Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Singing a different tune: The Colorado prairie style

Lauren Springer Ogden designed prairie garden at Chatfield Farms
The Great Plains made their historical entre onto the consciousness of the European world with the publication of the Report of the Long Expedition in 1823 where they are labeled "the Great American Desert"...our plains and prairies have suffered a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde complex ever since. Who hasn't driven across I-80 or I-70 and not quietly grumbled about the endless miles of "nothing"?

But if you happen to be in the right spot at the right time (and be led by a particularly knowledgeable Cicerone) you may be singing a different tune...

Another view of the Chatfield Farms prairie
Piet Oudolf, Roy Diblick and a host of other talents have created sublimated prairies--usually employing plants of the more easterly prairies--many of which are featured in Lauren's Chatfield garden as well. I have seen and admired a number of the European master's works--very dramatic and crowd pleasing. The crowd doesn't always realize the profound knowledge and skill it takes to create those multi-season tableaux. A number of Colorado-based artists have quietly been doing their own take on the art of native prairie plants and gardens. Lauren's many acre extravaganza around the visitor's center at Chatfield is a masterpiece I curse because I drive hundreds of miles every year commuting every few weeks to watch its kaleidoscopic transformations!

Lauren Springer Ogden designed prairie garden at Chatfield Farms
The first two shots were taken in June, but it's blazing away still in August (a shot of the same garden as the first two, mind you!)...That's Muhlenbergia reverchonii, an absolutely spectacular grass Lauren and her husband Scott introduced to general horticulture through Plant Select a few years ago from the prairies of central Texas.

And here it is in its autumnal magnificence. If you've not been to Chatfield yet to see this, put it on your list, please!

Unlike the broad brush strokes of Oudolf, Lauren's technique is more naturalistic, with artful repetitions: both work in different ways.

Lauren Springer Ogden designed prairie garden at Chatfield Farms
You an probably guess I can't get enough of this garden!

Lauren Springer Ogden designed prairie garden at Chatfield Farms
There are other less grassy bits that feature more dryland plants of the intermountain region--it's an expansive and infinitely complex work that has not had the accolades it deserves. She is about to launch a similarly ambitious and fantastic project (an "Undaunted Garden" at the Gardens at Spring Creek in Fort Collins--a horticultural gem that is about to receive its diadem. If you're not commuting to Colorado to see gardens yet, you will be. Trust me.

One last glimpse of Lauren's masterpiece.
Of course you know the Echinacea. The white, which is simply supreme there every year, is Erigeron philadelphicus--a biennial common throughout the Eastern United States and Midwest, but also occurring naturally in Colorado--a spectacle all summer that astounds me because I've not seen it used anywhere else that I know of.

The Modecai Childrens' garden has been a huge success, the naturalistic meadows throughout are a fantastic display of color and texture through the entire gardening year.

Slightly later in the year from a different angle--almost a decade later: more subdued but very showy.

Almost the same bed this past early summer..

It's sad that most of our visitors never see this garden since it's across from the main garden and labeled "Childrens"--they assume it's somehow childish. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I never cease to be amazed how different this garden looks from every view

This is basically the same bed, viewed from the other angle a few months later...

Other parts of this garden are every bit as wonderful...

The Laura Smith Porter Plains garden is arguably the best garden in the place--it is our native vegetation returned as closely as could have been here originally--all from germplasm collected within a close radius of Denver.

 I especially love it in late summer.

Again, every view seems different from every angle, and it changes subtly from year to year...

Dan Johnson took over this garden after it had been left pretty much to its own devices for more than a decade after Rick Brune designed and planted it. Here is the only picture I have of Dan presumably spraying the rare weed: you never see him or any of his helpers in here: it's pretty much perfect with almost no intervention (if we ignore the burning every few springs)...

Late summer in a lush year...

More typical autumnal golds and browns...

Castilleja integra has persisted many years.

Even corners of our Japanese garden blaze with naturalistic design of natives

The threeleaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) is fantasti every year.

Cottonwood Border, Western Panorama gardens
The true piece-de-resistance has to be Dan Johnson's breathtaking Cottonwood border just west of our great amphitheatre. One of four magnificent gardens featuring native plants from various ecosystems--here, obviously, the Great Plains.

