Mark Dwyer is the Director of Horticulture at Rotary Botanical Gardens and Forward Janesville’s 2018 Educator of the Year.
When did you come to Janesville?
I’ve been in Rock County since 1998, for almost 20 years now. The job opportunity at Rotary Gardens brought me here. I had been working at Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles, Michigan for two years.
At the time, I had traveled through Janesville, had friends in Rockford, and had been to Madison, but I really didn’t know much about Janesville until I moved here.
However, I wasn’t a stranger to the Midwest at all. I had grown up in the Chicago area and went to school in both Illinois and Wisconsin. I was employed in Appleton, Wisconsin before the jump to Michigan.
What was it about this position that appealed to you?
At the time, there were a lot of factors for me. To be honest, though I enjoyed the position at Fernwood in the public gardens, it wasn’t as challenging as I’d hoped, and there wasn’t much of a long-range future in that position.
When I saw the job announcement for Rotary Botanical Gardens, which was sort of a Grounds Manager at the time, I saw that I would have more freedom and control of what was going to happen on an 18-acre site. I was able to “do my thing.” It’s now 20 acres and, though I’m not into titles, I’m now Director of Horticulture, which is basically the same kind of role.
What were the gardens like when you arrived here 20 years ago?
We’re going on 29 years of history here, next year we’ll have our 30th anniversary in 2019. That’s exciting! I came here in year nine. My job interview was in spring and I walked through the gardens.
My impression was that I saw a lot of potential. I knew the role that volunteers played, I knew there was a small staff, and it was a young garden.
I walked the site prior to my interview and saw there was a lot of work to be done, a lot of weeding was needed, a lot of things that needed to be done. I knew that it would be an immediate challenge. I had come from a place where a lot of that had already been taken care of, but I was looking for something new, anyway. So, I saw the untapped potential in the gardens.
There were a lot of passionate people here, including our director at the time, Kim Emerson. She was our second director here and the one who hired me. Our Board of Directors at the time was very passionate as well, so it was a “good vibe”. I’d say that’s a good description.
Tell me about the volunteers.
It’s important to mention that over the last five years or so we’ve averaged about 400 different volunteers. Collectively, they’ve averaged almost 17,000 hours a year. It’s amazing! That encapsulates not only gardening, but also the work of The Grumpies, special events, tour guides, gift shop, etc. All of our committees, our board, they’re all volunteers.
Volunteerism here has always been vital and will continue to be vital, because the staff has literally not grown much at all, in terms of number of staff, in the last 15 years. Without them, the gardens wouldn’t look like they do and we wouldn’t have the programs we do.
The Grumpies and Grumpettes are a category of our volunteers. They started at the inception of the gardens. The original Grumpies were three retired gentlemen, including Dr. Robert Yahr, our founder.
Tell me about The Grumpies.
That name for this group has nothing to do with their disposition or about them being grumpy. They created the name “The Grumpies” based on the movie, “Grumpy Old Men” with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and the intent was to meet every Monday and Thursday morning. And they’ve religiously done that for 29 years now!
The population has ebbed and flowed; some of the guys aren’t around all the time. The average age of The Grumpies when I started was in the mid-60s and now it’s in the mid-70s.
They do various tasks, not only gardening. One of our Grumpies is a retired carpenter, there’s an electrician, there have been retired plumbers and other professionals. We joke about the fact that their previous life skills prior to volunteering have helped us out. The carpenters, for example, they make all kinds of things that we sell.
They’re really a great group!
Are you still in need of volunteers at RBG? What would one need to do to volunteer?
I think we’re always in need of volunteers! Our system has been in place for many years. Initially, an interested person or group would contact our volunteer coordinator. They chat about what their interest and availability is, there’s a form to fill out and a background check, as well. We assimilate them into what we’re doing and get them the proper training, with the mindset of fulfilling their interests here.
I deal with the gardening volunteers, of course, so if they have an interest in taking care of their own space, we guide them toward that. Some are new to gardening, and they want to learn, while some are veteran gardeners and they want to continue gardening.
There are many areas for volunteers and we really tailor the opportunity based on the interest of the person. It’s worked well for us. We’ve seen volunteers come and go. Unfortunately, the median age of our volunteers continues to increase, so bringing in younger volunteers and families is a huge priority.
Tell me about what goes on behind the scenes during the different seasons at the Rotary Botanical Gardens.
Things are going on here year-round. It always cracks me up when I get the question, “What do you do in winter?” Of course, we have our big light show, and that’s a separate entity, a big fundraising event. And I’m involved in that.
