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Friday, 04 April 2014 00:00

Rotary Gardens celebrating 25 years as gathering spot for residents, visitors

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Rotary Botanical Gardens draws about 100,000 visitors each year for recreation, relaxation, education, special occasions and more. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the gardens. Rotary Botanical Gardens draws about 100,000 visitors each year for recreation, relaxation, education, special occasions and more. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the gardens. Terry Mayer

MESSENGER -- In 1988, Dr. Robert Yahr, a retired orthodontist, had a vision of creating a botanical garden where residents and tourists could enjoy a variety of colorful plants.

That vision began about a year later as the Rotary Botanical Gardens was established on 20 acres of land on Palmer Drive. This year, garden officials are inviting the community to celebrate the gardens’ 25th anniversary.

“It’s something that began as one man’s vision that certainly turned into a community reclamation project that has resulted in a community gem and tourist destination,” said Mary Fanning-Penny, executive director of Rotary Botanical Gardens.

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Several events and activities have been scheduled to honor the 25-year milestone. Community days will be held on the 25th of each month, from April to October, in which people will be able to tour the gardens for free.

“That’s an effort to not only encourage visitors to come and enjoy the beauty and splendor that is the gardens, but to hopefully introduce the gardens to new audiences, people who may have not been here before or aren’t able to attend on a regular basis,” Fanning-Penny said. “We’re happy to open that opportunity up.”

This year’s Mother’s Day plant sale will include 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, hybrid tomatoes, bell peppers and hot peppers.

“In essence, we’re playing off that number 25, and a lot of our events will have a twist of that nature,” said Mark Dwyer, director of horticulture.

This year’s garden art project will feature 25 adirondack chairs constructed by volunteers and decorated by local artists. The chairs will be on display throughout the gardens and will be available for purchase at a September auction.

“The 25 chairs will just be awesome, and they will be placed around the gardens,” Dwyer said. “The garden art project has always been well received, and this is a nice time with the anniversary.”

A founders dinner has been scheduled for June 8 to honor Yahr and the 25th anniversary.

“The details and the logistics are still in the planning stages, but I can tell you that it will be an opportunity for our community members and leaders, our volunteers and staff members to spend an afternoon in the gardens, celebrating Dr. Yahr’s initial vision and what it inspired,” Fanning-Penny said.

Rotary Botanical Gardens features 24 garden themes and about 4,000 types of plants. Dwyer said they try to install different plants at the gardens each year.

“There’s areas that never look the same during the course of a year. From year to year, they differ,” Dwyer said. “We take great efforts to make sure the gardens take a different twist each year for repeat visitation. The gardens have gotten better every year, so if people haven’t visited, this is the best year to come because this is going to be an awesome year. There’s something for everyone here, whether they’re a gardener or not. It’s a peaceful respite and a great place to visit.”

The botanical gardens also hosts several events and educational programs throughout the year including a spring and fall symposium, Earth Day celebration, bridal expo, holiday light tour and story and stroll program for young children. The gardens also partners with the Hedberg Public Library for a story walk program.

“Education is certainly fundamental to the mission of the gardens, and it’s something that we pride ourselves on, especially as we attempt to engage youth and families at the gardens,” Fanning-Penny said.

The mix of programs and attractions brings about 100,000 people to visit the gardens annually.

“There’s something for everyone, and we see people from all different backgrounds, from all different ages enjoying the gardens,” Fanning-Penny said. “On any particular day, we can see a family in the children’s garden with expressions of joy on their faces, and they’re smelling a plant for the first time or exploring the texture of something. We, on any given day, see couples strolling hand in hand through the gardens. It’s certainly a romantic place. We are the host to marriage proposals and anniversary celebrations.

“We also see a lot of retirees and senior citizens enjoying the view from our many benches. We also serve as a venue for celebration of life memorial activities. It’s really a place of community.”

Christine Rebout, executive director for the Janesville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the gardens attract visitors to the Janesville area.

“One of the nice things about the gardens is how they attract a diverse group of people to our area,” Rebout said. “It’s a natural fit for leisure travelers. They host meetings, which attract people who might be staying here for two or three days. It also helps attract bus groups. It helps us attract all the markets that we work with.

“Within the past 10 years, there’s been ebbs and flows in the economy, but we’ve seen an increase in meetings and an increase in leisure travelers and bus groups. So, we’ve seen an increase in the number of people coming to the gardens.”

Dwyer said the gardens have received several national awards, which helps to attract visitors.

“I feel people are actively seeking us out and planning trips to see us,” Dwyer said. “People know about Rotary Botanical Gardens. I really feel the national recognition will be an avenue for bringing more people here.”

Fanning-Penny attributes the gardens’ success to its volunteers. Last year about 400 volunteers worked about 16,000 hours at the gardens.

“Volunteerism is really the foundation in which the gardens have been built, and that’s how they will be maintained and sustained as we move forward,” Fanning-Penny said. “We warmly welcome new volunteers throughout the year.”

Planning attractions and events for the gardens is a year-round process, Dwyer said. After the holiday light show, he begins ordering plants and seeds for spring.

“A lot of the planning that’s involved for 2014 started to occur last year and has been happening in earnest through the end of March,” Dwyer said. “April and May is when we begin receiving a lot of our plants, then it’s the crazy planting time May through June. So, it’s really a fine-tuned machine in terms of timing. With 20 acres of gardens, there’s a lot of input with organizing and lining up our volunteers.”

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