3 Tips from the Temple Square Gardeners

When I first started my Utah flower farm, Save the Bees Flower Co, I tried hunting down local gardening experts that could tell me more about growing field-to-vase blooms.

There are tons of books on flower farming and gardening in general, but nothing beats finding a local expert with the same growing conditions.

Two places came to mind immediately: Salt Lake City’s Temple Square and the Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point.

I live in Lehi so contacting the master gardener at Ashton Gardens was relatively simple. However, hunting down the Temple Square master gardener proved more difficult. Unexpectedly, a routine trip to the library solved my problem!

It turns out there was a book written by a few of the Temple Square gardeners a few years ago called, “Temple Square Gardening.” This book is golden for local growers with very specific tips related to our Utah soils, weeds and pest challenges.

I also realized that I KNEW one of the authors! I literally exclaimed, “Hey I know her!” before remembering I was in a library. #shhhhhhh

My flower farming friend Shelly Zollinger never mentioned working on Temple Square or co-writing a BOOK about it. After picking her brain some more and devouring the book, I took away three main tips that you can read below.

Photo by Devin Justesen on Unsplash

3 Tips from the Temple Square Gardeners:

1. Take advantage of hardy annuals: Hardy annuals are not a new gardening concept, but one often overlooked by the home gardener or new flower farmer. A hardy annual is basically a flower you can plant in the fall and it will overwinter in the garden and bloom better and earlier in spring. This is extremely useful in our Utah climate, because our spring jumps right into the heat of summer.

“Over the years the Temple Square gardening staff has “invented” spring-blooming gardens for Utah…waiting until the soil dries out in the spring before planting pansies and other spring flowers means that by the time they finally become established, it’s almost time to take them out.”

The temple square gardeners plant the bulk of their gorgeous spring blooms in fall. (I also loved that the “Temple Square Gardening” book lists all the plants and flowers used as hardy annuals on Temple Square!)

I feel like people are intimidated by the idea of winter gardening, but it really is quite simple and it uses a lot less water (which is a big bonus in our state). I wrote a whole post on my experience with hardy annuals and winter gardening in Utah that you can read here. (For flower farming I recommend Lisa Ziegler’s Cool Flowers book too.)

2. Soil prep is the key to success: Again, this concept was not new to me, but I loved how the gardeners broke down Utah’s soil strengths and weaknesses and explained how it all fit together. The Temple Square gardens are routinely soil tested, amended and tilled to a depth of 8-10 inches.

“Adding organic matter is the easiest and best way to improve your soil….Soil texture dramatically affects the availability of plant nutrients….Amending sand or clay soils with organic matter improves nutrient-holding capacity. Soil pH also effects the ability of plants to absorb nutrients.”

The Temple Square gardeners identify Utelite as one of their “secrets” to creating better texture in their heavy clay soil. And unlike compost, Zollinger noted that you can add up to 50 percent Utelite to soil without worrying. (Apparently, Utelite is something you can find at most nurseries, but I was unaware of its existence until now!)

3. Take a natural approach to pest and weed control: “The earth was cursed to bring forth thistles and weeds, and that happens in the Temple Square gardens just as it does in your garden…For most weeds, prevention, rather than warfare, is the best control.”

You can prevent weeds by avoiding questionable top soils, using soil amendments that are fully composted correctly and catching weeds before they drop seed.

The grounds workers also noted that nature does not tolerate bare ground and weeds will quickly move in to your blank spots. They suggest beating the weeds by crowding them out with a canopy of flowers. “Where your plants flourish, weeds are not nearly as likely to grow.”

Temple Square gardeners use IPM (Integrated Pest Management). Basically, they maintain healthy plants that are naturally more disease and pest resistant and maintain pest population at an acceptable level. They do this by planting the right plants at the right time into amended soil, using good fertilizer and irrigation practices, encouraging a healthy ecosystem with beneficial insects etc.

They rely first on organic controls like hand picking or organic oils, but will also use chemical controls like Bt or soap sprays when necessary.

I do most of the same things, but I liked the added tip to plant a variety of plants. That way if something falls pray to pests or disease, your garden is not all lost.

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What I found the most insightful, was that the gardeners design everything in a simple and natural style so it points back to the Creator rather than themselves. I’ve heard that they will literally toss a handful of tulip bulbs in the garden and let them land where they may.

It takes 34 full time gardeners, 30 seasonal gardeners, help from over 80 Church service missionaries and a thousand volunteers each spring and fall (for initial planting) to maintain the Temple Square gardens.

