Gardening in the Utah Desert and the Push for “Localscapes”

Temple Gardens, Salt Lake City

As soon as I arrived in Salt Lake City for the national conference of garden communicators last month I heard from multiple sources that the Mormon Temple Gardens were shockingly bad! So I left the busy cocktail reception and set off on a mission to behold the horticultural abomination that had been described to me.

What I found were 35 whole acres of turfgrass and annuals in beds surrounding the Temple, there in the desert! Utah is the second driest state in the country! Wiki writes:

The gardens at Temple Square include 250 flower beds, over 165,000 bedding plants, and over 700 varieties of plants from all over the world. The gardens are redesigned every six months and replanted mostly by volunteers and seven full-time supervising gardeners.

It gets worse. The LSD (my bad!) LDS Church is far from alone there in Utah in landscaping like it’s Connecticut. Turfgrass and and other thirsty plants are actually the NORM there – still – and that’s thanks to their water supply being so close and so cheap.

It’s so bad, “some 70 percent of the water in Utah’s cities is used primarily to irrigate grass.” (Source.)

Change is coming to the Temple Gardens, at least. A local organizer told me they’ve pledged to make improvements in water usage and send a better message to their members.

But the primary organization charged with turning the public around about thirsty Eastern landscapes is the local water authority, whose conservation efforts focus on teaching people to use “localscapes.” It’s an educational effort led by “outreach coordinator” Cynthia Bee, whose terrific talk for garden writers I got to hear.

How NOT to Change Residential Landscapes
Having studied the poor results of water authorities and others pushing for conservation, Cynthia learned that people are turned off by the term xeriscape, which is commonly interpreted as requiring lawns to be replaced with rocks and cactus. Information about conservation is often seen as inaccessible and intimidating. People don’t relate to the term “gardener,” so Cynthia decided to teach “landscaping for homeowners,” not gardening for gardeners.

And a “light bulb moment” for her was finding that people “equate conservation with sacrifice,” giving up something of value for the good of other people.

In Cynthia’s talks and the courses she teaches, lawn is referred to as a recreation center, not a default ground cover. So if people that if they need some lawn, okay, but if not, she shows them gorgeous xeriscapes that their neighbors might just want to copy.

Here are Cynthia’s “Rules of Lawn:”

  • It should be a planned element, not the default.
  • Lawns should be unobstructed for easier mowing and irrigation (place trees, etc. outside the lawn)
  • Lawns must be at least 8′ wide, to eliminate awkward areas that are hard to water, mow and trim.
  • Use hardscaping for paths, not lawn.
  • No lawn on slopes.

(To Easteners like me, teaching people to design lawns that are easier to irrigate may sound like a dubious conservation message. Water shouldn’t be wasted irrigating lawns, right? But without irrigation there ARE no lawns in Utah.)

One successful message to homeowners is to “Flip the Strip” by replacing lawn in “hell strips” with localscapes. These small spots are easier to tackle and can be “gateway drugs” for larger changes.

“Save Your Saturday” is another promotional theme that’s working. It shows how much time is saved in mowing and trimming lawns that are designed for efficiency.

In new developments, localscaping was initially offered as an “upgrade,” with larger patios and less lawn, but it was so popular, it’s now it’s standard. It’s driving demand! Contractors get cash back if they localscape. Cynthia provides them with marketing tools touting the beauty and virtues of these landscapes.

People who’ve created “localscapes” share them on social media, to the Localscapes Facebook group and elsewhere. Instead of posting signs proclaiming their yards to be “localscapes,” they post signs at the start of installation, when neighbors are most interested in what’s going on, stating “This yard’s being Localized.” It’s “Pardon our dust” with a message.

How Writers can Help
From Cynthia’s talk to garden writers:

  • Translate academic language. “Fancytown words” are less effective.
  • Depoliticize this. Don’t offend people. Your goal should be getting the most people to move to the next step.
  • Ferret out the real roadblocks and get rid of them.
  • Focusing on natives v. nonnatives has much less effect than improving irrigation practices, at least in dry regions.
  • If you’re writing for a national audience, remember that dry regions are different! E.g., it makes no sense to recommend rain barrels where there’s almost no rain.
At the Water Authority’s Conservation Garden Park near Salt Lake City.

Scroll down to read Cynthia’s comment about first teaching xeriscaping, then creating the localscape approach that allows for some lawn.


