Peering into artist Robert C. Anderson's garden kaleidoscope sculpture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens provides a fitting metaphor for the park itself: The closer you look, the more there is to see (and do).
Though Olbrich is open year-round, summer is a particularly festive time to visit. The outdoor gardens are at their most colorful, and the warm weather affords more opportunities to relax and have fun in what Horticulture magazine called one of the 10 most inspiring gardens in North America.
Olbrich director Roberta Sladky is proud of the national recognition the park has received, but she's not surprised. "Olbrich Gardens is really well designed," she says. "People say they love it. Why do they love it? Because it's well maintained and interesting in all seasons. And there are elements of design that you may not notice if you're not a landscape architect, yet it makes you feel comfortable because of the inherent design of the garden."
Olbrich's outdoor gardens span 16 acres. Indoors, its tropical Bolz Conservatory cultivates many plants considered endangered in the wild. Sladky says people are often surprised to learn that Olbrich uses almost no chemicals to maintain its gardens. Instead, volunteers pull weeds, remove harmful insects by hand and use organic fertilizers such as leaf mulch and compost tea to nourish plants and soil.
Olbrich staff, volunteers and the Olbrich Botanical Society work to ensure there is always something interesting happening on site. In addition to meticulously maintaining the grounds, they try to appeal to people of all ages and interests with classes, workshops, concerts, art exhibits and special events. Many of these activities are free or less than $10 per person.
Take a closer look at Olbrich Botanical Gardens this summer. You're sure to be pleasantly surprised.
Guided garden strolls
Sundays, June 3-Sept. 30, 1:30 and 3 p.m.
All ages are welcome for these free narrated tours of the outdoor gardens, led by expert volunteer guides. Guided garden strolls are 45 to 60 minutes and focus on areas of peak interest in the gardens. Strolls begin and end in the lobby, and are held rain or shine. No registration is required.
Classes and workshops
Olbrich offers classes and workshops for adults, youth and families. As you might expect there are many classes focused on gardening, but the summer catalog also has wellness classes such as Yoga Flow, Moving Meditation and Basic Pilates Workshop. Popular children's classes include a hands-on series about bugs and Stories in the Garden, featuring favorites like Jack and the Beanstalk and Peter Rabbit. Most classes and workshops require pre-registration. Fees vary. See Olbrich's website for details.
Home garden tour
Friday, July 13, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, July 14, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tour seven exceptional gardens that illustrate this year's theme, "The Welcoming Garden," featuring private gardens that artfully lead the eye from the street to the owner's home. Olbrich volunteers and tour sponsors will be on hand for education and inspiration. This is a self-guided tour. $12 members/$14 non-members.
Summer concert series
Tuesdays, June 26-July 31, 7 p.m.
During the summer Olbrich's concerts are held outdoors on the Great Lawn. The outdoor concerts are a lovely, relaxing way to enjoy the gardens, and the only time you are allowed to bring your own food and beverages into the park.
The concert atmosphere is very informal, and appropriate for adults and families. Many people bring in their own chairs or simply spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic or a glass of wine before the show. The Madison East Kiwanis group sells brats and hot dogs to hungry concert-goers.
These concerts are popular, so it's a good idea to arrive early to be sure you get a spot. And don't forget the sunscreen and bug spray. The sun can still be quite intense at this hour, and the mosquitoes may make an appearance as dusk approaches.
This year's summer concert lineup includes TakI Allstars, Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, Ken Lonnquist, Anna Laube, Capitol City Band and Patchouli. $1 admission donation is suggested.
Robert C. Anderson sculpture exhibit
Robert C. Anderson of Sturgeon Bay is the creator of the garden kaleidoscope, an interactive living sculpture. One of his kaleidoscopes is permanently installed at Olbrich. More of Anderson's work, which includes large metal sculptures and inflated stainless steel designs, will be on display in the gardens during June. This is a free exhibit.
Thai Pavilion-inspired art exhibit
July 1-Sept. 23
2012 marks the 10th anniversary of the Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Gardens. The celebration kicks off in July with an art exhibit in the Evjue Commons featuring works inspired by the pavilion. The pavilion is one of only four located outside of Thailand; the others are in Germany, Norway and Hawaii.
The Thai Pavilion was a gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Thai government and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Other events to celebrate the structure's anniversary are in the works, including a Thai festival with food and entertainment scheduled for Sept. 23.
July 18-Aug. 12, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily
One of Olbrich's most popular summer events, Blooming Butterflies begins when butterflies arrive at the gardens as chrysalises, which are pinned to tree branches by specially trained volunteers and hung inside hatcheries. Visit Olbrich during the event and see butterflies emerging from these chrysalises into the tropical paradise of the Bolz Conservatory.
Children receive a Butterfly Passport booklet, which leads them on a seek-and-find tour through the outdoor gardens, encouraging them to observe butterfly and plant life. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children 3-12. Free for Olbrich Botanical Society members and children 2 and under.
Olbrich's outdoor gardens are open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. from April to September. Admission is free, though donations are gratefully accepted.
The Bolz Conservatory is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $2 for the general public, free to children under 5 and Olbrich Botanical Society members. The conservatory is free to the public on Wednesday and Saturday mornings between 10 a.m. and noon, except during the Blooming Butterflies exhibit.
The outdoor gardens and the Bolz Conservatory are wheelchair and stroller accessible. Service animals are allowed. Wheelchairs and electric scooters are available in the lobby. For those who need assistance to view the gardens, Olbrich also has a 12-passenger tram that operates from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
A complete schedule of classes and events is at olbrich.org.