“Peter Lassig: Gardens to the Lord,” Ensign, Apr. 1991, 68–69
As tourists enter the south gate of Temple Square each spring, they are greeted immediately by the majestic architecture of the Salt Lake Temple, the Tabernacle, and the Assembly Hall. But then their attention is arrested by a blend of colors and fragrances from the abundant flowering plants that both please the eye and gladden the heart.
Clouds of white blossoms on the Mt. Fuji cherry trees shimmer beside the South Visitors’ Center. Their branches complement the delicate pink, white, and lavender hyacinths beneath. The gardens of Temple Square are a vast profusion of colors, blending and contrasting.
These colors and fragrances spill over to the block east of Temple Square, where gardens, groves, and fountains continue around the Church’s office buildings and around the Beehive House and Lion House.
When compliments come, as they do almost daily, the man responsible for the grounds, Peter Lassig, is inclined to turn the attention away from himself. “My whole idea is to blend colors in such a way that people will see the Lord’s handiwork, not man’s,” explains Brother Lassig. He sees God as the designer and himself as a worker in the garden. He considers his efforts to beautify these landscapes a dream come true—one he has had since his youth.
“I vividly recall that as a young teenager,” Peter says, “I found myself one day at the Church’s greenhouses beside Irvin T. Nelson, who was head landscape architect for the Church. I used to love to go there and watch the preparations.
“I was with my father, and I asked Brother Nelson, ‘Are you the head gardener?’ And when he said he was, we talked about the work for several minutes. Then my father urged me, ‘Peter, why don’t you get to the point?’ But I hesitated, so Father added, ‘This boy wants to work for you with the idea of taking over.’”
“You do?” Brother Nelson retorted, shocked at such temerity.
“Oh, you can stay until you’re ready to retire,” Peter recalls that he said innocently, in an effort to reassure Brother Nelson.
Peter was given seasonal work at age fifteen, first pulling weeds, then doing some of the planting. Following high school, he enrolled at Brigham Young University, majoring in horticulture and botany, to prepare him to pursue his dream.
“However, my highest qualification for this job,” Peter says, “is my German father, who taught me to work hard.”
From 1958 to 1960 Peter served in the Northern Far East Mission. Then, in 1965 and 1966, he served a labor mission, caring for the gardens at the Mormon Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. In 1966, Peter married Sylvia Butler in the Salt Lake Temple. The following year, he received a bachelor’s degree from BYU.
Because his landscaping work with the Church was seasonal, Peter went to Seattle one winter to work in landscaping as well as to learn about landscape lighting techniques. He would later discover how valuable his lighting training was.
Peter saw himself at a crossroads in his career—he felt that despite all his training, he would have to move around and work at several jobs in order to have year-round work. A telephone call from Brother Nelson helped Peter see the right road for him. “Peter,” said Brother Nelson, “I had a meeting with President McKay, and he asked me to add somebody to my staff who could be my protege. Do you remember what you said when you first came to work for me?”
How well he remembered!
“I’ve always thought you would replace me,” Brother Nelson continued. “In fact, I’ve never thought of anyone else.” He paused.
“After I told President McKay about you, he asked if you had married well. I assured him you had. He asked if you had graduated from college and had served an honorable mission. I answered yes to both questions. Then he said, ‘Go get him.’”
At that time, Peter recalls, “Brother Nelson was already in his seventies and still going like a house afire. As soon as he put me on his permanent staff, he seemed to get his second wind. I didn’t feel qualified to fill his shoes yet, so I enrolled at Utah State University and worked summers. After I finished my graduate work in 1972, Brother Nelson retired and I took over.”
Christmas lighting on Temple Square was now in its seventh year, so Peter had year-round work, and so did members of his grounds crew. The crew raises plants not only for the Salt Lake Temple grounds but also for the Jordan River Temple grounds and the St. George Temple grounds. The plants come from greenhouses where grounds crew personnel nurture and prepare 120,000 plants each year for outdoor planting alone.
“I have the best crew anyone could ever want,” Peter says. “They are hardworking, artistic, good people, and they are also great fun to work with.” Each crew member has particular assignments—caring for the gardens, the trees, or the interior floral designs. Peter gives crew members credit for the beauty of the landscapes and indoor arrangements.
Peter’s crew admires him for his extensive knowledge and love of horticulture. It is a common sight to see Peter in his jacket and tan straw hat working alongside his crew in October, planting pansies and tulip bulbs in the freshly tilled, loamy beds in preparation for the spring blossoming. In every season, Peter is there beside crew members, helping them with their tasks.
Peter looks at gardens the way a composer sees and hears a musical score. He explains that flower compositions must express several messages in a single flash of color and texture. Compositions must be intricate but simple—a carefully crafted blend of diversity and unity.
This impact is likewise expressed in the Christmas lighting on Temple Square, in which Peter uses different colors of lights the way he uses the colors of flowers. Temple Square began displaying Christmas lights in 1965 under President David O. McKay. Today, Peter and his crew carefully string more than three hundred thousand lights along branches of trees and shrubs and around flower beds. For them, this glorious display, like the bright flowers of summer, expresses the conviction that the Savior is the light of the world.