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Habitat Hero Awards Sneak Peek: Outstanding Public Garden

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

DBG@Chatfield: Outstanding Public Garden

The historic Chatfield Schoolhouse surrounded by the mesic prairie garden in fall. Photo: Lauren Springer Ogden

While we finish evaluating the applications for the 2014 Habitat Hero Awards, we wanted to share a look at this year's outstanding public garden: Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield.

The Vision

The Visitor Center before the rain garden was planted, solving a drainage challenge. Photo: Larry Vickerman

Lauren Springer Ogden, co-designer with her husband Scott Ogden of the acre-plus native plant gardens at Chatfield explained the project. In 2011, after the new Chatfield Visitor's Center was constructed by the main entry and visitor parking lot, plantsman Panayoti Kelaidis, DBG's Director of Outreach, persuaded the DBG's CEO, Brian Vogt, to hire the Ogdens to design entry gardens that would showcase plants of the Great Plains and Mountain West.

Lauren writes,

As designers, we were excited by the public nature of the project and the extraordinarily beautiful site. ... It is immensely rich, where foothills meet prairie in gently folding hills that offer many compass aspects and microclimates for diverse plants and animals to thrive. Also a natural creek runs through the property, providing year-round water.... There is some disturbed grassland, and many riparian trees and shrubs.

Challenges

A close-up view of that rain garden/ moist meadow just two years later. Photo: Lauren Springer Ogden

Of course, there were challenges: money, finding plants not usually available in the trade, and then the actual effort of planting the hundreds of plants, plus ongoing weeding and maintenance. As Lauren puts it,

The process was a collaboration of people taking lemons and making lemonade. Chatfield’s director Larry Vickerman, who is a plantsman and expert on the Great Plains flora, whole-heartedly supported the entire project and got quite dirty himself. I spent a couple of months in 2011 creating lists of plants... and sent my list of several hundred desired taxa to Mike Bone, propagator at Denver Botanic Gardens. He took the project on with great energy and care and hunted down rare seed and found and grew more than three-quarters of the species we requested....

Plant Placement and Planting

A close-up of the dry prairie, showing the naturalistic design. Photo: Lauren Springer Ogden

After the seedlings were grown, Scott and Lauren spent two months in late spring and early summer of 2012 placing every single plant on the site in a naturalistic design:

Our designs are informed by how plants spread and intermingle over time in natural plant communities. We wanted that stable, eternal look fast, so we created repeated matrices and clumps of the same species that fan out and disperse over space. People think it looks so random that it is undesigned, ... but [naturalistic planting] is actually the hardest

type of garden design to accomplish with visual and cultural success.

Then came planting, planting, planting by the small team of Chatfield staff led by lead horticulturist Emilee Vanderneut. After the more than 10,000 plug-sized plants plus a few large trees and shrubs went into the ground, they were top-dressed with alfalfa meal, a natural and inexpensive fertilizer, and irrigated. That fall, 14,000 non-native bulbs were added for the early months of the year when the native floral display is, as Lauren puts it, "paltry."

"Plant it and they will come"

As Habitat Hero project founder Connie Holsinger likes to say, "Plant it and they will come." And that's what's happened at DBG@Chatfield. Even though the gardens are only two years old, the insect pollinators (butterflies, native bees and European honeybees, beetles and others) and birds are flocking in. In fact, says Lauren,Chatfield already uses the gardens for classes to observe the wildlife drawn to the gardens.

Mesic prairie garden at Chatfield, humming with native bees on a summer morning. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

It is amazing how full the gardens are after only two years, and how lively they are with birds and insect noise and motion. And the colors and textures change dramatically every few weeks. ... [The gardens at Chatfield] are living proof that native plants and plant diversity bring creatures. We hope they motivate a lot of emulation so that more such lively and life-affirming prairie and meadow gardens pop up along the Front Range. It has been one of the most gratifying design projects of my career.

Congratulations to Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield and to Lauren and Scott Ogden for these outstanding public gardens! We are proud to announce them as our first 2014 Habitat Hero Award gardens.

If You Go

The moist meadow in August with the Chatfield cupola. Photo: Lauren Springer Ogden

DBG@Chatfield is located at 8500 W. Deer Creek Canyon Road, Littleton, CO, just off route C-470. It is open 9-5 daily except major holidays. If you don't belong to Denver Botanic Gardens, admission fee is $5 per car.

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