Exploring the Gardens of Madison, Wisconsin

by Editor
Allen Centennial Garden

You might recognize Madison as the capital of Wisconsin or as the home of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After a summer visit to this capital town, I discovered that Madison is also a city with some gorgeous gardens.

The downtown area is brimming with floral displays, including a must-visit garden on the top of its convention center – Monona Terrace. Conceived by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright back in 1938, Monona Terrace eventually took shape on the shores of Lake Monona in the late 1990s, just steps from the state capitol building


Monona Terrace

Monona Terrace garden / Beverly Hurley

The rooftop gardens cover 68,000 square feet and include mostly prairie plantings of echinacea, native grasses, phlox, cleome, liatris, and daylilies. Planted in drifts of flowers interspersed with interesting steel sculptures, the gardens and the view of the lake make Monona Terrace a prime destination in downtown Madison. In warm weather months, grab a light bite to eat at the Lake Vista Café on the rooftop or take in a free concert on select summer nights. There is no admission to the rooftop, though it might close if storms are in the area.

I love a city that includes unusual street trees, and Madison doesn’t disappoint. The street connecting the capitol building with the convention center is lined with gingko trees. How cool is that? I can only imagine the stunning yellow foliage display come fall.

The Allen Centennial Garden

UW-Madison is the home of the state’s horticulture school. The Allen Centennial Garden on campus is a living lab and outdoor classroom for the school, plus a community gathering spot in the heart of the campus for events and concerts. While small at 2.5 acres, the garden houses over a dozen themed areas, each packed with plants to enjoy. Easy-to-follow paths wind through the space, and at each turn a new garden area is revealed.

Near the entrance is the Japanese garden with a stunning European larch tree as the backdrop. Behind it is the New American Garden with layers of colors and textures created by the plants that hug the hillside.

Allen Centennial Garden

The Rock Garden – Allen Centennial Garden / Kolin Goldchmidt

Divert up a small hill to the Dwarf Conifer Garden to see its many interesting specimens. The nearby Rock Garden is the Frank Cabot Public Rock Garden award winner for 2019. It’s easy to see why with the selection of alpine and succulent plants that cascade down the hillside.

The Pond Garden features water lilies and other aquatic plants that act as biofilters to keep the water clean. A red Japanese-style bridge anchors one end of the pond, while a lovely Japanese maple ‘Wolf’ and gazebo anchors the other. An Iris Meadow greets you (in season) just before you step through the opening in a manicured hedge and into the French and Italian Garden. Boxwood topiary in the shape of a fleur-de-lis is the prime planting on the French side, while dry-loving plants including a foxtail agave are the centerpiece of the Italian section. A shady pergola separates this area from the English garden.

Allen Centennial Garden

The Pond Garden – Allen Centennial Garden / Beverly Hurley

Other stops include the Wisconsin Woodland Garden, a respite filled with spring ephemerals, and Sally’s Garden named for the donor who pays for this lovely Cottage Garden. Both are adjacent to the 1890s-era Victorian Gothic house that was the home of former deans of the agriculture school. Allen Centennial Garden is free and open daily from dawn to dusk.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

The Olbrich Botanical Gardens is the signature garden of Madison. Plans for the garden go back 100 years when UW-Madison graduate Michael Olbrich envisioned a park and flower garden on the shore of Lake Monona. While he didn’t live long enough to see his dream come true, Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a lasting tribute to his vision.

Once inside the garden’s visitor center (the garden is free) you will want to first visit the Bolz Conservatory ($2 fee), a 50-foot tall glass pyramid filled with tropical plants, flying birds, and in summer the Olbrich’s Blooming Butterflies exhibit.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

The Sunken Garden / Beverly Hurley

From here, grab a garden map, hang a right when you go outside, and start exploring, though be prepared to get lost in the Olbrich’s 16-acres of gardens filled with masses of plants everywhere you look. First stop is the Sunken Garden, which features the earliest structures in Olbrich—twin fieldstone shelters. An 80-foot long reflecting pool is now the centerpiece with paths and garden beds layered with perennials and shrubs around the large rectangular pool.

Check out the creative plant containers overflowing with succulents and heat-loving annuals. The garden offers plant lists for its containers on its website. Several smaller gardens edge the Sunken Garden: the Atrium Shade Garden is filled with hosta and a ‘Jack Frost’ dawn redwood tree. The opposite side features the Rock Garden and a Wildflower Garden, among others.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Unusually decorated tree / Beverly Hurley

Even though I had several hours planned at the Olbrich, I decided to focus my visit on two main gardens – the two-acre Rose Garden and the Thai Pavilion and Garden. On my quest to find these, I stopped off in the Herb Garden, mostly because of its artfully-decorated tree. While here I also enjoyed seeing a wide variety of herbs, and I discovered a small Sinister Garden with poisonous plants.

Before reaching the Thai garden, I was easily distracted by the Prairie Dropseed Meadow and the Sedge Meadow. My Kansas roots were poking through.

I eventually saw an unusual building through the trees – the Thai Pavilion. A quick jaunt over a bridge took me to another world and a don’t miss stop at Olbrich.