Virtually the same spot a month or two later--this, my friends, is inspired gardening!

The steppe portion of Plantasia was rather sparse in the early years. Although the mass planting of scarlet tulips did make a splash...but look at this same spot a decade later! (And later in the year of course)...

Plantasia steppe meadow
 I suggest you look back at the previous shot and tell me that it's not an amazing transformation!

Steppe meadow
I especially love this garden when the Eremurus stenophyllus are blazing: they've self sown and love this garden.
Pulsatilla vulgaris and Agave neomexicana in the Rock Alpine Garden
Hey, I know it's not a meadow--but thought you needed a little palate cleanser after all those grassy, mixed up let's go back to them

Upper meadow (steppe) in Rock Alpine Garden
This was our first attempt at re-creating a steppish habitat. It's been fantastically rewarding to watch this evolve--especially under Mike Kintgen's baton: he is truly a master.

One little glimpse of Mike Bone, Kevin William's and Sonya Anderson's fantastic work in the Steppe Garden--I've featured this in blogs before, but not yet done it justice...

Alas, the meadow below the Tyrannosaurus is as extinct as the Dinosaur (this whole area is now our Science Pyramid--which is pretty cool too, actually). But we've been meadowing for some time now.

I finish with another garden which is rapidly fading towards extinction. Greg Foreman left his position at Lakewood Parks six or seven years now: the garden is being kept moderatly weeded (perhaps more by guerilla volunteers than Park staff at this point). Lakewood's Parks Department does have a lot of parks to look after--and no one of Greg's amazing skill has yet stepped in to restore it to the magnificence it displayed for almost a decade: I probably have several thousand pictures I took here. This is one of the supreme Colorado gardens. Although it is gradually experiencing a sort of tragic entropy, it has inspired Thornton, Westminster, Aurora, Denver and many other municipalities: parks workers in all of these are now trying to do what Greg did so magnificently. I hope they rise to the challenge! This picture was taken in late summer, by the way. There are lots of ornamental grasses tucked here and there--had he used a half dozen more even more generously, I think it would be the perfect Colorado garden.

Zinnia grandiflora glowing yellow beyond, Salvia pachyphylla in front.

An especially striking spot: Eremurus hybrid, Penstemon 'Coral Baby' (hate the name) and Penstemon pinifolius 'Mersea Yellow' in front. Not sure of the blue: Scutellaria resinosa?  This is pretty wild stuff.

And finally Centennial Park on the Platte, which Rob Proctor designed (I suggested many of the plants to him however!)... For many years managed by DBG.

The same bed today: the Pennisetum was removed and Perovskia and Muhlenbergia reverchonii added by Denver Parks designers (Julie Lehman?) Pretty good improvement in my opinion.

Garden creativity, meadows and bold design are alive and well in Colorado: I'm proud to be a part of it and to know many of the players! I can't wait to see is in store for us yet in the fu


  1. Amazing. And you haven't even focused on all the bees, birds and butterflies that love meadows as much as we do! Thank you.

  2. When I enter DBG my inner child squeals loud enough sometimes for me to take the walk through the 'children's garden' and my outer adult complies, then exalts in the splendor.

  3. Amazing photos, Panayoti! And I agree with you about the Modecai Childrens' Garden - it's just stunning. I have 2 questions, though. What is the blue-ish grass in Lauren's top 2 photos? Is that Little Bluestem? Also, what is giving the brilliant red fall color in the Japanese Garden photos?

  4. Thanks for sharing. Colorado is very lucky to have so many inspiring garden designers.

  5. so amazing ! lovely colors and contrasts .

  6. Thank you all for the comments: perhaps some of those designers might actually read my blog and see your kind words! The blue grass at Chatfield, Diane, is undoubtedly little bluestem and the red in the Japanese garden is three-leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata)which is not always this brilliantly colored in nature.

  7. Big thank you for this! What adventurous planting -- I think I even spy michauxia! Very interested in that muhly and biennial erigeron.

  8. We are amateurs compared to the designs of the universe.


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