The staff at Olbrich Botanical Gardens believe gardens can, and should, be highly functional, beautiful and contain sustainable ecosystems that support the environment and all the creatures that depend on it for their survival. This conviction runs deep and wide through the organization, from horticultural practices and building maintenance methods, to educational programs and gift shop products. These core beliefs and practices are what make Olbrich Gardens a top destination for sustainable tourism.

The gardens are designed and maintained in an environmentally-minded way. Plant species are selected for their innate ability to enhance our environment and contribute to the food web that supports insects of all kinds, which then support small reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds. Olbrich continues to be a leader in the Midwest, setting an example for others to follow by choosing plants that are beautiful and well adapted to the conditions of their sites, and good for the planet.

Visiting Olbrich Botanical Gardens is one of Madison's top free things to do. The gardens also offers volunteer opportunities that are easy to participate in as a visitor so you can help leave the world better than how you found it as you travel.

Sustainable Planting Practices

At Olbrich, plants are chosen to provide beauty, functionality and improve ecosystems. "Right plant, right place” keeps plants healthy without putting a strain on resources or unnecessary products.

A prime example of the “right plant, right place” mindset occurred in 2016 when all hybrid tea roses were removed from the Rose Garden. These roses needed regular spraying to prevent black spot, powdery mildew, rust, mites, thrips and aphids. Because roses are challenging plants to maintain in an environmentally friendly way, and the use of pesticides negatively affects our pollinators and beneficial insects, staff felt the most appropriate course of action was to remove these roses.

Gardens throughout Olbrich are maintained with few to no chemicals in order to protect the environment, the food web and Olbrich’s staff and visitors. Insecticides and fungicides are limited to a few specimen trees (such as ash and elm) that cannot be preserved by other means. 

Most garden equipment (such as leaf blowers and chain saws) are electric, as are the majority of vehicles staff uses to travel throughout the gardens. Horticulture and maintenance staff use electric golf carts while an electric tram is used to take visitors on a circular route around the gardens while providing a brief narrative about Olbrich Botanical Gardens and its history.

Sustainable Programming

Olbrich’s diverse educational offerings for youth and adults connect people with plants in meaningful ways. The Explorer School Program allows thousands of elementary students the opportunity to visit the gardens and learn about botany, ecology and tropical plant systems through guided tours and hands-on activities.

In addition, the Children’s Kitchen Garden and Reach Dane (a local head-start program) teach children how to grow their own food. Fresh produce from the Children’s Kitchen Garden is donated to area food pantries throughout the season. Over the past five years, Olbrich has donated more than 7,255 pounds of produce!

Visitor-friendly events like Orchid Escape, plant sales, cocktails in the garden and GLEAM provide opportunities to learn and see the gardens in a brand new way every time you visit.

Maximizing Resources

One of the pillars of Olbrich’s sustainability initiatives is water management. Being close to a creek and a lake necessitates a dedication to keeping runoff out of those waterways. Olbrich’s water management strategy is two-fold: sustainable water infiltration and responsible water usage. Three rain gardens throughout the 16 acres help rainwater infiltrate the soil slowly, reducing runoff. In addition, new walkways and patios are constructed with permeable paving, again helping to reduce the amount of rainwater runoff.

Responsible water usage begins with choosing the proper draught-tolerant plants. Native and cultivars of native plants are predominant throughout the garden. Gravel gardens, where plants grow in 4 to 5 inches of gravel to reach the soil below, are some of the newest additions to the gardens. When irrigating is necessary, adjustable irrigation risers and heads target and deliver water to planting beds while avoiding hard surfaces in the process. Computerized control units allow watering during the night and early morning hours, minimizing evaporative water waste.

Olbrich is a leader in the lawn alternative movement both by example and through educational venues. The Garden has eliminated all turf grass lawns that are not used for events and gathering spaces for visitors. The four existing lawns in the gardens utilize drought-resistant fescue blends and white clover, are treated with compost tea instead of chemical fertilizers, and are watered minimally.

A cornerstone of Olbrich’s sustainable gardens are the gravel gardens. Olbrich’s Director of Horticulture Jeff Epping is a staunch proponent of gravel gardens and lectures about the innovative technique throughout the country. These low-maintenance, water-wise gardens are used throughout outdoor gardens and even in the parking lot islands. As each gravel garden has developed, they have transitioned from gardens that look like big beds of gravel with spindly little plants, to colorful, full, interactive plant communities with bees, butterflies and other pollinating and feeding insects. 

For other garden areas, leaf mulch processed on site with leaves collected from surrounding residential neighborhoods is applied annually and preserves soil moisture, moderates soil temperature and adds to the overall health of the soil and therefore the plants. Herbaceous plants and tree and shrub leaves are left on site for mulch and to preserve beneficial insect eggs and larvae.