Edwina von Gal

Episode 115

Edwina von Gal on Gardening as an Antidote

Interview by Spencer Bailey

To the landscape designer Edwina von Gal, gardening is much more than just seeding, planting, weeding, and watering; it’s her life calling. Raised in upstate New York in a family that spent a good majority of its time gardening and in the outdoors, and as the granddaughter of a Garden Club of America national judge, von Gal knew from a young age that nature and landscapes were—and would remain—an essential part of her being. They were practically in her blood. Since going on to start her namesake firm in 1984 in East Hampton, on New York’s Long Island, she has worked with, for, and/or alongside the likes of Calvin Klein, Larry Gagosian, Frank Gehry, Maya Lin, Annabelle Selldorf, Richard Serra, and Cindy Sherman, creating gardens that center on native species and engage in other nature-based land-care solutions.

In 2008, von Gal founded the Azuero Earth Project in Panama to promote chemical-free reforestation with native trees on the Azuero Peninsula. Stemming out of this initiative, in 2013, she then founded the Perfect Earth Project to promote chemical-free, non-agricultural land management in the U.S. Her latest effort—part of the Perfect Earth Project—is Two Thirds for the Birds, a call-to-action to plant more native plants and eliminate pesticides, thus creating a greater food supply for birds. Studies have shown that birds need at least 70 percent, or two thirds, native plants to maintain healthy population levels, and in rewilding front yards and backyards, von Gal has enacted a compelling solution. Underlying these data-based approaches and environmental initiatives is a palpable zest for the great outdoors. As she puts it on this episode of Time Sensitive, “I think of the outdoors as a giant party.”

On the episode, she discusses the meditative qualities of gardening; the importance of forming a symbiotic relationship with land and nature; reframing landscaping as “land care”; and why she sees herself not as a steward of land, but rather as a collaborator with it.


Von Gal reflects on the 40 years since she first started her garden design firm and delves into her planting philosophies, which center on creating long-lasting relationships with the land around us.

Von Gal considers the parallels between her gardening practice and the Slow Food movement, particularly in relation to her Perfect Earth Project.

Von Gal traces the modern concept of the lawn to the 1940s—to the end of World War II and the first Levittown developments—and deems lawns a “flagrant misuse of resource.” She then shares a few pragmatic solutions for returning yards to wilder and more organic places.

Von Gal looks back on her upbringing in Brewster, New York, and also discusses the first 15 years of her firm, including her design of the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center and her Biomuseo project in Panama alongside the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Frank Gehry.

Von Gal talks about the influence of the entomologist, ecologist and conservationist Doug Tallamy on her Two Thirds for the Birds project, and also opines on what it means to create a healthy relationship with nature.

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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Edwina. Welcome to Time Sensitive.

EDWINA VON GAL: Great to be here.

SB: I thought I’d begin with the fact that this year marks a big milestone for you: It’s been forty years since you started your landscape architecture practice, in 1984. So, I wanted to start there: How have you been thinking about this occasion or this period of time, these forty years, and what stands out to you?

EVG: Well, yikes. First of all, I didn’t know it was forty years. I had never stopped to think about it. I have to make one slight correction. For the record, I’m not a landscape architect; I’m a landscape designer.

SB: Oh.

EVG: Or, I like to be “garden designer.” I’m a gardener. 

SB: [Laughs]

EVG: Oh, gosh. It’s so different now than when I started. Somebody asked me once if I had a business plan, and that really threw me for a loop because it had not occurred to me to have one. Because when you love what you do, I guess it comes from many different things that— First of all, it just never felt like a business. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and what I love to do. And number two, I was too busy working to make those kinds of goals. It’s like, do the next job and do it somehow different from anything you’ve ever done before. That’s my plan. And so, I have had clients who basically financed my education by agreeing with me that every time out we would do something we hadn’t done before.

SB: Lucky clients and lucky you, I guess.

EVG: Yeah, it’s really great.

SB: You’re known for creating these wild landscapes and gardens, and it sounds like your career metaphorically is not that dissimilar, letting it evolve in a way that you plant a seed, you watch something grow, you let it be, and then you watch the next thing grow. [Laughs]

EVG: Yeah, I think it has been like that because when I started, it was a very different world, and what I was doing was very different. I guess the seed was probably still there of who I am, because I’m not sure anybody ever really changes. Because I’m a plant person. I’ve always been that, no question. But in those days it was all about the English garden style, and so it was all about how many different plants can you grow that aren’t necessarily easy to find or easy to grow, and being right on the cusp of and organizing things. So the perfect color combinations, texture, and now I’ve just really loosened up. Now it’s all about plants that are easy to grow. I don’t want plants that are fussy. Too much resource goes into it.

SB: Mm-hmm. I read that you’re a dedicated practitioner of meditation, and have been since you were in your fifties?

EVG: I wonder where you read that. I am such a flaky meditator—

SB: [Laughs]

EVG: But I feel it’s always been that gardening is a meditation for me. So I suppose that would be stretching it. But I do go on retreats. I have friends who are serious meditators, so I can’t put myself anywhere near them.

SB: To frame, I guess a Ram Dass question, how are you thinking about today or this very moment or the right now, this period of time?

EVG: This period of time is, for me, actually uniquely exciting and a nervous-energy joy in that there is a giant wrecking ball headed right for us, and we’ve never had a really good reason to garden before or do anything, in a way. [Laughs] You know what I mean? It was always about us; it still is. But now there’s a really serious purpose behind what I do. That doesn’t make me feel like a serious person, but it does add a level of intensity.

