Swathes of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) at a downtown Denver park. Ornamental grasses really work in Denver’s dry, windy winter climate.

I recently returned from a trip to Denver to spend time with family. And while the main reason for my trip was family-related, it soon became a joint horticultural mission (as my travels inevitably do). So my first phone call on arrival was to Panayoti Kelaidis, Senior Curator and Outreach Director of the Denver Botanical Garden. And what started as a modest garden tour soon morphed into a fantastic plunge into a small but very interesting corner of the world of Denver horticulture. Panayoti – the ultimate tour guide and emissary for Denver-area gardening – brought me to several nearby public and private gardens, offering a glimpse into the adventurous gardening spirit that’s driven the city’s gardening culture to admirable heights over the past century.

We talked about Denver’s good fortune to be rich in parks, thanks not only to the support of Denver residents but also to early 20th century Denver Mayor Richard Speer, under whose guidance the city developed green belts as part of the City Beautiful movement. Saco DeBoer was also influential as official landscape architect and civic planner for the City of Denver from 1910 to 1931. He, and later his Dutch design partner, helped articulate and practice a new philosophical and design aesthetic for gardens of the Intermountain West and is partially credited with the creation of the Denver Botanical Garden.

Highlights of our day’s adventures included the garden of Kelaidis’s friend Sandy Snyder, long-time plant collector whose hillside garden was smothered with cold-hardy and regionally appropriate (including native) shrubs, succulents and perennials. We also visited the Denver Botanical Garden’s Chatfield location – a beautiful site (formerly a working farm) which should see considerable garden expansion over the next decade or more. Meantime, it houses modest gardens and lots of greenhouses and fields of interesting plants. We then visited the Gardens at Kendrick Lake, an extraordinary display garden largely conceived and designed by Denver Parks Greg Foreman, featuring drought-tolerant plantings of species bulbs (especially tulips, iris and Eremurus), as well as succulents galore and all variety of native perennials and shrubs.

Seeing all these drought tolerant gardens, one can’t help but wonder how water restrictions are affecting – and determining – gardeners’ design ideas in Denver. According to Kelaidis, when faced with a dilemma like this, you need to take a deep breath and reorient. “We should design for low water use from the start, growing plants from areas with long periods of drought. People often want to grow plants that remind them of home, and a lot of people have moved here in recent years. There’s a different look and feel to the gardens that thrive here: our best gardens rely on texture and form instead of a lush, verdant look. Instead, we must cultivate a taste for fine textures, contrast and silvery tones" (since small, silvery and hairy leaves provide protection against the sun and drought).

After a week in Denver – and with two visits to the Denver Botanical Gardens (images to be shown another time), I was feeling mighty inspired by all the beautiful public spaces, including a wealth of small, very usable parks with seating areas and marvelous swathes of cactus and succulent gardens in the meridian between lanes of traffic. It should be noted that well-heeled residents of Denver have been incredibly supportive of the city’s parks and gardens – this should not be underestimated!