Jimmy Turner takes over at Red Butte Garden

Jimmy Turner

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Jimmy L. Turner is the new executive director of Red Butte Garden and in this episode of U Rising he shares what has surprised him about Utah, how the garden plans to reopen and why he thinks gardens sow hope. Recorded on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to hear from people who are helping the U achieve new heights. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the university, and my guest today is Jimmy Turner, the new director of Red Butte Garden.

We are very proud to say that Red Butte Garden is the largest botanical garden in the Intermountain West. Jimmy, warmest welcome to you.

Jimmy Turner: Thank you, Dr. Watkins, and thank you for having me on today.

President Watkins: Well, you certainly arrived at a rough time in our state and nation and world. I understand that your first day in Utah was March 13, the day that we entered the stay-at-home phase due to the coronavirus and Red Butte Garden was shut down then. And then a few days later, we had an earthquake. That is not the welcome we would hope you would have at the University of Utah!

I know a lot of fans of Red Butte Garden have not had a chance to meet you yet in person, so I think it would be great if you could give a little bit about your background and tell us about you.

Jimmy Turner: Certainly, it's definitely been an interesting landing, I will say that. But my background. I'm a native Texan, grew up in East Texas, a very large family there. Loved horticulture since Day One. Went through East Texas State University for my bachelors, moved to Pennsylvania to Penn State for my masters.

And I was one of those lucky people in that my parents told me to do what I love, don't worry about money, don't worry about doing the right job, but do what you love. And I love what I do, and I have never wavered from that path. Thank God for my mother for telling me that.

I went off to Penn State, got my graduate degree in horticulture there, and worked in many fields in horticulture. And then finally landed where I wanted to be, which was botanical gardens. For 10 years, before I went to Sydney, I was the senior director of gardens for the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Dallas, Texas. And my role there really was to design the garden, public engagement, how do I make horticulture interesting to the masses. I learned a lot from the executive director there, Mary Brinegar, an amazing fundraiser and botanic garden leader.

And then a recruiter came calling. I got a phone call one day and the caller said, "Would you like to be the director of horticulture for the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney?" And I said, "Sure." And then the caller said, "Oh, by the way, it's not just one Botanic garden, it's three." It's also the one in the Blue Mountains and the Native Garden, the largest garden in Australia actually, Mount Annan Botanic Garden. Three botanic gardens to horticulture. I said, “I don't know if I can do that, but I'll give it a try.”

My partner and I flew to Sydney, met the people, fell in love. Worked there for nearly seven years and had done everything I thought I could do in that role, and thought it was time for a new opportunity and thought about looking. And once again, I get a phone call from a recruiter going, "Would you like to interview for a role as executive director of the Botanic Garden in Salt Lake City? I said, "Well, tell me about it."

And as we talked more, I fell in love with the role and came to visit you and the staff here. And I just absolutely thought it was a wonderful garden, and too good of an opportunity to pass up. That's how I ended up in Utah.

President Watkins: Well, that is our good fortune. You've had incredible experience, both as a horticulturist and as a leader. We're just delighted to have you here.

Now right away upon arriving, you've had some difficult decisions that you've had to make. We know that people are so attracted to the garden and right now it remains closed. We've also had to cancel the annual summer concert series, which is a way that many people, I think, begin to engage with the garden. You must be doing a lot right now to connect our community to the garden and trying to develop some creative approaches to do that.

Jimmy Turner: People are missing the garden. It really is kind of an outpouring of love from our members and donors and the local community of how much they miss their sacred space and their concerts, and their garden. It's their garden. It's not ours, it's theirs. And it's really been hard to say, no, the doors are shut for right now until we figure out how to do this safely and within guidelines. And concerts, we're just now pulling the cord on that one, saying they're just not going to happen under the current guidelines.

