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easy does it: adaptive reuse yields regenerative landscapes, with apiary studio

LANDSCAPE DESIGN may be part of the green industry, but sometimes rethinking a garden space (or creating a garden where there didn’t used to be one) can create a lot of very un-green waste material—especially true when you’re designing in an urban setting.

Today’s guests, the principals of Apiary Studio in Philadelphia and recent best-in-show winners of the Philadelphia Flower Show, creatively find new lives for every scrap of material they can—yes, even concrete rubble, rather than sending it to the landfill—all the while making beautiful, functional outdoor garden spaces for their clients.

What are their secrets of being transformational and environmentally sensitive at the same time that we can all learn from?

Hans Hesselein and Martha Keen are the leaders behind Apiary Studio, a design-build landscape firm specializing in regenerative landscapes, each one-of-a-kind, really, but all based on a set of distinctive design tenets they explained in our conversation. (Above, Apiary’s upcycled paving connects a home and studio by the Philadelphia firm C2 Architecture; Sam Oberter photo.)

Read along as you listen to the May 20, 2024 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

easy does it when landscaping, with apiary studio

 

 

Margaret Roach: You’re not out digging, not out working today, huh?

Martha Keen: No, we’re actually tabled today with a rain day, so it’s pretty serendipitous timing that we had this interview scheduled with you.

Margaret: Good. So just a little backstory. We met this year through common garden friends, and they had watched a talk you gave at a conference. And then I watched the replay at their recommendation, and I found myself scribbling down ideas like mad, because so many of the principles that drive your designs are new to me. And I learned more when we worked on a “New York Times” garden column together after that.

So I wonder if for the listeners, you could sort of give a little background of what’s “regenerative landscaping,” if we can call the genre you work in that, and kind of a quick backstory of how you found yourself expressing yourself in this way rather than in a more traditional, familiar garden style.

Hans Hesselein: I would say regenerative landscaping to me probably means doing things that are environmentally sustainable, that are good for the Earth, good for wildlife, good for people. We don’t necessarily think of our work in terms of labels, but regenerative sounds like a really good term to use, I think. It’s positive and it, I think, seems to mean intuitively just doing something that heals the planet rather than harms it.

Martha: And I think also operating with optimism. In recent year, I’ve started to really embrace that feeling: Doing something that is responsive to the sort of dread or guilt that we all face in light of how rapidly the climate seems to be changing, and also doing something with the onus that I think everybody who works in the green industry feels to do no harm or do less harm, because it’s a bit of an open secret that some traditional landscape practices are incredibly wasteful.

Margaret: Right. And especially as I said in the introduction, in the urban environment where a lot of your work takes place. I mean, there’s a lot of tricky materials already, right, on site. You get there, I suppose, and you’re going to do a consultation with a prospective client, and what are you maybe seeing? If you’re in a place like Philadelphia, or if you’re in New York City, and even in a lot of suburban environments, you’re probably seeing a lot of pavement and a lot of “soil” that’s left… soil in quotes as you’ve taught me, Hans [laughter]. Soil left over from construction and who knows what over the years. Right? I mean, it’s not idyllic. It’s not a pristine natural setting, a lot of times.

Hans: That’s true. None of the sites that we work on in Philadelphia are undisturbed, but there’s definitely a degree of disturbance. There are some very nice, beautiful properties that don’t have a lot of challenging conditions. But then our favorite projects are sort of deeper in the heart of Philadelphia and often involve a lot of really degraded conditions, I would say. So it’s not uncommon for us to arrive at a project site—whether it’s a homeowner or a developer project or some small institution in Philadelphia—it is not uncommon for us to find a site that is entirely paved, front yard, backyard, side yard and building. And that’s always a challenging condition to create a garden in.

And sometimes when we find project sites that are open, that are not entirely paved, the soils are extremely disturbed and characterized by lots of funky urban fill, bricks, chunks of concrete, rubble and trash of various kinds. And we love the challenge of creating gardens and selecting materials, and particularly plant palettes, that work with those existing soils rather than digging them up, throwing them away and bringing in cleaner, more traditional organic rich and nice soil.

