Exploring Rock Gardens in Southern Wisconsin

Post written by ACG Rock Garden Intern, Josh Nisleit.

On Saturday, June 24th, I joined a few of our Rockhead volunteers on a tour of five rock gardens in Southeastern Wisconsin. Along the way, the volunteers and I met with others on the rock garden tour as well as the owners of each garden. Each garden was unique in its own way, and together they formed a great opportunity to learn more about different styles of rock gardening. The combined experience and hospitality shown by the rock gardeners involved made for an unforgettable day.


The first garden of the day was located in Waterford, which was lovingly described as “the middle of nowhere.” Turning where we believed to be the right address, we made our way down a long, winding driveway deep into the forest. Towards the end of the path laid what Rockhead Jane described as a “rock garden of eden.” Here, deep in the forest, grew plants that we could only dream of growing in the rock garden at Allen Centennial. There were rhododendrons as far as the eye could see! When the owner, Tom Horner, was questioned on what his strategy was for growing these amazing plants, he simply laughed and responded with “I dig a hole!” The forest soil was very acidic, which proved to be the perfect environment for growing the most prominent feature of this garden. Tom best described his garden as “a woodland rock garden.” Although the garden had the structure and staple plants of a typical rock garden, interspersed within the rocks were native Wisconsin woodland plants. During our time there, we learned about growing lichens, saw incredible exotic plants, and were updated on the status of plants that the Rockheads had given the owner when they last visited several years ago. 

Part of Tom’s rock garden
One of Tom’s many rhododendrons

The journey to the second garden was more difficult than we first expected. The garden was in Sussex, but the address that we had wasn’t working on our phones. We almost resorted to using an atlas for directions, but we made it in the end! The second garden was unassuming from the road, and I had suspected that we once again had the wrong address when we arrived at the house. However, the owner, Jeff Fritz, transported us into a different world with his backyard. His garden was enclosed by an incredible conifer collection, and on the inside was a beautiful rock garden with an impressive water feature. A fantastic cacti collection was also found growing outside of the conifer ring. It was in this garden that the Rockheads met with the other passionate rock gardeners they would be spending the rest of the day with, most of whom were old friends that they enjoyed catching up with. 

Jeff’s cacti collection
Jeff’s rock garden, water feature, and conifer collection

The third garden, owned by Mike Kanter, was grown in a different style than the first two. Each bed was sharply outlined with rocks, which created very distinct pathways. One of the highlights of this garden was the different types of rocks used to outline the beds. I particularly enjoyed the usage of obsidian as a border. Since this garden was a bit smaller than the first two, it also felt a fair bit different from them. There were plenty of decorations spotted throughout the garden, which really gave it a “homey” feel. However, this garden proved quite perilous for myself. Mike had a large pumice rock for sale, which Rockhead Jane bought for her own home garden. While Mike went to get gloves, another rock gardener and I lifted the rock up into Jane’s vehicle. Ouch! The pumice left many cuts on our hands, and I learned that pumice is called “volcanic glass” for a good reason. Luckily, it was a Saturday, so I had time to heal before returning to Allen Centennial for work on Monday. 

Part of Mike’s rock garden
Obsidian border and broader view


The fourth and final garden was owned by Joy and Dave Collura. They have been gardening at their current location for over 30 years as they started their terrascaping project in 1992! Their garden contained an interesting mix of plants since Joy is a hosta enthusiast, but Dave enjoys growing alpine plants. Together, they created a beautiful landscape that showcases the best of both worlds. Joy was especially proud of her mini-hostas, which she grew in rock garden troughs! After exploring the garden, Joy and Dave graciously treated everyone on the tour to a homemade lunch. During lunch, I got to talk with many of the rock gardeners. I also had the chance to talk with Dr. Ingrid Jordon-Thaden, who is the director of the Botany Garden and Greenhouse on the UW-Madison campus. I helped build the rock garden at the Botany Garden nearly two years ago, so it was nice to catch up with new developments. 

Joy and Dave’s water feature
Joy’s hosta collection

At the end of the day, we all drove back to Jane’s house to get that large pumice rock out of the back of her vehicle. We successfully got it out without anybody else getting hurt, and she showed me around her home rock and crevice garden. Like all of the other rock gardens we visited, it was right outside of her home. If there was one thing that I learned over the course of the day, it was how niche rock gardening is in the world of horticulture. Going into it, I was expecting to be visiting large publicly or privately owned gardens run by countless staff members. However, time after time, I was met with just one or two motivated gardeners and the gardens they had built. Rock gardening can be difficult and is definitely a passion project, but the resulting landscapes are like no other.