4 keepers of Madison’s gardens
Gardeners and volunteers care for lush city spaces
Behind the ivy-covered trellises and rose bushes are the expert gardeners and community volunteers who maintain some of the city’s lushest green spaces.
Uniquely UW: Allen Centennial Gardens
Tucked away on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is Allen Centennial Gardens. The space, which surrounds a Victorian Gothic house, acts as instructional gardens for students as well as a place of respite for the community.
For Benjamin Futa, the director of Allen Centennial Gardens, “gardening is a constantly evolving timeline, with moments that come and go, surprise and delight,” he says.
As gardens evolve, those who tend to them need to adapt with the gardens themselves, Futa says. With each season, there are new opportunities to renovate and think of new ideas.
“Public horticulture in general, especially in urban environments, is critical because being in a built, urbanized environment [makes it] easy for people to lose their connection to nature,” Futa says.
Before Futa started as director in May 2015, the garden relied on annuals and tropical plants, which he says are not sustainable. By scaling those back and planting more perennials and woody plants, the garden reduced its environmental impact and now supports the larger ecology of the garden.
The gardens’ exhibit spaces change yearly based on a theme. This year’s theme is “Uniquely UW, Simply Beautiful,” and the garden will feature UW-Madison stories and communities throughout the space.
While Futa helps in the garden by weeding, watering and planting, master gardeners and other skilled gardeners volunteer from the community to help with planting. In addition, the garden pays students to work on horticulture, programming and outreach.
Futa says he wants to connect visitors to plants and gardening styles they haven’t seen before.
“Public horticulture gives us the opportunity to inspire gardeners of all experiences to appreciate, understand and embrace horticulture in new ways,” Futa says.
View From the Top: Pleasant T. Rowland Rooftop Ramble
Above the Children’s Museum of Madison is the Pleasant T. Rowland Rooftop Ramble, designed to educate kids and adults alike about sustainability, local food and the importance of green spaces. Cheryl DeWelt, the museum’s environmental education manager, coordinates all the plantings and programming that happen on one of few green rooftops in Madison.
DeWelt says that when the Children’s Museum opened at its current location on Hamilton Street in August 2010, staff member knew they wanted to create a space that taught kids how to maintain the planet for future generations. The museum has two other green spaces, the Urb Garden and Log Cabin Heirloom Garden.
As a master gardener herself, DeWelt plants all the seeds, does all the weeding and creates most of the welded pieces placed throughout the garden.
DeWelt says she has a huge seed budget since new sets of seeds are planted every week or two during the growing season, often with the help of kids visiting the garden. “It’s a constant of keeping it going. These ones are dying off, these ones are coming up. There’s always something happening,” she says.
Part of the garden showcases native Wisconsin prairie plants, but the majority features edible and medicinal plants. She grows squashes, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, peas, root crops, currants, strawberries and more that visitors can pick and eat themselves.
DeWelt also works with chicken and pigeon coops and creates a garden highlighting a specific culture. She says these elements help expose kids to fresh produce and gardening.
“[Kids] start to recognize that things don’t just come off the shelf at a supermarket, they come off plants in the ground,” DeWelt says. “To have the space and to showcase how the food grows is really a great thing.”
Dream Team: Olbrich Botanical Gardens
At Olbrich Botanical Gardens, each member of the 10-person horticultural team has a role, but they work together to make the gardens beautiful for the thousands of people who visit yearly.
Jeff Epping, the director of horticulture, has worked with Olbrich for the past 25 years. When he first started, there were only a couple of gardens, and now there are at least 13. Each member of the team is assigned a particular garden in the 16-acre outdoor space.
“We’re always tweaking things, year in and year out,” Epping says. “Gardening is a process and it’s ongoing. A garden is never done.”
Epping says all staff members are artists in their own way because they have to be creative when designing the gardens. Olbrich has been recognized nationally for innovative design.
For Phillip Stutz, who manages the perennial garden and the rock garden, Olbrich Gardens is “a beautiful place of solace.” He says he’s seen the same people walking through the garden each year, and some each week, during the 10 years he’s worked there.
The horticulture team plans all winter long, but as soon as the growing season starts, the team is out in the gardens working with crews of volunteers. Epping says Olbrich has 600 volunteers and holds one of the highest volunteer retention rates of any organization in the Midwest. Olbrich also works closely with Dane County’s Jail Diversion Programs, which allow inmates to exercise Huber privileges.
Erin Presley, who manages the herb garden, says the team highlights different types of gardening techniques to show people various ways they can plant at home.
“We really, really love our jobs,” Presley says. “We’re really honored to work here in such a great space and see the smiling faces that come in.”
Restorative Revival: Period Garden Park
In the Mansion Hill neighborhood, Period Garden Park – a small park in a .235-acre space – is blossoming with beautiful flowers courtesy of volunteers.
The city first took ownership of Period Garden Park at Gorham and Pinckney streets in 1975, but because of budget restrictions throughout the years, the park’s condition declined. Then in 2007, Period Garden Park was given a new start when volunteer Joe Bonardi arrived.
Bonardi, who has never formally studied landscaping or horticulture, has spent the past 11 years planting flowers, weeding, raking, mulching, watering and mowing the garden. As the primary volunteer, Bonardi puts in 15 to 20 hours every week at the park during the growing season while also working full time as a hairdresser at the salon he owns, Genre Hair Studio.
According to the park’s website, neighborhood volunteers from Capital Neighborhood Inc. and Mansion Hill District planted $10,000 worth of new perennials, shrubs and trees during the initial renovation.
“We are in the heart of our oldest and most historical district, Mansion Hill, and the park complements the pre- and post-Victorian era,” Bonardi says.
For his work at Period Garden Park, Bonardi won the inaugural Madison Parks volunteer of the year award and was given a 2017 Historic Preservation Award from the Madison Trust.
The entire budget for the park comes from donations, Bonardi says, so he does about 90 percent of the fundraising. One generous donation from Wendy Kreps, a neighbor, made possible the restoration of a water fountain, Bonardi says.
Helping the bee population is also one of Bonardi’s goals. He has a strict no-insecticide policy, and most of the perennial flowers grown in the park are great for local bees, in comparison to many downtown plantings that offer no pollen.
“Period Garden Park is not a large space, but it seems to have a special charm that people enjoy,” Bonardi says.
Maija Inveiss is digital content editor at Madison Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @maija.inveiss.
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