The very last green shoots for Western Garden Centers near Trolley Square could be a year or more away, but news of its ultimate closure feels sad and empty to lots of Salt Lake Valley growers.
Longtime owner Lon Clayton says the cherished haven of Utah garden variety at 550 S. 600 East will stay in full business “for a couple more seasons” — at least. But as the founder’s son and lead property owner, he confirms they’re pursuing approval of a rezone of the property, with plans to ultimately close and sell the retail site for a residential development.
“It’s been a wonderful business to me and my family for generations,” co-owner Clayton said, counting longtime store manager Lee Pettit in that extended clan. “And it’s very sad for us to do it, but we’re old men now, and there’s nobody new in the family — or not in the family, for that matter — to take it over.”
The decision to sell the choice 2.28-acre plot whenever the new zoning might go through has not hinged on money or rising land values, the owner said, nor any special urge to help build more apartments as part of the city’s latest growth spurt.
“What’s getting to us,” Clayton said, “is old age. It’s a bittersweet pill for us to swallow, and we’ve hated to swallow it until we’re too old to unload packs of plants anymore.”
Clayton said Western Garden Centers would keep operating while rezoning the commercial site for redevelopment gets vetted at City Hall in what is a partnership with developers at Cottonwood Residential, based in Salt Lake City.
Another landmark goes — to more apartments
It’s a rare midblock parcel that size, one developers envision as an apartment project. Clayton and partners are seeking a change to so-called form-based zoning, which would allow, among other things, adding residential density and office uses to replace the 72-year-old gardening hub and spacious parking lot.
Initial notices for a zoning map amendment request were filed in April. In a presentation to the Central City Community Council, folks with Cottonwood Residential said the planned apartment complex would be between three and four stories high. Developers have also said they want to use the new zoning “as an opportunity to create a unique community within the neighborhood” with its own parking and be a support to commercial outlets at adjacent Trolley Square.
The owners “view this redevelopment as a part of their retirement plan,” the request said, “and would not plan to remain in business in this location under different circumstances.”
The infill development in Central City is one of scores of similar projects taking shape in already established residential neighborhoods across Utah’s capital as open fields for new housing grow increasingly rare.
The list of familiar and long-loved retailers in the city heralding their closure since COVID-19 arrived is already long, but this one is triggering a special sense of loss for many green thumbs, long tested by parched and finicky Wasatch weather.
There’s been a burst of “say it ain’t so” calls and bemused visits from across the Salt Lake Valley, said Pettit, who is also president of Western Garden Centers.
Some of that difficultly letting go has deep roots in the city’s history and landscapes. Along with all manner of trees, perennials, vegetables, fruits, seeds, pots and other supplies arranged on easy-to-browse open-air shelves and concrete paths, employees have cultivated and spread plant wisdom for seven decades.
Thriving landscapes, healing hearts
Their products come from local growers and suppliers, making it a kind repository for Utah’s native plant species and earthen knowledge.
Helping growers find that match with prevailing conditions, in turn, helped bind gardeners to their own beloved grounds, enlivening all those backyards, green spaces, pots and patches of dirt season upon season, across the Intermountain West, for three generations.
“We’re plant geeks,” Pettit added, as though confessing. “We like what we do. It’s been fun to share that.”
On top of the sense of loss is a fresh layer of bonding to let go, fed by a lot of therapy and healing that customers found in growing things during the worst of the pandemic. Like so many businesses, the center ramped up curbside pickup amid those early lockdowns, and Pettit said business has stayed strong across seasons since.
“People did turn to gardening because it helped soothe some of the challenges that COVID created,” he said. “And we tried to be there for them.”
The family’s Sandy location closed three years ago. As for a remaining outlet at 4050 W. 4100 South in West Valley City, “we’ll keep that store going,” the 70-year-old Pettit said, “but there’s lots of customers from up this side of the valley that’ll never cross over, which is sad.”
Family affair — with plants
Now 75, Lon Clayton worked the east-side garden center as a teenager and eventually took it on from his father, Sub Clayton, who started in the regional gardening business in the 1920s and helped open the current outlet in 1949 as “Utah’s newest and largest nursery and seed center” under Porter Walton Co.
There were two special offers that inaugural February — a 50-cent six-pack of sweet peas in scarlet, salmon, lavender, white, rose-pink and medium blue along with five “world-renowned” varieties of roses, for “the start of a really fine rose garden” — for $4.95.
The Western Garden outlet also managed to survive ferocious competition through decades marked by rising dominance from national chain stores, which pushed countless other smaller gardening and nursery businesses in Utah into oblivion.
It came down to a lot of loyalty, Pettit said, “and shopping local.”
“We’ve had a wonderful customer base and support,” he said one snowy day recently, walking by the store’s winnowed stocks of potted and fresh-cut Christmas trees.
“That’s been a nice, reliable local gardening place rather than a big-box store,” said Judi Short, first vice chair of the Sugar House Community Council, who also oversees the grounds at quirky Gilgal Sculpture Garden, 749 E. 500 South.
“When you go in, people help you,” Short said, “and they know what they’re talking about.”
An ivy-covered building adjoining the shop and nursery on 600 East got converted into a small events venue about a decade ago, to some success as Ivy House Weddings. Otherwise, Pettit said it’s kind of surprising how little the locale has changed overall, retaining much of the open feel and grower-centered simplicity it had from the time it opened.
“We’ve appreciated the people who have trusted us with their gardens and lawns,” added Clayton, reflecting on its success. “We feel we have been well-rewarded for helping people and those who’ve been so kind and loyal to us over the years made that effort worthwhile.”
After a Dec. 8 hearing on the zoning change, the city’s planning commission has recommended the City Council approve the request. So now, because the parcel falls inside Central City’s historic district, the Historic Landmark Commission will review plans.
Talks start in January on designs for what else could grow there, in keeping with the look and feel of the surrounding neighborhood.