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Master gardener reaps rich rewards

Merrill Wilson picks raspberries from his Avenues garden. He's been working the plot since the 1960s.
Merrill Wilson picks raspberries from his Avenues garden. He's been working the plot since the 1960s.
Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

Flourishing with fruit trees, berry bushes and vegetables, the terraced garden above City Creek Canyon looks out of place among the matted yellowing weeds, rocks and brambles that surround it.

The entire hillside looked unkempt 40 years ago, but that was before Merrill Wilson took out his tiller and went to work. Now his garden symbolizes the motto by which he lives.

"In my mind, whatever you're doing, you have to think to yourself, 'How can I do this better?' " Wilson said. "I try to emulate that in every aspect of my life, not just gardening."

The 78-year-old retired cancer surgeon, who is still actively cultivating the ground, won 28 ribbons at the Utah State Fair for the 29 fruits and vegetables he entered. He's been exchanging produce for ribbons at the fair for roughly 20 years.

And during that time, Wilson has become well-known throughout the valley for his garden and the generosity with which he distributes the produce he grows.

Everywhere he goes he shares fruits and vegetables with people, said his niece, Wendy Bohman, who lives nearby.

"Even if they don't know his name, they sure know his garden," she said.

He'll plant specific foods that he doesn't like just because he knows other people like them, Bohman said. He grows herbs for a neighbor's wife and hot peppers for his Mexican friends.

But, it's not the recognition, the blue ribbons or the trophies that drive him.

"I think it's a sense of satisfaction to see what you can do with what was formerly a barren waste," Wilson said.

He bends down and uproots a weed, overturning rich black soil.

"You wouldn't believe you could have a piece of property like this here in the city," he said surveying the eight-tenths of an acre his garden sits atop.

Before Wilson moved to the Avenues with his wife and then five children in 1967, only weeds and a few "trash trees" had dared grow amid the clay, sand and rocks on the hillside.

Still, Wilson, who grew up on a Wyoming farm and promised himself he'd never have a garden, decided that's exactly what he wanted.

"I thought it would be necessary for my children to learn the benefits of the soil and to learn how to work," he said.

His daughter, Marta Murray, who now has a large garden of her own, said she remembers that it was "excruciating" to spend the first two summers after they moved in picking up rocks.

Even with all the work, the garden proved to be an absolute disaster the first year, Wilson said. The ground was so sandy that the water drained out.

Since then, he said, he's dumped literally tons of organic material on his garden to improve the soil — everything from leaves and grass clippings to sawdust and sour milk.

He began small with a few inches of material, but soon found that he could pile 3 feet of dried leaves on each terrace as long as he tilled it in well.

"When Dad would be driving along, if he'd see bags of leaves along the side of the road, he'd stop and pick them up and embarrass the family," Murray said.

Over time, the soil improved without using any commercial fertilizer, and so did the produce that came from it, Wilson said.

"I can grow the same plants in my little garden and they get half the size," Bohman said. "Even if nobody else does anything with this garden, it will still probably be the best soil in the city 50 years from now."

Wilson also began working to cut back on the amount of water he used while sprinkling his garden. He implemented a drip-system that allows him to conserve water and minimize evaporation.

He's always looking for ways to do things better, Bohman said. He grows all of his vegetables from seeds in his greenhouse and then transplants the starts into his garden.

And whenever a plant does particularly well, better than the others of the same variety, he saves the seeds and plants them again, she said.

All of the work comes back to the principles of improvement and progression, Wilson said.

"It's a spiritual experience," he said. "You see how you can work with Heavenly Father. He gives you all the things you need — the sun, the air, the earth, the seeds — and then you see what you can make of it."