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Discover eight secret gardens in Madison

Madison's 'hidden gem' gardens are plentiful

Victorian Elegance

Period Garden Park is one of those gardens you walk into and immediately feel a little calmer. If you’re just passing by the corner of East Gorham and North Pinckney streets in the Mansion Hill District, you’d never know it’s there. But peek behind the well-maintained trees and shrubs, and climb up a few sandstone steps into a Victorian-era garden full of seasonal annuals, perennials, ornamental hedges and trees and beautiful hardscapes. Brick pathways lead around garden beds, fountains and stonework structures.

A small but ample rose garden and statuaries give the gardens an “old world” presence, and benches invite you to rest and take it all in. Period Garden Park was created on an abandoned lot in the mid-1970s. Today, volunteers maintain the property, which has a secret garden ambience—just three blocks off the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

110 E. Gorham St. Park hours: Monday to Sunday, 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

Worldly Blooms

Eagle Heights Community Gardens is like a mini United Nations of cultures, people, plants and gardening techniques. The opposite of a monoculture, this area of diverse garden plots shows the benefits of growing varieties of edibles and ornamentals side by side. Across from the UW–Madison Eagle Heights housing, the garden is among the oldest and largest community gardens in the U.S. It’s a popular birding destination, too.

Traveling north along Lake Mendota Drive into the Eagle Heights community, you’ll see the gardens on your right behind a line of trees. Walking paths take you into sectioned garden plots that stretch about ten acres across a gently sloping hill. Here you’ll find hollyhocks near strawberries, and geraniums planted with peppers and grapevines. Observe international techniques for companion planting, garden decoration and supporting structures.

Across from Eagle Heights housing area, east of Lake Mendota Drive. Best viewed during daytime hours. 

Growing Lessons

Another perk of living in a university town is access to research facilities. The University Display Gardens–West Madison Agricultural Research Station features expanses of flowers, native and hybrid garden plants, abundant vegetable selections and organically grown fruit collections. Specific nicknames and Latin names of all plants are clearly marked.

Compare varieties of colorful raspberries. See firsthand which specific cultivars and native flowering plants attract butterflies and pollinators, and view demonstration projects throughout the garden. As a research garden, this facility publishes results and findings on its website, westmadison.ars.wisc.edu, at the end of the season, so you can follow up your visit with some academic exploration as well.

8502 Mineral Point Rd. Office hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 

Urban Oasis

The Blair Street Gardens aren’t exactly hidden. Actually, they’re in plain sight surrounding the busy intersection where bike paths meet John Nolen Drive and Wilson, Blair and Williamson streets. Three separate areas are maintained by volunteers. Depending on the season, you’ll see spring-flowering bulbs like tulips and daffodils, or summer or fall annuals and perennials, mixed with ornamental shrubs.

These gardens illustrate creative ways to beautify small patches of urban land that are too small for retail space or undesirable for other uses. It’s a bustling section of the city, and easy to miss with the whir of heavy traffic, but worth stopping to see what’s growing during different seasons.

Several plots near the intersection of John Nolen Drive and Wilson, Blair and Williamson streets.  

Woodland Wonder 

Another little secret garden can be found at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona. A tiny woodland garden near the main entrance, across from the visitor center, is easy to overlook if you hurry by too fast. In spring, native ephemerals like bloodroot and trilliums bloom there. Later in summer, you’ll likely find black raspberries, Solomon’s plume and other woodland plants with lovely blooms and fascinating foliage.

Signage in the garden describes to learners, young and old, the significance of a woodland habitat and the biodiversity it supports. This little pocket of nature provides great ideas for native woodland plants that work well in shade gardens.

330 Femrite Dr. Nature center hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Tech Retreat

Out a bit from the city but still part of the Madison vibe, you’ll find Epic Systems’s gardens. If you have a friend or family member who works at Epic, ask them to take you on a guided tour, and don’t forget to spend time in the outdoor gardens.

Epic’s interior facility is incredible enough, but for a gardener, it’s the outdoor campus that really impresses. A diverse but tasteful collection of plants blends intricately with the walkways, archways, arbors and hardscapes. Benches and seating areas throughout encourage visitors to sit for a spell. You’ll see a wide selection of well-maintained ornamental plants and shrubs, as well as an impressive succulent garden.

1979 Milky Way, Verona. Call ahead: 271-9000. 

Local Roots

Most Madison-area residents know about the UW Arboretum, but they might not be familiar with the native plant garden immediately behind the visitor center. In this area, find hardy plants native to Wisconsin—plants that grow well in our part of the state and that don’t require as much pampering as some other garden ornamentals. Plus, they provide habitat for native pollinators, birds and other wildlife.

Depending on when you visit, you’ll see a rainbow of colorful native plants—from lavender swathes of wild bergamot to the spiky shape of rattlesnake master, and the bright orange glow of butterfly weed. This rich collection of plants illustrates how to incorporate native plants into home landscapes.

UW Arboretum Visitor Center. Parking hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

Planting Seeds

If you haven’t been to the Madison Children’s Museum for a while, you might be surprised to see it now includes a working garden. Called the Urb Garden, it’s built on an outdoor deck with views of downtown Madison on all sides. Kids (and their families and friends) learn about aquaponics, composting, planting and harvesting. Chickens, watering stations and plants of all kinds illustrate sustainability practices.

Though designed for the museum’s youngest visitors, the Urb Garden is a three-season wonderland for anyone who enjoys gardening and plants. Weekly nature watches encourage observation skills and citizen science activities. The Urb Garden is a replicable model for Madison residents who don’t have a lot of space for gardening. It’s a green oasis in Madison’s city center.

100 N. Hamilton St. Museum hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day, Monday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the rest of year, closed on Mondays. 

Beth Stetenfeld is a McFarland-based editor, writer, master naturalist and creator of the gardening blog PlantPostings.com.


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