In his introductory post to Religious “Practice” month here at JI, Ryan touched on the many ways ritual and practice informs Mormon lives, from the formal ordinances to the less formal expressions of lived religion, like hair wreaths or sacrament bread. Today’s post is about one of those informal practices, namely gardening, and more specifically, gardening at Temple Square.
Gardening has its own topic page on LDS.org, with tips to start and maintain your own garden. Not surprisingly, members are encouraged to garden because “[p]lanting a garden, even a small one, allows for a greater degree of self-reliance” and, as Thomas Monson said, “[s]elf-reliance is a product of our work and undergirds all other welfare practices. It is an essential element in our spiritual as well as our temporal well-being.” (For those curious, gardening also makes its way into the basic manual for women, part A, and the basic manual for priesthood holders, as well as references in the Friend, Ensign, Liahona, and Family Home Evening resource book, among others.)
A 1986 personal essay, written by Brenda Taylor Peterson and published in the Ensign, makes clear that gardening is as much a spiritual as it is a temporal practice. She writes,
My family’s roots are deep in the soil. As a child, daily I heard my father, a farmer, pray over his stewardship and petition the Lord for blessings on our crops and land as we knelt around the kitchen table in family prayer. From a very young age I realized that the wind, the rain, the late frost in the spring are of elemental concern to those whose livelihood is dependent upon the cycle of planting, tending, and harvesting a crop.
… For the generations of our family, however, a garden has provided something even more essential and life-giving than potatoes and peaches. We till the soil and dress and weed it, and it rewards us not only with fresh fruit and vegetables to eat and put by, but with binding family traditions, cohesiveness, and communication, with moral nourishment to cope with daily life.
Working in the soil gave the family a roof over their heads and food on their table, but also taught them the life lessons they needed to succeed.
In their book, Temple Square Gardening, Gates, Erickson, Zollinger, and Sagers talk about the award-winning gardens at Temple Square, which they work to keep beautiful in any season, “[f]rom the luminous pastels of spring to the contrasting brilliant tones of late summer and early fall to the grandeur and allure of Christmas” (viii). They are careful to say that the beauty of the gardens must “[call] attention to the Creator, not the designer” and the aim is “produce a sequence of garden scenes that seem right and inevitable and that serve as a tribute to Heavenly Father and his inspired plans to bless mankind” (vii).
The book invokes the pioneers, who included planting flowers in their aim to build a city in the desert. The authors quote both Brigham Young, “it is my business to decorate and beautify Zion, it is part of my religion as much as going to meeting, praying, or singing” (Deseret News, 21 August 1855), and the well-known verse from Isaiah, “the desert shall … blossom as the rose” (35:1), to frame gardening as a religious act.
According to the landscape designer, “The … flowers … help people appreciate God and … create a setting for man’s contemplation of the infinite” (6). 34 full-time gardeners, 20-30 seasonal gardeners and 95 service missionaries work in the gardens at Temple Square, as well as give tours of the rooftop gardens, and twice a year, a thousand volunteers help weed, replant, and do other necessary tasks. Of course, the Salt Lake City temple isn’t the only temple to have exquisitely landscaped grounds, and the theme of order and relaxation, brought to life in flowers, is echoed on temple grounds all over the world.
Whether it’s for growing food or flowers, it’s clear that soil and spirituality intersect in some very Mormon ways. Feel free to share any gardening stories you might have in the comments–whether you have a green thumb, or, like me, it’s safest if you admire plants from afar.
 The book aims to be a handbook, using Temple Square as an example, but gives plant profiles, tips and resources, and guidelines for planning and designing for gardeners anywhere.