Visiting Historical Gardens in Wisconsin

By Denice Ryan Martin

A Stunning Peek at the Past

Step back in time and savor the beauty, colors and scents of old-fashioned gardens that speak of eras gone by. Wisconsin offers gardening enthusiasts and history buffs an impressive array of heirloom flower and vegetable gardens in locations that range from Milwaukee’s sparkling lakefront to the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin. See how early European settlers first worked the land to feed their growing families. Walk the stunning garden paths that once belonged to some of Wisconsin’s rich and famous. Catch the Wisconsin spring blossoms, learn some fascinating historical tidbits and leave with inspirational gardening ideas.

Plan a trip while the flowers are blooming and your senses will thank you. Here’s a list of five historical gardens in Wisconsin.

Old World Wisconsin
Eagle, WI
Tour 12 historic garden sites representing various ethnic populations that settled in Wisconsin, including Germans, Norwegians, Irish, Finns, Poles, Danish and British Yankees. Interpreters dressed in authentic period clothing discuss and demonstrate the gardening tools/implements and methods the pioneers used at the time. From the 1860s Shulz Farm kitchen garden with its 1,000 year old geometric patterns to the more Americanized garden of the Yankees, visitors will delight in seeing what special plants the ethnic groups favored and grew in the 19th century. New at Old World Wisconsin are the before and after hours heirloom garden strolls. Also new is an interactive Life on the Farm exhibit where guests weed, water, and compost the gardens as well as preserve the homegrown fruits and vegetables. “There’s always lots of stuff to pet and sniff and sometimes to nibble on,” promises Marcia Carmichael, Old World Wisconsin’s historical gardener.

Ten Chimneys
Genesee Depot, WI
Originally the summer estate of legendary Broadway actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, this picturesque national historic landmark features several restored flower and herb gardens near the main house, cottage and greenhouse. Those who purchase the full estate tour are treated to a spectacular sight of the home’s terraced landscaping and gardens. Docents will share gardening stories and anecdotes, including Alfred’s passion for red geraniums and farming and Lynn’s love for her English-inspired cutting garden. This season master gardeners used Alfred’s greenhouse receipts and photos to recreate the cutting garden’s design during the years 1946-1952. Featured flowers include Snapdragons, Osteospermum, Marigolds, Nierembergia, and Zinnias. “We keep it true to the Lunts,” said Keith MacKay, director of historic preservation at Ten Chimneys.

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum
Milwaukee, WI

Sitting on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, this former Italian villa can’t help but catch the eye of passer-bys. It was built by renowned architect and Milwaukee native David Adler in 1923 and features a Renaissance garden originally designed by noted Boston landscape architect Rose Standish Nichols. Museum admission grants visitors access to the recently restored garden with its dramatic focal point, the Scaletta d’Aqua, a “water stairway” that traverses down three terraces of crabapple tree orchards and shrubs. Visitors can explore the colorful grounds, which also include two secret gardens hidden by hedges and a striking collection of roses and annuals. “It’s like stepping into another culture and time,” said estate gardener Valerie Kupczak-Rios. “The most wonderful thing is that it’s all on the backdrop of Lake Michigan, giving it a different texture and attitude every day.”

The Paine Art Center and Gardens
Oshkosh, WI

Revered as an “American Castle,” the Paine Art Center and Gardens, completed in 1948, is a historic estate that features a Tudor-revival style mansion with ornate interiors and exceptional art collections. With its tens of thousands of annuals, hardy Wisconsin perennials and native wildflowers, the ever-popular display gardens cover 3.5 acres that promise visitors hours of discovery and contemplation. Themes include an 18th century inspired herb garden, rose garden, shade garden, bird oasis, woodland pathway, and birch grove. Families will enjoy the hands-on Nature Exploration Station that’s equipped with magnifying glasses, binoculars, plant and animal identification cards and other children’s learning activities. “From traditional to trendsetting, our garden designs are an ongoing source of inspiration and enjoyment for our visitors,” said Sheila Glaske, curator of horticulture.

Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center
Coon Valley, WI
About 15 miles southeast of LaCrosse, Norskedalen combines the natural beauty of the Coulee Region with the cultural heritage of the pioneers who settled there, especially the Norwegians. (Norskadalen means Norwegian Valley.) Once three separate working farms, the 400 plus acre open air museum site includes the Gunderson Arboretum, historic homesteads, a blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and other outbuildings that date to the late 1800s. Volunteer master gardeners grow vegetables common to gardens of the time, like cabbage, potatoes, beans, rutabagas, and broom corn. A threshing bee is held every September to demonstrate old fashioned corn shocking and grain hulling techniques. Visitors enjoy peaceful hiking and scenic views on dirt trails that take them from the homestead up to the bluff. Water habitats are abundant with nine fresh water springs, creeks and ponds. Eco-systems include prairies, a tamarack forest and a red pine plantation.