon after the leaves appear, the plant sends up a thick, leafless stem at the end of which is a swollen bud. As the bloom takes shape, thousands of tiny, star-like flowers open to form a dense purple ball. Once formed, the flower heads are incredibly long-lasting, retaining their color for a week or more.  The flowering stage continues with each plant producing one or two more blooms.

A fully developed flower head

I like to plant alliums in groups of threes or fives and sow them haphazardly throughout the garden. This makes for an abstract design that combines well with both formal and informal spaces. It’s important not to plant the bulbs too close together, though, in case come spring, their spheres collide and ruin the effect.

Alliums look great with other spring flowers like peonies and irises. And the later blooming varieties make stunning companion plants to salvia, yarrow, monarda, catmint and daylilies. Alliums are not repeat bloomers, so after they exhaust themselves, they go dormant for the summer. I plant daylilies by my alliums to hide the foliage once it starts to wither.

Spring color combination with alliums

Alliums flower best in full sun, although they’ll also grow in semi-shade (see above.) Once the flower has died, cut the flower stalk down to refocus energy into the bulb. Dried flower heads make great additions to indoor flower arrangements, by the way.


There are many different species of alliums, but here are some of the most popular:

Purple Sensation, the earliest bloomer of all the large-flowered alliums. flowers in late spring. It makes a stunning companion to peonies, bearded irises and delphiniums. The 4″ to 6″ diameter violet globes float on sturdy stems that rise to 24″ high.

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’

If you’re looking for a big ‘wow’, try Globemaster and/or Gladiator. The tallest of the ornamental onions, these varieties boast huge purple flower heads (some measuring as big as 8″ to 10″ across) on 3 to 4-foot stems. A white version called Mount Everest is slightly shorter.

Allium ‘Globemaster’

Allium ‘Mount Everest’

Adorable Drumstick produces reddish purple cone-shaped flowers (like drumsticks) in July and is a great companion to other summer-blooming plants like daylilies, daisies, and coneflowers.

‘Drumstick’ allium

Star of Persia, Allium Christophii, is a little more wild. It produces star-shaped fuchsia flowers on gray-green stems.

Star of Persia/Allium Christophii

If you’re looking for real fireworks in the garden, try Schubert allium whose pink umbels look like an explosion. Seed heads look great in the garden, too, long after the blooms have faded.

Allium Schubertii

In addition to these great cultivars, there are lesser-known alliums that can keep the blooms going all summer long. For more information on these varieties and a great video on how to plant them, click here for Fine Gardening’s excellent article on these summer beauties.


How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

Most of us who grow flowers in containers in summer know it can be a constant battle to keep things looking their best. We feed and water our plants diligently, yet in no time the flowers stop blooming and the stems become long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that how to care for plants in containers is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. So, what can we do to keep our potted plants in shape all summer?

Water, water, water then water again

The most important thing to remember when caring for flowering potted plants is that they require:

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 8.52.08 AM

Annuals and tender perennials, which are the flowers most commonly planted in pots, are shallow-rooted. This means they require a regular supply of water in order to survive. In fact, small root systems, which have limited capacity to store water, require water daily. Water your plants at the soil level so that liquid doesn’t accumulate on the leaves (which can lead to leaf scorch or cause fungus to develop.) And wait until the water seeps out of the drainage holes in the bottom to make sure the potting soil has been thoroughly moistened.



Feed for more blooms

In addition to lots of water, potted flowers need regular feeding to keep on blooming. This is because as the potting mix breaks down, it naturally loses its nutrients as the plants absorb them. I feed my plants three times during the summer with a water soluble fertilizer. (Miracle Gro All Purpose Plant Food works great.) Be careful not to overdo it though, because over-fertilization can lead to lots of lush foliage, but fewer flowers.



Groom to keep the shape

Deadheading, pinching and pruning are ways of grooming your potted flowers. Depending on the size of the stem, you can pinch off spent flowers and leggy branches using your thumb and forefinger, or snip them with scissors or pruning shears. These tasks help you maintain the form of your plants and stimulate them to keep on flowering.

Here are three popular annuals/tender perennials often grown in pots and how to groom them.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 12.02.58 AM


Though grown as an annual in most areas, the common geranium, or Pelargonium x hortorum, is actually a tender perennial, meaning it won’t survive the winter outdoors (though you can overwinter it indoors.) While it’s tempting to buy this beautiful flowering plant as soon as it hits the garden centers in early spring, it’s usually best to hold off until around Mother’s Day, when there’s less risk of an overnight frost.


A healthy geranium is commonly comprised of a few central stems and lots of side shoots (which is the optimum structure for a strong plant that will produce lots of flowers.) To keep your geranium looking good,  prune back the central stems by about a third a week or two after potting it, using a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears. This will encourage more side shoots to form and maintain the plant’s fullness.

