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Susquehanna Life

From Sneakers to Spades: A Retired Gym Teacher Discovers a New Passion

Sep 02, 2016 10:08PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Ted McPherrin, a Milton resident, dabbled in gardening, but it wasn’t until he retired from teaching physical education at Warrior Run High School that his passion truly blossomed.


By Jessica McPherrin and Christina Mitro

Photographs by Stan Salwocki


“Daddy’s head,” giggled Ted McPherrin’s 2-year old granddaughter, as she pointed to the round rock that lay next to the deep-red beebalm plant. McPherrin walked hand-in-hand with the toddler and pointed out the different plants in his gardens—a new color here, a fuzzy caterpillar there. 

“Your mother went on a trip to Northern Michigan—Mackinac Island—and came home with a picture of a garden,” recalls McPherrin, referencing the origin of his hobby. “She said, ‘I want my garden to look like that.’”  And so he started planting.

But it wasn’t just his wife Shirley’s wish that sparked a fire. 

“The gardens are also the result of my trips to England—seeing the gardens and thinking, Man, I’d like to do that at home,” McPherrin revealed.


Realizing a vision

McPherrin knew he wanted a garden with a variety of flowers blooming at different times. And he wanted people to share in the beauty. As soon as McPherrin retired, he got to work. The more he planted, the more demands the gardens placed on him.  

“He’s out all day long,” notes Shirley. “He’s out by 6, because he doesn’t like the real hot sun, and he comes in by 10 to get a snack. Then [he] goes back out until 1. He comes in when it’s too hot, and then goes back out in the evening.”   

The results of that investment in time become apparent when driving around the sharp corner at the edge of the two-acre property on Muddy Run Road Ted and Shirley have owned since 1978.

A white picket fence set back a few feet from the road is bounded by flowers that pop and burst forth in a rainbow of colors. Further on, just past the driveway and set back into the yard, is an English-style garden, replete with lavender, balloon flowers and beebalm.

“What he likes best are the perennials,” notes Shirley. “When one flower goes, another one comes out. He has it all on a schedule.”


Source of inspiration

McPherrin knew that a perennial garden that bloomed all at once wouldn’t be very exciting.

“[Perennials] don’t stay a long time—maybe two weeks,” he said. “If you get everything coming at one time, they die off and it’s boring. You need to read up a bit and plant things for different times of the season.”

Accordingly, McPherrin is always on the lookout for good ideas.

“During the winter,” McPherrin continues, “I spend a lot of time going through flower books, catalogues and magazines, looking at flowers and what other people have in their gardens and how their gardens are set up.”

McPherrin also finds inspiration from visits to high profile gardens including Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pa., and Meadowlark Gardens, Vienna, Va., as well as the very famous plots of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Yet his favorite gardens tend to be in out-of-the-way places. “I like private, individually-owned gardens,” he said. “I love to take garden tours.”  


On the horizon

As McPherrin’s inspiration grows, so too does his ambition. “He’s making the backyard into one garden,” Shirley said. But McPherrin said that his plans aren’t quite that grand.

“I would like to,” McPherrin said, “but I don’t want to deal with weeding all the time. I think I’d rather put shrubs or bushes back there—then you don’t have to deadhead anything,” he says, referencing the tedious process of removing dead blossoms so new ones can burst forth.

No matter his plans, a lot of work will be required. Shirley is particularly focused on that aspect. “I said to him the other day, ‘You are 62 years old. You cannot keep making more and more gardens,’” she said. “People look at [the gardens] and say, ‘Oh, they’re beautiful.’ But I don’t think they know how much work goes into them.”

McPherrin agrees, to an extent. “I am getting older, and where I should be eliminating gardens, I’m adding them,” he admits. “I should just let them mature.” 

Yet McPherrin doesn’t mind the work because he’s so focused on the outcome. 

“I love walking through them every morning,” he says with obvious joy. “Seeing the new flowers that are opening and the colors that are out.

“Like tonight,” he continues. “I was done working, and it was starting to get dark, and I just stood there. I watched a couple of hummingbirds darting back and forth from flower to flower and the wildlife in the garden.” 

McPherrin’s labor of love also allows him to give back to the Earth. “We have the problem with bees [Colony Collapse Disorder]. Hopefully, I’m helping in a way,” he notes.  

McPherrin also hopes he’s positively impacting the Monarch butterfly population. He covers his milkweed and butterfly bushes with netting so birds and other creatures don’t disturb the burgeoning monarchs in the critical chrysalis stage. Ultimately, though, McPherrin’s love of gardening comes down to their beauty and color.

“Everybody has a different passion,” McPherrin said. “Most of my cousins are artistic, and I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. But making these gardens is my form of art—putting together different types of plants and colors. I took a plot of ground with lousy soil, and I changed it into something very colorful, very appealing. Maybe I do have some artistic talent after all. 

Christina Mitro and Jessi McPherrin, Ted McPherrin’s daughters, reside in Oakton, VA, and Philadelphia, respectively, and grew up in Milton on the very land about which this article was written.

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