Boerner's mission unchanged after 75 years

Mary Catanese
Michael Kreuser of the Green Team leads a Winter Woods Walk during Winterfest.
Published on: 2/12/2014

Hales Corners — While the Boerner Botanical Gardens have been around for three-quarters of a century, not much has changed.

The Friends of the Boerner Botanical Gardens celebrated the site's 75th anniversary by holding Winterfest, a day of crafts, forest walks, storytelling and snacks recently. The Friends group shared a birthday with the gardens as well. It has been around for 30 years.

In true style, the Friends educated visitors about the native plants, connected them to nature via walks through Potter's Woods and hosted businesses like Red Elephant chocolate.

Nearly 100 people attended, and each walk through Potter's Woods was filled.

Growing history

Boerner Botanical Gardens comprises about 40 acres of English-styled gardens, an arboretum and various facilities including an education and visitor center and trial gardens. It is located within the 627-acre Whitnall Park.

The gardens were added to the park, originally called Hales Corners Park, in 1939. The park was purchased by Milwaukee County at the request of Charles Whitnall, who Jennifer Schmitz, education and volunteer coordinator for the Friends, said wanted to design a green necklace of park systems around Milwaukee.

At the time, she added, most parks were meant to serve the immediate community. Whitnall, she added, wanted a park system to serve the entire city.

In 1939, Whitnall met then City Landscape Architect Alfred Boerner. Wanting to add amenities to the park, Whitnall tasked Boerner with bolstering the park, Schmitz said.

Boerner landscaped views of the total park system, many of which can be still be seen from the balconies of the older park buildings and from the paths. He also wanted the garden to make plant materials for home, business and municipal uses, Schmitz added.

The gardens still serve the uses of all three entities. By hosting a trial garden, municipalities and businesses can determine if a plant will be able to grow in Wisconsin. An herb garden was installed in the 1950s at the request of pharmaceutical companies and many facilities are used by school children.

The herb garden also is used by children and, according to Monica Jeske, 'It's a hands-on learning area for children, and MPS students especially, who don't get the change to get their hands in the dirt.'

In 2013, 17,171 students visited the gardens.

Friends for decades

The garden is used in educating students and community members about gardening techniques and for various other classes. The team responsible for scheduling the students, coordinating the classes and hosting Winterfest are the Friends.

The Friends started in 1984 when Will Radler, the garden director, wanted to create a support group to help the county-hired horticulturalists in the garden.

They first operated out of a smaller garden house and moved to the education and visitor center in 2002. To Jeske, the center was a huge addition because it allowed for more class space and therefore more classes.

Jeske added she wanted people to know that, 'We're here. A lot of people have lived in Milwaukee their whole lives and have never been here. Come and see us because it is a jewel and it's a beautiful place.'