SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Elder Jesse Bean, called to serve as a “gardening missionary” for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, traveled by bus from his home in Brigham City, Utah, to work at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Though he had to arise at 4:30 a.m. to meet the bus schedule for the 90-minute journey to his workplace, Bean never missed a day in his two-year term of service.
“We called Elder Bean our 100-percenter, he worked so hard,” explained Valerie Swenson, gardening supervisor for Elder Bean and about a dozen other service missionaries who worked with him.
Swenson, herself a volunteer in the 35-acre, five-section garden areas surrounding the headquarters of the Church in Salt Lake City, oversees the work of such young service missionaries who work at their own expense. Some of those serving in the volunteer force do so because the physical or emotional demands of a regular two-year proselytizing mission might prove problematic.
Volunteers serving in the more than 200 garden beds perform a variety of tasks in their weekly assignments. In addition to the seasonal tasks of planting, weeding and deadheading, they help install and remove holiday decorations on Temple Square.
“Our task,” according to Swenson, “is twofold. We have specific chores to do, but we also need to help these young people feel important and valued for their service. Usually we have locally based missionaries, but (we) have recently had a young woman from Australia come to work with us. Her parents are serving as full-time missionaries in the translation department of the Church, and she spends two days a week in the gardens.”
In addition to Swenson’s crew, volunteers of several kinds assist in the maintenance of the award-winning gardens on Temple Square, the Conference Center, the Church Office Building, the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and the Main Street Plaza.
Nearly 15 years ago, volunteer Christena Gates was invited to organize tours of the frequently visited Church gardens. Gates recruited volunteers to lead tours but also required the guides to donate four hours of labor in the gardens each week. From May through October, nearly 80 men and women now participate in this program.
“We’ve had all levels of gardening experience in our groups,” Gates said. “Some of our volunteers are master gardeners, but the majority simply loves to be outside, to be on Temple Square and to be of service. A few don’t know one plant from another, but we teach them what they need to know — and then we have the help of the full-time gardening staff, who are generally available to answer questions.”
Local congregations of the Church, community groups and students flood the gardens for specific assignments during May and October, when major changes are required. Both garden tour guides and missionaries supervise as the large groups of volunteers remove seasonal plantings to prepare for the next scheduled additions to the gardens.
A knowledge of plants and gardening techniques proves helpful when volunteering for a Temple Square garden mission, but hardworking hands become a more important asset.
But for Swenson, there’s nothing like serving a mission outside wearing blue jeans.
As for Gates, tending the gardens provides as escape from the cares of the world. “Nothing compares to the calm and peace of early-morning work in the garden,” Gates explains, “and on Temple Square, the gardens are beds of artistry at the very finest.”
Despite inclement weather, long distances or challenging work assignments, hundreds of volunteers enjoy a variety of gardening responsibilities in the Church gardens. Volunteers meet strictly scheduled planting, weeding and replanting deadlines to keep the striking gardens an inviting destination for visitors from all parts of the world.