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Gardening at Temple Square

By: Saskia T - March 18, 2014

In his introductory post to Religious “Practice” month here at JI, Ryan touched on the many ways ritual and practice informs Mormon lives, from the formal ordinances to the less formal expressions of lived religion, like hair wreaths or sacrament bread. Today’s post is about one of those informal practices, namely gardening, and more specifically, gardening at Temple Square.

Gardening has its own topic page on LDS.org, with tips to start and maintain your own garden. Not surprisingly, members are encouraged to garden because “[p]lanting a garden, even a small one, allows for a greater degree of self-reliance” and, as Thomas Monson said, “[s]elf-reliance is a product of our work and undergirds all other welfare practices. It is an essential element in our spiritual as well as our temporal well-being.” (For those curious, gardening also makes its way into the basic manual for women, part A, and the basic manual for priesthood holders, as well as references in the Friend, Ensign, Liahona, and Family Home Evening resource book, among others.)

A 1986 personal essay, written by Brenda Taylor Peterson and published in the Ensign, makes clear that gardening is as much a spiritual as it is a temporal practice. She writes,

My family’s roots are deep in the soil. As a child, daily I heard my father, a farmer, pray over his stewardship and petition the Lord for blessings on our crops and land as we knelt around the kitchen table in family prayer. From a very young age I realized that the wind, the rain, the late frost in the spring are of elemental concern to those whose livelihood is dependent upon the cycle of planting, tending, and harvesting a crop.

… For the generations of our family, however, a garden has provided something even more essential and life-giving than potatoes and peaches. We till the soil and dress and weed it, and it rewards us not only with fresh fruit and vegetables to eat and put by, but with binding family traditions, cohesiveness, and communication, with moral nourishment to cope with daily life.

Working in the soil gave the family a roof over their heads and food on their table, but also taught them the life lessons they needed to succeed.

In their book, Temple Square Gardening,[1] Gates, Erickson, Zollinger, and Sagers talk about the award-winning gardens at Temple Square, which they work to keep beautiful in any season, “[f]rom the luminous pastels of spring to the contrasting brilliant tones of late summer and early fall to the grandeur and allure of Christmas” (viii). They are careful to say that the beauty of the gardens must “[call] attention to the Creator, not the designer” and the aim is “produce a sequence of garden scenes that seem right and inevitable and that serve as a tribute to Heavenly Father and his inspired plans to bless mankind” (vii).

original here

original here

The book invokes the pioneers, who included planting flowers in their aim to build a city in the desert. The authors quote both Brigham Young, “it is my business to decorate and beautify Zion, it is part of my religion as much as going to meeting, praying, or singing” (Deseret News, 21 August 1855), and the well-known verse from Isaiah, “the desert shall … blossom as the rose” (35:1), to frame gardening as a religious act.

original here

original here

According to the landscape designer, “The … flowers … help people appreciate God and … create a setting for man’s contemplation of the infinite” (6). 34 full-time gardeners, 20-30 seasonal gardeners and 95 service missionaries work in the gardens at Temple Square, as well as give tours of the rooftop gardens, and twice a year, a thousand volunteers help weed, replant, and do other necessary tasks. Of course, the Salt Lake City temple isn’t the only temple to have exquisitely landscaped grounds, and the theme of order and relaxation, brought to life in flowers, is echoed on temple grounds all over the world.

"Along the edge of a national forest, the Bern Switzerland Temple sits south of the Swiss Alps and Aare River." via

“Along the edge of a national forest, the Bern Switzerland Temple sits south of the Swiss Alps and Aare River.” via

Whether it’s for growing food or flowers, it’s clear that soil and spirituality intersect in some very Mormon ways. Feel free to share any gardening stories you might have in the comments–whether you have a green thumb, or, like me, it’s safest if you admire plants from afar.

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[1] The book aims to be a handbook, using Temple Square as an example, but gives plant profiles, tips and resources, and guidelines for planning and designing for gardeners anywhere.

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19 Comments

  1. This is great stuff. I wasn’t aware of the contemporary pages on lds.org. When I was a kid, gardening in the LDS Church was a religious obligation. It was a very big deal. Consequently, I often think about it in terms of history. You show how it is still very much a thing.

    Only tangentially related, I spoke to an LDS congregation last fall and invoked some of these ideas related to gardening. You may or may not find it (or some of the referenced sermons) interesting.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 18, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

  2. Great post! I have always enjoyed my time in the gardens there and have been envious I can’t keep my own yard looking that gorgeous!

    I have always wondered how many gardening people are on staff and how gardening decisions are made. Especially at others sites like Nauvoo or visitor centers as well. Glad you reminded me of my interest!

    Comment by Natalie r — March 18, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

  3. Thanks, J.

    Comment by Saskia T — March 18, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

  4. Interesting post. Thanks!

    A few years ago, one of my children was in a school play far from Utah. The children portrayed notable figures in American history. Some random kid was Brigham Young, and he said something like: “I led the Mormons to Utah to preserve our religious liberties. I said, ‘We will make the desert blossom like a rose.’”

    In the years since, I’ve looked a number of times to find out whether Brigham Young ever did say that, so I could quote him. The closest I’ve found is from notes about his speech at the Pioneer Day celebration in Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1857:

    Prest. Brigham Young made a few remarks, recounting the mercies of God to this people in delivering them from the power of their enemies, in making the desert places blossom like the rose and the sterile plains yield luscious fruits and golden grain, in loading the leaves of the trees and shrubbery with honey dew and in increasing our flocks and herds in a marvelous manner.

