Alexandra Getches and Logan Kjep are on a mission to restore native plant life and wildlife habitats — one property at a time. The eco-conscious design duo started Living Lands — a habitat garden design and installation shop — nearly three years ago and haven’t slowed down since.
These friends and business partners met while working for a grower in Cutchogue who specialized in native plants and instantly hit it off, bonding over a shared passion for design. Kjep, who has a master’s degree in landscape ecology and environmental design, started out designing container gardens for Brooklyn rooftops, while Getches’ design roots sprouted in California working on restoration projects in the Santa Monica Mountains for the National Park Service.
In late 2020, after their plans were put on a brief hold while the world was turned upside down by COVID-19, they founded Living Lands.
According to Getches, it was the perfect time to launch because many people were investing in their homes. Kjep confirms, “It was a really big first year for us right out of the gate, and we are fortunate to be growing every year so far.”
9:45 a.m.: Weeding and watering at the Sugar Shack
To start our day together, I meet Getches and Kjep at a picturesque little house in New Suffolk overlooking Cutchogue Harbor called the “Sugar Shack” by its owners. Kjep proudly tells me he and Getches “touched every square inch of the outdoors here” and that this is their second biggest project to date.
He explains they needed wetland permitting and approval from town Trustees on all native plants they installed. So they created maps of the existing plants that were there — a lot of invasive bamboo, miscanthus grass and mugwort — and then drafted a plan for native replacements.
Getches adds, “We really love projects like this because it is waterfront, and it was covered in really nasty invasive plants. We’ve turned it into a native pollinator garden instead — we see bees buzzing all over the place.”
Kjep explains why this is so important. “On Long Island, our biodiversity is plummeting,” he laments. “It’s been in crisis for decades, and a lot of that has to do with the way we treat our built environment.” He tells me because Long Island is filled with plazas, parking lots and open grass lawns, the native fauna doesn’t have anywhere to go for shelter and food.
He continues, “We try to use a lot of native plants that provide shelter and food, like nectar for our pollinating insects, and create a really diverse, rich ecosystem that way. The invasive plants, a lot of which were brought here, don’t provide much for ecosystem services or food for wildlife.”
Kjep says many of their clients seek them out because they care about wildlife habitats and native plants, but even the ones who don’t at first end up being fascinated by the subject.
“People are seeing new insects for the first time because they never had a plant that this specialist insect needed to land on their property, which is just so cool,” he gushes. “A lot of our clients who are in their second or third year of working with us see a huge uptick in songbirds and other native birds on their property, and they become very into it.”
I ask Getches and Kjep to walk me through their project planning process. They tell me that in every project, they start with a site visit to gauge what the homeowner is really looking for. “Sometimes they can’t always articulate that,” Getches says, “but we want to know what it is they use the space for and what is their aesthetic.
She says they also factor in whether people are out here full-time or if it’s their summer vacation home, so they can time blooming when people are home.
“It’s definitely relevant for the North Fork because there are so many weekenders here,” Kjep notes. “Some don’t even come out in the winter, so evergreens are less important to them. Getches chimes in, “And there’s no reason to include early spring blooming stuff that maybe doesn’t look good later because they won’t enjoy it.”
“We’ll try to capture exactly what kind of microclimate they have,” Kjep explains.
“We want to recreate a realistic plant community — what might have been there if there were no humans,” Getches says. Kjep excitedly adds, “We’re trying to create dynamic, complex plant communities that change and evolve and spread.”
The partners check in with clients a couple of times a year for maintenance and to educate them on invasive species that might threaten to take over the space or suffocate the native plants.
“We get really attached to our gardens,” Kjep admits.
“Yes!” Getches adds. “And we like to see them evolve, so we ask clients to please send us pictures. We want to make sure that they’re going to be thriving into the future.”
11 a.m.: Plant pickup at North Fork Boutique Gardens
We swing by one of their favorite wholesale growers, North Fork Boutique Gardens — a hidden little gem of a property off a long country road in Mattituck — to pick up some plants to spruce up the garden around the Ireland House at Stirling Historical Society of Greenport.
Getches tells me they love NFBG because they treat their employees and their plants well. “We like to give our business to the people we know are doing the right thing – no pesticides and best practices,” she says.
We grab their order which includes gorgeous pink turtleheads, blue cardinal flowers and pink garden phlox, and chat for a bit with director of sales and business development Josh Scruggs and executive manager Kathryn Donoghue as we play with Roxy, Donoghue’s adorable black and white rescue pup from Puerto Rico.
It’s clear the four have built an easy rapport and enjoy catching up on the latest in plants and what’s going on in their lives. Kjep mentions it’s wonderful to work with such kind, knowledgeable people.
Before we leave, the owner of NFBG, Deb Rodgers, greets Getches and Kjep and tells me, “They’re just the best! Look at the beautiful stuff they choose.”
11:45 a.m.: Maintenance at Stirling Historical Society of Greenport
When we pull up to the little white Ireland House in downtown Greenport, it quickly becomes clear how much work is cut out for the team today.
Kjep tells me after they completed this volunteer project in May 2021, they weren’t meant to be stewards of the site going forward, but they recently decided they wanted to be, simply because they love the space.
They get right to work, cutting down invasive mulberry trees and sweet autumn clematis that is strangling a beautiful white birch tree, and I jump in to help weed.
Kjep tells me the most common invasive species on Long Island include mugwort, Asian bittersweet and lizard’s tongue, which he calls “really aggressive, nasty invasives. Sometimes we’ll have to excavate the ground because the roots go deep.”
As we all work, Getches points out one of her favorite plants, spotted beebalm. “It’s one of the best plants we have for pollinator diversity,” she says.
Kjep adds, “It’s like the watering hole. You’ll see predatory wasps and hoverflies and bees and butterflies and moths all together at once.”
