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Back Page: Interview with Panayoti Kelaidis

The director of Denver Botanic Gardens outreach talks to 5280 about gardening failures, miracles, and regionalism.

By
May 2008

Panayoti Kelaidis, Gardener
Panayoti Kelaidis, the director of the Denver Botanic Gardens outreach, has an unenviable task: convincing Coloradans that gardening is not just possible, but even enjoyable in our semi-arid climate. To that end, he's introduced gardeners to more than 50 drought-tolerant but beautiful plants that are now sold across the country and Europe. Here, he talks about gardening failures, miracles, and regionalism.

Gardening in Colorado is synonymous with suffering and misery for some people.

Plants really are fussy. Plants that like Florida really don't like Colorado. If there's one place where regionalism really prevails, it's with horticulture.

If you think about it, people from other parts of the world settled Colorado. The early people who came here were from wetter climates, so they tried to create gardens like those where they came from—like the East Coast or England—in a climate that is not very forgiving.

At the Botanic Gardens, we've experimented with growing plants that don't need a lot of water, but are every bit as beautiful. We're trying to develop plants that are more adaptive to our conditions. What we think we're doing is creating a Colorado palette, something designed for the Rocky Mountain region.

When I was very young, my brother-in-law married my sister. They lived at our house for a while, and he created a large rock garden, which I helped build. It was so much fun. Before he moved to California, his last words were, "Take care of this garden." And years later, I realized he had given me a life sentence.

The greatest gardens are where gardeners learn to let plants do their thing. It's really a Zen thing. You aren't out there to impose your will on plants, because they don't care.

Every day in a garden is a miracle. Those plants are not blooming because of you, but they're blooming with you. It's a partnership, and I think it's the perfect example of the marriage of the animal and the plant. You're both ripening, you can both thrive.

Gardeners are like farmers in the old days. They tend to be humbler, they tend to have an understanding of the environment, and they tend to be salt of the earth.

There is nobody who ever gardened who didn't fail.

At one point, I noticed that all of my volunteers tended to be doctors or nurses. And I asked one of them, "Why gardening?" She said, "There's no malpractice! It's all right to kill a plant."

There is a whole discipline called horticultural therapy—they've proven that working with plants is extraordinarily beneficial to your soul.

A lot of people grow up absolutely oblivious to the fact that the most miraculous thing in the world is a flower in bloom.

I think there is too much turf in people's yards. I read recently that in the United States we have now had an equivalent of a state like Iowa in turf. Turf for playing football on, and some parks, is needed here and there, but I think we need more gardens. Turf is pretty sterile, and it's one species. The world needs diversity.

Coloradans tend be humble, like gardeners. They feel a little lucky, and they keep working at it, trying to improve.