Thursday, December 6, 2012



....Thus life has been an endless line of land
receding endlessly.... And so that's that,
you say under your breath, and wave your hand,
and then your handkerchief, and then your hat.
To all these things I've said the fatal word....
"Softest of tongues" Vladimir Nabokov (the fatal word is "прощание"=farewell: pronounced "praschay" more or less...)

Don't be alarmed: I'm not going anywhere. Yet. I am simply acknowledging the universality of leavetaking (something we do every day: you break a spatula. You throw it away--and shall never see it again [ever] although it was something you used for years almost every day): that simple parting repeats itself every moment: that very breath is gone never to return, that sunset was unique and evanescent--and then there comes a certain age when you quite often see old friends for the last time quite frequently: I took leave of more people in the last year, shaking their hands or even hugging them for the last time (and yet not realizing it would be so until a few weeks or months later when I attended their funerals...)

I took this fun picture of my friend, Harlan Hamernik, with his Plant Select award in June never suspecting that would be the last day I would ever see him.

Vladimir Nabokov (far and away my favorite 20th Century author) wrote "Softest of Tongues" in the Atlantic Monthly in 1941--saying farewell to the Russian Language which he had decided to abandon in favor of English (he was 42 years old, and had been writing professionally in Russian for nearly 20 years at that point--and had come to be acknowledged by many emigres as their premier author at the time). Leaving your native language for a writer is a sort of death. Venturing forth in a new language...with tools of stone as he says...he had no idea where it would lead. But he captured that extraordinary pang of loss in that superb little poem...although he does revisit the Russian Language in his second greatest English poem a few years later: you can actually hear him reciting "An Evening of Russian Poetry" in 1958 if you click on that link! More bittersweet nostalgia for us "preterists" (and heady stuff it is too if you grok it).

But this is blog is not about Nabokov: it's about leavetaking of gardens and suchlike: some merely change. For nearly ten years I helped create and maintain (along with Denver Master Gardeners) a garden for Mayor Hickenlooper at Civic Center: last summer it was completely changed and is now maintained by Parks staff again: I shall have to dedicate a whole Blog to that bittersweet story [it might even merit a book]. Here is a picture of that garden a few years ago...

And likewise Centennial Garden (which I helped design)--once one of four of DBG's "main" gardens, it was jettisoned (for those everpresent fiscal reasons) four or more years ago and is now succumbing to a sort of elegant entropy: here's a picture of Centennial in the spring:

Below is its mirror parterre in late summer: Zinnia grandiflora as a groundcover over bulbs. That was brilliant (I'd like to also think it was my idea)...Maybe it was? I certainly did suggest the Mountain Mahogany as hedge.

In the course of my 33 years tenure at Denver Botanic Gardens, I would guess I have seen nearly 100 garden changeovers: for instance, the area that is now our Bonsai Pavilion was an official American Rose Society test garden when I came: I transformed part of this into an ice plant test garden in 1982 and subsequently it went through several iterations I have completely forgotten (they must have been memorable) before being turned into a cutting garden in 1999-2001 which was stunning for nearly ten years, when it was turned into a holding area for construction projects for several years, and this past winter was transformed into our stunning new Bonsai area. Wildflower Treasures (which I worked on so much I'd call it WFT) was created about the same time as the Cutting Garden as part of the "Rob Proctor" era--he and I designed what may be the most "botanical" garden ever--a wonderful accurate if stylized depiction of Colorado ecosystems through the prism of art. This garden was extremely popular with sophisticated visitors. Today it is a blank slate (it will be transformed into a vegetable garden extravaganza this winter)...

I hasten to say that those giant troughs--built by Mark Fusco and originally planted by my ex-wife Gwen Moore--have been preserved and will hopefully be moved to Chatfield next spring...

Am I bitterly disappointed? A piece of me is. I was asked early on in the process by several of the "eminence grise" of the Gardens if I objected to the change (presumably they would have fought it). I am frankly so thrilled by the colossal transformation at DBG that has transpired in the last six years since Brian Vogt became director that I felt that this single "setback" was trivial stuff: besides which I am a strong believer in the current "Vegetable Boom" and think that the new garden will do much to help sustain it...

