Refugia converts homeowners into native plant advocates, one lawn at a time.
By Jared Brey
Jeff Lorenz stood under the mid-June sun at FDR Park, monitoring the final touches on his company’s exhibit for the Philadelphia Flower Show. The exhibit space, ordinarily an asphalt parking lot, had been covered in mulch and lined with displays, all in the final moments of construction.
Teams of employees scuttled about in branded T-shirts—“REFUGIA: Functional Design for the American Landscape”—placing trees, shrubs, grasses, moss, and flowers in clumps for planting the next day.
The plants were native, as they are in all of Refugia’s projects. You could find them throughout the coastal plain, Lorenz said: pitch pine, gray birch, bald cypress, Atlantic white cedar, wax myrtle, blueberry, swamp milkweed, giant coneflower, hay-scented fern.
A small, sloping path made of Pennsylvania bluestone would flow with water when the show opened the next night. The boardwalk was made from bald cypress boards. Part of the space was enclosed beneath a mycelium roof made of lion’s mane and reishi mushrooms.
It was Refugia’s seventh year exhibiting at the Philadelphia Flower Show—a great tool for marketing and recruiting, Lorenz says. But as interest in Refugia’s work has accelerated, Lorenz quietly confided, he’d begun to wonder whether it was a distraction. “We’re slammed,” he said. “Every aspect of our business is overwhelmed right now.”
Lorenz founded Refugia in 2015. The company began with small jobs in the Philadelphia suburbs, helping homeowners incorporate native, pollinator-friendly plants into their lawns and gardens. Gradually, the business has grown, with several landscape architects and designers on staff and an expanding network of residential gardens and public commissions under its belt.
Refugia’s growth has mirrored an explosion of interest among homeowners in native plants and pollinators. In particular, over the past few years, a movement to kill the grass lawn and replace it with ecologically beneficial flora has taken hold in certain parts of the American suburbs.
Refugia is headquartered on the Main Line, a network of Philadelphia suburbs connected by commuter rail that’s among the wealthiest places in the United States. Among the area’s manicured lawns, Refugia’s approach has found detractors as well as enthusiasts.
But its portfolio is growing fast. On its website, the company claims an ecological “Greenway Network” of more than 75 native gardens it has completed within five miles of its home base in Narberth, Pennsylvania. And many more are in the works. Lorenz says he wants the company to be “just big enough” to meet the demand for native gardens in the area and, in the process, help make the suburbs more efficient with stormwater and more beneficial to bees, birds, butterflies, caterpillars, and, by extension, humans.
“The whole goal of our business is to pepper the suburbs and urban areas with habitat,” Lorenz says. “If there’s any direct way that we can all say we’re doing something about the changing climate and species collapse and all these things, it’s on private property.”
Lorenz, whose father taught sustainable engineering at Villanova University and cofounded the sustainability consultancy Environmental Resources Management, tries to proselytize for native species without being preachy.
He frequently cites the author Doug Tallamy, an entomologist who has called native gardening “a grassroots solution to the extinction crisis.” In his books Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope, Tallamy has framed the nation’s suburban yards as the last, best chance to restore some of the ecological function of the developed landscape and promoted “a suburban ecosystem that is complex enough to keep itself going without micromanagement on our part,” as he wrote in Bringing Nature Home (see “Big Tree, Small World,” LAM, September 2021).
Refugia’s Greenway Network is a small version of Tallamy’s “Homegrown National Park,” an advocacy effort to create 20 million acres of native plantings around the United States, representing about half the privately owned lawn space in the country.
Refugia’s website includes a testimonial from Tallamy, and at one time, Lorenz regularly handed out Tallamy’s books to potential clients, says Kayla Fell, Refugia’s creative content manager (and Lorenz’s wife). Increasingly over the past few years, the process has reversed, Fell says: Homeowners, already converted to the cause, approach Refugia looking for help making their gardens more functional and beneficial to insects.
On a Tuesday morning in June, Lorenz drove with Amy Matusheski, a summer intern, to visit a potential client at a three-story stone house in Wynnewood, a Main Line suburb. The owner, Dan Mercer, had moved from the city in 2016 with his wife, Swati, and their 10-year-old daughter. When he bought the house, Mercer said, the front lawn had been mostly grass, with “mountains of mulch” surrounding planted areas.
Mercer had gradually removed the lawn and the mulch and covered the front yard in native plants, some of which he planted and some of which grew on their own, including boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), and bee balms. He’d established a series of rain gardens with sweet-scented joe-pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), and woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), which captured almost all the runoff from his house. But there was one downspout that still spilled into the driveway. He called Refugia looking for ideas about how to divert the remaining water into the garden. And he was also looking for ways to redesign the back patio and develop the backyard garden.
In the garden at his last house, Mercer told Lorenz, he’d had grapevines, which were nice until the fruit got heavy and dropped, rotted, and attracted bees and wasps. Was there a native vine that grew in a similar fashion? Lorenz recommended trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) or crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), both of which would cover a trellis and produce big, colorful flowers in the spring and summer.
