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A beloved South Jersey landscape designer is gone, but his legacy continues to bloom

After a two-year battle with cancer, landscape designer Alan Koch died May 22. On Saturday, family, friends and co-workers gathered in the garden at his home in Washington Township to celebrate his life.

Heather Pool (left), Liz Gibbs, and Kristin Pool (right), friends of the late landscape designer Alan Koch,  in the garden at his home to celebrate his life.
Heather Pool (left), Liz Gibbs, and Kristin Pool (right), friends of the late landscape designer Alan Koch, in the garden at his home to celebrate his life.Read moreKEVIN RIORDAN

Strolling on the graceful path through the woodland garden at Alan Koch's home,  one "never knows what's next," Mary Cummings observed.

"It's unique," she said. "Like Alan."

Koch, a landscape designer for Gloucester County whose work can be enjoyed in public parks there and in private gardens throughout the region, was just 61 when he died last month after a courageous two-year battle with cancer.

Or rather, brawl with cancer: Koch (rhymes with the cola) had previously, and just as fiercely, refused to surrender to either alcoholism or HIV. So those of us who knew and loved him, and we are many, believed he might beat the odds one more time.

On Saturday afternoon, about 80 family members, friends, and co-workers gathered for a reception at the Washington Township home Koch shared with his husband, David Benyak, for three decades.

The weather was lovely — like summer at last! — and many guests sat on the deck or explored the grounds. Cummings, coordinator of the Gloucester County Certified Gardeners Program, was among a half-dozen volunteers who spruced up the garden the day before. And when she became emotional about being there in the absence of the man whose labor of love it had been, she was far from alone.

"I was pruning, and it was really tender for me, because Alan taught me how to do that," said Cindi Kammer, 70, a certified gardener from Glassboro.

She recalled Koch as a hands-on instructor who took students into the field — he designed the landscapes of Greenwich Lake, Red Bank, Scotland Run, and James G. Atkinson parks — and had them participate in community projects involving horticulture.

He also was responsible for the landscaping in the Gloucester County Library courtyard in Mullica Hill, around the county Justice Complex in Woodbury, and at the Alcyon Lake recreation area in Pitman, where he designed an elegantly clever, as-yet unbuilt pocket park adjacent to the Broadway Theater.

But "his pride and joy," as Koch's colleague Liz Gibbs noted, was his own garden, a half-acre where 250 varieties of grasses, shrubs, flowering plants, and vines, including 20 types of ground cover, flourish beneath an eclectic canopy of trees.

The house is enfolded in an exquisitely arranged embrace of greenery that's "all him," Benyak said, as we chatted in the front yard during the reception.

He noted that Koch wasn't much for grass "except to frame a focal point" and preferred foliage to flowers — although he had a knack for nurturing them to perfection.

"The garden is Alan through and through," agreed Kristin Pool, 25, an architectural designer who lives in Mantua. "There's a purpose and a place for everything, and an exceptional intelligence."

"He always talked about the importance of native plants, and he used them. But if he saw something fabulous that was non-native, that would work in one spot and create an effect, he would buy it," said my friend Ralph Casciato, 63, a Merchantville massage therapist and gardener who sometimes accompanied Koch on trips to local nurseries.

"Alan planned everything to evoke a sense of calm and peace and beauty," Casciato said. "It was remarkable, how important it was to him for things to be beautiful."

Blessed with a gift for cultivating friendships as well as flowers, Koch was both good-hearted and wickedly funny, deftly wielding each witty remark like a high-end pair of pruning shears.

"He was known as the pruner with attitude," said Benyak, a retired graphic designer. "He would do witty things with his work," longtime colleague Terry Dalton, who knew Koch for 35 years, said.

"At the Gloucester County Fire Academy, he planted burning bushes. For memorial gardens, he would include weeping willows," Dalton, of Glassboro, added.

Koch's sense of humor served him well as he helped lead the fight against AIDS in South Jersey during the 1980s and early '90s, when there was little to laugh about but lots to be done, allies to be made and money to be raised.

"What I admired about Alan was, he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty, literally, with his gardening work or with social justice work," said longtime LGBT activist Kathy Hogan, whom Benyak had invited to speak.

"Alan doesn't want us to go around sad," added Hogan, a lawyer in Cherry Hill, "He wants us to live our lives with passion and energy and commitment."

Those same qualities yielded the striking Eskimo Sunset sycamore maple that now commands a prominent spot on the grounds of the home.

"He first saw the tree during our trip to England, about a month before his cancer diagnosis," said Benyak. "It was in several gardens in Kent, and he promised himself that if he ever found it here [in the United States], he would buy it, no matter how expensive it was. He did find it, at a nursery in Gloucester County, and planted it in the fall of 2015."

Benyak, 78, said he plans to take care of the garden as long as he's able, noting that Koch orchestrated it in such a way that displays peak, blossoms unfurl, and "there's something … forever."

So while the Japanese tree lilacs, which smell so sweet, are about done, the climbing hydrangea is still going strong. And the bottlebrush buckeye, Benyak said, "will be blooming in about a week."