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Wise Words: An Interview with Sherry Wise

It was only about a month ago that I met Sherry Wise, but since then I have seen her everywhere. We first met at Wylie House, where Sherry has worked as Outdoor Interpreter for the past 15 years. Sherry was running the Annual Heirloom Seed Sale – an event that, for many Monroe County Gardeners, signifies the beginning of the garden season. Though I’d attended the seed sale many times in years past, somehow I’d never met Sherry, though she undoubtedly was there. This year was different though. This year, I was shopping for the Rooftop Garden at Middle Way House (MWH), where I currently serve as Garden Coordinator. When I mentioned this to Sherry, she didn’t hesitate to offer a generous discount, which is one of the nicest things you could do for a nonprofit like MWH. And with that, my admiration of Sherry Wise began.

Since then, I’ve seen Sherry several times, always by chance. The last time I saw her, she took me by complete surprise. I was restocking the shelves of the Crimson Cupboard, when in she walks, arms overflowing, with Wylie House heirloom seeds. She wanted to show her support for the food pantry, and as a gardener that support comes in the form of seeds. And with that, my admiration of Sherry Wise grew.

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn more about Sherry and the career path that led her to where she is today.

“I have a BS in Psychology with a minor in Biology from IUB (Class of 1976). Following that I had the opportunity to manage a small greenhouse full of house plants…a great learning experience. For 10 years I worked at Bloomington Valley Nursery, running the flower department and doing some landscape design. At that time I became a Master Plantsman of the Indiana Nursery Association. In the mid-nineties, my mother and I started our own business, Great Geode Gardens from our homes. You could tour my nearly 5 acre garden, purchase perennials and pottery, receive educational information about gardening. We also sold perennials and flower bouquets at Farmer’s Market.

In 2001, I started working at Wylie House as the Outdoor Interpreter 20 hours per week. Two months later it was made a fulltime position. In May, I will have been here for 15 years.

The role of Outdoor Interpreter has evolved over time. Originally, it was to run the heirloom garden and seed saving program with the help of many dedicated volunteers and to interpret local history of Bloomington and that of IU’s first president, Andrew Wylie. I served the community with educational information on a wide range of subjects. Now the focus of Wylie House has shifted more to the academic mission of the university.”

As a gardener myself, I was interested in knowing more about the heirloom garden that Wylie House is synonymous with.

wylie 2“At Wylie House, we grow heirlooms to represent the plants the Wylies might have grown in their gardens, a sort of ‘living history’. By selecting the best of what grows in our gardens, we are developing local varieties which are acclimated to our climate and growing conditions. We grow our heirlooms without the use of chemical fertilizers and pest control because that’s what Andrew Wylie probably did and of course, it’s healthier to eat food without all those chemicals.”

Though I’ve been gardening for many years now, it was only very recently that I considered the importance of heirlooms. To have Sherry describe it, “An heirloom is defined as something of value which is passed from generation to generation. An heirloom plant is generally described as being more than 50 years old (some say 100) and is open-pollinated which means seeds you collect from one year will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. Heirlooms are genetically diverse and help to preserve diversity in food crops, unlike our modern hybrids. Popularity of heirlooms has increased due to the “flavor” missing in some of our hybrid vegetable varieties and the need to protect our genetically diverse gene pool which has dwindled dramatically since the early 1900’s.”

As I get ever−closer to graduation and the great unknown that lies beyond, I find myself thinking more and more about the next 5, 10, 15 years. I can’t even pretend that I know where I will be or what I will be doing. I can only hope that my story will be half as cool as Sherry’s, and that one day I inspire someone the way she has inspired me.

Until then, I will keep gardening, because, in the wise words of Sherry Wise:

“Gardening ties people together in a community like Bloomington, helping them to share in a common goal. A local, healthy food source is important as well as the physical exercise, sunshine, the opportunity to enjoy nature and to watch a seed grow, all to be experienced while gardening. So many good things… to become more self-sufficient and live in a sustainable manner, to save money and appreciate the flavor of an “old-fashioned” tomato!”

Learn more about the Wylie House Museum here.

fffffErika Wheeler is a Junior pursuing a degree in Community Health. As a native of Bloomington with no college aspirations, she grew up thinking of Indiana University as nothing but a big pain in her small hometown. She has since changed her mind.

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