Rock gardening has a long history in Europe and North America and an even longer history in Eastern Asia. While the western world’s version of rock gardening differs in style from the Asian version they are both a celebration of nature’s rugged beauty.
(Photographs have been provided by staffs of the individual gardens.)
Rock gardening first started in the U.S. in the population centers of the northern states. New England was one such epicenter. It is where the American Rock Garden Society was founded in 1934 and is also home to the oldest continuously maintained public rock garden in the U.S. at Smith College in Amherst, Massachusetts. The Pacific Northwest was another early nucleus for rock gardening. However, except for a few pioneers such as Claude Barr and Paul Maslin in the central part
of the country, rock gardening would have to wait until the late 1970s and early 1980s to really take off in the Rocky Mountain region. A boom in population, a drought in the 1970s, and the construction of the Rock Alpine Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) created an interest
in following a gardening style that reflected the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
In 1980, when it was constructed, the Rock Alpine Garden at DBG was the largest rock garden between New York and the Pacific coast. It set a pattern that would be followed in the mid-1980s by the ambitious Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail, which includes the largest collection of alpine and rock garden plants in the western U.S., if not North America. Steamboat Springs followed suit in the mid-1990s with a large rock garden garden at the Yampa River Botanic Park and has added 3 additional rock gardens including a large and beautiful crevice garden. After this, various other public gardens across the state built rock gardens. The relatively new Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, built in 2009, is the largest rock garden constructed in Colorado since the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Soon after, in 2010, Denver Botanic Gardens built a large alpine green roof with 3 crevice gardens within the new children’s garden. And 2014 saw the largest crevice garden yet constructed in the region at the APEX center in Arvada. This provided a spectacular culmination to almost 35 years of constructing public rock gardens in the nation’s highest state. Various rock gardens throughout the state allow homeowners and visitors alike to gain both an appreciation of the rich native saxatile flora of the Rockies and the wider world, along with various gardening ideas showcased in these gardens.
1. Denver Botanic Gardens 1007 York St., Denver, CO 80206
The Rock Alpine Garden at DBG was designed in 1978 by Herb Schaal of EDAW Inc. and planted in 1980, making it the oldest public rock garden in the Intermountain West. It won several awards for design and was the most ambitious rock garden in the western U.S. in the early 1980s, until the Betty Ford Alpine Garden was built. Panayoti Kelaidis designed the plantings, was curator for many years, and created a world-renowned collection. The garden contains around 2,300 species, with a focus on alpines from continental mountain ranges and steppe ecosystems around the world, and has plants from every continent except Antarctica. It also holds the majority of DBG’s North American Plant Collection Consortium (NAPCC) “Alpines of the World” collection. The structure of the garden is built on 5 distinct rock types, including limestone, sandstone, granite, tufa, and pumice, with one waterfall. Check out the north side of the Cactus and Succulent House in late March and early April, and the various crevice gardens in April through June. There is now a large alpine green roof with 3 crevice gardens in the new Children’s Garden. Built in 2010, this showcases the ecosystems of Colorado and their connection to semiarid continental climates worldwide. With the help of seasonal gardeners and volunteers, the Rock Alpine Garden is overseen and maintained by Mike Kintgen, and the Children’s Garden is managed by Julie Casault.
Size: Rock Garden approximately 1 acre.
Date built 1980–1981; Children’s Garden Crevice Gardens, 2010. Elevation: 5300 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: Yes
Phone: (720) 865-3501
2 Betty Ford Alpine Gardens –Alpine Rock Garden 530 S. Frontage Rd, Vail, CO 81657
At 8200 feet the Betty Ford Alpine Garden is the highest public botanic garden in North America, and perhaps the world. Construction of the large Alpine Rock Garden began in 1998 and the garden was dedicated in 2000. Marty Jones of Colorado Alpines in Edwards, CO, designed it and 1200 tons of rock were brought in to build the garden, including large granite and sandstone boulders from Colorado. Approximately 3000 alpine and native plants are found in the various areas that emphasize diverse ecosystems, including the Rocky Mountain Alpine Garden, Bog Garden, Saxifrage Garden, Dry Montane Garden, International Alpine Crevice Garden, Mountain Conifer Borders, Alpine Pools, and Aspen Grove. Throughout the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens there are four water features, including 3 waterfalls with ponds and streams, the largest waterfall cascading down through the center of the Alpine Rock Garden. The Alpine Rock Garden is the most dramatic of the gardens at Betty Ford, with the International Crevice Garden having the best concentration of alpine and rock garden plants. The Alpine Rock Garden holds the National Colorado Alpine Collection through the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC), as well as nationally significant collections of gentians and penstemons. The garden is overseen by Nicola Ripley, Executive Director, and Nick Courtens, Senior Horticulturist.