    Does anyone know of a more direct citation?

    Comment by Amy T — March 18, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

  5. I don’t know of any specific place where Brigham Young invokes Isaiah’s “blossom as a rose” phrase, but the Journal of Discourses has him exhorting the Saints to beautify the earth: “There is a great work for the Saints to do. Progress, and improve upon, and make beautiful everything around you. Cultivate the earth and cultivate your minds. Build cities, adorn your habitations, make gardens, orchards, and vineyards, and render the earth so pleasant that when you look upon your labours you may do so with pleasure, and that angels may delight to come and visit your beautiful locations.” (http://books.google.com/books?id=XVUoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA83)

    Hugh Nibley has a great essay in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints about BY’s environmental ethic, but there’s a lot of work to still do in this area.

    Comment by Nate — March 18, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

  6. And thanks for this great writeup – I love this particular strain of Mormon belief and practice.

    Comment by Nate — March 18, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

  7. That’s a really interesting question, Amy. I kind of figured it would have been Brigham Young, but apparently it wasn’t him/we can’t say it was his? The genius of cultural memory at work, I guess.

    Comment by Saskia T — March 18, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

  8. The phrase is reasonably common among a cohort of church leaders, including BY. E.g., JD 10:6

    I have promised the people South, that if they will cultivate the ground and ask the blessings of God upon it, the desert shall blossom as a rose, pools of living water shall spring up on the parched ground, and the wilderness shall become glad.

    Also, among others, JD 10,188; 12:209; and WWJ May 12, 1851.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 18, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

  9. …which brings me again to my favorite line from my favorite French-speaking Swiss man: Defending his choice to spend a small fortune importing flowers to beautify Santaquin in the 1860s, Ned Desaules wrote, “If Zion is to blossom as the rose, there must needs be roses.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 18, 2014 @ 5:20 pm

  10. My FIL is the head gardener for one of the temples in Utah. I hear about flower choices, design, budget (generally), and such regularly. Also, he curses the snow, since it means a 3am call to head up to the temple and shovel/plow.

    Comment by Ben S — March 18, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

  11. This was an interesting post, Saskia. My experience is that gardening has pretty much disappeared from regular church discourse (ie. RS Homemaking program, etc). It’s been a long time since I’ve heard “The Prophet Said to Plant A Garden”” sung in Primary. Thanks for pointing out how this still exists among online resources and manuals.

    Comment by Kris — March 19, 2014 @ 8:00 am

  12. I didn’t appreciate the religious nature of gardening until I volunteered helping a couple maintain their garden and yard one summer. It was my job to trim the roses (along with other yardwork tasks). The gentleman I was assisting had gone blind, but patiently told me (and at times felt the flowers) how to care for and prune them. Roses had been his passion for more than 30 years, I could feel how much they meant to him. Thanks for reminding me of that experience.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 19, 2014 @ 11:55 am

  13. Thanks for this post! How do you think gardening skews, in terms of gender, among Mormons? (For example, is growing flowers [gardening] more feminine while growing food crops [farming] would be more masculine?)

    Comment by Quincy D. Newell — March 19, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

  14. Quincy, that is a really good question and one I’m not sure how to answer. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if your assumption is true, but I’m not quite sure if and how Mormon-ness impacts the generally gendered aspect of growing things..

    Comment by Saskia T — March 19, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

  15. Joey, my mom was sick for a long time, and when she first was well enough to go out into her garden and attack everything that had grown willy-nilly in her absence (me, like I said, not having any kind of affinity with plants), that’s when we knew she’d find her feet and make it work. She’s not religious, but gardening definitely has a spiritual component for her, and it strengthens her even when things aren’t going so well, health-wise. Amazing what passion can do for a person, like in your story.

    Comment by Saskia T — March 19, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

  16. I actually think you would see a fairly strong emphasis on growing food ie. the kitchen garden (which is different from farming) for women in conjunction with home food storage. Suspect you would also see change over time re: actual farming.

    Comment by Kris — March 19, 2014 @ 5:50 pm

  17. Hmm, the kitchen garden is an interesting middle ground–growing food, but for domestic consumption rather than for sale outside the family. And yes, Kris, I think you’re right about change over time; I just don’t really have a sense of where things start, or where they end up (or where they go in the middle, just to be thorough about my ignorance).

    Comment by Quincy D. Newell — March 19, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

  18. This is awesome, Saskia. The C19 association between agriculture and morality (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) is really fascinating to me. For many people, then and perhaps now, agriculture seems closely related to the virtue of labor.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 20, 2014 @ 7:26 am

  19. Thanks, Nate and J. for the citations.

    My husband reminded me of some art we saw a couple of years ago at the BYU Museum of Art. Here’s a brief write-up:
    The sculptures are made of farm irrigation equipment such as sprinkler heads…Adam Bateman, the artist, created the pieces to explore the Brigham Young prophecy that the desert would blossom as a rose. He explores the use of irrigation with a sense of modernism and, according to the MOA Website, conservation….[Says Bateman,] “Working with irrigation equipment I explore my roots…as a descendent of Mormon Pioneers who built the first modern irrigation system in North America when they arrived in Utah. The Mormons sought transcendence through irrigation—they saw God’s power in making the desert “blossom as the rose.”(Source.)

    Comment by Amy T — March 20, 2014 @ 1:00 pm