Edwina von Gal

Edwina von Gal
Founder, Perfect Earth Project

On Thursday, May 26, Grace Farms will host the first Earth Equity and Design for Freedom Landscapes Forum bringing together landscape architects and garden enthusiasts to explore how they can utilize sustainable materials free of forced and child labor to create landscapes that are better for people and the planet. This daylong event will feature panels, breakout sessions, and guided walks and is hosted in partnership with Edwina von Gal, founder of the Perfect Earth Project, and Louis Fusco, PLA, Principal, with the Connecticut ASLA.

Principal of her eponymous landscape design firm since 1984, Edwina creates landscapes with a focus on simplicity and sustainability for clients around the world.

Q: You launched your non-profit Perfect Earth Project in 2013, with the mission of getting homeowners and landscaping professionals to stop using chemicals on their lawns and land. What led up to this and since then how do you see our mindsets changing?

A: In 2006 I was involved in starting a native tree planting non profit in Panama.  We may have been the first ever reforestation project to go chemical free.  It got me thinking about my landscape design jobs in the US, I had no idea what kind of chemical programs my clients might be using.  No one was particularly focused on it then.  It was an eye opener for me to find out just how much chemical is applied to home landscapes (up to 10X more per sq ft than agricultural lands) and how harmful they are to people and pets (hormone disruption, nervous system disorders, non hodgkins lymphoma, allergies, autism, and the environment – water and soil pollution, wildlife impacts).

Q: As Americans, in general, it is often said that we love green tidy lawns, but this is to the detriment of pollinators, biodiversity, and ourselves. How do convince your clients and others there is a downside to this? Is there an example or story you can share?

A: People need to know more about the harmful effects and at the same time, take a good look at their motives.  Why, if I know this is bad for me, my family, my planet, do I still feel compelled to do it?  Studies say it is mostly peer pressure.  Marketing plays a big role in establishing the landscape “ideal”.  We are out to change that.  I just keep reminding myself that smoking was cool when I was in high school.  The sterile landscape is next!  Everyone with a huge green lawn will hopefully soon be a bit embarrassed, and then start reducing it,  from wall to wall to area rug, and doing it without chemicals.  We promote habitat friendly landscapes, so, of course, we advise replacing all that lawn you aren’t using with native pollinator and bird friendly trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers. 

Q: In the Landscapes Forum, we will be talking about material choices that are sustainable and less at risk of forced labor. Where is the landscape industry in terms of their awareness of also choosing these types of materials?

A: Way behind!  With all the time I spend on ethical, sustainable practices, I wasn’t thinking at all about products. I haven’t heard anyone else in the trade discussing it in such depth either  Until Grace Farms came into my life.  The Design For Freedom Tool Kit is a great resource to motivate and inform us to ask the right questions and specify the best products in hopes that it will also push more and more manufacturers to a higher degree of transparency and compliance.   

Q: You have also talked about that it’s not only about the product – including the use of organic – but it’s about the process. Can you elaborate on this idea?

A: Glad you asked….Process is a key component, to transition to nature-based without changing practices  is most often the cause for “organic” programs to fail.  It is in the name!  The process follows nature.  If you just switch from chemical fertilizers and pesticides to organic and low toxicity, without stepping into a nature-based approach, you are still just  treating the symptoms and not building true plant health.  Follow the food web.  The leaves and organic matter a property produces is its food.  Instead of sending it to the landfill, and buying in mulches and inputs that arrive from far away in plastic bags,  feed what it made back to the land. 

A big challenge is lawn care.  It is where the most pesticides  and fertilizers are used. That is because conventional lawns are exotic monocultures and traditional practices put a great deal of stress on the millions of individual grass plants that make up a lawn.  The nature-based lawn is mowed higher (3”) to provide more photosynthetic energy to roots and shade out weeds, mulch mowed with clippings left as food, it allows clover to fix nitrogen, is watered seldom and deep, gets aerated in compacted zones and overseeded in the fall. 

Q: You remarked in your Tedx discussion that solutions are right outside our doors and they are free. If you had one or two tips or nature-based solutions to leave us with that would open our minds to becoming good and sustainable land stewards, what would they be?

A: Let go, listen to nature, and let it take a role in the process, let plants grow as nature intended to their natural forms.  Fill every space that isn’t lawn with plants that provide for other life forms.  If you aren’t eating your landscape, why not share it?  Plants have evolved to feed insects, so let it happen. The result is an explosion of life.  That might be scary for some people but start with learning a few plant/insect relationships (milkweeds and Monarchs!) and grow from there.  When you can get away from “the landscape in a box” that is highly controlled, everything changes.  No need to obsess about a leaf on the lawn or a twig out of place….just joy in watching it express itself.  Like your kids and pets.