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Larry Sagers
Purple clematis climbs one of the fences at Speirs Farm. George Speirs settled in the Tooele Valley in 1863.

TOOELE — When the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, gardening became a serious business — if you didn't grow food, you didn't eat.

As we celebrate the anniversary of their arrival, it's fitting to look at gardens of these hard-working settlers.

One such settler was George Speirs, who settled in the Tooele Valley in 1863. Speirs, who made the trek to Utah from Scotland, was an ardent horticulturist and started a huge garden shortly after he and his family settled in the valley.

Produce from the garden not only helped feed Speirs' family of 10, but it was also sold at Speirs' and other grocery stores. He experimented with many different varieties of fruits and vegetables and quickly became known as an expert in the area, and he was the first person in Utah to cultivate asparagus from seed.

Speirs and his garden might have faded into obscurity had it not been for his great-granddaughter, Barbara Barlow. She became intrigued with his story while working on her genealogy; she also remembers seeing a picture of her great-grandfather, taken when he was 90 years old, wearing knee boots as he worked in his flower garden.

Over time, Speirs' farm and garden were sold and developed (Tooele High School now sits on one piece of the Speirs property). But a small piece of land, including the renovated cabin that Speirs constructed, remained, and Barlow wanted her family's roots preserved on that last remaining acre. The image of her grandfather motivated her to buy the land and create a tribute to him.

Barlow and her husband, Harold, moved to the property in 1993 and took stock of the plants. Barbara said some of the original grapevines and rhubarb — or pie plants — were still there, as well as the asparagus. Although planted in the mid-1800s, they still produce ample crops.

Rescuing some of the heirloom plants couldn't take place until the area was transformed. It had been neglected for decades and had become a favorite dropping-off point for people who are too lazy to take their trash to the local dump.

Clearing the land was the first priority. Chunks of concrete, rock, rusted cans, car parts, tree branches, old tires, construction waste and pipes had to be hauled away. Truckload after truckload was stripped away to get to the garden Speirs had so carefully tended.

Despite all of the accumulated trash, Speirs was a great judge of soil, so once the Barlows got everything cleaned up and finally got around to planting, many of the plants flourished.

Financing the transformation meant Barbara needed to take advantage of some pass-along plants from friends. Those plants, added to what remained of her ancestor's legacy, have created a wonderful garden where each plant has its own historical story.

Her collection is an eclectic grouping of many different pass-alongs. "Most of the perennials I have are what people shared with me. Many of my irises came from a hybridizer in Washington, who sent some of his collection to his cousins in Tooele, who shared them with me," she said.

Another example of pass-along plants are some shrubs she saw being dug up at a nearby church building. When she found they were headed for the dump, she salvaged them. "We went home and planted them and most of them grew — even though they were so torn up from the backhoe," she said.

In addition to the iris, she has a nice collection of daylilies, Shasta daisies and Jupiter's beard. When people found she was constructing the garden, they started to bring her plants. One man brought a couple of truckloads of Shasta daises.

Clematis now covers some of the fences, grapes cover the arbors and many other seasonal flowers — sweet peas, larkspurs, hollyhocks and gaillardias — keep the property colorful. Ornamental grasses and many colorful annuals round out the plant collection.

"Almost all of the flowers I have are what people brought to me. In return, I am willing to share everything I have with other people," she said.

Barbara planted many different trees to provide shade and privacy. Among her favorites is the little-leaf linden. The honey locust trees are also growing well.

Two trees she does not recommend are the green ash and the pin oak. Almost all of her ash trees have been attacked by borers. The pin oaks have not grown well and are yellow because they prefer acidic soil and do not absorb iron very well.

Barlow has other recommendations based on the trees in her garden. "I love my pine trees, and I have several different varieties. I also love the weeping cherries that are growing so well in my Japanese garden."

She adds, "I have lots of roses that my mother planted that I have moved two or three times to different locations." These plants and many others now bloom around the restored log cabin her great-grandfather constructed.

Her experience goes beyond gardening. "It is just an unreal experience and I have felt like he was here helping me and that this project has brought our family closer together."