But also, it’s like you have a relationship—so, you just got married; you now really have made a commitment to making it work. I feel that about me. Every piece of land I’m exerting some kind of influence over. That’s what I’m trying to impart to other people. I’m calling it “landscape therapy.” 

SB: [Laughs

EVG: It’s like, what is your relationship with this place? Do you know it? What do you know about it? Have you listened? Are you listening well? Are you a good listener? Are you collaborating, or are you just kind of railroading what you want from it, what you think it should do for you? This is all a wonderful opportunity right now. It’s forced me to think about all of this, which I never did before.

SB: Yeah, it’s so beautiful, also in the context of climate anxiety, this other term that’s been starting to get floated around. And you have psychologists and therapists who are specializing in this because people are so afflicted, and it’s interesting that gardening in a way solves not all the ills or all the problems, but it does provide an outlet that seems to me to be a pragmatic way forward, something that is tangible, that says, “Hey, in this little patch of land, we can make a difference.” And then if we all start affecting our patches of land, that’s where the real change comes.

EVG: It sure does. In terms of ecological or climate anxiety, I think gardening is the antidote. Other anxieties? Maybe not so much. [Laughter] But to me it is the perfect place to put yourself. And you can’t do that in a landscape that’s being tortured into some frozen-in-time place, which is what most landscapes are. It’s a misinterpretation of Versailles. But only taking those parts, the historic parts and fixing them forever, and everybody wants their yard to never change… I guess that’s what they say about men and their wives. [Laughs] What was it? Women want the men to change and men don’t want the women to ever change. [Laughs] There are all these wonderful analogies that you can make between yourself and your landscape because it’s alive, it’s part of your family. It doesn’t even have to be a place you own; you can step into any place and actually have an influence on it, or, even better yet, it can influence you.

SB: Yeah. I’m struck as you’re telling this— It reminded me of an interview I once had, maybe about a decade ago, with the late Rodney King, and we were talking about how to find inner peace, and he was telling me how gardening transformed his life, and how getting his hands in the dirt and digging, and just watching things grow, had been a transformative way of healing. If it could impact him that way, just imagine if more people got their hands in the dirt, what might happen.

EVG: A lot. It’s true of so many people that at some point in their life, they come to gardening, they come to Mother Nature, and I’m super lucky because she was calling me from an early age, I guess you could say. [Laughs] And that’s where I put my faith. I feel that it’s not nature we need to worry about; it’s us. It’s a simple fix, but it’s eluded us for the entire arc of the evolution of the human species. So, I’m not sure how I feel about what will happen, but it should be interesting.

SB: Yeah. Well, we call it “Mother Nature,” right?

EVG: Mm-hmm.

SB: You’ve previously said, “I want plants that will take care of themselves and leave me time to watch what’s happening,” which goes back to the listening thing you were saying earlier. Could you elaborate a bit on that? It makes me think of your job as an experimental songwriter or something: you’re composing these notes, and then you give them to the musicians—in this case, the plants—and let them do their thing and experiment, and take what you did and riff. [Laughs]

EVG: I love that. Yeah, well, I’m going to think about that next time I buy a whole armload of plants and they’ll be like musical notes. 

I arranged my property in a certain way. I have paths, or—this is what I mean—focal points, so to speak. It’s mostly just about getting around and things that were there, like big old trees. And the rest, I just say, “Oh, well, let’s see where you’re happy.” So I’ll get a plant, maybe five of them, and I’ll just plant them in five different places that I know the soil is slightly different, the sun conditions, and I’ll see where they’re happy, and then go for more.

I predominantly plant native plants simply because they’re most likely to be happy. Since they evolved there, they were fine without me for a long time. I know that I can put them in and to that larger extent, step away and watch what happens. This year, I fell in love with a little grass called Juncus tenuis, which is also known as path sedge, even though it’s not really sedge—it’s a rush. It grows along the edge of my driveway and it grows in the world’s most difficult places, but it started popping up in my garden beds. So, you have a choice: Do I murder them all, just rip them out? But I love the airiness and the pluckiness of it, and I’d never seen it actually develop in a place that allowed it to, because along the driveway, it gets driven on, or we cut it back a bit. Now, it’s become my signature plant for the year, I think. It’s this year’s fashion, and I’ll see what happens. It might become a real bother if it outpaces other things, but I don’t think it will.

And so gardening is a chance to— People want their garden done—they want it done—and then they don’t want it to change. Compare that to raising a family? It doesn’t work. You miss all the joy of getting to know each of your children from the time they were a baby. And looking at, like you said, a moment in time, their first step or all those big things, and then they’re a teenager, and then they’re a young adult. You miss all that when you have a landscape that’s delivered, installed, and then teams of expensive crews come in and fix it in time. And eventually, that facelift gets real weird. Nature does not—

SB: It’s not looking good. [Laughs]

EVG: No. Nature fights back, and it gets harder and harder.

The garden at von Gal’s home. (Photo: Melissa Ozawa. Courtesy Edwina von Gal)

SB: Well, if we think about it as…. we’re shepherds, right? We’re carrying land through a particular period of time, but that land was there long before us, as were the plants, and they’ll be there long after us, as will the plants. How do you think about the work you do in that context or that sense, I guess?

EVG: I’ve been rethinking the idea of ownership. There’s a wonderful book by a man named William Cronon called Changes in the Land. It was the origination of the study of ecological history, and it’s really about how when the settlers came to the American Northeast, their property ownership changed. They assumed that what they saw when they got here was the original wilderness. They had no idea how carefully managed the land was. But when you apply ownership and bring in livestock that you own, you have to put up fences, and so things start going into straight lines and squares and blocks, and it really changed everything. It’s an amazing book, and I’ve just been thinking about that. 

