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Creating an Autoportrait: Patty Schneider

Obscured beneath the simple words, numbers, shapes, and colors found in much of Robert Indiana’s work are essential memories and symbols of the artist’s life. Indiana’s visual vocabulary is encrypted with personal symbolism. This is particularly evident in his long series of Autoportraits.

To complement The Essential Robert Indiana, on view through May 4, the IMA invites visitors both on-site and online to Create Your Autoportrait using some of the same elements that Robert Indiana incorporates in to his. During the run of the exhibition, IMA staff members will be creating their own Autoportraits and blogging about it.

The sixth in this series features Patty Schneider, the Grounds Supervisor at the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres.

Rather than focus on a common theme, I chose my Autoportrait according to what represents me in broad terms; the numbers are milestones, but the rest are things that characterize pieces of me from this past year.


2: In 2013 I started the second phase of my Horticulture career at the IMA, stepping into the role of Grounds Supervisor for the Art & Nature Park.

08: 2008 was a year of many life changes; I moved to a new city (Indy) two weeks after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, started my dream job as a horticulturist at a public garden, and got married.

The author, Patty (right), and her husband Grant.

The author, Patty (right), and her husband Grant.

574: A milestone I would not have predicted to be that significant at the time. 574 are the first three digits of my very first cell phone. The year was 2002 and it was my junior year of high school … it was a cute little, bright red Kyocera with a cool blue backlit keypad. I never would’ve guessed that a decade later our cell phones would evolve to serve as much purpose as our computers.

Joy: If I were to get a tattoo, it would be with this word … one that I desire to share and emulate no matter what the circumstance. To my thinking, happiness is merely an emotion; joy is a state of mind.

O’Hara: Lake O’Hara is the most breathtakingly beautiful place I’ve ever experienced. It is in Yoho National Park in eastern British Columbia and has limited access in an effort to reduce human impact on its environment. The day we were there we got caught in a brief rain storm, but it only added to the mystical charm to watch the rain approach from across the valley and envelop us. I felt so acutely aware of myself, knowing I was part of that mountain in that moment.

River: My 1-year-old Irish red & white setter. She has surely changed the way my husband and I live our lives, and most DEFINITELY has changed the way I am able to garden!

Green, blue and yellow: Green and blue are my favorite colors. Adding the yellow reminds me of a fall day, my favorite season of the year.


Patty’s Picks: Successful Plants from the Home Garden

In the world of professional horticulture, we are perennially teaching people to put the right plant in the right place.  “I’m sorry, but that just isn’t going to be happy in our heavy clay soils,” is a phrase that plays like a broken record around here, and it can certainly be discouraging to folks who aspire to that fabled green thumb when it comes to finding plants that love making a home in your garden.  The irony is that some things that do well for someone else may inexplicably snub me, and vice versa.  For example, I am pea green with envy that Jim Kincannon has a lovely stand of native Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) in the IMA’s Rain Garden, which dipped a toe into my home garden soil and said, “Poo!”  It’s hard to not take it personally, but instead of moping, I simply squared my shoulders and recruited Little Bluestem BLUE HEAVENTM (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘MinnBlueA’) to join Team Schneider.  Success!  If you ask me why one succeeded and the other didn’t, I won’t have an answer for you; they have almost identical cultural requirements for light, moisture and soil type, and both are Indiana natives.

When it comes to recommending “tried and true” plants, you can see why it can be difficult to give trustworthy advice.  My advice?  To be a successful gardener requires thick skin and a penchant for experimentation.  Did I mention thick skin?  This is not to excuse poor behavior; if you plant something in the perfect spot and then deprive it of a basic need (i.e. water), it won’t be the plant’s fault if it doesn’t do well. I suppose if the experiment is to see just how little work you can get away with, go for it, but I would suggest planning a giant increase in your plant budget to accommodate the yawning gaps that will dot your landscape. As a word to the wise, a plant labeled as “drought tolerant” does not necessarily mean it never needs water (remember the basics – all plants need some spectrum of light, moisture and nutrients).  Establish plants first to give them the best chance to face adversity with a healthy root system. Then, if a plant decides not to commit, with a clear conscience you can honestly accept when it says, “I’m so sorry…it’s not you, it’s me.”

So it is with some hesitation that I share my list of favorite successful plants from my home garden. After all, you may have tried these already and found them to be utter failures, which would be such a shame, because in my garden at home they look GREAT! What I can give you are the parameters of my growing conditions: I started with acceptable clay soils and have added a fair amount of organic matter for the past three years (leaf compost and mulch).  My home was built in the 1920s, so while my soils are not compacted from new construction, I still wanted to add the organics to allow for better water and oxygen penetration to the roots. Drainage is moderate in most areas with a few spots that stay more saturated from heavier clay content. I never use synthetic fertilizers on anything planted in-ground, and while I give plants consistent water the first year they are planted, I am a bit more lax on watering things that have been established unless we are under severe drought conditions like this past summer.  The plants on my current recommended list are ones from my home garden that have survived at least two winters in my clay soils with little to no extra coddling during the growing season.

