These Native Plant-Filled Landscapes Prove That Suburbia Can Be as Lush as a Forest

wooden slat garden house in backyard
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Greg and Christine Van Zandbergen were not gardeners when they moved from Philadelphia to the city's Main Line in 2019. But the property they bought for their family in the dead of winter had a big surprise in store: an immersive native- wildflower meadow that wrapped around the entire house. It emerged their first spring there, and rolled out successive waves of flowers and foliage through the fall—just as Jeff Lorenz and his team at Refugia, a local landscape-design firm that specializes in native plants, had planned. That winter, when friends with conventional front lawns asked the couple if they were going to keep the meadow, they said they weren't sure—it depended on how much time, money, and upkeep it would require. Lorenz, who had helped coax the plot along all year, promised them it was low-maintenance and well worth the beauty and connections with nature it would provide. They decided to give it a chance.

Lorenz founded Refugia in 2015, determined to change people's perception of the suburban yard. There are more than 40 million acres of turfgrass across the U.S. today, much of them maintained by gas-powered mowers, watering systems, and synthetic fertilizers. This monoculture, a symbol of America since the mid-20th century, contributes to the decline in plant and animal biodiversity around the world. Instead of lawns, Lorenz cultivates local plants, or ecotypes, which he describes as "connected through evolution to the climate, geology, soil, and hydrology of their exact spaces." In other words, they're precisely as nature in-tended. His own yard in urban Narberth (shown on the previous pages) is a vibrant example: It has a diverse array of plants, from berries to blooms, that looks beautiful year-round, helps sequester carbon, and is adapted to endure increasingly extreme weather.

To monitor the impact of these important gardens, Refugia established its ecological Greenway Network—an interconnected group of more than 120 native-plant landscapes in the Philadelphia area. His first project was for Peter and Denise Mahal, a couple of bird lovers in leafy Berwyn (shown above and at right). Refugia layered in plantings to mimic the woodland that their subdivision likely removed, and six years later, mature trees invite songbirds to perch, tall shrubs serve as roosting sites, and groundcover and leaf litter provide safe spaces for sparrows to forage. In the fall, goldfinches start snacking on the seed heads of echinacea. The Mahals take it all in during walks on the meandering paths in their yard. "The garden completely transforms every few weeks," Peter says.

Ten miles away, the Van Zandbergens have embraced their unmanicured surroundings. Flowers, birds, and butterflies beckon their two tween daughters outside, and friends and even strangers stop by to see what's happening in the meadow. Greg gushes about its benefits, and visitors often leave with a bouquet picked by his girls. Now when people ask, "Will you keep it?" he answers with a smile and a sweep of an arm: "Isn't it obvious?"

Here, in landscape designer Jeff Lorenz's urban backyard, an upcycled-wooden-slat garden house sits in a no-mow sedge lawn alternative.

Art Direction by Ryan Mesina

01 of 10

Smart Waters

stone walkway through colorful garden
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The native perennials in landscape designer Jeff Lorenz's side garden are adapted to the region and need no additional irrigation. A permeable gravel-and-flagstone path helps absorb excess water from storms, which prevents flooding, a common problem in the area.

02 of 10

Seasonal Shift

white boneset blooms in backyard
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By late summer, Peter and Denise Mahal's backyard erupts in clouds of white when two kinds of boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum and E.seroti-num) bloom. Joe-pye-weed seed heads and yellow goldenrod add streaks of color.

03 of 10

Eye-Catching Oasis

lush pink and yellow flowers in front yard
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Greg and Christine Van Zandbergen's front yard is a sea of bright-yellow Ratibida pinnata, pale-purple and scarlet bee balm (Monarda media and M. didyma), and clouds of silvery mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum).

04 of 10

Soaring Success

native dogwood in front meadow house
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A regal native dogwood (Cornus florida) in the Mahals' front meadow attracts year-round and migrating birds.

05 of 10

Pops of Purple

purple new england asters
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Purple New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) mingles with Shenandoah switchgrass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah').

06 of 10

Scenic Stops

refugia greenway network garden sign
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Each Refugia Greenway Network garden features a sign identifying it as a space that is "restoring nature to neighborhoods."

07 of 10

Migrating Monarch

monarch on purple bee balm and coneflowers
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A migrating monarch feeds at pale-purple bee balm (Monarda media) mixed in with bright prairie coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata).

08 of 10

Minty Fresh

virginia mountain mint flowers
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Virginia mountain-mint flowers (Pycnanthemum virginianum) keep a honeybee busy.

09 of 10

Color Central

yellow wands solidago rugosa blue mist flower
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Yellow wands of Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' arch over blue mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum syn. Conoclinium coelestinum).

10 of 10

Innately Talented

lay flat of refugia native plant clippings
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These are just a sampling of the diverse native plants that thrive in Refugia's Pennsylvania gardens.

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