Gardens | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly


The essence of greenery

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"Now 'tis spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted; Suffer them now and they'll o'er grow the garden."

—William Shakespeare, Henry IV

Whenever I bike the Jordan River Parkway Trail, I detour through the International Peace Gardens (IPG). A gardener's love of gardens draws me in. However, my visits over the years have never been wholly satisfying. Too much of the 11-acre IPG is weatherworn, weedy and neglected.

That said, when compared to the rose garden in Sugar House Park, the IPG looks as manicured as Temple Square. Behind the squat Garden Center Building in the northeast corner of the park, the last vestige of the city's once-famous, municipal rose garden had all but lost the battle with weeds in late June. Hundreds of rose bushes, displaced by the expansion of Holy Cross Hospital, were moved to the Sugar House site around 1970. Nowadays, just a few survive alongside a fancy, white arbor, which has the effect of making the six, weed-choked beds even more abject.

Sad to say, last year's plantings in The Draw east of Hidden Hollow are suffering the same fate. That neglected garden violates Salt Lake City's weed-height ordinance.

The original essence of the International Peace Garden was aspirational, and to give form to an ideal like international harmony is an ambitious undertaking. It's ironic that the upkeep hasn't measured up. Gardening is not a plant-and-forget occupation. It requires engagement—hands-and-knees work pruning, cultivating and weeding. Unweeded beds bespeak negligence, lack of commitment, or, in the case of city-owned gardens, an insufficient budget.

According to IPG's outdated website, the genesis of the peace gardens was the Salt Lake City centennial in 1947. Gardens representing 28 countries "symbolize the true spirit of democracy and world peace, brotherly love, history, literature and cultural heritage of many lands." The world's landscape looked much different in that post-war era. There were fewer briar patches.

The garden-as-symbol is a trope burnished by use. Shakespeare's garden-as-metaphor has had many copycats. Among them countless Mormon kids at the Sunday School pulpit delivering garden-themed sermonettes in three minutes or less. Thoreau grew beans near Walden Pond "if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day." Gregor Mendel had a different objective with his pea plants. Although an Augustinian friar, he dispensed with moralizing and used successive plantings to discover the laws of heredity. Most of us are like Thoreau. We invoke a garden to talk about life-cycle, maturation, weeding, aesthetics, eco-engagement or the miracle of zucchini.

The tropes I associate with gardens are related to orderliness and beauty. I appreciate texture, color and design in beds of annuals and perennials. I have cultivated vegetables, season upon season. In a good year I ate snap peas off the vine in May and dug Brussels sprouts out of November snow. I love crossovers like nasturtiums in summer salads and red-leafed basil accenting a petunia bed, and I like the fact that no matter how edenic a garden might be, it can harbor a toxic plant, Black Widow spider or snake. (Red Butte Garden has rattlesnakes.) I have seen high-walled houses where bougainvillea is planted just to camouflage a perimeter barrier of barbed wire.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of the Special Operations Task Force in Iraq and Afghanistan, introduced a garden trope into the best-selling book he wrote last year. "The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing," McChrystal wrote in Team of Teams, a manual for organizational change and leadership. "Gardeners plant and harvest, but more than anything, they tend."

"The gardener cannot actually 'grow' tomatoes, squash or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so," he wrote. "Within our Task Force, as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on consistent maintenance. Water, weeding and protecting plants from rabbits and disease are essential for success."

As a gardener, I have battled cutworms, tomato blight, Japanese beetles, cabbage loopers, aphids, snails and corn-loving raccoons. As an employee, I have worked in organizations that were managed top-down, more like a chess game than a garden. I would rather work for a gardener. I like being tended. McChrystal is no Shakespeare, and his garden metaphor describes a decentralized organization with "eyes-on, hands off" leaders that doesn't square with my experience in the Army. But the fact that a four-star general is promoting "transparent communication and decentralized decision-making" in a secretive, Special Operations command speaks volumes.

My most recent visit to the IPG coincided with the summer solstice. Part of the China garden had been recently planted with impatiens and begonias. A two-story, log building was under construction on the Norway grounds. At the Swiss garden, orange daylilies lined the walkway to a replica of Lake Geneva, which was empty. A statue of Hebe, the goddess of youth, stood forlorn at the center of an unplanted, circular space in the Greek section. I must say that the IPG looked pretty good even as the world it symbolizes looks pretty bad. But we gardeners are optimists. We plant seeds fully expecting to reap blooms and berries before the frost. We regard the summer solstice as a time to anticipate the harvest. The process of tending the plants over the course of a growing season keeps us on an even keel. I hope there's hope for the IPG and the community of nations it symbolizes.

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