The Perfect Earth Project: Harmony and Beauty Without Toxins

By Joanne Pilgrim

With little more than a few miles between the ocean and the bay or Long Island Sound, the east end of Long Island, New York comprises two environmentally fragile peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic some 120 miles from Manhattan. While great attention is paid there to conservation, the area, particularly the South Fork, or the Hamptons, is also the home to numerous well-heeled property owners whose estates are planted, plucked, and groomed to always look their best.

While often that entails using herbicides to kill weeds and pesticides to eliminate creepy crawlers – even the helpful ones, by the way – the Perfect Earth Project, a homegrown organization founded by a noted landscape designer, Edwina von Gal, is working to raise consciousness about toxins in the environment and to create a demand for chemical-free landscaping, while helping local landscapers to meet it.

“We’re saying pesticides are toxic and they’re very bad for you. They’re accumulating in our environment, and they’re accumulating in our bodies,” said Ms. von Gal on a snowy day this winter at her home in East Hampton.

On Long Island, said Ms. von Gal, 118 landscape chemicals have been found in the aquifer that provides residents’ drinking water.

“There are 250 million pounds of insecticide dumped on American properties every year,” Ms. von Gal says, and “enough Roundup-type products to kill half the population if we drank it.

Roundup, a weed killer, was used “with abandon” when she started in the landscape industry three decades ago, she said, but last year the World Health Organization pronounced glyphosate, its active ingredient, a “probable human carcinogen.”

Toxin-free and natural landscapes, such as these designed by Edwina von Gal in the Hamptons, are the goal of the Perfect Earth Project. Photo credit: Rosemarie Cromwell

Toxin-free and natural landscapes, such as these designed by Edwina von Gal in the Hamptons, are the goal of the Perfect Earth Project. Photo credit: Rosemarie Cromwell

“That was like a sea change,” she said – an indicator of a shift in attitudes and practice. Along with a multitude of concerns recently brought to light about the impact of landscape chemicals, such as their toxicity to bees, it is a welcome nudge toward eliminating their use. “There is nothing you can do that would be more important for the environment right now.”

“We are science-based,” says Ms. von Gal of the Perfect Earth Project. “We will never make a claim that is not evidence-based. Luckily there’s more and more evidence coming out.”

Getting the message across in her home community of East Hampton, where showy outdoor environments go hand in hand with the homes of the wealthy,  “has challenges and it has benefits,” she says.

“We found, especially true here, we have clients who are accustomed to having things the way they want it,” said the landscape designer, who has created environments across the U.S. and internationally, and has also founded an environmental organization in Panama.

“I realized that first I need to get to the people who write the checks,” she said. One high-profile property owner who jumped on the bandwagon is Calvin Klein.  As Mr. Klein’s friends, and guests at some of the high-profile fund-raisers held in summertime in the Hamptons learn about the healthier approach to landscaping, “it goes viral … peer to peer,” Ms. von Gal said.

When an algal bloom traced to chemical runoff erupted in an East Hampton pond ringed by movers and shakers’ estates some time ago, resulting in the death of one property owner’s dog that came into contact with toxic elements, a neighborhood group was formed to research and address the problem.

The Perfect Earth Project is providing the group with alternative landscaping ideas, shifting the view of what is a beautiful, appropriate, and brag-worthy landscape away from expanses reliant on lush, chemically maintained lawns, and instead promoting buffers of natural vegetation around the pond.

As happened with cigarette smoking in American culture, Ms. von Gal says she would like to see “looking at your lawn stretching down to the pond” become socially unacceptable, something frowned upon. “The good news about working with people who are empowered is they are very health-conscious,” she says. “They are already eating organic; they can afford to eat organic. The food movement is changing people’s attitudes.”

“A lot of people are walking across a toxic lawn to get to their organic vegetable garden, and they don’t even think about it. “

Contrary to prevailing thought that nice lawns require the liberal use of weed-killers and fertilizers, “toxin-free lawns are not a mess,” she says. “They are every bit as lovely.”

