Follow the gravel path that winds among native perennials in garden designer Edamarie Mattei’s Silver Spring backyard, past the berm of a rain garden and toward a patio table sheltered by a screened pergola hung with tiny lights. That’s where you’ll find Mattei and her husband, Kris Colby, and their three children eating dinner most summer evenings, dining on vegetables grown in raised beds that cover what once was a driveway.
The yard symbolizes Mattei’s definition of a successful garden: a place where you want to spend as much time as possible. “It’s what makes you care about the environment and notice the world around you,” says Mattei, who owns Backyard Bounty, an organic garden and land care business.
A high school English teacher for nine years, Mattei, 47, switched careers and established her business in 2009, after installing a garden for an acquaintance who admired her backyard.
Mattei partnered with an established landscape architect for her first professional project, but soon realized that she wanted to pursue her own vision of emphasizing native plants and avoiding invasive species, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
“That idea became more and more powerful to me: to do gardens the way you plant vegetables—by taking care of the soil,” she says.
It’s an idea that’s ripe in Montgomery County, once a bastion of chemically treated, “mow-and-blow” yards. The county now certifies organic landscapers and offers tax credits to homeowners who plant runoff-absorbing rain gardens that protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Mattei says she’s “excited to be helping county residents create gardens that do good while looking good [by] recharging groundwater, keeping pollutants out of streams, building habitats that preserve the diversity in our ecosystems, and conserving energy and limited natural resources.” And, she says, “I feel really lucky to be able to do what I love for a living.”
Growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s, Mattei says she didn’t pay much attention to the clipped lawns and tidy flower beds that formed the backdrop to her childhood. “I did what suburban kids do—played soccer and prepared to go to college,” she says. She attended Georgetown University, majored in English and became a high school English teacher in the South Bronx.
Mattei gained a newfound appreciation for outdoor pleasures after moving from New York City to the East Bay of San Francisco with her husband in 1990. She loved to cook, so northern California’s food culture was a revelation. Shopping for fresh, local produce at farmers markets, she says she realized that “getting organic spring mix lettuce that had just been cut was completely different from the lettuce in a box from Whole Foods.”
When the couple returned to the East Coast nearly 20 years ago, “farmers markets didn’t exist here on the scale they do now,” she says. “I started gardening because I wanted to have that food.”
Having taken time off from teaching to raise her family, Mattei discovered that gardening was a great activity to do with young children. And she found that she enjoyed digging in the dirt and watching plants grow as much as they did. She began to study gardening as a teacher and bookworm would: first by reading everything she could find on the subject, and then by taking horticulture and design courses, eventually becoming a master gardener through a program offered by the University of Maryland Extension.
Backyard Bounty’s signature potager—a kitchen garden that’s a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers—reflects Mattei’s memories of the urban garden planted by her Italian immigrant grandparents. But many of the firm’s projects also tap into Mattei’s knowledge of water management, native plants and organic methods. Her team has grown to include two other garden designers, a stonemason and three to six seasonal gardeners who install and maintain about 25 garden projects a year.
Mattei’s landscapes tend to be textured, with meandering paths and shady nooks, providing even small yards with depth, variety and surprise. She emphasizes that a garden needn’t be unruly to be organic. “It can be simple or traditional-looking, but with a better sense of stewardship,” she says. “For example, if a client tells me they love burning bushes, which unfortunately are terribly invasive, I’d suggest aronia, or chokeberry, that’s native to our area with beautiful fall colors and a berry that’s good for our local wildlife.”