Residence Grown | Panorama Structure Journal

A mid-Atlantic design/construct agency is changing householders into native plant advocates, one garden at a time.

By Jared Brey

A well-grown natural habitat lawn
Refugia makes a speciality of reworking lawns into pollinator-friendly habitats. Photograph by Kayla Fell for Refugia.

Jeff Lorenz stood below the mid-June solar at FDR Park, monitoring the ultimate touches on his firm’s exhibit for the Philadelphia Flower Present. The exhibit area, ordinarily an asphalt car parking zone, had been lined in mulch and lined with shows, all within the last moments of development.

Groups of staff scuttled about in branded T-shirts—“REFUGIA: Purposeful Design for the American Panorama”—putting bushes, shrubs, grasses, moss, and flowers in clumps for planting the subsequent day.

The vegetation have been native, as they’re in all of Refugia’s initiatives. You could possibly discover them all through the coastal plain, Lorenz mentioned: pitch pine, grey birch, bald cypress, Atlantic white cedar, wax myrtle, blueberry, swamp milkweed, large coneflower, hay-scented fern.

A small, sloping path manufactured from Pennsylvania bluestone would movement with water when the present opened the subsequent evening. The boardwalk was comprised of bald cypress boards. A part of the area was enclosed beneath a mycelium roof manufactured from lion’s mane and reishi mushrooms.

It was Refugia’s seventh yr exhibiting on the Philadelphia Flower Present—an incredible instrument for advertising and recruiting, Lorenz says. However as curiosity in Refugia’s work has accelerated, Lorenz quietly confided, he’d begun to wonder if it was a distraction. “We’re slammed,” he mentioned. “Each side of our enterprise is overwhelmed proper now.”

A lovely natural-wood shelter in a lush garden
Refugia, a agency targeted on residential landscapes within the Philadelphia area, is constructing a greenway of native gardens. Photograph by Rob Cardillo for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Lorenz based Refugia in 2015. The corporate started with small jobs within the Philadelphia suburbs, serving to householders incorporate native, pollinator-friendly vegetation into their lawns and gardens. Steadily, the enterprise has grown, with a number of panorama architects and designers on workers and an increasing community of residential gardens and public commissions below its belt.

Refugia’s development has mirrored an explosion of curiosity amongst householders in native vegetation and pollinators. Particularly, over the previous few years, a motion to kill the grass garden and change it with ecologically helpful flora has taken maintain in sure components of the American suburbs.

Refugia is headquartered on the Important Line, a community of Philadelphia suburbs linked by commuter rail that’s among the many wealthiest locations in the US. Among the many space’s manicured lawns, Refugia’s strategy has discovered detractors in addition to fans.

However its portfolio is rising quick. On its web site, the corporate claims an ecological “Greenway Community” of greater than 75 native gardens it has accomplished inside 5 miles of its residence base in Narberth, Pennsylvania. And lots of extra are within the works. Lorenz says he desires the corporate to be “simply sufficiently big” to satisfy the demand for native gardens within the space and, within the course of, assist make the suburbs extra environment friendly with stormwater and extra helpful to bees, birds, butterflies, caterpillars, and, by extension, people.

“The entire objective of our enterprise is to pepper the suburbs and concrete areas with habitat,” Lorenz says. “If there’s any direct means that we are able to all say we’re doing one thing concerning the altering local weather and species collapse and all these items, it’s on personal property.”

Ecological Hyperlinks

Lorenz, whose father taught sustainable engineering at Villanova College and cofounded the sustainability consultancy Environmental Sources Administration, tries to proselytize for native species with out being preachy.

He steadily cites the writer Doug Tallamy, an entomologist who has known as native gardening “a grassroots resolution to the extinction disaster.” In his books Bringing Nature Residence and Nature’s Greatest Hope, Tallamy has framed the nation’s suburban yards because the final, greatest probability to revive among the ecological perform of the developed panorama and promoted “a suburban ecosystem that’s advanced sufficient to maintain itself going with out micromanagement on our half,” as he wrote in Bringing Nature Residence (see “Large Tree, Small World,” LAM, September 2021).

