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Spanning a corner lot of 1.5 acres with three separate garden areas, Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens is an iconic spot both for long-time Lincolnites as well as newcomers and visitors.

The gardens boast an impressive 30,000 individual plants and flowers grown annually, is host to formal events like weddings and is the setting for countless photo shoots each year. While some love the gardens for a relaxing evening stroll, others get more hands-on and volunteer to help power the growth of those 30,000 plants.

Steve Nosal, who oversees the gardens, has been working in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation since 1976 — a career he describes as a privilege. With four full-time staff members on board to care for the garden, Nosal recognizes that it is the work of volunteers that makes the Sunken Gardens dream a reality.

“They provide the much-needed help in the Gardens, both hands-on and also as a voice of ownership for the Gardens," Nosal said. "We would be lost without them.”

In 2018, more than 760 hours of volunteer time went in to the Sunken Gardens, and volunteers this year have accumulated 500 hours of planting, weeding, pruning and general garden maintenance.

There are numerous ways to volunteer at the gardens, including one-time events that are scheduled annually, such as Wake up the Beds, which occurs in the spring, and Put the Beds to Rest, which takes place at the end of the season in November. In late 2018, 74 volunteers spent 151 hours alongside city employees to prepare the gardens for winter.

The volunteers come with a wide range of knowledge and experience. But for those with a newly minted green thumb, “Learn and Do” sessions are held and designed to give volunteers both knowledge and confidence. More experienced gardeners can volunteer as a garden docent and serve as a guide in the gardens for answering questions from visitors. Last year, 12 people volunteered as garden docents and racked up 38 hours expanding the public's garden knowledge.

One of the most popular ways to help in the gardens is a volunteer group known as Garden Gab. Garden Gab meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays and works as a group on specific tasks each session. From rose pruning to weeding and flower deadheading, volunteers show up from 9-12 to beautify and maintain the gardens.

Charlene Luethje, a master gardener and part-time tax preparer, has been a member of Garden Gab for the past 7 years. 

“I’ve always loved gardening and digging in the dirt," she said.

Luethje enjoys spending time with her fellow volunteers and answering questions from the public while she’s working. As a resident of the neighborhood near Sunken Gardens, the gardens are a special place for her.

“It’s been a part of my world for 25 years. There are so many people who have good memories of the Sunken Gardens.”

Luethje enjoys bringing her grandchildren to the gardens to help as well, and enjoys the sense of community the volunteers of Garden Gab share.

“It’s a fun way to meet other people, and meet people in the same stage of life,” she said.

While all of the volunteer positions at Sunken Gardens are open to all ages, the majority tend to be retired members of the Lincoln community.

Luethje says she enjoys the flexibility that volunteer coordinator Zac Halley allows. Halley has been a member of the team for three years and worked as a garden intern prior to his current position.

“We couldn’t do it without the volunteers,” he said. “Especially in the establishment period of the garden, volunteers are huge.”

Halley said the time spent with volunteers is worthwhile on a personal level as well.

“It’s nice to talk about life and family,” he said.

Garden Gab includes 20 registered members who have worked 153 hours in the three gardens this year.

As for the design of the garden, it changes annually. Along with Senior Gardner Alice Reed and plenty of suggestions from the public, Nosal funnels inspiration into a new design each year. Moon River won out as this year’s design theme. Previous themes have included a purple design influenced by Musician Prince, and a bright “Sun Salutations” theme. The Denver Botanical Garden has even played a role in influencing the creative design of Sunken Gardens.

“Alice and I start designing in late July through September producing a set of drawings and plant lists for next year’s displays,” Nosal said.

Regardless of which theme is chosen each year, one thing is certain: Sunken Gardens relies heavily on the generosity of its volunteers and donors.

“Garden Gab and all of the other volunteer programs in the Gardens are a product of different ideas Alice and I came up with over the years to help supplement the number of hands on in the field,” he said.

Both the volunteers and the Parks and Recreation employees have a special passion for working in the gardens, not only because of what they mean to them personally, but also because of what the gardens mean to the community.

“It never fails, when we are working in the gardens doing something like weeding or whatever, someone will come up to us and thank us for our hard work and ask us to keep going with the programs and never give up,” Nosal said. “With that type of encouragement, I will always be able to look forward to the next year and happiness the Public Garden Section brings to Lincoln.”

Lincoln Parks and Recreation accepts volunteers year round. Information about joining the team of volunteers can be found on the City of Lincoln’s website: www.lincoln.ne.gov

Sunken Gardens through the years

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