The Wild and the Scenic
By Kerigan Butt
Shane Morgan of The Giving Garden
By Richard L. Gaw
It could have been a seed packet of sunflowers, tossed onto a narrow patch of what was once a tiny and neglected lawn in Philadelphia several years ago, that inspired Shane Morgan to become a landscape designer.
Or maybe it was the garden next to the carriage house she grew up in near Moorestown, N.J., where, as a child, she would walk among the boulders that protruded from the ground. Perhaps it was the old-fashioned garden she enjoyed beside the West Chester farmhouse she lived in from the eighth grade until she graduated from high school. Finally, it may have been the oral presentation she gave as an undergraduate at Penn State on the rain forests. One could point a finger in any of these directions in order to find the exact moment when Shane Morgan arrived at her life's calling – which finds her as the owner of her own landscape design company and as a coordinator with a local watershed committee – but like the sweet mystery of plants and flowers and nature she spends her career cultivating, there is beauty in not knowing.
“Ever since I was a child, I've always loved being outdoors,” Morgan said from her home in Landenberg. “My best childhood memories were outdoors, building forts out of sticks, making potions out of berries, or collecting bugs. Even today, when so many people tend to escape for the weekend, I prefer to be at home, enjoying my garden. And if I'm there or out working on a client's garden, you'll never see me with an I-pod. I prefer the sounds of nature.”
Since 2004, Morgan's The Giving Garden (named after Shel Silverstein's book, The Giving Tree) has provided landscape design for dozens of homeowners throughout Chester County and beyond. Specializing in eco-friendly and edible gardens, The Giving Garden incorporates many native plants into garden designs that attracts wildlife (butterflies, birds and other pollinators) and reduces reliance on water and chemicals. In addition, part of Morgan's work involves teaching her clients how to grow, maintain and cultivate vegetable gardens or how to incorporate edible plants into new or existing planting beds. Most importantly, Morgan's designs allow the homeowner to develop an understanding and appreciation of the connection between plants and wildlife.
“A garden gives something back to you,” Morgan said. “It's not just something you put in the ground for looks alone. If you spend time in a garden, you'll derive several more benefits from it beyond aesthetics.”
If the initial roots of Morgan's love for where the wild things are were discovered in the gardens of her childhood, they were further cultivated in college. After graduating from high school in 1990, Morgan attended Penn State as an art major, and during a speech communications class, she gave a presentation on the importance of rain forests on the world's climate. “It was a wake up call,” she said. “I started thinking about the environment and how much of an impact we have on it. I was always aware of open space being replaced by development, and I found it disturbing to see how quickly land was being transformed before my very eyes, but then I felt empowered to do something to make a positive contribution, even incredibly small actions add up.”
After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Resources Management with a concentration in Fine Arts from Penn State, she earned a Master's degree in Biology from Drexel University, where she taught undergraduate classes. While attending Drexel, she lived on the first floor of a brownstone on Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia. From a window, she would see a narrow patch of grass in the small back yard. It was never mowed, never maintained. It was an eyesore. One day, she removed all of the grass, and threw packets of sunflowers, zinnia and basil seeds around. Within months, it all had bloomed. One by one, her neighbors began taking notice and took more pride in their properties.
After leaving Philadelphia, she was a laboratory instructor at Swarthmore College's Scott Arboretum, where she worked side-by-side with native plant experts and ecologists, and during her summers off, she served as a leader with the C.O.R.E. (Caring for Our Resources and Environment) at the Brandywine Valley Association, supervising young children on environmental restoration projects. She now works as the watershed management plan coordinator with the White Clay Creek Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, where she coordinates projects to promote environmental awareness, improve water quality and create and restore native habitat.
Morgan defines the style of gardening she designs for her clients as naturalistic, ecological and spontaneous, where a mix of annuals meld with a bountiful blush of perennials, and where an abundancy of native plants is sometimes dotted with a few ornamental plants. It's not just plant-and-go; sometimes a year goes by before she takes shovel to soil. Morgan approaches each project by determining whether the area is full- or partial- sun or shade, discovering the soil's properties, and understanding family traffic flows through a property. She takes several photographs of the property from every angle, and uses her skills in art to create to-scale sketches of her planned designs -- drawn from a bird's eye view -- and often, she goes through a lot of drawings, meetings and walk-throughs before coming up with a master plan.
"I would say that 90 percent of my first meetings with my clients is listening," said Morgan. "It's also a lot of educating. I don't want someone to expect that the landscape I create for them is never going to change. You can't guarantee nature. I tell my clients, 'This is a living system, and it's not going to remain static.'
Rob Sigafoos and Susan Hankin have lived near the campus of the New Bolton Center since 1991, where Rob served as a blacksmith. After they added an extension to their home a few years ago - one that is used as Rob's sculpture studio -- the resulting area around the extension was a proliferation of mud and rocks. Now, it is a spectacular flora of native honeysuckle, Cardinal flower, and other wildflowers and ferns, all planted and maintained by Morgan.
"Shane turned the area from a pile of mud to a garden of native plants, and she did a spectacular job," Sigafoos said. "She was interested in what we wanted to do, had some great suggestions, and created a complete drawing of what she imagined for the property. It wasn't just her designs; she also took our ideas and incorporated them into the landscape. She set it up in such a way that all spring and summer and fall, there's something new popping up and blooming and flowering."
Like the wine grower in Napa Valley, or the artist in Paris, Morgan is the beneficiary of the area where she has chosen to pursue her life's work. The home she shares with her husband Scott and two children in Landenberg is reminiscent of southern Chester County, a plush and vibrant landscape of country meadow pathways, sun and shade gardens, and a small stream that borders one edge of the property. In a society where families look to escape on weekends, Morgan prefers to remain at home in her garden, looking, listening, growing, all skills that easily transfer into her career.
"I love to get people to see gardens and landscapes through a different lens," Morgan said. "I try to open their eyes to the fact that a garden is not always about manicured lawns and beds full of mulch and perfectly pruned shrubs. The clients who seek me out are those who want to go in that direction with me."
To learn more about Shane Morgan and The Giving Garden, visit www.TheGivingGarden.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fall gardening tips from Shane Morgan of The Giving Garden
1. Wait to cut back perennials with seed heads until early March. Their seed heads offer food throughout the winter to overwintering bird species. Grasses can also be left until early March as they provide shelter and food for winter wildlife.
2. Look for beauty in the winter landscape. Winter is one of my favorite seasons to take time and look at the landscape. You may think it is bare, but there is much to be seen. Tawny browns, russets, and tans of overwintering grasses, interesting shapes and texture from last seasons seed heads, and exfoliating or colorful bark and winter berries. If you are missing these things from your landscape, now is time to take note - so you know what to plant next spring for winter interest.
3. Lay off the mulch. Too much mulch causes water to runoff instead of infiltrating the ground and prevents your perennials from setting seed and filling in gaps, instead fill your beds with perennials, and let them do all the work. They will eventually shade out weed seeds, offer food and shelter for wildlife, nourish the soil, and your garden will look more beautiful naturally, without giving you a bad back!