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Getting a head start on the gardening season


John Oncken  |  Wisconsin State Farmer

What do you do on a sunny, rather warmish weekend in February if you don’t have tickets to the Badger-Ohio State basketball game on Sunday and you are anxious for spring to get here so you can put on your wok gloves and begin working soil in your garden? 

Well, if you were within driving distance of Madison you could have  joined about 16,000 other home gardeners at the 27th annual PBS Wisconsin Landscape and Garden Expo that ran Feb. 7-9 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison.

And, this I did for perhaps the sixth or seventh year. As I’ve written before, I’m not a hobby gardener although we did have a raspberry patch at our home near Sun Prairie which I maintained for perhaps 20 years (my wife and children and mosquitoes didn’t get along) until it died out a few years ago. 

Big crowd

I attended the Expo on Saturday along with a shoulder to shoulder crowd, all seemingly in a hurry to visit all of the near-200 commercial exhibits filling the big Exhibition Hall at the Alliant Center.  Note: My impression is that attendees at the Garden Expo look for things to buy and move faster than do those at farm shows like Dairy Expo and the WPS Farm Show in Oshkosh. Maybe that’s because the Garden Expo features more displays of hand tools and decorations that visitors can buy and carry home while the farm shows offer big, expensive and for the long term products and services that you can’t pick up and carry home. Could be.

Just about everything

The range of goods and services available at the Garden Expo is mind boggling ranging from Duluth Trading (get the proper clothing), wine and chocolate exhibits (for taking a break) to landscaping and lawn services.

Then there are the seminars and workshops, maybe 150 in all, offered over the three day expo: Do you want to know about pruning? Growing mushrooms? Growing giant pumpkins? Perennials to know and grow? Building a butterfly sanctuary? 

Too bad if you missed attending one or more of the workshops, demonstrations or seminars this year, but keep an eye open for the 2021 event, many of the subjects have a habit of reappearing.

Then there are the many associations and societies one can join and get involved in an endless variety of projects and services. For instance there are the Wisconsin Arborist, Grape Growers, Purple Martin and Wheat, Wind and Wood associations, the Day Lily, Hardy Plant, Hostas, Rock Garden, and Peony societies and a host of federations and clubs. It appears that gardeners and flower growers are great joiners and doers and love to be members of activist groups.  

The willow farmer

There was at least one farm family in the Garden Expo crowd – Don and Vera Stussy of Soldiers Grove who at one time farmed a couple hundred acres while raising 35 acres of tobacco and a herd of milking cows. Like many dairy farmers today, the Sussy’s were  looking for a way to diversify their farming enterprise and got involved in fence building and running a bulldozer. The family sold all but 20 acres or so of their farm and began raising and marketing pussy willow branches.

Over the years they have marketed several varieties of decorative willow  branches at garden shows across the country, in cities like Dallas, Cleveland, Phoenix, Las Vegas  and Chicago, Don says. “We are also on eBay and have been and still are at farmers markets.

“This year we’re only going to this Madison show and one in Boston,” Don said.  

Stussy says none of their four children are interested in the willow business, so it will probably shrink a bit in coming years.

"We never looked at it as a long term business, rather as our winter project. And we got to see and tour a lot of the country over the years," Don added.

If indeed, the Bizzy Bee Willow appearances do shrink in number the Madison Garden Expo will remain into the future, Vera Stussy says.

“We’re only two hours away from Madison and it’s a good show for us.”  I’d guess the Madison Expo crowd – many who are carrying an armful of willow branches – will continue to buy the various willows (Pussy willow is most popular) as home decorations Bizzy Bee offers. 

Up and down crowds

Attendance at this year’s show was a bit up and quite a bit down.

The up: According to the PBS planners, the Friday attendance was at a record high and I know the Saturday event crowds stood shoulder to shoulder. I expected a big crowd so brought my sometimes-used walking stick for my arthritic knee. Within the first few minutes a half dozen people stopped and asked about my “handsome” walking stick with two women wanting to buy it. I suggested they buy their own at Cabelas (as my son did for me for use at a Farm Tech Days Show) for about $15. 

The down: The six to eight inches of snow that fell all of Sunday morning must have discouraged many potential visitors.

“It was indeed a much smaller crowd,” said Rick Halbach of Klein's Floral in Madison. "The roads weren’t too bad, but the crowd was short.”

Halbach admitted that the large crowds of Friday and Saturday helped them make up for the loss of Sunday sales.

New name

PBS Wisconsin hosts the community educational event and fundraiser in partnership with the UW-Extension/Cooperative Extension Horticulture team along with several business partners with proceeds going to support public radio and TV  programming.  Whatever questions you might have about the world of gardening, chances are you can find the answer at the Garden Expo.

And you will surely meet a lot of friends, old and new.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.