Fort Collins’ Botanical Gem: The Gardens on Spring Creek
Most people in the garden-centric city of Fort Collins know about the Gardens on Spring Creek (GOSC). It got its name in 2000, three years after 71% of voters there approved a ballot measure to provide initial funding ($2 million) for a community horticulture program and non profit community horticulture center. Yet I’m continually surprised to discover that many of the avid gardeners I know outside of Fort Collins have never had the pleasure of visiting this splendid botanical garden. Many diverse gardens have been added over the years and three outstanding new ones opened in the last 4-5 years. These have matured and filled in, and they await your delight. But first here's a quick overview of the other established gardens.
After acquiring the land, extensive grading of the 18-acre site, plus rerouting the irrigation ditch to connect it to Spring Creek, The Children’s Garden was the first to open to the public in 2006. It includes a rock garden, secret gardens and willow huts, a pond with fish and bridge, a giant watering can with active splash waterway (especially magical lit up with holiday lights), a greenroof shelter, animal footprints path, miniature train garden, vegetable and flower beds.
Sally Guthart designed The Garden of Eatin’ which opened in 2009 as interest in home vegetable gardening was surging. This ¾-acre “Living Classroom” produces organic produce for culinary classes in the Gardens’ Outdoor Teaching Kitchen and for donations to the Food Bank for Larimer County – 2,500 lbs of produce in the first year alone. There are extensive in-ground and raised beds, a fruit tree orchard, herb garden, small fruits like honeyberry, blackberry, grape, and a Pollinator Garden with a mix of shrubs and perennials.
The large naturalistic Rock Garden, designed by Kirk Feisler & Maddy Weisz, contains beautiful dwarf conifers – Feisler’s specialty, locally quarried rock, lots of unusual bulbs, and Colorado native and adapted plants. Panayoti Kelaidis calls it “a ‘perfect storm’ of a garden: blessed with visionary design and a great site, it has been lovingly maintained and filled with the best plants imaginable.”
Sherry Fuller has been foundational for horticulture at GoSC. With more than 50 years of experience spanning multiple public gardens and a retail nursery of her own, she became a talented propagator with keen plant sense. Before retiring, she grew the perennial division of the Gardens’ plant sale from a few hundred plants to more than 10,000 with a particular ability to produce challenging native and xeric material. “This made our expansion, especially the highly specialized Undaunted, Prairie, and Foothills Gardens, possible,” says Bryan Fischer, curator of plant collections and horticulturist at GOSC. “She endured hundreds of my questions with dry humor and ultimately was my inspiration for pursuing full time work in public horticulture.”
In 2013 the eco-conscious Sustainable Backyard opened. Showcasing drip irrigation, re-purposed materials, permeable pavers, alternative turf demonstration, plus xeric perennials and shrubs, and grasses, it was designed by Sally Guthart and Anne Clark, and installed in one day with generous help from Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado.
There is excellent documentation of the history of GOSC on their website (fcgov.com/gardens), plus a video on the expansion/transformation there from 2017-2019. What was accomplished in that short time frame is breathtaking. Michelle Provaznik, who became Director in 2008, is credited with doggedly pursuing the dream and securing the funding to make it possible, despite the recession. She moved on last fall to become CEO of the American Public Gardens Association. Of course it’s never just one person who manages to manifest a project of this scale. There are so many others who contribute along the way, from Jim Clark who had the vision at the very beginning, to all the garden designers and garden-loving volunteers who pulled weeds, staffed plant sales, raised funds, not to mention braving hailstorms, baking hot drought years, and this recent never-ending winter.
In addition to the new Visitors Center and Amphitheater, you will also find nine more gardens. Five Theme Gardens opened in 2018: Plant Select, Fragrance Garden, Moon Garden, Rose Garden, Hummingbird & Butterfly Garden. The impressive Butterfly House, built and operated in partnership with the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, opened in 2019. (Entrance is included in admission.) The large, colorful Welcome Garden opened in 2020 and it includes the favorite plant of each staff member among its more than 200 species of perennials, shrubs, bulbs, and trees.
The gardens I’d like to show you here are the Foothils, Prairie, and Undaunted Gardens. They’re big! There is a wealth of well written and organized information on the Gardens’ website and in various blogs, but I will summarize.
Sherry Fuller designed the one-acre Foothills Garden (with help from Bryan Fischer) to embody the rocks, plants and topography of our Front Range foothills. It contains over 300 species and cultivars of Colorado and Rocky Mt native trees, shrubs, and other foothills plants, including mountain mahogany, scarlet gilia, wholeleaf paintbrush – one of the most drought tolerant in the genus with large red bracts, yarrows, blue skullcap, gallardias, and artemesias to name a few. Suited to our semi-arid region, they need no soil amendments and little water. In 2022, after instigating and overseeing some needed refreshes in the Children’s Garden, Jacob Mares stepped in and ironed out some major challenges with weeds and gravel mulch.
The half-acre Prairie Garden includes only North American native grassland plants in a “matrix style” meadow, including a short grass/streppe section, a mixed grass and tall grass prairie, plus dry stream plantings. It comes into its full glory in late summer, but has a long season of interest providing food and shelter for lots of pollinators and other wildlife. Designed by Bryan Fischer for naturalistic “color-coordinated bloom and gentle but widespread movement”, the Prairie Garden also trials underused and unique natives that haven’t been tested much in gardens. Bryan says that GOSC strives to provide "a regionally appropriate mix of plant material and design styles”, especially in these three newer gardens.
The Undaunted Garden, designed, and largely installed and maintained, by Lauren Springer is an visual feast. As you’d expect if you’ve read The Undaunted Garden, it is filled with a huge variety of beautiful and interesting but tough plants, many of which may be new to you, including the largest collection of cold-hardy cacti in the U.S. Sited almost entirely in full sun, the textures, colors, and composition are stunning. The plants blend so well that it all looks completely natural even though you won’t find these combinations in nature. Lauren has introduced many valuable Colorado-adapted ornamental plants and knows more about growing Western natives in gardens than just about anybody.
The website description says that the idea behind Undaunted is “to trial and increase the diversity of ornamental plants that offer wildlife and pollinator benefits, and that thrive with low water input and in our challenging Northern Colorado climate and soils.” With her substantial international renown, Lauren has designed many exceptional gardens for private clients, but she is committed to public gardens. “Why should private individuals be the only ones with access to really cool plants?” she asks.
The Gardens on Spring Creek has much to offer all season long. Every time you go it will look different and you’ll notice something new. The plants and rock work are outstanding throughout. The Gardens’ are all about diversity and a sense of place so when you visit, be sure to allow enough time to relax and soak it all in.