But, what I’m doing in the winter months is planning out the growing season, ordering seeds, deciding what color schemes we’ll plant and ordering the plants. We try to keep at least a season ahead. That doesn’t always happen. The preparations for a year, for a 20-acre botanical gardens, and the amount of plant material we utilize and go through in the course of a year necessitates a huge amount of planning.
Once we get into spring and summer, it’s crazy. It’s hands-on. Spring is filled with lots of planting through most of May and most of June. In the summer months, there’s a lot of watering, maintaining things, weeding. Weeding is a perpetual effort!
But, as we get into the fall, we start considering pruning and some of our late season tasks. There are a lot of seasonally appropriate gardening tasks.
Interspersed throughout the year are the many special events that we prepare for, whether it’s the plant sales, the Holiday Light Show, etc. As a non-profit, we rely on so many of those events, as well.
Tell me about the events at the gardens throughout the year.
We certainly have a lot of outdoor weddings throughout the year as one of our attractions. We have many gardens that are booked for events. Our Parker Education Center is utilized for rentals, as well.
Events that people can traditionally rely on seeing annually are our Spring Plant Sale, our Fall Plant Sale, and we have a Home Garden Tour in mid-summer, usually July. Intermittently we have music events, like Music in the Gardens. In the past, we’ve had Shakespeare in the Garden. We used to host a Halloween Walk in October with Spotlight on Kids. We’ve done various partnerships with other organizations.
The biggest thing we continue to do are education events. We have a spring, summer and fall symposium, a monthly lecture series. It’s all on the website. It’s primarily for adults, but we also have our education volunteers create a lot of unique programming for youth education. We have formal programs for the 3rd & 4th grade range and custom programs for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, for Eagle Scouts here and community service.
The Holiday Light Show has become a massive event, it is now our biggest fundraiser. That necessitates the most amount of work for set up and take down.
There are a lot of things that are entirely different every year in terms of events or what we’re doing.
How did the Holiday Light Show get started?
It started in 1995, which was 3 years before I started. Kim Emerson, our director at the time, felt we needed to have winter revenue, which we weren’t receiving. At that time, people would visit from about April through October. So, there were five months of winter.
With the idea of keeping some lights on and having winter income, Kim devised a small light show to bring people to the gardens, make a little money. It started as a very small affair. When I came in 1998, I had pillaged a lot of ideas from the massive light show we had at Fernwood. So, we incorporated some of those ideas.
This Holiday Light Show has grown, initially incrementally, and then took some huge leaps and bounds in terms of scope, the amount of garden with lights and the number of lights. So, it’s now become a massive event!
This past season, 2017, we saw a record 46,000 people! In previous years, we started dabbling in the 20,000 and 30,000 range, but I flashback 10 years ago, we were lucky to have 10,000 people come to it.
It’s become a huge regional event. As a special event, it’s primarily set up, managed and taken down by staff and volunteers, so there’s a huge amount of labor involved in something of that scale.
When people want to marry in the gardens, can they choose their garden?
It’s subject to availability, and the restrictions would be based on wedding party size. For example, we can host outdoor weddings for up to 300 guests, that’s really the maximum (250-300). The Rose Garden, the Sunken Garden and the Gazebo Garden have the space for chairs and a wedding that size.
We’re now renting out smaller garden spaces, the Japanese Garden, English Cottage, North Point, and those are for smaller weddings of 25-30 people. Weddings are not just booked on Saturdays anymore. We’re now booking them on Fridays, Sundays and everywhere in between.
We typically will see 80-90 outdoor weddings in a season. That’s a lot! The Parker Education Center can be booked for the indoor reception, as well, but only for one wedding at a time. Typically, on a Saturday in summer that will be rented out for a reception.
Do you have a favorite garden here?
I don’t think I have a favorite space, but I do think about the management of the gardens. There are some I like better than others for that reason.
Our Children’s Garden is nice. That’s the Nancy Yahr Memorial Children’s Garden, named after our founder, Dr. Yahr’s wife. She passed almost eight years ago. That space is fun because it has a different theme every two years. It’s neat to see children of all ages go through. It’s not even 10 years old.
We’ve had our Smelly Garden theme, with fragrant plants, Pollinators Paradise, we’ve had a Hummingbird Haven, this year we’re doing an A to Z alphabet-based pollinator garden. So, it’s fun for everyone to visit, but it’s always so colorful. There’s a lot of high impact color along that shoreline garden. I also like our Fern and Moss garden. It’s quite nice.
It’s important to note that of our 26 garden themes and spaces, about half our gardens are informal, the other half are quite formal, like our Italian Formal Garden, and some very rigid, geometric gardens. So, we have different styles and plant collections throughout. It’s a very dynamic garden in that regard.
