When landscape architect John Ludwig first opened his South Broadway garden shop Birdsall on a part-time basis in 1988, he envisioned it as Denver's answer to Smith & Hawken, the upscale Mill Valley enterprise that broke in as a mail-order business before opening its first outlet in 1985. Just as Smith & Hawken did, Ludwig focused first on tools, shipping in hard-to-find items such as high-quality shrub rakes and clipping shears from England. And unlike most of the local gardener suppliers, he scoured the world for yard accoutrements and pottery, building up a fresh and beautiful inventory unique to the area. Then, lo and behold, Smith & Hawken opened its own store in Cherry Creek North.
"We actually complement each other very well," Ludwig says of the situation, spirit undampened. When it comes to the difference between the two, he doesn't mince words: "We cater to real gardeners with real yards." Birdsall, an inviting hidden Eden that sports the feel of someone's elegant backyard garden, does so by cultivating personality-laden niches, something gardeners do all the time in their private beds. This year, a major expansion to the space at 1540 South Broadway will add homey new dimensions, including a "potting shed" annex and, in a renovated duplex adjacent to the original store, a warm, intimate showroom area integrating garden-related accessories and Birdsall's exclusive Barlow Tyrie line of teak furniture into an indoor setting.
Though Birdsall remains strong in the tool department -- you'll still find well-honed equipment from ten countries, including the best-selling Japanese hori-hori blade, neatly plunged into a leather sheath for safekeeping -- the expansion marks a slight drift from the utilitarian focus, partly for obvious reasons: "These tools are alleged to be for lifetime use," Ludwig says. "Good tools never break, so why would you ever need another one?" In their place, decorative pottery from Vietnam, placid stone Buddhas and opulent fountains now rule the Birdsall landscape, a sure sign that people are spending more time in -- and, therefore, more money on -- their own yards. "A new fountain costs less than a new car or a big trip," notes Ludwig. "While not inexpensive, it's a way of improving your environment at a relative lesser cost."
And that entrepreneurial notion works with everything here: the huge collection of indoor and outdoor fountains in every scale imaginable, as well as dragonfly doorbells, lanterns, shiny gongs, hand-cast bronze crowing-rooster garden bells and handsome, contemporary cast-iron trellises offers never-ending backyard design solutions.
The crowning glory of every garden, though, is the flowering vegetation, and perhaps because it caters to gardeners seeking to create home havens and inner sanctums, Birdsall emphasizes shade-friendly cultivars at home in restful, hidden-away places, possibly pondside. Shop favorites include Arum Italicum, a stunning tropical-look perennial with evergreen marbled foliage, and the shamrock-green, pink-blossomed Strawberry Oxalis, which spreads like a cloud, blooming all summer in sheltered corners and under trees. These gems, along with a carefully chosen selection of perennials, rosebushes and exotic annuals, line the walkways of Birdsall this year, where your usual retail plant tables are out and potted specimens arranged in natural settings and exquisite planters are emphatically in.
Take your time when you get here: Birdsall is just one of those places where folks were meant to wander and meander and dream. As Ludwig points out, it's "the only place in Denver that has a sunroom with a tree growing through it." Once the new yard outfitted with fountains is finished, he adds, some gardeners will arrive and certainly never want to leave again. "We've gone from being a funky little place to being a big one," Ludwig proudly boasts. And he has only one word for how it's all going to look midsummer, when they sweep away the last of the remodeling sawdust and the plants come into their own: "Spectacular!" What gardener wouldn't appreciate that?