Seeking Refugia in Shenandoah

In a setting where Herculean efforts are made to force blooms and cover soil, there is something deeply satisfying about seeing large swaths of the bare stuff. Since first viewing The Shenandoah Unseen exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show during a media preview, it has evolved. The spice bush is in bloom, the fungi are thriving and the petals on some of the white trillium have dropped. But unlike other exhibits where care is taken to remove what’s wilted, there is no cleanup here; Shenandoah, after all, is a slice of natural life.

The exhibit was created by Jeff Lorenz of Refugia Design. Lorenz grew up in the area, got his first taste of horticulture from an uncle in the Shenandoah Valley and went on to study the craft at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. (His resume also includes stints as a sound designer.) Refugia is derived from the Latin word for “place of refuge” and refers both to regions where flora and fauna thrive and to Lorenz’ design philosophy.

Refugia believes that landscaped property should feel like an extension of the home. The designers do not remediate soils to create conditions ideal for non-native plants, allowing instead for indigenous species that fulfill their purposes by being planted where and when they can prosper. Whether in a small, urban yard or a rolling meadow, the group is focused on using their “arsenal” of indigenous plants to make beautiful spaces where people and plants co-exist.

Shenandoah marks Refugia’s first trip to the Flower Show as exhibitors. Their goal in coming to the show was to honor Lorenz’ uncle by presenting something beautiful and accessible. The exhibit is captivating in its subtle demonstration of the aesthetic impact of plants left to their own devices. Just as they would see it in nature, guests of the Flower Show witness a plant community comprised of the poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and morels (Morchella augusticeps complex). Each plant, we learn,  plays an essential ecological role. Also on display are trees, grasses, ferns, fungi (provided by Heather McMonnies of Food-Hedge), shrubs and other herbaceous plants. True to their sustainable ethos, Refugia has already identified post-show homes for each plant on display. (Tinker, the 1976 Citroen HY Plateau situated at the middle of the exhibit, is Refugia’s workhorse used for loading and transporting plants and materials.)

Believers in the power of education, the designers at Refugia are perpetually learning. Of specific interest currently is how changes in climate caused by global warming will impact and alter plant zones and how the subsequent challenges might be met with responsible design. When asked how they would advise those inspired by Shenandoah to plant landscapes of their own, Lorenz encourages careful study of the environment and existing conditions and smart plant choices. For the novice green thumb, rather than biting off more than you can chew, Lorenz recommends a small garden of pollinator plants or herbs. Expect, no matter the level of experience, to learn as your landscape grows.

Having been well-received at this year’s show (the Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park said they “nailed it”), Lorenz and his team are already looking forward to meeting the creative challenges of next year’s.  What they’ll present remains a secret, though if Shenandoah was an indication, it’ll be well worth the wait.

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