More than just a garden: Betty Ford Alpine Gardens continues commitment to research, education, nature during COVID-19

In a summer that, at times, can feel like a far cry from years past, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is a Vail staple that’s hoping to provide some stability and peace to visitors.

Located by the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, the gardens have been sharing alpine plant life from across the globe for more than three decades.

Above all else, the gardens aim to educate everyone who passes through. Executive Director Nicola Ripley said she hopes every visitor – from first-timers to members to serious plant lovers devouring research updates – can understand the gardens’ mission to conserve, protect and share the plant life that makes alpine ecosystems special.

“This is more than just a garden. This is an organization that is using its expertise for the good of the world,” said Executive Director Nicola Ripley.

The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, open for more than three decades, hopes visitors to the gardens this summer appreciate the nuances that make alpine plant life special.
Todd Winslow Pierce | Special to the Daily

Currently, the museum’s education center is showing Alpines: Conquerors of the Cold, an exhibition that uses work from renowned Colorado landscape photographer John Fielder.

Support Local Journalism

“The idea was to show people who’ve never been to the alpine some of the real important pieces of the ecosystem,” said Education Director Nanette Kuich said.

That theme continues out into the gardens as well. Starting at the gate by the gift shop and The Amp’s entrance, visitors walk through different worlds within the broader category of alpine ecosystems. Planted last year, the Silk Road garden follows the plants that thrived on the trade route, stretching from China through the Asian continent and into East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Southern Europe. The entire gardens serves as a journey through alpine ecosystems of the world, ending with an exploration of the Rocky Mountains.

New this year in the gardens is a Caucasus Mountains rock garden, showcasing plants from the mountain region on the border of Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Curator Nick Courtens is one of many who consider this area to be a bridge between the East and the West, and the plant life found there reflects that theme.

“It’s not as often or well-known that these mountains hold so many different species of plants. A lot of garden plants that people plant in their gardens today come from the Caucasuses and not many people know that. We wanted to expose to the public that this is an important area of the world,” Courtens said.

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens intern Alyssa Stevens helps plant specimens in the new Caucasus Rock Garden.
Special to the Daily

The garden surrounding the Centerpiece Pond was also replanted this year; Ripley said both of these new plantings will flesh out next year, after they’ve had more time to mature.

These plants are no ordinary plants, though. The gardens are home to more than 100 rare and endangered species.

“It’s not just a bunch of flowers out there. There are some plants out there that are not going in any other gardens in the world,” Ripley said. “There’s a lot more to it than what meets the eye.”

To help visitors get a fuller picture, the garden hosts drop-in one-hour guided tours leaving from the Education Center every Monday, Thursday and Saturday at 10:30 a.m. through Sept. 7. Signage in the gardens also offers options for self-guided education.

And next year, gardens patrons can take the educational experience home with them. The gardens is releasing a coffee table book with photos, plant descriptions and gardens history with the producers of the high-quality “Living Beneath the Colorado Peaks: The Story of the Knapp Ranch.” Both books use the same photographer, Todd Winslow Pierce. A selection of his work accompanies this article. The Betty Ford book will be out in 2021.

The gardens serve as a geological map through alpine regions around the globe, of course paying homage to our own Rocky Mountains.
Todd Winslow Pierce | Special to the Daily

The garden also uses its platform to connect with the community. Its sold-out Chefs in the Garden series partners with chefs at local restaurants and shares gourmet recipes with audiences in The Amp. Chefs in the Garden is continuing this summer and is following public health guidelines including reduced ticket sales and gathering sizes, as well as social distancing and increased sanitization.

Kids and families can participate in scavenger hunts, play in the Children’s Garden and learn about where their food comes from in Betty’s Market by the gift shop. The garden is also offering virtual programming as well.

Beyond exhibits and events, the garden is dedicated to researching ways to conserve and protect alpine landscapes. Ripley and Kuich have authored several reports on the topic, most recently the 2020 North American Botanic Garden Strategy for Alpine Plant Conservation, which also includes experts from the Denver Botanic Gardens.

In the report, the authors outline four objectives:

  • Understand and document alpine plant diversity.
  • Conserve alpine plants and their habitats.
  • Promote awareness of the alpine ecosystem and plant diversity through education and outreach.
  • Build capacity for the conservation of alpine plant species and associated habitats.

But prior to 2020, spending significant amounts of time and resources on research was a bit of a challenge at times for the gardens. On top of day-to-day duties, it was hard to find time to address all those important topics, and getting research done typically meant taking the day off.

Thanks to a generous donation from a local board member, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens was able to hire Conservation Biologist Emily Griffoul on June 1. She has the bandwidth to focus all her attention on the research the gardens have been working on for 10 years.

“Being able to get boots on the ground and get started with it… we’ve been doing bits and pieces but this is a big leap forward for us,” Ripley said.

Griffoul and Ripley head into the field two to three times a week to mark areas they’re interested in studying, and will return later in the season to collect seeds to send to the National Seed Bank in Fort Collins, with whom the gardens started working last year.

“We actually go into the alpine and see all these amazing plants, but we also see some threats,” Griffoul said. “You can really see how important this work is and why it’s so important that we have an understanding of these alpine areas.”

With more than three decades under its belt, the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is excited to move forward with its mission to educate visitors and conserve landscapes that are unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Todd Winslow Pierce | Special to the Daily

That commitment to education and the pursuit of knowledge is a mindset that permeates all activities at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, and one that the organization hopes to continue as it expands its research and conservation efforts.

But for now, in a time where so much of our world looks different, the garden is honored to be able to provide hope and stability while also following the most up-to-date local and national COVID-19 public health guidelines.

“The gardens continue to bloom regardless of what COVID does,” said Development Director Melissa Ebone. “It’s a place where people can come and find what they need.”

Support Local Journalism