Midwest Regional Reports

Olbrich Botanical Gardens: A Must-See Midwest Destination

Add this delightful public garden to your travel plans the next time you are in Madison, Wisconsin

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Visiting public gardens is a fantastic way to gain gardening inspiration, information, and ideas—not to mention a wonderful way to just relax and soak in the beauty of a locale. Living in Janesville, Wisconsin, for more than 20 years has given me the proximity to and the motivation I need to frequently travel north to Madison to visit Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Simply put, it is one of the best public gardens in the country. My drive is only about 40 miles (45 minutes), but I would encourage anyone not only to plan a visit to this fabulous garden (give yourselves a couple of hours there) but also to explore the Madison area—which features museums, the State Capitol, farmer’s markets, natural areas, the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and Arboretum, and much more.

plant combinations at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

There is no shortage of inspiration at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens (OBG) was founded along the eastern shore of Lake Monona on land originally purchased by Michael B. Olbrich. The garden was founded in 1952 on 16 acres and is owned and operated jointly by the City of Madison Parks Department and the nonprofit Olbrich Botanical Society. Delve further into the fascinating history of this garden on its website. The 10,000-square-foot Bolz Conservatory (opened in 1991) is certainly an attraction throughout the year but even more so in the frigid winter months. There are countless educational opportunities and events at the gardens, which are free to visit, although the conservatory has a nominal charge.

What has amazed me in recent years is not only the quality of displays throughout the many garden areas but the continued focus and promotion on sustainability. OBG has replaced much of its lawn space with gravel gardens and meadow gardens that you need to visit to really appreciate. Although the plantings in these spaces are low maintenance and durable, they are also beautiful.

Thai pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a Midwestern public garden gem

The herb garden, sunken garden, rose garden, and shade garden are just some of the many gardens to enjoy. There is also a Thai garden (opened in 2002) that features an authentic Thai pavilion (sala) and amazingly lush plantings. The plant signage throughout the gardens is helpful, and there are many benches and spaces to relax and simply soak in the lovely views. The education center augments the visitor’s center, which also has a popular gift shop.

Coming from a public garden background, I can appreciate what the staff and volunteers do at this garden, and it is refreshing to see a very forward-thinking, creative approach to improving and promoting the gardens every year. It continues to be no surprise to me that OBG is often nationally recognized for its inspiring gardens and work. I’ve visited over 150 public gardens in the United States and Europe, and Olbrich is one that shouldn’t be missed. I’m already past due for another visit.

—Mark Dwyer is the garden manager for the Edgerton Hospital Healing Garden in Edgerton, Wisconsin, and he operates Landscape Prescriptions by MD.

Photos: Mark Dwyer

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