Tucked in the corner of the Camp Jordan Arena, a man with a Southern accent and a denim shirt couldn't take his eyes off the cutest little trees you ever did see.
"It's just fascinating," said David Morgan, pointing to a 30-year-old Japanese elm that stood maybe 18 inches high. "You get a vision of this being a full-sized tree. And now, you can hold it in your hand."
Morgan, the treasurer of the Tennessee Valley Bonsai Society, admitted he was biased. There were plenty of booths to draw the attention of green thumbs Saturday and Sunday when the Master Gardeners of Hamilton County held their expo. But among the plants and seeds and nuts and candles for sale, Morgan said his organization's display drew the biggest crowds — and kept their attention the longest.
The Bonsai Society, founded six years ago, attracted growers of 28 little bitty trees from as far as Atlanta and Nashville. The group awarded first- and second-prize ribbons to the best of the bunch. And 20 people signed up to join the group in the future — meaning, if everyone follows through, the Bonsai Society will grow by 57 percent.
Bonsais are artificially kept in tiny sizes, the owner clipping branches, fertilizing soil and treating the roots to stop the tree from growing to a normal height. Some can sit in your living room. Others have to stay outside, to get proper sunlight.
"It's a lost art," said Morgan, who bought his first tree 22 years ago, when it was the size of a straw.
The Master Gardeners of Hamilton County organized the expo to continue their mission: educating the community about how to grow trees and plants, and how to treat them correctly. Master gardeners are trained by extension agents — the horticulture experts in a given county, appointed by a university.
Hamilton County Extension Agent Tom Stebbins said local master gardeners have to take a 15-week course to start and continuing education classes each year. They also spread gardening tips throughout the county, volunteering at Siskin Children's Institute, the library and the county fair, among other places.
Stebbins hosted a booth this weekend with an electronic microscope hooked up to a monitor. He zoomed in on different insects he brought, such as the rose sawfly, which chomps holes in the leaves in your garden. He hoped to share information about the insects, explaining why they can be necessary pests.
"We're just trying to get the kids interested about, well, bugs," he said. "And also, just science in general."
Behind the booths selling perennials, heirloom seeds, citric-acid-based shower tablets and paintings of flowers, Carol Matthews offered a class on hydrangeas. She taught the audience about the four different categories: mopheads, oakleafs, lacecaps and PeeGees.
She also explained how to properly grow the flowers: find a spot in your yard that gets morning sun and afternoon shade, mulch them heavily for winter protection, prune them after they bloom, cover them during an early spring freeze.
Matthews and her husband became master gardeners in 2006. They wanted to work their yard better, to become experts on soils, pesticides, trees, bushes, grass — "the whole gambit." Also, they wanted to be a part of a community, taking classes, teaching classes, swapping advice, seeing each other at events like this weekend's.
To grow a garden and a community well, she said, is a spiritual experience.
"God has given us this wonderful world," she said. "We're his caretakers. [Gardening] is a serene moment in time, to be out in the quiet with nature, listening to the birds."
Anyone interested in becoming a master gardener can contact Stebbins at 423-855-6113.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.