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Cultivating a wildlife haven on two acres in Chester County

When the couple moved from West Chester to Downingtown, they brought 399 plants with them.

Gary Erb laid out wood chip paths through a former farm field to create a woodland garden bright with flowers adjacent to his home in Downingtown.
Gary Erb laid out wood chip paths through a former farm field to create a woodland garden bright with flowers adjacent to his home in Downingtown.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When Gary and Susan Erb sold their house in West Chester in 2002, they hired movers to take their furnishings to their newly built home in Downingtown. Then they dug up 399 plants and shrubs from the garden, deposited them into containers borrowed from a nursery, and loaded them onto a rented truck with the help of friends from their hiking club.

The transfer was a part of the sales settlement, Susan said. And after the holes were filled and dirt smoothed, she said, “you would never notice anything was missing.” The half-acre yard in West Chester “was over-planted,” Susan asserted and nodded toward Gary.

In the two-acre plot in Downingtown, Gary had space for the transplants and much more. On a former farm field, he laid out wood chip paths through what has become a woodland wonderland, bright with flowers and changing leaf colors from spring to late fall.

Blossoming in early summer are hydrangeas, three varieties of lilies, feathery astilbes, blue asters, purple geraniums, a stewartia tree with large camellia-like flowers, golden ligularia, perky pink cone flowers, and more. Large white rocks excavated from the house construction contrast with the greenery. The garden attracts a variety of birds and is certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.

Gary, who has taken courses at Longwood Gardens, does the planting and mulching and cuts the grass. Susan weeds and tends the two ponds, which hold excess water from an underground cistern used to water the plants.

The cistern, which collects water from rain gutters, was the brainchild of Brian Nowrey of BTN Construction in Bechtelsville, who designed and built the Erbs’ brick-and-stucco home. The three-bedroom dwelling has numerous windows to view the garden. The living room vista includes Marsh Creek Lake across the road.

Gary, 78, and Susan, 75, met at West Chester University and married in 1966. She had a career as a special-education teacher in the Chester County Intermediate Unit. He was a manufacturing control specialist for Unisys. They purchased the property in Downingtown several years after they retired.

“We were spending more time at home and wanted more space to garden,” Susan said.

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There have been challenges. Gary replaced seven large trees felled in an ice storm with smaller flowering trees.

To keep deer away, he has had to install mesh cages around some shrubs and trees and uses a variety of sprays. Two kinds of mesh cover Susan’s blueberry bushes to deter birds. She also grows a half-dozen tomato plants. The Erbs do not cultivate other produce because Susan said it is readily available at local farmers’ markets.

Inside the house on a sunny day, the pale beige walls and painted beige maple kitchen cabinets are suffused with a rosy glow. The first floor includes a foyer, a living room with a beamed ceiling and sliding glass door to the backyard patio, an eat-in kitchen, dining room, den, office, powder room, primary bedroom with a king-size four poster bed, and primary bath with a walk-in shower and a whirlpool tub. The flooring is red oak. There are two carpeted guest rooms and a bath above the two-car garage. The staircase is next to an exterior door so guests have their own private entrance, Susan said.

The Amish-made living room chairs, sofa and accessory tables and dining room furniture were purchased at Sensenig’s Furniture in New Holland, Lancaster County. The oak kitchen table and chairs, also made by Amish craftsman, came from Gish’s Furniture in East Earl, also in Lancaster County. An elegant dining room brass-and-crystal chandelier was purchased at Home Depot.

Susan credited Nowrey with cleverly utilizing space to create “tons and tons of storage.” There is a pantry closet off the kitchen, coat closets, a master bedroom walk-in closet, as well as a blanket closet and downstairs, and a narrow closet for a vacuum cleaner.

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Susan’s collection of miniature china birds above the living room fireplace, her several framed crewel embroideries of birds, and an array of house plants bring nature inside.

In 2016, the Erbs’ garden was featured on the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Chester County Garden tour.

“It rained,” Susan remembered. “We still had 289 guests. Gardeners don’t mind rain.”

Is your house a Haven? Nominate your home by email (and send some digital photographs) at