Do you feel you’re at a point where you have all the gardens you want or will there be more expansion?
At this point in time, in terms of management and maintenance, we have all we can handle. The growth from 15 acres to 20 acres happened in the year 2000, and that was when we built the Parker Education Center. We added two acres over there and three acres for the Horticulture Center, the Maintenance Building. Three acres of that is the pond, so we’re really 17 acres of land to manage.
So, are we looking to expand? Not at this point, but the question at the City level is “What is the future of Lions Beach off to our west?” That’s still a swim-at-your-own-risk swimming hole as it has been for at least the last 15 years. However, we don’t have an opinion on that place at this point in time.
What inspires you to design the gardens?
There had been a master planning process in 1993 that laid out a lot of the gardens, though that plan was eventually abandoned and a lot of those gardens weren’t built, simply due to finances and the reality on the ground.
We do have a committee that’s involved with what’s going to happen in future development. We’ve been pretty sedentary the last seven years, there’s not been a new garden. So, behind the Education Center, the Terrace Garden, Children’s Garden and North Point Garden were the last three we built in the last decade. Of course, that’s added to our maintenance.
Those were all dictated by location. The Terrace Garden was a great spot behind the building to develop a space for people to come out and enjoy. We didn’t have a Children’s Garden. The North Point Garden was another geographic location we wanted to develop. North Point, as a name, only refers to its location.
How do you come up with the color schemes for each year?
I’d like to say it’s divine intervention or that a half bottle of wine kind of dictates that. But, I’ll back up and say that the 20 acres at the Rotary Gardens is unique, pound for pound, compared to other gardens because a huge percentage, almost 40% of the gardens is entirely different every year.
A lot of that is annuals, seasonal plants, because we do change color themes. Not many gardens use as many annuals as we do or are committed to that change over. Having said that, it’s a lot to redo every year and to consider what we’re going to do.
A lot of it is on the fly. My analogy is, if we have a blank canvas in certain areas every year and we’re painters, we accumulate all the paint, all these different fun plants or colors, and we start creating. However, there are areas that we think of in advance. There are thematic areas, like the A to Z pollinator garden.
This year we have a Gardens of the World collection, where we have thirteen beds with plants from thirteen specific countries, which is an educational collection, or the Wellness Garden with the fragrant plants.
Last year we had a Dark Gothic theme of dark red and black, a huge entrance garden theme. We’re going to lighten it up this year. We’re calling it the Pastel Extravaganza! So, I’m ordering all these lavenders, light blue, salmon, pink, a little bit of white.
We have to be organized with ordering our plants and our seeds, about having them grown and being ready to hit the ground running with getting things planted in spring.
What’s your latest project?
We’re excited to say we have a new garden we started building last fall. It’s called The Wellness Garden. That’s happening in our former arboretum. This is an all accessible space, with raised beds for folks in wheelchairs, no stoop gardening. There will be a huge sensory focus.
What dictated the creation of that garden was simply the fact that there was a demographic coming to the gardens of mobility impaired guests. We’re mostly accessible, but that doesn’t mean mobility impaired guests are getting a lot out of the visit, besides just sort of seeing the gardens. We didn’t have any active programming for that demographic, or for people with cognitive impairments.
We have a horticultural therapy committee that for the last decade has been instrumental in pushing for a kind of wellness/healing garden. Knowing that a garden experience can be healing in many ways, this garden will be specifically developed to have functional programs for this specific demographic.
This year, it will be heavy on the fragrant plants and there’s more work going on. It’s a huge garden!
What has been your worst weather disaster since you’ve been here?
In 2001 we had a wind shear. Oddly enough, we didn’t lose any trees, but the original pergola blew down and some other things.
The flooding of 2008 was horrible! Our pond is linked to Spring Brook which flows into the Rock River. So, if the river is high, our pond can’t drain off. When the Rock River crested, almost a quarter of the gardens was flooded for months. That entire lower Japanese Garden, Alpine, Sunken … the damage was unbelievable! It took a good year of clean up to deal with that. Then, things were still dying years later, trees and such.
You’ve had guests from all over the world. From where have some of your visitors come, and what have they said about this place?
It is interesting to see where they’re from. We have a little guest book. Every year we do have people come from all 50 states. Our attendance is around 100,000 people or more every year, and we are seeing international guests. Some come to participate in a lecture or are part of a symposium.
What I think is nice to hear is when people stumble upon the gardens. They come in and had never heard of it, and they say, “This is unbelievable! What a treat, we’re glad we found it!” Then there are folks who have heard of the gardens and when they show up they are overwhelmed, they weren’t expecting this caliber of garden, and in terms of plants and amount of color.