And I was talking to a wonderful guy you might know, he has a podcast [and his name is] Tiokasin Ghosthorse. He is a Native American. He was giving me a rough indoctrination into how our language is suffused with possessiveness, and so I’ve really been trying to look at, when I speak about land, not to have an owner-owned relationship, so shepherd’s a little hard for me in that context, because that implies that I own this herd, right?

And it is true—sheep would probably not do so well in the wild without a shepherd, but my property would be just delighted to just be. I think it likes having me around—

SB: [Laughs]

EVG: But I’m looking at it more as partnerships. So it’s all part of this therapy approach. That I don’t own it. Because once you don’t own it, you can start looking at it as boundary-free. And recognizing that you, a human— Out of the billions of life forms that inhabit this piece of land, you’re the only one who recognizes that there’s an invisible line around your land.

SB: Yeah, the bug doesn’t. [Laughs]

EVG: The bug doesn’t, the soil organisms—

SB: The birds don’t.

EVG: Nothing else sees it that way. So, I’ve been thinking about trying to see it from their perspective.

SB: Mmm. That’s beautiful. There’s also, and I wanted to bring this up, this idea of—or it’s not even an idea, it’s a reality—of seasonal time, and then in the context of plants, how the seasons or how the plants are shaped around the season and the way you make gardens specifically, I think, relates to this, this idea of how native plants are in line with the seasons, in line with the habitats, and, as you’ve talked about, provide necessary nutrients because of their positioning in the landscape in relationship and conversation with where the weather’s at, where the season’s at. Could you talk a little bit about that?

EVG: Yeah. It’s endlessly wondrous, really, because the more you know, the more there is to know, which means gardeners are never bored. But just now that science is bringing us information from so many different places. Yes, we look to traditional cultural wisdom, but we’re combining it with science, which not only gives us information about, well, how does that work? And why does that work? But it also points us in new directions to maybe make it work better.

And one of the things is that they can study the nutrient value of particular fruits and seeds and the other life forms that depend on those seeds and fruits, and look at how they actually meet their needs throughout the year. A simple example is holly, the American holly: The berries ripen after a certain period of time, and so they fill a food niche for robins at a certain period of time, robins particularly like them. And there are other berries that are—like certain little native crab-apples: they’re really sour until they get hit by a few frosts, and then the sugars develop. And then, a bird that needs a jolt of sugar in the middle of the winter, it’s there for them. So, it’s like nature’s pantry. These things are held until the right time, so the birds don’t just swoop in and eat them all because they don’t taste good until they’re ready.

SB: This got me thinking, hearing you say this, you’ve spent so much time in gardens, right? Incredible amount of time creating these exquisite gardens, spaces, landscapes. And in some sense, I guess you’ve been in conversation with the land all this time. It’s one of observation, but also conversation. Could you talk a little bit about that? What do you make of all this time you’ve spent in these wild gardens? [Laughter]

EVG: I guess it’s made for a really wonderful life. I’ll say that. That’s number one. And I would hope that lots of other people choose to do so, because it’s never too late. And a lot of people don’t know what to do when they walk into a garden, and that is it. Just start with observing. It may seem overwhelming.

Because I think of the outdoors as a giant party, and in most places where I go, I know everybody at the party. I realized once, because I was with someone somewhere and they were really overwhelmed by being outdoors someplace. I realized that just about everything out there was familiar to me. It wasn’t anything terribly exotic, but it was familiar to me, and for this other person, completely unfamiliar. And I realized that a lot of people feel that even in their own yards. This constant exposure to the places where I’ve worked, and this constant access, it’s become kind of an obsession for me to try to share that with others.

SB: Well, in America at least, we spend, what, eighty-plus percent of our lives indoors? It’s sort of remarkable how foreign the outdoors are to so many of us.

The grounds at Marshouse. (Photo: Allan Pollok-Morris. Courtesy Edwina von Gal)

EVG: Does anybody say why we do that? Do we know?

SB: I’m sure it has to do with corporations and late-stage capitalism, and— [Laughs]

EVG: The challenge to this obsession I have about getting people into gardens is the fear of nature. And I have theories, and lots of other people do too, about our deep-seated fears of nature, like Carl Sagan wrote a whole book on it and everything. But still, in your everyday life, in your own yard, why aren’t you out there?

SB: Yeah. Well, and I think it connects with fear, certainly, and this idea of what we don’t know. I mean, I grew up in Colorado camping as a kid.

Sure, there are elements of the outdoors that still even to this day freak me out. But those experiences allow me to really enjoy the outdoors in a way that I think if I were a city kid, might be a little trickier.

EVG: And isn’t a certain soupçon of fear—that’s so exhilarating! 

SB: Yeah.

EVG: I often try to go into ecosystems that are a bit scary. I’ve been deep in the rainforest, where if I stepped away from the rest of the team, I would be lost instantly. Just lost, because it closes in around you.

Other people are convinced that I should be more scared than I am. So I don’t know whether that’s just a little dumb of me, but—

SB: Well, I think also the outdoors encourage so many things that are hard to find in our increasingly urban world. Slowness, for one. Awe for another. I think nature encourages awe.

EVG: It sure does. And we are increasingly looking for a place to see, What is a place that humans haven’t messed up? It’s sad that that’s the only way we can think of the human influence is messing it up, but—

SB: Speed is another component here that I wanted to talk about. Pace and speed. I was thinking about the Slow Food movement in the context of what you do, which obviously, that’s agriculture, and you’re making gardens, so there is some connection between growing things, plants, what we eat. Do you view your work as connected to that? And is there a Slow Landscapes or Slow Gardens thing going on? Do you kind of steer away from that? I guess you’re both trying to make the world wilder and healthier, so there’s that.

