CAN AN OLD FORMAL SPACE BECOME THE HOME OF A FORWARD-THINKING LANDSCAPE OF NATIVE PLANTS? The answer to this question is a resounding yes.
Their horticultural experimentation confirms this.
Ethan Kauffman and I discussed how the director and his team are reinterpreting this grand old landscape in a Natives-Only ethos passed down by the nonprofit Natural Lands, who conserved the area.
Stoneleigh’s 42-acre landscape is being redefined by a dozen native vines covering the pergola, which dates back a century. White pine, American arborvitae, and dwarf Magnolia grande flora are also used to define the space. Other lessons are available for home gardeners.
You can listen to my podcast and public radio show for July 10, 2023, using the player below. Subscribe to future editions of my podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can also browse through my archives.
Natives in formal settings, with Ethan Kauffman
Play this episode. Margaret Roach: Okay, so we worked together on a “New York Times column, and it was fun. It was great to learn about your work at Stoneleigh and how you are reinterpreting this historical space. As I mentioned in the introduction, this native mandate. This is a very exciting thing, and it’s something that I believe will be very useful to gardeners at home who may wonder, “Yes, but how can I use these plants?” What do I do now that I know how to use Astilbe and Hostas? How long have you worked there?
Ethan Kauffman : Stoneleigh has been my home for seven years. It’s hard for me to believe that I began in 2016, towards the end of the garden’s opening. We’ve worked in the landscape now for seven years. It’s been a wonderful experience. We arrived at this beautiful place and had the opportunity to turn it into a garden, which not only provides a relaxing and rejuvenating environment for our guests but also helps to support our local wildlife and ecology and has fun while doing so.
Margaret: It’s free. The public is welcome to attend, except, I believe, for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Is that correct? It’s free. Free is fantastic. It’s literally so welcoming.
Ethan says Yes. When you walk into Stoneleigh, you can feel the welcoming energy, this comfortable, accessible atmosphere. Maybe it’s because of the large trees. There are so many big, old trees around here. I get a sense of comfort and safety under their branches. It’s a very special place.
Margaret : This was a place with a history of more than a hundred years before you arrived. This was a property on the Main Line in Philadelphia. Tell us about the inheritance you received. There’s the mansion, and then there are some remnants.
Ethan: Oh, absolutely. For millennia this land was cultivated naturally by the Lenape tribe. It was an agricultural area until the early 1870s when Europeans colonized it. This area in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, called the Main Line, has many estates built between 1870 and 1930 during the country-place era. Stoneleigh is one of these grand old estates. It was and still is a beautiful place. The Olmsted Brothers designed it in part from around 1906 to 1955. We had some really great, beautiful landscapes to work on.
Margaret: I remember that when I first met you, we did an interview with the “New York Times,” and were getting to know one another, you said that, on the 42-acre site, there were seven acres of Pachysandra, and, I believe, 14 acres of mowed lawn [laughter]. That’s not eco-friendly or quite the opposite of your mission.
Ethan: Yeah, Margaret, you’re not kidding. When I first entered the room and saw Pachysandra, I thought, “Oh, my god.” I also noticed turf. In the first month, we had only two people at the time. We saw the Pachysandra and were eager to remove it. We didn’t own any equipment, so we rented a mini-excavator. We ripped out an acre, which became our parking area. It was very satisfying to remove the Pachysandra for the first time. We’re still chipping away. We’ll continue to work on it for a very long time. I believe that makes this place so accessible. It’s taking time because we have a small staff. So our guests, and people who come to our community, can watch this transformation unfold before their eyes. It’s also very similar to what people do at home.
Margaret, You are managing or treating the lawn differently.
Ethan: The lawn is a massive part of American culture. We all know it’s hard on our resources and especially water. It could be more productive for wildlife. We knew that we needed to do something with the 14 acres, and we achieved our goal without doing anything. We stopped mowing half of the land. We only leave six feet around the edge to give it a trimmed look, but the rest grows beautifully into this 18-30 inches-tall, meadowy mixture. As soon as we began doing this, we noticed birds flying through the mix, and even foxes. We knew then that we were on track.
Margaret: Just like you said, leaving the edge mowed, says, “We’re there, we’re working on this, but in a more gentle way,” which is very important. I have been trying to see which areas I can now to make it appear like the part of a plan rather than just “Oh, she is being messy.” It looks great in the photos I’ve seen.
Sometimes, one thing that is difficult about converting parts of our gardens or more to native plants is sourcing them. One of the things that I liked hearing about was going on adventures to other nature preserves and preserved land that Natural Lands (the organization that helped make this Stoneleigh transformation happen) has under conservation or management. You can get local seeds or cuttings from native plants that are appropriate for the region and grow them. Tell us a bit more about this.
Ethan: This is special because the Natural Lands organization, which we are a part of, has 42 more nature preserves. We get to explore about 23,000 acres, some of the most beautiful land in the region. They are up to the Poconos in southern New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania. We also have coastal properties. If you are looking for native plants in this area, there are many examples. It’s amazing. Who doesn’t like to go into the woods and explore? It’s even more fun if you collect seeds to bring back to the community and show them off. This is a fantastic opportunity for our community. We hope everyone will enjoy seeing the plants they may not see usually or familiar ones they did not know were part of their local landscape and ecology.