Red Butte Garden a place filled with beauty, inspiration

Published: Sunday, April 29 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Neal Dombrowski is a botanist at Red Butte Garden.

Larry Sagers

It has been many years since Dick Hildreth took me to the mouth of Red Butte Canyon. He announced that this was the future site of Red Butte Garden. He must have sensed my concern as I viewed the proposed site.

Located above historic Fort Douglas, it had an interesting although somewhat neglected planting of oak trees, a small greenhouse and a shade tree nursery that the grounds department used to grow larger trees that could replace trees that might be damaged on campus.

Beyond that was where my concerns kicked in. It was literally a dump where loads of broken concrete, junk cars, yard waste and almost anything else had been discarded over the decades.

Never to be deterred, Hildreth enlisted the aid of the National Guard, the University of Utah, numerous friends in the nursery business and anyone else he could find to help him transform this eyesore into what is now one of the most beautiful gardens in the Western United States.

As I have visited this garden numerous times over the years I've seen them grow from a few small plantings along Red Butte Creek to a collection of wonderful gardens, a popular outdoor performing area, a beautiful visitor center and a stunning orangery.

I thought I knew the garden well but found I missed a great perspective. I recently had a chance to see it in a different light when Neal Dombrowski invited me to see it from his view.

For the past two years Dombrowski, has been in charge of the natural areas of the garden. His responsibilities include Cottom's Grove, the parking lot areas, the native plant gardens, the rooftop garden and all of the undeveloped property on this site.

He brings a wealth of talent and experience to that position. After graduating with a degree in botany from Weber State University, he worked for Dugway Proving Grounds and the Desert Test Range helping with plant issues on some 1.8 million acres of land.

He took me over some of the 5 miles of trails that are developed in the garden's 80-acre natural area. Although I had seen pictures and knew the quarry history where sandstone was removed to build many early projects in Salt Lake City, I've never visited the historic quarry house.

We visited some wonderful overlooks that offered aerial views of the garden and extended views of the entire valley. Dombrowski called one of these areas on a rocky outcrop his office because it offers him such commanding overlook of the area he maintains.

There are great challenges in the natural areas.

"Invasive species are always a challenge along the foothills of Salt Lake City," Dombrowski said. "We do not want those plants displacing the plants that are native to our area.

"At first it was a bit difficult getting into the horticulture areas because I related a lot to the natural areas from my previous work. However, the plants of the desert are here and are important to us.

"Our priorities in the developed garden are different than those in the natural area but all the plants are important. We offer many of the plants from the native habitat at the plants sale and we use them in other areas of the garden.

"It is harder to sell some native plants because they are less showy. Every plant has a story, but trying to share that story with the public is not always easy.

"I like to relate the story of the dandelion. It is an invasive plant and it is a weed because we create the perfect environment for it to invade our lawns. It is actually a very beneficial plant and is edible and is used for many other purposes."

Dombrowski also maintains Cottam's Grove, which is named for a famous professor at the University of Utah who hybridized oaks.

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