A good space, naturally

Monk Gardens is really starting to live up to its creator’s goals. Now it has executive director Darcie Howard to make it happen


Darcie Howard, hired last year as Monk Gardens’ first executive director, holds degrees in biology and wildlife conservation.

If you’ve noticed that the park-like Monk Gardens has been seeing a lot of action in the past year, you’re right. The now 27 acres on the northwest side of Wausau has hosted more high-profile events, popular snowshoe hikes, weddings and other private celebrations, and sees more visitors than ever.

It has been nearly 15 years since Robert Monk donated his mostly wild and natural urban property—with a pond—to create the nonprofit-run space for the public.

Until rather recently, the whole operation and all the improvements, happened because of dedicated volunteers. Now imagine what can happen with a staff.

Robert Monk, who passed away in 2009, used to always say, “Keep kids’ hands in the dirt and off drugs.” For someone who didn’t know him, that statement might seem an amusing thing to quip; for those who knew him—and still refer to him reverently as Mr. Monk—it’s a deeply cherished mantra.

Monk Botanical Gardens began with a grand vision, and it has taken many years of incremental improvements to even begin resembling that original goal: to provide the Wausau area with a public space that can educate people, especially kids, in botany and conservation.

As recently as 2011, the space was little more than trees, grass and paths. That vision is noticeably coming into focus thanks to big strides made in the past year or two:

• Hiring its first full-time staff member, executive director Darcie Howard, last year

• Just recently hiring a part-time education programming director

• Adding the final six acres of the Monk family’s property to the gardens. The land includes the Monks’ home, which completed the trail around the pond.

• The completion of an outdoor kitchen, which includes restrooms

Those developments are perhaps some of the most important since Monk Gardens’ creation in 2003. Howard, who has many years of experience working for nonprofits, has provided much-needed organization. She and incoming Education Programming Director Elise Schuler (who starts later this month) will expand events to bring more people to the gardens and grow its summer school programs for kids.

While there are many aspects of Mr. Monk’s initial vision for Monk Gardens that haven’t yet been realized, the board of directors and volunteers have checked off numerous objectives in the 25-year master plan. That includes the wildflower woods, memory garden, meditation garden, and trails.

Monk Gardens veered off course with a few projects that weren’t in the original master plan. The irresistible treehouse and last year’s six-acre acquisition are examples, but all part of the greater vision, explains Board President Kris Weirauch.

“I think with our new executive director on board, we’re going to have a better sense of the direction Monk Gardens is going,” Weirauch says. “We’re progressing in that direction in a very thoughtful and deliberate manner. You have to raise a lot of money to do these projects.”

A happy accident

Its nonprofit status poses somewhat of a conundrum for Monk Gardens. Unlike other botanical gardens in Wisconsin, such as Boerner Botanical Gardens in Milwaukee or Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, a local municipality doesn’t support Monk Gardens. Rather, it’s driven by community donations. Foundations, businesses and individuals have been strong contributors over the years, but like any nonprofit, there are ups and downs in the fundraising.

Board Treasurer Darla Zastrow says for the first few years Monk Gardens operated in the red. “People saw what it could be though and they understand now it’s a permanent fixture,” Zastrow says. “It brings in families and out-of-town people. Once they see how far we’ve come, the donations come more than they did at the start. Groups are finding this is a valid reason to donate.”

If it weren’t for Zastrow’s petty crime, Monk Gardens might never have happened.

For nearly two years in the late 90s-early 00s, Zastrow would take her two young sons right down the road from their home onto a large property she thought was owned by someone who lived in Chicago. It wasn’t until May 2001 when Zastrow was on a picnic with her family that she met the property owner, Mr. Monk.

While Zastrow, her sons and her mother were dining on sandwiches at a picnic table on his property, Mr. Monk pulled up on his golf cart and his immediate question was, “Who are you?” Apparently he had been watching them for some time now. Zastrow says she couldn’t speak, “Out of embarrassment.”

Her mother, Darlene Westcott, took over the conversation and they quickly established a rapport with Mr. Monk. Turned out, through his work as a real estate agent, Mr. Monk had sold Westcott and her husband their first house, and even brought them a turkey for their first Thanksgiving there. Then Mr. Monk mentioned how he always wanted to give the land to a trustworthy group that would turn it into a botanical gardens. That’s when Zastrow’s ears perked up. She mentioned she was a biology professor at UW-Marathon County and knew a thing or two about botany. “Thank goodness for Darla’s criminal behavior,” Board member Paul Whitaker says with a chuckle.