A stone pathway through a green garden
The agency sources vegetation discovered within the Atlantic coastal plain primarily from native nurseries. Photograph by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

Refugia’s Greenway Community is a small model of Tallamy’s “Homegrown Nationwide Park,” an advocacy effort to create 20 million acres of native plantings round the US, representing about half the privately owned garden area within the nation.

Refugia’s web site features a testimonial from Tallamy, and at one time, Lorenz repeatedly handed out Tallamy’s books to potential purchasers, says Kayla Fell, Refugia’s inventive content material supervisor (and Lorenz’s spouse). More and more over the previous few years, the method has reversed, Fell says: Owners, already transformed to the trigger, strategy Refugia in search of assist making their gardens extra practical and helpful to bugs. 

On a Tuesday morning in June, Lorenz drove with Amy Matusheski, a summer time intern, to go to a possible shopper at a three-story stone home in Wynnewood, a Important Line suburb. The proprietor, Dan Mercer, had moved from town in 2016 along with his spouse, Swati, and their 10-year-old daughter. When he purchased the home, Mercer mentioned, the entrance garden had been largely grass, with “mountains of mulch” surrounding planted areas.

Mercer had regularly eliminated the garden and the mulch and lined the entrance yard in native vegetation, a few of which he planted and a few of which grew on their very own, together with boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), and bee balms. He’d established a collection of rain gardens with sweet-scented joe-pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), japanese bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), and woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), which captured virtually all of the runoff from his home. However there was one downspout that also spilled into the driveway. He known as Refugia in search of concepts about learn how to divert the remaining water into the backyard. And he was additionally in search of methods to revamp the again patio and develop the yard backyard.

Within the backyard at his final home, Mercer advised Lorenz, he’d had grapevines, which have been good till the fruit acquired heavy and dropped, rotted, and attracted bees and wasps. Was there a local vine that grew similarly? Lorenz really useful trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) or crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), each of which might cowl a trellis and produce large, colourful flowers within the spring and summer time.

“They usually don’t have tendrils, in order that they gained’t adhere to it; they simply wind round,” he advised Mercer. “They gained’t destroy the construction.”

Long luscious grass surrounds an outdoor firepit area
The native plant motion has grown since Refugia’s founding in 2015. Photograph by Kayla Fell for Refugia.

Mercer turned serious about native plantings after seeing how a lot flooding affected native trails in Wissahickon Valley Park, the place he volunteers. The stormwater runs off suburban lawns and overwhelms the native creeks. Mercer wished to be a part of an answer.

“I’m not going to save lots of any parks or something like that. It’s simply me. It’s a small lot,” he says. “However, you recognize, a whole lot of easy efforts might add as much as one thing important.”

Native Community

At any time when doable, Refugia sources vegetation from a small internet of native growers, together with Pure Landscapes Nursery, High quality Greenhouses, North Creek Nurseries, Sam Brown’s Wholesale Nursery in Pennsylvania, and Nice Run Nursery in New Jersey. In addition they pull some species from Pizzo Native Plant Nursery in Illinois.

Some vegetation are purchased in bulk and saved at Refugia’s headquarters, particularly hardy shrubs and small bushes, Lorenz says. Delicate perennials and fungus-prone grasses they have an inclination to purchase as soon as they’ve a planting plan for a particular venture. The corporate features a yr of panorama stewardship for many of its installations, and in the middle of upkeep, employees repeatedly pull cuttings to propagate in Refugia’s greenhouse. Often they’ll make changes to the soil at a sure website, however sometimes they select a plant palette primarily based on present circumstances.

