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Army of gardeners springs into action

Early Saturday, while most are still deciding what to do for the day, a small army of volunteer gardeners will descend on the downtown properties of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unlike those who attended the recent general conference, there will be no white shirts and ties. Today's dress code will be strictly work gear as volunteers remove dying plants and plant new ones in anticipation of spring.

One of those who will be supervising the work is Shelly Zollinger, who for the past seven years has taken care of the Church Office Building Plaza. Before becoming a professional gardener, Zollinger was one of the volunteers who help make the gardens look spectacular.

Zollinger got her start as a master gardener for Utah State University in Davis County. "I was one of the first to go through their three-year program, and I did it in two years," she said. "It just wasn't enough. So I started taking horticulture classes through USU and got my bachelor's degree." She was a guide at the gardens for six years before becoming an employee.

"This is a unique place to work because of all the volunteers," she said. "Without them, it would take us six to eight weeks to even get the plants into the ground."

She explains the drill for the volunteers who show up on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights and on Saturday mornings. There are two groups, divided according to their tasks. The first group removes plants from the beds, and the second group replants the beds.

Since the volunteers are not trained in horticulture, each is given the responsibility of pulling out only one kind of plant. Otherwise, the gardens might be damaged, because they are composed of both annual and perennial flowers.

After the unwanted flowers are removed, the garden staff literally throws down the new flowers that will create next spring's beds.

"The process is to throw down the bulbs in the pattern that you want and then you put out the pansies that match them," Zollinger explained. "You also have to match the bloom times, because you have early-, mid- and late-season tulips and early-, mid- and late-season daffodils."

One reason for designing the beds this way is that by using bulbs with different maturity times, the beds look completely different as the various bulbs bloom throughout the spring, she said.

"The bulbs make the mainstay when they are up," Zollinger said. " When the bulbs are growing in their full glory, beneath them are the other flowers. This layer is critical, because bulbs look bad for longer than they look good. If you only use bulbs, they are spectacular in bloom, but when the petals fall, the naked stems sticking in the air are very distracting. Later, when the leaves turn brown, they are positively ugly."

Zollinger uses many plants to help form the critical under-story gardens. They are selected from a variety of winter annuals, biennials and spring-blooming perennials, which are planted in the fall.

Pansies are the most important of these spring-blooming flowers. Her beds will be covered with a wonderful selection of the blues, pink, yellow and white blossoms from these winter-hardy plants. For some additional contrast she will add orange, brown and other contrasting colors. These form the foundation of the spring-blooming gardens.

Next she adds some wonderful spring-blooming perennials. "You have to choose those that are going to bloom with your bulbs. Some of the ones I like to use are arabis, aubretia, iberis and creeping phlox. I also like to plant bellis, or English daisy, foxglove and stock," she said.

What are her favorites?

"For the early tulips, I like the 'Early Harvest' (red with a tip of yellow); for mid-season, I like 'Ester' (bright pink); and for late I like 'Cum Laude' (purple), Temple of Beauty (salmon rose) and Hocus Pocus (yellow with slight red stripe)," she said, adding that the last two have blossoms so large that you can stick your fist in them.

Her daffodil preferences are not as specific, but she leans toward the doubles. Other favorite spring bulbs include alliums, hyacinths, crocuses, fritillaria and scilla. These are used less frequently but are still important.

Zollinger's final advice to those who want wonderful spring gardens is, "Get them (plants and bulbs) in the ground early, so the rootlets can grow while the soil is still warm. That way they can hold them in the ground, and the freezing and thawing of the soil will not interfere with their blooming next spring."

Larry Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension, at Thanksgiving Point.