Margaret: Right. Because that really is a lot of us. We think, oh, I’m going to make a garden. Well, I’m going to erase everything that’s there and I’m going to bring in, fill in the blank, whatever it is: the plants, the soil, everything. And you don’t do that sort of clean slate kind of a thing. And maybe it’s obvious to people, but tell us the reason. I mean, I had never really thought until I listened to your presentation and then subsequently talked to you, I’d never really carefully thought about all of that sort of hardscape that gets torn up and redone in so many landscaping projects all over the country and the world all the time when it’s looking worn out or whatever, or for whatever reason. And where does it go and what happens to it? I mean, there’s a big cost to that, not just in dollars, is it?

Hans: That’s right. I think in addition to keeping soils on site and adjusting our plant palette to meet the soil conditions, we also find a lot of concrete. It feels very strange to us to come onto a site, tear up a bunch of paving, throw it away and bring in new paving. And so we’ve been trying to experiment and explore ways that we can make ugly concrete into something that’s, if not beautiful, at least tolerable for our clients. [Above, sawcutting old pavements and stockpiling pieces for reuse; Jaime Alvarez photo.]

Martha: Yeah, and it just so happens that this type of work—like using recycled materials, using materials that would otherwise be thrown into the trash—somehow really is suited to the urban character of Philadelphia where there’s a spectrum of vernacular, I would say, some of which is stately, historic, old and beautifully intact as historic buildings. But others which are in one form or another of just decay, and there’s beauty in that as well. And sort of reappropriating some of that decay, and transforming it into something intentional, well-crafted, well-executed, really does sort of seamlessly blend into the character of the city where we’re living and working.

Margaret: Right. So as we talked about in the “Times” article, a lot of what you might do with most of these, I think you refer to them as “surgical extractions”—if as you come to a property that has pavement everywhere and you want to make garden beds, you might extract some of that hardscape, but you don’t cart it off to the landfill, you pile it up and sort of think about it, as you explained to me, think about it while you’re working on everything else. Think about what could it become. And you’ve been experimenting with and developing a talent for making these almost mosaics of paving out of the remnants. Or you find cobblestones and bricks and who knows what in the rubble. And again, you pile them up and you might make a wall. It’s just this very handcrafted look, and yet it doesn’t have to look messy, does it? I think it’s certainly evolved, the ability to work with this rubble [laughter] has certainly evolved from job to job, hasn’t it?

Hans: Yeah. I think yes, our style is evolving, it’s changing. As we work more on projects, we get to practice our craft, learn lessons, and figure out what looks best. But yeah, we oftentimes will start with a site that’s entirely paved over. And the trick there, or the challenge I would say, is that we have clients who have sites that are entirely paved, and they usually don’t want that condition. That’s not desirable for them. However, the clients that we’re working with and for don’t typically have the budgets to remove everything. So that’s one constraint that helps drive our creative design process, is that the clients we have cannot afford the ideal condition. And so we’ve had to figure out ways that we can, as we say, surgically extract some of the concrete and make what remains attractive.

And so the first step in this process is carefully delineating which spaces will be garden bed, which spaces will remain that existing pavement condition, and to very carefully and precisely saw-cut and remove sections of this pavement to create new garden beds. What makes that work and what makes that attractive is the craft and precision with which you saw and remove, and then create a new edge to that paving condition.

And then once those materials are extracted, we will sometimes reuse them on that same site as a new paver stepping stones through the garden or a retaining wall or something. Or we will stockpile that material in our small yard and save it for another project, where we bring in new paving materials. And when we’re creating what you call these mosaic paving patterns that use concrete or brick or cobblestone, and usually a combination of all these things, we have had to try to find ways to make these materials look attractive. Because the risk, the pitfall, with using trash as a building material is you don’t want to end up creating a garden that looks like trash reused [laughter] or it looks like some D.I.Y. project.

