Botanical gardens started with dedicated group in the mid-‘80s

The Western Colorado Botanical Gardens today, 611 Struthers Ave. Photo by Teddy Jordan.

The Western Colorado Botanical Gardens has been in the news a lot lately, which brings back memories of the devoted group of folks who got together in 1984–85 and formed the nonprofit group: The Western Colorado Botanical Society.

The vision was to view the natural beauty and wonder of a botanical garden here in Grand Junction so people would no longer have to travel to Denver to do so.

That first meeting — with about 15 people — was held in the then-vacant First National Bank building at Fifth and Main streets in the winter. “It was cold, there was no heat, chairs, tables — but it was free,” recalled Vicki Felmlee of that first meeting. “It was a hearty bunch of folks who showed up, imagining a botanical garden while it was snowing outside!”

Retired Mesa College Dr. Robert and Joann Young (the couple authored the definitive and still-referenced book, “Geology and Wildflowers of Grand Mesa”), the late Ellen Daniels, who worked for the U.S. Government as a botanist, geologist Bruce Pitts and Felmlee began the effort by taking out a classified ad in The Daily Sentinel, inviting anyone who was interested in starting a botanical garden in Mesa County to the meeting.

Initial plans were to grow the garden on a 10-acre parcel that had been donated by Mr. Lou Burkey, a community philanthropist, to the city of Grand Junction for exclusive use as a park. This parcel was located near B and 28 ½ roads, with U.S. Highway 50 access and — important in the desert — irrigation water shares. Felmlee was aware of the property, which was unused and fallow, since she lived adjacent to it and had spoken to Mr. Burkey from time to time about his concerns regarding the property he had donated some 10 years earlier. Felmlee said he was very enthusiastic about the botanical garden idea.

During the next year, the society incorporated as a tax-free nonprofit with the Internet Revenue Service. The city gave the newly formed society a 99-year lease to the Burkey property, contingent on successful fundraising. Society members, by then numbering about 100, planned a garden tour and gave dozens of talks and speeches to local groups and other nonprofit organizations. “All of this, mind you, was done pre-Internet and pre-computers,” Felmlee said. “Lots of trips back and forth to the local copy shop!”

A new and burgeoning landscape design firm owned by Ted Ciavonne stepped up to the plate and gave the society, free of charge, an initial plan and drawings of what the garden might look like. Initial ideas included demonstration gardens, native plant gardens, rose and iris gardens, and educational areas showing, for example, how composting and natural pest control can work. There were plans for a greenhouse, but because of the cost of construction and maintenance, that became part of a long-term strategy. Native plant societies and plant-specific businesses were contacted and pledges were made to help with materials — even the Denver Botanical Garden was enthusiastic and sent the group several books and documents. Grants were written and in 1986 a Scottish Foundation responded with $20,000.

By the late 1980s, the Grand Junction Riverfront Commission had become very successful in efforts to restore and make accessible for recreation the properties along the Colorado River as it flows through the area. Decisions were made to abandon plans for the Burkey property and build a greenhouse at the south end of Seventh Street where the street dead-ended.

This year the Botanical Gardens Garden tour will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 11 and 12. Tickets will be available at all City Market stores, Meadow Lark Gardens on the Redlands and the Botanical Gardens. This event is a fundraiser for the gardens, which needs financial support for annual repairs. This year, the roof needs to be replaced on the greenhouse.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the Botanical Gardens, call 245-9030, or go down and visit the gardens 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. While you are at the gardens, be sure and stroll through the Western Heritage Gardens area that has recently opened.

Today, some of those early visions of the society’s founders can be seen and enjoyed through the efforts of Curtis Swift and the Tri-River Extension Office, with raised planting beds, demonstration areas and beautiful landscaping around their offices in the western part of the Mesa County Fairgrounds.

Felmlee said that, “The Western Colorado Botanical Society was truly a homegrown group, which started with a few people simply asking, “What if…’ “

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Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel. She is involved in many local preservation efforts and is on the board of directors for Colorado Preservation Inc.

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