GARDEN OASIS: Step back in time at Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms
LITTLETON — A lizard scurries under the waving fronds of blue grama grass and a hummingbird dives to stick its beak into a hyssop’s petals for a fly-through snack.
Bunnies bound through the field of sunflowers and compass plants, the blooms swaying gently in the breeze as birds cling to the stems. And bees feverishly buzz from petal to petal, paying no attention to spectators as they busily gather pollen from vibrant hot pink heads of monarda, looking like tiny fireworks plastered with vibrating insects.
This garden is alive. It’s not perfect, it’s not immaculately manicured, and there are plenty of bugs, things that eat bugs, and things that eat the things that eat the bugs. This tranquil habitat is only minutes from the big city, though when it was originally settled, it was four hours away from Denver on horseback.
Welcome to the Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms, the site of a 750-acre native plant refuge and working farm. Situated next to Deer Creek, the property is the former site of a dairy farm where pioneers grew crops and raised 600 head of white-faced Hereford cattle. Today, the sanctuary showcases a native plant landscape that thrives and provides habitat for animals, insects and people seeking respite from the concrete jungle.
I love this kind of garden. Sure, you can visit gardens where every single dried blossom is clipped, nary a tulip petal shall hit the ground without being gathered, and the rock walkways are swept or raked every day.
But that kind of garden, while impressive, is not real to me. I don’t have that kind of time or determination, or disposable income to hire a gardener to make it so. I’m going to have scraggly-looking hollyhocks at the end of the summer, but they’ll still provide food and habitat for hummingbirds, so I’m OK with that.
The gardens at Chatfield Farms, designed by Lauren Springer Ogden, seem to illustrate the same priorities I have as a gardener: Plant with the climate and soils in mind, stick to the low-maintenance plants, focus on a variety of well-suited perennial grasses, plants and shrubs, and design with habitat in mind to encourage living things to visit your garden. All in all, I don’t want to force anything to live in my yard that doesn’t thrive naturally, or serve some purpose beyond looking pretty and needing water.
More than 150 different species of plants are thriving in the visitor center garden and the Colorado native plant garden, providing a real-life demonstration garden proving what does well in the semi-arid Rocky Mountain region.
The site of the historic Hildebrand Ranch includes a restored dairy barn dating back to 1918. The ranch is on the National Register of Historic Places and gives visitors an idea of what it was like to make a life on the high plains in the late 1800s, far from the immigrants’ native home in Germany.
There also are some charismatic goats, adorable miniature horses and a grumpy pig named Theodore (with a sign warning visitors not to pet him) living on the farm.
Whatever you do, make sure to keep your eyes open for all the wildlife on the more than two miles of nature trails winding through the property. This garden is full of activity and you’re sure to see lots of birds, insects and other animals enjoying this native garden.