Stunning Gardens in the Heart of the City

By Sriyani Tidball

about 10 minutes to walk through but, in the late spring through early fall, you’ll want to stay longer enjoying the dramatic garden flowers and fountains. Don’t miss the little hidden paths winding through shade gardens up on the topmost garden to the west of the main garden—those are fun for kids. Handicapped parking is accessed from 27th & D Streets. Right across 27th Street are more rose gardens, fountains and the Children’s Zoo. Stay for a few hours and enjoy it all. Only 5 minutes from downtown.”
                                Trip Advisor

The Sunken Gardens was originally built on an old neighborhood landfill site in the heart of Lincoln. Located at 27th and Capital Parkway, the 1.5-acre lot was first developed in 1930 and most recently renovated in 2004. It was a Great Depression project developed to provide jobs for the unemployed during those hard times. It was built in a physical depression (hence their name) and was originally known as Lincoln’s ‘Rock Garden,’ which was how it was first designed. The original design was intended to evoke mountain scenery, as in England, with rocks on the terraced walls creating the garden’s edge. The planting was by the city’s horticultural department and it now concentrates more on a bright floral display than on the use of mountain plants.

The Sunken Gardens is a very special place to most Lincoln residents. Visitors can tiptoe through the tulips every spring and watch the thousands of annuals bloom all summer long. It has two living ponds and several art pieces including the new pavilion, plus a beautiful healing garden.

The flowers that showcase the gardens are different every year and Lincoln residents come together every spring to plant the garden. The Lincoln city gardener commented that after all these years, it’s still special to see about 100 volunteers turn up to spend their Saturday morning digging holes and arranging plants. Residents are invited to volunteer for the 12th annual ‘Wake Up the Beds’ event during the month of May at the Sunken Gardens. The event runs 8:30 a.m. to noon, unless the work is finished earlier. Volunteers help plant color-coordinated annuals in pre-assigned spaces that have been designed by landscape specialists. The volunteers are known for out-doing themselves. Every year as they plant the garden for all their friends and families, they remind themselves of Audrey Hepburn’s quote, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”

At the center, there is a cascading waterfall surrounding Rebecca at the Well, a sculpture of a woman holding a water jug, by Ellis Burman. There are two reflecting pools on the north and east sides of the garden. In the north pool is an interesting historic feature—a geyser fountain that would shoot water in the air and create a thin sheet, which could be used as a screen on which to project movies or slides at night. Sadly, the technology of the time was not equal to the task. Let us hope another attempt will be made using a digital projector. It is a great way to evoke mountain scenery.  

After nearly 73 years without a major renovation, the Sunken Gardens was overhauled in 2004. While maintaining many design elements of the original garden, several new features were added making the garden easier to maintain and access. A new parking lot, public restrooms, underground sprinklers, renovated ponds, retaining walls, and new walkways were built during the 11-month project. Over 100 trees and 1,000 shrubs were added as well as 18,000 square feet of space for annual flowers, a design that changes every year.

Three new art pieces were also added to the gardens. Burman’s aged sculpture was replaced with artist David Young’s Rebekah at the Well which now stands at the top of the new cascading waterfall representing life’s journey. Dr. Wayne Southwick also created Reveille, inspired by his wife Ann getting the children out of bed and ready for the day. It stands in the Healing Garden (or White Garden). Attached to the new restroom building is the Rotary Pavilion, a dome made of individual laser cut panels riveted together to create the four seasons of Lincoln’s skyline designed by architect Jeffrey Chadwick.

The Sunken Gardens is listed as one of the “300 Best Gardens to Visit in the U.S. and Canada” in the National Geographic Guide to America’s Public Gardens and is the only Nebraska garden to be included in this list. It is also the only public annual display garden in Lincoln. A walk through these gardens will definitely lift your spirits and give you some happy memories that will last you all year long.

The park is open from 5am to 11pm and entrance is free, but the park has discreet donations boxes placed at the entrances.

For information about the Sunken Gardens maintenance, tours or volunteer opportunities, please contact Steve Nosal at snosal@lincoln.ne.gov or call 402-441-8267.

 

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