“We are what we call rational naturalists. If you are too rigid, you will not get anybody. We are not anti-lawn. Lawn is a kind of necessary negative space.”

To go organic, one must get used to a look slightly different from the manicured green carpets estate owners might expect of a lawn.  Grass blades are allowed to grow longer in order to block the sun that weeds need to generate. “Today’s look is little bit more relaxed, anyway,” Ms. von Gal says, “and we embrace clover; clover is not a weed.”

And it’s not a matter of money, she says, as the toxin-free way is not necessarily more expensive than landscaping with chemicals.

It’s a matter of changing expectations and the paradigm of what constitutes beautiful and properly kept grounds, she says – especially among the demographic of, for instance, the Wall Street financiers for whom the trappings of affluence include a Hamptons house.

Photo credit: Rosemarie Cromwell

Photo credit: Rosemarie Cromwell

“A lot of people have never owned a house before,” Ms. von Gal says. They are sold on a landscape maintenance protocol that is unnecessary and ecologically ill-advised, such as annual tree and shrub care contracts that entail “feeding and spraying and pruning trees and shrubs.  It’s thousands of dollars a year, and it’s not needed,” she says. “It’s a crazy cycle, because they pump in all these nutrients” and then have to trim the excessive growth.

Property owners “are being sold a real bill of goods …  because they’re buying an expensive landscape and then they’re told that if you don’t do this you’ll lose it.”

Fertilizers “bypass the natural systems,” von Gal says. They  “are kind of the heroin… they make the plants feel great,” but then “they push out too much growth and they’re very susceptible to diseases.”

After getting property owners to buy in to a toxin-free landscape, Perfect Earth reaches out to landscapers and provides the information and materials they need to keep their clients happy and their gardens healthy without using chemicals.

“We tell them that this is the new economy of the landscape world, and you can be a part of it, or you can be left behind,” Ms. von Gal says.  Perfect Earth, she says, hopes to see landscapers take a role as “land stewards and good gardeners. The next generation is not going to be using chemicals.”

“We don’t feel that anyone who is using chemicals is wrong – they’re just on a learning curve,” says Ms. von Gal.

Looking out at an icy salt meadow stretching beyond her house up on stilts above a tranquil harbor on a recent day, Ms. von Gal talked of how, historically, cultivated gardens, such as those at Versailles, represented man’s dominion over nature.

“You and I are sitting here on a day that’s cold, “ she said, “and we’re looking at nature but we’re not affected by it; we’re comfortable. So we’ve achieved all of that.  But we’ve done so at terrific cost. Now that we’re here is our chance to go back and look again at that cost. That’s what the earth is asking us to do. “

“That’s what the environmental movement is asking us to do — look again at this cost. Reexamine the way we can keep ourselves comfortable without drawing down the earth’s resources even further. This is not a conversation that I generally have with my clients,” she says, “but it is a subtext.”

The Perfect Earth Project is piloting a “Perfect Day” program, sponsoring workshops for community members and horticulturists, and tours of chemical-free gardens, and is working with municipal officials on the elements of a “Perfect Town” — promoting an incentive program for the installation of organic landscape designs, and providing Perfect Earth strategies to build on an existing toxin-free maintenance program for town properties — such as reducing roadside mowing to encourage the spread of native wildflowers, protect the turtle population, and cut down on the use  of the fossil fuel that powers mowers.

In East Hampton, where the local economy is driven by real estate to a significant degree, Perfect Earth is also working with realtors to assert that “a house with a toxin-free landscape is worth more.”  Parents and pet owners are also being targeted with the health-conscious message.

It’s all intended to be something that can happen without us,” says Ms. von Gal, a model “that people could do anywhere.”

“Our name [the project’s logo is three perfectly matched lines saying, “PRFCT” and “EARTH” and “PRJCT” in a square box]   is intended to challenge the idea of what is perfect,” Ms. von Gal says. “In the face of nature, in the face of everything, how perfect is a landscape if it’s fighting nature to exist, and you have to fight nature by killing off a lot of it — which is what pesticides do.”

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