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Landscape Designer Silvia Jope Redefines 'Pretty' With Ecology in Mind


Published March 16, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

Silvia Jope planting a bare root hornbeam hedge - COURTESY OF SILVIA JOPE
  • Courtesy Of Silvia Jope
  • Silvia Jope planting a bare root hornbeam hedge

A particular photo of Silvia Jope's backyard "always stirs my heartstrings," she said. Purple coneflowers seem to dance in front of a delicately woven willow gate in a young hornbeam hedge. The landscape designer grew the coneflowers from seed, made the gate from twigs in her yard and patterned the hedge after those she saw during her youth in Germany.

"It reminds me of home a little bit," Jope said, recalling her European roots. "But it also reminds me of these amazing plants, all native to North America, and how wonderful they are: how they support both humans — they're beautiful — and birds." Her feathered friends feast on the coneflower seeds, and she hopes they'll nest in the hedge when it grows thicker.

The photo "summarizes my interaction [with] and my experience in my garden: creativity, inspiration and also food for wildlife," Jope said.

Owner of Burlington-based Old World Garden Design since 2004, Jope offers landscape design and planning, installation oversight, and consulting and coaching. She serves residential and commercial clients on everything from small accent gardens to comprehensive landscapes for large properties.

Hornbeam hedge arbor with woven willow gate - COURTESY OF SILVIA JOPE
  • Courtesy Of Silvia Jope
  • Hornbeam hedge arbor with woven willow gate

Jope won Industry Awards in 2014 and 2015, as well as the 2015 Judge's Choice Award, from the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association/Green Works, and she has a long-standing affiliation with Gardener's Supply. She began working with the company as a freelance landscape designer and nursery associate while finishing her bachelor's degree at the University of Vermont. Referrals from the company helped Jope build her business, and she still benefits from the connection.

"We have only gotten good reviews from whenever she's worked with people," said Gardener's Supply help desk specialist Betsy Combs.

Though Jope values her UVM degree in urban forestry and landscape horticulture, an epiphany about eight years ago radically shifted her professional approach. Her studies, consistent with the industry at the time, had focused on selecting plants that were well suited to a landscape in form and function only. When Jope attended a two-day workshop offered by the Ecological Landscape Alliance, which promotes sustainable landscape design, construction and management, she "had so many aha moments, thinking, Oh, my God. I've never really thought about my field being actually a pretty big polluter," she recalled.

Award-winning landscaping project by Silvia Jope - COURTESY OF SILVIA JOPE
  • Courtesy Of Silvia Jope
  • Award-winning landscaping project by Silvia Jope

Pollutants include synthetic fertilizers, the black plastic surrounding nursery plants, and "the routine of stripping old mulch, bringing in fresh mulch and sending off the old in dump trucks." She also realized that she was using non-native plants, creating "a total eco desert for a lot of our pollinators and the wildlife we want in the garden.

"I felt almost like, I've been so blind. I've been on one track — beauty, function, people — but have not really looked at the bigger picture."

Emboldened by readings and research, Jope has developed what she calls the "close-to-nature landscape approach." Guiding principles include water and soil conservation, using native plants and greener resources, championing climate-sensitive design, and supporting birds and pollinators. She believes that gardens can serve many functions in the landscape beyond appearance — and that a better understanding of nature's processes can even make garden owners happier.

Herb spiral and sitting wall - COURTESY OF SILVIA JOPE
  • Courtesy Of Silvia Jope
  • Herb spiral and sitting wall

"If we're expecting plants to look amazing and not have any wilted leaves, no nibbling by an insect, [if] we want them to be perfect, it's a source of frustration for homeowners, and it's a very shallow view," she said.

Jope helps clients develop "a little bit more forgiveness" for themselves as gardeners and for their plants. "The plant is doing exactly what it's supposed to do. If it's droughty, the plant will shrivel up. If it is really moist, it'll grow taller and maybe flop."

She also invites clients to redefine "pretty." It could be knowing that a garden is supporting wildlife or not polluting, she said. She encourages clients "to be a little lazier in their gardens and not be fussing and fretting about every plant that's not performing." And she promotes a holistic view: If leaves are being nibbled, "You're supporting some critter, most likely a caterpillar. And if you want young songbirds in your garden, they need a ton of caterpillars to eat."

One of Jope's favorite mottos is, "Keep your indoor cleanliness inside. Outside is a different environment."

Combs of Gardener's Supply is sold on this approach. She hired Jope to design two gardens for her home in Essex Junction and is thrilled with their appearance, as well as how they changed the yard and how little effort they require.

Garden insect hotels in a front yard habitat - COURTESY OF SILVIA JOPE
  • Courtesy Of Silvia Jope
  • Garden insect hotels in a front yard habitat

"She really listened to what I wanted and made it look attractive," Combs recalled. Grasses and other textured plants surround red and purple flowers in one bed that provides a buffer between the house and street, and both new beds are low maintenance.

"Her approach makes it really easy to stay on top of things, because you're not fighting Mother Nature" in terms of plant choice and placement, said Combs, a self-professed lazy gardener. "And you're going to do more cutting and dropping of dead material, so that you're returning carbon to the earth."

Like Combs, Chris Boffa is pleased with the landscaping Jope designed for his new home in Charlotte. He particularly appreciated her ability to integrate his and his wife's ideas.

"It was really a great combination of her listening, understanding us, and then that feeling of collaboration when you know you bring some interests and experience to the table and she incorporates that into what you're doing," he said.

Boffa also values Jope's use of local species that are sustainable, whether it's crab apples that welcome birds at his rural home or salt-tolerant plants that thrive in an urban setting. As director of construction management at Summit Properties, Boffa has hired her for commercial projects, including rental properties Casavant Overlook and Parc Terrace in Winooski. Jope is good at teamwork and serving a broad range of clients, he said, from someone who wants a bit of direction on a home plot to managers of large buildings.

Award-winning front yard habitat garden - COURTESY OF SILVIA JOPE
  • Courtesy Of Silvia Jope
  • Award-winning front yard habitat garden

Even the pandemic hasn't slowed business for Jope. Last year, she was busier than ever and attributed demand in part to "people paying more attention to their surroundings" and to "more of an interest in ecologically inspired gardens."

"I will always have customers who will just say from the very beginning, 'I just want it to look good and not [be] a lot of work,'" Jope said. She can work with that. "But once I hear people saying, 'I want to attract butterflies, and I heard about the monarchs, and what about milkweed?' that's when I get really excited ... It can be a real source of inspiration, of beauty, of renewal, of play."

Overall, Jope wants "people to have a little bit more fun out there, to be less attached to a certain outcome, to go with the seasons a little bit more, looking at [gardens] more as a journey than a finished product."

A garden is not "a frozen piece of art," she emphasized, but "a living sculpture that changes with the seasons over time."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Big Picture Gardening | Landscape designer Silvia Jope redefines "pretty" with ecology in mind"