Somewhat hidden away in Salt Lake City sits a beautiful garden spot known as Red Butte Gardens. It is an unlikely spot.
The garden is located up in the hills above historic Fort Douglas on the University of Utah campus in the mouth of Red Butte Canyon. The growing season is short and the wildlife is ever present.
Early pioneers quarried this exposed vein of red sandstone to make the foundations, walls and curbs for many prominent Salt Lake City buildings.
These gardens have developed through the years from a literal junkyard complete with old concrete yard waste and rusting car bodies discarded for decades into a peaceful and beautiful garden with a backdrop of craggy red rock and the natural plant and animal life of the canyon.
It took the aid of the National Guard, the University of Utah and friends in the nursery business to clean up the area and start the gardens.
With more than 100 acres including display and natural gardens, walking paths and natural areas with hiking trails, Red Butte Garden is the largest botanical and ecological center in the Intermountain West that tests, displays and interprets regional horticulture.
You can walk the trails of the gardens to be greeted by an assortment of theme gardens separated by natural walls of native stands of oak and other plant features.
One of the garden “rooms” is a real treat for young and old alike. The Children’s Garden was added to the mix about 19 years ago. It is designed to intrigue the children while educating them about plants and wildlife.
The designers and gardeners Camilla Dahle and Jill Frei spend many hours planning, planting and maintaining these gardens. They begin about a year before the beds are actually planted. This allows time to assemble the materials and prepare the beds. Planning is one of their favorite tasks and the pair brainstorm each year to come up with a new theme for the gardens. As a result this ever-changing area is fancifully geared toward children.
While Dahle is hard pressed to name a favorite plant or bed, the visitors quickly choose their favorites.
They universally seem to choose the “flower bed” which consists of a bed frame planted with flowers. The flowers change yearly, but the bed frame remains the theme.
Creating such a stimulating environment is one of Dahle and Frei’s favorite parts of the job. This year’s theme is London and the Olympics. There are bronze, silver and gold sets for the Olympic medals. A Chelsea bed is designed to represent the famous Chelsea garden and flower show. They also have tea and cottage beds representing British culture and cottage garden styles.
Last year’s garden was all about art. An art supply bed, a crayon box, a paint pallet bed, a scissors bed and artist bed were all part of the display. There was also a Campbell’s Soup bed as an art piece.
The year before last was an American scene with a president’s flower bed, red, white and blue bed and all the state flowers. The Utah State flower presented a challenge.
Sego lilies have a very short bloom period when they do grow well and they are very difficult to grow in cultivated conditions. The gardeners looked all over for suitable artificial sego lilies but couldn’t find anything suitable. One Monday morning they came to work on the gardens and found plastic sego lilies had been placed in the bed.
“We don’t know who contributed the sego lilies, but they showed up with them,” Dahle said. “It was hilarious. We had thought of putting in fake sego lilies ourselves but couldn’t find them. Then we came in after a weekend and found the lilies in the garden.”
Some of the beds don’t change yearly. The grotto stays pretty neutral and natural every year. They bring in different kinds of pond plants for variety. The rock garden has perennials that cascade over the cliffs to add beauty every year.
In the garden is a shadow tower designed with the moon and stars to put shadows in the tower depending on the time of day. They use Native American plants in the shadow tower area. They include dye plants and basket-making plants. Every year they add more Native American plants.
The plants in every garden face challenges to their growth, but the plants at Red Butte have some added considerations. The weather is a chronic challenge. They don’t do much fall planting in the Children’s Garden because the snow pack at that altitude is pretty heavy in the winter. In addition, the growing season is much shorter. They took out the annuals last week because the chilly weather weakens them early. They make spring changes between May 15 and the beginning of June.
The perennials add interest even in the depths of winter and the gardens are open and attractive year-round. It is a changing scene.
Wildlife also present problems. Gophers, deer and other browsing animals frequently enter to dine on the plants. Squirrels are one of the most constant issues.
“We have lots of squirrels up here. We call them our little killers. They don’t really eat anything, they tear everything up,” Dahle said.
Ironically, the very people the garden is designed for can sometimes be a problem.
“I don’t mean it negatively, but sometimes the children are the biggest problem for our plants when they are turned loose to treat it as a playground,” Dahle said. “They are just acting their age and they need to be supervised and taught. The kids are also the greatest reward. It is great when little kids get it and are so respectful about it. Sometimes I hear them naming off plants. Their interaction and play in the garden is really fun and cute to listen to what they play and their imagination.”
Whether you just want to look at a Seussical topiary, enjoy the peace and solitude of the grotto or learn something about the world we live in, a visit to Red Butte Garden’s Children’s Garden is sure to please you.