By Leah Call  

Riverside International Friendship Gardens

With the brutal Wisconsin winter still fresh in our memories and myriad stressors looming large every time we check the news or social media, it’s nice to know there is a place within the city that represents peace, beauty and camaraderie. That place is Riverside International Friendship Gardens (RIFG) at Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse. And it’s free for everyone to enjoy.

For more than a decade, these not-so-secret gardens have been the charge of a group of hard-working volunteers. “Anytime you have a group of people, especially volunteers, dedicated to making our part of the world more beautiful and better is phenomenal,” says La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat. “And what makes it especially special is the connection with our sister cities.”

Creating gardens to honor La Crosse’s sister cities was the brainchild of Chuck Hanson, president of RIFG, Inc. The idea bloomed when Hanson learned that San Diego, California, had donated a rose garden to its sister city in China. In return, the sister city arranged for a peony garden in San Diego. Hanson envisioned a series of gardens to honor all of La Crosse’s sister cities, not just one.

To make that happen, RIFG, Inc. was formed. The organization included representatives from the Bluff Country Master Gardeners, city of La Crosse and citizens at-large. “The gardens showcase that there is beauty in the diverse cultures of the world,” says Hanson of his vision for the gardens. “The common pathway linking all the gardens reflects that we are all part of one good earth, and all have a stake in preserving it for future generations.”

The first garden to take shape in 2006 honored sister city Luoyang, China, one of six gardens that exist today. Each garden includes plants and visual elements that represent the gardens and culture of La Crosse’s sister cities in China, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway and Russia. Development of a seventh garden honoring the sister city of Kumbo, Cameroon, is underway and will open this summer. 

“We are really trying to showcase that we are connected globally through the different gardens and the partnerships over the years, the trading of plants and artwork,” says Kabat. “That part of La Crosse represents something very significant, not only the volunteerism and community spirit but the connection to the bigger world.”

A Mission of Peace

Sister Cities International is an initiative started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 as a way to establish relationships between ordinary citizens throughout the world. These citizen diplomats work to accomplish the nonpartisan nonprofit’s mission: “To promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation—one individual, one community at a time.”

The initiative includes yearly exchanges in the areas of business, medicine, agriculture and education. Carmen De Yoe, a former School District of La Crosse kindergarten teacher, taught middle school spoken English for one year in Luoyang, China, as part of the exchange. “I was impressed by how different Eastern and Western philosophies are, and how welcoming the Chinese teachers were,” recalls De Yoe, who is on the RIFG board and has worked as a volunteer in the gardens with the Bluff Country Master Gardeners for 10 years.

De Yoe and others involved in planning and improving the gardens have regular contact with individuals in the sister cities. “We don’t deal with governments or talk about differences or conflicts. It isn’t government to government. It’s people to people,” notes De Yoe.

“We just get to know people and get to know what they’re like and form relationships. The sister city part of this is important because it is about developing relationships with the ultimate goal of creating peace in the world.”

That goal of fostering relationships and celebrating differences is evident in each unique and wonderful garden. Every garden features plants, sculptures and other artistic touches that can be found in the sister city it represents. Some of the elements in the gardens are gifts from the sister cities themselves. 

Plant selection is based on input from the sister cities and on photographs and accounts of individuals who have visited the city and toured their gardens. “We want to be authentic when we are planting the gardens,” notes De Yoe. “That is easier if it is a similar climate.”

Developing gardens that represent a sister city with a climate different from La Crosse’s climate, such as the newest Kumbo, Cameroon, garden, presents a challenge. “If we want a certain plant, but it won’t do well here, we choose plants that will have the same look,” explains De Yoe, who wintered some of the tropical plants that will be included in the Kumbo garden in her own home. 

Each garden has significant stationary elements modeling what visitors might find in the sister cities. Examples of those elements include the water wheel in the Bantry, Ireland, garden. That wheel, attached to the back of the tourism building, is similar to a large water wheel in the city of Bantry. The anchor found near the amphitheater at the edge of the Mississippi is another significant element, which represents an anchor left by the Spanish Armada in the 1700s that was pulled from the harbor near Bantry. A highlight of the Dubna, Russia, garden is the besedka, the summer house that sits on the edge of the La Crosse River. That element represents a similar besedka along the Volga River in Dubna.

Welcome to the Riverside International Friendship Gardens

Can’t make the trip abroad to visit foreign lands? Take a trip to Riverside Park and get lost in the gardens for a while. No passport required. Here’s just a snippet of what you’ll find—in the order they were developed.

#1 – Luoyang, China

The Luoyang garden is an opportunity to experience the culture and aroma of Luoyang. Enter this walled garden through the impressive moongate structure which features two stone dragons. The garden was designed using feng shui principles with rocks, a pond and plants similar to those native to Luoyang, including clematis, hostas, Asiatic lilies, lotus flowers and peonies, lots of peonies. Luoyang is known as the peony capital in China. Imagine the aromatic treat walking through this garden in May, when the peonies are in bloom.

#2 – Epinal, France 

Known as the city of flowers, Epinal has been a sister city since 1986. Flowers in this garden include hydrangeas, daylilies, canna lilies and roses. Statues and topiary trees add to this garden’s unique visual appeal. A knot garden is an important element connecting this garden to similar garden designs in France. Knot gardens are created by shaping a knot with shrubbery or greens and planting lavender and other aromatic plants and herbs inside. Inside this garden you will also find a statue of a little boy with a thorn in his foot, given as a gift from the sister city. The stone figure is a replica of a larger statue in Epinal. 

