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Larry Sagers
Red Butte Garden as seen from the natural areas above.
Our priorities in the developed garden are different than those in the natural area but all the plants are important. —Neal Dombrowski, Red Butte Garden

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.

"Cottam's Grove contains about 140 hybrids of oaks that Cottam made during his career," Dombrowski said. "The depository is very important and we monitor them for growth habit so we can propagate them and use them in the garden.

"Many of his hybrid oaks are planted on the U of U campus and we collect the acorns and send them to other botanical gardens locally and internationally upon request. We even include some of these that we propagate in our plant sales. "

Needless to say, after my tour I found even more reasons to visit this beautiful treasure on the hill. Take some time to visit, to hike, to learn and to be inspired by the beauty and the carefully manicured areas, and in those that are more natural.

It will renew your heart and soul as you enjoy the handiwork of nature, Dombrowski and his crew, and all of the others who contribute to this wonderful place.

Garden Tips

Red Butte Garden's will hold it's annual Benefit Plant Sale. The members only sale (memberships may be purchased at the gate) is Friday, May 4, 1-8 p.m. The public sale is May 5, 9 a..m.-3 p.m. Check the offerings at 2012 Plant List links from the Garden website at www.redbuttegarden.org/spring_plant_sale. Representatives from several local plant societies will be at the plant sale to answer your questions. The sale is in Cottam's Grove, located on the way to the Garden Amphitheater.

Garden Classes at Thanksgiving Point:

Flower Bed Design, May 8, 15 and 22 from 2-4:30 p.m. and 6-8:30 p.m. (3-week course). Wonderful flower gardens don't just happen. They are created by careful gardeners. Learn how to plan and plant flowerbeds similar to those at Thanksgiving Point and Temple Square that are aesthetically pleasing and that will bloom from spring through autumn. Cost is $43.

Best Plants for Utah Landscapes, May 8, 15 and 22 from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (3-week course). Utah soil and growing conditions are unique. It is important to understand them so your landscape will survive our climate, soil and water conditions. Avoid mistakes by selecting plants that will thrive in your landscape. This class addresses these issues and answers questions about the best trees, shrubs and flowers for the Wasatch Front. Cost is $43.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.