Roberta Sladky, executive director of Olbrich Botanical Gardens for the past 11 years, is nearing the finish of her single biggest project for the popular Madison attraction, made up of 16 acres of outdoor display gardens that are free to visit and the indoor, tropical Bolz Conservatory.

Sladky is leading the final, public phase of Olbrich’s “Rooted and Growing” capital campaign to build an education center and greenhouse. The city of Madison is slated to provide about half of the $10 million project cost from the 2018 capital budget, with some four-fifths of the remaining balance now raised. The city jointly owns and operates the gardens with the non-profit Olbrich Botanical Society.

Organizers hope the goal will be achieved this winter.

Design work on the facilities is in progress by MSR Design from Minneapolis, with an expected groundbreaking in 2018 and completion perhaps in fall 2019.

Sladky previously worked as manager of the McNeely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul, Minnesota, as an instructor at the University of Minnesota-Extension and as horticulture curator at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. She has a master’s degree in public horticulture administration from the University of Delaware and a bachelor’s from UW-Madison in ornamental horticulture.

Can you explain the need for the new education building and the new greenhouse?

We have experienced a lot of growth in our education program for youth and families, primarily for school groups and summer writing camps. And there is no dedicated space for education. Currently when a school comes out to have a program about ecology or botany, their class is in the same location that we house wedding receptions. It works, but it’s not a kid-friendly space.

We’re building an education center that will allow us to expand on our youth and school programming. And yes, they’ll be used for adult education also, as much as possible. But they’re being designed primarily to satisfy that need for youth programs. And of course that’s who we’re trying to influence (the most) about the importance of plants in our daily environment, which is our mission.

And our greenhouses are 25 years old. They need to be replaced.

We’re going to tear down the existing greenhouse and put a new (one) up that will gain 20 percent more usable growing space, even though it will be about the same size.

Where is your favorite spot in the gardens?

One of my truly favorite parts, because it’s so beautiful in all seasons, is the birch walk, which is a section of walkway planted with our native paper birch on both sides. It’s very natural and very shady and the birch trees are beautiful.

Are there a variety of activities people do in the gardens beyond just strolling through it?

We do have people who paint there. ... We also have a lot of photographers. I’m amazed at what I see on Instagram. And we do offer yoga (outside) ... and tai chi.

How many people work at Olbrich Botanical Gardens?

We’re at our peak (in summer) with about 35 individuals. We have horticulturists. They work in the outdoor gardens and in the conservatory and greenhouses. We have a director of horticulture ... and a director of education.

We also have mechanical and maintenance workers. There are a lot of complex systems to take care of. We have a huge water softening system to take the hardness out of the water. We can’t water the plants with hard water. They’d all end up with white film on the leaves

Can you describe the special program now at the gardens: “GLEAM, Art in a New Light?”

We have invited artists who work with light to do installations around the gardens. It allows us to open the gardens at night after dark. We have our own landscape lighting that stays in place, but then these artists do very interesting projects with additional lights. It runs Thursday through Saturday nights in September and October.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.