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Have you seen the new Washington Square Garden?

Salt Lake City’s 18-year old conservation demonstration garden continues to thrive with a new site plan and plants

The Washington Square Water Wise Garden with City and County Building in background.
The Washington Square Water-Wise Garden

This spring, the Salt Lake City Parks Division planted a new garden in Washington Square on the east side of the City-County Building on 200 East between 400 and 500 South.

The bright flowers, colorful foliage, and sweet smells have greeted visitors all summer as they enter the Capital City’s flagship municipal building.

As we wind down the summer season, we thought it’d be fun to highlight the new garden—and take a walk down memory lane to celebrate the original creation of this special space back in 2001.

The First Conservation Garden

It was just before the 2002 Olympics brought the world to Salt Lake City, and this signature outdoor space was re-constructed to demonstrate the City’s commitment to sustainability. At that time, it was one of the first examples in Salt Lake City showcasing how beautiful a low-water garden can be.

At the end of the last century (20th that is), the area to the east of the City-County Building was a mixture of grass, annuals, and asphalt– which, as you can imagine, was more parking-centric and the grass was thirsty.

In 2001, the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities saw an opportunity and first turned this space into a conservation demonstration garden. The garden was installed in June 2001, with funding through a grant from the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. The grant also helped to pay for efficiency improvements to the existing lawn irrigation system at Washington Square.

The 2001 garden was designed in a style reminiscent of mid-18th Century English gardens that were being fashioned with American native plants identified during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which kept it historically-relevant even though “xeriscaping” is a newer trend. The 2001 garden was brimming with striking low-water Western natives like Agastache, milkweed, and blanket flower; and non-native adaptive plants like lamb’s ear, lavender, and Maiden Hair grass.

Volunteers helped care for the garden, plucking weeds and trimming wayward shrubs. However, even in an established xeric garden, this takes some work.

The first Washington Square Conservation Garden, circa 2015. Photo courtesy of WordCamp

The 2019 Demonstration Garden

As plants grow and time passes, so too do gardens evolve and transform. After 17 years, responding to guidance from the Conservancy and Use Committee, the Mayor’s Office and Public Services Department decided to fully bring the garden under the management of the Parks Division that maintains the rest of the grounds at Washington Square, which meant we no longer required volunteers to maintain it.

This spring, crews got to work. The Parks Division updated the drip irrigation system and decided to integrate an array of both water-wise and traditional flowers and shrubs. The project was designed and implemented by Parks Division staff utilizing expertise in design, horticulture, water-wise irrigation, construction and maintenance.

Public Lands developed two designs for the centerpiece garden. One design relied primarily on annuals to provide dramatic long season color. A second design incorporated both annuals and water-wise perennials to create an experience that changes throughout the season. The Conservancy and Use Committee reviewed the designs within the context of the City goals for sustainability and recommended the water-wise design to the Mayor for approval.

The chosen design for the “Localscapes” garden at Washington Square. Please note that some plants were substituted during final plantings.

The new Washington Square Garden includes a mix of lower-water perennial plants on the outer circle with a small area on the inner circle dedicated to profuse-blooming annuals and perennials.

The Washington Square Garden greets visitors as they approach the Salt Lake City and County Building, a historical site.

SLCgreen, along with the Department of Public Utilities, donated funds to help support the new garden because, just as with the first iteration of the demonstration garden, it shows how we can use less water, support pollinators, and still have beautiful garden spaces. 

Compared to traditional turf grass, lower-water plants help reduce utility costs, do better in our arid and warming climate, and stay beautiful even during our hottest months!

Planting more lower water, adaptive plants is important as our climate warms and summers get hotter in Salt Lake City.

BUT, you may ask — why not just cover it all with pebbles or gravel? Then you won’t be using any water!

Having some plants is actually beneficial to our environment – which is why Salt Lake City requires some plantings in the park strip and front yard. Plants absorb stormwater runoff, clear the air, support pollinators and wildlife, and minimize the urban heat island effect. They also add to our community’s beauty.

The Washington Square Garden is designed to do all of those things– all while using less water.

Plants You’ll Find

The Washington Square Garden is carefully planted to create a beautiful space for any season.

Plants in the external areas feature fragrant and whimsical flowering plants including Gaura, the spring bloomer ‘Miss Kim’ Lilac, bee-loving perennial Agastache, and drought-resistant grasses like ‘Heavy Metal’ Switchgrass and Blue Oatgrass.

In the internal circle of the garden is a more traditional annual and perennial flower bed that bursts with giant allium, potato vine, and salvia. Instead of a traditional boxwood hedge, Gro-low sumac (Rhus aromatica)  was planted as a water-wise alternative to create a formal border at the edge of the pedestrian circle. When the Rhus grows a little larger, it will be trimmed in a formal manner.

Water-wise gardens don’t need to be naturalistic in style, they can also be beautifully executed in a formal or traditional style. The benefit of these water-wise stars is they look best when summer is at its hottest and driest.

Water-wise in SLC

By incorporating low-water adaptive and native plants in the Washington Square Garden, Salt Lake City is able to continue prioritizing water efficiency.

Native plants, as do many adaptive plants, have the added benefit of attracting local pollinators. Water-wise gardens create an environment that fosters biodiversity and supports important pollinators. Moreover, the pollinators and birds that these plants attract help to keep the garden healthier.

Learn more about water conservation gardening by visiting the Salt Lake City Public Utilities page.

Aerial view of the Washington Square Water Wise garden.
A bird’s view of the new Washington Square Garden shortly after it was planted, 2019.

Visit the Garden!

In just the first season, the garden is flourishing. The plants filled in (which helps minimize weeds) and some have grown over five feet since they were planted in May. Most are still enjoying the last bit of warm weather.

Urban green spaces give Salt Lake City residents a place to enjoy nature. Not only do urban gardens help cool things down, they play an essential role in supporting urban residents’ mental health and encouraging physical activity in the downtown area. The gardens and green spaces at Washington Square give Salt Lake City residents, visitors, and employees a pleasant place to relax in the heart of downtown.

Summer may have come to a close, but you can still come visit the Washington Square Water-wise Garden this autumn! It’s truly a Salt Lake City gem!

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