We are professionals and we’re trying to deliver to our clients a professional looking landscape. And that’s a distinction, I think, that’s important. But a homeowner D.I.Y. landscape can be very charming, and I think there’s a lot of value and merit to that. But as a professional, that’s not what we’re trying to deliver for people.

Martha: It’s also our goal to do this type of work well enough that it’s as compelling as a brand new bluestone patio or brick patio. And if not as compelling, maybe more compelling, because there are the added benefits of the way that it ameliorates some of the waste, especially of masonry products and concrete, which exist in excess. [Above, old bricks and other materials are repurposed into new paving by Apiary; Jaime Alvarez photo.]

Margaret: Well, and I love some of your company kind of mottos or slogans or tenets, I guess. One of them that I think came from your childhood, Martha, was “there is no away.” Maybe you could explain that because gardening, whether we’re doing hardscape work, like you’re talking about, \or just all the bags of stuff and the plastic pots, and there’s a lot of waste. There’s a lot of waste that we have to be conscious about. And so the idea of “there is no away” is something that really, I’ve been thinking a lot about it since we met. So tell us where that came from, what that means.

Martha: Yeah. I am always happy to put this little adage out in the world. Essentially, when I was growing up, there was a family friend of ours who was a doctor in the town where I grew up, except he drove an old VW pick up that was probably three decades older than the year we were living in. And scribbled on the back in Sharpie was this saying that Dr. Kingsley had coined, which is, “Don’t throw it away, there is no away.” [Photo by Patricia Kingsley.]

And that’s something that my family has volleyed around forever when we encountered… We were sort of a thrifty family, but that’s something that we fully embraced. And as Hans and I started to really home in on what our ethos is as a company, what our manifesto is as a business, as we started to mature into more of an identity and to have repeatable practices that the business does, that’s one that he and I adopted as well, mostly with respect to hardscaping.

A lot of gardener—I’m guilty of this—a lot of gardeners, we have biases, and when we think of a landscape, we fixate on the plants. But as it is, when you’re in a landscaping company at large that’s approaching a whole site, plants are maybe 10 percent of the project. You have to be concerned with drainage, utilities, underground, patios, fencing, walls, dah, dah, dah. And we’re all well acquainted with composting, with mulching our leaves in the fall instead of bagging them up and blowing them away or whatever the case may be. But there is a whole gamut of other materials that get used in a landscape, and it’s when I was finally confronting those every day, working as a landscaper at large, not just as a fine gardener, that “there is no away” really came to the surface as a tagline for our company that is applicable to just about every single day in the life of our work.

Margaret: Yes, I think so. So maybe we’ll talk a little bit about the plants. And one thing just about the soil, Hans, you mentioned about the soils, and some of them, again, you use it in quotes because some of the places, the soil is really a mess. But you guys, if a client wants a vegetable garden or if you’re doing containers and so forth, you are using fresh soil, some kind of a different medium, not the native soil that’s there. But generally speaking, you’re trying to match, as you said earlier, plants to this environment, these conditions, this soil. And so where does that make you think about, like what places is in nature, or where do you go looking for your inspiration for plants?

Hans: Thanks for pointing out that we don’t use poison soil. We’re not creating a lot of vegetable gardens for our clients, but when we do, yes, you’re right. We bring in very nice clean, amended compost-rich soil, and we saved the junk soil for the ornamental gardens. So the soils that we find are often full of gravel, rubble. They’re very quote-unquote “mineral rich,” I would say. And often very alkaline because there’s a lot of lime concrete waste in them. And so we have tried to imagine, unscientifically I would admit, what kinds of natural environments can we mimic and learn from, as you pointed out? And we think of maybe kind of limestone-rich areas, kind of mountainsides, the Mediterranean, often places that have sharp drainage that the soils are more leaning alkaline, and the plants can handle very, very low nutrients.

Martha: As well as low irrigation, low water.