EVG: And slower. No, I had never really specifically put those two words together—Slow Landscapes—but it is what we’re doing. What I’m trying to do is talk about the creation of a landscape as a collaboration in evolution, of succession. Secondary and successional in landscapes, it means that it always goes back on a track. Like if there’s a fire, or there’s something, if there’s a disturbance, then you enter into successional periods. So anybody’s private landscape, any place where we go, we’re a disturbance. Most of the time, we represent a significant loss to the diversity of the place. And the reason why the biodiversity collapses so dramatically when humans come on the scene is that we’ve taken most of their food away. And we don’t share real good. Even if we are not going to eat it, everything is food. I started Perfect Earth Project to promote all the things that agriculture is promoting on agricultural land, and I’d like to get people to look at non-agricultural lands. But that’s a negative non-agriculture.

So what is it? With regen[erative agriculture] and everything, people are talking about working lands. Working lands produce a product. They’re extractive: food, fruit, and fiber. I coined everything else “living lands.” I was like, “I have to set myself apart here. We’re a whole different thing. We’re non-extractive.” Non-extractive means that you never remove anything. You close the loop. Because as long as you’re not taking a product away, you never have to put anything back. Just keep it on your land. So that’s one of the things we promote is the closed-loop garden. Nothing leaves the place and nothing gets brought in, except more plants. [Laughs]

But I realized, no, it’s all about food. It always comes down to food. Everyone who comes to my garden basically walks around asking me what they can eat. 

SB: [Laughs]

EVG: So I see garden visitors as a bunch of predators coming in to graze my garden. [Laughs]

SB: Well, you have said trees are a salad bar. [Laughs]

EVG: Yeah. And so if you’re not going to eat the part of your landscape that isn’t your vegetable garden, why can’t anything else eat it? Because as soon as you remove herbivory, which is anything eating one of your plants, you’ve just interrupted the food web, and you’ve just taken a chunk out of the biodiversity of your property.

And good news, everybody’s way into monarchs, right? So now they brought back a plant that everybody used to think was a noxious weed, which is milkweed, because cows can’t eat it and farmers hate it. So much of agriculture feeds into landscape and back again. It’s a big loop of communication. Agriculture, the same chemicals, the same companies, just sell homeowners and the landscape industry their chemicals and promote the message that you need to put these on your landscape and you may not let anything eat it. They make it sound like bad things will happen.

But trees are food. Trees are evolved to feed caterpillars and insects. They evolve that way. So people see a monarch caterpillar eating milkweed and they rejoice. Just got to get that same message into everything. If you see leaves getting nibbled, rejoice.

SB: [Laughs] I feel like this is a great segue, because since we’re talking about time and plants and gardens, we should also be talking about lawns. 

EVG: Mm-hmm.

SB: And America has in many respects, I think, become this one, big, manicured, pesticide-filled lawn. [Laughs]

EVG: A lot of lawn. 

SB: To say it bluntly. And this has really happened over the past century, and as you’ve pointed out in interviews and talks, it’s taken place largely since World War II. You’ve noted the arrival of the first Levittown development, which was 1947. Not so long before you were born, actually.

EVG: Just one year.

SB: Yeah. And so what we’re talking about here has basically happened in your lifetime, which is kind of remarkable from a time perspective, how fast this change has occurred. And you’ve really beautifully laid out this evolution. I was hoping you might be able to share a little bit of it here, this path from Levittown to present. How do you think we could go about returning our yards, our front yards, backyards, to wilder, less-manicured, more organic places?

EVG: Well, just to give you a little bit of that back story, Levittown happened also in the same place as Scott Seed Company. Post-war, there were chemicals that were left over and cheap from the war, fertilizers and broadleaf killers. And people felt very, very comfortable in the context of anything that felt military, because the military had saved us from the big threat.

That kind of uniformity was very important to people, because I also believe that probably a large percentage of our male population was suffering from P.T.S.D. So given a simple prescription for living a life, and that—

SB: It’s like the military haircut entered the lawn, right? Everything started looking—

EVG: Uniform. Yeah, the whole thing. And the little houses were barracks. Those little Levittown houses, they were barracks. They were all the same. The thing they did was they increased the size of the front yard. That was this new suburban thing. That was the big shift was that it used to be you’d have a row house on a street, and you had a stoop, and all your life happened out back, or you sat on the stoop. But then when they created the front lawn, that front lawn was not really a place to live. That was a place to prove that all was well in the world.

And the reason they chose dandelions—this is an Edwina thought, not anybody else necessarily [laughs]—they chose dandelions as a target species to sell broadleaf killers because you can see it down the block. You can see it—

SB: That bright yellow just—

EVG: That bright yellow, number one. And number two, it’s actually cute, right? So if it’s going to be on your package, so you put the picture on the package for the broadleaf killer, not only can you see it across the store, but it’s not ugly, but it’s still your target organism. So when they started killing dandelions, they also killed clover. Another broadleaf.

Clover is a nitrogen-fixer. Historically, Scott had included clover seed in their grass mixes because it made the grass look better. But now, if they killed the clover, they had an opportunity to sell more fertilizer, and so they made clover bad too.

And I’m still to this day convincing people, or trying to, that clover and dandelions are fine. Clover fixes nitrogen, dandelions fix calcium. Dandelions are easily out-competed. Clover is hard to get rid of, and why would you?

I can understand if people don’t want dandelions, because by the mid-summer, they have a big spreading thing, but they can’t compete with a healthy lawn. They really can’t. So the more you dump herbicides on, the more you’re making openings for the dandelion seeds to move in.

