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Branching out: Botanic Gardens at Chatfield getting infusion of new plant life from downtown facility

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By AJ Vicens

Residents near the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield might have noticed some new growth at the site in recent weeks.

And that hasn’t been limited to spring’s usual bounty of fresh green leaves. The additions also include two new greenhouses that soon will house thousands of wild plants from all over the world.

Denver Botanic Gardens plant propagator and greenhouse supervisor Mike Bone and his staff are gearing up to move thousands of delicate flowers and plants nearly 20 miles from the Gardens' downtown greenhouses to the greenhouses at the Chatfield property. The plants must be moved because the downtown Gardens are undergoing millions of dollars in renovations and updates this summer.

The move is not as easy as sticking the plants in a pot and driving them across town.

"You've got to remember that (the Gardens) are really a museum for plants," says Bone, a burly guy with a long red beard and about as many tattoos on his arms as plants he's responsible for. "(The move) is going to stress the plants. We're going to lose big portions of the collections. The point is to minimize that."

Bone and his staff have to move dozens of metal benches and wooden stands that hold the various plants. In some cases, the plants will still be attached to the benches as they're transported in trucks to Chatfield. In other cases, the benches will be stacked in trucks and the plants taken separately.

But the move has to be carefully choreographed, with plants like orchids needing lots of humidity and diffused light, compared with some carnivorous plants that prefer cooler temperatures.

The smallest plants are able to fit in the palm of Bone's hands, while the largest can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and require several people to move.

Even in the antiquated greenhouses at the downtown property, Bone and his staff can create 11 different habitats for nurturing plants from the seedling stage all the way through their adult lives. At Chatfield, the greenhouses will yield only two habitats.

Chatfield's new greenhouses are in the final stages of construction. They're up, but the electrical wiring has to be inspected and approved. The greenhouses offer workers roughly 8,500 square feet of space to work with, which is about a third of what they have at the downtown property.

The move also complicates the process of changing the plant life on display at the downtown property's 52 separate gardens. Prior to the construction project, Bone or another gardener could easily switch plants out when they died or were overrun with pests or disease.

"Now when we want to change out plants, we'll have to drive out to Chatfield," Bone says.

It's not all bad news.

While the public generally is not allowed access to Botanic Gardens greenhouses, occasionally special tours and classes are offered. Opportunities for classes will expand with the addition of the Chatfield greenhouses, Bone said.

Another positive aspect is that although many plant collections will return to the downtown property when construction is finished, some will remain at Chatfield permanently, including plants being grown on a trial basis to assess their compatibility with Colorado's climate.

The Chatfield greenhouses will also be used to develop a nursery similar to the one that sits outside the downtown greenhouses. The nursery is used to grow various small trees and flowers and to test the outdoor compatibility of new plants from around the world. That will be the case at Chatfield, although the setting offers its own challenges.

"There's a lot more wildlife at Chatfield," Bone says. "We'll have to set up different protections to guard against the deer, foxes and rabbits."

As Bone looked around the downtown greenhouse nursery, he realized how tempting all the different plant life will be to the various animals found around the Chatfield property. "This is an all-you-can-eat buffet for rabbits," he says with a laugh. "This is a Vegas-style buffet."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.