Eco Best Practices
We move on to discuss environmental consciousness. According to Kjep, the landscaping industry isn’t typically known for using best ecological practices. “We do best, most money-making practices,” he laments.
That’s why this team aims to use their expertise and knowledge to teach their clients better ways to do things.
Leave the Leaves
Kjep says fall cleanups are one of the “really nasty practices perpetuated in the industry. A lot of them involve a complete removal of all leaves from a property.”
“But Alex and I are part of the leaves movement,” he says. He explains they urge clients to keep leaves on their property to provide a home for terrestrial insects, which he says 95% of our native birds feed their young throughout winter and into spring.
Go off Irrigation
The team tells me more and more newer homeowners and millennials are looking for something lower maintenance than a lawn, and they also really care about the environment.
According to Getches, native gardens are a lot less work than maintaining a pristine lawn or non-native plant garden because they don’t require watering, fertilizer or pesticides.
“You get to be lazier,” she says. “And it’s good for the environment, and it’s prettier. It’s a lot less work than mowing a long, that’s for sure.”
“We take a lot of pride in getting some of our customers off of irrigation,” Kjep adds, “by using native plants that are accustomed to our climate.”
Getches shares that her family just found out they use 70% less water than the average family in Mattituck, which she attributes solely to lack of irrigation, since she says they all love their showers and baths.
Kjep explains this makes sense because native gardens use 70% less water than semi-exotic gardens or turf lawns. He tells me in the suburbs 60% of water use goes to watering lawns, which is especially problematic on Long Island because the water picks up pesticides and chemicals before going into the aquifers to be recycled into drinking water.
Create Wildlife Habitats
The duo has been focusing more on adding cover and shelter for wildlife in their designs lately. Kjep says, “A lot of our birds require native grasses and meadowlands so they can hide, and we’ve lost a lot of that early successional environment. So we’re doing whatever we can to plant not just beautiful gardens, but create spaces animals can live in and thrive.”
He says they are introducing multiple types of wildlife homes into their project sites, including bluebird, screech owl and bat houses. “Because owls will take care of all the rodents and bats will take care of the mosquitoes,” Getches explains.
Kjep tells me our local bats can eat over a thousand mosquitoes in one night. “Rather than calling in the insecticides that are going to harm a lot of our other beneficial insects, why not bats?”
Getches solemnly interjects, “They are losing more and more of their homes on Long Island, and we have to find a way to get their habitat back for them.”
1:30 p.m.: Mulching and planting
After almost two hours of hard work weeding and clearing, Kjep and Getches start mulching and putting in the new plants we snagged from NFBG. Kjep and I are chatting about birds when I share that my mom has an Audubon Society bird sanctuary in her backyard in Ohio. He excitedly tells me he and Getches actually work with the North Fork Audubon Society to help certify homeowners for that very same bird oasis program.
Getches says they love partnering with anyone who gets a community excited about native plants.
“We’re asking ourselves, ‘How do we return this island to healthy thriving plant communities?’ And the Audubon Society is thinking, ‘How do we create spaces for these birds?’ ” Kjep says. “They are literally telling people what plants and trees and shrubs to plant, and those happen to be, basically, a full overlap of everything we want people to plant.”
He says they also make their own blend of native bird seed, available for purchase on livinglands.org, using eight different seeds from four different vendors. “We did a lot of research finding those seeds because we wanted to make sure we had seeds that would self-sow very well and that our native birds love. And that it’s affordable.”
Decking the Halls
Since the holidays are right around the corner, I asked Kjep and Getches about their favorite plants to use during this time of year. Getches tells me there are a lot of native plants that have red berries and branches. They say cuttings from red twig dogwood, wintergreen (the berries are used to make wintergreen gum!), and evergreen magnolia trees all work well — and they can be planted directly on a property or in containers.
Kjep notes, “I think it’s really important to do holiday decor because it’s the time of the year when you see everything dying back and going to sleep, so it brings a little bit more life and festivity.” Getches agrees, “Winter is hard. Coming from California, I love the seasons but winter gets long, so doing things like holiday decor and spring bulbs get you through.”
3:30 p.m.: Design work at Alex’s house
We roll up to Getches’ house and are greeted by Sera, her family’s 6-month-old bernedoodle. We wander around the front yard garden for a bit while Getches goes through all of the plants she’s bought as home garden experiments. She breaks me off a piece of winter-mint, which is silky to the touch and hits me with a burst of minty delight.
We plop our things down on the kitchen table, which doubles as a design space, and head into the backyard to visit her resident backyard duck, Gertie, and chicken, Harry, who have a lovely house under the peach and nectarine trees. Sera bounds along behind us and I soak in the beauty of a backyard space filled with even more gorgeous native plants.
We head back inside to get to work, and Kjep shares his project sketchbook, which is filled with colorful garden and landscape designs he creates himself. He tells me their design proposals include blueprint-style bird’s-eye view drawings and a full plant list with photographs and itemized pricing. They try to make their work as scalable as possible so they can offer services to everybody who wants them throughout Suffolk County.
The duo partially credits their success with being small and nimble so they are able to be really hands-on with clients. They also find synergy and balance in working together as a team.
I ask them both what they like most about their job. Kjep says he loves that every day is completely different and says sourcing plants is the most fun. “We get to really plant geek out and go see new things and visit our favorite vendors. We’ll go as far as Dix Hills to Westhampton to source plants,” he says.
Getches finds satisfaction in catering a plant list for a site to its specific sun exposure and water conditions. “It’s like figuring out a puzzle,” she says.
And both agree getting to work on the North Fork is a privilege.
“There really is so much beauty here,” Kjep says, “and” — Getches finishes his sentence — “so much potential.”