Hans: Yeah. Yeah. So we’re looking at limestone bluffs, and really kind of gravelly natural rock outcroppings and things like that. And we’re definitely not using acid-loving plants, so we can’t really think about pine barrens, unfortunately. But we use natives as much as possible, and actually a lot of prairie plants and things from where Martha is native to, Nebraska, seemed to do relatively well, like Echinacea and things like that.

Martha: Yeah. Actually where I grew up, the soil is actually very alkaline. I don’t know the extent of that type of soil, but certainly the state of Nebraska is the palette of trees that we’re able to use for shade trees and street trees is actually quite limited for that reason as well. Yeah.

As Hans said, we’re a bit unscientific about it. And I would say that that is a sort of frontier for us is formalizing a little bit how we approach specifying plants. Another strategy that we do to account for attrition, if not everything takes, is really over-planting sites. We like to install plants really densely and really small, so we prefer plugs or quart pots over gallon or three-gallon size perennials and shrubs, and just let things go in the ground young at an ideal time of year and kind of grow up as if they were seeded in, more or less.

Hans: Yeah. And Martha mentioned attrition because that’s definitely one of our strategies. We don’t expect everything to live. I would say between 10 and 20 percent of the plants we install or 10 to 15 percent.

Martha: Might not make it through the first year.

Hans: Yeah. And which is fine because we pack stuff in.

Martha: Allows us to experiment, I would say.

Hans: Yeah.

Margaret: Right. And I think that’s really a good insight. I mean, just the idea of this old adage, it was like, don’t fight the site or something. You really have taken that to the max because of the conditions you’re often dealing with, and like you’re saying, a very alkaline situation and so forth. You have to be realistic about what you try to plant unless, you want to erase the whole place [laughter] and bring in, truck in, all this new material and so forth. And so, yeah. Are there any favorite plants that you’ve almost have become signatures at all, or is it different each time?

Hans: No, there’s some favorite plants.

Martha: There’s some signatures. I mean, we’re Penstemon digitalis evangelists. I feel like in every garden is kind of like a foil, that’s a plant that its rosette is more or less evergreen, its flower power is tremendous, and it seeds around sort of merrily but not aggressively. So that’s a plant that can kind of tend itself. A lot of the sites that we’re working on, we might have one maintenance visit a month or maybe two maintenance visits a year. We take a pretty light-touch approach to maintenance as well. So we have to rely on plants that we know will survive. Hans, what do you want to add?

Hans: I would say butterfly milkweed [Asclepias tuberosa] is in almost every single project that we install for obvious pollinator reasons. And also I would probably call that my favorite native perennial. And it does very well in environments that we’re working in. We use a lot of Mediterranean plants. We like herbs in our garden, in the gardens that we build for people, because they’re beautiful and they’re easy for people to actually use, harvest, and incorporate into their daily lives. So it’s killing two birds with one stone: They’re both beautiful and they’re edible. [Above, herbs and other perennials in beds edged in recycled paving at an Apiary project in Philadelphia; Jaime Alvarez photo.]

Martha: A lot of them have umbel forms when they flower, too, which is just a silhouette that I think is gorgeous.

Hans: And lavender, rosemary, thyme, those are in a lot of our projects.

Margaret: Right. And they come from lean environments a lot of time. I’m going to use that as a very loose word, yes?

Martha: Oh yeah, absolutely. Even I wouldn’t write off just common garden sage. That’s a plant that I would classify as more of a sub-shrub that can get as big as a Fothergilla. Garden sage is incredible. So there are a lot of plants, whether you’re concerned with meeting the conditions that the soil requires or maybe meeting a conservative budget or just accessibility—like you can get it at just about any farm stand or garden center. So I wouldn’t write off some of the more common aromatics. And then maybe you can plunk in a handful of esoteric or specialty ones, but let the more common stuff be the foil. I think there’s nothing wrong with that. [Below, fall in an Apiary garden that was 100 percent concrete before beds were cut out; Jamie Alvarez photo.]

Hans: So Martha is our plant person. Martha, are there other some esoteric interesting plants that we want to-

Margaret: Yeah. Are there any oddballs? I mean, I remember from the “Times” article one, the sea kale that I also love very much, the Crambe maritima.

