The best gardens in Minneapolis are in Lyndale Park at Lake Harriet

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(Last Updated On: July 29, 2019)

For gardens that show off a wide variety of plants, the best gardens in Minneapolis are hidden in a quiet neighborhood just north of Lake Harriet in Lyndale Park. While the lake draws many visitors, relatively few cross the street to visit the gardens. That makes it a perfect escape in almost any season.

The Lyndale Park gardens feature three distinct garden styles: a rose garden, a Japanese peace garden, and a variety of mixed annual and perennial flower gardens. Whether you prefer subtle greenery or bold flowers, formal plantings or a wild jumble, sun or shade, you’ll find a garden or two to love!

top of fountain with cherub and satyrs above roses

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Three gardens in Lyndale Park offer greenery for every taste

Variety is a big part of what makes Lyndale Park Gardens the “best gardens in Minneapolis.” Colorful flowers that attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies are another. So are shady spots to relax, fountains that make it seem a little cooler on a hot summer day, and the bold colors of fall. Of course, the abundant rose blossoms, tiny Alpine flowers, and Japanese elements also add to the appeal. And, as a gardener, the well-labeled plants allow me to dream (fantasize) about creating an equally beautiful garden of my own.

Lyndale Park offers this through three very different gardens:

  • The Rose Garden, which is the oldest garden. It was established in 1907 and looks the same today, except with a different mix of roses. Located across the road from Lake Harriet, this is the most well-known and busiest of the gardens.
  • The Peace Garden, which began in the 1930s as a rock garden. It was abandoned fairly early on and then forgotten for decades. In the 1980s it was reborn as an Asian rock garden. In 1999 it was designated an official Peace Garden. Today it beautifully blends elements from of all these past lives.
  • Although an annual and perennial flower garden came soon after the Rose Garden, the flower gardens here have moved and changed a lot over time. Today the Park Board identifies three different gardens: An Annual and Perennial Garden, Border Garden, and a Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden.

Together these form the best flower garden in Minneapolis. And you can visit it for free!

All of the gardens in Lyndale Park originated as demonstration gardens designed to educate the public about plants and how to use them in the landscape. For the most part, the gardens still serve this function. Plants are labeled in all of the gardens and new varieties are still tested here.

Minnesota gardeners will find many ideas for their own gardens here. But every visitor will discover beautiful gardens perfect for wandering. There’s no requirement that you learn anything about plants or gardening during your visit – just enjoy!

Rose Garden

The Lyndale Park Rose Garden (also sometimes called the Lake Harriet Rose Garden) is the most well-known of the Lyndale Park gardens. That’s due in part to its visibility, as it’s the only garden that can be seen from the lakeshore walking path.

red and white rose in foreground with garden and lake in background

It’s also the oldest of the gardens, created in 1907 under the direction of Minneapolis Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth. Municipal rose gardens were a novelty at the time, and this was only the second in the USA. (Wirth was also created the first one in Hartford, Connecticut, before moving to Minneapolis.) But both gardens were part of a larger rose craze. For example, by this time Portland, Oregon, had 200 miles of rose-lined streets – although it would be another decade before the city established its International Rose Test Garden.

Today, the Lyndale Park Rose Garden would look very familiar to Wirth, as it retains his original layout of 62 rectangular beds of hybrid tea and other modern roses. However, He would find many new varieties growing in those beds. And, with more than 3,000 bushes representing 100 varieties, today’s Rose Garden offers everyone a bounty of fragrance and color from June through September.


Peace Garden

The Lyndale Park Peace Garden (also sometimes called the Lake Harriet Peace Garden) is a combination Japanese-inspired peace garden and Alpine rock garden. It seems an odd combination, but the elements flow together to create a reasonably coherent, and lovely, whole.

The mix of garden styles and vegetation makes this the most interesting of the Lyndale Park gardens throughout the year. It has the earliest spring flowers, bright summer flowers, shady retreats, brilliant fall colors, and evergreens that are picture-perfect even under a fresh coat of winter snow.

It was formally recognized as an international Peace Site in 1999.

An old rock garden given new life

An Alpine rock garden was created on this site in 1929 to test flower hardiness for Minnesota.

A lot of work went into creating that rock garden, with tons of dolomite stone shipped by rail from Wisconsin to form the garden’s foundation even before planting began. Despite this effort, the garden was abandoned within a decade or two. In the years that followed it was so completely over-grown and forgotten that its discovery in the 1980s seems to have come as a complete surprise to everyone.

A Japanese-inspired ode to peace

Asian, and particularly Japanese, influences can be found throughout the Peace Garden.

A Japanese bridge leads into the garden over a small wetland from one direction. From the other, a series of sculptures create a “Pathway to Peace” that directs visitors to a large peace sculpture near the waterfall. Between, a variety of conifers and other sculpture give the area the feel of a rather informal Japanese garden.

Paths and red flowers leading to conifers

Follow the neighborhood Pathway to Peace

A Pathway to Peace of seven stone sculptures connects the neighborhood to the Peace Garden.

sculpture of a cairn on a stand with people in background

The sculptures represent different types of cairns – piles of rock used to mark significant landmarks, important sites, and trails. Here they mark the way to peace – both as a visual guide directing visitors to the peace park and as a structure for contemplating peace.


A variety of annual and perennial flower gardens

Lyndale Park also has several mixed flower beds. All of these seem to include a variety of flowering shrubs, perennials, and a few annuals. Some gardens have a mix of all three, but annuals are really only featured in a couple of places.

