Green experiment gone wild?

A landscape architect stops mowing and irrigating her yard and gets a call from the city.

August 10, 2011
Bionutrition Today sponsored by Lebanon Industry News

Margie Ruddick, a designer known for her elegant ecological landscapes, got a summons from the City of Philadelphia last year, citing her East Mount Airy yard as being in violation of the property maintenance code.

“For weeds over 10 inches,” said Ruddick, 54, standing beside her favorite pokeweed a few weeks ago. By August, it will be laden with purple berries, poisonous to humans but a favorite of the birds.

About a year after she stopped mowing the lawn here in 2005, black cherry seedlings showed up in the tall grasses and wild asters. In the next few years, oaks, mulberry and rose of sharon moved in.

“There wasn’t a lot of order or maintenance, and it did look a little unkempt,” said her neighbor John Siemiarowski, who lives across the street. But “the worst of it now is that we can’t see the Komodo dragon anymore.”

That life-size wooden sculpture, which Ruddick brought back from Bali, is now hidden behind a coppiced grove of black cherry trees. And nearby, rising from a thicket of raspberries that Siemiarowski likes to graze on, is a National Wildlife Federation sign reading “certified wildlife habitat.”

Two years into Ruddick’s experiment, when this sea of seedling trees had no shape, she said: “People were freaked out that it looked abandoned. I had a sign that said ‘This house is not for sale,’ because people would come to the window and look in.”

A friend from the Deep South told her: “Margie, you’ve gone country. All you need is an old refrigerator and couch with the springs poking out setting there on your porch.”

Ruddick, who has a degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, had her own practice for 16 years, first with Judith Heintz in Manhattan, then on her own in Philadelphia, where her small team designed both private and public landscapes sensitive to the sites. She likes to collaborate, as she did in 1996 when she worked with the environmental artist Betsy Damon and Chinese designers to create the Living Water park in Chengdu, China, which cleanses polluted water with a series of ponds and constructed wetlands.

In 2004, she and her team became part of WRT, a Philadelphia design firm that bases its work on sustainable principles. As a partner, she collaborated with Marpillero Pollak Architects and the environmental artist Michael Singer to bring nature to Queens Plaza with permeable paving and rain gardens that absorb storm water pouring off the Queensboro Bridge, and curving forests of hornbeam trees, shadblow and redbud that echo the arc of the elevated train line.

“I’m one of the finalists this year for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award,” she said, showing off the chicken coop near the compost pile. “Which makes this kind of hilarious.” (She received the AudubonWomen in Conservation’s Rachel Carson Award in 2006 and the Lewis Mumford Award from Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility in 2002, among others.)

What she’s doing here is a backyard version of those great urban parks going green.

No matter. In March, she stood before a hearings officer in the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, arguing like any other beleaguered citizen that she didn’t deserve a $75 fine.

“I was armed with photographs,” she said. “I told the judge: ‘This is actually not a weed. It’s Prunus serotina, a black cherry seedling. This is not a weed. It’s an oak tree, Quercus alba. The 10-inch weeds are rhubarb.’ ”

The judge stared at the photographs. They looked like weeds, but they had botanical names. This tall woman (she is 5-foot-11 in her bare feet) looked perfectly sane in her clean, pressed trousers and tailored blouse. The fine was canceled, and Ms. Ruddick went home and began searching for a gardener who could bring enough order to her yard-gone-wild to forestall another summons and to allay neighbors’ fears about declining property values.

“You have to allow a certain amount of mess to create a habitat,” she said. But “it also pushes a boundary that’s very uncomfortable: the sloppiness and the ugliness, the awkward moments when things are cut” before “it starts to get its own shape.”

Across the street, Siemiarowski’s wife, Elayne Bender, was intrigued.

“I wondered what she was doing, but given who she is, I trusted that it would turn out to be something I’d want to look at,” Bender said.

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