Features and Occasionals

Red Butte’s Waterwise Terraces

By Adele Flail

Climb into the Salt Lake foothills for lessons in conservation and beauty.

Gardeners, prepare for a seduction of the senses: After over five years of planning and two years of construction, on May 20 Red Butte Garden will unveil their long-awaited three-acre Water Conservation Garden. For Red Butte’s staff, this project represents their personal, as well as professional, passions.

Red Butte Garden horticulturist Fritz Kollmann first got hooked on gardening when he took a permaculture class 12 years ago. The class turned his eye towards more site-specific and ecologically sound methods of gardening and eventually inspired the creation of this new permanent garden exhibit. Red Butte employees, visitors and volunteers were equally interested in seeing waterwise features incorporated into the Garden. “Absolutely everyone pushed for this,” says Kollmann.

With financial help from private donors, this new section will have room to spare: Following a meandering path leading from the familiar grounds up into the foothills, visitors will find “room” after “room” of landscape decor. It has long been stated by Red Butte staff that this garden will go beyond the limits of the cacti and gravel that many envision when thinking of xeriscaping—although, with over 500 types of plants thriving on the newly built terraces, succulent-lovers and cacti-aficionados will likely find something to their tastes.

According to Tres Fromme, the Florida-based designer who created the Water Conservation Garden, the plots have been carefully hydrozoned to take advantage of the ascending site, with more water-hungry plants living at lower elevations and hardier plants co-existing in the higher elevations of the terraces, alongside the naturally waterwise native plants of the foothills. Through his company, 3 fromme DESIGN, he has worked with botanical gardens around the country—from the United States Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C., to the National Butterfly Center in Texas, to the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona—and is well versed in exploring the specific challenges and opportunities of site, community and region.

Fromme and the Red Butte Garden team had particular fun playing with the project’s patterns and colors across the various hydrozones. “We wanted to show that you can have a garden that is just as beautiful if you water once a month, as you can if you water once a week…If you pick the right plants,” Fromme says.

To ease visitors from the familiar suburban lawnscape to the unorthodox design of water conservation gardening, the lowest terrace of the Garden begins with an imitation of the standard lawn-bordered-by-flowers look pioneered by English grande dame of gardening Gertrude Jekyll—the very look that puts fans of both “lush greenery” and “working within the ecological strictures of the dry southwest” into a bind. The Water Conservation Garden, however, has managed to replicate this look with plants that use significantly less water than a traditional green lawn. Those who come to this section of the garden may, in fact, discover that their current landscaping is more ecologically sound than they knew, as some of the plants used by the designers are already in widespread use The trick is to teach homeowners that they can water their plants significantly less and still get the same great look, sometimes even better.

Visitors in search of more inspiration in waterwise gardening explore upwards into the dry-land rain garden, planted with water-loving flora that can conversely also withstand drying out. Kollmann hopes visitors will realize that this is a vital tool in maintaining landscaping in a desert climate, which tends to receive rainfall in bursts. A well-thought-out rain garden can help manage storm water and control run-off.

Kollmann’s particular passion, however, is the food forest. This section uses shallow basins to help thirsty garden plants get the water they need. A series of depressions collect rainfall from nearby sidewalks, and supplements and extends Red Butte’s traditional watering cycle. Going beyond simple veggie boxes, this garden should inspire those with intersecting ecological interests, suggesting ways to make both local eating and water conservation a possibility.

Visitors looking for more hardcore forays into waterwise gardening will find a panoply of plants to fire their imagination along the way. The real showstoppers are in the highest terraces. As Fromme reveals, “We wanted to emphasize the drama of the site: As you walk up, you don’t realize how big the garden really is, and it creates this choreographed unfolding as you ascend.” As visitors get higher and higher, and the amount of water used decreases, these manicured spaces come into contact with the wider natural landscape of the mountains. Don’t forget to survey where you’ve come from, advises Fromme, “As you turn around, there is a new relationship to what has come behind you, and at the top you get an amazing view out to downtown, and to Salt Lake as a whole.”

Salt Lake also has the hands-on, education-focused exhibits at West Jordan’s Conservation Garden Park. Red Butte’s Water Conservation Garden is different. “We want to capture people’s imagination with the beauty of the garden, and create a compelling experience,” says Fromme.

Kollmann agrees. “Even if you’re not interested in waterwise gardening, it is worth coming for the view.” That view, in which the arms of waterwise garden and foothill wilderness embrace the homes spread out below, suggests the beauty and pleasure available to those ready to give in to the temptations offered by Red Butte Garden.

The Red Butte Garden Water Conservation Garden Grand Opening on May 20, 2017 will feature tours throughout the day. $12. 7pm: Tres Fromme will discuss the design and development of the project. Registration required. 801-585-0556; www.redbuttegarden.org

This article was originally published on May 1, 2017.