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Edwina von Gal wants you to stop fighting nature and start gardening with it

Berkshire Botanical Garden Winter Lecture speaker to discuss reasons to abandon common 'tidy' garden practices


Landscape designer Edwina von Gal is seen in Playa Venado, Panama, in March 2005 where she was designing the Biomuseo park with Frank Gehry. Gal, a New York-based landscape architect and Berkshire Botanical Garden's Winter Lecture Series featured speaker, emphasizes sustainability, natural landscapes and the use of native species in her approach to landscape design.

STOCKBRIDGE — After a recent storm, award-winning landscape designer and environmental advocate Edwina von Gal's garden was covered in more than a foot of snow in Springs, a hamlet of East Hampton on Long Island, N.Y.

“Usually we don’t get snow because we stick way out into the ocean,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It makes me so happy, all my plants are tucked in.”

Von Gal, principal landscape designer at Edwina von Gal + Co. and founder and president of Perfect Earth Project, will give an online talk “The Eye of the Beholder: Is it Messy, or an Acquired Taste?” on Feb. 19, part of Berkshire Botanical Garden’s long-running Winter Lecture series.

According to Berkshire Botanical’s website, von Gal will address “our obsession with tidy, 'clean' landscapes which prove to be harmful to the things and the ones we love.”

Von Gal will help gardeners “step away from the need for 'neat' and let nature play a role in how we perceive, design and maintain our human dominated lands.”

A native of New York's Hudson Valley and raised by generations of gardening enthusiasts, von Gal helped her father with his vegetable garden and later took courses in horticulture and architecture at the New York Botanical Gardens.

Since 1984, von Gal’s international landscape design firm has collaborated with noted architects from Maya Lin to Frank Gehry and Annabelle Selldorf on projects for clients including Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Robert De Niro.

Working on Panama’s Biomuseo with Gehry to design a park of all native Panamanian plants “kicked my environmental activism into gear,” she said. In 2008, she co-founded Azuero Earth Project in Panama, a “living laboratory” located on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula focused on reforestation, habitat restoration, sustainable land use and environmental education.

Wondering why she was not doing this back home, in 2010 she decided to focus on the U.S., and founded the nonprofit Perfect Earth Project in 2013.

At its core, her message is straightforward: embrace native species; stop using herbicides like glyphosate.

“A landscape is not a product, it’s a process,” she said. “What you get is never done, you have to make the commitment.”

As hard as it can be to step into the unknown, clients need the confidence to move forward in an experimental fashion, she acknowledged.

Eschewing chemicals when gardening takes longer, she says. Most invasives can be managed with what she terms “insult and injury” — mowing, weed whacking, yanking out of the ground. “Keep the photosynthetic surface to a minimum,” she counsels.

“You know when you have an invasive on your property,” she said. Smothering patches now that will be dealt with later should be “at the top of your list” she said.

“Gardeners are dreamers,” she says, “I call it dreaming ahead.”

She will also talk about her “2/3 for the Birds” campaign, launched in 2021 after reading about bird decline — 3 billion birds lost over the past 50 years, a third of the population — in Douglas. W. Tallamy’s 2020 call-to-action book, “Nature’s Best Hope — A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard,” — following his previous title “Bringing Nature Home” and Rachel Carson’s 1962 landmark “Silent Spring.”

“It’s like the culmination of everything,” von Gal said.

“Our yards are filled with exotic plants and empty of insects. Our birds have fewer and fewer bugs and berries to eat, no cavities for nesting, and no thickets for protection from predators,” her website states. “Birds are the messengers for a much larger problem: canaries in coal mines, they are warning us about ecosystem-wide biodiversity collapse.”

The baseline for sustainability, she said, is “70 percent native plants and no pesticides. That’s all you really have to commit to. And remove invasives.”

With global warming an ever-present reality, “native is a pretty broad category,” she noted. “Because assisted migration is important, I’m recommending planting plants from the southern end of our eco-zone, so when the insects get here they’ll find a home.”

“You don’t have to look back, just go forward,” she added. “If it’s on your mind and in your heart to be a two-thirder, you’re already on the path. There’s 60 million acres of land in the U.S. that we can apply this thinking to.”

Begun in 1997 and now in its 25th year, Winter Lecture series proceeds support the Garden’s educational programs. In-person appearances by horticultural and landscaping luminaries including Penelope Hobhouse, Fergus Garrett, Debs Goodenough, Ken Druse, Anna Pavord and Thomas Woltz have drawn 300 to 400 people annually. Moving online in 2021, however, significantly diminished revenue from this important financial resource.

“This is an amazing event, we’re getting world-famous people to come and talk,” said Ian Hooper, Berkshire Botanical Garden trustee since 2006, by phone. Hooper and his wife, trustees Vice Chair Madeline Hooper, have jointly “helped lift the stature of the venture” they considered “the unsung hero of the garden.”

“We always had a mixture of American and European speakers,” said Ian Hooper, a former marketing executive, who “really got hooked” on gardening when he purchased a home in nearby Canaan, N.Y.

“Everybody’s dying to see pictures of greenery in February. You get somebody showing gorgeous pictures of the English or French or New Jersey countryside and everyone’s just enraptured.”

Over the years, the Hoopers have found the lectures inspiring. “[von Gal] is famous for being very concerned about the whole big picture of nature and birds and creatures,” he noted. “We’ve got to pay more attention to the natural world.”

The Garden’s horticultural department will offer suggested native collections at the annual plant sale, he said. 

While needed income is down, he sees the Winter Lecture’s shift to Zoom is “a silver lining of the pandemic cloud.”

“We can get people all over the country watching,” he said. Local “snowbirds” would definitely approve.

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