It’s this whole really amazingly clever cycle of dependency that the chemicals and practices have created through marketing. I don’t think anybody was clever enough to really figure it out from the start. It evolved. But now, I wish I knew how to break that cycle.

But I think that ideally, if enough people can start seeing lawns as basically a toxic display of flagrant misuse of resource–environmental resource—and it doesn’t look so good anymore on you. And I’m kind of looking to kids. They say that the most effective messaging for adults to change their environmental behavior in a positive way comes from their children. So kids, I hope you’re listening to this.

SB: Well, it’s like with cigarettes a few decades ago. [Laughs]

EVG: Same. And you look at old films, and you do kind of think the smoking looked cool then, but you’re not about to do it now.

SB: Yeah. Well, and I think with the sort of clean, healthy living, and the way a lot of people aspire to live now— We’ve been educated. There’s a lot of information online. I think people have wised up or are wising up.

EVG: Yes. It’s harder to place an actual cause and effect on landscape chemicals because there are lots of them. I am quite sure that the chemical companies know the bad effects they have on people, just as the cigarette companies knew.

And as you probably know, Bayer will be removing Roundup from the shelves of retail sales, but certainly, that’s still widely available. But the retail is such a small part of their business, and it’s become bothersome for them because of the lawsuits, because people were able to prove, people in living land situations, non-agricultural, that were only exposed to Roundup did have a higher level of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. One particular famous case. So they could prove it, but that’s rare.

In the landscape industry, the people who are sickened by applying landscape chemicals, they’re not organized. They’re mostly not even legally here, and so they come and go all the time.

SB: Well, and these chemicals go back to the war, too. This was coming directly out of the war in some cases.

EVG: 2,4-D. Yeah. But then since we banned DDT, people thought, “Oh, we’re done with that.” But actually, the new chemicals are so much more sophisticated. They’re super sophisticated, and nobody knows what the combined effects can be.

Roundup is glyphosate, but why do people still go to Roundup even though it’s more expensive than buying the generic glyphosate? Because actually, it works better, and that’s their secret recipe. They don’t have to divulge that, only the main ingredient, which is glyphosate. It is proof, though, that combining different pesticides, herbicides in this case, makes the core pesticide more effective, and nobody knows what that does to people.

Way back, when I was first in landscaping, I worked for a garden center, and that’s when Roundup was introduced, because like you said, I’ve been witness to all of this. We were told, “Oh, you can basically drink this stuff.” So we were just spraying it blithely around, “Oh, get rid of weeds here, clean up the driveway. Great. Patio…”

It doesn’t affect human cells. That’s probably true. But what it does, and all of the pesticides in general, obviously a pesticide is anything that kills a pest. A pesticide includes herbicides, fungicides, bactericides, rodenticides, all the -cides. And that’s what makes up—maybe not rodents—but the rest of them, they make up your biome. 

SB: Yeah.

EVG: Without them, you cannot function. But we didn’t know all that then, and we know it now. So my job is not to look back or anything, but just say to people, “Here is what we know. Here’s what we think is probably the case. Make an intelligent decision, put this together and ask yourself, why in the world would I expose my children, my pets, and myself, not to mention my poor beleaguered Earth? Why am I doing this?” It makes no sense. It’s much more fun the other way, too. It is.

SB: Share a few of these nature-based landscape solutions, which are by the way, very central to your Perfect Earth Project and the Two Thirds for the Birds—which we’ll get into—effort.

EVG: Well, there’s basically two basic commitments that we ask people to make. One is: maximize biodiversity, minimize harm. It’s pretty simple. So you maximize biodiversity by creating habitat because loss of biodiversity is caused by loss of habitat and use of pesticides. So those are the two things. Biodiversity, harm. Harm being the pesticide angle. But harm comes in many other forms as well, which I refer to it collectively as “noise and poison.” You can eliminate all of those pretty much from your property. So the way to do it, closing the loop, all of the biomass that your property creates stays on the property. It can take some creativity to think of what to do with that tree they just cut down or what to do with a massive amount of leaves in the fall because it’s not as easy to leave the leaves as they make it sound. I know that. 

Definitely leave your grass clippings because if you use a mulching mower, or even better the new robot mowers because they cut just a little at a time all the time and they don’t really harm the grass, but the grass clippings going back into your lawn combined with clover, no fertilizer necessary. Eventually the soil will respond if you water correctly. So proper watering is really important. Reducing the size of your lawn. We say “reduce and rethink your lawn.” The reduce part—what do you use your lawn for? Which parts of your lawn have you actually used or walked on or been to? Anything else, if it’s the only person that goes over there is the guy mowing, maybe that should turn into something else. 

I’m a big fan of shrubs, so thickets, because John Fitzpatrick, who started the Cornell Lab [of Ornithology]. Does everybody have the Merlin app? Can I put in a plug for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Merlin app? Because if you, just to get started in your landscape, download the Merlin app, turn on your phone, it is a sound identifier for birds. It will tell you immediately all the birds in your yard. I am only hoping that plant ID apps will catch up a little bit. But the Merlin app is just the immediate way to fall in love with the birds in your yard and birds are—getting there, yes—a key indicator species. We use birds to indicate the health of a property. But there’s a whole shifting baseline thing, how many birds are enough? But those are basically the core values that we ask people to ascribe to. And that is like seventy percent native plants. Seventy percent native plants will support a healthy bird population, but you don’t have to be there right away. It’s all about looking forward. And don’t throw anything out. Don’t get rid of plants that are healthy. Just the ones that are really whiny, let them die. [Laughs]

SB: And this is really the Two Thirds for the Birds, a great clever name you came up with—

EVG: Thank you.

