Another World

Landscape designer Rene Torres transformed his Collingswood yard into a lush retreat, without chemicals or pesticides, and not a lick of grass.

A crushed bluestone walk leads to a backyard retreat at the Collingswood home of landscape designer Rene Torres.
Photo by Laura Moss.

Rene Torres does not plant “mustache” style. That’s what he calls bushes or shrubs growing smack up against the side of a suburban home.

“You don’t butt plants up against the house,” says Torres. “It’s not good for the house, and you want plants away from it so you can look at them.”

When Torres moved into his Collingswood bungalow in 1999, that’s exactly what the house had—mustache plants, and a lot of lawn.

In time, Torres, 58, transformed the grounds around his home into sustainable and gorgeous gardens, from the low-maintenance plants in front of his house to the French-style garden in the back—all without using pesticides or fertilizer. He blogs about his progress, too, at

Torres, a landscape architect who designs residential gardens, moved to the area from California in 1992 to get his master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. While living in California, he had created a lush garden on top of a mountain, where previously there was nothing but rocks. In Collingswood, his new yard had soil, but it was not very plant-friendly. He needed to add a base layer that would support his garden plans.

The house itself needed work, but he started in the garden. “It takes longer to turn around,” says Torres, who lives alone.

While closing on the Collingswood house and living in nearby Audubon, he started buying plants. Some specimens were even available free, like the liriope plants his new neighbor dug out of her lawn and was about to throw away.

Liriope is a running plant that looks like ground cover but is actually a lily. Torres planted it in three segments of the front yard, and it quickly spread to cover the fourth. Most of the year, liriope appears to be a tall, shaggy thick grass. It blooms once in early summer with tiny white flowers.

“I’ve never once cut it in the time that I’ve lived here,” says Torres. The only trimming he does is to keep the sidewalk clear.

Torres kept two rhododendrons that came with the house, and let them grow tall to provide privacy for his front porch. He planted bamboo at the side of the house to create another screen, although he monitors the growth, pulling out new shoots before the fast-growing bamboo takes over the yard.

Next, he turned his attention to the backyard, which required the most work. Just after he closed on the house in 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit the area, turning the yard into a 6-inch-deep lake. When it eventually drained and Torres dug in to plant dogwood trees, he realized why the water had built up. The yard was full of marine clay, covered by layers of dirt and fill, which suggested his land was once a water-soaked marsh that had been filled for development.

The marine clay was tough (“I needed a pickax to break through all that stuff,” he says), but it was better than sand. It’s green in color and can be turned into plant-friendly soil. He just had to break it down.
Torres started transforming his yard from swampy lawn to rich garden by digging a trench around the edges. This kept water from running onto his property from his neighbors’ yards; it also created raised garden beds. He then intersected the old lawn with a cross-shaped pathway 12- to 18-inches deep, which he filled with crushed bluestone. This became a drainage system and walkway for the eventual garden.

When the water table is high, the lower portion of the gravel holds water that drains when the land dries out.
He dealt with the remaining lawn by killing it. “I had three choices: use chemicals, dig it all out, or smother it to death,” he says. Torres went with option three, covering the remaining lawn with leaves. He didn’t have enough from his own yard, so he asked his neighbors for theirs.

“You’re throwing away money!” he jokes to neighbors as they rake their leaves to the curb. One even asked him if they could dump their leaves over the fence into his yard. Of course he agreed.

Leaves are a gardener’s gold. When they decompose, they release rich nutrients into the soil. Torres uses them for compost, which keeps his garden thriving without fertilizer. The same leaves he used to kill the grass also served to feed the soil and helped with the marine clay. “When you add humus, the clay will fall apart and give you something,” he says. He supplemented the decomposing mix of leaves and grass with purchased topsoil to get the garden started.

Still, not everything he originally planted lived. Twelve of the thirteen dogwoods didn’t make it. The key to gardening, he says, is to be flexible and learn from your mistakes. So Torres looked further into what native plants worked, and also what thrived in a high-water area. That led him to plant a willow tree that “sucks up water” at the back of the garden. The willow shades a koi pond and seating area.

He located the most fragrant and colorful plants closer to his house—but not right up against it. Roses, peonies, viburnums, hydrangeas, and spirea bloom against a backdrop of evergreen plants that also provide privacy.

Torres doesn’t need pesticides, he suspects, because of another group that enjoys his property. “The garden is patrolled by thousands of birds,” says Torres. “There’s a flock of about a dozen doves that lives under everything, just picking at the ground.” They take care of bugs that could eat the plants, and mosquitoes that could bite Torres.

He uses the original moat he dug around the yard to compost more leaves to create more soil, which he combines with material he composts separately out of his kitchen scraps in two composting bins.
Creating his garden was initially time consuming, but Torres says the plantings now are very low-maintenance. He prunes, he composts, but most of the time, he simply enjoys his outdoor haven. His favorite spot is by the pond under the willow tree. “When it’s blazing hot, and you sit under that willow, it’s very cool. It’s natural air conditioning,” he says. “It’s like you’re in another world.”


Tips From Torres:

Don’t trash your leaves. You’re throwing away nutrients if you do. Instead, set up a composting operation. You can dump leaves and lawn debris in one spot in a corner of your yard, or buy a composter to mix the debris with your kitchen scraps. Check out Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost by Mike McGrath, host of NPR’s “You Bet Your Garden,” for an easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide.

Welcome birds. They’ll eat the nasty bugs for you. The easiest way to attract them to your yard is to add plants with berries or set up a birdbath. Just make sure you clean it every few days since birds aren’t the most sanitary creatures.

Don’t plant right next to your house. Putting plants up against your house can ruin your home. The roots can wind their way into the walls, harm paint and siding, and start living on, instead of next to, your house. Give them some space, even if it’s just an extra foot.

You’re going to make mistakes. That’s okay. Even though Torres is a landscape architect, he didn’t always pick the right plants. Learn from your mistakes. If you’re looking for a free helping hand, contact the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, which has an office in every county (

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an oversight, some of the tips in this box were mistakenly attributed to Torres, including the recommendation of Mike McGrath’s book. We regret the error.

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