LDS gardens offer peace, beauty to visitors
It's hot, dirty and therapeutic. Digging, mulching, weeding and pruning faded leaves and blossoms in the heat of the day are just part of the duties for church missionary and garden guide Tammy Melzer, who volunteers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints April through November.
Melzer is one of 55 garden guides who help care for the more than 35 acres that surround Salt Lake City's most famous downtown real estate, including Temple Square, the LDS Church Office Building, museums, conference center and more.
Why does she do it?
"I like gardening," says Melzer, who lives in Sandy. "It's very peaceful here. [The garden] is its own little enclosed world. Birds are singing, water is running. The sirens sound far away. It's a friendly atmosphere. You get to talk to people, and your work is appreciated."
At least 400 varieties of flowers grace the walks, parking structures, roofs, buildings and the lesser-known cemeteries where Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young are buried.
The goal of the gardens, said Eldon Cannon, a group manager of ground services, is to coordinate the harmonious color, height and patterns of flowers to create a stunning display for the more than 5 million people who visit the Temple Square grounds annually.
"Our aim is to have visitors come and get a feeling of peace. That's why we do it because we believe in the message of the church, which is a message of Christ," he says.
Cannon and his staff of 35 work year-round to orchestrate blossoms in almost every season. The lead gardener, six senior gardeners and several volunteers start planning the beds' designs at least one season in advance by clipping photos from catalogs and arranging them on paper. Gardeners are encouraged to use their own design sense in the beds, a tradition taught for years by Peter Lassig, the former head gardener.
"You want to avoid anything too jarring, too bold, too pretentious," Cannon says.
Cannon favors pastel combinations but admits there is a need for excitement in the garden. "So we mix in [flowers] which seem to be a theme, and then you'll have some highlights. They can be highlights either because of their position or because of their color or their style in the garden."
To maintain continuity, no more than 10 percent of the design may change at a time, he says.
Grounds of various locations are designed to evoke different feelings. For instance, the Beehive House is reminiscent of an English cottage and the Conference Center roof - seen only on garden tours - aspires to the meadow-like feel of Albion Basin in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Many trees and plants are not only beautiful but historical, even venerated.
Some of the last living American elms in the United States are found on Temple Square, according to sources. They were planted in 1894 at the behest of then-Prophet and President Wilford Woodruff, who was inspired by his attendance at the Chicago World's Fair with its "City Beautiful" theme.
A grand, 70-foot cedar in the southeast corner of Temple Square dubbed the "Cedar of Lebanon" was brought from Lebanon more than 50 years ago as a start, carried in a woman's purse, as history tells it. Each Christmas it is adorned with 1,500 tiny, red lights, says Cannon, who begins gearing up for the Christmas lights on Temple Square in August.
Visitors who roam block after block of beds of brilliant-hued pansies, violas, Johnny-jump-ups and tall tulips of the grounds each spring are unaware of the small army it takes to care for the myriad of plants and flowers they view.
"Volunteers are essential," says Kathy Mills, volunteer and Christmas coordinator. "The staff needs a labor force, especially during the huge planting season. It would take months to do what the volunteers do in weeks."
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 youth and adult volunteers are brought in each May and October to pull out the old, wilted flowers and plant the next season's beds, Mills says.
Despite the hard work, volunteering has its benefits, Melzer says.
"I've learned a lot about plants, color, design, soil. . . . and giving tours, people come from all of the U.S., all over the world," she says, recalling an Australian couple shocked to see Lantana, an indigenous weed in their country, planted generously throughout the area.
Another guide, Glenda Nordfelt of West Valley City, assists at the Church's greenhouses, where the gardens' approximately 600,000 plants and flowers are grown, often from pinkie-sized plugs.
"I love nurturing the baby plants," says Nordfelt, who likens it to caring for her nine children. "They [garden personnel] have it right down to a science."