So the next time you see a grounds worker at the Temple, thank them for all their hard work! Maybe even volunteer to help!

If you have your own questions about growing a flower garden, feel free to subscribe to my Cut Flower Garden newsletter. I was pretty frustrated when I first started flower farming and had to hunt for good sources about specialty cut blooms in Utah. (Most gardeners gave me the side eye when I asked about stem length and vase life rather than heirloom tomatoes or water-wise landscaping.)

However, I am now a budding urban flower farmer in Lehi harvesting from over 1800 plants right in my yard using high density farming practices! I am happy to share my knowledge with those that want to create a little piece of heaven in their garden and enjoy fresh blooms on their table all season long.

Happy Gardening!

Maria

Winter Gardening in Utah

Winter gardening did not sound appealing to me at first. I thought it would be cold and miserable. I. hate. being. cold.

However, I gave winter gardening a shot this year and it turns out winter gardening is very low maintenance! I now prefer it to summer gardening. (I know how crazy that sounds.)

Winter gardening can be done with a low tunnel or without. Either way you can get a jump on the growing season, while using less water and spending less time weeding or fighting pests. (I sound less crazy now right?!)

I have a few overwintered crops in my space right now. Some that need the low tunnel and some that do not.

A good pair of boots while gardening is a must!

First, lets talk about low tunnel winter gardening.

Eliot Coleman, an innovator in the gardening world, designed the low tunnel to act as a cost effective unheated mini greenhouse for home gardeners. Originally, the idea was to overwinter cold hardy food crops, but flower farmers also use the low tunnel to overwinter flowers.

I have a low tunnel over the crops that are not hardy to my zone, but still prefer a cool establishment period (ranunculus and anemone). I am in zone 7, but my ranunculus are only hardy to zone 8 (a tiny bit more mild than my zone). The tunnel provides just enough protection to keep my ground from freezing and killing the ranunculus, but still allows them to get the long cool establishment period they prefer. Picky things.

Caring for my low tunnel crop is simpler than I thought it would be. I just vent my low tunnel on warm sunny winter days and if the weather stays above 28F for three consecutive days I water a little bit. However, that has only happened once and I don’t expect it to happen more than 3 times all winter. In general, the low tunnel provides adequate humidity.

I also have winter crops that do not require a low tunnel. These are known as hardy annuals (snapdragons, bupleurum, poppies, etc.) and also include the fall planted bulbs/tubers that are hardy to my zone (tulips, daffodils, peonies etc.).

These overwintered crops are so low maintenance, because winter snow takes care of most watering needs and the plants are dormant (meaning they are not in a very active growing stage).

This means the plants just need a dry fertilizer sprinkled in the fall during planting and it will slow feed them all winter.

Note that hardy annual seeds should be started mid summer and bulbs/tubers/corms are started in the fall.

As for pests, I did have a neighborhood kitty that wanted to dig in my rows, but I laid down bird netting over the soil and haven’t noticed problems since. (I am grateful for our neighborhood mouser, but don’t like working around kitty poop.) So far, I have not noticed any of the typical spring or summer garden pests munching on my plants.

The final key to easy winter gardening is to suppress weeds early on so you don’t have to weed in the snow and mud.

I use burned landscape fabric in my low tunnel and have not needed to weed yet.

In the rows I struggled a bit with weeds around the hardy annual plants, but that could have easily been prevented with some mulch or more landscape fabric. (I haven’t noticed any weeds in my bulb rows yet.)

Thanks to my winter garden, I will have MORE robust crops earlier, using LESS water and spending LESS time to care for them. In our dry Utah climate, I consider that a big win!

If I have convinced you to try winter gardening and you would like to make your own low tunnel for food crops or blooms, then follow this awesome tutorial by Bare Mountain Farm. 

My low tunnel cost about $250 to construct with parts from Home Depot and Amazon. I have 6 mil UV treated greenhouse plastic over tunnel and AG19 frost cloth inside.

Even if you don’t need a low tunnel for your crops (if you stick with hardy annuals and bulbs that grow in your zone), I would have a frost cloth on hand for extra cold snaps. If you know temps are dropping below freezing, I would toss a frost blanket over your crops just to be safe.

One last note, if you are interested in winter gardening for cut flowers I would read Lisa Zeigler’s Cool Flowers book. I have a copy on my bookshelf that I reference constantly.

And of course, winter gardening would not be complete without some late winter seed starting! Read up on my best tips for indoor seed starting here. 

If you have additional questions or want to share your winter gardening experiences, please leave me a comment below.

Happy Gardening!