Meet Kai Pedersen, the Visionary Behind Birchrunville’s SunLeaf Gardens
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts-trained designer, who happens to have dyslexia, has worked on projects like Brandywine Cottage and Warwick Furnace.
Kai Pedersen might know the name of every plant in existence. He just can’t spell any of them—and that’s not such a bad thing, though sometimes even Googling doesn’t help.
“Eventually, I get it,” he says, reaching for a potted Pulsatilla vulgaris, a mountain flower variety he’s growing in his year-old greenhouse in Birchrunville.
Pedersen began SunLeaf Gardens a decade ago. First, he built vegetable gardens—one a $40,000 plot that was hard to justify financially. Then he cleaned flowerbeds, learning to distinguish weeds from plants.
Turns out Pedersen is a quick study. Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he learned that keen artistic ability and dyslexia are often conjoined, like weeds and plants. He’s capitalizing on that mix by creatively transforming landscapes into outdoor canvases. “I’m extremely dyslexic, but it’s something I found common in art school,” he says. “At least 80 percent of the others I met there were dyslexic, too.”
It’s allowed him to question assumptions and rules—“to start off dumb,” then build a base from the bottom up, like a stone wall. Dyslexia runs in the Pedersen family. Kai’s father, Erik, a civil engineer with an MBA, has it. So did his maternal grandfather, scientist Lane Dewees, who put the first earth-imaging satellites in space, and his maternal great-grandfather, Peter Vargo, who once restructured Phoenixville Steel’s physical plant, earning a $100 bonus though he couldn’t read. To succeed takes grit, reversing failings and seeing big-picture connections—say, in a four-season landscape.
“He was an interesting kid,” admits his mother, Tracy Taylor, a renowned scientific illustrator of bird and wildlife books and postage stamps who also attended PAFA—as did her mother, Irene Dewees. “But I knew he was OK when he said, ‘I’m glad I have dyslexia because it’s made me who I am.’ It drives him to find ways of making things work. He thinks in 4-D, so when he does a landscape, he sees how it will change over time and through four seasons. I don’t know if people realize what they’re getting.”
Pedersen arranges a project board to show what he’s envisioning, and which plants and repurposed materials he’s targeting, but only after multiple conversations uncover a client’s personal and property histories. “He really listens to people and connects them with the land,” his mother says.
Pedersen’s loose rule is to find at least three connections with a client, and he’s always been able to put himself in others’ shoes. “Connecting is crucial to what we do,” he says. “It all has to interlock and connect, almost exactly like the inter-workings of a stone wall or a garden.”
The approach has worked with the best of them. At Brandywine Cottage, David Culp’s world-class two-acre layered garden in Downingtown, Pedersen has often been a design partner. This has been especially true in the past two years, as the pair worked to develop a small meadow, the final piece of a celebrated 20-year project.
“What I do with my garden is art, but it’s a slower medium,” says Culp, a kindred spirit who shares Pedersen’s vision and philosophies and loves his eye and demeanor. “Kai has great sensitivity—period—but especially with plants and their uses. I know lots of people, but I chose Kai because of his sensitivity. It’s unusual and gratifying to recognize that in somebody younger. Kai is a man of now, but also of the future. He can do naturalism very well, and he’s part of a new movement.”
While Pedersen doesn’t differentiate between his work as an artist and a landscaper, he divides clients into two categories—front-yard gardeners and backyard gardeners. Driven by superficiality, the first wants what the neighbor has, but the backyard version immerses himself in the space. “Those are the clients I’m drawn to,” he says.
In his greenhouse, he buys and grows what others can’t find, if only to fill niches that might not yet exist. He’s growing stock, some of it for jobs. There’s Stewartia malacodendron in the Camellia family and Franklinia, a John Bartrum discovery within the Theaceae tea-plant family. A self-described “plant geek,” Pedersen tries to be different from other landscapers, but only in a search for a balanced harmony of meaning and purpose for all.
Current trends include eco-friendly swaths of meadows, rain gardens and native-naturalistic plantings, but there’s also traction for historical foundations. Pedersen’s obsession with finding plants has also spawned a sideline business—supplying specialized collectors and growers. He falls in love with materials. “I collect things,” he admits.
Inside his office, windowsills are filled with dried and living artifacts from the earth’s floor. He collects “weird” plants like native dwarf hemlocks and variegated Catalpa and rose. He likes rocks, granite and 5,000-pound blocks of Vermont soapstone. He’s been carving a fire bowl from the latter—not that he’ll be satisfied with it, even if his client is. “It’s really about the journey—about solving, connecting and engaging in the project,” says Pedersen. “But when it’s done, I see the imperfections. I never feel like we got what we wanted, but a lot of artists struggle with that.”
Pedersen’s outdoor influences are indisputable. He’s read—or rather listened to—Thoreau’s Walden countless times.
He worships the work of Wharton Esherick, the dean of American craftsmen, and Eric Sloan. He often uses Sloan’s books to date old wood joinery or solve other “weird mysterious things,” like the sideways-tilted triangular engravings in the stone at an 18th-century Chester Springs gristmill property he’s worked on.
There’s been more historical work for Pedersen lately. At Warwick Furnace, a Pew family holding, he’s restoring an old Thomas Sears terraced garden while learning about the property’s history and plant foundations. There are also some seedy stories—like the ones about a Ben Franklin affair there and the slave burial ground around the old oak tree.
Chester County and the Brandywine Valley are rooted in history—and that can both help and hurt a landscape designer. Some clients are demanding and critical, which also happens to be Pedersen’s calling card. Others say, “Here’s the money, create something,” which can be equally challenging when it comes to creating projects that will endure.
Pedersen studied landscaping and has worked beside skilled bonsai gardeners in Japan. His wife, Miku, is Japanese and business-oriented; their opposite talents attract. Their three children are Koa, Mia and Myla.
SunLeaf has 10 full-time, career-focused employees, a mix of artists and technicians. They work 10 hours four days a weeks. Honestly, Pedersen could just be an artist. He worked for one, and was selling his own paintings. But owning a business, hiring, and planting a distinct purpose in each job cultivates meaning for him. Plus, he knows clients will pay more for an actual landscape than a painting of one.
With plenty of work available, Pedersen has the luxury of choosing his clients. But he remains bothered that he “just builds things for rich people.” His goal is expanding exposure to nature for all. It’s what drives the hands-on, grassroots Monarch Habitat butterfly-monitoring project he does in partnership with his mother and the University of Minnesota.
“If you save a single species by creating habitat, you’re saving other species,” says Taylor, who’s designed the project’s educational-marketing poster. “The more kids who plant habitat that helps this one simple, incredible creature, the more heroes. It’s one [school] garden at a time. Kai wants to save this butterfly, and he’s a problem solver with the resources to pull this together.”