The Betty Ford Alpine Garden

Searching for a place to soothe your soul, restore your spirit or calm your nerves? Vail’s Betty Ford Alpine Garden is a summer destination for the worn and weary. No parades of people, no jostling, no ticket taking. The garden is free, rarely packed, beautifully planted and inviting. You are beckoned to find a seat and stay awhile.

This elegant garden is a place of quiet reflection, a tiny oasis of tranquility within a few acres. What began as a demonstration garden at 8200 feet in elevation has evolved into an important site for those who delight in meditation gardens, mountain habitats and native plants.

Marty Jones and Helen Fritch originally wanted to showcase the variety of perennials that could be grown in a mountain setting. But nearly 20 years later, their original idea has blossomed into an important pilgrimage for those who love unique gardens. The garden, they both say, mirrors the mountains, although condensed to human scale.

bettyvista4799“It’s still doing what it was intended to do,” says Helen Fritch, who can be found in the tiny gift shop on occasion. “It was meant to be a garden that would reflect the mountain surroundings on only about two to three acres. You’ll find both alpine plants above tree line and what you might find in the mountains around here.”

A Meditative Experience

Nearly every public garden allows a glimpse into the soul of a society. The ancient Persians delighted in walled gardens of roses and fountains—a vision of paradise. Japanese Zen practitioners groomed gardens as visual expressions of the Buddhist path.

By today’s standards, the ideal garden for meditation embraces many faiths. The small meditation pond and waterfall tucked inside the heart of the garden is a harmonious, subdued environment. Look closer and you’ll see that the entire collection of gardens has evolved into a meditative experience. Small gardens enclosed within larger gardens, benches under shady trees, waterfalls, narrow winding paths, seating areas located in hidden alcoves, majestic views revealed behind a giant rock–each twist and turn of the path leads to private and self-contained spaces.

bettypeony4754Colors look brighter in the mountains midsummer although those same flowers have faded along the Front Range. Because of the cool Vail nights, many flowers bloom longer and the blooms overlap. Peonies and daisies may appear at the same time. At lower altitudes, peonies have disappeared before daisies open. For mountain dwellers, this intense season is ordinary. But for visitors from the Front Range, it adds to a feeling of unworldliness, as if the garden is slightly supernatural.

bettybench4779Oriental poppies, columbines and delphiniums rarely bolt like they do in the lower climes when that first heat wave hits. Penstemons thrive in rocky terrain with vivid blue trumpets on long stems arching against limestone rocks. Peonies, hardy roses, Siberian irises, wildflowers and tiny succulents synchronize their blooms. Iceland poppies, with their party colors and crepe-paper thin petals, blossom for a brief period in Denver, but last all summer in Vail.

An Idea Takes Hold

Helen says the original idea for an alpine garden came from Marty, who owns Colorado Alpines, Inc. in Edwards. Helen was driving from Denver when she recognized Marty and his broken truck stranded on the side of the highway. She offered a ride to Vail and during the journey, he described his idea for designing a public garden. Helen agreed to help and by 1985, the idea hatched into a plan. In 1989, the perennial garden was built for the entrance.

It remains the showy front door. Perennials surround a circular sandstone terrace and waterfall. Benches of shady seating areas under trees face a small pool. This is the beckoning foyer, ushering in the tired and stressed, and it’s meant to be inviting.

bettyiris4769The original purpose of the first perennial garden was to showcase peonies, gold-veined irises, hardy roses, poppies, daisies, columbines, Turkish veronica, delphiniums and water plants that thrive at Vail’s altitude. “We can grow most perennials that you would find around the country,” Helen says, “but we try not to grow anything too common.” A woodland primula collection and a rock wall studded with tiny succulents join the splashier perennials.

“Each of the gardens had a bit of different design,” Marty says. “The mountain perennial garden was based on the traditional English garden but given a mountain feel. We wanted to show home gardeners what would work at our elevation. The mountain meditation garden was the essence of a Japanese and Chinese garden adapted to the Rocky Mountains. Originally that had lemon and woolly thymes; it was meant to be more of a textural garden. It now has grasses and sedges.

bettycabine4800“The rock alpine garden created various types of habitat. On the east side, it’s a more upland mountainous rock wall–what you would see in a high alpine zone. The west side is semi-arid, a montane climate. And there is a dryland garden, with tiny alpine plants. At the circle up top–west of the cabin–that’s an aspen grove.”

Begin With Perennials; Choose A Path

The perennial terrace invites quiet conversations. From here, choose paths that meander through water and rocks, grasses and alpine flowers. Along these narrow paths, discover places to be alone.

Tucked behind the main entrance garden is the serene meditation garden. Surrounded by Colorado blue spruce, clumps of the native tufted-hair grass and small-wing sedge line up alongside a pond and waterfall. Seating is in the shade and, since the meditation garden is set aside from the narrow paths, it’s designed for anyone to be solitary and quiet. Narrow footpaths of flagstones lead to hidden benches where the view is secluded but never obstructed. A waterfall fills a small pond with rocks that create a floating illusion.

bettypenstemon4795The path winds up a gentle slope to the alpine rock garden where water cascades down giant boulders. Penstemons, alpine sun flowers, coral-bells and columbines burst from crevice openings and footbridges cross the water. “This is probably my favorite garden,” Helen says, “I love the magnificent rocks and there’s a big wall as you go around the slow route. A plant bloomed this spring for the first time. It’s called a nodding thistle. I haven’t seen it grown anywhere else.”

bettyredwhiteblue4726Wind through a bog garden, conifers and a small collection of West European Alps, Andean and Himalayan alpine plants. At the top is a log cabin and aspen trees.

“It’s more of a wild garden than the urban gardens you might find along the Front Range,” Marty says. A wildness that mimics our surroundings, it’s a landscape of enchantment. For a brief period of time, the mountains shelter a setting sure to transport your mind and nourish your soul.

The garden was named after the former First Lady because the surrounding park and amphitheater were in honor of her husband. “There was nothing named for her,” Helen points out. In the last two years, the garden has neared completion. This year they finished a children’s garden and a raised bed for medicinal plants. Next year, a tundra garden goes in.

The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is open from dawn to dusk, spring to fall. It’s free and accessible to handicapped visitors. Located in Vail, you’ll find it tucked within the Gerald R. Ford Park.

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