As the season progresses, regularly pinch the side branches of your geranium down to the angle where the branches fork. This will prevent the plant from becoming too leggy. And deadhead (pinch at the base) all flower stems as soon as they have faded, which will encourage new flowering.


Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 12.03.16 AM


Petunias can become leggy fast without some prudent intervention. They can also quit blooming almost entirely after an initial colorful flush. No worries, though. With proper watering, feeding and grooming, you can keep your petunias looking good all season long.


Petunias need to be regularly deadheaded to encourage new flowering, but unlike geraniums, removing the dead flowers from the plant accomplishes only part of the job. At the base of the petunia flower stem is a small, nugget-sized pod that produces seeds. If you leave the pod on the plant, the petunia will stop flowering. In order to stimulate the plant to produce more flowers, you’ll need to remove the entire flower stem.

Deadheading the flowers (with stems) on a regular basis will keep your petunias looking neat; however, it won’t solve the leggy problem. To control legginess, prune the plant every week, cutting back about a third of the petunia. You can do this by pinching branches selectively or grabbing clumps and shearing them off. Each week cut the plant back by another third. Rejuvenating petunias in this way will encourage new stems and blossoms to sprout from the interior branches.

For a great tutorial on how to keep your petunias looking full and flowering, click here.


Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 12.03.28 AM


These brightly-colored specimens require less care than geraniums or petunias, but still need regular pruning (though little deadheading) to help them maintain their compact shape. The same goes for the indoor varieties, by the way.


To keep your begonias looking their best, prune the outer branches (called canes) harder than the interior ones, pinching back the growing tips of new shoots to encourage new stems to form. Prune the interior canes at varied heights and prune the outer canes at the lowest. This will encourage new growth at the base and prevent the plant from looking bare at the bottom.

If your begonia has lost all its lower leaves, you can cut it back all the way to the soil. This will force the plant to send up new shoots. You can then continue pinching new stems as they grow until you achieve the desired shape and fullness.

A note on begonias, both indoors (as houseplants) and out: They don’t like to be overwatered.

A final note: sterilize your garden shears between uses to prevent diseases from spreading among plants. Then, sit back and enjoy your potted flowers for the remainder of the season.


Nothing Beats A Spring Day In the Gardens At DC’s Dumbarton Oaks

Spring garden at Dumbarton Oaks

When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. This spring, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the magnificent spring blooms that Dumbarton Oaks is famous for, but also because starting in July, the gardens will be temporarily closing for renovations.


Located high on a hill in Washington, DC on the northern edge of Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is an historic property, including a 19th century house, art museum and gardens of world-class distinction. It is the legacy of Ambassador Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss, noted philanthropists and collectors of art, who purchased the property in 1920. At that time, the now 53-acre estate included an 1801 Federal-style home, six acres of steeply graded farmland and a series of sadly neglected gardens.

Entrance to main house at Dumbarton Oaks

The Blisses had just arrived home from two decades abroad and were keen on creating ‘a country estate in the city.’ They fell in love with the sloping terrain of Dumbarton Oaks and spent the next twenty years renovating the house and expanding the gardens. To help her transform the land, Mildred hired renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand. The project, which was to end up encompassing both formal and informal designs, is today considered to be Farrand’s most ambitious garden.

A view across today’s many-tiered garden

Beatrix and Mildred worked together to design and build an intricate landscape with a distinctive American flair while incorporating elements of Italian and English garden style (assimilated during the couples’ extensive travels abroad). This allowed the garden to remain flexible and over time, it has evolved to include new designs, plantings and ornamentation. Some say that the women created one of the “greatest garden ensembles in American landscape history.”

Mildred Bliss/Photo: Dumbarton Oaks

To preserve her vision, Farrand documented all her plants and the reasons for their selection in The Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks. Completed in the 1940s, it remains the key resource for maintaining the gardens in the style Beatrix and Mildred intended them to be.

In 1940, the Blisses cofounded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to display their collect of rare books, documents, art and other objects accumulated during their years abroad. They also donated the mansion, outbuildings and formal gardens to Harvard University (Robert’s alma mater).

An unusual azalea variety at Dumbarton Oaks

In 1963, a Garden Library was added to the house to display Mrs. Bliss’s collection of rare and modern garden books. And today, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection is a Washington, DC institute administered by the Trustees of Harvard University. In addition to offering fellowships, internships and exhibitions in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape studies, Dumbarton Oaks includes a Museum of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and a Music room that provides a venue for concerts and lectures.

In a 1940 letter to his wife Mildred, Robert wrote,

‘At Dumbarton Oaks you have created something very beautiful, very special both in the garden and inside the house. It will remain a monument to your taste, knowledge and understanding – a delight to all who visit it and a great resource to those who are fortunate enough to work there. ‘



Farrand’s 1921 design was built around a phased transition from formal to informal spaces, ending in a woodland landscape (also designed) in the valley below the mansion. The design included numerous ponds, streams and garden ornaments all of which provided focal points in the gardens.

