Retired teacher creates special garden

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog chuck morrison and catChuck Morrison of Union Township (near New Castle) sits in his garden with his cat Bastet, named for the Egyptian goddess of the happy winds. Photos by Doug Oster

By Doug Oster / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

blog poppies and larkspur 3These poppies and larkspur self sow freely in the garden.“Summertime is good,” says a smiling Chuck Morrison as he looks over the garden from a comfortable chair on his porch.

The sound of a gurgling fountain is soothing in the background as the former teacher talks about trading his old beloved job for a new one, gardening.

When asked why he devotes his days to working in the garden, Mr. Morrison, has a simple answer: “Just for the love of the earth.” He wonders out loud how he kept up with it when he was teaching history in the Union School District near New Castle.

“Well, you just worked until dark. Now, about 4 o‘‍clock, I‘m just about used up,” he said.

Mr. Morrison, 64, tells the familiar story of a kid who hated cutting grass and pulling weeds in his father’‍s extensive garden. His refuge was a place he didn‘‍t have to work, an old pine grove where he fell in love with nature. That’‍s where the seed of inspiration was planted that evolved into a passion for gardening. ‍

Nearly 40 years ago, after building this house, he planted a few marigolds, then a few more flowers and some vegetables. He made the usual mistakes early on -- tall flowers in the front of beds, small ones in the back, and his vegetable garden more often fed groundhogs and deer than his family. But as the years progressed, the self-taught gardener found his way.

“You just evolve and learn as you go. You get better at things you do over and over again.”

The results are obvious in his pristine garden. It‘‍s filled with interesting annuals, perennials‍ and lots of plants that self-sow freely.

blog cat and flowers 3Bastet enjoys time in the garden.“I am a big fan of volunteers,” he says. “I like what nature does with them next year. I have larkspur where I never had them before.” That‘‍s also true of the pretty red poppies that complement those blue and white larkspur blooms swaying the breeze behind them. The ruffled poppies, he was told, were a Victorian favorite and are prolific. One handful of seeds is all it takes to create a colony of flowers.

“Cooperating with nature, not trying to dominate nature, seems to serve me the best.”

In one bed, hot pink rose campion is backed by chartreuse hostas. In the shade garden, pink astilbe shares space with bright yellow Missouri primrose.The garage is bordered with decorative pots filled with annuals.But lilies are his favorites. There are daylilies, oriental/trumpet lilies and others in myriad colors.

“They are bright and can stand up to our summer storms,” he says. 

Memories from his youth also grow here. A cactus his father grew is in the greenhouse. He passed away more than 25 years ago, but when the cactus is covered with red flowers, his son is as proud as he was.

His mother had beautiful deep red rhododendrons when he was a kid.

”When we had to close the house down, [I said] well, they are coming with me.”

It wasn’t easy, either. He finally abandoned digging in a cold dark rain in favor of pulling out the mature shrubs with his Toyota truck. The plants are thriving now and bring back wonderful memories of his youth. So does a peony salvaged from his grandmother’‍s garden before her house was razed for a highway project.

”It‘s deep, deep red and very early,“ he says of its flower.

The garden is filled with other hand-me-downs. “A lot of my plants are scavenged. I‘ve knocked on doors and said ‘What is that?’ I‘ll trade you some of this for some of that.’‍ They are always happy to do it.“

Mr. Morrison keep meticulous records of his season, jotting down frost dates and chronicling different projects. He hopes his garden journal will become a treasured heirloom, like his family‘‍s plants.

”Someday, when my grandson will go through my things, (he‘‍ll say) ‘‍Oh, here‘‍s what Grandpa Chuck was all about.’‍ It‘s a way to leave your mark.“

Sitting under the shade of the pine trees he planted three decades ago, Mr. Morrison reflects on the things he‘s learned in the garden.

“It‘s one handful at a time,” he says. “I wish I would have learned that 40 years ago‍‍‍‍‍‍. Patience is key. Don’‍t try to get it all done at once. Then your fun is over.‍”

What does he get out of time in the garden?

“Ease and pleasure,” he says. “June and July are the best, with the colors and the sounds of the birds.”


blog bed of poppies and larkspurChuck spends hours each day working in the garden.

blog rose campion and hostaRose campion is set off by chartreuse hosta.

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