The Plant Whisperer

Photo by Tim Robison

Photo by Tim Robison

John Murphy speaks softly about his accomplishments as director of Bullington Gardens, a public garden and horticultural center in Henderson County.

He recalled the poor condition Bullington was in when he started in 1999, ten years after founder Bob Bullington died and deeded the property to the Henderson County Education Foundation. “I tried to get it back into shape,” Murphy says. “There weren’t many funds.”

Today, 15 years later, Bullington Gardens is thriving as a public garden with horticultural education programs for 2,000 children and 500 adults. Additionally Murphy mentors 22 high school sophomores weekly through the BOOST (Bullington Onsite Occupational Student Training) program he founded in 2003. Thirty-five students also visit weekly in the horticultural therapy program.

The gardens, particularly spectacular in May, Murphy says, feature a Sergeant’s Weeping Hemlock, Japanese maples and Kousa dogwoods. A thousand tulips will be blooming in April, as will some native wildflowers, fringe trees and azaleas. Bullington’s upcoming spring plant sale, April 25-26, is the gardens’ biggest fundraiser.

“The whole place is very magical. It’s healing,” says Mary Martin, who volunteers with the horticultural therapy program and teaches adult classes. “John just has an intuition about him that he can deal with a lot of personalities and everyone comes out a winner. It just boils down to that he’s just a really good, genuine person. He has ethics and he just intuitively knows what would be right in all different situations.”

Murphy is a Warren Wilson College alum and former dairy farmer who served in the Peace Corps for two years in Sierra Leone. But he says the boldest thing he’s ever done is live off the grid with his wife, Betsy, and two of their three sons, in Western New Guinea for four years. He taught villagers how to hand dig wells and introduce new crops in their gardens. The family hopes to have another overseas adventure someday.

Murphy has had a long-time interest in plants and botany. He says, “The seed was planted when I was young and it all sort of bloomed when I went to Warren Wilson and beyond.”

Bullington Gardens’ spring plant sale is April 25-26 and the gardens are open to the public to enjoy Monday through Friday.

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