Shaw: A world-renowned botanic garden in our backyard
The burning question about how Vail came to have a world-renowned botanic garden can be answered very simply: It happened in the back seat of a car. In the summer of 1983, Marty Jones, a landscape designer and owner of a local nursery that sold alpine plants, was driving home from Denver when his new truck broke down in Georgetown.
Sticking out his thumb, he was immediately picked up by Helen and Bob Fritch, new owners of the Sitzmark Lodge. A loyal customer of Jones’ nursery, Helen was thrilled to learn about his dream of building a botanic garden devoted to alpine plants in Vail.
Well-connected and always up for a challenge, Fritch pitched the idea to a handful of locals, including Cissy and John Dobson, Fitzhugh and Eileen Scott, Don and June Simonton, Marge Burdick, Tom and Flo Steinberg and Donna and Fred Meyer.
The timing couldn’t have been better, as Vail was quickly capturing headlines for its cadre of well-known athletes and political leaders, most famously Gerald R. Ford, who was such a regular on the slopes when he became president that the White House press corps began calling Vail “The Western White House.”
When, in 1985, town leaders initiated a master plan for a park and outdoor amphitheater to be located just east of Vail Village, Fritch’s intrepid group jumped at the opportunity to add an alpine garden. Leading the charge were Fritch and hotelier Sheika Gramshammar with their good friend Betty Ford.
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Always the renegade, Jones — a self-taught landscape designer who never met a piece of earthmoving equipment he didn’t like — opted to go above and beyond the straightforward landscaping that the town had envisioned. Building a series of display gardens, complete with boulder outcroppings, a small hill, and even a recirculating mountain stream, Jones wanted to show residents and visitors just how diverse gardens in the Rocky Mountains could be.
“We wanted to make sure people knew that more than the ‘3 P’s’ — petunias, pansies and poppies — could grow in the mountains,” he said. Vail’s cool temperatures, monsoon rains, and crisp, clear air, were sure to make any garden flourish, he promised.
In the last 20 years, the focus has changed at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Now, in addition to being a community resource for high elevation gardening, it’s also an internationally known scientific organization recognized for its study of alpine plants and ecology.
“We’re focused on a very small ecosystem,” said Education Director Nanette Kuich, “but it’s probably the one most impacted by the changing climate and the influence of the human population.”
Visitors engage with the Gardens’ exhibits and collections with their eyes wide open for the simple reason that the mountains are a beautiful mystery. And, Kuich notes, visitors tend to linger at the world map, located prominently in the Education Center’s gallery.
“When they realize that the alpine ecosystem exists all over the world, suddenly they want to know what, exactly, the alpine ecosystem is, and why it matters.”
This is the first in a series about Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, globally recognized for its alpine horticulture, education and conservation. Located in Ford Park, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is the highest elevation botanical garden in North America. Sarah Chase Shaw is the author of “On the Roof of the Rocky Mountains: the Botanical Legacy of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.” Find it at Alpine Treasures Gift Shop in Vail Village or BettyFordAlpineGardens.org.