More to the point, this garden had 10 years of glory--not bad for a public garden! And has been secretly and accidentally reincarnated in a much more glorious and artistic and much larger format by Lauren and Scott Ogden around the Visitor Center at Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield (where they designed the perennial component much more artistically than Rob and I did in WFT): so there has been a net gain in the big picture...I'm a big picture kinda guy--you gotta get! WFT is leveled, but WFT lives on at Chatfield! Long live WFT!

And finally there is High Country Gardens, which David and Ava Salman created 19 years ago as a "sideline" for their incredible nursery Santa Fe Greenhouses. I would love to know how many millions of catalogues the Salmans sent out in those 19 years: I guess at least ten million. That enterprise brought the very highest standards of plantsmanship and artistic expression of Western Horticulture to an unparalleled mass market. I've had an inkling for a year or two that things were not going well and that one or another of their garden centers in Albuquerque or Santa Fe might close. I had no idea that everything: their Bernalillo growing areas and catalogue operations, would be put up for auction and that the whole shebang would end abruptly.

Here's David in one of his greenhouses looking at what might be the very best hardy Salvia of the microphylla/greggii persuasion yet...the picture was taken barely a month ago--about the time the final decision was being made no doubt...

People ask me why? I answer that 19 years is a hell of a run for any nursery. The Salmans released an explanation that the economic conditions in New Mexico these last few years (exacerbated by drought and fires) decreased profitability such that the corporation did not feel it was wise to continue. I have a hunch this is the bald truth in a nutshell. And yet none of us can imagine the enormous energy, effort and just plain hard work that goes into managing hundreds of people and literally millions of plants over a period of decades. The Salmans have earned a break--and we should just count our lucky stars we had High Country Gardens and Santa Fe Greenhouses as long as we did! Thank you, David and Ava, for your shimmering and enormous gift (I have a big section of my bookcase dedicated to your catalogues I shall always treasure). And I look forward to what comes next! прощание!

I began with Nabokov, but I shall end with Prospero's exquisite leavetaking in
"The Tempest"...possibly the loveliest valediction ever written.

...Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

             William Shakespeare


  1. Yours' is the most real, deep narrative on this topic in our field I've read recently - by far. The more things change, the more they stay the same...but good change always births betterment.

    And those DBG gardens are indeed stunning, including Rob Proctor's/Gwen's abstraction of Colo ecosystems. Wow! That Civic Center garden looks like I wish I would have visited, not to mention the nice lines and layers of the Centennial Garden. Glad you captured and shared those, PK!

  2. Very sorry to hear about High Country Gardens. What a beautiful tribute to what once was. My family in New Mexico has lost nearly all of their trees due to the drought, and have not been able to buy any plants because they cannot water them.

  3. What a beautiful, bittersweet elegy for gardens and for High Country and, well, for all of us. Yes, 19 years is a very good run for a nursery, and although I only knew of HC for about 6 of those years, I'm glad to have known (and grown some of their plants) for even that short while.

    I'd love to know more about the Hickenlooper garden. Do tell us the story behind the changes you mentioned.

  4. I will gather some images and try and tell the story of the Civic Center "parterre": It had a great run too!

    I felt the need to write something about High Country Garden--which appeared out of the blue almost 20 years ago and shook things up. I have heard a lot of buzz about "what's going on with that" and thought I might have bit of light to shed on it.

    I shall seek out some images, Pam, to tell the story of that Civic Center parterre: I think it's a good one!

  5. The end of High Country Garden...aahhhh That sucks, but thanks too them for spreading hard to find plants to the four corners of the States.
    I can only hope someone can pick up where they so boldy went.

  6. Dear Madam

    I am a final year botany student studying at Sacred Heart college, Thevara, Cochin, Kerala. My primary interests are orchids, cacti and other succulents. I have been collecting cacti for about an year and have a few in my collection, but I can't find any good collections here in Cochin and most nurseries don't stock cacti here. I was wondering if you could give me a few seeds of any stapeliads or cacti that you can spare. It would be really great if you could tell me about cactus potting mixtures since I'm new to this. Eagerly awaiting your reply.

    Yours faithfully



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