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Chester County Press

A Forest Grows in Kennett Township - Local Residents Create Sustainable Landscape With Native Plants

08/19/2020 06:31PM ● By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
For more years than he would like to count, Kennett Township resident Michael Guttman was forking over more than $1,000 annually for the privilege of having a substantial portion of his 4.5-acre property mowed down to the proverbial nub, to where the grass was at the uniform height of accepted suburban prettiness, meanwhile choking all other life out of its nutrient-depleted soil.

Every other week during the warmer months, a lawn service would sweep through Guttman’s property with humming twin mowers, and within 20 minutes, they would eviscerate every trace of what could become a meadow of native plants or yield a thicket of trees that could spawn nuts and berries.

“Eventually, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Guttman said. “I am essentially attacking my own land every other week, and all I’m doing is undermining its own natural ecosystem, and for what?”

Now, that roughly two acres of lawn is undergoing a transformation that will convert it to a sanctuary for native plants and trees, conceived by someone who has already dedicated a good part of his life to creating a healthier planet. For half a decade preceding his retirement at the end of 2019, Guttman helped lead Kennett Township’s efforts to promote open space preservation, community-based land stewardship and environmental sustainability, and has also championed the concept of developing Chester County as a world-wide hub for indoor agriculture.

As he first began to think about this project, Guttman knew that the building blocks had already been put into place. Buzz Ferver, the property’s original landscape designer, first created a largely natural garden in the immediate perimeter around Guttman’s home some two decades ago. Guttman also later rejuvenated a large meadow on the south end of the property, and has maintained about a half-acre of woods at its northern end, which connects to Stateline Woods Preserve.

When the idea to naturalize the remaining portion of his property began to take shape earlier this year, Guttman had an already-established ally who had worked alongside Ferver for years. Sam Berry has worked with Guttman and his wife Lynn Alison Wachman for the past 20 years, first as a carpenter and contractor on several home projects and now as a landscape designer, where he has been developing the sprawling and woodsy property into a showcase of plantings.

Berry has now been tasked with reassessing the whole landscape, incorporating the two-acre lawn. The initial analysis will take a critical look at the existing plantings in order to tag non-native invasive plants for replacement and determine what native plants will be most suitable for individual microclimates and cultural conditions.

“Early in my career as a landscape designer I was profoundly influenced by a trip to Mt Cuba, a natural garden focused on plants native to the Piedmont. I like plants that are dynamic and change throughout the seasons,” said Berry, who recently earned a Master’s degree in Plant and Soil Sciences from the University of Delaware with a focus on maximizing carbon storage potential on natural lands. “When you plant a non-native  evergreen azalea or forsythia in the front yard, you’ll get an attractive bloom for a week or so in the spring.  But there are so many other plants, including many natives, that will spawn colorful foliage and flowers in the spring, bear showy fruit in late summer, then come alive with a fall foliage display and provide winter interest with a persistent seed head or as a structural element.

“Our ultimate goal here is not only to create a more dynamic landscape, but also a more ecologically focused and sustainable landscape, modeled on a natural forest system in various states of succession, which requires minimal maintenance.”

Once completed, the project will include a clustering of naturalized plantings that will remove the remaining traces of a suburban lawn and replace it with native shade and specimen trees, shrubs, vines, ground cover, grasses and ferns – all of which will also turn much of the property into a fertile food source for native wildlife – and even for humans.

‘With a little bonus for us’

“Most of us tend to imagine food production in terms of conventional farming, but Lynn and I see it as an essential part of the natural environment,” Guttman said. “So, we’re creating a friendly environment for native wildlife, and a natural part of that is food production. Some people involved with this kind of approach are developing dense food forests that they want to live off of. We’re just trying to improve the native plant life and select varieties of trees, shrubs and herbs that provide fruit and nuts for wildlife, with a little bonus for us.”

“You won’t be able to find conventional lettuce, for instance, but you can certainly find other native plant material, such as sorrel, that can replace lettuce, and is readily incorporated into a sustainable, regenerating natural forest,” Berry said.

If there is a guidebook, blueprint or inspiration for the project, it can be found in the pages of “Bringing Nature Home,” (Timber Press 2007) by Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife at the University of Delaware. In his book, Tallamy writes that homeowners play an important role in preserving the biodiversity of their yards by incorporating them with native plants.

“For decades, many horticulture writers have been pleading for a fresh appreciation for our American flora, and for almost as long they have been largely (or entirely) ignored,” he wrote. “For several reasons, however, the day of the native ornamental is drawing near; the message is finally beginning to be heard.”

Together, Guttman and Berry are also working in consultation with Leigh Altadonna, the director for National Audubon Society’s Atlantic-North Region, and C. Dale Hendricks of Green Light Plants, and one of the founders of North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, a wholesale nursery that specializes in growing starter plants or plugs of perennials, ornamental grasses, ferns, vines and shrubs with an emphasis on Eastern U.S. native plants.

To Wachman and Guttman, the work they are undertaking with Berry is meant to serve as a continuingly evolving sketch board of ideas. It’s about establishing a continuity between nature and smart living, they said.

“We may not live here forever, but we are thinking ahead to future generations,” Wachman said. “In terms of what is happening, people have to think about the difference between conventional lawns versus long-term sustainable ecosystems, particularly at the community level.

‘What is in our own backyard’

“Metaphorically, this is allowing us to really work with what is in our own backyard and, being mindful of limitations in terms of moving forward with the pandemic, with how the world may change and how to rethink and repurpose what we all have in our own backyards.”

“What we really need to do is involve the community,” Guttman said. “All of this is to create more awareness, and it will operate on several levels. For myself, just understanding my own property better gives me a better feel for the larger issues out there, such as water quality, nutrient run-off and environmental preservation. It becomes far more meaningful when you take a serious look at your own property and realize ‘For 20 years, I’ve been mowing this lawn, and it isn’t helping.’

“For me, it has become an eye-opening experience to actually look at my property and see all of things that I was or wasn’t doing that are ultimately having such a large impact on the environment. Part of the exercise is asking, ‘How do I make this property more productive, and at the same time make it more natural, attractive and sustainable?’”


To learn more about Kennett Township’s efforts in sustainable living, visit https://kennett.pa.us/101/Sustainable-Development-Office.

To learn more about Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy, and for suggestions on what native plants can be grown in your region, visit www.bringingnaturehome.net.

Do you want to convert your yard into a wildlife sanctuary? Attend “Creating a Wildlife Sanctuary on Your Property: The Audubon at Home Program,” a webinar series sponsored by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, on Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. To register, visit “Audubon Society of Northern Virginia” on Facebook.


To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com.