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Inspiration from a Colorado Prairie Garden

By Musetta Dean and Becky Zenthoefer, Colorado Master Gardeners

Photo: Rita McConnell – Summer Day at Plains Conservation Center

While we live in a world of traffic jams and deadlines, there is a place where you can transport yourself back in time, where you can hear the song of a meadowlark, and watch the pronghorn antelope and eagles. Learning what fruits and vegetables can be grown in primitive conditions on the Colorado prairie, like the settlers did, is quite remarkable. No raised beds, fancy trellises, or irrigation systems needed. 

After westward migration, once settlers staked their claim on this vast prairie land, the first plan set into motion was a means to feed their families. When the supplies from their journey ran out, they were dependent upon the crops they could grow. That doesn’t sound too difficult, until you consider the obstacles a Colorado plains gardener had to overcome. Hot summers, snowy winters, harsh winds, low rainfall and high altitude were not for the faint of heart.

At the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora, Colorado, Denver Botanic Gardens horticulturists and Arapahoe County Master Gardeners have joined together to create and maintain a mid-1860s heirloom vegetable garden.

“Coming to the Plains Conservation Center is like a step back in time. Our 1800s sod village offers visitors a look into the life of a prairie pioneer, including a look at how they grew crops. The heirloom garden has been such a wonderful project to work on. We grow cultivars that entered this part of the country in the late 1800s and combine traditional farming techniques with new age soil conservation tactics, to educate all ages about the history of food production,” said Julie Reiske, Denver Botanic Gardens. The garden is used for demonstration and learning, and produce is donated to local Grow and Give food banks.

This heirloom garden is something to savor. With varieties like the ‘Lemon’ cucumber and the ‘Black Cherry’ tomato, you may be inspired to try one of the heirloom varieties in your own garden. Master Gardeners are available to answer questions in the garden on Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the summer from 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

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