#3 – Friedberg, Germany

 The climate in this sister city is similar to that of the Coulee Region. This garden is alive with matron sedum, iris, Karl Foerster grass, blue salvia and clematis. An Alpine rock garden with small shrubbery and small flowers is a feature in this garden along with a bench under a pin oak, both commonly found in Germany. Other highlights include a wooden arbor and a six-foot sculpture of a gold leaf pocket watch created by German artist Wolfgang Auer—a gift from the city once known worldwide for watchmaking.


#4 – Dubna, Russia

 The besedka is the primary element connecting this garden to the sister city of Dubna, a small town north of Moscow. Inside the besedka, take a moment to look up at the ceiling, which was painted in Russian style by a group of exchange teachers. Plants in this garden are hardy to cold climates. The garden was developed to resemble a typical park in Russia, with birch trees, hydrangeas, phlox, lilacs, iris and sage.


#5 – Bantry, Ireland

This garden was added in 2011. The amphitheater facing the La Crosse River is an homage to this sister city overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to the anchor and the mill wheel, both elements honoring Bantry, the garden includes a paved Celtic cross pattern surrounded by hydrangeas, ferns, shamrocks, moss, Bells of Ireland, St. John’s Wort and other plants reminiscent of Ireland.


#6 – Førde, Norway

Also created in 2011, the Førde garden includes foxglove, chokecherry, hydrangea, spruce, garden vegetables and rhubarb. This country-looking garden is made up of mostly perennials. Carved trolls can be found throughout the garden, as well as waterfalls and a sod-roofed structure called a torvtak, resembling structures found in Norway, but planted with sedum, which grows year-round. 


#7 – Kumbo, Cameroon – Soon

The Kumbo garden, in progress, is on the west side of the Convention and Visitors Bureau at Riverside. To mark its 100th anniversary, the Downtown Rotary Club of La Crosse partnered with the RIFG board and the city of La Crosse to make this project a reality. The Rotary club is assisting with fundraising and lending a much-appreciated helping hand in constructing the garden. 

To mimic gardens in this sister city, situated near the equator in Africa, planners have selected big-leafed, colorful plants, including elephant ears, canna lilies and a banana plant. Since citizens of Kumbo grow a lot of vegetables, the garden will include raised vegetable beds as well as three rain gardens containing plants that thrive in that environment. Five statues are the connecting elements in this tropical garden-in-progress. One is the Mami Wata sculpture, a mythical mermaid-like creature used by mothers in Kumbo to teach children about the dangers of water in order to keep them safe around the river. Other sculptures include a turtle and lizard, a fire pit with mother reading to children, and a little girl with an arrow facing out toward the river.

Many Hands

Ongoing support for the gardens comes from the city of La Crosse, the RIFG board and the Bluff Country Master Gardeners. Located on city property, the city provides water and electric as well as soil, mulch and removal of debris after a day of weeding and pruning. 

“The city has been a full supportive partner in this whole process,” notes Hanson. “It shows what happens when everyone is at the table and participating to solve the problems that need to be solved to get a project done.”

The RIFG board is an all-volunteer board involved in fundraising efforts and assisting with garden design. A critical third leg of the stool is the Bluff Country Master Gardeners, part of the UW-Extension Master Gardener statewide program. That program has an education component, so in addition to tending the garden, these volunteers teach. 

“We educate the public, we educate new gardeners, and we educate volunteers at the gardens,” says De Yoe, a master gardener herself. 

This spring, new members of the Bluff Country Master Gardeners were paired with existing master gardeners to ready the gardens for spring and summer and assist in developing the new Kumbo, Cameroon, garden. 

Bluff Country Master Gardeners, along with the gardeners-in-training and community volunteers, go to work in the gardens every Wednesday evening from 5 to 8 p.m. Typically, eight to 12 volunteers show up with larger numbers on special work days. Additional community volunteers are always welcome. “We water, prune shrubs and trees, deadhead flowers,” explains De Yoe. “We help with garden design, and plant new plants—both perennials and annuals in containers every spring.”

Nature’s Calling: A Visit to the Gardens

The Friendship Gardens have much to teach, both young and old. “A lot of people tour the gardens and get ideas,” says De Yoe. “School children come. Garden clubs come. Other larger tour groups visit from around the state.” 

Riverside Park in summer is always a popular place, and so are the gardens. People who work downtown often stroll through the grounds over lunch hour or on a break. One of those people is Mayor Kabat, who truly appreciates the hard-working volunteers who make it possible. “When the weather is nice, I try to get out into nature on a daily basis and that is one of my favorite spots. When I go through there, it is a pleasant reminder of how important our people are to making La Crosse a great place.”

That kind of appreciation keeps these gardeners going. “As volunteers we love when people come up to us and say ‘thank you for helping in the garden,’” says De Yoe.

The gardens are open to the public from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round. Maps listing layout and plant names are available inside the Visitors Center and on the RIFG website. There’s no charge to enjoy this beautiful tribute to La Crosse’s sister cities, though donations are appreciated and needed. The upkeep of existing gardens and creation of new ones are only possible through the generous support of individuals and businesses. Donations can be made at 

Creating a place that everyone can enjoy, regardless of their financial situation, is important to De Yoe and the other volunteers. “This is a true public garden, and we  love that.”