But looking at, we've been doing Boredom Busters for kids at home. Our programs department, Eddie, has just been pulling things out of the hat left and right. What can we do to keep people engaged and interested? Jane and my marketing team, they have done the most wonderful online engagement in social media, and so much more to come.

We've got a curator, a live tour where you're walking around with Jason, our botanist, or several of our staff members learning about things—online classes from cooking to gardening. We've done a hanging basket. We've had to cancel the plant sale, which was actually... It was amazing how angry and sad people were, including my own staff, because it was one of those moments that people look forward to. And we've done some fundraising with that in saying, "We've got these hanging baskets, help me support my staff."

Right now, the garden will survive, I have no fear of that, but it's the staff I'm trying to keep employed as much as possible. And we've done a lot of stuff there. We've got a tomato plant fundraiser going on right now, gangbusters. I was up there today and there was a line of cars picking those up and being very respectful of this. Just trying to find ways to engage people and remind them we're here. They'll be of a service to our members and sponsors, and to remind them that we will open very soon, and we will be here for them when they're ready.

President Watkins: Well, I applaud your creativity and your dedication to your greatest asset, which is your people, and of course commitment there is really important. Speaking of creativity, I think you are celebrating the 35th anniversary, or just celebrated 35 years, of Red Butte Garden. Kind of a natural time, a new leader, a time to think about vision and direction, ideas about new programs that you may want to launch or how you want to approach then maybe the next 35 years.

Jimmy Turner: Gardens are an interesting thing. They're not like businesses or curriculum. You've got to get to know the garden. And the garden is 35 years old, which is an age in the botanic garden world where you actually solidify the adulthood. What is this garden going to be for the next 200, 300 years? And I was lucky to work at the Sydney Botanic Garden, which was over 200 years. I was there for their 200th birthday. And every leader built on the last one. And some things were mistakes, some things for the good. It was actually a good experience of what to look for when you step into a role.

I think the right thing to do in a garden is to learn the community. What is the garden to the community? Which communities are we not reaching into, and how do I find those and make those connections? But you don't make changes in a garden because it's my personal preference or it's my agenda because the garden is sacred to the local community and to lots of people. And I've got to honor that, build on it and put the right things in we need, but there are things I'll definitely look at.

I'm very big into organic food and food production and home gardening, and that's a big topic right now. I think it's something we'll look into and make that work. How do I increase visitation in the winter because concerts aren't going to be our biggest money raiser going forward. I need to find other ways to diversify what we do and improve the garden. But I don't have a set agenda.

It's all about putting things on a list, working with the staff and the community and the university, and doing what's right for Salt Lake City? What do we hang our hat on? What do we want the garden to be? What's the right mission, both locally and globally? And that's important to me to make those decisions correctly because in gardens, you don't fix mistakes quickly. When you have to pull trees up that never goes well.

President Watkins: Well, I'm sure our community will be very happy to hear that because I think they see themselves as partners and stakeholders in your work. And that's a measure of the success of Red Butte Garden, and also very wise on your part as a leader.

You're new to Utah, new climate, new landscape. Are there any plants here that you've seen or found that you think are really compelling and just interesting and different?

Jimmy Turner: I'll give a couple of different stories there. First of all, I have to give you my favorite plant which is the Narcissus, daffodils. Why? Because my grandmother, my great-grandmother, which I was very gifted, both of my grandmothers lived to be over a 100, as did my great-grandmother. All big gardeners and my mother. And it was a plant that had been passed down in my family for generations. It's something I plant in every botanic garden I go to. I get here and my staff tells me, "By the way, we have a half a million Narcissus daffodils." We are a world-leading collection, which makes me happy. I have nothing to add in that area. We already have it. In the daffodil season, I was all over the garden taking photos.

But asking me which is my favorite plant is kind of like asking which one is your favorite child? It tends to be the one who's being good that day. Utah, the natural beauty, the wildflowers, here are amazing and they're a whole new group of plants for me just as when I went to Australia, it's something new that I don't know so that intrigues me.

