23rd Garden Expo is fun for all

John Oncken
Now Media Group

The stiff wind out of the north coupled with a high of 10 degrees prompted most folks to stay close to their home fires this past weekend — but not the gardeners, wanna-be gardeners or maybe gardeners. They got in their cars and made the trip to Madison for the 23rd edition of the Wisconsin Public Television Garden Expo.

When the doors to the huge Exposition Building at the Alliant Energy Center opened at 2 p.m. Friday, the front parking lot was filled, and the rush began to get inside and look at what the 200 or so commercial exhibitors and nonprofit garden and landscaping providers had to offer. And, that was a lot.

Not being a gardener myself, I'm always amazed at what this crowd is interested in and will buy.

Buying and learning

I understand the desire and need for garden seeds, plants and tools — same for wanting to attend seminars on such subjects as "Planting Petite Perennial Plants," "Herbs for Beauty," "Form and Function," "Creating Your Dream Outdoor Living Space," and "10 Landscaping Mistakes and How To Avoid Them."

But, I'm not quite sure how "Fermenting Hard Cider at Home," "Getting Started with Chickens" and "Kimchi: Tried and True" exactly fit into the theme of gardening at a gardening expo.

My past experiences growing up on a farm never included chickens in the garden or making fermented cider, and a year in Korea taught me that standing too close to Korean soldiers who were regular eaters of Kimchi (fermented cabbage) could prompt you to jump 5 feet straight backwards, fast. Perhaps the recipe has now been refined for U.S. consumption?

Yes, there were a few displays of flowers, plants and bulbs (February is not the fresh flower season), but, nevertheless, America's Best, in Cottage Grove, had a huge display of flowers and supplies. Kleins' Greenhouse in Madison, which is over 100 years old, featured culinary herbs and blooming plants.

Both were seemingly always jammed with lookers and buyers, and the fact that both are old, local and family-owned businesses open year-round was a plus.

An interesting thing I've noticed in the three years I've attended the Expo is how many visitors come from outstate. I think the perception is that this is a Dane County event. I think not.

From afar

Of the 100 or so people I talked with over the parts of two days, all but a few hailed from more distance places such as Ladysmith, Green Bay, LaCrosse, Milwaukee, Lodi, Wautoma, Waupun, Sheboygan and Wausau. They all said they learned about it via Wisconsin Public TV, and most planned it as a mini vacation.

The Bizzy Bee Willows exhibit was a popular stop for many who looked at and bought bunches of fantail pussy willows, red curly and pussy willows. Don and Vera Stussy raise 15 acres of pussy willows on several ridge tops in Crawford county.

"We raised 35 acres of tobacco until 1999," Vera said. "When the tobacco market left our area, we began selling pussy willows and over the years have sold at shows all across the country. This year we'll be at Madison, Boston, Little Rock, the Quad cities and Minneapolis, and we've been on eBay for a long time."

In addition to the pussy willow sales, Don and his son, Davon, run Stussy Fencing and Dozing, clearing overgrown fence lines and rebuilding fences.

A school project

The New Auburn Trojans booth stopped me. The exhibit of a variety of music instruments hanging on the back wall immersed in a bucket of water and made in the form of lamps was intriguing. There must be a story here was my thought, and there was.

Brenda Sheil, the ag science teacher at New Auburn High (for 33 years) explained that the school band department found itself with an accumulation of musical instruments that experts said were not repairable and taking up storage space. What to do with them was the question?

"Kendra Ohime, our music teacher, and others came up with the idea of making the instruments into conversation pieces and curiosities" Sheil explained.

With the assistance of former student Ben Dachel, an excellent welder, the old horns were converted into fountains, lights, plant holders and wall decorations,

By midafternoon on the second day of the Expo, many of the former instruments — now plant holders and decorations — had been sold at prices ranging from about $100 to $400.

The buyers were happy, and Sheil and Ohime were more than happy with their one-time selling venture at the Garden Expo. Ohime said their small school music department "can really use the money." As for Sheil, she was "just helping out" and enjoying the experience.

There were books aplenty — most centering on rural and agricultural Wisconsin in the big displays offered by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, U-W Press and private magazine/book publishers. All were crowded most of the time; apparently gardeners sill are big book readers.

Decorations are popular

Lawn and garden decorations are seemingly big sellers as the number of folks carrying shovels with laser-cut designs (pretty, but not good for digging) and metal spinning things, including those made with tablespoons, would indicate.

The low coffee table (?) on display at the Russell's Farm Market exhibit caught my eye. It was made of old farm wrenches, nuts and bolts and other odds and ends welded together by Teri Lessig, who, with her mother Chris Russell, was manning their exhibit featuring rural curios they call "garden art." Their real business is selling vegetables from May to October at markets in Plainfield, Marshfield and Wild Rose.

Bamboo pillows, why?

The biggest curiosity to me at the Expo was the exhibit selling bamboo pillows that featured a very animated sales person — similar to the pitchmen that sell pots and pans at county fairs.

On Friday, he was surrounded by a crowd four people deep as he explained the virtues of bamboo pillows. At midafternoon Saturday (halfway through the show), he and his partner were sitting talking to a crowd and not selling.

"How do bamboo pillows fit into a Garden Expo," I asked.

"I don't know," the salesman responded. "You'll have to ask the people (mostly women) who bought the 400 pillows we brought to the show. We're sold out and the event is only half over."

"Hey," a women in the crowd yelled out, "gardeners all sleep on pillows."

Good answer but still beyond my understanding.

A winter break

The Wisconsin Public Television Garden Expo is a great event to break up what appears to be regularly one of the coldest week ends of the winter — the past three shows faced near zero temperatures. Serious gardeners can get the seeds, tools and do-dads they need; beginning gardeners can find out how to become serious; and the maybe gardeners can make serious decisions.

Even the "never-to-be gardeners" like me can talk, look, listen, enjoy and meet a lot of interesting people.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at