Interns learn to lead at Vail’s Betty Ford Alpine Gardens |

Interns learn to lead at Vail’s Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Daily staff report
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily

VAIL, Colorado – A pair of young men studying garden cultivation and management says it’s been a rewarding season working at America’s highest botanical gardens.

When Nick Courtens, 21, and John Letourneaux, 26, applied for and were selected to participate in this summer’s internship program at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, in Vail’s Ford Park, they knew they were in for a lot of “hard work.” But the program, aimed at expanding their knowledge and experience in the field of horticulture far exceeded their expectations, they say.

“The biggest challenge for us coming here was learning the different plant palette and how it survives, and thrives, at such a high altitude,” says Courtens, whose experience with plants began as a boy growing up on a farm in upstate New York and continued at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. “With the time we have in such a short but intense growing season, there’s something new happening every day that needs our attention. The plants cycles are very fast, and that makes the job exciting.”

It didn’t take long for Courtens and Letourneaux to become invaluable at the Gardens, which at 8,250 feet above sea level in Vail’s Ford Park is the highest botanical garden in the United States, providing free access to an estimated 100,000 visitors annually. The interns’ duties included leading volunteers in a variety of projects on Mondays and Thursdays; teaching public and private children’s environmental programs; planting annual flower displays; and providing expertise in repairing and maintaining the Gardens’ aging irrigation system.

“I’d never worked in a public garden before. Yeah, it is hard work, but I enjoyed it,” says Letourneaux of Neenah, Wisc., who studied horticulture formally at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls. “And I learned more than I ever could have imagined.”

Indeed, the internship program at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens – funded entirely through private donations – provides opportunities to develop skills above and beyond those involved in gardening itself. Perhaps most rewarding, say this year’s interns, is supervising the Gardens’ dedicated team of volunteers.

“Working with the volunteers was very interesting. Some of them have been volunteering at the Gardens since it opened 22 years ago and know it better than I,” says Letourneaux, for whom the internship helps satisfy requirements for a bachelor of science degree.

“This program taught me to be responsible, to be a leader,” adds Courtens, who hopes to complete his bachelor of science degree at Philadelphia’s Temple University, or perhaps closer to Vail at Colorado State University. “It was the best summer of my life.”

Ann Kurronen, the Gardens’ executive director, says the 2010 interns certainly leave the Gardens a better place. “Our interns are an integral part of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens summer season. We wouldn’t be the nationally recognized botanic garden we’ve become without their great effort,” Kurronen says. “Nick and John are exceptionally knowledgeable about gardens maintenance and have taken remarkable initiative in ensuring Betty Ford Alpine Gardens are in prime condition.”

Both interns say they plan to remain in the Vail Valley through the coming winter season working at different local jobs before continuing their careers in horticulture.

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization for which operations and programs are funded entirely through the generosity of donors. Conserving plants of the American West, its mission is to inspire passion for plants in high-altitude communities through beautification, conservation, education and research programs.

For more information about Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, call 970-476-0103, ext. 3, or visit

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