Queer landscape company brings activism into backyards across Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Queer landscape company brings activism into backyards across Pittsburgh

click to enlarge Queer landscape company brings activism into backyards across Pittsburgh
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Jess Runco, owner of Touch of Green
What if your yard was a space for hundreds of relationships between flowers, edible plants, bugs, and birds to unfold? What if your yard was a place where endangered native plant species could thrive, bringing Monarch butterflies and bees to your neighborhood? To Jess Runco, landscaping is a form of activism in the face of climate change, and a practice of community care. Touch of Green — their regenerative, sustainable land care company — was started in 2015 with these ideas in mind.

“We are the stewards of mother earth,” Runco says. “I think it’s our responsibility to take that seriously and to respect that. As humans, we have such an ability to cause harm but have just as much power to create a better world. At this point, it’s not just about sustaining, it’s about regenerating.”

Runco is quick to critique the turf grass that makes up so many yards across America, both for grass’ lacking environmental impact and the classist, racist history of manicured lawns, as documented in the New York Times’ “The Great American Lawn: How the Dream Was Manufactured.” They’re just as eager to share about beautiful, beneficial alternatives. Where grass does nothing to contribute to biodiversity or soil health, native pollinator plants can grow with less maintenance while fostering expansive ecosystems. Echinacea, milkweeds, Joe Pye weed, and asters, for example, all attract pollinators and create visually engaging spaces that are full of life.

They came to this work after years in the service industry; at Dinette and Jen’s Juice in Shadyside, Runco valued the principles of sustainability, from product sourcing to fair wages. From here, they laid the groundwork for their own business, with the values of being in service to others, anti-capitalist notions, and desire to work in community.

An opposition to social norms and belief in finding more expansive, creative ways of enjoying life is present in their approach to land care. It’s just as connected to their queerness.

The traditional landscaping industry is dominated by cis men, according to Runco, which they say only creates a stronger sense of unity and collaboration among queer people and women working in sustainable land care. Since they’ve established their business across the city, Runco values being able to offer well-paid gig work and provide opportunities for folks with shared values, or those who are willing to learn.

“The queer community, historically, we’re always fighting for what’s right, right?” Runco says. “We’re trying to make these shifts, we’re trying to educate people into thinking alternatively from what they’re used to thinking. We’re trying to save the world with our work, honestly. The way we operate in our homes, the way we operate in society, and then the way we operate in work, I think it all comes together. Queerness encompasses everything, from our identities to the work we do and the ways we support each other and the Earth.”

For Runco’s clients, the elements of creativity, trust, relationship building, and the potential for collaboration stand out the most. Lauren Spagna, a Swissvale resident and client of Runco’s since 2017, expresses her gratitude for Runco’s openness and knowledge.

“I love that they always let their customers know what they’re learning, what their strategies are,” says Spagna. “It’s extremely important to me to be able to support the food chain and ecosystems in my backyard.”

In the eyes of Jerome D’Angelo, an artist and Touch of Green client, Runco’s work displays their artistic sensibility, and the harmony they can create between natural and built environments. “The things that you would work with in a piece of art — the idea of texture, form, composition, value, color, and variety — they’re doing that with their knowledge of plantings and using native plants,” D’Angelo says of Runco’s garden redesign at his home in Blackridge.

Runco is accredited with Phipps as a sustainable land care provider and continues to teach through the program.

“I love the opportunity to pass this knowledge on, especially to younger generations, queer kids in particular,” Runco says. “I love being my own boss, I love taking care of my crew that works with me, I love being the one that buys the pizza.”

Touch of Green. touchofgreenpgh.com