Over the previous yr, pandemic-related provide chain points have largely sorted themselves out for Refugia’s wants, Lorenz says. However sudden shortages have continued to happen as native demand for native vegetation spikes, particularly on civic initiatives. The native-plant motion is rising for just a few causes, says George Coombs, the director of horticulture on the Mt. Cuba Heart, a botanical backyard targeted on native vegetation in Hockessin, Delaware. One is that the concept of serving to bugs like monarch butterflies, that are “cute and fuzzy and charismatic,” is a comparatively simple promote. The opposite is that planting natives is much less of an act of sacrifice than different actions taken on behalf of the setting.

“So many conservation behaviors require you to surrender one thing—much less water, much less electrical energy,” Coombs says. “However you don’t have to try this with vegetation. You’ll be able to add native vegetation, maintain all those you’ve at all times beloved, and nonetheless have a very helpful influence.”

Clusters of carefully-planted wildflowers in a residential lawn
Refugia’s gardens characteristic clusters of native vegetation, a distinction to the monochromatic lawns which have historically outlined suburbia. Photograph by Kayla Fell for Refugia.

Panorama architects deserve some credit score for pioneering using native species in private and non-private gardens, says Andrew Bunting, the vice chairman of horticulture for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which places on the Philadelphia Flower Present. Particularly, Andropogon, primarily based in Philadelphia, and Oehme, van Sweden, primarily based in Washington, D.C., have been early proponents of the native plant motion, he says. The usage of natives has develop into way more commonplace since these companies started utilizing them within the Eighties. And whereas natives can be utilized in most of the identical formal kinds as conventional ornamentals, they’ve additionally develop into strongly related to a selected meadow aesthetic. Some individuals need that. Others, together with some in Philadelphia’s rich suburbs, don’t.

“For lots of people, in all probability, the garden and the shrubs [have] extra to do with management,” Bunting says. “There’s one thing there that’s not essentially horticultural. So, to get individuals to shift to the prairie or meadow model—for most individuals, that’s a significant shift.”

Along with internet hosting the greenway map on its web site, Refugia posts street-facing indicators on the native gardens it vegetation. It’s a advertising instrument, however Fell says it’s additionally “designed to inform individuals why it appears like this.”

Rob Gladfelter, ASLA, the director of operations at Refugia, joined the corporate in 2021 after getting a bachelor’s in panorama structure at Temple College. Earlier than that, he’d labored in landscaping and horticulture for greater than a decade. It’s been thrilling to see a shift towards native vegetation in public gardens, he says, and to work for a corporation that has a mission to deal with the local weather disaster. And one which stands by its rules, he says, together with being keen to get fired by a shopper for refusing to plant a rosebush. He’s blissful to plant a conventional backyard with hedges, he says, so long as they’re native.

“We actually need all people to do it,” Gladfelter says. “The entire concept is we actually need to change individuals’s notion of what a wholesome panorama appears like.”

Lorenz says he tries to observe the native ethos with regards to hardscaping, too. He sources bald cypress boards from native lumberyards, and he’s an fanatic of Pennsylvania bluestone, a sedimentary sandstone used for panorama steps and pavers that he sources from HEPCO Quarries, which has a stone yard in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s a novel stone that solely happens in a small space of northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York, says Brad Hepler, a co-owner of HEPCO Quarries. The layers differ in dimension, from the five-foot-thick “noticed rock” that’s processed and used for wall caps, mantels, hearths, and lintels to the extra delicate, irregular slabs used for steps. It takes a whole lot of forethought and planning to extract and market all components of the rock, Hepler says, and never all quarries do it. HEPCO operates on a 205-acre plot of land in Windsor, New York, in keeping with Hepler, who says the corporate has been actively quarrying the identical 10-acre part of it since 2005.

The bluestone slabs that Refugia used for the Philadelphia Flower Present have been an opportunistic buy, Lorenz says—two pallets had been ready for one more shopper who canceled. “We simply attempt to have our supplies be in the identical world because the vegetation we use,” he says.

Jared Brey is a contract reporter in Philadelphia and a contributing editor to the journal.

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