Its winter in the greater Philadelphia region, and as a designer and naturalist I’m always up for exploring landscapes that provide winter interest in effective ways: color, texture, warmth, and movement. Growing up in Maine, winter lasts about 5 months and the dominant color pallet in the snowy landscape is white with glimpses of brown with vertical gestures of dark greens provided by pines and hemlocks and some spruce. Naturalized areas with the zebra-esque bark of birch trees nested behind red twig dogwood was as good as it got. Don’t get me wrong, there’s entire coffee table books dedicated to the winter interest of the Maine woods, but the main differences between here and there is the absence of snow pack for 5 months. In greater Philly, meadows with their native dancing grasses and textures can shine nearly all year round. And naturally, the Pennypack Preserve was a very appropriate destination given my quest.
The Pennypack Preserve property is the crown jewel of its founding organization, aptly named the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust. This nonprofit conservancy is headquartered in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, which is about 15 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Its a very attractive suburban community that is close to the city, yet affords many amenities all could wish for including outdoors spaces, cultural spaces, plenty of urban feeling consumer goods opportunities [high end shopping!], and just a general feeling of quaintness and safety. Good of mix of established neighborhoods hugging farm lands and well developed main corridors with Goldilocks densities for the mixed use activities and shopping described above. The main entrance to the preserve and visitor center is not far from a main corridor, past some housing developments before eventually reaching a nice mixture of open space and woods.
Here are a few of my lasting observations and finds:
- An important observation from my initial arrival to the site was that there is a concerted effort to make this a community and neighborhood and local asset, with no ambitions to make it a regional attraction. The parking lot is a quaint scale; signage and interpretation transmits a local narrative; there’s no catchy slogans or PR campaigns dotted around. The preserve has a clear mission and does not stray from this, stating that their purpose is “to protect, restore and preserve the lands of the Pennypack Creek valley so that they Remain forever an enhancement to the quality of residents’ lives”. While clearly protectionist, I admire this approach for ensuring the health of the environment. Larger urban destinations like Wissahickon Valley Park do their best to protect their natural environment, but human impacts of any kind can take their toll and require resources to nurture.
- If you’re a birder, then this is the place to be. From the really need bird blind structures, to the selling of bird seed on site, the property has a diversity of habitats to view many types of birds throughout the seasons.
- If you’re a fan of rolling hills and meadows, the 160-acre Raytharn Farm on the Raytharn Trail was a treat. The many grasses of the meadow provided the warm colors and movement i was looking for in winter interest. Overall, the property is over 800 acres.
- The Peak trail, in a wooded area, goes through an old growth forest which are not exactly common in greater Philly.
- The building complex consists of an original farm house, barn converted into a visitor center, and a newer greenhouse overlooking a hillside and pond. Its truly a vernacular landscape that speaks to the Huntingdon Valley. I would definitely return for plant sales and education/outreach events.
- Excellent storm water management challenges and solutions here at the Pennypack creek. I remember going on a few field trips to this site in college to learn about riparian buffers and corridor management and strategies for maintaining healthy water edges, and those same techniques are still be applied. Coir fabrics, live staking, check dams, selective regrading, you name it. A lot to learn here in this aspect.
I know this post started out talking about winter interest, and believe me, its here at the Pennypack Preserve in plain site.