Size: Approximately 1 acre
Date Built: 1998-1999
Elevation: 8200 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: Mondays and Thursdays 9 am-12 pm.
Phone: (970) 476-0103
3 The Gardens at Spring Creek – The Rock Garden 2145 Centre Ave., Fort Collins, CO 80526
The Rock Garden was part of the original design of The Gardens on Spring Creek, which was done by Kirk Fieseler and Maddy Weis, and Kirk has also made many plant donations to the garden every year from his nursery in Fort Collins. The focus of The Rock Garden is on alpine and adapted plants. Originally the intent was to focus primarily on native plants, but it has since evolved to accommodate plants from many of the world’s alpine regions. Work is currently ongoing to database all of the plants, but there are an estimated 200-300 different species. One berm focuses on more xeric plants. Another has a permanent spot for a sculpture or other piece of artwork as part of the Articulture Event where artists showcase a piece of their work for one year. All the rock was donated from a local company called The Rock Garden and includes Cherokee Sandstone mined from a local quarry and Cut Colorado Buff flagstone. The most interesting time to visit is in spring when the garden shows its best color of the year. Dillon Hancock is the horticulturist on staff in charge of the garden with a group of volunteers that helps during the growing months.
Size: Approximately 1/2 acre
Date Built: 2009-2011
Elevation: 4980 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: Yes
Phone: (970) 416-2486
4 Colorado Springs Utilities Demonstration Garden 2855 Mesa Road, Colorado Springs, CO 80904
The Colorado Springs Utilities Demonstration Garden, with an overall extent of 1.7 acres, includes 3 small rock gardens of about 1000 sq. ft. each with about 10 tons of rock in each. The Crevice Rock Garden, emulating the Garden of the Gods visible beyond it, was designed by Scott Winter and built in 2004 primarily of Lyons sandstone that was salvaged from the demolition of a mortared retaining wall. It has the most species diversity of the rock gardens, with about 100-150 species and incorporates more alpine plants, dwarf conifers, Plant Select® plants, and other crevice-loving species than the other gardens. The Granite Rock Garden, also built in 2004, is more xeric and incorporates around 50 species of somewhat larger species of such as Penstemon, Yucca, Hesperaloe, Opuntia, Arctostaphylos, and Echium. A third garden, the Dwarf Conifer Rock Garden was built in 2011 of lichen-covered granite and has fewer than 50 species, but includes many dwarf conifers, native grasses, Eriogonum and Penstemon. This garden was designed jointly by Scott Winter (rock placement) and Catherine Moravec (plantings). The Demonstration Garden is managed by Ann Seymour, with Catherine Moravec responsible for day-to-day operations along with 2-3 staff members and a volunteer corps of up to 50 people.
Size: Approximately 3000 sq. ft. among 3 rock gardens Date Built: 2004 and 2011
Elevation: 6440 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: Yes
Website: <www.csu.org/pages/demonstration-garden.aspx> Phone: (719) 668-8232
5 Durango Library Demonstration Garden 1900 East 3rd Avenue, Durango, CO 81301
The Library Demonstration Garden began as the premier project for
the Durango Botanical Society (DBS) that was formed in 2010. They immediately started searching for a garden project and with the City of Durango determined that the very visible but underused hillside behind the Durango Public Library, bordered by the Animas River Trail, would be an ideal spot. The garden now includes an ever-growing population of plants, divided into themes to demonstrate the various ecosystems of Colorado, as well as Xeric Annuals and South African Gems sections. The Garden, built mostly with river boulders, also includes other types of rock, from granite to sandstone, and highlights historical hand- carved stones with original mason marks. The different types of rock were placed in groupings to help define the different environments demonstrated. There are two dry stream bed drainages that function with natural precipitation, with plans for a stone bridge to be installed in 2015 over one streambed and a dry fall to be added to the second. The garden is managed by a committee which, with horticultural director Lisa Bourey who designed the garden, oversees a large group of volunteers with the assistance of DBS-trained docents. There are no paid staff at this time.