But something yesterday that just dawned on me that I'm surprised I didn't know. Utah has very low humidity which makes roses grow well. I've always considered “rose” to be a four-letter word because everywhere I've lived, you have to put them on life support and spray them weekly, chemically, they just look sad. And driving through Liberty Wells, our Liberty area yesterday and Sugar House, I nearly had a wreck pulling over to look at a 12-foot-tall rosebush in full, glorious bloom. I was just going, "I don't understand. I do this for a living. How can they do this here?" And then it was, "Oh, there's no humidity." It's learning the local climate and the local plants here.

President Watkins: Sure. Well, that's a great discovery! Now, I've heard that you have a favorite saying that, "When one plants a garden, they plant hope." Tell us a bit about that. Why is it your favorite and what do you mean by it?

Jimmy Turner: My first love is plants, and I do what I do because I love it. It's not a career, it's a calling. And I love it, showing it to people. But I also think it's interesting that most people don't realize that if they're in a green space or nature or the garden, their heart rate lowers, your depression decreases, your blood pressure decreases. You have less chance of dementia in your old age if you're a gardener.

Gardening and gardens and natural space actually is part of our health, and I think people have forgotten that in the modern world. I think COVID has kind of reminded a few people that they really need time in nature, in the park and in green space. In the modern day, we all live in these tiny little concrete boxes and see the world through our screens. But even seeing plants on a screen, TV screen, lowers your heart rate and your blood pressure. Listening to a stream running.

I posted a photo the other day of Red Butte Creek running and I had more people say, "I've just had this on loop in the background all day long because it's been calming to me." And it's that, that I love about gardens and green space because it actually does make us connect with it. It's a visceral connection that is beyond explanation, in my opinion.

President Watkins: Well, and I've read that gardening is just taking off this year and perhaps this is why.

Jimmy Turner: I think so. Definitely our friends in the retail and wholesale nursery world are telling me they've had longer lines than they've ever had. Plants are in short supply, and people are all about vegetables and increasing their yards. And I think it's been a reminder that, "Oh, that little bit of green space that's my own is actually something I enjoy and actually connects me to the world and gives me security and makes me feel calm." Definitely does me.

President Watkins: Outdoor therapy. And I guess on that note, I know because I received an email on Sunday asking me when Red Butte Garden was going to reopen and maybe you don't know exactly yet, but I bet you're thinking through some of the considerations that will help you make that decision and how you'll go about it. Tell us a bit about that.

Jimmy Turner: We are hoping to open in early June. We're working within all the guidelines and the protocols and meeting all those demands and making sure of staff. And it's actually been not as easy as I thought, because there has been a lot of thought to work through where you can't have people go through buildings. We've got to make sure the pathways are wide enough and it works out. We worked through a lot of those hurdles recently in the last week.

And most likely early June we'll be opened up to the public. We'll open up to our members first because I actually want to do a bit of trial run to make sure that we don't have too many people that are not familiar with the garden and don't know what to do. And I think our members are really dying to get back into the garden, so it gives them a chance to actually thank them for their support.

But I think that come early June, people will be able to visit the garden and see it again, and we should be able to for the rest of year as long as we stay in the orange or the yellow phase, which we're currently in. And I cannot wait to open those gates. I have to say, my staff feel the same way. Not having people in the garden is making my staff sad. They actually want to share it with people. There's just been a whole lot of work in the background, your staff and mine as well, just coordinating all the little hurdles we have to go through.

President Watkins: Well, it's good news that we feel hope and that we're moving in the right direction. My guest today, Jimmy Turner, the new director of Red Butte Garden. Jimmy, thank you so much, and thank you most of all for joining us at the University of Utah.

Jimmy Turner: Thank you for having me today and come visit me at the garden!

President Watkins: You heard it from Jimmy—come see him at the garden! Thank you for taking the time to join us today, listeners, and I hope that you'll join us again for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.