This is no criticism of Janesville because, after 20 years, I consider myself a Janesvillian, but people who know botanical gardens and who have been to botanical gardens can’t believe that there is a botanical garden of this caliber in a community this size. A community of 60,000 started and initially supported what’s become a regionally known garden. So, it is a destination garden now.
What are some ways Rotary Botanical Gardens has connected with the community through service or outreach?
We donate produce to area food banks, ECHO and Salvation Army. We do grow a lot of vegetables. We used to be very involved with Habitat for Humanity, where we would landscape these houses. The high school kids would do a lot of the renovation and then we would come and landscape. We haven’t done that for a couple of years. We’ve donated plants to schools and community gardens and things like that.
In terms of outreach, I do probably 50 talks and lectures offsite a year. It’s a fun thing I do, a shameless promotion for the gardens, but it follows our mission of education. I speak all over the place, most of it in the Midwest. Last week I was in Connecticut, this week I’ll be in Chicago. I’ve traveled the state and throughout northern Illinois.
Regardless of the topic, I show images of the gardens, invite people, “Get a busload, I’ll show you a tour. It’s right off I-90, and everybody travels I-90, so what a great spot to stop and see the gardens!”
What is your most despised weed?
The most despised weed used to be Purslane, it’s a fleshy weed and it’s actually edible, a very nutritious weed. It’s a low carpeting weed, very difficult to get rid of. It came in on some compost. But, now it’s Galinsoga. This weed is just horrendous, it’s all over the place. But, weeding is perpetual. We see weeds in March and weed all through the summer.
What is your favorite foliage plant?
Something we use a lot of are tropicals. In the summer months people are surprised to see us growing Elephant Ears, Caladiums and Bananas. Our summer heat is perfect for it. I like the Elephant Ears, we’ve done a lot with dark leaf Elephant Ears. We’ll have another heavy tropical theme this year.
We have 1,000 varieties of trees and shrubs, almost 3,000 varieties of perennials, the plants that come back. But, the annuals are a lot of fun because we grow a lot of things that people don’t expect to see in Wisconsin. To me that category is a lot of fun, and what we’re becoming known for is the ‘eye candy’, this 40% transition every year.
What has been the most unique flower that you’ve enjoyed?
In our Hummingbird Haven theme in the Children’s Garden we planted a flower called Cats Whiskers. It’s a super cool plant. It’s a spike with white tubular flowers. Hummingbirds love the trumpet tubes while they’re hovering and they can put their bills into them.
It’s called Cats Whiskers because of these long, feathery, white parts. We’ve had a lot of comments on it, just because of the architecture of the flower being so unique. The shape is really exquisite, and people were saying, “What the heck is that?”
We get a lot of those, “What the heck is that?” moments out there, which is part of the fun in the garden.
Tell me the story of the brick memorials.
The brick memorial program started in the early 1990s to generate revenue. Many gardens and other facilities do similar programs to generate revenue. Out in the gardens we probably have 15,000 memorial bricks.
I’ll be honest and say that the challenge now is the aging of the bricks. The fact that we have to salt the paths for the light show starts to damage the bricks. A lot of the lettering is being lost. Now, the positive side is that it has been a revenue generator, but there is an inherent maintenance of keeping track of all of them. We still have a brick program that many gardens have abandoned because of those very reasons I just mentioned.
Right now, our Sunken Garden has thousands of memorial bricks, and we have so many that we can’t even read anymore. We have to figure out whose they were and a way to contact those people. How do you track all of the thousands of bricks? And bricks don’t last forever.
We still do have memorial bricks, trees, benches, but we’re revisiting all of our memorial opportunities because of the maintenance. We have to be sure it’s something we can accommodate and make sure that the donor is happy.
What is the next big thing or upcoming event?
The Wellness Garden won’t be entirely done, but it will be unveiled and we’ll be planting it. That’s exciting because it will be our first new garden in seven years!
We’ll also have a Spring Plant Sale on Mother’s Day weekend. That’s usually a good time to get out in the gardens, too…the bulbs are blooming.
Do you enjoy the work and will you stay in it?
I enjoy the work a lot. There are always challenges with small nonprofits in generating revenue every year, whether it’s special events or getting more and more visitors, which is a huge goal of mine, exposure for the gardens. We’ve always had a small marketing budget, so word of mouth over 29 years is starting to bring the crowds I think it should have always had.
It’s never been a job for me. I spend a lot of time offsite. My hobbies include gardening, garden photography, reading plant magazines. And, much to the chagrin of my wife, my hobbies and career overlap seamlessly!
But I’ll be here as long as it’s challenging and continues to get better every year. And it has!