Fixing It: Edwina von Gal and the Perfect Earth Project

From August’s Hamptons Beach House magazine – a great article about The Moore Charitable Foundation partner Perfect Earth Project.

Our land and water has become polluted to the point of being hazardous. Edwina von Gal is changing that, and she needs all of us to get on board.

Edwina von Gal on her deck overlooking wetlands in Accabonac Harbor. Photo by David Harry Stewart/AGEIST.

Edwina von Gal on her deck overlooking wetlands in Accabonac Harbor. Photo by David Harry Stewart/AGEIST.

Owning land is at the heart of the American Dream – a little corner of the earth that you can call your own. But the concept that our land is somehow separate from our neighbor’s, separate from our waterways and farms and aquifers, is entirely manufactured by the human mind. No hedgerow or picket fence will stop the chemicals we put on our land from seeping into the environment because we are a part of the environment: we literally cohabitate with it.

That’s why, in 2013, Edwina von Gal, a fixture in the landscaping industry since she launched her business in 1984, created the Perfect Earth Project.

“My goal is that we will ultimately transform the landscape industry into a community of land stewards,” said von Gal. “It’s everyone’s job to be a conservationist on their own property. You can have your own piece of the environment. That’s what it is. It’s all part of one thing.”

The Madoo Conservancy, located in Sagaponak, celebrated its 50th year of toxin-free gardening this summer. Photo by Mick Hales.

The Madoo Conservancy, located in Sagaponak, celebrated its 50th year of toxin-free gardening this summer. Photo by Mick Hales.

Bob DeLuca, President of Group for the East End, has seen water quality deteriorate over the years. There are four categories of contaminants that make their way into our waters, explains DeLuca, and two of them are directly related to the landscaping industry. Phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers, categorized as nutrients, can affect surface water, which creates problems like algal blooms. This can increase toxicity to the point of hazard, as one Georgica Pond resident realized when her dog died after drinking from the pond in 2012. Georgica was closed to swimmers earlier this month because of the toxicity.

“We are seeing more harmful algal blooms in our surface waters, they’re lasting for longer periods of time and are existing in greater profusion,” said DeLuca. “Whether it’s Hook Pond, Georgica Pond, or Lake Agawam, problems that were once occasional are now catching up with us.”

When it comes to bigger, more global change, DeLuca is a firm believer in the power of local government.

“Years ago, Western Long Island Sound was given up for dead,” he said. “Over the course of two decades, investments were made, and in the last couple years nitrogen levels have gone down and oxygen levels have gone up. We’ve had beluga whales and dolphins back in the sound. It’s evidence that the investment works.”

Pesticides are a second problem.

“Presently, there are about 117 pesticides and pesticide bi-products found in Suffolk County drinking water,” he said.

To that point, von Gal recalls starting out in the landscaping industry, when Roundup was considered benign. Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto, is the brand name for Glyphosate, which is still one of the most widely used non-selective herbicides in the United States even after the World Health Organization designated it as a probable carcinogen last year. It kills everything herbaceous, i.e., not woody, without damaging monocots like grasses and corn.

“We used it on everything,” said von Gal. “We were told it wouldn’t leave any residuals. Just spray it on and in a few weeks it’s gone.”

Since then, von Gal says that Roundup has proven disastrous for reptiles and amphibians and has appeared in our drinking water. The impact on amphibians is like the canary in the coal mine: it tells us when something is wrong.

“Amphibians’ skin is so porous – they literally breathe through their skin,” said DeLuca. “They are an indicator species, and they’re being born with mutations.”

And it’s not just Roundup. Chemicals have become such a part of the landscaping industry that von Gal says there are 255 million pounds of pesticides put on American landscapes every year. A study done with golf course turf managers, who are exposed to large quantities of lawn chemicals over the course of their careers found they were twice as likely to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease. von Gal’s goal through the Perfect Earth Project is to eliminate those chemicals. Entirely.

This, from a landscape designer whose waterfront Springs home is a work of art, no matter where your gaze falls. She’s not saying stop having beautiful landscapes. She’s scraping away the myth that beautiful landscapes require chemicals. The first step, she says, is awareness.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

“We need to retrain the landscape industry and land management decision makers,” she said. “This is a process. Not a product.”

She says many products are applied to lawns unnecessarily because there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that blasts landscapes with a cocktail of chemicals. If you were treating your lawn with chemicals to kill crab grass, she says, and you just stopped using those chemicals, of course the crab grass would grow.

