Nature & Civilization

Creature of Nature: Jimmy Turner A visit with Red Butte Garden’s new Executive Director

By Sophie Silverstone

Red Butte Garden’s new executive director, Jimmy Turner, arrived in Utah from Australia on March 13. The same day, in response to Covid-19, the garden shut down.

At a time when this garden, the largest botanic garden in the Intermountain West, was about to bloom—hold their massive spring plant sale, announce their summer concert series lineup, host weddings and book summer camps—their opening date became an unknown.

While quarantining for two weeks, Turner met his new staff via Zoom and addressed Covid-related job furloughs. It was a surreal adjustment to a new life for the Texas native.

We sat beneath the Japanese wisteria pergola in Red Butte Garden in late May. The garden had been closed to the public for over five weeks. This was only the new executive director’s fourth visit to the garden since arriving.

Turner is now poised to announce the opening date of the garden in early June, where his priorities are to “continue to service the community and do it socially responsibly and safely. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing at the moment. It’s a whole new world for everybody,” he says. Turner has been adjusting to the pandemic by sharing spring in the garden through photos, virtual tours and online “boredom busters” for kids.

Meet the new director

“Jimmy…is an innovator, a skilled administrator and communicator, and the ideal person to build on the tremendous legacy of this Garden’s past leaders,” said Laura Snow, University of Utah Chief of Staff. Turner holds an undergraduate degree in plant and soil sciences and a master of science degree. He’s been working in the field for 30 years. “This will be my last stop in my career before I retire,” says Turner.

For him, his life path was always destined for horticulture. Regarding his clear vocational direction, he says, “I thought that was normal for everybody, but my partner tells me, ‘No, you’re the strange one.”

Originally from Garland, Texas, Turner comes from a long line of farmers and gardeners. He remembers his grandmother telling him about digging up and passing down the family bulb plants from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, his favorite plant is a bulb plant, the daffodil. Much to Turner’s delight, Red Butte Garden is home to half a million spring-blooming bulb plants.

Turner and his partner, Toby Stedford, came to Utah from Sydney, Australia, where Turner left his position of six years as the director of horticulture management for the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust. Prior to that, he had served as senior director of the gardens at the Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Garden in Texas for over a decade.

Turner created a carnivorous plant exhibit at the Royal Botanic Garden that drove record visitation. He organized one of the largest and most successful plant trials in North America while at the Dallas Arboretum. Incidentally, Turner is also one of the world’s biggest horticultural social media influencers, with a Twitter following of 230,000 people.

“In the last few months I’ve experienced drought, huge fires, floods, a stressful international move, cats nearly frozen during transit, pandemic, earthquakes…” he recently wrote—one of his few non-plant posts—on his page @TexanInOz.

He says he loved the job and Australia but after one of the worst wildfire seasons in over a decade and record-breaking droughts, it was just time to move on from the position, where a large part of his job was to make budget cuts to the well-established garden. At over 200 years old, the government-run Royal Botanic Garden is one of the most historic botanic institutions in the world.

What’s next for Red Butte Garden

In contrast, Red Butte Garden, which opened in 1985, is in a very different “young adult” stage of garden life. This was part of the reason Turner was attracted to the position.

He sees much opportunity in Red Butte Garden’s “What am I going to be when I grow up?” stage. Turner wants to ask, “What are we to the local community? What are we to the botanic garden community? What are we for the larger conservation community worldwide?” He views gardens as living memory, where decisions made now will linger 100 years from now.

Turner replaces Dr. Gregory Lee, who is retiring after 17 years—nearly half of the young life of Red Butte Garden. Turner notes that Dr. Lee was great at taking his time with Red Butte and making decisions carefully.

“Gardens take time. In a garden you can make a mistake and spend years trying to fix it. Gardens grow slowly—any garden that grows quickly is a landscape. Landscapes, to me, are built overnight, and are replaceable,” says Turner. He emphasizes his wish to listen to the staff throughout his integration phase. He also wants to see the garden through all four seasons before making any big decisions on changes. “I need to take the time to let this garden figure out what she needs to be. There are a lot of things we could do that may not be right for Salt Lake City. We’ve got to find out. That’s the fun part, is finding out.”

First things first: to open the garden. Turner says the first two weeks will be for garden members only. This is to not only to thank their sustaining members who are an important part of what is keeping the garden afloat financially, but also to help work out the kinks in the required Covid-19 precautions with slightly fewer visitors. Precautions  include touchless payments online, one-way walkways and other spacial-distancing measures to keep people safe.

Turner anticipates record visitation when they open, but he wants to do it the right way. He understands that green space is a big contributor to our mental health.

The pandemic has impacted the garden in many ways financially, of which a major piece is the 60% of their revenues from the summer concert series which was canceled in late May. Turner hopes to explore what smaller, more intimate gatherings might look like in the garden.

He says he’s fond of the saying “When you plant a garden, you plant hope.” In his first letter to the public as Red Butte Garden executive director, he writes, “Gardens are a variety of things to different people. To many of us they are places of hope, healing, and comfort—something we definitely need right now.”

And while he stresses that the timing of the pandemic could not have been worse to impact every one of the Garden’s revenue streams simultaneously, he also says not to worry about the garden itself. He’s more worried about the staff and how to employ them in such a difficult year.

The deeper questions

Beyond this year’s financial challenges, Turner hopes to contemplate the deeper questions: What does the community need from this garden, which communities are they not serving, and how do they engage people regarding the importance of plants in our lives?

“Plants are the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the makeup you wear, the hair dyes, the medicine. At the end of the day, plants are pretty much everything. No plants, no people,” says Turner.

Especially in the age of Covid-19, people seem to be reawakening to our connection to nature. Nurseries are having an incredible year as people return to their gardens. Turner knows the magical feeling of growing his own food, and loves sharing that with others.

“We are creatures of nature. [In nature] our blood pressure goes down and we feel better. We celebrate weddings, funerals, and so many other big occasions outside with flowers–nature is a part of who we are and how we interact with each other,” he says.

Turner thinks back on his childhood, when he could ride his bike for miles, or play in the front yard for hours, and how differently most modern families live, with less time spent in greenspace. As condos and apartments in Salt Lake City keep popping up at a breakneck pace, our population steadily increases. The Gardner Institute projections anticipate 600,000 new residents in Salt Lake County and our state population nearly doubling by 2065. The tighter we pack into this city and more reliant on technology we become, the less greenspace each family will have of its own.

Turner can’t wait for the day soon when the garden is open and he is able to watch people enjoying themselves there. “Little kids running to go smell a flower, people sneaking a foot in a flower bed to take a photo to send to mom—it’s those little moments when people are oblivious to people watching. Absolutely engrossed in their surroundings. I’ll get emotional because, to me, this is everything,” says Turner.

“This is my life, this is my career, but at the end of the day, my obsession. To see people get a glimpse behind the emerald curtain and see what I see is probably my happiest moment. How to make more of that happen is really what I want to do, and to show people the love that gardens can give you.”

Sophie Silverstone is a CATALYST staff writer and the director of community outreach.

This article was originally published on June 1, 2020.