Martha: Yeah, Margaret, our mutual friend, Drew Schuyler, told me that the two of you had also connected very early on in your friendship about Crambe maritima. Yeah, that is probably my favorite plant. And it’s a plant that is so suited to these conditions. If you grow Crambe in rich garden compost soil, it will be kind of small and want to melt, whereas if you put it in a pile of rubble, it grows out of straight shingle, like on the coast of the British Isles. If you put it in a pile of rubble or anything like the urban conditions we deal with, it gets enormous, leaves that are larger than a dinner platter. So yeah, I would say if there are one plant that I would really plug, that’s fortunately getting less esoteric, it would be Crambe maritima.

Margaret: Yeah. I’ve never asked you. Do you have a home garden? Oh-oh, he’s laughing.

Martha: We have a home garden, but we’re living and working in a project house right now. We affectionately call it the Addams Family Mansion. And we have a great vegetable garden in the back and 100-foot-long hoop house. But we have made no great strides in permanent plantings yet because it would all get disrupted by the work that needs to be done to the exterior of our house.

Hans: We garden. But it’s like it’s a project site. It’s an experiment ground.

Martha: It’s a cobbler’s garden, I would say.

Hans: Yeah.

Margaret: That’s great though. That’s great. Lots to look forward to.

Martha: Absolutely.

Margaret: And lots of ideas you can bring home to that over the years coming years.

Martha: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Margaret: That’s great. Like I said, just the “there is no away” just got me thinking and thinking about the footprint of concrete, and all that concrete in the world that’s just been piled up, who knows where. And these are important thoughts that we have as we try to be more gentle with Earth. So I found it very inspiring, even though I’m not an urban gardener, and thank you so much.

Hans: Thank you. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to be on your show. Thank you so much.

Martha: Thank you so much, Margaret, and thank you for connecting all the great people that you do to your podcast.

(All photos courtesy of Apiary Studio.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 15th year in March 2024. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 20, 2024 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Margaret Manzke says:

    This show almost makes me want to move to Philadelphia to see what these two can do. I’m loving the reuse philosophy. There truly IS no “away”.

  2. Mary says:

    Wonderful to have a gardening firm that puts the earth first! I wish they were closer to help us with our gardening. Plus the plant references they gave will work for our new garden we have where the blue spruce used to be.

    Thank you, again, Margaret

    1. Tibs says:

      Oh my goodness I’m finally trendy! I have recycled paving bricks, broken concrete, manhole covers (spouse says looks like we have a sewer running through our yard), slate sidewalk, galvanized water pipes (make the sturdiest tomato stakes), clay sewer pipes (great for the end of downspouts). I even have a section of the patio that is like the photo of the 2 rows of bricks running between pavers. Only mine are all paving bricks with the names of long gone local companies. Do you know their is a group of brick paver collectors that meet and swap. I’m that close to joining.

  3. Laurel W says:

    I totally embrace the concept of reuse/repurpose in the garden or day-to-day living. The designs and ideas shared in the interview are wonderful.

  4. Tibs says:

    Oh my goodness I’m finally trendy! I have recycled paving bricks, broken concrete, manhole covers (spouse says looks like we have a sewer running through our yard), slate sidewalk, galvanized water pipes (make the sturdiest tomato stakes), clay sewer pipes (great for the end of downspouts). I even have a section of the patio that is like the photo of the 2 rows of bricks running between pavers. Only mine are all paving bricks with the names of long gone local companies. Do you know their is a group of brick paver collectors that meet and swap. I’m that close to joining.

  5. Lynn Brooks says:

    great podcast, we so need more people to adopt these principles of experimentation and adaption and there really is no ‘away’

  6. Robert Roggeveen says:

    Found material from demolition – a great source of material for a garden – rocks, parts of brick walls, even – here – reuse of the pipes of a wrecked, 1920’s awning pipe stand (now in use as the basis for a “sculpture”) — this reminds us to look at the possible.

    Their work is intriguing.

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