Philadelphia Inquirer – Recycling nature: He makes rustic furniture from garden ‘debris’
January 17, 2014
David Hughes, a Doylestown landscape architect with an affinity for native flora and natural landscapes, often finds himself ripping out dead, overgrown, or otherwise undesirable plants to make way for new.
But he doesn’t haul that nasty Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese white mulberry, or Norway maple to the dump, curb, or chipper. Hughes is that rare soul who prizes what other designers and gardeners despise, more so if it’s scarred by deer browsing, insect damage, or disease.
That’s because, in addition to designing ecologically responsible landscapes in the Philadelphia region, Hughes, 46, is a skilled woodworker who makes rustic furniture from garden “debris,” a kind of plant-world Dumpster diver.
“To me, it’s a nice marriage, landscaping and woodworking,” says Hughes, whose five-year-old business, his second, is called Weatherwood Design. It comprises about 70 percent landscaping and 30 percent woodworking.
An arborist friend scouts out intriguing branches and discarded trunks. Hughes helps the Natural Lands Trust and local preserves thin out invasives or dead trees. And every July Fourth, again with permission, he rescues unwanted driftwood from death by bonfire at a public beach on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The wood might sit for years on the one-acre property Hughes shares with his widowed dad, Merritt Hughes, a retired English teacher. Logs, planks, oddball sticks and scraps are stacked along the driveway, in the yard, and in and around Hughes’ densely packed, unheated 8-by-12-foot workshop.
“It’s hard to throw anything out,” he says a bit sheepishly of the jars of nails, screws, and bolts, the bits of this or that, and the saws, planes, and other tools of his trade.
Drying wood outside is challenging. But if rain and snow are his nemeses, water is also a friend. “My best ideas come in the shower,” he says.
Those ideas – for chairs, tables and benches, garden gates, and screens, trellises, arbors, railings, and birdhouses – are time-consuming. A simple-looking chair can take 35 hours to make, at $45 an hour, not counting time to find and dry the wood and do research.
“It’s like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle. There are no square edges to anything,” says Hughes, who is itching for some land of his own so he can grow hedgerows of the native trees – alder, sassafras, Eastern red cedar, black locust, Osage orange – he likes to work with.
He also wants to live off the grid and build native plant, meadow, and woodland demonstration gardens. Four acres, at a minimum, would do it, though so much real estate would involve a lot of deer-fencing.
But fenced it must be; deer are plentiful, and Hughes has had Lyme disease 14 times since the early 1990s.
That he has worked through such a scourge reflects a lifetime of loving plants.
Growing up in Glenside, Hughes was “always out playing and getting muddy and dirty,” often in Baederwood Park. Foreshadowing the landscape architect he would become, he spent hours in the attic constructing vehicles and buildings with Legos and Lincoln Logs.
As an 8-year-old, guided by his handy grandfather, Sylvester “Cookie” Cook, Hughes built metal cladding to reinforce a toy castle, and carved sticks to support a leather-covered tepee.
“I loved the outdoors,” he says, including time spent at his family’s vacation home outside Wellsboro, Tioga County.
Hughes is a graduate of Abington High School and Pennsylvania State University, where he knew almost instantly “I was doing the right thing” in studying landscape architecture. He also did graduate work at the University of Massachusetts.
His resumé includes jobs at plant nurseries, landscape architectural and planning firms, and the U.S. Forest Service. He has restored wetlands and woodlands and worked on suburban subdivision landscapes, meadows, and residential projects, including a highly idiosyncratic Bucks County second home belonging to New Yorkers Todd Ruback and Suzanne Schecter.
The couple’s 21/2-acre property, overlooking the Delaware Canal in Upper Black Eddy, features a converted century-old barn that backs up to a gravelly 200-foot red shale cliff that was choked with exotic vines. Hughes cleared the cliff and literally carved a landscape into it, choosing wildlife-friendly plants such as Eastern prickly pear cactus, the region’s only native cactus, that grows almost exclusively along the high cliffs of the Delaware River.
“He’s not bringing in eucalyptus trees,” Ruback says. “He’s making use of what local, Bucks County nature is giving us.”
And much of what Hughes takes away from “Bucks County nature” goes toward his rustic furniture. The results, says a mentor, Daniel Mack of Warwick, N.Y., are both sturdy and playful, and demonstrate “a poetic sensibility.”
“Nobody actually needs any of these chairs. There are plenty of chairs in the world already, thank you,” says Mack, a rustic-furniture teacher and author. “You’ve gone beyond need, and you’re into another realm.”
It’s a realm, Mack says, that “engages us with the landscape in a way you don’t see with more-anonymous furniture.”