Jake Serfass enjoys golf but never uses a cart. He played baseball at West Virginia University and later in the Milwaukee Brewers system. Growing up in Bucks County, he also played football, basketball, and soccer.
Ellis Mair rows on the Schuylkill. Growing up in Kennett Square, she played a variety of team sports and did karate for several years.
Serfass, 38, is 6-foot-3. Mair, 33, is 5-foot-9.
Because they are so physically fit, the Fishtown couple were able to tackle the challenges to create an award-winning garden out of a concrete slab, which last summer was designated a Garden of Distinction in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Gardening and Greening Contest.
When Serfass and Mair purchased their Fishtown rowhouse in 2015, the yard was a concrete slab surrounded by a cyclone fence. Access to the street was through an alley too narrow for a wheelbarrow. The couple have manually hauled dirt, rocks, concrete, wood, and plants.
Their first project was a fence that Serfass fashioned from pine boards laid horizontally “to make the yard look wider,” he says. He then built wood frames for raised beds for Mair’s plants.
When a drainage problem last year required the installation of a dry well, Mair convinced Serfass to get rid of the concrete. With a jackhammer, sledgehammer, and the help of two friends, he broke up and removed 4½ tons of concrete, which were replaced with slate pavers from a friend in Bucks County.
Now the garden’s two raised beds are ringed with Belgian blocks that Mair purchased from the Fishtown Neighbors Association, which was clearing a lot for a community garden. She chairs the association’s beautification committee.
Serfass built a wood base for backyard seating — cushions came from Restoration Hardware — and a base for a grill and a corner table. He and Mair poured concrete into molds for countertops.
Mair uses containers for tomatoes, scallions, beets, carrots, and trellised peas. Window boxes in the front of the house are planted with a variety of peppers. The corner garden bed blooms with delphinium, coral bells and bleeding hearts. Herbs include citronella to repel mosquitos, thyme, chives, Greek oregano, cilantro, sage and purple basil. A hosta and a Japanese willow add height.
A second bed is planted with yellow and pink lupine, salvia, asters and pineapple sage. Foxgloves and an arborvitae add height. There are also blue and pink hydrangeas and a fuchsia peony from Mair’s grandmother’s garden in Kennett Square. “It must be 40 or 50 years old,” Mair says.
In her pesticide-free yard, pollinators such as butterfly weed and mountain mint attract bees, and Mair has a hummingbird feeder. Mair and Serfass haul “really good” free compost and mulch from the Fairmount Park Organic Recycling Center in his pickup.
Many perennials came from plant swaps with friends or from Mair’s parents’ house in Kennett Square.
She has always loved cultivating. “When I was 10, my dad made me a three-by-four-foot herb garden,” she says.
Serfass says he is just the laborer, but he did pick out an apple dogwood at a local nursery. His future addition to the garden will be a mural painted on the stucco back wall. Originally a door was there, but it was moved to the side of the house to allow for a larger kitchen.
After they purchased the 1890 rowhouse, Serfass and Mair gutted the interior and moved the staircase for better flow. What was a four-bedroom, one-bath house became a three-bedroom with 2½ baths. There are exposed beam ceilings in the master suite and living room, and exposed brick walls, a fireplace and hardwood floors throughout.
Mair and Serfass share a home office painted gray with white trim and filled with plants. She operates Go4Ellis, a business that connects schools and sports organizations with athletic trainers. He is director of athletics at Father Judge High School in Northeast Philadelphia.
Shelves in the kitchen are lined with Mair’s canned tomatoes, peppers, applesauce, and pickles that go well with Serfass’ barbecue.
The garden is strung with lights for nighttime entertaining. Serfass has a smoker as well as a grill and looks forward to cooking outdoors soon for friends.
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