Size: 280 ft. x 60 ft.
Date Built: 2011 (some ongoing projects)
Elevation: 6510 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: Yes
Website: <www.durangobotanicalsociety.com/event-699887 > Phone: (970) 749-5642 (Durango Botanical Society)
6 Xeric Garden at the Mesa County Fairgrounds 2775 Highway 50, Grand Junction, CO 81503
This garden focuses on cacti and other cold-hardy xeric plants. It was designed by Don Campbell and built by the Chinle Cactus & Succulent Society at the invitation of the CSU Tri-River Extension agent, and is main- tained by these two organizations. Over 300 different species, varieties, cultivars, and hybrids of succulent, xeric, and non-succulent plants have been tried in the garden. Because the underlying soils in most of the Grand Valley are quite alkaline, building a suitable soil for the garden required layering a heavy-duty weed barrier fabric, then a 4-inch layer of 3⁄4-inch washed gravel, another layer of weed barrier, and then topped with many cubic yards of sandy clay loam soil mixed with wood chips. This provided a more suitable soil for the garden, while eliminating or minimizing the migration of salts from the native soil up into the overlaying planting bed. The rock structure consists primarily of about 25 tons of native sandstone from the local area and 5-6 tons of basaltic boulders from the slopes of the Grand Mesa. It is one of many different demonstration gardens associated with and surrounding the CSU Extension Office at the Mesa County Fairgrounds.
Size: 3,500 square feet
Date Built: 2000
Elevation: 4,800 feet
Volunteer opportunities: Yes, through the Chinle Cactus and Succulent Club, that has regularly scheduled gardening days throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
Phone: (970) 244-1834 (CSU Tri-River Cooperative Extension)
7 Xeric Garden at the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens 641 Struthers Avenue, Grand Junction, CO 81501
The Xeric Garden within the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens was designed by Don Campbell, founder of the Chinle Cactus & Succulent Club and built by club members. Over 200 different species, varieties, cultivars, and hybrids of cacti and other cold-hardy succulent plants have been planted. The garden was built with approximately 20 tons of native sandstone (mostly lichen-covered flagstone), 6-8 tons of large irregular sandstone rocks, and 8-10 tons of basaltic rocks and large boulders. Because of the alkaline soils in the area, providing a suitable soil for the garden required layering weed barrier fabric and washed gravel underneath a sandy clay loam to prevent migration of salts up into the planting bed. The master design for the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens incorporated a “representation” of the geology and vegetation of this part of western Colorado, therefore the area immediately surrounding the Cactus and Succulent Garden includes a representation of the Colorado National Monument, the Grand Mesa and the Colorado River as it flows toward Lake Powell.
Size: 2,500 sq. ft.
Date Built: 2002
Elevation: 4,700 feet
Volunteer opportunities: Yes. Chinle Cactus and Succulent Club has regularly scheduled gardening days through spring, summer, and fall.
Phone: (970) 245-3288
8 Rock Garden in the Montrose Botanic Gardens 1800 Pavilion Drive, Montrose, CO 81401
The Montrose Botanic Gardens features a xeriscape demonstration garden as well as traditional garden plantings. It is run by the non-profit Montrose Botanical Society Board and is maintained primarily with volunteers who donate close to 2000 hours a year. The xeriscape rock garden berm was designed by Marty Jones of Colorado Alpines and includes about 70 different types of perennials and 6 types of trees. It has also incorporated 18 Plant Select® plants and won the Plant Select® Golden Shovel Award in 2012, which acknowledges a demonstration garden partner exhibiting superior design and use of Plant Select® plants while providing excellent educational opportunities to visitors. The garden is built with 200 tons of local Shavano sandstone including 80 large boulders that provide a variety of different micro-pockets and biomes sustaining a diverse palette of plants. Most popular is a 40-foot- long waterway carved into the berm to simulate a high desert dry wash. Controlled by a timer, the water feature comes on at lunchtime and in the evening. A stone bench with a beautiful arched shade canopy is located across from the waterway feature. A small crevice garden is planned for the north end of the rock garden in 2015.
Size: Xeric garden is 20,000 sq. ft., with a 7000 sq. ft. rock garden berm Date Built: 2004-2005
Elevation: 5800 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: Yes, on Wednesdays, March through October.
