Enchantment grows at Chatfield Farms

Denver Botanic Gardens facility always changing

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More than a century ago, in 1866, pioneer Frank Hildebrand purchased 160 acres of farmland along Deer Creek for $500 — in what is now south Jefferson County. The property included a log house, according to horticulturist Jennifer Trunce, who spoke to the Littleton Garden Club about Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms, the now-700-acre property adjoining Chatfield State Park and Reservoir. It was set aside after the disastrous 1965 flood, which affected a large part of the south suburban area.

The Army Corps of Engineers controls the land and declared it a floodplain where no new building is permitted. Denver Botanic Gardens was allowed to manage the land, designated as Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield. Existing buildings were grandfathered in … The original thought was to build a huge arboretum, with more varieties of trees than anywhere between Chicago and the West Coast.

Volunteers led schoolchildren through natural areas of wetlands, riparian landscape and fields, looking at native plants, birds and wildlife. Gradually a native plant garden developed, the historic farms were restored and a variety of defined types of gardens were planted instead, creating a fine spot for families and individuals to explore — during special events or just on any day.

Frank Hildebrand, a German immigrant, was one of the first pioneers to settle in the area, and Deer Creek was the only source of water, running through the length of the property. There was a log cabin on the land when he purchased it. He and his wife, Elizabeth, raised Hereford cattle and grew vegetables and sugar beets.

The Hildebrands built a larger house around the cabin, then in 1915, a separate large farmhouse, which stands today. A milking barn and other outbuildings were added. A cutting garden is planted near it and heirloom gardens.

Son Francis Hildebrand continued with the farming and added a granary, wood and blacksmith’s shops and ice house.

Francis also moved the Deer Creek Schoolhouse onto the farm when Chatfield Dam was built — or it would have been submerged. It is used as a visitors center, for classes, for brides and programs …

The owners were evicted by the Army Corps of Engineers after the 1965 flood, as were the owners of the nearby Green Ranch, known for raising thousands of white Peking ducks, which they shipped to restaurants across the nation. The two-story, white Green House was renovated in 2016 and now holds 30 offices, Trunce said.

A Wayne Christian Garden honors the first director appointed in the 1970s to begin organizing this new operation.

Special gardens surround the farms, including the Mary Washburn Orchard and Heritage Garden. Some fields are cultivated with corn and pumpkins — see the Big Pumpkin Festival in October — and seven acres are devoted to crops for the Chatfield CSA (community supported agriculture) program, which supplies regular boxes of vegetables, fruits and flowers to subscribers and farm stands. (See website for information on how to participate: www.botanicgardens.org/chatfield-farms.)

Trunce said a new master plan is in process for this increasingly busy site. A map on the website shows the Janice Form Memorial Dye Garden, established by members of the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild, who manage it, grow dye plants and teach how to dye yarns and fabrics. Also nearby: a cut flower garden, herb garden, prairie garden, iris garden (one of the larger collections in the nation.), plant select garden, market garden. The large lavender garden matured enough to start holding a Lavender Festival last year, which drew a huge crowd and will be repeated.

One is allowed to bring food into the garden, so families may want to consider a summer picnic lunch at this pleasant spot.

Beyond the farms and developed gardens is a large natural area with three clearly marked trails towards the wetlands, where native plants, birds and wildlife await.

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