Today, the garden staff continue to evolve the gardens, creating one magical space after another.

The Tour

A visit to the gardens begins behind the main house on the Arbor Terrace, a broad swath of lawn overlooking the lower gardens.

The terrace is bordered by stone walls and an arbor that, at the time of my visit, was covered in wisteria.

Descending a staircase flanked by boxwood hedges (the garden’s central axis), we passed a hillside of cherry trees (no longer blooming) followed by Crabapple Hill.

A pebble and flagstone path bordered by peonies and other spring perennials led us deeper into the lower gardens.

The Pebble Garden features elaborate stonework laid in the shape of a wheat shaft. It is surrounded by trellises of wisteria and low flowerbeds. Pairs of stone columns lend a sense of enclosure to the dramatic space.

The Pebble Garden

Here is another view of the top of the Pebble Garden from the house terrace. (The students get to use the pool after-hours.)

Everywhere on the property are small niches complemented with interesting architectural elements. We passed by this one on the way to the Rose Garden. The Urn Terrace functions as the transition from the Boxwood Walk to the Rose Garden.

The Urn Terrace

The Rose Garden follows classical lines. Groups of same-species roses are laid out in geometrical grids accented by large and small orbs of loosely-clipped boxwood.

The garden is complemented by an antique stone bench.

Antique stone bench in the Rose Garden

Descending further down the slope, we arrived at the Fountain Terrace, a traditional flower garden.

The Fountain Terrace flower garden 

Close-up of the bright-colored flower borders on the Fountain Terrace

Close by the Fountain Terrace, is the English-style Herbaceous Border, which stretches back up the hill, provides an expansive view of all its riotous spring flowers.

Herbaceous Border

Lovers’ Lane Pool offers a quiet respite from all the color. The medium-sized garden features a shallow pool at the base of a small brick amphitheater bordered by bamboo.

Lovers Lane Pool

This small garden was designed by one of the interns at Dumbarton Oaks.

Small garden

The Plum Walk, with its identical rows of purple-toned trees, guides visitors further down the slope to the vegetable and cutting gardens.

Prunus Walk

A view of one of the vegetable gardens through the plum tree canopy

Lower vegetable and cutting garden

Old espaliered fruit trees underplanted with spring perennials border the gardens.

Aside from the Arbor Terrace with its magnificent wisteria, the Ellipse is a standout with its double row of formally-clipped hornbeams at the center of which is a simple fountain surrounded by a moat. The fountain is original to Farrand’s design, although the hornbeams are not. They replaced a boxwood-lined enclosure planted in the 1920s.

Hornbeam Ellipse

Located at the base of the gardens, the mostly-green space is peaceful and serene with its geometric shapes and quiet reflecting pool. Dumbarton Oaks is famous for this aerial hedge of pleached hornbeams, which provide a sense of enclosure while offering tantalizing glimpses of other gardens beyond. A great way to finish off a tour of these lovely gardens.

For more about Dumbarton Oaks, its history and hours of operation, click here for the official website.


Mount Sharon: Finding Gold In The Hills Of Orange, Virginia

Mount Sharon Rose Garden/Photo: Here By Design

The Rose Garden at Virginia’s Mount Sharon

High on a hilltop in beautiful Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it sits on the second highest point in the county. The magnificent property, which includes a brick house in the Georgian Revival style, is seldom open to the public. So recently, when my garden club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go. Continue reading

How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.15.13 PM

Northern Pacific Railway Mother’s Day Greeting Card circa 1915

They say there are no words to describe a mother’s love for her child. But the case may be different when it comes to a child’s love for her mom. One woman went so far as to dedicate her entire life to honoring her mother’s legacy. She was the founder of Mother’s Day and her name was Anna Jarvis. Continue reading

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to the shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this historic French garden. Continue reading

Lily of the Valley: The Official May Day Flower

The bells of lily of the valley

It was the beginning of May and I can still recall the sound of running footsteps on the stairs of my apartment building. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. This was Paris in the 1980s, and I had just received my first brin de muguet. The sweet-smelling blooms were none other than lily of the valley; a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May. Continue reading

Trade In Your Lawn For A Low-Maintenance Meadow Garden


A suburban meadow can help free you from tiresome yard work

These days, many of us are searching for alternatives to conventional lawn and garden care, a chore that has become increasingly dependent on time and maintenance as well as pesticides and other poisons. The suburban meadow offers a beautiful solution to this problem. Continue reading

5 Ways You Can Honor Our Planet on Earth Day


It’s been a while now since Earth Day first made its debut on April 22, 1970. I vaguely remember the strangeness of being let out of school to pick up trash in the nearby woods. The idea seemed entirely foreign to us at the time, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our garbage on the ground. Hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset. Continue reading