The following edited stories were written for the Hendersonville Times-News by Jennie Jones Giles.
The first story on the Bullington Center was written in 2002. The story that follows was written in 2006.
It may be one of the best-kept secrets in Henderson County.
It is a place of rare, one-of-a-kind plants. It is a learning center with its own greenhouse. It is landscaped grounds with exotic trees and native plants. There is a nature trail winding through a natural, wooded area with a stream. There are agricultural areas with a small apple orchard.
Bullington Horticultural Learning Center belongs to the Henderson County Educational Foundation, yet many people in the county seem to know little about the place.
“People don’t realize what’s going on out there,” said Bill Burdett, chairman of the foundation’s Bullington Committee, “not the School Board, not the Educational Foundation, not the public at large.”
“People just don’t know it’s there,” said Tom Orr, a member of the foundation and a former School Board member and high school teacher.
“There are plants there that you won’t find anywhere else, not even at the (N.C.) Arboretum,” said Fritz McCall, retired East Henderson High School horticulture teacher. “Plants that aren’t found at any of the garden centers.”
A walk through the 13 acres of grounds, meadows, fields and woods reveals a collection of native azaleas and mature, unusual trees – three large Kousa dogwoods, Japanese umbrella pine, paperbark maple, full-moon maple, Oriental spruce, Japanese snowball, Japanese red and white pine, 15 or more varieties of Japanese maples, weeping hemlock and a big-leaf magnolia.
Robert “Bob” Bullington established a nursery on Zeb Corn Road in the Clear Creek community when he retired to Henderson County from New York in the early 1970s. He was born and raised in Georgia.
“He always said he came from ‘red-clay farmers,'” said Wes Burlingame, a nurseryman and friend of Bullington’s.
After serving in the military, Bullington settled in New York, where he worked for the New York City Police Department for many years. His hobby was horticulture.
When he retired from the Police Department, he took a job as the landscape designer for Belmont Racetrack on Long Island, friends said. McCall said Bullington worked as the grounds manager at several racetracks on Long Island. He traveled throughout the world collecting rare and exotic plants.
When he retired to Henderson County, he brought two truckloads of trees down here, Burlingame said.
He established a greenhouse, headhouses and nursery beds and planted numerous native and exotic species used as stock plants and educational tools.
In 1992, he was posthumously inducted into the Western North Carolina Agriculture Hall of Fame. He received recognition for being a horticulturist, nurseryman and plant propagator and for developing a model nursery, improving nursery and greenhouse practices and promoting research and education.
Bullington was also instrumental in getting the N.C. Arboretum established, McCall said.
Burlingame was supervisor of farm operations at the Mountain Horticultural and Crops Research Station in Fletcher when he first met Bullington.
“Until that time (the early ’70s) plants here were cutbacks, ball and burlap, dug up after the timber was cut,” Burlingame said. “Bob started seeding and grafting. No one was propagating these native plants – azaleas and mountain laurels.
“I fell in love with mountain laurels, and Bob told me how to propagate them. He became my mentor, a teacher. Some of the most popular mainstream plants we have today he showed us how to propagate,” he said.
“He was always talking about how important education is,” Burlingame said. “He was a master educator. That’s his most important legacy.”
When Bullington died in 1989, he left his property and work to the Henderson County Educational Foundation for an educational facility for horticulture and plant science. McCall said Bullington left the property to teach people about plants and their value to society.
Programs at Bullington
John Murphy is the coordinator at the Bullington Center. The center operates as an outdoor, hands-on teaching laboratory. The plants and trees are used in all four seasons for teaching youths and adults.
Activities include tree and leaf identification; tours of fall colors, native wildflowers and blooming perennials; grafting; seed collecting; and rooting of cuttings.
Murphy has developed educational programs for varying grade levels based on the state’s standard course of study, he said.
There is plant math, where fifth-graders use hands-on math activities using the plants at Bullington. Students use measuring, graphing and estimating skills as they work through problems. Kindergartners through third-graders can plant seeds in the greenhouse, where they are cared for until the students bring them home for Mother’s Day.
The 4-H Pumpkin Patch program teaches 5- to 8-year-olds the requirements for plant growth.
Girl Scouts have planted wildflower gardens. Bird club outings are held there, along with Master Gardener programs and workshops.
“The teachers of the county are supportive with the use of the place and me coming to the classrooms,” Murphy said. “The level of activity from the schools is increasing every year.”
Nancy Grogan, a teacher at Bruce Drysdale Elementary School, said her first-graders loved the activities.
“The visit to the center included a nature hike,” she said. “He (Murphy) pointed out unique trees in a way they could understand. They saw things native to the area and planted seeds in the greenhouse.”
Murphy also took materials to the classroom so children could plant a garden at school.
“They found and studied worms in the ground, took rocks out, made frames, planted seeds,” Grogan said. “They picked and washed the lettuce, turnips and broccoli, and were so proud as they marched into the lunchroom with that salad. They also wrote about the lessons and experiences in their journals.”
Murphy said there are many possibilities for civic clubs and garden clubs to use the center and for children to explore plant science. The house on the property could be used as an educational facility for meetings and groups, he said.
