MADISON, WI––The uneven gravel driveway points toward the interior of a residential block squeezed between East Gorham and East Johnson streets, where distressed concrete and indifferent weeds accent the real estate holdings of absentee landlords with all the charms of a cinder block.
“This way,” directs Nancy Risser, a retired high school Spanish teacher.
As instructed, I follow her and her husband, Fred, America’s longest-serving state legislator. The senator has anticipated rain on what has, until then, been a sunny Friday afternoon. He has brought along umbrellas for everyone just in case.
From the street the driveway appears to abruptly end several yards beyond the aging rental flats.
But this is an illusion.
The driveway is actually a path that ends somewhere different, a place where the Rissers — to quote Joni Mitchell in reverse — have made paradise by unpaving a parking lot.
In a few short steps, the gravel turns into a crimson brick road that ribbons the lush and elegantly contoured 3,000-square-foot garden rising from the gray urbanscape.
Here, a few blocks from their Wisconsin Avenue residence, the Rissers spend most evenings — planting, hosting or relaxing in the shade of the trees that peek over the fence from an adjacent lot.
“It’s an absolutely delightful place to spend time,” says Nancy. “We call it ‘our oasis.’”
Their oasis is created on a deal struck years ago between Fred and a Madison, WI, property developer named Michael Matty, who needed Fred to sell a property he owned on the 600 block of East Johnson in order to advance a redevelopment project.
Matty could raze the house, but the Rissers didn’t want to part with their tiny garden.
“He told us he would find us a place to garden,” Fred recalls. “I wasn’t so sure, but he said he would make magic happen.”
Matty kept his promise, giving the Rissers what then was a small tenant parking lot where old car tires and beer cans passed time beneath the box elders.
The Rissers initially envisioned rows of vegetables and flowers, but both quickly realized they had the opportunity to do more than raise a garden — they could create a habitat.
The seeds of this idea took root after consulting with longtime landscape architect friend. The parking lot was busted up and removed, and topsoil was spread over the freshly sculpted berms. Their son-in-law built a shed, while Fred and Nancy, married 30 years in August 2015, busied themselves with planting.
Seven years on, they couldn’t be more proud of their botanical masterpiece and its diversity of plant life. A variety of Japanese cultivars, like Moonrise maple and gingko, coexist with hummingbird-attracting honeysuckle and weeping cherry trees.
Tucked away in a corner is the colony of bees that use these exotic nectars to make their honey. The bees came from former Republican state representative and honey bee farmer.
“We called it bee-partisanship,” Fred jokes. “They produce great honey.”
But the Rissers are perhaps most excited about the guerrilla gardening campaign they’ve undertaken beyond the fence Matty built.
On the neglected properties surrounding their oasis, irises bloom where weeds once reached waist height. There are black-eyed Susans, ornamental oat grass and numerous other botanicals.
They’ve planted mint for the neighbors who drink mojitos and lemon balm for those who prefer tea. Fred has planted hundreds of tulips and daffodils.
“We’ve kind of taken the area over,” Nancy says. “But no one is complaining.”
Their most recent addition is a garden teeming with basil, epazote — a Mexican mint — zinnias, tomatoes and shiso — a Japanese herb.
“It’s not a bad deal for an absentee landlord, is it?” says Fred, with mischievous delight.
Back inside the oasis, Nancy stops to admire the irises that returned with her from Texas following her father’s memorial service, transplanted from her late grandmother’s ranch near Abilene.
“You should have seen us,” she says. “There we were, in our best clothes, digging in the dirt for the iris rhizones.”
She looks out across the oasis, its colors as quiet as the afternoon.
“A garden is a living thing,” she says. “It has changed so much.”
Originally Published in:
Isthmus, Madison’s alternative newsweekly