SB: Which is that we have lost massive bird populations. What is it, three billion birds since the seventies?

EVG: Mm-hmm.

SB: And these aren’t rare endangered species necessarily. A lot of these birds are common birds.

EVG: Yes. They’re backyard birds. Not all of them migratory because many of them stick around like cardinals all winter and chickadees and juncos and titmice. All of those birds that are your common bird-feeder backyard birds are actually the most affected because we are destroying their habitat. We share the same places, which is evidenced by the fact that they’re in your backyard looking for food, looking for… Habitat is food, shelter, and water.

SB: And so the two-thirds are these—You’re saying keep two-thirds of the plants that they need and you’ll preserve their habitat?

EVG: And the other third, go crazy. 

SB: [Laughs]

EVG: Yeah. But all I ask is that, going forward, when you’re replacing your lawn or filling something in or letting those weaklings that require a lot of watering or whatever, all else, when you replace them, two out of every three plants you buy could be native. And it’s just a simple solution to ultimately becoming a very great habitat, provide some water—bird baths are endlessly fascinating—and provide shelter. So a lot of native plants provide the perfect amount of both food and shelter because actually another one of those great evolutionary tricks is that little birds can actually fly through a native shrub; their wings and the shrub architecture work together. Once you start clipping shrubs and cramming them and tightening them, and all of these new selections, Proven Winners and all those things that are turned into little bunchy things, they can’t really serve the populations because they don’t really get to be the normal size.

What John Fitzpatrick said to me, he’s one of our heroes. So I said, “Oh, John… What is the biggest threat in our backyards? What can one person do that would be most effective, that is really missing in most landscapes?” And he said, “Thickets, plant thickets.” And I love saying it, and I’m loving doing it because what you want to do is get a really wonderfully complex mix of shrubs that are not pruned. Do not remove deadwood. They are automatic bird feeders. There are certain insects that will live in that wood. The birds in there, safe from predators, nibbling away. They can build nests that are safe in there, but as soon as you start manipulating your shrubs, they’re going to be less effective at providing shelter.

SB: I feel like we should go back to your upbringing here. You were born and raised in Upstate New York—

EVG: In a thicket.

SB: In a thicket. Fair enough. [Laughter] And you were one of six siblings? 

EVG: Mm-hmm.

SB: You have five brothers and sisters. And gardening was a big part of this life—a chore, actually, in your childhood. You put it pretty well on the Goop Podcast that in your youth you “did time in the garden.” [Laughs] Which I enjoyed, hearing you describe it as that. And your grandmother was into gardening. She had a big garden. Your mom was president of the local garden club. Your dad grew vegetables. You were getting your hands in the dirt. Tell me a bit about this family garden. What was the garden like? Can you paint a picture here for the listeners?

EVG: Well, it was a very different time, too, because nobody had an irrigation system and nobody had a landscaping company, especially if you had six kids. So we all mowed the lawn and my dad grew the vegetables, and my mom had sort of haphazard garden beds that really, you know…. [Laughter] In today’s world, it would be considered kind of not a garden. And the garden club mostly did more things that were like village beautification and stuff. They really didn’t put a lot of pressure on each other to step up to a kind of… At least not in Brewster, New York, Maybe in Greenwich [laughter], but not Brewster.

But my grandmother, she was serious. She went to Holland to buy bulbs. That was her big outing. And she was a Garden Club of America national judge, which was a big deal. So there was a lot of flower arranging going on and stuff like that. But it was really mostly about simply spending really my entire life outdoors. When we came home from school, it had to be darned miserable outside if we were allowed to stay in, or even wanted to stay in. It was, change your clothes, go outside, ring the dinner bell, you come back. So yes, I had to do gardening in terms of mostly in vegetable world.

And one day I had a client, and it was just the beginning of the time when people were starting to want to have their own little vegetable patch. So I put one in for her, and I handed her a pack of sunflower seeds because I said, “Jane, we did the rest, but you and your family should plant these seeds together.” And she looked at this pack of sunflower seeds with horror. I thought, Oh gosh. I asked her, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “Oh, I have no idea what to do with these.” That really hit me about how lucky I was, that it never even occurred to me not to know how to plant a seed.

SB: You were born into it.

EVG: Yeah. But didn’t everybody plant a bean in a cup?

SB: Yeah [laughter]. In second grade or something, yeah.

EVG: Or something, maybe not! But it’s just, wow, people have gotten so far from this connection.

SB: I think it’s worth mentioning, too, while we’re on your childhood, that your aunt was the Vogue editor and style icon Diana Vreeland. That’s an interesting fact. [Laughter] Did you have a relationship with her? Was there an influence there at all?

EVG: Oh, yeah. A huge influence. I didn’t see that much of her, but she and my uncle Reed had a house in Brewster that was their country home. My mom just adored her and she was amazing. We loved going over there because the house was like nothing else in Brewster, obviously. And it was also my great-grandparent’s old country home. There were pre-war vestiges of things all around and we could wander through. It was pretty magical, yeah.

SB: Skipping forward a little bit, let’s go to 1984. What were the early years, or let’s say first fifteen years of your landscape design practice like? Are there any standout or breakthrough moments you can think of from that first period of let’s say ’84 to ’99, those first fifteen years?

EVG: Oh, sure. There were lots actually. [Laughs]

Well, I started out, I was working for a man named Peter Sharp, and I don’t know if you’ve heard of Peter, but many people of my generation or older— He owned The Carlyle Hotel and the building across the street, which now Larry Gagosian’s in. It still has the [Paul] Manship sculpture over the door. At the time it was Parke-Bernet, which is now Sotheby’s. They had their auction rooms upstairs. It was a little stage with a little velvet curtain. [Laughs] Peter hired me to— I needed a job. I was a single mom, so I needed a job with a certain amount of flexibility. I was running his country homes and could bring my daughter along when I needed to. It just became the most wonderful, incredible education. So that’s how I started out. And I worked for other real estate companies, and then people started hiring me. 

