Meet the Garden Squad is a way to get better acquainted with some of our CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers.
Meet Nancy Downs
Horticulture is the thread that connects the stepping stones in the career path of Nancy Downs. She became a CSU Extension-Denver Master Gardener in 1993, and since 2005 she’s been the project coordinator of Gardening Help (GH) from Colorado Master Gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
A year-round volunteer commitment, GH provides research-based information to thousands of home gardeners by phone, email and those who drop by. In 2019 the GH team of 20 volunteers answered over 2300 questions.
It’s the thrill of the possibility of new discoveries that helps drive Nancy’s passion in botany and plant identification.
“Plant ID is endlessly fascinating,” she said. “It’s fascinating to bump into mystery plants and try to make the correct identification. It makes a huge difference in management recommendations.”
Nancy is a Native Plant Master, but said there’s always something new to learn. She also enjoys teaching woody plant and native plant identification.
In 2019 her Park Hill garden received a gold certification from the Colorado Native Plant Society (CoNPS). The Certified Native Plant Garden recognition is meant to increase awareness of native plants and how they help provide “habitat for Colorado Native Plants and native wildlife,” according to the CoNPS website.
Nancy said she considers her garden a laboratory for experimenting with plants. The garden is about 30 years old and has gone through a number of phases as her taste and interests have evolved.
“At one point I felt I needed an all-white garden, but now it’s a big mish-mash. I’ve tried to mix natives into an existing older neighborhood with shade trees,” she explained.
Nancy said she’s drawn to the texture and architectural interest of her landscape plants instead of flowers. A list of her favorites includes Gambel oak, rabbitbrush, Arctostaphylos, ornamental grasses, buffalograss, junipers, yucca and, of course, much more.
Her interest in plants took root when working for the Boulder Parks and Recreation Department while an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. She was part of the team responsible for planting and tending the gardens at Central Park
After graduating with a degree in International Affairs, she worked in Washington, D.C., as press secretary for then-Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. When she returned to Colorado, she earned a law degree from the University of Denver and spent a few years working in Denver’s District Attorney’s office.
Nancy said she finally circled back to her first love of horticulture while working with Denver Botanic Gardens, Hudson Gardens, Denver Water Xeriscape clinics and Aurora Water Conservation Design clinics.
She even had her own design business, Nancy Downs Garden Design, for over 20 years specializing in residential design in Denver’s older neighborhoods.
In addition to coordinating Gardening Help as a Denver Master Gardener, she’s involved in other volunteer projects.
“A favorite recent project was the 2018 Botanical Survey of the High Line Canal carried out by Dr. Chrissy Alba from DBG’s Research and Conservation Department for the High Line Canal Conservancy,” she said.
Nancy encourages other Master Gardeners to continue working on their plant identification skills. She said an understanding of botanical Latin is important when trying to identify whether a plant is native or not.
Her hope is that more gardeners will want to add native plants to their landscapes and can start by asking nurseries to increase their availability.
Gardening Help Contact Information
To reach the Gardening Help from Colorado Master Gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens call 720-865-3575 or email email@example.com. GH is staffed April-October on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (noon-4:00 p.m.); November-March on Tuesdays (noon-4:00 p.m.)
By Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener volunteer since 2005