9 The Gardens at Kendrick Lake
9351 W. Jewell Ave., Lakewood, CO 80232
The site for the Gardens at Kendrick Lake was acquired by the City of Lakewood in 2001. It was originally an old xeriscape garden from the 1980s. Designed and built by Greg Foreman, the purpose and intent of the gardens is to educate the public about plants that can thrive in the extremes of the Colorado climate. Only plants meeting this criterion are trialed and used at the garden. The first 3 beds were developed in 2002, and flourished despite the severe watering restrictions during the drought of 2002-2003. In 2005, six more beds were built using moss rock, granite, and brown river rock, with five of them typifying the 5 Colorado biomes, including Great Plains, Steppe (Foothills), Montane, Alpine, and Great Basin. The final bed combined plants from all the biomes. Plants used are native to North America or similar biomes around the world. A flat planting bed using plants from short grass prairie was added in 2008. The number of species varies as new ones are trialed and others removed, but at one point there were over 400 species. In 2009 The Gardens at Kendrick Lake won the Plant Select® Golden Shovel Award and are maintained by Todd Bailey, assistant Keely Foster, and 6 seasonal gardeners.
Size: Approx. 1 acre
Date Built: Phased development of beds in 2002, 2005, 2008 Elevation: 5700 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: No
Phone: (303) 987-7800
10 Yampa River Botanic Park
1000 Pamela Lane, Steamboat Springs, CO 80487
The Yampa River Botanic Park is on land donated by Bob and Audrey Enever to the City of Steamboat Springs, and they were instrumental in its construction, design, and planting. It includes four different rock gardens. The Member’s Rock Garden was the first, planted in 1997 when the Park opened to the public. It is very large with big rocks and massive plantings. Another, more intimate, is Sascha’s Rock Garden located next to the Yampa River Core Trail with trails that allow viewing of many small alpine plants. Another small rock garden at the top of the Water Wise Garden is set among volcanic stone from the Flat Tops Mountains. It includes plants from Argentina’s steppe region, Plant Select® plants, and native plants. The Crevice Garden is about 1200 sq. feet, south-facing, and on a steep slope, with 10 tons of Sabille Moss Veneer rock placed vertically to replicate vertical strata. It was constructed in 2013 with help from a grant from the Colorado Garden Show; planting continued through 2014. A two-switchback trail enables visitors to view plants close-up. At this time the garden is about half planted and contains over 500 plants, generally grouped by genus. No public funds are directed to the Park which is 100% directed and funded by an independent volunteer board of directors who oversee operations and raise funds through donations, sponsorships, memberships, and grants. The gardens are maintained by Gayle Lehman and her staff of 9.
Size: 7800 sq. ft. over 4 rock gardens
Date Built: Phased development starting 1997, continuing today. Elevation: 6800 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: Yes, on Wednesday mornings
Phone: (970) 846-5172
11 Apex Crevice Garden
11706 West 82nd Avenue, Arvada, CO 80005
Wanting to create a unique destination garden at the site of a new recreational park, Arvada Parks and Recreation District decided to build a crevice garden. It was designed and built by Kenton Seth, with help from Paul Spriggs, a student of the current Czech master of crevice gardening, Zdenek Zvolanek. Built with 60 tons of Dakota sandstone from southern Colorado, 14 tons of sand, and another 20 tons of other gravels and materials, it is one of the largest crevice gardens in the world, if not the largest. Envisioned as the first public xeric crevice garden in the traditional Czech style, it contains an estimated 200 species of xeric plants that can live with fortnightly or less watering. It is almost exclusively focused on buns and cushions to introduce the public to this form of vegetation, amongst some dramatic accent plants and manzanitas. The five separate beds provided an opportunity to try different soil mixes; the bottom layer is always the native clay and the top is always a dressing of gravels, but the middle layers vary, including pure sand, sand and expanded shale over loam, sand and gravel, sand and compost, and sand over a little compost. Arvada Parks and Recreation District owns and administers the site, but the Rocky Mountain Chapter of NARGS is considering adopting the garden to maintain and use for outreach.
Size: Approximately 1000 sq. ft. Date Built: 2014-2015 Elevation: 5654 ft.
Volunteer opportunities: yes Website: n/a
Phone: (303) 467-7120