Allen Centennial Garden is the artful living laboratory and public botanical garden of the Horticulture Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Garden serves as an outdoor classroom for UW-Madison students and the surrounding communities, providing meaningful learning opportunities for visitors of all ages.
The Gardens are open from dawn to dusk.
The History of Allen Centennial Garden
The Allen Centennial Garden was dedicated in October 1989. The former teaching gardens attached to the Plant Sciences building were destroyed in 1979 to make room for a new building addition. In the early 1980s, plans evolved for a new instructional garden (what would eventually become the Allen Centennial Garden) to be located on the 2.5 acres surrounding the historic Dean’s Residence, one block north of the Plant Sciences building. The development of the Allen Centennial Garden was designed to complement the home and its existing plantings, including the larch tree (Larix decidua) planted in 1899 to commemorate the birth of the dean-in-residence’s son.
Early donations from student groups and anonymous gifts were available for the initial planning and design. With a substantial gift from Mrs. Ethel Allen, the groundbreaking was possible for construction to begin in the spring of 1985. Ethel Allen, a former member of the UW faculty, received a bachelor’s degree in botany, a Masters in bacteriology, and an honorary Doctorate of Science from the University. She was a renowned naturalist and international authority in her field. A Madison resident, she was instrumental in providing support for the early phases of Garden construction as well as multiple additional gifts to UW-Madison programs.
Ethel Allen was married to University of Wisconsin bacteriologist, Dr. Oscar Allen. Professor Allen taught at the university from 1948 until his death in 1976. This eminent couple co-authored what is considered the “encyclopedia” of the role of legumes in nitrogen fixation.
Naming the Gardens after the Allens in 1989 coincided with the commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the Department of Horticulture, hence the Garden’s full name of Allen Centennial Garden.
Allen Centennial Garden is constantly evolving. The varied topography and exposures of the 90,000 square foot site allow for a great diversity of plantings and the hardscapes. The major emphasis within the Garden is on herbaceous ornamental perennials but the site features many other plantings including annuals and woody plants.
The Dean's Residence
The Garden is built around a stately Victorian gothic house nestled on the agricultural campus. The house, known as the “Lake Dormer,” the “Fred House,” the “Agricultural Dean’s Residence,” and simply as “10 Babcock Drive,” was one of the first buildings on the agricultural campus and served as home for the college’s first four deans. It remains a cherished landmark for generations of students, alumni and friends of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Each of the four deans, William A. Henry (1891-1907), Harry L. Russell (1907-1931), Chris L. Christensen (1931-1943) and Edwin B. Fred (1943-1945), played a major role in the development of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison. Dean Fred continued to reside in the house after he became president of the University in 1945. Although his time as president ended in 1958, he lived in the house until his death in 1980.
While the house is no longer used as the dean’s residence, it continues to serve a vital role within the university. The house has been used as offices for the Agricultural Research Stations and later included the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Conference Services and Garden staff.
In 1984, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This provided overdue recognition of the building and its grounds and gave the residence its appropriate place among Wisconsin’s historic resources. Registration also saved it from certain demise as the campus grew and looked to expand classroom and research facilities.
Dennis Stimart (1989-2010)
Dennis received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in horticulture from the University of Minnesota. He became an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1986 where he specialized his research in ornamental horticulture, specifically focusing on plant genetics and flower longevity. Dennis was eventually promoted to professor and served as the Chair of the Department of Horticulture from 2000 to 2008. With a passion for gardening that was passed to him from his mother, Dennis quickly became instrumental in the initial development, planning, and fundraising for Allen Gardens. Dennis genuinely loved flowering plants and spent much time and effort creating a space in ACG that taught horticulture but also could serve as a calm and peaceful presence within the city of Madison. He believed that the two and a half acre garden was critical to the University and spent his nearly 20 year tenure as director of ACG squeezing as much plant diversity into the space as possible. Dennis served as director of Allen Centennial Gardens until his retirement in 2009. He passed away in 2010.
Ed Lyon (2009-2014)
Ed’s time at ACG was actually a second career after years of working in agriculture. He attributes his love of agriculture and growing to his parents and his mother’s acre sized garden where he was allowed to grow his own plants as a young boy. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in animal sciences and agricultural economics. He farmed for many years before deciding to enter into the world of horticulture, and earned his masters degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin in 2001. He worked in the garden under Dennis Stimart during his grad school years and knew he wanted to return to ACG in the future. He returned as director to Allen Gardens for the 25th anniversary and made many improvements to the existing infrastructure during his six year tenure, including rebuilding walls, replacing the pond, and installing a new irrigation system. Ed also made improvements to the teaching aspect of the garden, working to diversify the plant life found within ACG and expanding the presentations of garden history and gardening style. He was particularly proud of the various themes employed by the garden throughout the years, highlighting the research and educational opportunities of specifically the ornamental edibles garden. Ed is currently the director of Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University.
Ben Futa (2015-2020)
Ben received his degree in public horticulture from the University of Indiana, South Bend in 2014, and began his tenure as director of Allen Centennial Garden in May of 2015. During his time with ACG, he placed great emphasis on student engagement and making the Garden a place for all, not just the horticulturally inclined. Ben’s vision of ACG was a place where students could reconnect with themselves and relax, all while building awareness and respect for nature. He made those visions a reality by teaming up with student organizations to encourage student engagement, adding student internships, and pioneering student-centered activities, like Plant Adoption Day. By the time he left the gardens in 2020, he felt as if he had succeeded in creating an atmosphere within ACG that allowed students to feel at ease within the gardens. He now owns and operates a for-profit plant shop in South Bend, Indiana that explores the creative concepts related to the “culture” in horticulture.