Recycling nature: Rustic furniture from garden debris
David Hughes of Doylestown, Pa., 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.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
David Hughes, a 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 the Doylestown, Pa., resident 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 area, 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 5-year-old business is called Weatherwood Design. It comprises about 70 percent landscaping and 30 percent woodworking.
Storm-felled trees and gnarly vines make good raw materials. So do pruned branches, old barn boards and stuff plucked, with permission, from the side of the road.
An arborist friend scouts out intriguing branches and discarded trunks. Hughes helps the Natural Lands Trust and local preserves thin out invasive 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.
His many creations — which have included 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, 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 — that he likes to work with.
He also wants to live off the grid and build native plant, meadow and woodland demonstration gardens.
His résumé 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.
Much of what Hughes has learned along his journey 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.”