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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Replacing lawn with three acres of wildflowers

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog meadow photosErika Wehmeier uses her iPad to take a photo of her wildflower meadow. Photos by Doug Oster

blog meadow coreopsis 3There are many different colors of coreopsis in the meadow.I first heard of about a three acre field of wildflowers in Sewickley back in 2011. Erika and Helge Wehmeier had turned their extensive lawn into a wildflower meadow.

It was an experiment which has now thrived into its fourth season. The spectacle literally stops drivers in their tracks. "No one ever stopped to compliment us on our lawn," Helge said with a laugh.

Every year the meadow changes, this summer tall white daisies and yellow yarrow sway in the summer breeze as the dominant plants in the field.

Early in the season beautiful purple lupines covered the expanse. There are few blooms hanging on along with lots of other flowers.

There's coreopsis, blanket flowers and a myriad of other brightly colored flowers covering the field.

It's a haven for pollinators too, clouds of goldfinches emerge from the blooms when startled and fly up to the safety of the trees bordering the meadow.

Listening to the sound of of the birds singing for joy while feasting on seeds and flower petals is something everyone should experience.

The couple's not sure what's next for their wildflower meadow, in fact their surprised it looks this good four years after the original planting.

Here are the before photos and the original story.

At the very end of this post is the video I did showing the meadow back in 2011.

blog meadow beeHoney bees and other pollinators are drawn to this place.

blog meadow treeIt's hard to show the scope of the meadow in photos.

blog meadow wide oofThis yellow yarrow has become one of the main summer flowers in the field.

blog wildflower meadow purplePurple coneflower is happy growing in consort with the other wildflowers.


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Grow something weird and wonderful

Written by Doug Oster on .

Blog cool plantsaMy truck was loaded up with cool plants to use on Pittsburgh Today Live. Photo by Doug Oster

With every thing on sale at the garden centers, this is a perfect time to look for interesting plants to grow.

Here's a segment from Pittsburgh Today Live where I show some things you don't normally see planted in the garden. Interested in a chartreuse elephant ear with burgundy stalks? I am!


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Celebrate the Bloom at Jennings Environmental Center this Saturday 7/19/14

Written by Doug Oster on .

Blog Blazing Star JenningsJennings Environmental Center is one of the only places to see beautiful prairie plants like Blazing Star.

Jennings Environmental Center is a special place, filled with amazing plants and endangered species like the Massasauga rattlesanke. They have a great event planned for Saturday. Here are all the details.

Celebrate the Bloom at Jennings on July 19 from 9 am – 7 pm.


  1. Nature explorations with Jennings staff, as well as experts in birding (Audubon Society members), wildflowers (Joe Isaac of Civil and Environmental Consultants and Bonnie Isaac of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History), butterflies and other insects (Pete Woods, Western PA Conservancy), and Massasauga rattlesnakes (David Johnson)
  2. Demonstrations, including live reptiles and amphibians, plus bees, natural dyes, etc.
  3. Music, featuring Nameless in August and four other exceptional talents
  4. Artists (nature related and inspired art), local food, and other vendors


One of our region’s most unique places – the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania– is the blazing star prairie at Jennings Environmental Education Center. To highlight this natural treasure, Jennings will host Celebrate the Bloom!, a full day of free activities,  on Saturday, July 19, 2014 from 9 am – 7 pm.  Activities will include prairie tours and other nature explorations, engaging demonstrations, plus local food, artisans and musical guests.  New to this year’s festival is a program featuring LIVE reptiles and amphibians of the prairie with naturalist April Claus. The musical line-up will feature headliner Nameless in August, a folk “rawk” band with a “high energy live show with piercing lyrics and strong vocals,” and a “banjo rhythm [that] gives the music a down-home movement.” ( Also appearing throughout the afternoon will be Matthew Ryan, Steve Madewell, Rachel Brown, and Bejae Fleming with Jackie Blount. All musical guests will perform outdoors on the prairie’s edge with covered and open seating available.
    Celebrate the Bloom! is a collaborative effort between Jennings Environmental Education Center and the park’s friends group, 3MJC ( Moraine, McConnells Mill and Jennings Commission), that seeks to raise awareness of the prairie and increase support for its conservation.  Musical guests are presented by Lonesome No More Productions/Dennis McCurdy.  Sponsors include Harmony Sound Company, the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau (BCTCB), the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, ZeroFossil, and Slippery Rock in Bloom.  Local artisans, advertisers and sponsors are still being accepted.  More information can be found at, or by calling Jennings at 724-794-6011.
   Celebrate the Bloom is sponsored and supported by 3MJC (the park’s friends group), Butler Tourism and Convention Bureau, the Botanical Society of Western PA, Harmony Sound Company, ZeroFossil, Slippery Rock in Bloom, Earth Sun Moon Trading Company, Slippery Rock Community Farmers Market, and the Slippery Rock University Parks and recreation Department

For more information about the event, check out these web sites- and the facebook page is

If you need an accommodation to participate in park activities due to a disability, please contact the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks:  888-PA-PARKS (voice), (717) 558-2710 (local or international voice), 711 (AT&T Relay Services).  With at least three days notice, interpreters for people who are deaf or hard of hearing are available for educational programs.

Eastern-massasauga-rattlesnakeDon't be afraid of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, you'll probably never see it in the wild. But naturalists at Jennings will show you one. Photo by Doug Oster

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Free gardening seminar with Doug on Saturday, Summer gardening tips

Written by Doug Oster on .

I'll be presenting "Summer Gardening Tips" on Saturday 7/19/14, 11 a.m. at Plumline Nursery's Customer Appreciation Day.

This is the fourth year I've appeared at the event and it's an awesome day. The nursery is filled with unique plants and many are on sale. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens will be there, there's free food, games for the kids and more.

Here's more information.

Blog Plum CAD


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