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An Interview With the Landscape Designer

As a regular reader, you may already be familiar with Perfect Earth Project, as Gardenista has partnered with them on an ongoing series about nature-based, toxic-free gardening. But you may not know much about the group’s tour-de-force founder, Edwina von Gal. The venerable landscape designer-turned-sustainable gardening advocate has been calling for less lawn, more wildlife for decades, via both her projects for clients and her nonprofit. She is currently on the board of What Is Missing, Maya Lin’s multifaceted media artwork about the loss of biodiversity, and an honorary trustee of the Native Plant Trust.

Edwina, who resides in Springs, NY, recently responded to our Quick Takes questionnaire from her retreat, Cocoloche, in Panama: “I built it with minimal resources to explore just that. How could I keep my footprint light and—with good design and the materials at hand—make a place that would engage and awe people?” It’s her philosophy to garden design as well. 

Read on to learn Edwina’s favorite hardscaping material (hint: it’s not hard), her go-to work pants (we want them now, too), and why she thinks it’s imperative for designers to push back on client’s misguided requests.

Edwina counts Cindy Sherman, Calvin Klein, and Ina Garten among her clients. Photograph courtesy of Perfect Earth Project.
Above: Edwina counts Cindy Sherman, Calvin Klein, and Ina Garten among her clients. Photograph courtesy of Perfect Earth Project.

Your first garden memory:

The patch of silver dollar plant (Lunaria annua) that always returned in a spot by our swing set. I looked for it every year, and would open it and spread the seeds without realizing I was its dispersal agent.

Garden-related book you return to time and again:

Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States: The Guide to Creating a Sustainable Landscape. It’s a straightforward and well-organized book that includes excellent cultural information for choosing the right plant for the right place. I just wish it had more!

Instagram account that inspires you:

@PerfectEarthProject, of course. 😉

Describe in three words your garden aesthetic.

Edwina visiting one of her projects. Photograph by Allan Pollok-Morris.
Above: Edwina visiting one of her projects. Photograph by Allan Pollok-Morris.

Experimental. Exuberant. Engaging.

Plant that makes you swoon:

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum). It blooms late in the summer and then follows the show with brilliant fall color. It is relatively small, so it won’t outgrow its space or out-compete the plants beneath it. Since it is a southern plant, it is a bit of assisted migration for me, providing familiar blooms for wildlife that are moving north to escape the heat.

Plant that makes you want to run the other way:

Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia). It’s overused and under-useful for biodiversity. One good thing about it, though, is that in the conventional landscapes where it is so popular, it doesn’t need to be sprayed with pesticides.

Favorite go-to plant:

Edwina can&#8\2\17;t get enough of spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata). Photograph by Edwina von Gal.
Above: Edwina can’t get enough of spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata). Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

Monarda punctata. It tends to be short lived—it might act like an annual—but I am willing to replant it as I never tire of its odd combination of wacky complicated bloom and understated presence. Not to mention how many pollinators love it, too.

Hardest gardening lesson you’ve learned:

When to stop.

Unpopular gardening opinion:

Designs that are harmful, but the designer does it anyway, because it is “what the client wants.” We are hired for our expertise. But how can we, the ones who are expected to know, allow even one more garden to be harmful to the environment and the people who enjoy them?

Gardening or design trend that needs to go:

Monocultures: large swaths of one plant.

Every garden needs a…

A place for thirsty wildlife in Edwina&#8\2\17;s own garden in Springs, NY. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.
Above: A place for thirsty wildlife in Edwina’s own garden in Springs, NY. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

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