Wherever I travel I visit gardens. I’ve visited fancy Parisian topiary gardens, I drank coconut milk fresh from the machete sliced hull in tropical Jamaican gardens, I’ve admired the proud overflowing window boxes of cottages in the German alps, and I’ve wondered at the selections found in Costa Rican garden stores. It seems everywhere I go I can connect with the space and the people easily through my love of gardens and plants. In many of the gardens that I’ve visited I’ve found gardeners hard at work planting, preparing the soil, or maintaining their precious little piece of earth.
Gardeners seem to be an easy lot to connect with in general, and when I’m visiting with gardeners in places new to me, I just love asking folks about the local methods, climate, seasons, soils and plant selections. This month I had an opportunity to connect with gardeners in mile high, Denver Colorado as I visited the city and explored the famous Denver Botanic Gardens.
Lucky for myself, and anyone else Denver bound, the locals are a friendly and helpful lot. I found plenty of gardeners to chat with throughout Denver and enjoyed myself thoroughly walking through the amazing garden displays at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and visiting with the gardeners who shape them.
When talking with gardeners from other areas I’m always looking out for the similarities and differences between my gardens at home, and those that I’m learning about. The range of possibilities seems to expand when I learn what folks in different parts of the world are up to. Below is a little of what I learned while visiting the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Water is life.
Coming from the land of ten thousand lakes, the most striking contrast that is readily apparent when talking gardens with folks in Denver, is the focus on xeriscaping, or gardening with plants that require no irrigation or watering to survive. I had guessed that this may be an emerging trend here as I noticed the billboards on my way from the airport exclaiming, Denver Water, Use Only What You Need! When you compare Denver’s average annual rainfall of almost 16 inches, to the nearly 30 inches that fall every year in Minneapolis it becomes easy to see why xeriscaping is so much more prominent in Denver. The Denver Botanic Gardens offered excellent examples of this style of gardening implemented to varying degrees, from alpine gardens and dryland mesa that required no additional watering to the slightly more lush, plains gardens.
These high altitude gardens were filled with plants that were unfamiliar to this river valley gardener. I found several types of agave, many different species of grass that I’d not seen before, cactus that grew in forms both strange and elegant, and giant wisened yucca plants with foliage as sharp as the mountain sun.
Perhaps the most striking thing I learned about the water in Denver is that it is against the law for citizens of Denver to collect their rainwater. While I was assured that many of the gardeners here stealthily collect rainwater in their back yards, no one that I talked with about it could offer any explanation as to why gathering rainwater was made illegal here in Denver. I can easily imagine city hall being overrun with angry shovel and hoe wielding protesters if politicians in Minneapolis officialdom tried to interfere in such a way with our water gathering ways.
Plants are but one form of media used to decorate a garden. Visiting the Denver Botanic Gardens I was reminded of the fact that a gardeners pallet is limited only by their imagination. Land forms, sculptures, boulders, pathways made of various materials, and even paintings were found decorating these showy gardens. I was fortunate enough to visit during an ongoing exhibition titled Urban Nature, which highlights the paintings of various urban artists juxtaposed with the verdant growth of the gardens. Some of the paintings seemed to take on extra meaning due to their placement. In one particularly striking contrast an image of a sleeping woman painted to look as though light was being reflected off a body of water and onto her is placed behind a dry border of bristle cone pine. Seeing such a flowing, lovely image displayed in this harsh context reminded me that the horrible and the beautiful of this world are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked.
Inside and Out
No visit to Denver’s botanical gardens could be complete with out a visit to the tropical conservatory. The 300 days a year of sunshine found in the mile high city provide ample light to fill this conservatory with verdant growth. Walking into this room, I suddenly found myself surrounded by the jungle. I wasn’t too surprised to see chubby gold and white koi swimming through the stream inside the conservatory, but when a green gecko popped his head out in front of me, I began to hope there weren’t any snakes eyeing me hungrily from the treetops. The little gecko seemed to be just as surprised to find me wandering through his jungle home and he wasted no time scampering off. The building housing the conservatory was home to several other features of the Denver Botanic Gardens, including an impressive and very misty cloud forest room, a newly installed rooftop garden, and an amazing library stocked with thousands of books dealing with botany, gardening, landscape, and horticulture. I even heard from more then one source that the botanic garden is planning a green wall on this same building.
So Many Gardens, So Little Time
Visiting the Denver Botanic Gardens turned me into the proverbial kid in the candy shop. To be sure, my eyes twinkled at the beauty I found, and I was completely overwhelmed trying to take it all in. I can say with certainty that any future trip to Denver for me will include a lengthy visit to these botanic gardens. Finding this oasis of garden pleasure in the middle of the city was as pleasant a surprise as I could’ve asked for while traveling. Seeing the new and different combined so readily with what’s familiar, and finding the folks of this town so easy to talk with showed me that though I don’t live here, in some ways Denver is my home.