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Lucy Schouten
Bob Young, a garden guide, leans down to pick a flower from an Apache Plume. Out of the 350 species planted on the conference center roof, the Apache Plume is his favorite.

SALT LAKE CITY — Latter-day Saints have always valued gardening, and modern-day visitors can celebrate this passion's past and present with free tours of the gardens at church headquarters.

While walking through the church plaza and on the Conference Center roof, "garden guides" tell the story about a neighbor of Brigham Young. This neighbor, a widow, once planted peas, hoping for a good crop for herself and her son. But as soon as she put the peas in the ground, a rooster walked along behind her and gobbled them up. When she realized this, the good sister "dispatched" the offending chicken with a quick slit to the throat, disemboweled him and removed the peas one by one for replanting. They enjoyed a beautiful crop of peas that summer, she wrote in her journal, and "a nice chicken dinner was had by all."

The garden tours celebrate the ingenuity of Latter-day Saint gardeners, from a widow's vegetable patch to the colorful spring tulip burst by the Beehive house. "These are here to welcome the world and share the importance of living in a growing world," the garden tour director, Andrea Augenstein, told the Church News.

The gardens help visitors to feel comfortable by beautifying the buildings. Augenstein gave one example: "The Church Office Building is such a flat, hard building, and adding the Austrian Pines just softens it."

The tours also expose visitors to new plant varieties.

"We're a worldwide church, and we have trees from all over," she said.

Augenstein particularly enjoys showing visitors a tall cedar of Lebanon, planted near the east gate on Temple Square. A visitor to the Holy Land 64 years ago brought the seedling back to Utah, holding it safely in her lap on the long plane ride. Augenstein recalled once expressing concern to a tour group that the cedar was growing crooked. A visitor on the tour who was from the Middle East reassured her, "They all do that, Ma'am."

This variety is what keeps the volunteer tour guides interested.

"There's just always something new to point out," she said. "My tour is always changing."

Augenstein's favorite month is May, when the tulips bloom. The Conference Center guides say the rooftop gardens are best in June and July.

"Every time we do a tour there's a little more color," said Marilyn Tadje Johnson, a Conference Center garden guide.

She added that unlike the plaza gardens, the rooftop gardens grow in their own wild style.

"This is a representation of what flowers would be up on the mountainside," said Bob Young, a Conference Center garden guide. "They call it the garden without a gardener."

Brother Young often sees wildlife in the gardens — squirrels, mice, and even cats find their way to the roof, and birdwatchers gather annually when the peregrine falcons come to nest at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Birdwatchers, experienced gardeners and other nature-lovers alike can bring their questions on the tour.

All guides are part-time service missionaries who also work in the gardens and greenhouses, and they urge visitors to try out the new hybrid plant species featured in the gardens.

"We talk about unique plants that people might want to use in their garden," Augenstein said.

Gardening instruction can also be found at the weekly garden talks, which are offered Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in the Brigham Young Historic Park, located on the corner of North Temple and State Street, just east of the Church Office Building.

The garden tour takes visitors around the world, horticulturally speaking, but it ends with the cottage gardens near the Lion House. Their varied, colorful array is a reminder of the importance that early pioneers attached to gardens, not only for their practical value but also for beautification.

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"The pioneers dropped their fine furniture and even their blankets on the way here, but they sewed seeds into their skirts," Sister Augenstein explained. "One of the reasons I love being a garden guide is because we're talking about the very essence of life."

The plaza tours begin at 11 a.m. on weekdays in the Church Office Building lobby. Another tour begins on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. A Sunday tour meets at the Temple Square east gate at 10:30 a.m. The conference center rooftop tour guides can be found at 10 a.m. weekdays by door 15. Garden tours are available at other times by reservation at 1-801-240-5916.

Lucy Schouten is an Arizona native studying journalism and Middle Eastern studies at Brigham Young University. Contact her at lucy@deseretnews.com.