Margot Taylor’s Dancing Tree Estate Is a National Model for Sustainability
The Kennett Square landscape architect is now ready to transform other properties.
All photos by Saxon Holt
It may be a dream for some—the two-acre subdivision with the charming home. But it’s a paradigm Margot Taylor says must change. She aims to reduce, rather than tame, turf. “Will someone ever be bold enough to get rid of the front lawn?” she poses.
As part of a worldwide initiative, the Chester County-based landscape architect has made her domestic landscape in Kennett Square a national, accessible model for sustainability and habitat. Taylor’s Dancing Tree estate is one of just two private residences in the country certified by the Sustainable Sites Initiative—essentially a demonstration site for enviro-friendly land-use practices for water, soil and vegetation conservation and management. It’s the only three-star private SITES residence in the world. A close second is in Santa Barbara, Calif.
SITES began in the early 2000s as a response to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEEDS is green-building specific, but it doesn’t do enough for landscapes, says Taylor. A partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas and the U.S. Botanic Garden, SITES is designed to transform land development and management practices with the nation’s first voluntary rating system for sustainable landscapes, with or without buildings. “We needed to elevate the landscape to a greater level of importance,” says Taylor, who’s also an environmental education specialist at Green Valleys Watershed Association. “Otherwise, there was no one thinking about the landscape at all.”
Taylor’s property was once part of a century-old dairy farm on both sides of Creek Road, which was left fallow and without a legacy plan in 1952. Repeated land clearing by grazing cattle or farming implements had compacted and killed soil. “Annual crop fields today are largely fields of death,” says Taylor. “There was once a 60-cow herd here, but there’s a reason why, in the end, there were no cattle in this field.”
Taylor has spent 600 hours and $15,000 to bring her property up to SITES standards. “It’s a different expectation for a residential property owner because of the time and expense,” she says. “I did it because I was a landscape architect who was out of work in 2009, and because I was living in the epicenter of horticulture in the United States, the region with the most botanical gardens and arboretums, trade schools, and academic institutions dedicated to horticulture.”
When Taylor spoke at the national convention of the American Society of Landscape Architects in Massachusetts in 2014, she was the lone homeowner among representatives from the parks systems, museums and botanical gardens. “The others dominated,” she admits. “At the end, we were sent an assessment of how we were received, and I had the lowest scores of all the speakers. I understand. Residential is not a focus.”
In July, Taylor’s 1.69-acre property, with its 80-foot inclined slope, will be featured in a Brandywine Conservancy showcase tour. About 75 percent of the plants grown on her land are native. “Margot’s is one of the most unique places you’ll ever see,” says Nora Sadler, a staff gardener at Brandywine Conservancy, who’s coordinating the summer event. “What she’s done is creative and interesting. If I had her landscape with that steep hill, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I admire her creativity—a lot.”
Growing up, Taylor played at the roots of trees—her “doll houses”—in Greenville, Del. Her father’s career was with DuPont. Her mother was a reading specialist at Tower Hill and Tatnall School. Margot attended both, which were across the street from the family’s home. She often collected flowers along her walk to school. Once, she brought dandelion heads for everyone at a field hockey game.
Flowers remain a prominent theme in Taylor’s work as an amateur potter, and ceramics will dominate the external façade of two columns that are part of a new aqueduct on her property. “I just loved plants and horticulture,” she says.
An aptitude test in ninth grade planted a seed: She was best suited to become a landscape architect. “I never looked back,” says Taylor.
She attended the University of Georgia, earning a degree in landscape architecture then traveling worldwide for two years, particularly in Asia. Upon her return, her mother delivered an ultimatum. Since then, she’s become what others describe as “totally obsessed” with landscape architecture.
In 2009, after she was laid off by the Delaware Nature Society, Taylor returned to Green Valleys in Pottstown, where she was once director of education. Today, she works from home as an education specialist, creating curriculum for middle schools and planning site work for green-innovation projects, largely to manage storm water. She continues to do unique work as a private consultant. “I’m not known for designing the rectangle,” Taylor says.
Her landscape architecture practice focuses on ecological design and restoration, and the development and implementation of environmental education programs. When she’s not crafting clay and serving as an advocate for natural resource conservation in the community, she mountain bikes and plays Celtic fiddle.
At home, Taylor’s focus is on operations, maintenance and providing educational programming and resources. A printed map and brochure, an interactive scavenger hunt, and a free tour are her educational tools. So far, she’s welcomed more than 450 visitors to her property. “It’s about putting the vocabulary into minds,” she says. “It’s sustainable to me. Saying ‘green’ is like saying something is new when it isn’t. What we’re doing is returning to something old.”