Sunken Gardens

Arches, domes, statues and trails elevate the allure of the spacious gardens Lincolnites and visitors enjoy near 27th Street and Capitol Parkway in Lincoln.

AJ Dahm

Koi swim serenely in a pond reflecting the sky in the bustling heart of Nebraska’s capital city at South 27th Street and Capitol Parkway. People aren’t supposed to feed the brilliant orange and crimson fish, “but if kids are nearby at breakfast time,” said Zac Halley at Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens, “garden staff always let them help.”

Halley, who serves as the volunteer coordinator at Sunken Gardens, understands the allure of flashy fish. He has a 5-year-old child who loves to visit Dad at work and a 7-week-old with eyes wide to the wonders of summer in the garden.

Halley grew up in North Platte and studied horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He worked an internship at Sunken Gardens and dreamed of returning full-time. When a position opened up, Halley leapt at the rare opportunity to spend his days amid colorful flowers and dynamic people.

The garden’s biggest party, called Waking up the Beds, takes place in early May. Master gardeners mingle with newbies and garden staff. There’s a brief workshop on how best to plant annuals – the depth, spacing and so forth. Then 80 hardworking volunteers plant 30,000 starts in a matter of hours. They come back all season long to watch the flowers grow and deepen in color. Volunteers often bring family and friends to point out bright and blooming terraces where they can say, “I planted that!”

Halley describes the event as “a big color by numbers.” Designers Alice Reed and Steve Nosal use colored chalk to chart out the planters, and teams of volunteers descend with corresponding flowers. The designs change every year, and themes often come from volunteers or community members.

The 2017 theme was “Purple Rain,” a tribute to singer Prince, with hillsides planted in purples and mauves. The theme of summer 2018 is “Sun Salutation,” and Sunken Gardens burst with fiery reds and yellows until the Put the Beds to Bed event in November. 

Reed and Nosal have been collaborating on garden design for nearly 40 years. They have visited gardens around the world to bring inspiration home to Lincoln. Nosal defers to Reed on questions of color. Both gardeners wake up at night with design ideas. Nosal compares garden design to writing music or painting (he cites Monet and Van Gogh).

“There is a rhythm in how color flows,” Nosal said. “The design leads you on to the next place and the next focal point of interest. Statues. Waterfalls. This is like a short story you tell in 10 minutes – it is ephemeral – here in May and gone by November. We never repeat designs.”


For the rest of the story see the July/August 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.


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