By Susan Morgan
Photos courtesy of John Murphy
“I have realized that I’ve always been at the intersection of people and plants,” says John Murphy, HTR. “It’s what led me to Bullington.” As a registered horticultural therapist, licensed teacher, and degreed horticulturist, Murphy acknowledges how his various professional experiences have led him to where he is now as director of Bullington Gardens in North Carolina – and supported the many hats he wears in his position.
Bullington Gardens is a 12-acre public garden and educational center in Hendersonville, North Carolina – a small community located in the western part of the state, just outside of Asheville. In 1999, the garden opened to the public, and Murphy balanced dual roles, teaching high school horticulture courses and running the garden. He says that he took a bit of a risk in 2003, by leaving his teaching duties to become the garden’s full time director. Today Bullington is staffed by Murphy, a part-time gardener, and volunteers. The garden is supported by a partnership of the Henderson County Public Schools and North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, along with private funding through plant sales, grants, and other sources.
Early in his career, Murphy spent time overseas in Sierra Leone and the Indonesian part of New Guinea helping people through agricultural projects. He recalls thinking at the time that once back in the U.S. he “would like to run a farm with people who are disadvantaged in some way.” It wasn’t until a volunteer talked about the field of horticultural therapy (HT) that it finally clicked for him. He later pursued his training in HT from the Horticultural Therapy Institute.
As the only full-time staff member, Murphy wears many hats in his role as director, including horticultural therapist, educator, and garden administrator. He directs and leads onsite and offsite educational and therapeutic programming for students from local elementary, middle, and high schools. “I also serve as manager of the property and organization. I perform a variety of administrative duties – a lot of problem solving, running the business.” He also coordinates a network of dedicated volunteers who support all aspects of the garden’s operations.
Educational and Therapeutic Programs at Bullington Gardens
The garden’s mission is “To connect children and adults with the natural world through science-based horticultural education; to demonstrate the beauty and value of native and ornamental plants through themed public gardens; and to enhance life skills for children and adults with physical or mental challenges through horticultural therapy.” Bullington offers adult educational programming, ranging from pruning seminars and other hands-on workshops to flower shows and guided garden tours. Educational and therapeutic programs are also offered to students of all ages from nearby schools. They are designed to supplement curriculum standards for the various grade levels, as well as vocational and therapeutic goals.
Youth Educational Programs. Throughout the school year, Murphy and trained volunteers lead onsite and offsite programs for elementary school students. Garden spaces at Bullington and on school grounds are used as outdoor classrooms to complement math and science lessons. One favorite lesson in “plant math” is determining a tree’s height. Students measure a classmate’s height and the length of their shadow. Then they measure the length of a tree’s shadow. From there, they calculate the height of the tree. Other lessons have included graphing the growth of pea plants, estimating the number of dahlia flowers in a ten-foot sample area, and learning about genetics and inheritable traits through plants.
Therapeutic Programming at Bullington features two primary programs:
BOOST: Bullington Onsite Occupational Student Training. North Carolina high schools have an Occupational Course of Study for students to develop job skills, build self-confidence and independence, and strengthen individual and team work effort. BOOST is a prevocational horticulture program that works towards these goals. Each year, BOOST students gain increasing amounts of work responsibilities. Students in occupational programs at four local high schools come to Bullington each week for hands-on sessions. They complete horticultural tasks, such as mulching and tending nature trails and raking, mowing, and string trimming in the gardens – all focused on working towards goals. Read more about the BOOST program, the Therapy Garden, and other therapeutic programs for youth at Bullington Gardens.
ID Mod: Special Education Program for Students who are Intellectually Disabled – Moderate. Middle and high school students who have moderate developmental and physical challenges come to the gardens every week and work on a hands-on activity in the Therapy Garden and greenhouse. Activities include a combination of seasonal gardening and craft projects, such as growing vegetables in four-by-eight foot garden beds, propagating succulent plants into dish gardens, using pressed flowers in cardmaking projects, making scarecrows for the garden, and more.
Volunteers play an integral role in supporting the programming and gardens at Bullington. They help with educational and therapeutic programs, grant writing and fundraising, special event planning and operation, growing and production, and garden maintenance. Murphy is proud of the garden’s network of volunteers and the various ways in which they support the mission and activities of the garden and serve its constituents. “We’ve created a community here,” says Murphy. “Bullington is a community of people of various backgrounds, each with their different talents, contributing them to Bullington to help it progress and move forward.”