An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

August 4, 2009

Walking (and Biking) Denver

After three days in the car and two nights in so/so hotels, I can't tell you how good it was to reach familiar friends and enjoy the comforts of their home. The car was parked and thanked for a safe delivery and not used again until departure day. From here on we would enjoy walking, biking and being chauffeured by our gracious and intrepid hosts, the Sherpa Girls. Their home is in Platt Park, an older suburb south of downtown Denver. The neighborhood borrows its name from its park in the center. Most of the houses appear to have been built in the 1910's or 20's, but there are others from later times, including more than a few recently constructed McMansions built on the site of tear downs. There are several lively blocks of stores, restaurants, coffee parlors and services all within easy walking distance.

Before we begin our walk, the plant geek in me is compelled to say something about gardening in Denver. The city is often pictured with the Rocky Mountains in the background, and yes you can see them easily from the city. However, Denver actually sits on the Great Plains and at a very high altitude. The city falls into USDA zone 5 and is considered semi-arid. The cold winter weather and lack of abundant water make gardening a challenge, but this is the birthplace of xeriscaping and there are many avid gardeners in this unexpectedly green city.

One of the best trends I saw in the neighborhood is the abandonment of water intensive lawns in favor of street-to-stoop gardens full of water-wise plants.

The most numerous urban tree species appears to be the Plains Cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. monilifera). These trees were growing all around the neighborhood and throughout Denver and are the dominant deciduous tree. They are much more common than Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens), the state tree. I really liked the the bark on these tall trees, it is deeply furrowed and very coarse - I could not stop touching them. Unfortunately they are weak-wooded, have a lot of other things that can go wrong with them and therefore do not live terribly long. At least one person came up with a creative use for their dead Cottonwood.

The next neighborhood over surrounds Washington Park which is one of the largest parks in Denver. This park has stuck fairly close to its original design and remains very poplar and well used. There are two lakes, lots of sporting opportunities and many biking, jogging and walking paths. Just before our trip I read that Colorado is the most fit (or least unfit) state in the nation with only 18% of its population being overweight. The evidence of this status was quite apparent from all the activity in the park. The other thing Washington Park is noted for are its formal Victorian gardens, which are lovingly maintained and heavily irrigated. Apparently it is OK to keep the city's beds well-watered.

Denver has several hundred miles of bike trails and they are used both for recreation and transportation. Near the Sherpa Girls house is a trail that follows the South Platte River. North on the trail will take you downtown, and south will take you into the far suburbs. We only went as far as Hudson Gardens and its trail-side cafe. The gardens themselves were nice with a large railroad garden, water gardens, native gardens and others. Hudson Gardens seemed particularly designed to hosting concerts and other special events, check out the view from from the "event tent" in the third picture. The red bike with the small wheels in the second picture is a recumbent bike, which although takes some getting used to, is very kind to middle aged bodies.

If you prefer more modern forms of transportation, Denver has a light rail network, and I really liked the foliage behind this station's entrance.

Next post: Downtown Denver


  1. What a cool blog you have, Les! I just discovered it via May Dreams' blog. I'm glad you enjoyed Denver on your recent visit - I'm in one of those far suburbs, almost but not quite as far south as Hudson Gardens. You're right that it seems to have been made as an events center, but that sort of evolved over the years (the Denver Botanic Gardens does that too) but it really did start out as a great living example of a garden filled with plants that can grow and thrive in our climate, unlike many of the plants at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

    Yes, we are unexpectedly green this year - 4 inches of rain in June and an unexpectedly wet July did that for us. It's great not to see everything browning out by August, which is what usually happens here. We've been water rationing for so many years that we don't know the difference nowadays.

    You got some great shots of the city and thanks for sharing your fun trip - such a far cry from the Virginia tidewater!

  2. Nice tour of Denver. Tis a place I have not been. I like seeing new places and how different plant material is in the new location. Love the house with the large front porch, reminds me of my grandparents' house. That one bed of only Cleome really caught my eye. Nice plant grouping.
    Sounds like a great vacation.

  3. Lost Roses,
    I really appreciate your comments. When we visited the Sherpa Girls in '04 they had also had a lot of rain that summer. The years in between have apparently been dry. My wife and I are taking donations to visit again next year if you find yourselves in an unusually dry summer and need some rain, we will bring it with us. Stay tuned as I will be posting about the Denver Botanic Gardens in 2 posts.

    The neighborhood we stayed in was really garden intensive. What amazed me was that the people who face such obstacles to gardening were precisely the ones who took the challenge on. I only wish that people who live around here would take such an interest.


  4. Thanks for the nice tour of Denver, Les. I've been there many times over the years, and you really showed how the population has worked within their means to produce beautiful gardens. It's interesting that Washington Park hasn't followed their lead a bit. Xeriscape can be beautiful too. Now, let me point out that my garden is irrigated (although not heavily). We get more rain in my north central part of Oklahoma than in Denver.~~Dee

  5. Dee,
    I try to tell people that xeric gardens are not all cacti and yucca. It is just about managing your resources. Thanks for stopping by.


  6. Hi Les, Nice tour of Denver! My sister lives there, but I seem to get there only in winter (not bad, either). You showed us a wide variety! Happy to see xeric yards. A visit to the DBG is high on my wish list. They contribute much to the North American Rock Garden Society's yearly seed exchange, sharing the xeric wealth. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Lynn,
    There were many things to admire in Denver, including all the cool xeric landscapes. One aspect about this how so many businesses also embraced this type of landscaping. It was good to see.


  8. Les,
    I just looked at most of your Colorado pics, superbly done! I think you may have seen more of Denver than I ever have!
    My current profile pic was taken at Washington Park in Denver! How funny!
    Thanks for inviting me to browse these photos, it was worth it!
    I am wondering if you would mind me mentioning your blog in one of my posts? I have a post coming up about Colorado and your Estes Park pictures post and trip would be lovely to link to, Let me know in a comment if you are okay with this!
    P.s. I cannot fathom a neighbor stealing plants. What a rotten thing to do. Thanks for stopping by my blog.