“Do you want to design a wildscape at a power plant?” asked Connie Holsinger, a board member for Audubon Colorado. “Xcel Energy asked us to add wildlife habitat to Cherokee Generating Station. It’s on the bluffs above the Platte River in industrial northwest Denver.”
It was 2005, and I had just just won an award for restoring my own industrial site, a half block of formerly blighted property where my late husband and I were building our home in the small mountain town where we lived. Our success at restoring the property’s block of channelized urban creek and the native bunchgrass wildflower grassland that would be the yard of our house had piqued my interest in the use of native high-desert plants to reclaim industrial sites.
“Maybe,” I said. Which is how I ended up standing on the catwalk of a coal-fired power plant on a cold fall afternoon listening to the roaring grinder that pulverized fuel before a conveyor belt carried it in to be burned in huge furnaces. I snapped a few photos of the future wildlife garden site, a steep south-facing slope gouged into the bluffs of the wide river valley between the power plant, a transmission yard, and the plant offices.
I met with the site engineer and plant manager, who seemed quite skeptical about the whole idea, and scrambled around the slope. It was dominated by invasive weeds, plus a planting of daylilies and bearded iris, and one Italian cypress, partially deformed by a spring blizzard.
I was captivated. Each plant employee coming and going from work passed by the site. What better site to show off the beauty and durability of gardening with native plants for wildlife habitat than on this gritty industrial site?
By the time I drove home over the mountains the next day, I had already begun to formulate a plant list in my mind, heavy on native prairie grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs that would thrive on a dry, exposed slope and would provide durable beauty, as well as healthy bird and butterfly habitat. I called Erica Holtzinger, a landscape designer who worked with native and xeriscape plants in Denver, and asked if she would partner with me . After she thought it over, she called back, “Yes, if you do the plant list.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you and your colleagues draw the design.” She agreed. I drove back to Denver and met Erica at the site, which looked even grittier than before. After getting over her initial “what did I get myself into?” response, she caught my excitement.
By the following spring, we had formulated a plant list, drawn a beautifully illustrated plan, and we were presenting our ideas to power-plant management.
To our surprise, they liked the wildscape plan. By the end of the meeting, the site engineer, who we later learned was a passionate gardener, was talking enthusiastically about what heavy equipment he’d need to carve the paths in the slope, where to get boulders, and when we should plan to plant. He even suggested providing drinking water for wildlife.
Erica looked at me. “Would Richard carve drinking basins in some of the boulders?” (My husband was a sculptor who worked with native boulders, considering them “ambassadors of the Earth.”)
Indeed he would. After the switchbacking paths had been carved into the slope, Richard visited with the site engineer, selected boulders to be placed in a way that mimicked strata lines in the natural bluffs, and carved the drinking basins in situ.
A funny thing happened as he worked, balanced on a boulder using his diamond-tipped grinder and other carving tools, a protective mask on his face, and fans to blow away the rock dust. The plant employees, who had bitterly opposed spending money on the garden, stopped on the catwalk on their way to and from their shifts, watching him. Pretty soon they were calling down questions: What was he doing? What kind of blades did he use? Why carve those basins? How deep were they? What kind of wildlife did he think would use them?
That summer, Xcel organized volunteer planting days. Dozens of employees turned out, including some who had opposed the wildscape.
By the next spring, the slope was transformed, dotted with drifts of wildflowers like Lewis flax (Linum lewisii), blanketflower, wine cups (Callirhoe involucrata) and peach-colored desert mallow (Sphaeralcia munroana). Bluebird houses made by a plant worker rose on posts in sight of the catwalk, and employees began reporting seeing butterflies and songbirds.
The Cherokee Wildscape received a national award, was featured in an article in the Rocky Mountain News, and Xcel employees showed it off to groups that toured the power plant, from school kids to civic leaders. (Because of post-9/11 security concerns, the Wildscape is not open to the public except for organized tours.)
And it taught me a priceless lesson: native plants restore relationships–including our own connection to and delight in nature and all the beauty it offers.
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