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A Peek at Perennial Premiere Plants

It’s finally here!  Perennial Premiere is this weekend, and I can hardly wait.  In the four years since I started working at the IMA, the perennial plant sale has grown into an event for the whole family, and it’s something I always look forward to.  Every year on this Saturday morning as I’m walking out the door for a day of work inundated with exciting plants my husband always reminds me exactly how much is remaining in my plant budget.  Well, I suppose the next best thing to buying plants for your own garden is sharing your knowledge and excitement with someone else who can grow it in theirs!  There will be many tempting plants this weekend, but I get to share just a few with you that I think are worth getting really excited about.

Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’) is a great option for getting a little bit of chartreuse into the landscape without going overboard.  It is a grass-like perennial, similar to a Siberian iris, which prefers a bit of moisture, even having the ability to grow in boggy conditions. If you site this in sun to part shade and in consistently moist soil, it will be a fairly low-maintenance perennial that will spread slowly.  The flowers are pretty insignificant, so grow this one for the lovely, tufted, gold-variegated foliage that will reach about a foot tall and provide a fine-textured accent for bold-leafed perennials.  It could also be quite effective as a groundcover for a smaller area, such as next to a water feature, or used as an accent in a container.  In any garden, Acorus ‘Ogon’ is a very graceful, versatile plant.

Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ (in front)

There are many bugelweeds to choose from; all have that great blue flower in the spring and are effective and quick-growing groundcovers.  The one that I’ve been the most impressed with for looking great even after it has finished blooming is Ajuga ’Chocolate Chip,’ and I’m going to be sure to nab a few of these for my own home garden this year!  ‘Chocolate Chip’ is shorter than other bugleweeds at only 2” tall (3-4” with the flower spike), with lovely bronze to deep green foliage that retains its healthy vigor throughout the growing season.  Some of the other Ajugas have flowers that tend to look a bit weedy after blooming, but it has been my observation that ‘Chocolate Chip’ maintains its neat appearance throughout the growing season.  Site this little guy in a sunny or fairly shaded location between stepping stones or as a border edge; it won’t let you down!

Ajuga ‘Chocolate Chip’, photo courtesy of Classy Groundcovers

Dwarf goat’s beard, Aruncus aethusifolius, is another lovely, compact perennial only reaching about 12” tall.  It has an overall appearance similar to that of Astilbe, but its ferny foliage will not shrivel up and turn crispy brown in the drier spells of summer, allowing the opportunity for a nice yellow-orange leaf color to develop in the fall.  It has white flower plumes in early to mid-summer, and would be a great, underused alternative in shady conditions for those who are looking for a good companion with Hosta, Epimedium or Brunnera.

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The Girl who Kicked the Spore’s Nest

For many, fall is best appreciated for the beautiful display of leaf color and irresistible weather – typically mild, sunny and dry here in central Indiana.  This fall, however, conditions were right for recognizing an old favorite in the landscape – giant puffball mushrooms.  We’ve found many of these delightful specimens throughout the IMA gardens; they keep popping out all over the place!  Giant puffballs are often found in more open woods and grassy areas, which makes them both visible and easily accessible.  Sadly, a good number were kicked apart prematurely by folks attempting to explode the trillions of spores encased inside the ballooning gleba (white mass that houses the spores) and release a puffy cloud of spores into the air.  I realize it’s irresistible, the desire to destroy these alien-looking, spongy bubbles.  How can one deny an urge that so exemplifies the spirit of a child’s delight with nature?  Yet I know that the anticipation was met with a rather anticlimactic squelching; the spores were not yet ripe.  The result was a disappointingly flat pile of flaky white chunks that just doesn’t garner the same reaction as that of a soaring spore cloud.

Result of dropping immature giant puffball mushrooms off the Interurban Bridge.

The mushrooms were fresh and new, with firm white flesh that is at its best for flavor and edibility.  It’s not until the puffball has turned brown, discolored and inedible, when the outer flesh has started to break apart, that they are primed and ready to be sent sailing through the air.  I wish people would wait until the mushrooms are ready, when they aren’t as visually appealing, so other people can enjoy seeing them in the garden and perhaps have the opportunity to share something unfamiliar and intriguing with their kiddos.  Please consider this before acting on perfunctory impulse.

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Making Bee Candy

One of the favorite winter chores in the horticulture department is taking a morning to conjure up a little treat for our sweet-toothed bee friends.  During the coldest months of the year, our bee hive is trying to keep itself invigorated by feeding on the honey reserves stored up during the growing season.  In order to generate enough heat to survive, the bees huddle together around the queen bee, keeping in constant motion.  There is constant movement between those on the inner, warm part of the huddle, and those who take their turn in the colder outskirts.  The idea of adding a candy board under the lid of the hive is to supplement essential honey reserves and make it easily accessible to reach the sugar source.  The following story (told in pictures) is of the simple process of turning sugar water into bee sweets.

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About Patty

Title: Horticulturalist Interests: Eating, reading, getting to know people, and thinking of outrageous ideas Favorite Movies: It’s got to be intelligent or hilarious. Props if it makes me think AND laugh. Favorite Music: Anything that makes me feel; I need to have a connection with music to fully appreciate it. It can be pretty ambiguous, really… Favorite Food: Cheese, homemade pizza, apple cider, pretzels (especially soft ones) and my grandma’s recipe for homemade ham and bean soup. Yum! Something Extra: I have an opinion about everything, but I usually keep it to myself. Does that make me a wuss or just polite? I grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, which was pretty much the best thing ever. Also, my first love is being out in the boonies. If I weren’t so social, I think I’d be a hermit somewhere in the Cascades.

Patty has written 8 articles for us.