Out of the snow and into the garden

John Oncken

Last week we saw snow three or four times which meant shoveling and snowblowing most every day. Maybe that’s why so many people found their way to the warm and snowless Alliant Energy Center in Madison for the 25th edition of  Wisconsin Public Television’s Garden Expo.

This three-day event offers the latest trends in gardening, landscaping and edibles, and attracts more than 20,000 people - gardeners, former gardeners and would-be gardeners) from across the Midwest. They come to join other gardening enthusiasts to share ideas, gain inspiration, create something new. Of course, that means buying, lots of buying: seeds, rakes, bird houses, bird feeders and even wine.

”A better pruner, “ the exhibitor says.

Wine, you might ask?  “What's better than having a glass of wine after planting, weeding, watering and otherwise working up a sweat on a hot day in the gardening than a cool glass of wine,” the lady offering wine tasting at the PRP Wine exhibit exclaimed.

“I agree,” a lady with a wine sample in hand added. “After working in my garden and cleaning up, I sit on my patio and drink a bit of wine and relax while admiring my garden nearby.”    

I won’t argue, I guess it’s sort of like - when I was young - the threshing crew drinking a bottle of beer (that had been cooling in the stock tank all day) when the last load of grain had been run through the thresher for the day.

Klein Floral & Greenhouse of Madison offered a wide variety of plants to gardeners who want an early start.

The flu? Hopefully not.

The big Exhibition Hall at the Alliant Center was almost shoulder to shoulder people during my visit Saturday afternoon. (My first thought was, do any of these folks have the flu they’re going to spread? It brought back memories of  my youth of attending the Wisconsin State Fair during the scary and fearsome polio days.)  

It’s there

If you want something dealing with gardening, chances are it was somewhere among the 196 commercial exhibits of seeds, landscaping and landscape design services, plants, books, tools, lawn equipment, and merchandise for gardens and yards, many that I’d never seen or heard about. As I can’t possibly visit each of the commercial exhibits, I wander and stop at whatever catches my eye. 


For instance: The beautiful flower pictures, under glass and framed (8 x 8 and 8 x 10) that Christl Iausly of Spring Green creates and displayed at her booth. She says, “These are my own original one-of-a-kind designs. I carefully dry and press the flowers, grasses and leaves that I use in my arrangements.” They look like a photo of a flower display but Christl makes them from pieces of dried flowers. I know she must have really good eyesight and is certainly creative. (See more at wildflowerartwork.com) to me, her work is awesome. 

Christl Iausly, Spring Green, is a gardener and artist.

Christl came to Spring Green from Germany in 1962 where she “ fell in love with the wonderful Wisconsin wildflowers and grasses, and began using them prominently in my wildflower artwork. After many years of making ornaments for my own Christmas tree and as gifts for friends, the demand for my work increased, until it developed into a small craft business,” she says. “I travel throughout the countryside during spring, summer and autumn, gathering delicate flowers, leaves and grasses and currently, the list of plants that I tend numbers over 500 species,” Christl says.  

This old house

The Allen Centennial Garden exhibit stopped me in my tracks. Not because I hadn’t seen the big house (formerly the home of Ag College deans until 1980) sitting in the midst of the garden - I’ve walked or driven by it probably a thousand times - but because the huge photo brought back a distant memory.

The Allen Centennial Gardens surround the former UW-Madison Dean of Agriculture’s residence.

I was about 10 years old when Virginia the daughter of our neighboring farmer took my brother and me to visit that house where she worked part time, probably as a maid or some such. I remember the big size of the mansion and its vast wooden floors and was impressed. The house built in 1896 still stands and the privately funded gardens date to 1987 and the site has long been “a destination.”

Lots of organizations

I’m always amazed at how many garden related associations and societies are in existence and have exhibits at the WPTV Garden Expo. They range from the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin to Wisconsin Nursery and Landscape Association (a major sponsor of the Expo) to Wisconsin Hardy Plants Society. Each has its own niche and devote their time to education, information and promotional activities.  

I remember first meeting up with the Wisconsin Hosta Society at the Expo several years ago and asking if their major project was getting rid of hostas. This was based on my wife’s every year efforts to give away extra hosta plants but finding that all her friends and neighbors were trying to do the same thing. The Hosta folks laughed and told me there were hundreds of new hosta varieties with thousands of growers nationwide and a national convention. Wow!

Watching and listening

Of course, the exhibits are but a part of the learning programs offered - the 150 or so demonstrations and seminars presented information on subjects ranging from Art Glass in the Garden to Beekeeping to Gardening for Hummingbirds to Everything you Wanted to Know About Beets.

These hour-long seminar/demos ran all day, all of the three days and if you didn’t have the time to sit for the presentations you could go to the UW-Extension horticulture experts who offered information and answered questions about seeds, weeds and gardening one on one.

Fish ? Yes

Although I don’t think it’s a new feature, this is the first year I noticed the  dozens of small aquariums (with fish) on display. It turns out that they were a part of The Garden Expo aquascaping competition  in which participants create an aquarium display onsite.

At the Garden Expo aquascaping competition, participants create an aquarium display onsite.

Visitors come to the WPTV Garden Expo from across the midwest  from, Chicago to Green Bay  to Eau Claire to LaCrosse. “This is probably the best show of its kind, “is the common answer to my question of “why?”  “Besides,“ they say, “the timing is right. We’re anxious to get our hands into the soil and this is the next best thing.”

Cindy and Dick Zalewski, who live in Wausau, combined visiting their son in Madison with visiting the Expo.

“We’ve been here before,” Cindy says while holding a bird feeder/waterer for her garden. “I bought this to replace one we’ve had for a long time.”

Now - it’s waiting

By now the 20,000 (or so) Garden Expo visitors are home and enjoying their “gardening fix” while looking out the window at the snow covering their garden knowing that it is comforting to their flowers and will add moisture for spring growth. 

As always I feel a bit guilty (as a non-gardner) of not being among the crowd of “eager beaver, can’t wait to get at it, what's new, oh, look at that, let’s get one” crowd.  But as usual it was interesting and I learned and enjoyed.  As always, everyone, gardeners and exhibitors has a story. I look forward to next year. 

John F. Oncken owns Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.