Denver Botanic Gardens

It would be hard to miss the entrance to the Denver Botanic Gardens on York Street in the heart of Denver. Recently completed as part of Phase 2 in their $86 million Master Development Plan and Flourish Capital Campaign, the contemporary design of the parking lot and Bonfils-Stanton Visitor Center, along with the Welcome Garden, stands out among the older Victorian homes in this central neighborhood. Mark (my husband) and I arrived shortly after opening, hoping to take in the majority of the garden while it was still cool.

Everything about Denver Botanic Gardens was a pleasure, much as one would expect when visiting one the the country's top five botanic gardens. From the parking lot dotted with trees, colorful borders and container arrangements, the exceptionally beautiful Welcome Garden, the happy and helpful attendant, to the opening views of the gardens, nary a weed or piece of debris was present, nor a plant out of place among the 23 acres and 45 diverse garden areas devoted to “connecting people to plants, . . . providing delight and enlightenment to everyone.”

Remembering my first trip to the garden, I wondered whether I'd be in such awe as I was during my inaugural, jaw-dropping visit. Even though this was either my fifth or sixth time to visit since 1998, incredibly, I was even more impressed than on my initial visit. Having visited the gardens over the years, and in different months, I found it fascinating how a garden I considered so perfect already could be improved. But they have, magnificently.

Not content to settle back and rest on their laurels, in 2002, the trustees and staff began to develop a three part planning document that was launched in 2007, The Long Range Framework Plan, Long Range Program and Facility Assessment Report, and the Master Development Plan, that combines, horticultural, physical (architectural and infrastructure) and programmatic (educational) elements for the next quarter century at the York Street location. The Master Development Plan was divided into four phases, with Phase One and most of Phase Two, completed, having raised over $59 million of the $86 million goal. During the process, the trustees refined DBG's core values “-transformation, relevance, diversity and sustainability--spelling out the Gardens' intentions in the years ahead.”

Focus on Regionally Appropriate Plants

An emphasis of DBG is showcasing Rocky Mountain regional plants to the public in an effort to educate them in the value of native plants for the home landscape. Most settlers to Denver, and indeed, throughout Western US, brought their plants and gardening practices from other areas of the country. As DBG matured, it pioneered the new Western Gardening Style, determining to be a regional source of information, demonstrating by example, ways to garden successfully in this difficult climate, so unlike gardening on the East and West coasts (and quite similar to ours). Water conservation became a crucial interest; along with their collaboration with the water utilities, landscape associations and growers, the Denver Parks and Water Department and the Colorado State University at Ft. Collins the concept of xeriscape gardening and Plant Select Plants came into being.

Several artfully composed gardens, including the Ponderosa Border, Bristlecone and Cottonwood Borders, Porter Plains and Dryland Mesa emphasize Colorado and Western US native plants, and many other gardens contain liberal numbers of natives, including the All-American Selections Garden, Plant Select, Water-Smart (formerly called the Xeriscape Garden), Crossroads, Cactus and Succulent House, Alpine House, Alpine Garden, Japanese Garden, Birds and Bees Walk, Woodland Mosaic, and Sacred Earth gardens. Denver Botanic Gardens also captivates with plants from around the world in the many perennial and annual borders, the Herb, Scripture, Fragrance, Romantic, Ornamental Grasses Garden, Shady Lane, O'Fallon Perennial Walk, Nexus Garden, world renown Rock Alpine Garden, Japanese Garden, Cutting Garden, Victoria's Secret Garden, May Bonfils Stanton Rose Garden and the new Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion to name several.

Under Glass

Tropical plants were not neglected, but celebrated, under glass. The signature Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory was dedicated in 1966, with renovations completed in 1998 and 2007, now containing over a thousand exotic plant specimens. Marnie's Pavilion was added in 1981 to house even more tropical and subtropical plants, with renovations undertaken in 2001 that created naturalistic settings for the epiphyte collection. In 2003, the Cloud Forest Tree exhibit opened including displays of orch

ids, bromeliads and other epiphytic plants. A $15.5 million greenhouse complex was completed in Phase One of the Master Development Plan that contains propagating houses, the first and only North American Alpine House and the Orangery, all accessible to the public for viewing and educational experiences. Walking through the green house complex, one can experience plants from the tropics all the way up to the alpine tundra. Underneath the new greenhouse complex is an 184 space parking facility for volunteers and staff.

A River Runs Through It

In a climate subject to limited rainfall and periodic drought, the Denver Botanic Gardens boasts water features throughout the 23 acres, from the new Mordecai Children's Garden across York Street adjacent to the parking lot, to the new Welcome Garden at the gardens entrance in the east, connecting to the gardens beginning in the Romantic Gardens, running and cascading east to west and south forming a series of pools and water gardens, both formal and naturalistic, culminating in the northwestern corner at the Japanese Garden. It is difficult to decide on a favorite, they are all so expertly designed. But over the years, I linger longer at El Pomar Waterway and the Monet Pool. All are stunning in their own way, blending in with the various gardens.

