Photo Courtesy of Katie Dubow
From natural light to vegetable gardens, Delaware experts weigh in on creative ways to make your home more environmentally friendly from the inside out.
Sustainability is the way of the future– and architecture is no exception.
LEED-accredited registered architect Scott Sampson, principal of Spring Studio Architecture (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania), knows a thing or two about sustainable residential design: It’s where his personal passions lie, and he even teaches it at the university level. Even as sustainable choices risk busting budgets, especially with the rise of inflation, Sampson, who has designed homes in Delaware, manages to retain a clientele that is as committed to eco-friendliness as he is.
What are the first things that come to mind about sustainable design?
I focus a lot on natural light and super-insulated building envelopes, passive solar, and incorporating a lot of plants inside to manage air-quality levels, provide oxygen and minimize indoor air pollution.
What are the challenges and opportunities with regard to sustainable home renovations?
For a renovation, when the home is already situated on a site, it’s more difficult. Typically, that comes down to insulation and air ceiling, or managing the amount of air that comes into the building. A lot of my job is maximizing insulation and allowing the winter sun to come in and heat the spaces, then cut it out in the summer when you don’t want it. That’s called passive solar.
What about a new build?
One of the biggest elements is orientation. If you can have the home oriented to the south, you can really maximize the amount of solar gain. During some months of the year, the house can actually heat itself by maximizing the amount of southern glass. Overhangs and sunscreens can block the sun out in hotter months when the sun is higher in the sky. You can design around angles of the sun—you are using the architecture itself to manage sunlight.
Can you lend your perspective on sustainable materials?
Generally speaking, a sustainable material is something that is not going to let out formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They’re locally sourced, so if it’s wood, it’s taken from a forest that is managed well. It’s also durable, so you don’t have to replace it five years down the road.
Fruits of Your Labor
Last year, we explored how to cultivate a beautiful native (read: environmentally friendly) garden. Now, we take it a step further and show you how to grow your own food.
From late June to early November, Marcia Stephenson plucks figs from her plot in Prices Corner. Last year, her yield of Asian pears was so abundant she donated more than 40 pounds to a community center.
She doesn’t own an orchard. Stephenson grows her own fruit, as well as bushels of veggies, in her suburban backyard.
“Growing-your-own” became a popular pastime during the pandemic when many folks were at home. Stephenson, director of advancement for the Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH), has been growing edible plants for years and is pleased to see a blossoming interest in kitchen gardens.
“It’s great for kids to plant seeds and learn where food come from. Kids get really excited when they plant something and watch it grow,” she says.
The fig tree was given to her by a friend 13 years ago and resides happily on the southern side of her home—“where it’s sunniest and warmest”—and benefits from radiant heat from the house and driveway. The Asian pear is thriving, with cross pollination from other pear trees in the neighborhood.
Stephenson plants lots of veggies, among them lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets, cucumbers, Asian turnips—“fast and super easy to grow”—radishes, herbs and bok choy. Raised beds are easier to weed because there’s less bending. The elevation of the beds also keeps the crops safe from critters.
“If your raised beds are high enough, the bunnies can’t get in,” she explains.
Tight on space? The DownHome Harvest Little Miss Figgy tree, available at Homestead Gardens in Dover, is suitable for porches and containers. A dwarf fig, the tree grows 4 to 8 feet tall and is cold-hardy. Midnight Cascade, by Bushel and Berry, is a cascading blueberry you can grow in hanging baskets. Sold at Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin, it displays white, bell-shaped flowers in spring, a precursor to summer blueberries. Even after the berries are gone, it’s pleasant to look at, with red-flecked green foliage.
Nora Melley, who manages education programs at DCH, is partial to Pink Lemonade blueberries, which produce sweet hot-pink berries. The rub is the birds like them, too.
“You can cover them with nets, but birds can get caught in them,” she explains. “My preferred method is to plant more blueberries and share with the birds.”
Home gardeners likely will have to amend their soil with sulfur to keep blueberry shrubs happy. The average pH, or alkalinity, of Delaware soil is 6.5, Melley notes, and the magic number for berries is 4.5. (If you aren’t certain of your soil’s pH, buy a test kit or contact the Delaware Cooperative Extension online.)
Patience is important in establishing fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. Count on six months to fully amend soil. Realizing a return on investment in trees takes longer.
In 2017, Melley planted a home orchard of eight semidwarf trees: apples, peaches and cherries.
“The second year, I got two cherries,” she recalls. “The third year, I got a handful.”
After four years, the trees began yielding a significant harvest. Except for one fungal issue with the peach trees, they’ve pretty much taken care of themselves, offering up a bounty of homegrown fruit.
Melley notes you don’t have to go all in on a personal orchard to enjoy the fruits of your labors.
“Start slowly. Plant one thing, then expand so you don’t get overwhelmed,” she says.
You don’t even have to buy seeds. Begin with the tips of the scallions you chopped for this morning’s omelet. Take the root ends—with their wispy white fibers—and plant them in a little soil so they can sprout more scallions.
“It’s worth a shot,” says Melley, who has been generating scallions in a window box for years. “If it works, you’re growing your own food.”
—Eileen Smith Dallabrida
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