Sarah's Garden

"The Upper Garden is a national treasure, and a very rare and fragile artifact. What's incredibly special about the garden is that it is not a reproduction but a real, surviving fragment of the past..."

—Scott Kunst, Landscape Preservation Consultant and Historian.

Sarah Davis's starburst garden was unique in Bloomington and perhaps the Midwest because it was patterned after classical Italian gardens of the 17th century and formal English gardens of the 18th century. It is a unique, original garden that has the same location, design, pathways and beds, and at least seven original plants dating back to its creation in 1872.

McLean County Master Gardeners were honored for their volunteer efforts in the restoration of Sarah's Garden, a unique, 139-year-old garden which is still in its original location on the grounds of the David Davis Mansion State Historic Site in Bloomington. Sarah's Garden was recognized as the McLean County winner in History and Historic Preservation. The McLean County entry was also a Governor's Cup Finalist. Representatives from McLean County government and the Master Gardeners received an engraved plaque, and a road sign noting this achievement will be installed in Bloomington.

A group of 89 Master Gardeners volunteered 5,300 hours over the last five years. Their efforts earned them the Master Gardener State Teamwork Award. The Master Gardeners also mentored 124 4-H club members who served 718 hours working on the garden. Funds for seeds, fertilizer and other garden supplies come from the Glorious Garden Festival Garden Walk, an annual event, which netted approximately $15,000 for the restoration in 2010.

The restoration project has brought Sarah's Garden to the attention of 50,000 visitors annually. The garden's increased exposure to the public has in turn increased its educational value and taught visitors about the significance of the landscape and gardening in nineteenth-century America.

The Master Gardener program is sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension. Trained volunteers share unbiased, research-based horticultural information with home landscapers and gardeners of all ages.

The Governor's Home Town Award program is administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity and gives formal recognition to volunteer efforts to contribute to the quality of life in Illinois communities.

Garden History

Sarah Davis brought a love of nature and gardening from her home in Lenox, MA to her frontier home. She brought plants from New England, exchanged plants with friends and family, obtained some from Jefferson's Monticello, purchased some from local nurseries and collected some from the surrounding woodlands.

"I put in a large quantity of Annuals last week - and as the ground was dry and Sun hot - covered my beds with every available bit of glass on the place - actually took off the cellar windows to use. If the seeds do not soon appear to send up the tiny green leaves I shall be disappointed-as my ingenuity was sorely taxed to make my home implements serve my purpose."

—Letter, March 19, 1865.

Garden Restoration

The goal of the restoration project is to preserve the existing heirloom plants and to re-establish those which are known to have been in Sarah's Garden in the 1870s and 1880s.

"Remarkably, the garden that Sarah designed still stands at the southeast corner of the property, a silent testimony to her achievements."

—Steve McDaniel, Horticultural Historian.

Sarah's Garden Today

Of the 120 plants which through documentation we know Sarah grew, currently 70 can be found in the garden. The garden is being restored, preserved, cultivated and maintained by staff and community volunteers including University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners in McLean County and local 4-H Clubs.

"The garden is a living legacy to the character, strength, and passion of Sarah Walker Davis. If she were to visit today, I believe she would be pleased with the restoration of the garden, the historical and horticultural education and interpretation, as well as the pleasure that it continues to provide."

—Mary Jane Bohall, Master Gardener

Seasonal Highlights

The garden comes to life in the spring with early hyacinth, daffodils, and tulips. Later the garden is full of color with the deutzia, clematis, lilac, roses and finally peonies in bloom.

"All nature looks refreshed with the light shower of rain - and the roses will be more lovely than ever I wish I could send you a basket full with this letter."

—Letter, dated 6/09/1874

Visit Sarah's Garden

Garden Hours
Open by appointment. Call: (309) 828-1084
Access may be limited due to weather conditions.

Garden Tours
Docent-led and self-guided tours are available by appointment. Call: (309) 828-1084 Docent-led tours:

  • Exploring the Garden (K - 8)
  • Seasonal Highlights of Sarah's Garden (Adults; High School; College)
  • Other programs in development

Events
Glorious Garden Festival Garden Walk: Third Friday and Saturday in June.

Garden Etiquette
Kindly enjoy Sarah's Garden as a Living Museum and not as a park or playground.
Your cooperation will help to preserve the Garden's unique and beautiful collection of heirloom plants.

  • Please stay in the paths.
  • Please refrain from climbing on trees and shrubs, walking in garden beds, and collecting plants, flowers or their parts.
  • No pets, please.
  • Active sports and games are not permitted.
  • Children must be supervised.

Photography for Personal Use
Still photography, filming and video recording for personal use are permitted on the grounds. All photographers must abide by the rules of Garden Etiquette. (Note: No photography for personal use is permitted inside the Mansion.)

Photography for Commercial Use
There is a policy in place regarding photography for commercial use. Click here to read the policy and download the permit application form.

No smoking is allowed in Sarah's Garden, in the David Davis Mansion State of Illinois Historic Site or in the Visitor Center. By Illinois law, smoking is also prohibited within 15 feet of the entrances to the Mansion and Visitor Center.