“And they don’t have tendrils, so they won’t adhere to it; they just wind around,” he told Mercer. “They won’t destroy the structure.”
Mercer became interested in native plantings after seeing how much flooding affected local trails in Wissahickon Valley Park, where he volunteers. The stormwater runs off suburban lawns and overwhelms the local creeks. Mercer wanted to be part of a solution.
“I’m not going to save any parks or anything like that. It’s just me. It’s a small lot,” he says. “But, you know, a lot of simple efforts could add up to something significant.”
Whenever possible, Refugia sources plants from a small web of local growers, including Natural Landscapes Nursery, Quality Greenhouses, North Creek Nurseries, Sam Brown’s Wholesale Nursery in Pennsylvania, and Pleasant Run Nursery in New Jersey. They also pull some species from Pizzo Native Plant Nursery in Illinois.
Some plants are bought in bulk and stored at Refugia’s headquarters, especially hardy shrubs and small trees, Lorenz says. Delicate perennials and fungus-prone grasses they tend to buy once they have a planting plan for a specific project. The company includes a year of landscape stewardship for most of its installations, and in the course of maintenance, workers regularly pull cuttings to propagate in Refugia’s greenhouse. Occasionally they’ll make adjustments to the soil at a certain site, but typically they choose a plant palette based on existing conditions.
Over the past year, pandemic-related supply chain issues have mostly sorted themselves out for Refugia’s needs, Lorenz says. But sudden shortages have continued to occur as local demand for native plants spikes, especially on civic projects. The native-plant movement is growing for a few reasons, says George Coombs, the director of horticulture at the Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden focused on native plants in Hockessin, Delaware. One is that the idea of helping insects like monarch butterflies, which are “cute and fuzzy and charismatic,” is a relatively easy sell. The other is that planting natives is less of an act of sacrifice than other actions taken on behalf of the environment.
“So many conservation behaviors require you to give up something—less water, less electricity,” Coombs says. “But you don’t have to do that with plants. You can add native plants, keep all the ones you’ve always loved, and still have a really beneficial impact.”
Landscape architects deserve some credit for pioneering the use of native species in public and private gardens, says Andrew Bunting, the vice president of horticulture for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which puts on the Philadelphia Flower Show. In particular, Andropogon, based in Philadelphia, and Oehme, van Sweden, based in Washington, D.C., were early proponents of the native plant movement, he says. The use of natives has become much more commonplace since those firms began using them in the 1980s. And while natives can be used in many of the same formal styles as traditional ornamentals, they’ve also become strongly associated with a particular meadow aesthetic. Some people want that. Others, including some in Philadelphia’s wealthy suburbs, don’t.
“For a lot of people, probably, the lawn and the shrubs [have] more to do with control,” Bunting says. “There’s something there that’s not necessarily horticultural. So, to get people to shift to the prairie or meadow style—for most people, that’s a major shift.”
In addition to hosting the greenway map on its website, Refugia posts street-facing signs on the native gardens it plants. It’s a marketing tool, but Fell says it’s also “designed to tell people why it looks like this.”
Rob Gladfelter, ASLA, the director of operations at Refugia, joined the company in 2021 after getting a bachelor’s in landscape architecture at Temple University. Before that, he’d worked in landscaping and horticulture for more than a decade. It’s been exciting to see a shift toward native plants in public gardens, he says, and to work for a company that has a mission to address the climate crisis. And one that stands by its principles, he says, including being willing to get fired by a client for refusing to plant a rosebush. He’s happy to plant a traditional garden with hedges, he says, as long as they are native.
“We really want everybody to do it,” Gladfelter says. “The whole idea is we really want to change people’s perception of what a healthy landscape looks like.”
Lorenz says he tries to follow the native ethos when it comes to hardscaping, too. He sources bald cypress boards from local lumberyards, and he’s an enthusiast of Pennsylvania bluestone, a sedimentary sandstone used for landscape steps and pavers that he sources from HEPCO Quarries, which has a stone yard in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s a unique stone that only occurs in a small area of northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York, says Brad Hepler, a co-owner of HEPCO Quarries. The layers vary in size, from the five-foot-thick “saw rock” that’s processed and used for wall caps, mantels, hearths, and lintels to the more delicate, irregular slabs used for steps. It takes a lot of forethought and planning to extract and market all parts of the rock, Hepler says, and not all quarries do it. HEPCO operates on a 205-acre plot of land in Windsor, New York, according to Hepler, who says the company has been actively quarrying the same 10-acre section of it since 2005.
The bluestone slabs that Refugia used for the Philadelphia Flower Show were an opportunistic purchase, Lorenz says—two pallets had been prepared for another client who canceled. “We just try to have our materials be in the same world as the plants we use,” he says.
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia and a contributing editor to the magazine.