Denver Botanic Gardens and Meow Wolf join forces on an alien garden
19th August 2022

Visitors to Meow Wolf Denver may soon find themselves getting lost in alien dream worlds even before they enter the building.

That’s possible only because of this summer’s inaugural collaboration between Meow Wolf and Denver Botanic Gardens. “Alien Dream Worlds,” created by the Gardens’ assistant curator Kevin Williams and tended to by seasonal gardeners, is an entirely free, entirely outside feature that adds interest to Meow Wolf’s already attention-getting Convergence Station installation.

Appropriately, its layout echoes the tangled, elaborately constructed worlds inside, which are hidden behind doors and tucked under roofs. This one is front-and-center, acting as the very first designed environment that visitors see.

Planted on June 1, the 2,000-square-foot space is crowded with hundreds of baby plants but also wavy concrete paths that frame the whimsical Plethodon statue — a salamander-like fantasy creature that seems to undulate above and below ground.

“I’m expecting it to become this thick, wild space that makes it look like the Plethodon ripped through the parking lot, and then nature just filled in the rubble,” said Williams as he worked outside Meow Wolf Denver on a 94-degree weekday in early August.

Williams’ playful approach is typical of both Meow Wolf and Denver Botanic Gardens — each among the most prominent tourist draws in the city — and the latter has hosted dozens of high-profile art exhibitions over the years. Most of the lore at Convergence Station springs from dimensional portals and alternate realities, something that botanic gardens are decidedly light on.

The Alien Dream Worlds garden, the first of what Williams expects will be a series of projects, is the ostensible portal to those portals.

So how does one construct an immersive environment without a roof, moody lighting, or other technological aids? This isn’t a music festival tent, with strobes and bumping bass, and there are certainly no 3-D mapped LED projections to be found on the exterior walls, as with the D&F Clocktower (not yet, anyway).

Instead, Williams goes for visual impact, having put together a Vision Document for the garden replete with multiple schemes, lore and a list of nearly 40 plants.

In the actual garden, jagged chunks of broken concrete add an urban texture to the hundreds of plants and seeded areas — which next month will be joined by 300 more seedlings and a couple thousand bulbs. Williams is pouring all of his Denver Botanic Gardens expertise into the space, training plants to be xeric (low- to no-water) and happily jumbled. The space is currently blocked off by metal barriers, but will soon be protected by a low fence around which visitors can get close-up looks.

“We call these ‘novel plant communities,’ because they’re much more like wild systems where plants grow closer together than recommended,” Williams said as he surveyed the garden. “Those plant-spacing requirements on Home Depot tags are basically created by mulch companies to sell more mulch.”

The garden features different species from the same genus, all of them adapted to dry climates like Colorado’s. One of the Denver Botanic Gardens’ core attractions, the Steppe Collection, embraces the idea of sister climates, wrote Meow Wolf’s Erin Barnes. And so does “Alien Dream Worlds.”

“Colorado is part of the steppe bioregion known for flat, dry grasslands and shrublands. Our sister steppe bioregions around the world can be found in places like Central Asia, Southern Africa and Patagonian Argentina,” she wrote on Meow Wolf’s website.

Those regions are where Williams sourced some of his verbena plants, which will be joined by the pink-flower dandelion, Little Bluestems and other varieties that play nice together in dry, compacted ground. After it’s established next year, the garden’s perennials and self-seeding annuals will keep it less a weeding-and-tending concern than a weekly obligation.

Meow Wolf’s contract with the Botanic Gardens runs for two years, so Williams will be able to keep tweaking the space to his liking. You may see him there once a month through October, and starting again next May. He’d also like to set up a Meow Wolf-themed garden at Denver Botanic Gardens’ York Street flagship location.

“A plant palette is almost limitless in what you can access and grow on a defined space, so this project is sort of an icebreaker between us,” he said. “But you don’t have to find a garden beautiful to find it compelling. We’re attracted in all other forms of art to things that are much more challenging, and gardens, for some reason, we tend to make to appease the viewer. … We’re not necessarily creating a garden for people. We’re creating a habitat for the Plethodon.”

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