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Group seeding Sunken Gardens area of Sanctuary Woods with wildflower seeds

Wauwatosa Youth Help Restore a Historic Sunken Garden

5:44 pm  |  Topics: Events, Stories


By Jonathan Piel, President – Friends of County Grounds Park

The historic wooded area known as Sanctuary Woods was added to County Grounds Park in 2019, expanding the park by 58 acres. Some of the trees in the woods are over 300 years old. The trees survived in part because this area was reserved for recreation by patients in the mental health hospital, which was established in the 1880s. Among other things, the hospital grounds featured sunken gardens, which were created in the early 1900s.

The historic sunken gardens site, newly cleared of invasive buckthorn. Photo by Jonathan Piel.

The gardens are described in a 1916 book The Institutional Care of the Insane In The United States And Canada: “Much has been done in the way of beautifying the grounds surrounding the building: an artificial lake, covering one and one-half acres” … “An esplanade has been built on the east side of the lake; the balustrades surmounting it have been furnished with flower vases and stairway of concrete built leading down into the water, making the effect altogether Venetian and forming a most ornamental feature of the lake and its surroundings. East of the lake a lily pond has been constructed and a pergola built of concrete (the work being done by one of the patients) and surrounded by sunken gardens.”

Tosa East Youth removing invasive buckthorn from the sunken gardens.
Tosa East Youth removing invasive buckthorn from the sunken gardens. Photo by Jonathan Piel.

This is just one citation of work being done by patients – many attributes of the beautification were created or maintained by volunteer patients as part of their “industrial therapy” – which later evolved into “occupational therapy.” It is a great example of people’s kindness to each other creating beautiful natural environments to serve as restorative places for others. A tradition that extends over centuries to the Sanctuary Woods of today.

Sam Tarrance with buckthorn he pulled up by the roots from the sunken gardens. Photo by Elliot Oquist.

This portion of the hospital closed in the 1970s and the gardens were abandoned to decay. Over 50 years, invasive buckthorn overtook the esplanade (a long, open, level area, typically beside a water feature) and the balustrades (a railing supported by pillars) crumbled away. In 2019, a multi-year effort began to remove invasive buckthorn in the area by a group that became Friends of County Grounds Park. By 2021 that buckthorn removal included the area of the former esplanade and sunken gardens to again create a restorative place.

The group of youth and adults who gathered to help spread wildflower seeds in the newly cleared former sunken gardens.

2021 also marked the beginning of Youth Friends of County Grounds Park. This group of high-schoolers worked hard to get more youth involved in our habitat restoration projects including:

  • Inviting more of their friends to join and finding ways to carpool
  • Aligning with existing service groups at Wauwatosa East High School, such as the National Honor Society and the Environmental Club
  • Creating and managing an Instagram account that regularly communicates service opportunities
Parks Dept staffer Halley Minser (left) explains the seeding procedure, which will require teams for raking, dispersing seed, covering seeded areas with leaves, and watering.

By the end of 2021 the difference was astonishing! Over 50 different youth participated throughout the year, including many repeat volunteers, totaling 200 student volunteer hours. At weed-outs and buckthorn removal, youth typically represented 30-60% of participants.

The raking team in action.
The raking team in action.

After joining multiple buckthorn removal events, Tosa East Senior Colin MacKelly looked around the cleared area and commented that it felt empty. With the buckthorn gone it was mostly dirt and leaves. Colin had previously raised wildflowers from seed and successfully transplanted those at home. He was convinced the same could be done to help restore this historic sunken garden.

Overview of former sunken gardens site with work in progress.
Overview of former sunken gardens site with work in progress.

Colin worked with Emilie Burmeister and Halley Minser of the Milwaukee County Parks Natural Areas department. Together they identified the target area, appropriate native plants, and a timeline – but the project needed funding for the seeds. Colin and his friends, including Elliot Oquist and Sam Tarrance, charted a fundraising path.

Over twenty different species of wildflowers seeds were purchased.
Over twenty different species of wildflowers seeds were purchased.

Over the subsequent months, with the support of many others, they organized bake sales at high school basketball tournaments. They also aligned with the National Honor Society, who sold fundraising candygrams for Valentines Day.  Wauwatosa East Teacher Carly Robers provided guidance and financial stewardship.

Hallie gave out individual packets of seeds to members of the seeding team.
Hallie gave out individual packets of seeds to members of the seeding team.

Several adult members of Friends of County Grounds Park were inspired by the incredibly hard work these youth had already applied, their vision to invest in the future, and their initiative to pursue this project. These co-volunteers matched all youth-raised funds, doubling the impact of their bake-sales and candygrams. All funds were donated to Friends of County Grounds Park (which is fiscally sponsored by The Park People). Colin worked with the Parks Department and the Friends group to coordinate the purchase of 20 different seed varieties. These came from two local Wisconsin vendors – ensuring that the native seeds were locally harvested and met the diversity requirements of Milwaukee County Parks.

A trio of adults rake, seed, and water a corner of the historic esplanade.
A trio of adults rake, seed, and water a corner of the historic esplanade.

The planting event was held on a perfect day in May 2022. It included onsite support from Halley Minser who brought equipment and expertise. There were 30 other volunteers, mostly Tosa East students. They were joined by teachers, several of the matching donors, and other volunteers who had previously joined the students in the buckthorn removal. Among the volunteers was a person whose family had received treatment from the historic hospital, having traveled all the way from Madison, WI to participate. There was a strong feeling of tradition, honor and hope surrounding the event.

Spreading leaves and twigs over the newly seeded patch in order to protect the seeds and retain moisture.

Everyone was encouraged to bring a rake, any rake. The Parks Department provided backpack watering cans. The group was divided into rakers, seeders, and waterers. It was challenging to ensure that 30 people would do the work consistently, uniformly across the space, while minimizing the chances of stepping on recent seeding. One group removed large debris from the planting area (like leaf piles and downed branches). Then another group raked the fertile dirt to loosen the soil. A third group cast the seed, ensuring that dozens of different seed types were co-mingled and uniformly dispersed. Next, the people with backpack watering cans sprayed the seeds and surrounding earth. Another group would come and replace a layer of debris to lightly cover the seeds and retain the moisture surrounding them.

A pause in the action for photos.
A pause in the action for photos.

After all this work, the volunteers now eagerly await the blooming of the seeds, which could take up to two years. A multi-year approach is clearly needed to continue restoration. Before the event ended, the graduating seniors recruited younger students to lead Youth Friends of County Grounds Park next year – and sustain the habitat restoration momentum.

Spraying water over a newly seeded patch.
Spraying water over a newly seeded patch.

These sunken gardens are often featured in historic tours led by Friends of County Grounds Park. Online photos and maps of the historic sunken gardens can be found at this interactive map. Over the next two years the “historic” sunken gardens will turn into “current” sunken gardens. The hard work by these youth to remove invasive buckthorn and replace them with wildflower seeds carries on a proud tradition in this space and is a great example of people’s kindness to each other. Thanks, and congratulations to these youth who make our community better. They inspire all ages to invest in restoration projects knowing the effort will be valued by future generations.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn, who helped with the seeding, takes a walk in Sanctuary Woods along one of the historic walkways near the former sunken gardens.
Milwaukee Riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn, who helped with the seeding, takes a walk in Sanctuary Woods along one of the historic walkways near the former sunken gardens.

Related story:

Sanctuary Woods: Restoring an old growth forest with ‘historical roots’

Jonathan Piel is an amateur historian and founding president of Friends of County Grounds Park (FOCGP). Except as noted, all photography is by Eddee Daniel, who is a board member of FOCGP as well as Preserve Our Parks.