  1. I’m sure a lot of you are wondering how we can tout water-efficiency and lawn in the same breath. Locals here in Utah have bought into the standard of beauty they’ve been shown in books, magazines etc. and so we have a place with great water storage that has enabled them to have landscapes that are primarily lawn. Those days are over.

    For 20 years, we tried to get locals to embrace completely lawnless yards but that is radical change given a starting point of 90% lawn in existing yards. Radical change is rarely lasting and the many failed xeriscapes have done more to harm the movement than if they’d never been attempted.

    So instead, we’ve opted for incremental change and now that we’ve quit expecting perfection, we’re achieving the rapid progress that previously alluded us. A Localscape CAN still have some lawn (no more than 30%) but we’re also very specific about how that lawn can be used because design determines efficiency both in water and work. If we reach a point where truly lawn is not an option, a Localscape can be converted to a well-designed xeriscape for less than $1000 by eliminating that bit of lawn and replacing it with hardscape, gravel or groundcover.

    So proud to work with an amazing team here at Jordan Valley Water who have all helped craft and teach this method to locals.

    • Thanks for giving everyone the interesting back story.
      Something I couldn’t find in my notes but since I have your attention – How much reduction in water usage are you finding with localscapes v. traditional landscapes? Susan

      • We’ve just converted our park strip and backyard on our 1/3 acre lot using the techniques Cynthia teaches and we’ve cut our water usage by more than half already! The front yard is up next!

    • Cynthia (or anyone in this thread), do you by chance have any more links and/or sets of photos you can share here that illustrates some successful, real-world examples of beautiful Utah localscapes?

  2. Really interesting piece. I think Utah—the wild, natural Utah—is one of the most beautiful states in the US. However, when white settlers first appeared, they made it a mission (and point of pride to this day for some) to turn the desert into a green garden. I guess humans like to bring what’s familiar with them, wherever they go. Also…”LSD church” (smiling here!)?

  3. It was insulting to read how you referred to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as you did in the article. You even misspelled the short cut that you used. To start the article off so negative was also a real turn off. My husband and I just built a new home here in Utah. We are originally from Ohio. We are using the localscape method to install our new landscape. We have been taking the classes offered to learn these new concepts to adapt to the local climate here on Utah. Your article could have been presented in such a better format. So disappointed.

    • Sorry about the typo, which I’ve corrected but left evidence of my mistake so your comment makes sense.

      But on the substance: Is your position that the landscape choices on display there shouldn’t be publicly criticized?

  4. Cynthia Bee sounds like she’s on top of it.–Wish I could have heard her speak. I think the term “conservation” is a turn off in the part of the country I live in as well. Many people where I live aren’t interested in conserving anything. I *think* they equate the term with environmental tree huggers who aren’t that popular in this neck of the woods. (I’m probably close to being an environmental tree hugger. I just don’t tell people.)

  5. Thank you, Susan. I really enjoyed reading about Cynthia’s program. It offers lessons that seem appropriate in any area of the country. This is an inspiring roadmap for how to move toward an attractive, low maintenance yard and reduce mowing and watering. The graphics are wonderful. What a great thinker/communicator she is! The appeal is even greater as we live through a long Mid-Atlantic drought.
    I felt sad seeing the irrigation dependent gardens around the Mormon Temple in a time when Utah is planning to take even more water from the Colorado River, a river so depleted that it never reaches the sea or people who need it far downstream. It is heartening to read of their plans to change gardening practices at the Temple, and also by people in their own communities. It prods me to improve my own practices.
    I look forward to the further adventures and observations of Gardener Susan.

    • Thank YOU TOO Melissa, for spreading the word about sane garden design and practices. We need more fact-based voices like yours who know how to communicate with the public.

  6. Didn’t know SLC was in a desert. I remember a similar problem with Las Vegas during the Great Recession. So many homes were “underwater” and being sold. In order to sell the house so many lawns were being irrigated exacerbating drought conditions. Even with heavy fines these lawns were being irrigated. Without a curb appeal of a green lawn, potential buyers would go visit another house with a green lawn rather than a home with a dry lawn.

  7. Thought you were a bit hard on the Temple gardens, too, although since they are a huge presence in Utah it would be nice to see them set an example and transform their gardens into something more logical for that climate. Imagine the influence they could have.

    “Localscaping” is a pretty genius term. It taps into the current trend of folks wanting to buy more local food, flowers, etc., for ecological reasons, but also, as our world is becoming more globalized and homogeneous, I think many people are feeling a desire to live where there is a unique sense of place. Utah should not feel like Virginia or vice versa, and that includes the view from the kitchen window.

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