The Robert W. Monk Gardens: An Urban Sanctuary

Walk through the gate and into the Robert W. Monk Gardens at the end of north First Ave. and you enter a natural sanctuary in the midst of the Wausau area.

It is quiet. Pathways lead to the Pine Woods where a magnificent tree house awaits your climbing. To your right the Memorial Plaza invites you to sit and contemplate the new trees and plantings. Maybe have lunch or read a book.  Beyond, another  pathway leads to a tranquil pond, the gazebo, and a large open area ideal for weddings and family gatherings. Trees sway in the wind. Sunshine dapples the leaves and grass. Birds swoop.

With the help of a Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry Grant in 2004, the Monk Gardens have been quietly developing into one of our area’s finest places. It’s a serene setting full of flowers, shrubs, plants and trees—21 acres of wooded land donated to the community by the late Robert W. Monk III, local businessman. That 2004 DNR grant was one of several critical donations that helped the Garden’s board of directors hire noted urban garden design firm Marshall, Tyler, and Rausch, LLC,  (Pittsburgh, PA) to develop a community inspired master plan for the garden. The DNR grant also helped fund the acquisition of a number a shade trees that now shelter the Memory Garden and Wildflower Woods area.

Much has taken place since then, as the Garden’s board of directors, committees, donors and  volunteers have teamed together to complete early projects and lay the groundwork for the next phases.

In addition to the Master Plan, previous projects included erection of a fence around the property to prevent deer from entering and feeding on plantings. Aerators have been placed in the pond to sustain  oxygen levels and prevent algae buildup.  A storage shed for tools and equipment was erected.  Local Eagle Scout candidates contributed projects like the information board and a ramp to make one of the pathways more accessible.

In the most recent  developments—begun a year ago and completed this summer—the tree house was erected; this gift from Ruth Schuette has become one of Wausau’s most distinctive structures. We successfully drilled a well for water and laid out an in-ground irrigation system. The first sections of the pathway system have been defined and layered with aggregate.

The Memory Garden is highlighted with a Memorial Plaza and wind sculpture surrounded by native blue stone boulders.  New teak benches, many in memory of loved ones, now ring the perimeter of the Plaza. A variety of trees have also been given as memorials to honor friends and family. A new kiosk frames the entrance to the area.

Next to the Plaza, the Wildflower Woods features seasonal flowers that bloom from thaw to frost including bee balm, spiderwort, Solomon’s seal, violets, shooting star, trillium, black eyed Susan, Virginia bluebells and purple coneflower. Most of them are spring bloomers and are expected to appear when the snow melts next year.

In the past year Garden volunteers have planted a variety of birch trees, some dogwoods and other shrubs, a pair of swamp white oaks, a number of  donated elderberries, the ferns around the plaza, and annual and perennial flowers around some of the memorial benches.  The shape of the berm was finalized, and a no-mow grass mix area has been seeded.

To thin the canopy for the health of the remaining plants and future diversification of the Meditation Garden canopy, a number of red pines—some storm damaged—have been removed.

What lies ahead? “The Gardens are a long-term project,” says Vickie Richmond Hawkins, president of the board of directors. “But as we complete each section, the Garden becomes more and more enjoyable and educational to our community. There’s something new each year.”

Next up, the Garden will have connections to the city’s water and sewer services, and a “potager” is planned. That’s a small kitchen and bathroom facility that will be able to host small groups.  A fireplace, oven, and tables and benches will make it a good place for a picnic meal. The Garden’s board of directors hopes to have that building finished by the end of 2014.

Complementing the Memory Garden and Wildflower Woods, the Meditation Garden will fill the eastern edge of the property with plantings both exotic and native. An arched bridge will stretch across the north end of the pond and a Tea House will nestle amid the trees. This garden will utilize the pond area as an important element, and the pond, which needs some refurbishing, will be improved and healthier.

The improvements will require financial contributions and effort, of course, and the Monk Gardens board and committees continue to solicit funds, donations, and volunteers. One of the potential sources of support is a new application for a Department of Natural Resources grant designed to help with public education and volunteer recruitment, and continued development of the forest tree canopy, including the eradication of invasive species and attention to the emerald ash borer.

“The amount of community support for the Gardens has been simply outstanding,” says Richmond Hawkins. “We have hundreds of volunteers. Local foundations and businesses have been extremely generous. And the public simply likes the Gardens.  Thousands have visited the grounds, our events have been extremely well attended, and at times there are so many memorial gifts it’s hard to keep track of them.”

This is where you come in. Join the many who have contributed or have become members, who have volunteered or participated in employee work days, or who have joined our committees. Best of all, stop in for a visit. Experience the setting, share the vision. The gate is latched, but never locked. Enjoy.