Denver Botanic Gardens is known for water gardening. The world's first water gardening society was founded there on February 12, 1982 when the Colorado Water Gardening Society (CWGS) began in a DBG classroom. Soon after, the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society was created. Summer displays at the Gardens includes more than 400 waterlilies and 1000 aquatic plants; they are unchallenged as the largest of any botanic garden (Gardening With Altitude, see below). Much of the work of installing and maintaining the water displays is performed by CW

GS volunteers, over 1400 volunteer hours a season. (Over 62,000 volunteer hours were contributed in 2011 by 1900 volunteers in numerous capacities at DBG.) Cold hardy native and tropical waterlilies (Nymphaea genus, including many of the hybrids of Monet's waterlily garden), Victorian waterlilies (Victoria genus) hybrids and cultivars, lotus (Nelumbo cultivars) inhabit most of the pools, along with water canna, Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), aquatic prairie cordgrass (Spartima pectinata) and papyrus (Cyperus genus).

Potted Perfection

Container gardening doesn't come to me naturally, so I've spent a lot of digital space on photographs of the hundreds of containers gracing the grounds. Perfect marriages of plants to pot, set singly or grouped together much as a crowd of people in admiration of the gardens. Colorful and harmonious arrangements imbeds and border paths and ponds from parking lot to pavilion. If there are other ways to do pots, I know not what. I believe I read they display over a 1000 potted containers throughout the grounds.

Education and Research

Research and preservation is an important facet of Denver Botanic Gardens, having two herbariums, a curated ethnobotanical collection, the Helen Fowler Library which houses diverse collections that include nearly 25,000 book titles and 200 serials, and archives on all subjects relating to plants, gardening and Denver Botanic Gardens. Besides the York Street location, DBG includes satellite locations at Chatfield and Mount Goliath.

Education programs are extensive at DBG. The School of Botanic Art and Illustration, Rocky Mountain Gardening Certificate Program, classes on sustainable living and exhibit related classes are offered in addition to thriving children's and horticultural therapy programs. Music programs and art exhibitions are routine occurrences.

Currently, Denver Botanic Gardens allies and collaborates with the Bureau of Land Management, Denver Parks and Recreation Department, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Native Plant Society, Center for Plant Conservation, Colorado Natural Areas Program, and with the USA National Phenology Network—Project Budburst, among others.

More To Come

Several enhancements yet remains in DBG's Flourish Campaign. A new Science Pyramid, outdoor cafe and Le Potager Garden, a tie in to the Waring Garden and a new Center for Science, Art and Education are still on the drawing board awaiting funds. For those interested in master planning, a perusal of the 90 page Master Development Plan is time well spent. I am in heightened awe of their forwardness in planning and embracing of technology, coupled with their commitment to the concept of “Best in Class, an adherence to an exemplary level of professional craftsmanship in both gardens and structures.”

Diversity and Enjoyment of the Gardens

There are several reasons I am continually drawn back to Denver Botanic Gardens and it's difficult to rank them in importance. Certainly the concept they've adopted to strive to be “best in class” as each and every one of the gardens are top class in diversity of plants, design, composition, color and interest throughout the year. The juxtaposition of the Eastern and Western gardening traditions patterned as one strolls through keeps interest keen. The threading and pooling of water contrasted with soil based plants plays nicely with the senses. The perusal of plants within the greenhouse complex, tropics to tundra, layers another level of interest.

An example of DBG's accomplishment to keep visitors interest fresh, just prior to entering the viewing space of the Monet Pool, if one walks from east to west along pink, violet, blue and corals in Shady Lane, the path intersects with a brilliant bed of orange, red, gold and white, stirring up one's viewing. Then immediately calmed as you break upon the tranquility and splendor of the Monet Pool, a blending of West and East, a Western interpretation of Monet's famous Japanese Water Lily Garden. This transition garden, so to speak, introduces the visitor to the new Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion and the Japanese Garden. These two Eastern Tradition gardens reflect calming and peacefulness, stimulating activities of thought and contemplation at the same time.

Although 23 acres seems a good sum for a garden that takes a fairly good sum to maintain, the way the space is used is artfully complete. Ground hugging plants, short, mid and tall perennials, shrubs, trees, vines, trellis, arbors, arches, enclosures, bridges, containers grounded and hanging unify the gardens into a smooth flowing masterpiece. Phase Three and Four will include a feature or two that really exemplifies their mastery of space.

Another tenet of DBG's horticultural principles is four season's of interest. Whenever your path takes you to the heart and soul of Denver in spring, summer, autumn or winter, I am sure you will find the entrance fee money well spent. As a member of the American Horticultural Society, entrance is free with their reciprocal membership benefit. Plan to spend several hours and refresh yourself at one of their on-site cafes. And don't forget the gift shop before you head out to the car.

After spending five hours in admiration of the gardens, there were several areas I wished I had time for more exploration. I can't wait for our next visit.


Denver Botanic Gardens and their website,

YouTube video, Denver Botanic Gardens: and water gardens

Denver Botanic Gardens, Gardening with Altitude, Cultivating a New Western Style, Published by Denver Botanic Gardens, 2006.

Angie Hanna, July 25, 2013