Spring is in the air! Indoors, that is

John Oncken, Columnist
I love humming birds, this gardner says.

Although the outside temperature was in the mid 30’s with a strong cold wind coming from the north, thoughts of getting out in the garden were strong in the minds of many (probably most)  of the 20,000 people who visited the 24th annual three day Wisconsin Public Television Garden Expo last weekend.  

Hundreds of eager - actual or would-be - gardeners waited in their cars for the doors of the Exhibition Hall at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison to open at 2 p.m. Friday  to be first to get a look at the 200 commercial and educational displays set up in the big hall.

By late afternoon the crowd was shoulder to shoulder in many areas as word seemed to get around that this product or service offered was where the action was. 

True, their outdoor garden spaces and flower plots are frozen solid but ambitious flower and vegetable enthusiasts will soon be “starting” seeds in their mini greenhouses or pots and they can’t wait to get going. And, this was the place to see, ask, learn and buy most anything and everything to do with gardening, patios, lawns and landscaping. 

Listen and learn

It’s also the place where one can listen to experts present seminars - 106 all told - ranging from “Are Your Weeds Laughing at You?”  to “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Beets”  to ”Water Features for Your Yard.”

Many, maybe most, of the exhibits seemed to feature things to decorate a garden or patio rather than the equipment needed to actually do the gardening - but, it’s possible I missed the hoes, rakes, cultivators and hand tools I envision when I think about gardening work. 

Happiness is buying a new patio ornament, Martha Johnson (right) says. Janet Sessler agrees. Both are from Janesville.

It should be noted that I’m not a gardener. Yes, I helped with the big garden as a youth on the farm but this was just a part of the overall farming operation like plowing, planting and harvesting. Although Jan and I had a garden for many years, I never saw it as a fun thing and we eventually transitioned to flowers only which she really enjoyed and I was involved only as “hole digger” for big plantings.

The right place

A number of landscaping companies were answering questions and making arrangements for later meetings with home and business owners. “I will talk to all the landscapers and suppliers I can,”  a Middleton homeowner says. “I have a big lot and want to redesign it with some trees and flowers, I’ll get ideas and make contacts today that will save a lot of time later.”

He certainly came to the right place: The Wisconsin Nursery and Landscape Association (WNLA) is the premier sponsor of the Garden Expo along with Wisconsin Public Television and UW Extension.

Eric Ernst of WPT and this year’s T-shirt

Incidentally, I learned that the WNLA is the single largest organizational representative of the Green Industry Federation in Wisconsin that also includes the Commercial Flower Growers of Wisconsin, “Gardens Beautiful” Garden Centers, Wisconsin Sod Producers Association and the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association.

The place to join

I again noted the large number of nonprofit, garden/outdoor oriented associations handing out literature and signing up new members. Among  them were: Bluebird Restoration Association; Friends of Aztalan State Park; Ice Age Trail Alliance; Madison Area Aquatic Hobbyists; Madison Area Iris Society; Madison Area Permaculture Guild; Madison Area Herb Society; Mt. Horeb Arts Association; Sierra Club; Wisconsin Garden Club Federation; Wisconsin-Illinois Rock Garden Society; Wisconsin Arborist Association; Wisconsin Daylily Society; Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers; Wisconsin Grape Growers; Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society; Wisconsin Hosta Society; Wisconsin Peony Society and some I probably missed.

Rick Halbach of Kleins Floral and Greenhouse, Madison, said air plants were popular at their exhibit.

My conclusion: People who are interested in gardening are great joiners and spend a lot of time trying to recruit others to join them in their efforts to carry out their sometimes rather narrow fields of interest. 

Still don’t get it

One that had me mystified was The Madison Area Permaculture Guild, what is it about? Their brochure says it “cultivates diverse, healthy, and productive gardens, streetscapes and local agriculture by sharing information, building relationships, and creating learning opportunities within our community and bioregion. We promote integrated water, food and waste systems to increase local resilience.” 

Whaaat? Reading further, their projects have included: establishing gardens (rain, fruit and herb), an embankment, a swale and a berm at various Madison locations. The brochure summarizes: “permaculture prompts us to examine and follow nature’s patterns in all we do.” I still don’t  quite understand but it sounds like the group covers a lot of ground. 

Buying things

Two local florists/greenhouses, America’s Best at Cottage Grove and Kleins in Madison were among the few exhibitors selling live plants. Rick Halbach, 26-year employee at Kleins Floral and Greenhouses said “air plants” were a popular item that people bought. He also reminded me that 104 year old Kleins (at the junction of Highways 51 & 151) were going to undergo a major remodeling this summer.

America’s Best, owned by Ed and Carol Knapton sold lots of cyclamens, primrose and ferns along with seeds, garden ornaments and whatever. This is one of the biggest greenhouses in the area.

Selecting garden seeds is often a lengthy job.

Yes, the crowd at the WPT Garden Expo did a lot of listening, looking and talking and most certainly, a lot of buying. One of those exhibits that drew big crowds of women was the “Incredible Rubber Broom” exhibit where a very good, fast-talking salesman was selling 10-inch wide rubber brooms that will “sweep all floor surfaces, lift cat hair from carpets and squeegee floors dry“ among other things.

Rubber brooms have appeal

I asked about a dozen women, many with husbands carrying the brooms, why they bought brooms at a garden show?  All answered the same: “it looks like a good deal and I have a cat that sheds and if this picks cat hair off the carpet, it’s a good deal even at two for $28. (I also believe the salesman could probably sell a broom to the four presidents on Mt. Rushmore.)

Rubber brooms were the “must buy" at the Garden Expo.

The rubber brooms again prove that even in this day of electronics and hi-tech do-dads for everything, a simple rubber bristle broom can enthrall a sophisticated audience and prompt them to buy.

I can’t forget the exhibit that stopped me dead, it featured J.R. Watkins products and if you were a farmer when I was growing up, you knew about ”the Watkins man” who stopped a the farm yearly (or maybe every other year) to sell mother a supply of vanilla. I think he lived in Ohio and was a true traveling salesman. He was also a sort of family friend who we intently listened to as he told stories of his life and sometimes stayed for supper. Oh, the memories!

Earl and Mary Reiner, Madison, stopped at the J.R. Watkins exhibit. Earl remembers “the Watkins man” from his days growing up on the family farm.

J.R. Watkins began selling his pain reliever liniment in 1869 and it’s still sold today along with a line of household and health products.The “Watkins Man” (or woman) quickly became a household name and 150 years later Watkins consultants are still home-based business owners. 

I always learn so much at the Garden Expo, even when not a gardener. It’s great!

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