Re-defining the Definition of Beauty in the Landscape …. One Lawn at a Time

Edwina von Gal's own chemical free property.
Edwina von Gal's own chemical free property.
Edwina von Gal’s own chemical free property. (Photo courtesy of Ms. von Gal).

By Annette Hinkle

The health of the bays and waterways is currently one of the biggest issues facing the region. Next month, voters in the five East End towns will go to the polls to decide if up to 20 percent of their CPF (Community Preservation Fund) revenues can be used for water quality projects.

Most of these projects will focus on upgrading septic systems and advocating for reduction of organic materials, like those found in fertilizers, from entering waterways. But East End garden designer Edwina von Gal is on a mission to remind homeowners there is another important part of the equation — horticultural and agricultural chemicals like pesticides which also contribute to the degradation of water quality and have the potential to cause much greater harm closer to home.

“We want people to look at perfect green lawns as toxic,” says Ms. von Gal. “We’re in this strange place of telling people that in a lot of cases, it’s not fine. You don’t want kids rolling around on the grass or babies chewing on it.”

“You are exposing your children and your pets to harmful chemicals,” she adds. “We have found people are more incentivized to take action when the connection is so direct.”

In 2013, Ms. von Gal founded Perfect Earth Project (PEP), a non-profit organization that promotes toxin-free land management. On Sunday, Ms. von Gal will be at The Nature Conservancy in East Hampton to present “Sustainable Practices for East End Watersheds: A Free Workshop for Local Homeowners.” Also on hand will be several well-known landscape designers and architects to offer one on one advice.

“We wanted to create a program that would bring people up to speed that’s free and accessible,” explains Ms. von Gal, who is working closely with Friends of Georgica Pond Association in East Hampton to improve the algal bloom situation that has plagued the pond in recent years. “We fill in that gap. Yes, long term you’ll have to fix your septic. But what about that lawn going right to the water? While you’re at it, you’ll be reducing the threat to your family and pets.”

Though Ms. von Gal has always avoided the use of chemicals on her own property, she had never really been involved in advocating that her clients do the same on theirs. She notes her “aha” moment came after her dentist, who lives by the water, asked her what he should do.

“He said ‘I don’t feel right about the chemicals on my lawn. Where do I turn?’” she recalls. “I realized I didn’t have an answer for him. One thing led to another. I went to my own clients and asked ‘We’re not using chemicals. Will you do this?’”

Part of Ms. von Gal’s educational efforts focus on the science of the aquifer and how it works. In August, she gave a presentation explaining that groundwater and run-off from properties reaches not only the bays and ponds, but the drinking water supply everyone on the East End relies on.

For many in the audience, it was truly an eye opener.

“There are over 2,000 homes in the Georgica watershed — including The Nature Conservancy headquarters,” she explains. “Every home is in a watershed, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing has an affect on your drinking water.”

“A lot of people said ‘I never really understood that before.’ They take water for granted and never stopped to think about what it meant,” says Ms. von Gal. “I’m surprised. Even gardeners don’t know about it. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

When it comes to the over-application of chemicals by homeowners, Ms. von Gal feels marketing is largely to blame.

“When homeowners go to a store and buy a bag — the three or five step program — it’s everything you’d ever need in a bag. But it’s really what you don’t need,” she says. “It’s like going to the doctor for a checkup and you get put on chemotherapy and everything else in the bag.”

“It’s what your lawn doesn’t need and you’ve wiped out your lawn’s immune system and all the microbial life in the soil,” she adds. “Then you start spraying so there are no beneficial insects.”

Ms. von Gal concedes that her own chemical-free waterfront property in Springs, which includes a meadow buffer and the use of native species, is much more low maintenance than many of her clients. She is trying techniques there that she’s hoping could eventually become common practice for many others in the region, including her clients.

“I’m seeing what evolves,” she says. “What if you don’t mow, and what’s happening in shady and sunny environments? What about the marsh? What don’t the deer don’t eat.”

Changing how people look at the landscape may ultimately be one of the biggest goals of Ms. von Gal’s mission on the East End. Re-defining the concept of beauty is turning out to be a key component of the re-education process.

“The eye of fashion has been the military cut lawn. But we promote a taller blade and the use of clover to achieve a more tousled look, which we think is way more modern,” says Ms. von Gal. “The old kind is like your lawn in a suit. When you come out to the country, do you want your lawn in a suit? Your lawn should be inviting and not formal.”

“A lot of it is about changing fashion and peer pressure,” she concedes. “That’s what we’re trying to do — change perception and expectation. What’s the picture when we say ‘buffer’ or ‘meadow’? How do we create a picture of a good one in your mind and your mind says ‘beautiful’?”

“Remember when everyone thought big hair and shoulder pads looked great?” she asks. “There was a time when that was attractive… But this is more important than shoulder pads.”

“Sustainable Practices for East End Watersheds: A Free Workshop for Local Homeowners” will be offered Sunday, October 9 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Conservation, 142 Route 114, East Hampton. Coffee and snacks will be served. Space is limited and reservations are required at (631) 907-9040 or visit and click events.

The workshop includes a free guide to watershed-wise gardening. One-on-one advice will be offered by landscape designers and architects: Jim Grimes of James C. Grimes Land Design and Fort Pond Native Plants, Ed Hollander of Hollander Design, Abby Lawless of Farm Design, Geoffrey Nimmer of Geoffrey Nimmer Landscapes, Tony Piazza of Piazza Horticultural, Paul Wagner of Greener Pastures Organics and Perfect Earth Project’s lawn expert and Edwina von Gal of Edwina von Gal and Co.