The Scoop on Olbrich Gardens’ Expansion

Olbrich Gardens

By Hywania Thompson | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun

Olbrich Botanical Gardens on Madison’s East Side is known for its beautiful landscapes and lush plants. Take a stroll through the impressive 16-acre outdoor garden and you may forget you’re in the city. And the Bolz Conservatory offers tropical relief from the Wisconsin weather.

Olbrich is about to get even more incredible with an expansion—its first since 1991. It includes a new production greenhouse and the first-ever dedicated education building. Some 335,000 visitors flocked to the gardens in 2018, up 10,000 from the year before, so the new space will be a welcome addition.

Room for all

Olbrich offers a number of education and enrichment programs, from gardening classes to yoga. There truly is something for everyone. “We currently have adult programs, we have programs for community groups, whether they’re scout groups or other community groups,” says Jane Nicholson, Olbrich’s director of education. “We have an Explorer school program and we have thousands of children that come through that program.” Both Nicholson and Olbrich director Roberta Sladky say the school programs have a long waiting list of teachers wanting their students to learn about plants. And with rentals getting most of the space on weekends, it doesn’t leave much time for education programs. “We only have so many slots because weekend space is used for other things. The whole setup has to be torn down every Thursday and set back up every Tuesday, so if we had space it would allow us to offer more days of school programs and on the weekend have more things for families,” says Sladky.

Right now, programs are held in multi-purpose rooms, often with young children using adult-sized chairs. Nicholson says the new space will include children’s furniture, adjustable adult tables and sinks in its three indoor classrooms. The classrooms will have a view of the gardens and an abundance of natural light. There’s also an outdoor classroom, a patio, offices and storage space.

While the new building boasts great views and more space for the community to learn and grow, it also builds on Olbrich’s sustainability practices with its 60,000 gallon cistern, solar panels and window frames. The cistern will store rainwater from the roof, which will be filtered and used to water plants. The building’s window frames were constructed using ash trees from around Madison. The trees were destroyed by the Emerald Ash Borer and had to be cut down. Olbrich received a grant specifically for that work from the Madison Community Foundation. It also received a grant from the foundation for the general building project.

The new building is named the Frautschi Family Learning Center. A number of Frautschi family members provided the lead, or largest, gift to the campaign.

Sladky says talk of expansion started in 2010, with approval from the City of Madison around 2015. “We didn’t know exactly what we needed but we knew we needed something,” Sladky says. The $12 million project is a joint effort between the city’s parks division and Olbrich Botanical Society. They broke ground last September.

The city is chipping in $6 million for the expansion, while Olbrich Botanical Society is raising the other half. They’re still actively fundraising and there are naming opportunities available. Last October, residents were able to purchase $500 bonds through Madison’s Community Bonds pro- gram. According to Madison finance director David Schmiedicke, they sold $876,000 to support the city’s contribution to the project. “The community bonds offered a way for Madison residents to invest in their community and receive a return on that investment,” Schmiedicke says.

Plants, plants and more plants

A new greenhouse will replace Olbrich’s old, outdated one. “What we’re most excited about for the greenhouse is the new efficiencies…not only more energy efficient just because technology has come a long way, but also space efficiencies,” says Katy Plantenberg, public relations and marketing manager. “In our previous greenhouse the benches were all stationary. They were on cinder blocks and you couldn’t move them,” she says. The new greenhouse will have removable benches so staff can rearrange the space when needed. It’ll also have four separate rooms which can be monitored individually for temperature and humidity. Olbrich staff produces plants for the gar- dens, its shows, educational programs and plant sales. The new greenhouse will allow them to produce about 30% more pansies, spring annuals and more. And with a legacy gift from Vera Lee, who died in 2016, Olbrich can produce more orchids. Lee loved orchids and designated part of her gift for the plants. “Just for people to be able to walk in and see all the orchids together and just see what a plant collection looks like I think will be really cool,” says Sladky. Another portion of Lee’s gift will be used for additional staffing for tours and more orchid programming.

You can feel the energy and enthusiasm from staff about the expansion. Nicholson says they’re trying to stay calm but they’re “really excited.” Plantenberg says the project is cool to see. “For me on a personal level, one of my childhood memories is coming here on a field trip and seeing the conservatory,” she says. “As a public garden, that’s what we’re here for; it’s for people to connect with the plants.”

The expansion is expected to be completed this fall. Olbrich is planning a grand opening celebration.

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