Gardeners get ‘green and growing’ at Rio expo

April 2, 2019

RIO — In a way, almost every garden is a community garden.

At least that’s how Ben Futa and Elin Filbey see it.

As director of the Allen Centennial Garden on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Futa told more than 200 attendees at Saturday’s “Let’s Get Green and Growing” event how he has come to understand the innumerable ways in which cultivating plants can bring people together.

“Gardening,” he said, “is the slowest of the performing arts.”

Futa and Filbey, who works with him in the 2.5-acre garden plot set near UW’s lakeshore dorms, keynoted Saturday’s event at Rio High School. The event, featuring seminars on a variety of garden-related topics, is presented by the Columbia County Master Gardeners Association, an activity of the University of Wisconsin-Extension Columbia County.

According to Filbey, there are challenges associated with cultivating a 2.5-acre garden, in the middle of a major university campus where land is scarce (and too often snatched up for use as a parking lot or research lab).

She said she and Futa have learned, over the years, ways to engage the community in the garden — with activities such as offering students free houseplants (after first asking which direction their dorm rooms face), feeding “slow food” lunches or hosting an event called “Drag Queens and Day Lilies.”

“We are creating the next generation of gardeners,” Filbey said. “We create the people who will care about our environment, starting with just a seed.”

Carol Ziehmke, who’s active in both the Portage Center for the Arts and the Portage Public Library, later sat down with Futa and Filbey to talk about the challenges of engaging people in any community endeavor.

Becky Gutzman of Cambria, who helped host “Let’s Get Green and Growing,” said engagement is one of the goals of the event, and one of the joys of gardening. That can happen in a number of ways, she said, such as planting flowers on the Columbia County Fairgrounds in preparation for the fair’s opening in late July, or a 4-H Club cultivating a garden and donating the crops to a food pantry.

“How do I share my love of gardening with others, whether it’s my grandchildren or the people passing by?” she asked.

There are at least 30 different answers to that question. They could be found in the 30 different breakout sessions, on topics ranging from “Garlic — It’s Not Just for Vampires Anymore” to “Let It Rot” (home composting) to “Pollinator Power.” An attendee could go to up to three sessions, offered at different times throughout the day.

In one of the sessions, Master Gardener Jane Breuer of Wyocena showed a group of about 20 people how to grow a garden in a five-gallon pail.

Small-space gardening isn’t just for people who have small or non-existent yards, Breuer said.

With a little know-how — and a drill to create drainage holes, a few stones for drainage and stability and a timed-release fertilizer — Breuer said she can create a garden out of a plastic pail that her husband, Jeff, has a knack for finding, at restaurants (where the pails are used to store bulk foods like potato salad) or recycling centers (where it’s best to avoid the containers that once held petroleum products).

“My husband has a master’s degree in dumpster diving,” she said.

In the school’s gymnasium, a trade show featured garden-related merchandise. This included hand-made wood-burning art by Portage High School junior Laura Gramer, who’s selling her art and fresh eggs to raise money for a service dog, to help her with addressing various health issues and enable her to live independently.

And, in what was once called the “home economics” classroom, several women gathered around the stoves to make jams and jellies out of fresh fruit, under Gutzman’s guidance.