Denver Botanic Gardens plans to expand Chatfield Farms

Chickens, goats, a large pig, ponies, ducks, raptors, prairie dogs, corn, vegetables, native plants, historic ranch and farm buildings and a meandering creek nourishing willows and wildlife. That’s a quick inventory of Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms.

To the mix, the organization wants to add new welcome and education centers, a market square, a permanent stage for the amphitheater and gardens featuring plants native to the area and agriculture practiced by Indigenous people. The development plan of Chatfield Farms envisions making the additions in phases as the money is raised.

Brian Vogt, Denver Botanic Gardens CEO, discussed the plans on a recent tour by golf cart of the 700-acre Chatfield Farms in southern Jefferson County. The area is roughly 20 miles southwest of the organization’s public gardens in Denver’s Cheesman Park neighborhood.

Vogt said the Botanic Gardens finished a master development plan for the Denver site in 2020. “That gave the institution the bandwidth to now revisit Chatfield Farms and think about what it wants to be in the future.”

The Botanic Gardens so far has raised about $6 million for the proposed projects. Vogt said the first work will likely be what he jokingly called “the really glamorous stuff”: sewer systems, parking lots, a solar energy array and other infrastructure.

The total price tag, which would include a restaurant overlooking a grassy bowl that forms the amphitheater, will likely be around $38 million to $40 million, Vogt said. Work will be done as the money is lined up.

“The thing about the Gardens is that we don’t break ground until we know we have the money,” he said.

The organization is working with various government agencies, including the Army Corp of Engineers, to get approval for permits. Vogt said it will likely take until next spring to submit final plans.

The Botanic Gardens has managed Chatfield Farms since 1973 on land that is under the stewardship of the Army Corp of Engineers. People living in the area were relocated and nearby Chatfield Reservoir was built after a devastating flood of the South Platte River in 1965. More than 20 people were killed and more than 5,000 homes and farm buildings and about 6,700 small businesses were destroyed or damaged.

Vogt said one of the original ideas for the post-flood site was to create an arboretum. “But it’s hard to grow trees in Colorado. There’s not that much water.”

Another idea was to manage the land as a nature preserve. “But then what do you do about the historic ranches?” Vogt asked.

The Botanic Gardens has blended nature and the land’s historic uses to focus on agriculture and restoring the land along Deer Creek, which runs through Chatfield Farms. In a field next to a house, sheds and barns on the historic Hildebrand ranch, staffers and volunteers grow vegetables to take to farmers markets in areas with limited access to fresh produce.

Other crops include corn, pumpkins, fields of lavender and vegetables for a community agriculture program that people support through buying shares. Chatfield Farms hosts the Veterans to Farmers program. There’s a dye garden that grows different kinds of plants used to color fabrics.

  • Jintak Han, The Denver Post

    Sandy-Crystal Vaughn, a butterfly enthusiast from Houston, photographs butterflies inside the butterfly garden at Denver Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms facility in Littleton on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. “What caught my eye was the Eastern Comma,” Vaughn said, referring to a species of butterfly not found at her home in Texas.

  • Jintak Han, The Denver Post

    John Mendoza, 69; Naima Llanos, 5; Michelle Mendoza, 42 and her 8-month-old infant Neto Llanos visit the Green Farm Barn at Denver Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms facility in Littleton on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

  • Jintak Han, The Denver Post

    A stove is in the kitchen of the historic Hildebrand Ranch, part of the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms facility in Littleton on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

  • Jintak Han, The Denver Post

    The Denver Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms facility in Littleton is pictured on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

  • Jintak Han, The Denver Post

    Denver Botanic Gardens CEO Brian Vogt looks at two rescued horses housed at the Chatfield Farms facility managed by the Botanic Gardens in Littleton on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

A proposed 13,000-square-foot education center will highlight the history and future of agriculture and connect classrooms to outdoor learning areas. A separate 4,000-square-foot, open-air classroom on the south side of Chatfield Farms will be near the start of the nature walk along the banks of Deer Creek.

The Gardens highlights regenerative agriculture, Vogt said. Practices include not plowing under what’s left after the harvest and instead planting cover crops and leaving residue to help retain moisture, prevent erosion and rebuild soil health.

Vogt said an area called Gardens for the West will incorporate more native plants and a large circular growing area. The Gardens will work with experts to feature Indigenous agriculture practices. The site will lead to a new butterfly house.

The 700-acre site, which backs up to Jefferson County Open Space, was used for thousands of years for hunting and camping grounds by Indigenous people, including the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, according to the Chatfield Farms website.

Vogt said the Gardens got the OK from the Army Corps of Engineers to restore Deer Creek to a more natural flow. Like waterways across the country, the creek was channelized, which involves deepening or straightening it.

Restoration of the riparian areas has included removing invasive vegetation and planting willows and other native vegetation.

“It was just revived. We started seeing native birds and native insects, native mammals of all kinds coming back into this zone,” Vogt said.

Chatfield Farms is home to elk, bobcats, coyotes, beavers and an occasional bear and moose.

“We really want to keep this sense of nature,” Vogt said, “so wherever we have a building, it’s going to be tucked off to the edges.”

Gardens will be planted around public spaces. Boardwalks will be added to portions of the nature walk near the creek.

“We’ll let people wander and protect the landscape at the same time,”  Vogt said.

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