top of page

Rotary Botanical Gardens: Good Enough to Show the World!

One of the public gardens we’ll visit during the Fling—on Sunday, June 26—is Rotary Botanical Gardens, in Janesville, Wis., slightly southeast of Madison. Fling team member Mark Dwyer was the director of horticulture of this impressive garden for 21 years, and shares some of its history and uniqueness:

I was fortunate to work at this wonderful Janesville botanical garden for 21 years (1998-2019) as director of horticulture, and I found my true passion for public horticulture during my tenure at this garden. I enjoyed watching the increasing attention, visitation, and accolades that Rotary Botanical Gardens received—due, not only to the garden developing and expanding, but also through the monumental community support and significant volunteer efforts. These efforts continue to be essential to the success of this 20-acre, nonprofit garden. It has more than 100,000 annual visitors, not including attendance at special events.

The Wellness Garden The gardens began as an idea by Dr. Robert Yahr (1928-2021), a retired dentist and orthodontist in Janesville. He had walked the site of what would later become the gardens, and formulated a vision for an internationally themed community garden that would be “good enough to show the world” (in his own words!).

What makes his vision all the more amazing is that he was walking on a derelict, 15-acre piece of land owned by the City of Janesville that was the site of an old sand and gravel pit. Situated on some small ponds that were created when mining operations hit natural springs, the land was strewn with garbage, discarded picnic tables, trash barrels, and more significant debris that had simply been dumped on site. Also on the property were the remnants of an old BMX bike track situated near an abandoned building that was the original offices for the Wilcox Sand and Gravel operation in the early 1900s. That building was slated for demolition.

Dr. Yahr approached the City of Janesville in 1988 with, not only his vision for a garden (and renovating the Wilcox building), but also some of his own money, additional donor support, and the commitment of both Rotary Clubs in Janesville to help clean up the land and begin what would be called Rotary Botanical Gardens Inc. The organization was given a 100-year lease on the land for $1 from the City of Janesville. And the gardens were officially opened in 1989, with massive community clean-up efforts (including the ponds), tree planting, and the renovation of the old building, which would become the Rath Environmental Center (it was the visitor center for the first 10 years).

Dr. Yahr was a juggernaut of fundraising. He secured help from area construction firms to help clear the site, bring in topsoil, remove overgrown trees, and clear debris from the pond. The early efforts of both Rotary Clubs were instrumental in many of these efforts, as well, and additional support at this time was provided by nearby General Motors Company (jobs bank program) and the Wisconsin Conservation Corps.

As an old sand and gravel pit, the land is very well-drained, but the lean soils called for more than 4,000 cubic yards of good soil to be brought on site and distributed in what would shortly become the start of the international gardens. The initial 15-acre garden grew to 20 acres in 2011, with the creation of the new, $2 million Parker Education Center with funds from the Parker Foundation (Parker Pen was an original Janesville-based company). The new maintenance building, holding yards, and support area also were added at this time.

The Japanese Garden The gardens developed quickly in those early years, and were reliant not only on “in-kind” donations but also heavy involvement of volunteers, which continues to this day. It’s important to note that the overall mission of the garden revolves around horticultural education and appreciation. The gardens provide significant educational opportunities—through both adult and youth education, symposia, various lecture series, and strong labeling initiatives.

Dr. Yahr’s vision of internationally themed gardens began with the simultaneous construction of the Japanese Garden (ranked one of the top 25 in North America), formal gardens, and the gazebo garden. Over many years, different thematic gardens were added to create a series of garden rooms and experiences. While not all the garden spaces have an international theme, they do each reflect a style and/or specific plant palette. Other gardens include the English cottage garden, sunken garden, woodland walk garden, and the relatively new, all-accessible wellness garden. To date, there are 26 distinct garden themes and garden displays with more than 4,000 types of plants.

Rotary Botanical Gardens has won many awards for plant collections and displays. It continues to be a National Display Garden for the American Hosta Society, American Hemerocallis Society, and the Hardy Fern Foundation. The fern and moss garden (constructed in 2006) has one of the largest fern collections in the country. At one point, the gardens featured more than 150,000 annuals each year in rotating, creative displays. More recent years have seen the important shift to promoting more water-wise and eco-friendly gardening with native perennials.

Rotary Botanical Gardens hosts more than 80 weddings on an annual basis, in addition to many other events. The very popular Holiday Lights Show (1 million lights) brings in more than 50,000 visitors each winter, and continues to be the largest fundraiser for this garden.

Rotary Botanical Gardens receives no local, state, or federal support, and is reliant on income from its Friends membership program, a growing endowment fund, admissions, rentals, special events, grants, and other donations. The staff has grown over many years, although the importance of volunteers assisting with gardening, special events, and much more continues to be the primary cornerstone that links the past, present, and future of this amazing small garden.

The vision of one person, combined with a supportive community, has finally achieved Dr. Yahr’s original vision of having a “community garden good enough to show the world!”

Visit this link to register for the Madison Fling!


bottom of page