BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
On an unseasonably frigid February day at Ebert’s Greenhouse Village in Ixonia, Renee Ebert’s smile is a dose of pure sunshine.
Cuddly pup Buddy leading the way, Renee greets her visitors. For a few minutes we chat and look on as merchandiser Bambi Schmitt unwraps a fresh supply of garden adornments in preparation for the rush of springtime-starved Wisconsinites who will descend on Ebert’s when it opens for the 2019 season on April 15. Then we trek off to join Renee’s husband, Mark, in the sprawling main greenhouse, a deliciously balmy sea of lovingly tended little plants awaiting gleeful gardeners.
Dodging smiling workers pushing wheelbarrows and toting trays, Mark explains that his father, Milton, launched the Ebert family business in the early ’80s as a small vegetable farm with a few handmade greenhouses. His boys in tow, Milton grew produce for his family, neighbors and, eventually, visitors to the West Allis and Dane County farmers markets.
“Every year, he added a little bit — added a few more tomatoes, a few more peppers,” Mark says with a fond smile. “Then he started a few geraniums, marigolds, petunias.”
When Mark went off to college, his late brother Ron, a gifted grower, and Milton continued to expand the property until a retirement-minded Milton sold Mark his portion of the business. “I thought I would just do it part-time, but my brother and I went into partnership with the plants and the greenhouse and we had so much fun,” Mark says. “We had a good year.” By 1996, the pair had added nine smaller greenhouses and the expansive main greenhouse and knew they were onto something special.
But one mission never changed. In an era of handheld devices and video games, the Eberts continue to craft a true rustic “village” that draws generations to the countryside where they can enjoy each other, indulge in nature, and take part in an ever-expanding roster of activities. With Mark and his staff manning the greenery, Renee, a former teacher, tackles the fun stuff, including workshops, ladies’ nights and a September craft fair for the grown-ups, and a variety of artsy projects for kids.
|Clockwise from top left:
All varieties of coleus – These plants are grown for their showy colorful foliage, and are available in a large variety of sizes, textures and species. Great in a flowerbed or container.
“Whopper” begonias (sun/shade) and “Dragon Wing” begonias (shade) – Both of these begonias are large, vigorous plants that tolerate hot weather well.
“Super” angelonia – This is a heat and drought tolerant, low maintenance annual that provides great height in combo containers.
“SunBuzz” sunflower – This compact sunflower blooms non-stop from spring to fall, with showy flower heads. Does not re-seed itself.
“In fall, we do a story theater,” says Renee of a longtime favorite venture. “Greenhouse No. 1 is turned into a theater, and we pick a different story every year, act it out, and the rest of the greenhouse becomes a story maze, kind of like if you’d walk through the book. It comes to life.”
For now, the Eberts and their treasured staff spend busy days planting, pruning and transitioning the little plants from greenhouses to semi-protective “cold frames” that ready the seedlings for their life outdoors. It’s just one step, the Eberts explain, that sets their stock apart from the big box retailers.
“The plants are in our hands, oh goodness, five or six times before they actually get purchased,” Renee says. “We’re planting them, fertilizing them, timing them so that they’re beautiful and bushy. Getting the colors just right. They’re really getting babied.”
As are the customers who make Ebert’s a destination — even when their gardens are growing just so.
“Some people say that their gardens are done, but they just have to come out and walk around, because it’s healing for them, a breath of fresh air,” Renee says, her eyes welling with gratitude. “They come and talk to our people because they know them so well, and sit amongst the flowers. That makes us really happy to know that people look at it like that. ‘A little slice of heaven,’ they’ll say.” MKE