Senator Fred Risser and his wife Nancy visited our garden last summer and we had a chance to see theirs last week. We've read about it, and often talked about it with them at the coffeeshop where we frequently see them, but nothing quite prepared us for the reality.
When Nancy and Fred moved into a downtown Madison condo, they realized gardening on their patio and even a large rooftop herb garden was not enough to satisfy their passion. Both hands-on gardening and relaxing at the end of the day are now achieved in a green oasis located the midst of a block of varied housing stock filled with students and other renters. Walk down a nondescript driveway, step through the gate and you are in another world: the proverbial secret garden.
A number of years ago, the Rissers sold a local developer a piece of property they owned that he needed to put together a real-estate deal. In exchange he found them about 3,000 square feet of gardening space in a former parking lot that they've transformed with the aid of landscape architect Steve Lesch and lots of compost and fresh soil. The space is anchored with a raised rock garden in the center which is crisscrossed by gravel paths as seen in these first photos. Gravel is also used on the paths that line the four sides of the garden.
Every side of the larger garden creates privacy and a different effect with an array of plants that all look lush and lovely. The shed and brick patio — complete with chairs and umbrella-topped table — anchor a woodland filled with Hostas, a Japanese maple and a Ginkgo tree. But the piece de resistance is a clump of white Birch trees back by a tall Arborvitae hedge.
Tiger Eye Sumac and variegated clumps of Sea Oats grass (above) and Iris (below) all glow as they catch the last of the sunlight.
When I run into Nancy in the coffeeshop we talk fashion when we've had enough garden chat. She always looks terrific as her stylish purse and garden clippers attest.
Nancy (left) and I were so busy comparing plant notes on this occasion that we never stopped long enough for Mark to snap a formal portrait of the two of us.
Note the contrasting edge color on this clump of Smoke Bush. The Risser's garden was filled with an assortment of Hydrangeas (see one peeking out below left) and Viburnums, a number of them unfamiliar to me.
The garden not only contained a tool shed, there was a good size compost pile and working bee hives!
Another beautiful tree underplanted with a swath of Japanese forest grass. To the right of the tree is the start of a large planting of Peonies. The Rissers grow both Tree Peonies and Lactiflora types. I can just imagine how glorious it looks in Spring. On the other side of the garden was an equally grand swath of Lilies which had just finished putting on their summer show.
Nancy and I noted that we both like weeping trees as we looked at a weeping cherry in the garden. Fred (below), on the other hand, prefers statuesque specimens like Oaks. This photo gives you a good idea of how this garden is surrounded by houses (and parking spaces) outside of the fence. Meanwhile, the interior side of the fence is slowly being covered with climbers like Clematis and Honeysuckle and lush shrubs like the Willow at the right to make the garden almost invisible to passersby.
The garden is filled with plants that flower in each successive season as well as a few annuals like striped red Petunias.
You can see how the Rissers have created a protected environment for the garden with sturdy grasses and shrubs both on the inside and the outside of the garden fence (below). These plants are also a clue that Nancy is like most gardeners I know, myself included, likely to plant in any sad, bare spot we find.
Thus she added Hostas (below) to the front of the house that abuts the driveway into their garden. Nancy edged a deck around the back with culinary herbs and gave the young men living there some clues as to how they could be used.
We meandered around the outside of the garden looking at spots Nancy has adopted until we came to their cutting/veggie garden. Like the rest of the main garden, this is fenced to keep out the rabbits. But it's not a big enough space to bother with a gate, so Fred is explaining to me how he made a platform out of found materials so Nancy could easily boost herself over the fence.
I've lived in a few apartments that had the remnants of gardens and I loved being surrounded by flowers and greenery. If my living space was like this one, chock-a-block with true Geraniums, Tiger Eye Sumacs and the fabulous ferny foliage of Black Lace Elderflowers, it would be enough to transform me into a gardener. At the very least, I'd be offering my services to the Rissers to learn about gardening and to be able to see their magical creation at a closer view than a second floor fire escape.
Editor's note: Earlier this summer, Isthmus ran a profile of the Rissers and their garden by Nathan Comp, complete with commentary by the couple and a beautiful portrait of the two of them by Lauren Justice. You can read it here. Nathan Comp is our nephew.