Grow and Tell: Conservation Showcased at the Executive Residence
Summers in Wisconsin are as fleeting as they are lovely, and the first cold autumn day typically serves as a brisk recalibration for those who will soon be enduring winter weather. This year, that day fell on the 24th of September, and it also happened to be the day of the shoreline garden installation event at the Executive Residence where Wisconsin Governors live in Madison. But, while the day was grey-skied, damp, and chilly, the vibe among the dozens of participants in attendance was a far cry from cold.
Becca Dymzarov, Rock River Coalition Executive Director (left); Group of volunteers (right). Photo credit: Garrett Hopkins
Wisconsin may lack national notoriety for its nature-based offerings, but those who live here know it as a corner-to-corner splendor of lakes, rivers and streams. It’s a state that has so much more to offer than it gets credit for, and one that’s filled with people who are eager to restore and preserve the natural spaces they cherish, many of whom simply need some direction for where to apply their enthusiasm.
In 2008, a novel idea sprouted from a meeting at the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute: turn the Executive Residence – one of the most iconic and publicized buildings in the state – into a showcase for a specific conservation action many people can take on their own property.
Patricia Cicero, Director of the Jefferson County Land and Water Conservation Department, has been a leading champion of this project since its inception as part of the Wisconsin Lake Leaders Institute. “We were talking about lake issues, native plants, and protecting water quality, and somehow it came up that the Executive Residence had mowed grass all the way to the water,” she recalls. “The 2008 crew of Wisconsin Lake Leaders decided to make it our project to get a shoreline restoration at this important site.”
The Executive Residence, which sits on the bank of Lake Mendota, is bordered by a field of Kentucky bluegrass, one of the most common species of lawn grass in the country. While Kentucky bluegrass brings a clean appearance and is easy to maintain, it offers little benefit to the environment.
“Its roots are only about an inch-and-a-half deep,” says Gregg Breese, Regulatory Manager at Resource Environmental Solutions (the nation’s largest ecological firm), and one of the partners for this project. “It creates a hard surface that leads to a high runoff rate.” In other words, as rainwater flows over the land, it picks up harmful nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen and flows into adjoining waterbodies.
Native shoreline gardens are specifically designed to prevent this runoff from happening. By replacing a section of grass with native species of plants that have 3 to 5-foot roots, pollutant runoff rates are significantly decreased. The roots increase water infiltration by absorbing water, and serve as a filtration system that helps to prevent harmful substances from entering the connecting lake, river or stream. Additionally, the native plants help reduce erosion, and serve as a habitat for bees, birds, butterflies, moths, wasps, bats, and small mammals that support the local ecosystem and food web.
Photo Credit: Garrett Hopkins
Planting a native shoreline garden is a relatively doable task for even a novice landscaper, but planting a shoreline garden at the Executive Residence is a challenging web of approvals, logistics, and resources. The journey to the garden was one of countless starts and stops, but on April 7, 2022, the light finally lit green when Governor Tony Evers publicly announced the project at the Wisconsin Lakes & Rivers Convention.
Five months later, on a grey-skied, damp, and chilly September day, dozens of volunteers and conservation leaders pulled on their gardening gloves and got to work.
The temperature of the crowd was a stark contrast to that of the air. Warmed by kinship and a unified purpose, they operated with the calculated hum of honeybees. Bright faced and buzzing with joy, the group moved mounds of mulch, carried pallets of plants, dug holes by hand, and eventually sat on the earth to settle a swath of new vegetation along the shore. In total, approximately 1,700 native plants were set into approximately 3,000 square feet of land.
The Executive Residence shoreline garden has rich ecological value, but its pinnacle impact will be in the inspiration it sows. For many hobby environmentalists, the word “conservation” is shadowed by an intimidating cloud of uncertainty. While a will to make a difference is innate, the know-how often is not. But thanks to the efforts of those who started the project, and to those who saw this first phase through, Wisconsin now has a beautiful, green beacon of conservation shining on the shores of Lake Mendota.
Photo Credit: Garrett Hopkins
“For our company, this is a small project,” says Breese, “but the lesson here is that small changes can make big differences. People can now look at the Residence and see that a native prairie doesn’t necessarily have to be a conceptual weed garden, it can be beautiful.” He not only feels optimistic about the inspiration the project could have on those who own shoreline property, but for all eco-minded individuals. “Prairies belong everywhere, even in small backyards.”
Additional types of at-home, eco-friendly restorations include rock infiltration areas, native plant gardens, and rain gardens . People who do own land within 1,000 feet of lakes and 300 feet of rivers and streams may be eligible for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Healthy Lakes & Rivers grant, an initiative launched in 2014 that funds these projects each year. To find out more, contact your local lake group and your county’s Land and Water Conservation Department as both are eligible to apply for the grant on the behalf of property owners.
While the planting was a monumental achievement, it was just the beginning. Phase 2, which is scheduled for completion in 2023, will result in an additional 1,407 plants across another 4,117 square feet. Donations are currently being accepted online and through the mail .
“It’s hard to put this into words,” says Cicero, attempting to sum up her experience at the event. “It’s been emotional for me. I was amazed by how many volunteers we had, and I can’t say enough good things about the staff at the Department of Administration. It’s just so exciting to finally see it all come together, and it means so much that so many people wanted to spend a Saturday morning helping us out.”
Volunteers (left, upper and lower); Patricia Cicero, Director of the Jefferson County Land and Water Conservation Department (right). Photo Credit Garrett Hopkins
The 24th of September, was the type of day that happens every autumn, its cold air novel to the faded days of summer. But it was also the type of day that we too rarely see, a before-and-after flashbulb moment in conservation. By welcoming the shoreline restoration, Wisconsin’s state government instantly became one of the most visible ecological leaders in the Midwest. The cultural wake of this achievement may take time to fully set in, but when it does, the consequences – much like the roots in the Governor’s new garden – will run deep.
This project was made possible through collaboration between Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA), the Wisconsin Executive Residence Foundation, Wisconsin Lake Leaders, Jefferson County Land and Water Conservation Department, Extension Lakes at UW Stevens Point, Rock River Coalition, Resource Environmental Solutions (RES), and Clean Lakes Alliance.
Grounds keeping staff were concerned that several areas between the Executive Residence and the road were draining poorly. The grass would grow, but operating mowers on these areas was creating ruts. One option would have simply added a new drain system to deliver excess stormwater to Lake Mendota. Staff and the SCERB board decided for a lake-friendly solution: planting rain gardens with native flowering perennials in place of turfgrass. Rain gardens are an eligible practice in the Wisconsin Healthy Lakes and Rivers program; you can receive up to $1000 in state assistance to design, create, and plant your rain garden. Learn more at healthylakeswi.com. Photo Credit: Amy Kowalski.
Want to help support Phase 2? Visit wisconsinexecutiveresidence.com and click the “Shoreline Restoration” tab, or send a check to “WERF” to 99 Cambridge Road, Madison, WI 53704 with “shoreline project” written on the memo line. If you’re interested in volunteering on this project to either install Phase 2 or help maintain the garden into the future, contact Becca Dymzarov at email@example.com.