GC Talks Toxin-Free Lawn Care with Perfect Earth Project’s Edwina von Gal

Liberated from the Hamptons’ ubiquitous boxy hedges and sculpted greens, landscape design legend Edwina von Gal’s home sits on stilts. Overlooking the Acabonack Harbor, a northern nook on Long Island’s South Fork, her lush refuge is an incubator for toxin-free methodology.

For decades, von Gal fashioned landscapes and gardens for discerning devotees including Calvin Klein, Richard Serra, Larry Gagosian and Cindy Sherman. Her public space commissions include collaborations with Frank Gehry and Maya Lin. Now she is fixated on environmental awareness and lawn maintenance reform.

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Her latest initiative, the Perfect Earth Project, is an off-shoot of her Azuero Earth Project in Panama, which promotes the elimination of hazardous lawn chemicals. The charity encourages awareness of pesticide and herbicide dangers such as cancer, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, infertility, and reproductive abnormalities. The Perfect Earth Project also provides How-To’s for creating safe spaces, including references for hiring and educating landscape professionals.

As summer began to set, I met with von Gal on her own toxin-free turf. While plying me with tomatillos and cherry tomatoes from her garden, she shared outtakes from her career, lessons in lawn care, and a vision for the future.

Ruthie Abel

GC: How and when did you decide to become a landscape designer?

EVG: It was inevitable. I was a single mom and started working for a real estate company in property management. In those days, as the only woman on staff, I was initially sent to spruce up sidewalks and replace dead street trees.

The American Society of Landscape Architects had a tour of Rockefeller Center’s rooftop terraces. This was in the early ‘80’s. Carl Miller, who was managing the Center’s gardens, noted that I was the only one peppering him with questions. He asked if I was interested in submitting a proposal for the Channel Gardens, between the French and English buildings off of Fifth Avenue.

My proposal was based on my young daughter’s Little Golden Book Wild Animals, and it won. After a year of planning it was installed at Rockefeller Center. My jobs take years to complete, so I continued to do both real estate and landscape design for years. Little by little, I got jobs that were more landscape.

GCRuthie Abel

GC: Were you raised among gardens or was your green thumb cultivated in real estate?

EVG: It is in my blood. I grew up in Brewster, New York, a real cow town, and my grandmother was a Garden Club of America judge– a big deal in that world. I knew how to weed and to plant seeds; I assumed everyone did!

GC: What prompted you to forgo your career in private landscaping?

EVG: My 65th birthday was the transitional moment, in October, 2013.

A primary reason to grow vegetable gardens is to have control.  But I never asked how clients’ lawns were maintained. It occurred to me that I was doing all this work in Panama based in working without chemicals, but right here I had overlooked the very same thing, going totally toxin-free.

Why would one walk across a chemical lawn to get to an organic vegetable garden?

Why would one walk across a chemical lawn to get to an organic vegetable garden? Most people don’t know how dangerous landscape chemicals are, especially to children and pets, which are most likely to be in close contact, even nibbling.

All of my clients have converted to toxin-free. I still work on their projects and I take on new ones if it can help grow Perfect Earth.

GCRuthie Abel

GC: What’s the story behind the “Perfect Earth Project” name?

EVG: After many months of brain-wracking and trying my friends’ patience, it came from thinking about how much our lands mean to us, especially lawns. And how perfect people want them to be. And how sad and ironic it is that they are usually full of poison, and it is totally unnecessary! You don’t need poison for a lush, green lawn.

GC: So you advocate going cold-turkey on chemicals?

EVG: Yes, replacing chemicals with thoughtfulness. We are building a new community of landscape stewards. We always ask not to fire the lawn maintenance professionals, but to convert.

The biggest requirement is time.  Traditional lawn maintenance involves setting irrigation clocks in the spring and leaving them at the same settings all summer. But clocks need to be monitored and changed regularly: watering in the spring creates surface swamps and invites mosquitoes. So turn on the system but do not set the clock. Wait– and have someone manage it on a weekly basis. Lawns should be able to go 3-5 days without water.

GC: This arugula is delish– flavorful but not overly spicy or bitter.  Is it difficult to grow?

EVG: It’s the best. I got the seed from my friend David Maupin, who bought it in Italy. It has been self-sowing for 8-10 years now!

Von Gal's garden is popular with monarch butterflies and the beautiful, yet more distructive, white cabbage butterflies.Ruthie Abel

GC: Is it possible to create and maintain traditional French and English aesthetics using your system?

EVG: Of course. It applies to anything. The aesthetic depends on the place, the person, and the architecture.

GC: What excites you about landscape design today?

EVG: Moss. I’m thinking a lot about moss, especially out here where many of my projects have grown in and are becoming shady.

Moss carries a romantic response mechanism.  Ticks make people nervous about tall grass. It is not a play surface, but you can walk on moss. Look at this picture. See how my foot sinks into the cushion?

GC: Should cut grass lawns be eliminated entirely?

EVG: We would never suggest people live without lawns, unless they have no need for one. Some might go from wall to wall grass to an area rug.

GC: Who has influenced your career the most?

EVG: Joe D’Urso, a reclusive hero of the design world, and Peter Sharp, my mentor at the real estate company (an owner/developer of multiple high-end Manhattan properties, including the Carlyle Hotel). He taught me how to run a job, how to bid at auction, and how to get things done. In general, he gave me way more responsibility than I deserved…

Of course, my biggest mentor of all was my husband, Jay Chiat, who inspired everyone who knew him.

Find more information on The Perfect Earth Project and how to create your own toxin-free environment here.

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