“The center could become a home for bird clubs, garden clubs, any kind of botanic society or group,” he said. “It provides an opportunity … that isn’t possible in the classroom.”
Murphy hopes to develop workshops for adults on plant selection and propagation and on wildflower, bird and mushroom identification.
“I want to maintain a sense of botanic beauty, so people can be inspired by plants and learn about plants,” he said.
“With our large population of retirees, the facility should be more open for garden clubs and groups to have meeting spaces,” Orr said. “Our (the Educational Foundation) mission is to enhance the education of students, teachers and the community.
“The house itself could be developed into something more,” he said. “We’re looking for a repository for our historical artifacts.”
McCall said the Blue Ridge Horticultural Association is interested in having some input to make the center more available to the public and the schools.
“The public needs to get behind it,” he said. “Let’s put it to use and learn some horticulture.”
The following story was written in 2006.
A Therapy Garden
The trees are bursting forth in an array of colors. Early flowers adorn the grounds in violets, yellows, whites and reds.
Spring arrived at the Bullington Center just in time for the groundbreaking of the new Therapy Garden.
When finished, the garden, which will feature raised beds, wheelchair-accessible beds and hanging and container gardens, will be one of only a few in the Southeast. It will also have plants that appeal to the senses of touch and smell.
John Murphy, coordinator at the Center, said there may be a therapy garden in Wilmington, but to his knowledge, this will be the first in Western North Carolina.
“This is going to be a real jewel right here,” said Bill Burdett, chair of the Bullington Advisory Board with the Henderson County Education Foundation.
The garden is intended for persons of all ages, from preschoolers to seniors, who have any type of disability that limits their participation in traditional gardening.
Digging in the soil, planting seeds, tending plants can have a therapeutic effect on people, said Jason Embler, activity coordinator of Mountain Laurel Group Homes.
“Now, we have no plant therapy,” he said. “We’re very excited about the garden. Several of our residents love nature and love plants.”
Gardens, plants and trees brighten life for many people, including the physically and/or mentally challenged.
“A garden can give people a sense of purpose,” Embler said. “They can come out here and help something grow. We can’t wait until they get it built.”
With the senior population in the county increasing daily, the garden is a great asset for the county, said Burdett.
N.C. Rep. Carolyn Justus, R-Dana, who attended the ceremony, said the garden will be something many seniors can enjoy. Justus’ mother loved to garden. “Her rose garden was magnificent,” Justus said.
Justus’ mother, as many people with physical limitations, can no longer garden as she once did. Many seniors will have the opportunity to garden again when the project is completed.
About $35,000 has been raised for the project. The Perry Rudnick Foundation of the Henderson County Community Foundation gave $25,000, with garden clubs and individuals contributing the rest.
About $74,000 is still needed to complete the project. Funds will be sought from governmental agencies that fund projects for the disabled and grants. An endowment will be started, said Jane Davis, outreach coordinator for the Center.
The design for the garden was drawn by landscape designer Lee Dugger of Earthscapes.
It calls for a number of waist-high planting beds that form a semi-circle around a small courtyard. The beds can be tended with minimal bending, stooping or reaching. Other beds will be designed with leg room underneath to accommodate those in wheelchairs.
There will be vertical wall gardens that can easily be cared for by people with limited mobility. These walls will have a series of pockets from which plants will grow.
In addition, there will be planting containers positioned around the garden for seasonal display. Some will be placed on the ground, while others will be hanging and can be easily lowered for care.
Among the plants in these various beds will be those that appeal to multiple senses for the enjoyment of the sensory impaired. Flowers and plants will have strong fragrances, bright colors and textures interesting to touch.
“This garden will be accessible to everyone, of all ages,” Murphy said. “Folks who don’t have access to gardening now, will have access.”
Some additional features of the therapy garden will include a pavilion that can accommodate educational sessions and picnics.
A native pool will be located next to the pavilion, simulating a mountain stream with a waterfall splashing over some boulders and ferns and other plants tucked among them.
A tool shed will be easily accessible and furnished with adaptive tools to compensate for hands that do not possess the strength they once did, Murphy said.
A new greenhouse for the garden was designed by Jade Systems.
“This researched and thoughtfully designed garden can be a source of healing for those suffering from a number of mental and physical limitations,” Murphy said.
Much of the labor will be donated by volunteers, master gardeners with the Extension Service and students from the Henderson County Public Schools, who use the center for many activities.
One of the volunteers who helped prepare the garden for Friday’s groundbreaking is Bob Schadler, 88, of Hendersonville. Schadler drove for Meals on Wheels, tutored students four days a week and, in his spare time, worked at the Bullington Center.
Using his cane, he walked from the garden to behind the current greenhouse, where the concrete steps and plant holding area he helped to build are located. A pile of concrete blocks once covered the ground where the Therapy Garden will be built.
“John would have the kids bring the blocks up,” said Schadler, who had never worked with cement blocks before this project. “I just enjoyed doing it. I love playing with gardens.
“Older people don’t have things to do,” he said. “Here, we can see things grow and see the waterfall. Most elderly people are lonely. The kids will enjoy coming here. They can dig holes, move leaves, help plant, work in the greenhouses.
“The only thing this project needs is more people interested in it and more money,” he said.
For more information on the Bullington Center, visit