2015 Search for Excellence Awards – Innovative Projects — 2nd Place Winner

Sarah’s Garden

garden ISarah’s Garden is an original, restored 142-year old treasure at the David Davis Mansion State Historic Site in Bloomington, Illinois. The University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners of McLean County, through a May 2007 Memorandum of Understanding, partner with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the David Davis Mansion Foundation Board on Sarah’s Garden restoration, care, educational programming, tours and outreach.

This collaboration resulted in Master Gardener development of ever-expanding educational efforts for youth and the public while restoring this unique historic quarter-acre flower garden as a living museum with 7 plants original to its 1872 creation and 70 more documented heirlooms.

While the historic Sarah’s Garden could not be replicated, other Master Gardener groups could easily utilize the educational programs and techniques in their own public or private gardens for local classrooms and youth groups including 4-H. This sharing would contribute to our common goal of teaching adults and children about gardens and gardening.

4H in the garden
This year 23 Home Spun 4-H Club members and their leaders learned about garden care during 6 half-day summer work sessions in Sarah’s Garden mentored by Master Gardeners.

The project exemplifies Extension goals for Master Gardeners to: Distribute horticultural information, Enhance educational programs, and Develop Master Gardener leadership. Specific goals for the project: 1) Promote the historic garden for intergenerational visitors. 2) Restore the garden to its original documented design and plants. 3) Preserve the documented heirlooms 4) Interpret the garden for youth educational programs. 5) Provide Garden access for the public.

The Garden Restoration Committee of Master Gardeners and Davis Mansion staff plans for, implements, documents and evaluates the ongoing restoration, research, and plant cultivation of Sarah’s Garden. It also develops and implements the interpretive educational programs in cooperation with teachers and Illinois State Learning Standards and with the use of University of Illinois Extension research and resources including Jr. Master Gardener materials.

A mentor/mentee program, training manual, hands-on experiences, and prepared program and tour resources assist new Master Gardeners in becoming future project leaders. Nine Master Gardener Mentors lead the program with 29 more Master Gardeners engaged in restoration and educational programming. The Garden is open April through October for Master Gardener work sessions, impromptu tours, educational youth programs and scheduled group tours. Research on the plants and garden restoration as well as power-point presentations continue through the winter. Sarah’s Garden and its programs are free and available with accommodation for all.

The growing success story of Sarah’s Garden is the continued expansion of the Master Gardener-led educational programming in reaching 4 major groups:

  1. Master Gardeners. Sarah’s Garden is a unique educational setting for Master Gardeners to learn about heirloom plants and how to teach audiences about gardens and gardening. Nine Master Gardeners mentored 29 Master Gardeners and 14 community volunteers in the ongoing Garden restoration and care and in the development and presentation of educational programs for youth and community audiences.   Master Gardeners continue research during the winter with 2014 topics focused on spring bulb identification, rose and tree propagation, and a bloom period chart.   Master Gardeners recorded 1377 volunteer hours for the year at Sarah’s Garden.
  2. Youth. Sarah’s Garden provides a unique educational setting in the community for Master Gardeners to teach youth about gardens and gardening. It is our major emphasis for the year.
  3. Adults. Sarah’s Garden is a magnet for adult gardeners and historians in the community. This year, 32 Master Gardeners provided 12 scheduled group educational tours for 407 adults and 39 impromptu tours of Sarah’s Garden for 159 visitors.   Master Gardeners gave added tours for 1374 people during 7 community events at the Mansion including the Glorious Garden Festival, Civil War Days, the Barn Quilt Tour and the Antique Car Show. Each tour taught visitors about the garden, its plants, and its care and also answered visitor questions about their own gardens. Two of the bus tours were Master Gardener groups from other counties.
  4. Historic Garden Outreach. Sarah’s Garden continues as an educational model for other historic garden restoration projects. New in 2014 was outreach to the historic Elijah Iles House in Springfield IL. Master Gardeners presented 2 “Preserving Sarah Davis’ Cutting Garden” workshops for Iles House staff and volunteers, hosted Iles House volunteers to two visits at Sarah’s Garden, and shared techniques and heirloom plants for the Iles House garden.

    GS in the garden
    The Girl Scout Workshops at Sarah’s Garden engaged 141 4th and 5th grade girls in half-day garden-related activities to earn their Flowers and Gardener badges. Master Gardeners utilized Extension Junior Master Gardener materials and new Girl Scout program guides to develop the workshops sessions taught by 18 Master Gardeners. Leaders also benefitted from the programs.


  • The Fall 3rd Grade program reached 247 students from 5 schools and their teachers/ chaperones. The Spring 3rd Grade program brought 285 students from 5 schools and their teachers/chaperones. Developed by Master Gardeners in cooperation with teachers, each of the 10 half-day programs involve Master Gardener-led rotations to 3 garden-related learning activities in the fall and 3 new activities in the spring.
  • New in 2014 was the pilot 4th grade Art and Architecture program where 8 Master Gardeners gave 25 students and their teachers experiences in photography in Sarah’s Garden and an art table creating garden look-a-like flowers in addition to a Mansion experience discovering the influence of nature on Victorian home décor.
  • New this year was a Seed Planting Activity at Illinois State University’s Family and Science Day where Master Gardeners led several hundred children in planting seeds to take home.
  • New this year was development of a Sarah’s Garden interactive power point presentation to be implemented in 2015 for youth audiences and for children visiting the Mansion with parents.


Other Master Gardener developed educational efforts are the Sarah’s Garden power point for community audiences with recorded audio added this year, a Sarah’s Garden brochure, photo albums of all garden plants in bloom, Sarah’s Garden seeds and the power-point for sale in the Mansion gift shop, and Sarah’s Garden plants for the Master Gardener “Plants and More” sale.

Master Gardeners and Extension are recognized for bringing Sarah’s Garden to a prominent status as a community attraction and as an educational center model. The Garden was recognized with a City of Bloomington Beautification Award. Volunteer efforts won the 2010 Illinois State Master Gardener Teamwork Award. sping in the gardenVolunteerism and programming were recognized with a Governor’s Hometown Award in 2011 and was one of 6 finalists for the top award, the Governor’s Cup. The Sarah’s Garden brochure provides visitors with additional interpretation. Sarah’s garden has its own link on the www.daviddavismansion.org website and is regularly featured by posts for 2100 “friends” on the Mansion Facebook page.