Zastrow’s affiliation with UWMC ended up being important. One stipulation when the Monks donated their land was that three staff members from both UWMC and Northcentral Technical College be on the board of directors. “His focus was getting the kids in there for education. That was Mr. Monk’s vision,” Zastrow says.

Future looks bright

Mr. Monk’s main idea for the property was to build large, circular greenhouses much like Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes. He even had clear-cut an area to make that happen. But those four-season structures are notoriously expensive to maintain, and after some research and number-crunching, it became clear the Wausau area could not support the cost of construction and maintenance.

A more conventional, outdoor approach for botanical gardens was decided. When Monk Gardens completed its master plan in 2005, its fundraising goal for the first few projects was $1.96 million, which included a visitor center and parking lot. Monk Gardens was halfway to making the visitor center a reality when the Great Recession hit in 2008. Donations didn’t come in as they once had.

Whitaker says the board of directors decided to focus on programming and building smaller features to attract people to the property.

Now that Monk Gardens is in the last year of its five-year strategic plan, the visitor center will most likely come up for discussion soon because of the revenue streams it can provide: a rentable space for parties, anniversaries or weddings; a gift shop; classrooms in winter. It’s the best resource for most botanical gardens to make a profit.

“The visitor center is in the next 5-10 year plan. The issue with it is, it’s expensive,” Zastrow says. “We would need to make a huge fundraising push.”

With that visitor center goal in the near future, Monk Gardens is using 2018 as a planning year to solidify its advances and prepare for its next big fundraising push. In the meantime Monk Gardens will make full use of what it has, expanding its programming for kids and public events.

That’s where Darcie Howard will make a big difference.

With many years of experience running nonprofits and nature education programs, Howard already has brought some creativity to how Monk Gardens raises revenue. Monk Gardens now charges a small fee for wedding parties to take photos on the grounds (something that’s common for similar spaces). The luminary snowshoe walks—which are a big hit by the way—now charge admission and $2 to rent a pair of snowshoes. Small but subtle changes like that make the difference in the long haul.

“We realized we needed someone who is dedicated to (Monk Gardens) as their job,” Weirauch says. “Now we have more activities, more people, and we need more money to do the things we want to do. Darcie fills a big need for us.”

Howard already has added interesting events to Monk Gardens’ programming. This summer they’ll host a Dirt to Pot Cooking Series where participants can learn how to grow, maintain, harvest, and cook a variety of food. The series will feature local chefs in the area such as Basil’s Brian Fruend and Red Eyed Brewing Company’s Nate Bychinski.

Another new event this summer is Booze and Botany, a one-time event intended to draw the younger crowd. “We’re going to have live music, yard games and craft cocktails,” Howard says. “We’re going to be using some of the things we’ve planted in our garden.”

The goal of those events is not only to bring people out to the gardens, but also create another revenue stream for Monk Gardens. The kitchen garden and its indoor restroom already have shown those possibilities, with two weddings, an anniversary party and a graduation party last year.

A place for its people


Dave Kallaway

The most recent luminary snowshoe walks—which are a big hit by the way—are part of an expanding slate of public programs you’ll now find at Monk Gardens.

Expect a lot more happening at Monk Gardens starting this spring. It began hosting educational programs five years ago and Schuler’s job as the new education director is to expand those offerings (Schuler comes from Antigo’s Raptor Education Group Inc. as its education director). Monk Gardens already hosts Wausau School District’s summer school program for elementary school students, who come to the gardens three times over six weeks to learn how to plant, maintain, harvest and cook their own crops.

Whitaker says Monk Gardens’ volunteers also host educational programs at elementary schools in the spring and fall. With an education director on board, Whitaker is hopeful Monk Gardens can do winter programs and even more education outreach throughout the year.

Perhaps the most important recent development was last year’s addition of the Monk family home. The property was always slated to be added to the gardens. After Robert Monk died in 2009, his wife, Carol, continued to live in the home. An anonymous donor provided the funds last year to purchase the home and accompanying six acres. For the first time, Monk Gardens has a structure for office space and storage.

The house also offers potential to broaden a summer internship program to bring in staff from outside the area. “We would like to take one of the floors of the house and attract interns,” Howard says. “They would work alongside our horticulture volunteers and attain some hands on experience.”

Of course, anything Monk Gardens does in the future will be dictated by its fundraising and donations. Whitaker says Mr. Monk would grow impatient with Monk Gardens’ progress. “He would ask, ‘Why aren’t you planting anything yet?’” Whitaker says. “Well that takes money and volunteer staff.”

Although he may be gone, the spirit of Mr. Monk lives on and he would be proud of what it has become. “It would be a blast if he could cruise up on his golf cart in the summertime when the summer school program is out there,” Whitaker says. “He would be all smiles.”