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.
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.
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.
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.