Flower power: Horticulturist springs into form at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Spring adds a dimension of “craziness” to Samantha Peckham’s schedule, but it’s also her favorite time of year. Peckham, 37, is one of seven horticulturists at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and after a winter’s worth of planning, the growing season is well underway.

At 8:30 a.m. on a crisp, sunny morning, Peckham and her team of volunteers are already hard at work weeding and mulching the Arlette Morse Terrace at the entrance to the outdoor gardens.

Volunteers are vital to Olbrich’s success. Each week throughout the growing season, up to 90 volunteers work in the gardens to keep Madison’s botanical gem in tip-top shape. It’s taxing but rewarding work, and as one volunteer noted, an opportunity to “get down in the dirt.” Over the course of a year, more than 600 Olbrich volunteers will donate at least 25,000 hours of their time to the facility, with many returning year after year. “They do an amazing amount of work,” Peckham says.

“Every year, we try to incorporate the newest, most unusual things.”
— Samantha Peckham, horticulturist, Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Spring’s preparations find Peckham’s team weeding, mulching, and planting throughout the park. Olbrich’s mulch is composted on-site from leaves collected by the City of Madison. “We grind them up and use them as a mulch on our planting beds.” Peckham notes. “It adds a lot of organic matter to the soil and is easy to work with. It does a really good job of holding the weeds down.” Olbrich also sells its mulch to the public.

Perennials make up the majority of Olbrich’s greenscape, but Peckham enjoys planning the seasonal plantings. “Annuals are the most fun,” she smiles. Her personal favorites are violas, because of the rainbow of colors available.

“Every year, we try to incorporate the newest, most unusual things. At the same time, I’ll also use the tried-and-true plants that will be solid performers. I do try to change color schemes. Occasionally you’ll see new things because people are out exploring the world and looking for new varieties all the time.”

Under the direction of Jeff Epping, director of horticulture, each horticulturist has his or her own team of volunteers and interns, and each focuses on a specific area of the 16 acres of manicured outdoor gardens. Peckham’s “territory” includes the Sunken Garden, Atrium Shade Garden, Morse Terrace, and some other annual beds and container displays.

The horticulturists also teach workshops, and some conduct lectures around town. They also handle and maintain State Street’s summer planters as part of several beautification projects throughout the city.

Weathering the weather

Peckham shakes off her gloves and leaves Morse Terrace to check other areas under her watch. She approaches a large planter filled with blue bachelor buttons, edible kale, English daisies, and cabbages, and she begins pruning. Just steps away, cars whiz past on Monona Drive, but the garden walls provide a surprising respite from the world outside.

Stress on this job is usually related to weather. “It takes incredibly tough plants to deal with Midwest weather,” she says. “Fortunately at Olbrich, we are fairly protected by lakes, so I can get away with some [different] plantings.”

Weather, particularly wet weather, can be most problematic, she explains. Droughts are bad, but a particularly wet spring or summer can wreak havoc.

“At this time of year, it’s all about prioritizing and being able to roll with the weather,” she notes, especially when it comes to keeping interns busy. “You can’t get your mind set on a specific schedule because it will just get ruined.”

In other words, have a plan A and B available at all times.



She heads over to the Sunken Garden’s three-pool water feature. One pool, she comments, looks a bit greenish-gray and will need to be treated to improve its luster. “We use an iron-based, nontoxic dye to dye these and other water features in the garden. It gives the water a really nice finish, and cuts down on plant material that can grow in there so we can keep algae in check.”

The dye will turn the water black but has no ill effects on wildlife. By the time the weather warms and the water lilies fan out over a pool’s surface, frogs, turtles, ducks, minnows, tadpoles, and other living creatures will happily coexist.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a public-private partnership between the City of Madison Parks Division and the Olbrich Botanical Society. Each entity supports the park’s expenses to the tune of between $1.3 million to $1.5 million annually, according to Roberta Sladky, director. Since the 1980s, she adds, Olbrich Botanical Society has also contributed more than $8 million in new capital projects and equipment.

Peckham has been an employee of the Botanical Society for more than 10 years, but it wasn’t her original plan. She actually studied landscape architecture at UW–Madison, believing her future would be in the design-build industry, but an internship at Olbrich changed her direction.

“This is quite different than landscape architecture,” she says. “I always thought I’d go into design-build. I really didn’t know much about botanical gardens, but this combines all the things I really enjoy.”

Add seasoning

In the “off-season,” Peckham, who also is a mapping specialist, works with the other horticulturists to plan for the next growing season and update maps of the gardens using CAD software. Areas may be reconfigured, new plants introduced, or a tree or shrub that succumbs to a cold winter will be noted and replaced.

Samantha Peckham is surrounded by Olbrich’s natural beauty as she works side by side with volunteers to spread mulch, plant, and prune. Peckham also keeps a keen eye on planters and any water features within her assigned areas in the 16-acre park.

“We have a whole database of plant information, just like a museum, from [a plant’s] purchase to where it came from and where we bought it.”

The schematics she creates are a vital planning tool for staff and provide an updated map of all paths, structures, and plantings by name. Soon she hopes to include the park’s irrigation and lighting systems as well.

And the seasonal nature of her job provides plenty of variety.

Pruning occurs year-round, but weeding, mulching, and planting ramps up in spring. Summer means maintenance and watering, if needed. Fall entails another round of plantings, and as winter approaches, woody plants are covered with wire caging to keep animals away, grounds are cleaned, and plans for the next season take shape.

“I really enjoy working outside,” Peckham says, “and having my hands in the dirt.” Working in cold, miserable weather is never fun, she admits, but the good days far outnumber the bad.

This is clearly a good day.

Serenaded by songbirds and surrounded by flowering crabapple trees, she smiles.

“My office is a beautiful outdoor space.”

Olbrich Botanical Gardens
3300 Atwood Ave.
Madison, WI 53704
608.246.4550  |  olbrich.org

Flower Facts
❀    288,000 people visited Olbrich in 2014, a record year.
❀    The botanical gardens offer nearly 50,000 plants from more than 4,000 genera (groups of plants with similar characteristics).
❀    In May, more than 70,000 bulbs were growing in the outdoor gardens.
❀    The conservatory staff grew 3,800 plants for the outdoor spring displays, more than 10,000 plants for the summer displays, and is growing over 2,000 fall plants.
❀    Olbrich’s horticulture staff includes one director, seven horticulturists, two garden specialists, one plant recorder, six seasonal paid interns, and many volunteers.

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