Oh, you know what I did that was the big thing, was I designed the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center. Because they were looking for someone to be their head of gardening. It was not a job for me. And then meanwhile, they wanted ideas for their Channel Garden, and they call it the Channel, in case people don’t know, it’s because it’s between the French and English buildings. And so that’s the channel that goes down to the skating rink. I had a certain amount from doing all the commercial properties and everything. I knew the growers and I knew how to… So I came back to them with a bunch of ideas, and I started doing it. I did a grass garden, which was the first one really ever in public, to see a garden of grasses.

SB: At Rock Center.

EVG: At Rock Center, yeah. And actually we had to put them in before the buses started coming down Fifth Avenue at 7 a.m. So we’d usually start in the dark under lights. And everything had to be offloaded. We could still be doing a little planting. And so one of the executive whoever, big honcho of Rock Center came to work and said, “What is this? What’s this weedy mess? Get it out of here.” And the guy I worked for said, “Well, we can’t, there’s a story about it in The New York Times today.” My heart whirled and was rallying around. And then everybody, they got a lot of press. And then I did their first topiary show there. That got them huge amounts of press, and that one they’ve repeated ever since. Then other people became—

SB: Private clients, other architects bringing you in.

EVG: Yeah. They started in New York City. And then I guess my first…. I got a job out in the Hamptons for a client I was working for in the city, and they said, “Well, we’re building a house in Sagaponack, would you like to do our landscape?” And that one ended up in The New York Times in the magazine, so I was launched. Yeah. But there have been other moments like when I… Well, then that’s past ’99 because I went to Panama.

SB: Right. Well, I wanted to get there.

EVG: I figured.

SB: Your Panama time is extraordinary. In the early aughts, you got to work with Frank Gehry on the Biomuseo project there. Tell me a little bit about this, I guess, “Panama time” and how it impacted your practice, your life.

EVG: It changed a lot of my life. My husband had died just before, so I’d closed my office to take care of him while he was sick. And I was just kind of casting about. So it was really wonderful that Frank said, “No, we’ll wait for when you’re ready. I’d like you to do this job.” And it was with Bruce Mau because Frank had said…. I’d consulted with him previously because I’m a plant-based designer and a lot of the larger offices are not. He always wanted to design a building that was inside and out, the whole thing, almost like the design was permeable and the landscape reflected the design and the building reflected the exhibits. And so he got Bruce to do the exhibits and me doing the landscape. And I nicknamed the project extra small, large, and extra large. For those who may not remember that way back, Bruce Mau did that book with Rem Koolhaas.


EVG: Yes. Bruce and Frank are large—extra large. [Laughter] They loom large. It was an incredibly wonderful experience. I actually had my own desk in Frank’s office, and so I could be part of the entire design process and engage them in what a landscape could be. So we made it a whole stormwater management system, because when it rains there, it really rains.

SB: And this project also— Bearing the lead sort of opened you up to learning about the local habitats there, and eventually to the Azuero Earth Project that you launched.

EVG: Yeah. Because I didn’t have an office that I had to go to, I had the freedom to spend time in Panama and get to know all the ecosystems and went out to the Azuero Peninsula.

SB: How special, too. I imagine this was a really tough time mourning your husband and having this transformative project unfolding at the same time. There was probably something very healing there.

EVG: It was an incredible gift. Just the most amazing gift in so many ways. Not only for me at that time. I needed it. I just needed to be somewhere else entirely. So it was in every way, physically, mentally, intellectually. I was learning a whole new plant palette, a whole new everything. Trying to learn Spanish. Still haven’t really mastered that. [Laughter] And yeah, just traveling around meeting people, in a whole new world.

SB: And I read that you met your late husband because he had hired you to design the grounds of his house—

EVG: Yes.

SB: Which is also remarkable. I love that this landscape-turned-love story. [Laugh]

EVG: Yeah. But it took a year, because you’re not supposed to date your client. [Laughter] I was totally gaga from the moment I met him, and I thought, this is weird. This is just so weird. And I just put that aside, and well, about a year later, he stood me up on a job site. So he asked me out to dinner. And from that moment on….

SB: I guess better standing you up on a job site than a date, right?

EVG: Yeah. Totally. But I was just standing there in the freezing cold thinking, He really doesn’t even know I exist. [Laughter]

SB: And I’ve also not said that he was the advertising pioneer, Jay Chiat. And it’s not lost to me that you also have this sort of knack with words and wordplay and catchphrases, which I imagine must connect on some level with his mind. I mean, Two Thirds for the Birds. [Laughs] It’s pretty good. And as I was researching for this conversation, there were all these clever turns of phrase that I was picking up from interviews and talks and just things you’ve said over the years. So I pulled a few, I thought I might read them here. 

One is, “Nature doesn’t do ugly.” [Laughs] Nice catchphrase. “The pay is in the spray.”

EVG: I didn’t make that one up. That one isn’t mine. I got that from somebody who was actually meaning it. An arborist.

SB: Oh.

EVG: [Laughs] Yes. He didn’t realize that I was from the other side. Yeah.

SB: Well, of course, you already sort of mentioned this on the episode—“boys with their toys and their noise and poison.” “It’s not our landscapes that are addicted to chemicals, it’s us.” “Get your landscape out of the Spanx, because it’s stuck.” [Laughs]

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to mention a few of those.

