Home. For every person you ask, you’ll likely find a different meaning of the word.
For Katherine Wilcenski, home is a place where one feels taken care of by the surroundings; it should be nourishing, inspiring, creative and safe.
As a holistic landscape designer, it’s Wilcenski’s job to make others’ spaces feel more like home — and she uses her knowledge of integrative health practices and ecological design to do so.
Wilcenski creates sustainable landscapes that are restorative to both humans and the environment. From rewilding properties to installing edible landscapes, she centers each of her designs around her clients’ preferred ways of interacting with nature.
“We reap the benefits — physically, emotionally and psychologically — of a healthy and abundant ecosystem,” she explained. “The goal is to help our clients create a space they can intuitively connect with that will ultimately improve their health and the ecology around them.”
For more than 10 years, the Cutchogue native has worked as a land- scape and garden designer. Last year, she founded her own holistic landscape design company called Solstice Garden Co. She works on residential and commercial projects across the North Fork, turning backyards into natural refuges and livening up stores like Tulsi Square with her plant designs.
Like homes, what goes into the making of a holistic landscape is personal — it’s highly dependent on the space and those who use it. Wilcenski shared some key features behind holistic design and how she’s incorporated them into her own home.
BUILDING A SAFE HAVEN
When I first met Wilcenski in her home in East Marion, she was sitting in a wooden rocking chair, barefoot, sipping coffee under a sugar maple tree.
A safe place to sit, she told me, is one of the first aspects she considers when designing someone’s residential space.
“I think that’s number one — a spot that you feel protected in and covered from the sun,” she said. “Hopefully you have some kind of view that’s inspirational or engaging.”
She’ll often work around the natural overstory, like the trees in her backyard, to create this cozy spot. Protected by the shady sugar maple, a bluestone patio overlooks a grassy, picturesque meadow that wraps around the perimeters of her yard. It’s furnished with mostly natural materials: wooden chairs and log benches, handcrafted by her boyfriend. The chairs encircle a small, metal fire pit — she tries to highlight elements like these in her designs.
“Fire and water, I think, are pretty essential,” she explained. “It’s kind of primal in a way to sit around the fire and have a drink.”
Having an outdoor space to share a meal with others also helps create a comforting environment and a deeper connection with the natural world. Behind the patio is a wooden, six-seat dining room table she found at a thrift store, topped with an antique candelabra and potted plant. In many of her designs — where it makes sense — you’ll find salvaged or antique pieces mixed with greenery. At Lumber + Salt, an antique shop located in Jamesport, she sells her plant material in unique, upcycled vessels.
“Besides the obvious environmental benefits of using upcycled materials, I love the story the pieces carry, their uniqueness and the cultural soul they add,” she said. “I find it [to be] very philosophically soothing to interweave human artifacts — in a sense — with an inten- tionally abundant and ecologically regenerative space.”
SUPPORTING THE BIODIVERSITY OF A SPACE
Wilcenski grew up in a family of generational farmers and landscapers, surrounded by the natural splendor of the North Fork. Now having a space of her own, she sees the beauty in being able to view wildlife, like turkeys and deer, from her backyard.
“I think it’s really a responsibility of homeowners out here to take interest in the ecological health of this place,” she said. “If you don’t … you lose what you originally invested in.”
Holistic gardeners like Wilcenski often grow native plants and other species that will provide habitat to wildlife and promote biodiversity in the area. For some, this might mean rewilding their backyards — the act of planting and then stepping back to let Mother Nature take over. For others, it might mean incorporating native plants or other beneficial species into a garden.
“I like to make sure to include early and late season flowering plants to help extend the food source for pollinators,” she said. “Milkweeds are great for monarch [butterflies].”
Fall is an ideal time to start planning for a pollinator-friendly garden and there are a variety of genera great for attracting pollinator insects like bees. Wilcenski’s favorites are goldenrod, eupatorium, asters, as well as a species called verbena bonariensis. There are several early flowering bulbs that also support pollinators — muscari, crocus, galanthus and hyacinthoides, to name a few.
Wilcenski also pays attention to preexisting conditions like soil health. Soil, she explained, is the “foundation of a healthy garden, a healthy ecology and a healthy planet.” Having healthy soil ensures that plants will be able thrive and thus will strengthen the biodiversity of the area. Incorporating a water source in a backyard design, like a birdbath or a pond, is another way to support wildlife.
NOURISHING THE BODY AND MIND
The overarching goal of holistic gardening is to create a space that not only heals the environment, but the people living in it.
“You have to think about what ways you’re most likely to engage physically, tactilely, centrally with your environment,” Wilcenski explained. “Would you be the type to cut flowers, pick some herbs to make tea or walk around and harvest apples?”
Edible landscapes and food gardens can provide physical nour- ishment, while other plants offer medicinal properties. When the season’s right, Wilcenski fills two flowerbeds on her property with plants of different textures, fragrances and uses. Tomatoes, carrots, chives, shishito peppers, parsley, kale and even a watermelon were a part of this year’s food bounty. She grows calendula for lotions and infused oils, lemon balm for calming the nerves and echinacea for immune system support. There’s also tulsi basil, a medicinal plant otherwise known as “holy basil.” “I like to put it in my water fresh in the summertime or dry it and make tea in the winter,” she explained. “It’s uplifting.”
Outside the wooden flower beds is an edible landscape of pear trees, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, hidden in plain sight. “You can basically incorporate different kinds of shrubs and perennials that have edible properties into your landscape,” she said. “Edible landscaping can be almost unnoticeable to someone who isn’t aware of different plant species.”
BRINGING THE OUTDOORS IN
While the colder months aren’t often associated with gardening, there are ways to connect with a home’s natural environment long after the gardens have been put to bed.
“I like to bring plant material inside, like different kinds of ever- green cuttings, pinecones, berries, and maybe make an arrangement,” Wilcenski said. “You can even boil water on the stovetop with fir and pine needles — that will release the oils inside and then it will fill your space with this Christmasy scent.”
She also freezes herbs from the garden or dries them to use for tea and herbal smokes for the fall and winter.
“I think aromatherapy is really great, especially in the cooler months when everything kind of goes dormant outside,” she said. “Just having that sensory connection is really helpful.”
Regardless of time of year, including some plant material inside the home — like snake plants or potted herbs — is visually and physiologically rewarding. “It can also help to improve the air quality in your home,” she explained. “To have that responsibility to take care of it and tend to it is really nourishing to yourself.