Here at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold facility flanked on three sides by expansive estuarine shoreline and maritime habitat, sustainability plays a fundamental role in all operations. This commitment to sustainability is evidenced across CSI’s five research areas, educational programs, building design and construction features, and landscape design and maintenance. At the heart of CSI’s innovative landscape planning and upkeep—operating masterfully at the nexus of sustainability, beauty, and functionality—is Horticultural Specialist, Jeff Lewis.
As Horticultural Specialist, Lewis is responsible for the beautification and maintenance of the ~215-acre campus as well as supporting and participating in educational programs. Jeff’s personally defined mission is to enhance the beauty of the site while improving and creating wildlife habitat using only native plants and sustainable practices. Lewis has been at CSI since the fall of 2015 and has 22 years of professional horticultural experience including landscaping and propagation. Prior to this role, Lewis worked as the Gardens and Nursery Manager at The Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, NC. Lewis is also a seasoned naturalist and accomplished wildlife photographer whose photos are displayed on the CSI campus and throughout the Outer Banks.
Jeff Lewis is a third-generation gardener whose interest in nature goes back as far as he can remember. Despite his green thumb, however, Lewis says it was actually the animals he became fascinated with before plants.
“My interest in fauna is really what started my interest in the flora. I want to create habitat and food sources for native birds and other wildlife, and to do that you need to understand which plants support various pollinators, hummingbirds, songbirds, and so on.”
The CSI Campus includes four constructed wetlands, three vegetated bioretention areas, a butterfly garden, pollinator garden, and several additional beds installed and maintained by Lewis. There is also a hiking trail through a Nature Conservancy easement of the property along which Lewis has installed many shade-loving natives. So far, Lewis has added 95 new native species to CSI in his two years. Additionally, he has labeled over 300 perennials, trees, and shrubs with name plates for the public to view.
Being the naturalist and wildlife photographer that he is, it is unsurprising that Lewis also keeps a running list of animal species that he spots—by eye or ear—on the CSI grounds. His list currently includes 163 distinct bird species, 14 reptiles, 22 butterflies, five amphibians and nine mammals. Lewis has additionally encountered some persistent invasive plant species, like Phragmites, which he works to combat. In speaking with Lewis, it is obvious that his commitment to sustainable horticultural practices runs deeper than the Monday through Friday workweek.
“As humans, our development on the coast and other areas has taken so much from nature already. The least we can do is give a little back by landscaping with plants that replenish some of the food and shelter lost [to development] and maintain them without using poisons.”
Lewis attended college at NC State University, however, as a business major, he recalls just two classes related to botany or horticulture. The rest, he says, is self-taught or learned hands-on. Based on personal experience, Lewis stresses that the best way to develop a skillset in horticulture is to get out and get dirty. This is one reason that Lewis decided to start a horticultural volunteer group at CSI for those interested in learning about sustainable cultivation, propagation and landscape care. He has also delivered several talks in CSI’s “Science on the Sound” monthly lecture series with titles including “Sustainable Coastal Gardening” and “Feathered Friends and Sleepy Gardens.” Lewis chuckles while noting that sustainable gardening is often a manual process, like opting for hand-weeding over chemicals. Additionally, Lewis considers plant propagation to be one of the most valuable and fun skills he has acquired and utilized over the years.
“You just can’t find a lot of native perennials or shrubs in nurseries. I have had to grow a lot of the varieties here [at CSI] from seed or by asexual propagation, such as layering and division. Hopefully the market starts to change, though, if we can get more and more people asking for them in stores and nurseries”
Lewis’ horticultural expertise and commitment to sustainability is of great value to CSI. His work as Horticultural Specialist serves to keep the campus attractive, manage storm water runoff, educate and engage the public, and protect and promote biodiversity to compliment and enhance the overarching CSI mission. To view Lewis’ wildlife photos in full size, click any thumbnail in the gallery below. Additional photos by Lewis of native plants at CSI can be accessed on the Sustainable Landscaping page.