It may be a dream for some—the two-acre subdivision with the charming home and expansive lawn. But it’s a paradigm Margot Taylor says must change. She aims to reduce, rather than tame, turf. “Will someone ever be bold enough to get rid of the front lawn?” she asks.
As part of a worldwide initiative, the Chester County-based landscape architect has made her domestic landscape in Kennett Square a national, accessible model for sustainability and habitat. Taylor’s Dancing Tree estate is one of just two private residences in the country certified by the Sustainable Sites Initiative—essentially a demonstration site for enviro-friendly land-use practices for water, soil and vegetation conservation and management. It’s the only three-star private SITES residence in the world. A close second is in Santa Barbara, Calif.
SITES began in the early 2000s as a response to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEEDS is green-building specific, but it doesn’t do enough for landscapes, says Taylor. A partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas and the U.S. Botanic Garden, SITES is designed to transform land development and management practices with the nation’s first voluntary rating system for sustainable landscapes, with or without buildings. “We needed to elevate the landscape to a greater level of importance,” says Taylor, an environmental education specialist. “Otherwise, there was no one thinking about the landscape at all.”
Taylor’s property was once part of a century-old dairy farm on both sides of Creek Road, which was left fallow and without a legacy plan in 1952. Repeated land clearing by grazing cattle or farming implements had compacted and killed the soil. “Annual crop fields today are largely fields of death,” says Taylor. “There was once a 60-cow herd here, but there’s a reason why, in the end, there were no cattle in this field.”
About 75 percent of the plants grown on the property
Taylor has spent 600 hours and $15,000 to bring her property up to SITES standards. “It’s a different expectation for a residential property owner because of the time and expense,” she says. “I did it because I was a landscape architect who was out of work in 2009, and because I was living in the epicenter of horticulture in the United States, the region with the most botanical gardens and arboretums, trade schools and academic institutions dedicated to horticulture.”
When Taylor spoke at the national convention of the American Society of Landscape Architects in Massachusetts in 2014, she was the lone homeowner among representatives from the parks systems, museums and botanical gardens. “The others dominated,” she says. “At the end, we were sent an assessment of how we were received, and I had the lowest scores of all the speakers. I understand. Residential is not a focus.”
In July, Taylor’s 1.69-acre property, with its 80-foot slope, was featured in a Brandywine Conservancy showcase tour. About 75 percent of the plants grown on her land are native. “Margot’s is one of the most unique places you’ll ever see,” says Nora Sadler, a staff gardener at Brandywine Conservancy, who coordinated the event. “What she’s done is creative and interesting. If I had her landscape with that steep hill, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I admire her creativity—a lot.”
Additional SITES-awarded highlights include alternative energy sources, a state-of-the-art septic system that pumps wastewater back uphill, then redistributes it in drips down slope, extensive storm water management practices, whimsical sculptures, a meditation labyrinth and the Magic Hut, built of hay bales with a green living roof. The roofs on the hut and other outdoor structures absorb rainwater, reduce peak storm water surge and regulate seasonal temperatures. A potting shed is made of upcycled materials. A storm water conveyance system recharges ground water supply, controls storm water surge, and creates aesthetic garden elements and a meadow rain garden habitat. One rescue garden reuses construction materials and saved plants. Other gardens are full of perennials for cutting and culinary herbs.
The Magic Hut and other outdoor structures feature living roofs that absorb rainwater.//Photo by Saxon Holt
Taylor has experimental beds with woodchips and mushroom spores for her hives of honeybees, which consume the secreted juice from mycelium in mushrooms as a rich source of nutrients. She collects and inoculates logs with oyster and turkey tail mushroom spores to build soil health and the underground soil food web. In three of her five rain gardens, she lets whatever’s there grow. The other two are managed.
There are logs everywhere. Some mark pathways through the property that help minimize soil compaction. There are rain barrels hidden in storage sheds. Soil excavated on the property and every stone was repurposed as resource material. “We dug down and dug in,” Taylor says.
She hopes for early snows that help with decomposition. As a management tool, she plants 25 tree seedlings a year to build vertical forest structure and supplement diversity. She’d like more beech and hickory trees; the oaks come in on their own. The shrub layer is boosted by adding native azaleas, blackhaw and mapleleaf viburnum, witch hazel and mountain laurel. The birds bring in the spice bush.
Taylor uses a Colonial-style worm, or zigzag, fence as a frontage border to define her land as a maintained property. She has designed planting for deer browse to keep them at the base of the property, which can hold 5 inches of storm water, as evidenced in her rain gardens that once left a natural bath ring of maple seeds. “Everyone should manage water on site,” she says. “If you own land, that should be part of your responsibility.”
The 1.69-acre estate, with its 80-foot slope, was featured in a Brandywine Conservancy showcase tour in July.//Photo by Saxon Holt
In all, she strives to spend just 55 hours a year maintaining her landscape. Management has to fall into a groove, a seasonal rhythm. Walking, she pulls garlic mustard, an invasive weed, pocketing its seed and leaving the rest to decompose back into the earth.
Growing up, Taylor played at the roots of trees—her “dollhouses”—in Greenville. Her father’s career was with DuPont. Her mother was a reading specialist at the Tower Hill and Tatnall schools. Margot attended both, which were near the family’s home. She often collected flowers along her walk to school. Once, she brought dandelion heads for everyone at a field hockey game.
Flowers remain a prominent theme in Taylor’s work as an amateur potter, and ceramics will dominate the external facade of two columns that are part of a new aqueduct on her property. “I just loved plants and horticulture,” she says.
An aptitude test in ninth grade planted a seed: She was best suited to become a landscape architect. “I never looked back,” says Taylor.
She attended the University of Georgia, earning a degree in landscape architecture, then traveled the world for two years, particularly in Asia. Upon her return, her mother delivered an ultimatum. Since then, she’s become what others describe as “totally obsessed” with landscape architecture.
In 2009, after she was laid off, Taylor returned to Green Valleys in Pottstown, where she was once director of education. Today, she works from home as an education specialist, creating curricula for middle schools and planning site work for green-innovation projects, largely to manage storm water. She continues to do unique work as a private consultant. “I’m not known for designing the rectangle,” Taylor says.
Her landscape architecture practice focuses on ecological design and restoration, and the development and implementation of environmental education programs. When she’s not crafting clay and serving as an advocate for natural resource conservation in the community, she mountain bikes and plays Celtic fiddle.
At home, Taylor’s focus is on operations, maintenance and providing educational programming and resources. A printed map and brochure, an interactive scavenger hunt and a free tour are her educational tools. So far, she’s welcomed more than 450 visitors to her property. “It’s about putting the vocabulary into minds,” she says. “It’s sustainable to me. Saying ‘green’ is like saying something is new when it isn’t. What we’re doing is returning to something old.”