Client Spotlight: The Denver Botanic Gardens


Photo Courtesy of The Denver Botanic Gardens
Photo Courtesy of The Denver Botanic Gardens

Wishlist is fortunate enough to work with many influential and inspiring companies across the state and provide them with unique employee rewards.  One such company is the renowned Denver Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens was founded over sixty years ago and is dedicated to preserving as well as showcasing native plants in stunning settings. We recently caught up with John Calderhead, CFO of the Denver Botanic Gardens, to ask him a few questions about one of Denver’s most noteworthy locations.

The Denver Botanic Gardens have been a staple in the community for many years. Can you offer us a brief history on how the Gardens came to be and what they looked like in those early years?

DBG was founded in 1951, originally in a location near the Museum of Nature and Science. Unfortunately it wasn’t a fenced in spot and the plantings had a habit of “walking away”. So in 1959, DBG moved to our current location on York Street, near Cheesman Park. The early gardens included roses, annuals, irises, daylilies, peonies, tulips, crocus and narcissus. With the addition of the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory in 1966, Denver Botanic Gardens became a year round attraction. DBG was one of the first gardens in the country to emphasize native plants and to champion environmentally responsible practices, such as water conservation and biological control of pests.

In the mid-1970’s the Army Corps of Engineers asked DBG to take over management of 700 acres in the floodplain of Chatfield Dam, where we have a growing Community Supporting Agriculture program. Many of our largest events (Pumpkin Festival, Corn Maze, Concerts, and more) as well as the historic Hildebrand Ranch, a restored 1918 dairy barn and silo, the 1874 Deer Creek Schoolhouse, 2.5 miles of nature trails, the Deer Creek Discovery children’s play area and numerous wildflower gardens can be found here.

Client Spotlight: The Denver Botanic Gardens
Image Courtesy of The Denver Botanic Gardens

How did you become involved with the Gardens, how long have you worked there, and what is your current position?

I am Chief Financial Officer and came to the Gardens about three and a half years ago after working many years in higher education finance. The opportunity to work for one of Denver’s top cultural organizations has been a great thrill.

What changes have you witnessed in recent years, and how do you think the transformations in both the space (with remodels, and the new amphitheater) as well as the exhibits helped the gardens grow?

Last year we built a great new outdoor restaurant, The Hive, adjacent to our Monet Pond, which has been a huge hit. We also built The Science Pyramid an iconic structure that has already been nominated for architectural awards. The Science Pyramid showcases DBG’s research activities and invites the visitor to see the world of plants through a scientific lens.

And, of course, last year we were privileged to showcase the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly. This amazing exhibit brought visitors from around the world and helped us set records for attendance of over 1.4 million guests. This helped us become the most visited botanic gardens in the United States in 2014. 

We know the Gardens are ever evolving, but do you have a favorite space or exhibit?

Right outside of my office window is The Ellipse Garden which we built last year on the site of a former parking lot. It’s a beautiful, peaceful spot and in the middle, for Chihuly lovers, we were lucky enough to commission a new piece from Dale Chihuly, an amazing 15 foot tall colorful piece that the artist named Colorado. So, even though the exhibit is gone, we’ll always have a striking reminder of an amazing year.

Client Spotlight: The Denver Botanic Gardens
Image Courtesy of The Denver Botanic Gardens

What upcoming exhibits and concerts excite you the most?

Starting in May and running into October we will be featuring the sculptures of Deborah Butterfield, an American sculptor renowned for her life-size horses that have been the subject of her work for more than 30 years. Sculptures will be displayed throughout the Gardens’ York Street location. The works are made of cast bronze wood collected from many locations including Montana, Hawaii, Washington, Israel and Iceland.

The concert schedule is still being put together for both our York Street and Chatfield venues. Last year was our biggest year ever for concerts with great shows from Sheryl Crow, Barenaked Ladies, Jimmy Cliff and many others. I don’t have any names for you yet, but expect another great summer of music.

What impact have the gardens had on the surrounding community, and how can visitors get more involved?

One very exciting project that DBG is working on is its Urban Food Initiative. Denver Botanic Gardens is committed to increasing access to fresh, healthy food. We have recently stepped up efforts in so-called food deserts. Highlights include projects with Denver Housing Authority and Denver Human Services. We received a grant to purchase a refrigerated truck, which has allowed us to set up farm stands in food deserts around the city.

As for getting involved, we have an amazing volunteer program with lots of fun activities, from assisting our horticulturists in the gardens, to giving tours, to volunteering at special events. Our website has additional information on how to get involved.

Finally, how did you become involved with Wishlist and how have the Gardens used Wishlist to benefit its employees? 

We were introduced to Wishlist by one of our consultants. Hosting the Chihuly exhibit was a huge undertaking for our staff in 2014. When our attendance tripled it put strains on every part of our operations. Realizing this, we were looking for a way to recognize staff mid-year to keep spirits up and show appreciation for everyone’s hard work. Now I’m sure everyone would have loved cash, but we were looking for something more thoughtful. So we gave all staff a Wishlist experience. One of the fun by-products was listening to everyone share their experiences (“What did you do?”… “Where did you go?”, etc…). We got great feedback.

Image Courtesy of The Denver Botanic Gardens
Image Courtesy of The Denver Botanic Gardens

Is there any additional information you think our readers would be interested in learning? 

I think many readers would be surprised at the extent of the research that DBG is involved in, not only at the Gardens themselves, but throughout the Rocky Mountain West, and across the world. We have a team of PhD’s that are involved in research and conservation efforts in Mongolia, Sudan, Patagonia, South Africa, Madagascar, and many other corners of the globe.

To find out more about this urban Eden, visit the Gardens’ homepage. To learn more about how you can incentivize your team with awesome activities by Wishlist, contact


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