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Cathy Free: Salt Lake park is the world’s own garden

SHARE Cathy Free: Salt Lake park is the world’s own garden

Early next month, don't be surprised if you find Mary Anne Siegendorf with one hand in India and the other in China, longing for the peaceful walkways of Denmark a few yards away.

Mary Anne will be up to her elbows in dirt, planting hibiscus and daisies and answering the same question at least 2,000 times: "When will all the flowers be ready?"

If you're impatient for impatiens at Salt Lake City's Jordan Park, your wait is almost over. By mid-May, says Mary Anne, most of the eye-catching flower beds in the park's International Peace Gardens should be luring visitors to find a bench and relax for a while.

As senior florist at the gardens, Mary Anne, 48, has spent more than half of her life creating beautiful hideaways where people from all backgrounds, races and nationalities can find inner peace along with a few gardening ideas.

Eager to share a bit of her world, she joined me for a springtime Free Lunch of turkey sandwiches and lemonade beneath a pagoda in China — one of 28 countries from Africa to Wales represented at the Peace Gardens.

"You'd be surprised at how many people don't know about the gardens — we're one of the city's best little secrets," says Mary Anne, motioning to splashes of spring green pushing up through the soil bordering China and India. "The Peace Gardens are in the Triple-A guide, so we get more tourists than locals. During summer, they'll pull up here by the bus load."

Started in 1939 when world peace was especially fragile, the International Peace Gardens were dedicated eight years later and have been a gathering place for Salt Lake City's ethnic communities ever since.

"One of my favorite things is to come here during one of the festivals and hear all of the different languages," says Mary Anne, a slim, enthusiastic woman with a year-round tan. "It makes you feel like you're living in a real city."

Growing up in the small Davis County town of Sunset, Mary Anne watched her mother plant daffodils and begonias every spring, but didn't get her own fingernails dirty until she turned 20 and went to work for the Salt Lake City Parks Department.

"I thought it would be a good way to work on my tan that summer," she says. "I didn't know a thing about gardening."

Tending to delicate plants in the greenhouse, she quickly learned and was soon designing flower beds and pruning trees at Liberty and Jordan parks. Today, she still divides her time between those parks, but the Peace Gardens are her favorite place to spend the workday.

With a Matterhorn in Switzerland and a Viking burial mound in Denmark, there is a lot to keep up in the winding, fragrant gardens. Last year, somebody stole the French garden's Eiffel Tower, and this year, gang members sprayed one of the Soviet Union's signs with graffiti.

For the most part, though, the Peace Gardens are a quiet place to spend a warm afternoon. "Some days, you might come in here and find members of the Japanese community trimming up their bonsai," says Mary Anne, "or you might see a group from India or Korea planting a new tree. This really is the world's garden."

There is talk now of expanding the Peace Gardens to the other side of the Jordan River, and that would be just fine with Mary Anne. She dreams of the day when there is room for the rest of the world's countries, from Australia to Iraq.

At a time of turmoil in the world, "it's nice to have a place where people can come and feel a sense of community," she says. Just don't expect Mary Anne's begonias to be blooming for another few weeks.


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.