The Denver Botanic Garden gets better every time I visit.

There are new buildings, like the Science Pyramid pictured above, at the end of a marvelous walk and water feature called the El Pomar Waterway.

Variegated agave in blue pots in El Pomar Waterway

There are new gardens like the Steppe Garden honoring the steppe biome and landscapes across the world with climates and plant communities similar to Denver’s semi-arid region.

Steppe Garden section of Denver Botanic Garden

Love these stone planters in the Steppe garden – self contained rock gardens.

Rock garden mound planter structure in Steppe Garden section of Denver Botanic Garden

And the existing gardens only get better as they mature and respond to the impeccable maintenance by the Gardens’ horticulturists.

When, years ago, I first saw the Roads Water-Smart Garden, a long border of drought tolerant plants, I wondered quietly to myself if any but the most knowledgeable gardener would appreciate the beauty of these tough plants.

Gravel path through mixed border in Roads Water-Smart Garden in Denver Botanic Garden

But now that they have matured, backed by the tall mixed conifer hedge, this collection showcases a variety of shapes and colors equal to the most sophisticated mixed borders. And within the border we find unexpected beauties surprisingly well adapted to ornamental horticulture.

Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata Big Basin Sage Brush flowering in drought tolerant mixed border at Denver Botanic Garden

As the Roads Water-Smart Garden has matured, the O’Fallon Perennial Walk continues to illustrate why it is a model of a mixed perennial border. Even in autumn when the asters come into their own the border is stunning.

O’Fallon Perennial Walk mixed border – flowering in autumn at Denver Botanic Garden

I fell in love with this Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) named ‘Lady in Black’ seen in the middle of the border in the photo above.  Those of you who have followed along on my Find the Photo lessons will see the picture within the picture.

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster flowering in autumn mixed border at Denver Botanic Garden

But I photographed her from every angle. Another lesson of garden photography I have learned: when conditions are right don’t move away too quickly from a beautiful scene.  Work it.

Looking back the other way, see how wonderfully she pairs with the Red Bistort, Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’:

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum 'Lady in Black' Calico Aster (aka Aster lateriflorus Michaelmas Daisy) flowering in autumn mixed border at Denver Botanic Garden with Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firetail', Red Bistort and asters

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster with Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’, Red Bistort

It is rather remarkable that the classic design concept of a mixed perennial border, combining different colors and shapes so that they complement each other, can be so well executed with two vastly different collection of plants.

The Roads Water-Smart Garden and the O’Fallon Perennial Walk could not have a more different plant palette, but the border design, backed with conifer hedges, is nearly identical.

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My favorite parts of the Denver Botanic Garden are the grasses that are used throughout the entire Garden. They tie together the varied sections while evoking the native landscape beyond the city limits, the short grass prairie.

Indeed, the Porter Plains Garden is largely composed of native plants and grasses, with the majority of seed collected within 30 miles of Denver.

Visitors in Porter Plains Garden with prairie grasses and Maximilian Sunflower in Denver Botanic Garden

This prairie garden is a sophisticated and subtle combination of plants that, to my mind, look their best in autumn.  Grasses have flowered, their leaves are showing fall colors, weaving together the earth tones of fall foliage with late season sunflowers, asters, and goldenrod.

Porter Plains Garden in autumn with prairie grasses in Denver Botanic Garden

And speaking of Goldenrod they are spectacular in autumn, and it just so happened that the Painted Lady butterfly migration was at its peak, a marriage made in heaven.

Painted Lady butterflies on yellow flowering goldenrod, Denver Botanic Garden

The grasses at Denver Botanic Garden are certainly not confined to the natives in the prairie garden, in fact they have their own Ornamental Grasses Garden. I have spent hours in this Garden over the years.

Ornamental Grasses Garden with Nassella tenuissima (finestem needlegrass) and Little Bluestem grasses.

I fondly remember working on my techniques on backlighting for hours with the grasses in this garden in 2009, here finding a specimen of Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas’Blues’ that I could isolate against the shadows beyond the ornamental grass garden.

Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas’Blues’ switchgrass, pendulous seed head, ornamental grass, backlit

Grasses have a marvelous way of looking great with any number of different types of plants  so that even the most naturalistic pairings look ornamental.  Here is a Tree Chola cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricate) looking ever so comfortable in a bed of Blue Grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) in Drylands Mesa garden.

Bouteloua gracilis Blue Grama Grass in Denver Botanic Garden with Cylindropuntia imbricata, Cane or Tree Cholla cactus

One of the most exciting things to happen at Denver Botanic Garden since my last visit is the development of a second site, at Chatfield, a working farm and environmental center about 30 minutes from downtown.

Prairie meadow lawn replacement with native grasses and flowering perennials, Denver Botanic Garden, Chatfield

In autumn at Chatfield the corn maze is a huge attraction for families, but I spent all my time photographing the extensive native plant meadow gardens designed by Lauren Springer Ogden surrounding the visitor center.

Rudbeckia triloba, Brown Eyed Susan flowering at Denver Botanic Garden, Chatfield

Also at Chatfield the staff are able to display choice plants well adapted to local gardens, such as this ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa).

Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ flowering Rough Goldenrod in Denver Botanic Garden, Chatfield

Many more photos of Denver Botanic Garden can be found by searching the PhotoBotanic stock library, and some of my favorites I’ve put together in this gallery.