EVG: Thank you. Jay’s office made a book for him when he left the business, and it’s called The Words of Chairman Jay. So I guess there is— I hadn’t thought of that.

SB: Yeah. And I think the work you’re doing, if you didn’t have a way to communicate it across lines, across… show people the power of, say, the monarch or the birds or finding other ways of communicating something that I think to pierce through would be much more difficult. You seem to have a knack for that.

EVG: It does help that I like to talk.


SB: We only have a little bit more time, but I did want to mention a couple other things because we haven’t mentioned Doug Tallamy, this entomologist and ecologist whose work has been very influential to you. And I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to the impact of his work on you, or at least his writings and what it’s taught you, and maybe what listeners could learn from his perspective.

EVG: Oh yeah, because actually Two Thirds for the Birds came from his research, which he was the one who had this, well, I think it was this Ph.D. candidate who counted all those caterpillars to find out how many caterpillars it takes for a chickadee to raise the nest of young, which happens to be between six and nine thousand and— Yeah, a lot. And they have to be within a quarter-mile of the nest, or that bird’s going to just be— It’s just physically impossible. And if they are to maintain healthy populations, they have to raise two to three nests of young a year. Do the math. That’s a lot of caterpillars. And if you don’t have them on your property, you’re probably not maintaining a healthy habitat for chickadees. Where are they getting their caterpillars when the landscape next door just got clear cut for another house and so forth?

So Doug wrote a book called Nature’s Best Hope, and I know Doug, I knew him from being often on the same stage in the lecture world. When Covid came, his book, Nature’s Best Hope, got postponed—the publication got postponed—and he was feeling sad about that. So he said, “I’ll send you a copy of the manuscript.” And in it was this statement that it takes seventy percent native plants to provide the kind of insect population to host the insects that hosts the birds. It struck me that I finally had an actual number or something graspable that I could say to people about what is the right thing to plant in your landscape? Rather than just saying, “Oh, plant some native plants, that’s good.” No, this was: “Plant seventy percent. You should have seventy percent native plants.” Then of course, my mind gets spinning and I turned it into Two Thirds for the Birds. That was my Covid project.

I actually built pretty much with a developer online. We built a website and we put it out there. The idea is that it’s kind of an online garden club where people can find each other because people have in the past— They’re always asking me to recommend a landscaper or recommend a professional. I can’t. Number one, anyone who’s good, it’s so rare and they’re so overworked [laughs], I can’t do that to them because everyone will be disappointed.

But I want to promote everyone who is trying their best, and we need lots of new people coming into the field, so please send them to me. Because we’re doing our best to create educational opportunities going into the world of what I call “professional land care” as opposed to landscaping. It’s a wonderful world. It’s healthy, you’re outdoors. You actually can get adoration from homeowners who finally have somebody show up and tell them something about their land that’s sensitive and intelligent and not involving selling them a product that’s going to harm them. But Two Thirds for the Birds is my idea of where to find the resource and where everybody can meet. So it’s just a list of names. You put your name up there and the more names we have, the more people you can find in your neighborhood who share your interests and maybe have a professional service.

If they’re saying, I’m a Two Thirds for the Birds person and I’ve made this commitment, and if I can give you the information that you need to hold them to that— That part happens on the Perfect Earth website, and Two Thirds for the Birds is really just this ever-growing list of names in which you can organize by your profession or your state or your… I don’t know if we got it down to the county level yet, but—

SB: Eventually.

EVG: Yeah. 


The Chelsea Grasslands area of New York City’s High Line, with gardens designed by Piet Oudolf. (Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

SB: I feel like I should end with a big question, which is, I love how you just said “land care” because I was thinking now that you’re 40 years into this, what do you think the truest meaning of “intelligent land stewardship” or “nature conservancy” is? I know you’ve mentioned some really category-defining projects in the past that have helped shift the conversation, like Piet Oudolf’s High Line or Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, not far from where we’re sitting right now, or even thinking about Japan and some of those Zen gardens that have been passed down over decades and centuries. But just thinking about this idea of: What does it truly mean to be an intelligent land steward or to conserve nature in a way that is productive and healthy for humans and the planet and habitats. What does that look like in 2024 and going forward?

EVG: Well, I think you may have guessed that I, first of all, I have to change the word steward because it implies a kind of master—

SB: Nailed that one. [Laughs]

EVG: Servant relationship. And so what it is really is…. 

Well, number one, Brooklyn Bridge Park and The High Line and The Battery Conservancy, they’re changing our aesthetic. They’re creating a whole new aesthetic in what we think is a beautiful landscape. So hooray. And there are many more coming in. The Brooklyn Museum has a beautiful garden by Rebecca McMackin. They’re creeping in, but there just aren’t enough people to do them. That’s our challenge in the future. And so we’re asking everyone who is a homeowner or a landcare decision-maker to hold your landscape professionals’ feet to the fire, because we can’t send them anywhere else. And there is work to be done, so they need to ask them to step into it. 

Instead of asking your landscaper to do it because for ten years I tried to get them on board, but it’s too big an industry. It’s just really an industry. It has nothing to do with plant health or environmental health or your health. So I’m asking everybody, you have to do it yourself. I’m sorry, there’s one more thing here you have to do, but actually it’s filled with joy and it’s not that hard. And it doesn’t cost anything, but you have to take responsibility for your land and create a relationship with it.

SB: I love this notion of being a land carer rather than an owner necessarily. Careship not ownership.

EVG: Partnership.

SB: Yeah. Beautiful.

EVG: Marry your land.


SB: Edwina, thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

EVG: You’re welcome. Thank you.


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on June 13, 2024. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Inez & Vinoodh.