Olbrich Botanical Garden Thai Pavilion

The Thai Pavilion / Olbrich Botanical Gardens

The gold-leaf pavilion was a gift from the Thai government and the Thai chapter of the UW-Madison Alumni Association. It turns out that the university has one of the largest Thai student populations of any U.S. university. Three serene pools flank the front of the pavilion, and once inside make sure to look up at the intricate wood carvings in the ceiling. Lush tropical plantings (Wisconsin winter-hardy varieties) surround the pavilion. Take the side path back to the bridge. It’s planted with hinoki grass, canna, and hosta.

I had a difficult time finding the Rose Garden. I’m not sure why; it’s two-acres. I almost gave up until I saw a sign for it near the Great Lawn area. Then I learned the key to the map. Stay on the paved paths to find the gardens, and explore these on the gravel paths once there. Easy. Unlike most rose displays in public gardens, this one is creative in its plantings by placing the roses—hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas and hardy shrub—in the landscape with other plants. You have a birds-eye view from the top of a 30-foot tall tower built of native stone.

The UW Arboretum

You could spend the day at the UW-Madison Arboretum with its 17 miles of walking trails, paved roads for cycling, and several garden areas to discover. The concept for the Arboretum was started in 1911, and later promoted by Michael Olbrich in 1925 to create a wildlife sanctuary, forest preserve and a refuge from the city on land that was mostly cleared by farming.

UW Arboretum

Native plants in the Arboretum / Molly Fifield-UW Madison Arboretum

Today, it’s an ecological restoration with prairie and woodlands, along with the horticultural gardens. A good place to start is at the Visitors Center for a short movie on the history. Then step outside on the back deck for a panoramic view of the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden. Take time to explore this 4-acre garden on the paved paths that weave through native plants and tall grasses; a recreation of the prairie that once dominated this area.

The adjacent Longenecker Horticultural Garden is just a small section of the 1,200-acre arboretum, yet it takes up 35 acres and is filled with 2,600 types of trees and shrubs. Considered a living museum of plants, including the largest flowering crabapple collection in the world, you can wander this garden for hours enjoying seasonal blooms.

Free tours are offered in these gardens spring, summer and fall. The arboretum is open year round from 7am-10pm. Admission is free.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright built his home in the rolling hills of Wisconsin where he was raised, 35-minutes from Madison. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Taliesin is the quintessential Wright design of blending buildings with the land. Originally 3,000 acres now pared down to 800, the estate is a collection of structures that span the entire career of Wright from the 1890s to 1950s. What many may not realize is the importance of the landscape and gardens in Wright’s building designs. Taliesin is a showcase of these.

Taliesin courtyard garden

Taliesin courtyard garden / Beverly Hurley

Guests first arrived at the house from the lower level and walked up the steps through a shade garden. The back of the house overlooks a courtyard garden that connects the main house to Wright’s studio. This garden enclosed with stone walls is filled with colorful plants, and features a small pool of water that was the horse trough when this side of the house was the main entrance. Every view from the back of the house and from Wright’s adjacent studio looks out on this garden scene. A hillside above leads to another building and panoramic views of the countryside below.


The birdwalk extends from the front of the home / Beverly Hurley

The path to the right of the courtyard takes you to a plunge pool and a shady terrace adjacent to Wright’s bedroom, designed with windows on three sides to take in nature. A small path from this terrace descends through another shade garden and onto a lower area where you can see the birdwalk that juts outside from the living room.

The interior of the house is classic Frank Lloyd Wright with stone pillars, varied ceiling heights, custom woodwork, and many windows to view the outdoors. Taliesin is accessible only by tour, including a garden tour offered the last Friday of the month June through September. All tours start from the Visitors Center, where you can dine on food grown on the estate in the Riverview Terrace Cafe.

When You Go to Madison

If your visit is on a Saturday from April into November, make sure to include the Dane County Farmer’s Market. Hundreds of vendors selling locally-grown produce, breads, artisan cheese (including local cheese curds), and plants are set up on the sidewalk encircling the state capitol building. Curiously, people only walk counter-clockwise around the capitol to experience the market. Go with the flow and enjoy, but arrive early as many vendors sell out before the close of the market.

Dane County Farmer's Market

Dane County Farmer’s Market / Beverly Hurley

Another garden stop is the Period Garden Park in the Mansion Hill District at 110 E. Gorham Street. This pocket park used to be the front yard of the 1854 house behind it, but it is now owned by the city and proudly maintained by the neighborhood association. Carved sandstone steps lead you up into the park that features a small boxwood parterre, brick paths, fountains and statues, stone walls, benches, and many gardens sections overflowing with sun and shade plant varieties.

Dining at a Wisconsin supper club is a must when you visit, and the Tornado Steak House in Madison is a classic with drinks like a brandy old-fashioned and a hearty menu ranging from to steak to seafood, all served up with white tablecloth service in the rustic interior of this Madison original. Downstairs is a throw-back to the 1940s in a lounge with entertainment.

Madison is a foodie town with many options for dining, including farm-to-table cuisine at Harvest in downtown, Italian-inspired dining at Cento near the university, and Everly for a casual brunch near the UW-Arboretum.

The Park Hotel is Madison’s only Capitol Square hotel, offering great views of the capitol dome from its plush rooms.

Before turning in for the night stop at State Line Distillery for its line up of botanically-infused drinks like Groves & Roses, Rocket Power or a custom drink using their Five Flavor Syrup of hibiscus, lemon grass, heather, elderflower and omijaberry.

For more information on visiting Madison and its gardens, check out www.visitmadison.com.

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