Wednesday, August 14, 2013

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On the Road to... Olbrich Botanical Gardens

I recently made my annual summer visit to Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisconsin. While this post may read like a promotion from the Olbrich PR department -- it isn't. I'm simply a big fan of this amazing garden overlooking Lake Monona and I think you will be too.

But that's not just my opinion. In 2004, Horticulture magazine selected it as one of the 10 most inspiring American gardens. The next year, the American Association of Botanic Gardens & Arboreta selected it as their "Best Of." Agreed. Olbrich's 14 themed gardens and the terrific Bolz Conservatory sit on 16 acres. While other gardens and arboreta have the luxury of endless real estate, Olbrich proves smaller can be spectacular. Each garden room flows naturally and seamlessly into its neighbor.

Entering the garden from the main building, I always turn right toward the lake, past the gorgeous Corneliancherry Dogwood hedge and stroll through the Atrium Shade Garden. Why don't we think to use Cornus mas this way more often? The overarching Hawthorn tree gives a sense of age to the garden and creates the shade necessary for the underlying perennials. This is one of two great places at Olbrich to check out hosta cultivars (the other being the Eunice Fisher Hosta Garden) for your garden consideration.

Boxwood, Verbena bonariensis and Hakonechloa
The Sunken Garden is Olbrich’s oldest garden. It is traditional, formal and English without being stuffy. The borders in this “room” are symmetrically arranged around the 80’ long reflecting pool and its beautiful limestone terrace. The variety of perennials and shrubs are a color kaleidoscope that undoubtedly changes weekly. Thus far, I have only seen it in July or August. Each time I visit I always find great color and texture ideas to capture and plagiarize at home.

The Rock Garden is a major change in topography and plants. The combination of hardy alpine plants and dwarf conifers is an inspiration to try in your own rock garden and/or dwarf conifer collection. It’s nice to see “rock hardy” (no pun intended, really) Zone 4 & 5 plants presented in such an unexpected elevation. The sound of the rushing water nearby is a great auditory part of the whole experience.
Rock Garden
There’s always some great new twist with each visit and that’s hard to do when you have such a finite amount of terra firma. This summer the surprise was the carnivorous plant collection that I don’t remember from last summer. So cool. Where have you seen anyone in the Midwest doing that? Small space, done beautifully- just as you might expect to see the plants in their boggy habitat. As someone who admires them, I just sat and took it in for minutes. I’m sorry this photo doesn’t do justice to the charm of that little specialty garden.
Carnivorous plant garden

Then there's the Thai Pavilion, a gift to the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Built in Thailand, disassembled and packed for a seven week journey by sea to Tacoma, then by rail to Chicago, and finally to Madison by truck. Nine Thai artisans made the trip to reassemble it. That took three weeks. Yes, that's all gold leaf. Aside from the stunning architecture and uniqueness of such a structure in the Midwest, hardy plants have been selected to create the look of an Asian garden.
Thai Pavilion and Garden

I'm going on, aren't I? I haven't even mentioned my favorite feature at Olbrich. To me, the 30' prairie-style tower overlooking the 2-acre Rose Garden alone is worth the trip. It is ramp accessible for all to enjoy and affords a panoramic view of the entire garden. What a total experience for all the senses!

One view from the Rose Garden Tower 
Congratulations to everyone at Olbrich Botanical Garden. You've created an award winner packed with new plants to learn and practical ideas to implement at home. I do look forward to experiencing Olbrich's wonders in the three seasons I have seen yet.
Mama and Baby Bear Awaiting Lunch Service


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