If the words "water conservation gardening" bring to mind gravel and cacti, Greg Lee has some plants he’d like you to meet.
There’s zauschneria, a red honeysuckle-like flower commonly known as California fuchsia, and penstemon, a brilliantly colored native Utah plant that comes in a variety of colors.
"You can have a beautiful garden that’s very well adapted to the climate here, so you don’t have to apply huge amounts of water," said Lee.
As the executive director of Red Butte Garden, Lee is in a position to teach by example: the botanical gardens located near the University of Utah hopes to open a new water conservation garden in summer 2015.
"It’s going to be our most iconic garden," Lee told the U. Board of Trustees, who last week gave approval for design and construction work to start.
Conservation is especially important in Utah, Lee said, one of the driest states in the country and also one of the most thirsty. Utah comes in just under Nevada for the amount of municipal and industrial water use per person. Most of that water — 65 percent — is used outside, according to a 2009 federal study.
The new three-acre garden at Red Butte is planned for an undeveloped mountainside between its fragrance garden on the northwest and the children’s garden to the southwest. The initial design shows a gently sloped, triangle-shaped area bounded by water filtration gardens and waterwise borders.
A path winds down the length of the space, which would have sections featuring ground cover, flowering shrubs — and, yes, even a gravel garden.
"It’ll have a number of ‘rooms’ that will focus on different aspects of water-wise gardening," Lee said.
The garden is projected to cost $5.87 million, paid for through private donations. After several years of fundraising, officials are about $250,000 away from that goal.
They’re looking to break ground by spring 2014, and hope to have the garden complete by the summer of the following year.
The water conservation garden will be the 11th themed garden on the 17 developed acres at Red Butte. The non-profit was established in 1984 on 100 acres of Fort Douglas land the Army gave to the University of Utah, Lee said.
When it comes to watering the other Red Butte gardens, "we have some areas that are already water-wise, some areas that are less so because of more traditional plants that were selected. We’ve been trying to slowly convert a lot of areas to less water usage," Lee said.
Salt Lake County has another water conservation garden, the Conservation Garden Park, located in West Jordan and run by the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. The 6.5-acre garden showcases six examples of gardens, from traditional to completely native, said garden manager Clifton Smith.
In the years since the garden was built in 2000, water usage in the district has dropped from 251 gallons per capita to about 205 gallons, he said.
"Getting out public awareness of the need is difficult because it requires some behavior change, but we are definitely seeing that slowly," Smith said.
While education is also important to Red Butte, Lee said beauty is tops in their plan.
"We want to seduce them into wanting to garden this way," Lee said. "A lot of people think they should. We want to make them want to."
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