“But if you take the chemicals out and put observation and intelligence in,” she said, “then you can deal with the problem. Mow higher to block out the sun for the crab grass, and fix your lawn in the unhealthy patches where crab grass is taking over.”

She points out that lawns get a lot of attention but trees, shrubs and gardens are all part of the landscape, and none of them require chemicals to thrive. But once a landscape has become dependent on chemicals, it’s much like a person dependent on drugs. There may be withdrawal symptoms.

“The more you use chemicals, the more your lawn needs them,” she said, “because you’ve destroyed its immune system. The process of going chemical free is simple, but it requires some attention.”

She compares it to the diet pill fad in the 80s, when people were so thrilled to find they didn’t need to eat well or exercise. They could just pop a pill and lose weight.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

Bridge Gardens is a public toxin-free garden in Bridgehampton, maintained by the Peconic Land Trust. Photo by Peconic Land Trust.

“Everyone was basically taking speed,” von Gal said with a laugh. “It was so simple! Take the pill and you have no appetite and, boy, was your house clean! But then we realized there were some serious downsides. This is the same. We are asking people to become conscious.”

On the practical, hyper-local level, that consciousness means looking at your lawn and your plants and noticing what they need. Perfect Earth offers tips to maintain a beautiful, chemical free lawn. Try mowing high, for example, to give each blade of grass maximum surface area for photosynthesis. Water infrequently-and deep-to draw the roots down instead of watering a little bit every day, making your lawn dependent on keeping the roots shallow to soak up the water.

When feeding, they recommend you think of feeding the soil, not the plants. Soil is the foundation, and that’s where a healthy root system starts. Raking compost, compost tea, or slow-release organic fertilizer into the soil surrounding trees and shrubs stimulates soil health and also reduces run-off, which helps protect our waterways. This should all be done in the fall, because spring fertilizing encourages weeds and disease.
Letting-go fits with Perfect Earth’s  overall approach. Allow clover to grow – it’s a natural fertilizer. “Clover is a nitrogen fixer,” said Jess Tonn, Director of Communications at Perfect Earth, “so it gives the lawn an extra boost of nitrogen when mowed. We also encourage people to leave their grass clippings because they’re an excellent source of nitrogen for the soil.”
While Perfect Earth emphasizes that a “perfect” lawn doesn’t need to be overrun with dandelions, it’s helpful to note that these “weeds” do help to aerate the soil and create diversity for pollinators like bees and butterflies. If you prefer to be dandelion-free, they recommend mowing high and then pulling out any remaining dandelions by hand.
They also encourage people to trust that trees and shrubs can take care of themselves most of the time, and don’t need intervention. Even organic sprays often kill beneficial insects alongside pests.

Perfect Earth - Lief - Toxin-free landscapesAt Perfect Earth, the primary objective is awareness. That’s where Lief, their little insignia that’s popping up from the Madoo Conservancy to Bridge Gardens, comes in. The little dancing leaf was conceived in the spirit of the Certified Organic symbol. It serves as a trustworthy notice that a certain landscape is toxin free. The town of East Hampton, Guild Hall, and the High Line in Manhattan are all in talks with Perfect Earth to get Lief on their property. The idea is they’re already perfect: this is just giving them the recognition they deserve.

“That’s what the name ‘Perfect Earth’ is all about,” said von Gal. “What is perfect? Nature is perfect. Look at your landscape: If it’s toxic, how perfect is that lawn?”

This coming November, voters will have a chance to advocate for this kind of change in our water quality. The Community Preservation Fund, which has preserved tens of thousands of acres of open space on the East End, could now allot 20% of its funds to water quality improvement. That’s an estimated $500-$600 million over the next twenty years.

“That ballot proposition could serve as the foundation to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said DeLuca.

Von Gal has watched the concept of consciousness in landscaping ebb and flow over her decades in the industry, but she feels it’s now gotten to a critical point.

“There’s so much pressure on the environment now that every single piece of land has to be counted,” she said. “You can’t put land into a category where we can destroy this because we’re saving that. If we can get the people of the United States and then the world to treat their land in a way that promotes it as a place that is biodiverse and toxin-free then we’ve made a small revolution.”

Perfect Earth will host the third annual Perfect Picnic Benefit at the Springs home of artist Cindy Sherman on September 3 from 3 to 7 pm. Isaac Mizrahi will be the MC, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie will headline an amazing musical lineup. Visit the Perfect Earth Project for tickets or more information.