The first perennial and annual gardens were planted in Lyndale Park in the 1920s and quickly became hugely popular with the public. However, over the years the flower gardens have been moved and changed. The current gardens only date back to the 1960s.

yellow mullein and milkweed blossoms

There are three named flower gardens in Lyndale Park, but none of those names make it easy to distinguish between the gardens:

  • The Annual and Perennial Garden includes two large border gardens with a large number of plants beloved by pollinators and six smaller beds made up largely of annuals. It is located between the Heffelfinger and Turtle fountains.
  • The Border Garden, which is still signed as the Trial Garden (its former name), contains a mix of small shrubs and trees, a wide variety of perennials, and a few annuals. It is located east of the Peace Garden along the woods.
  • The Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden is a semi-wild annual and perennial garden of pollinator-friendly flowers. It’s mostly a border garden located along the woods behind the Peace Garden and immediately west of the Border Garden.

As you can see, all include a border garden, all feature many plants attractive to pollinators, all have a lot of perennials, and most have at least a few annuals! But at least the gardens are quite different in the way plants are used.

The Annual and Perennial Garden

Located just beyond the Heffelfinger Fountain by the Rose Garden, the Annual and Perennial Garden features two large border gardens with smaller garden beds in the lawn between them and another fountain at the far end.

The borders of the Annual and Perennial Garden feature an informal mix of flowering shrubs and perennials.


The Border Garden

A linear garden of perennials, flowering shrubs, and flowering trees meanders along the edge of the woods marking Lyndale Park’s northern boundary with Lakewood Cemetery. Formerly known as the Trial Garden (and still signed as such), the Border Garden is Lyndale Park’s version of a traditional home garden. It’s a very large and well-maintained version of what many backyard flower gardens aspire to.

border garden with shrubs, hydrangea, and other flowers

The Park Board describes this as a perennial garden, but it actually includes a mix of annuals and perennials. Apparently, it is still used to test perennials for disease resistance and suitability for Minnesota’s climate. Perhaps this is the reason perennials get top billing.

Since the mix of plants varies considerably throughout the length of the garden, so it’s worth crossing the lawn to stroll along the garden’s edge.

Along the way you’ll pass through what appears to be the remains of Wirth’s arboretum, which still has a number of large, old trees. Look for very informative labels by some of the more unusual varieties.

The Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden

The newest garden in the park, the Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden is a more informal continuation of the Border Garden. Filled with native species and other flowers that are particularly attractive to butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees, much of this garden has a wilder, more natural look than any of the other gardens in Lyndale Park. It also has a number of man-made features designed to provide shelter for pollinators.

 

Plan your visit to the Lyndale Park gardens

All of the gardens featured here are located in Lyndale Park. That’s just to the northeast of Lake Harriet and south of downtown. It’s tucked between the lake and Lakewood Cemetery, so there are plenty of quiet spots where you can escape the daily rush!

Map showing where the gardens are

For years I’ve known these as the Lake Harriet gardens. Even Theodore Wirth, the Minneapolis park superintendent who established the gardens, thought Lyndale Park and its gardens should be part of Lake Harriet Park. But officially it remains Lyndale Park, as stipulated in the agreement that transferred the land to the Park Board.

However, no matter what you call these gardens, a visit here between May and October is one of the best free things to do in Minneapolis.

Looking for more free things to do in Minneapolis?

Lyndale Park is located in a beautiful residential area. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do right in the neighborhood. Options include wildlife watching in Roberts Bird Sanctuary; walking, biking, or enjoying water sports at Lake Harriet; and touring the Chain of Lakes.

Try birdwatching at the Roberts Bird Sanctuary

One side of the Peace Garden nestles alongside the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary. This is another oasis of peace, where even dogs and runners are prohibited.

There’s an activity for everyone at Lake Harriet

For the most part, Lake Harriet Park really only includes land right along the lakeshore. But within that limited strip you will find walking and biking paths, two beaches, a fishing pier, small garden, playground, boat dock, band shell, café, and a spot to rent a bike, canoe, kayak, boat, or paddle board.

Lake Harriet band shell and pavilion seen from the water

Explore farther afield in the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Regional Park

Like Lake Harriet Park, Lyndale Park is part of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Regional Park.

Minneapolis has one of the finest urban park systems in the USA, and the Chain of Lakes Regional Park is the city’s gem. 15 miles each of bike and walking trails pass (mostly) through parks and natural areas to link five urban lakes and Lyndale Park. It’s a beautiful getaway right in the city. Walk, bike, or run here on a lovely day and you are guaranteed to fall in love with Minneapolis.

runner framed by golden trees with lake visible to the side

 Much of the historical information included in this story comes from the Minneapolis Parks website.

Top of the fountain above roses

Each park on the site has a section with history. It’s a nice way to learn a little more about the sometimes-surprising events that led to the park system we know today. The Lyndale Park history page is a particularly fact-filled look into the past.

The Park Board’s Lyndale Park Guide to the Gardens and Arboretum (PDF) also includes a wealth of current and historical information. Much of this is information not included on the park website.

 The Southwest Journal also includes a number of interesting stories on Lyndale Park, including a piece from some years ago on the park’s gardeners.

 Exploring Minneapolis

cairn sculpture with text "a Pathway to Peace in Lyndale Park" Pink rose with text "Lyndale Park Rose Garden" Italian fountain with sculpture purple and white garden with "Lyndale Park Garden" text purple and white garden with "Lyndale Park Garden" text colorful border garden with "Lyndale Park Garden" text gold roses with text "Lyndale Park Rose Garden" Top of the fountain above roses tall sculpture topped by a paper crane in a park colorful border garden with "Lyndale Park Garden" text selection of flowers with text "Lyndale Park Gardens" Picture of roses with text "Lyndale Park Rose Garden" wood structure with various items for bees to use as shelter

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