Manicured but Toxin-Free Lawns

Edwina von Gal practices what she preaches. This chemical free meadow is on her own property in Springs.

Edwina von Gal, a celebrated landscape designer who divides her time between Springs and Panama, wants it known that it is possible to have a perfectly manicured lawn without using chemicals.

Her new website — perfectearthproject.org — offers answers on how to arrive at a velvety blanket of grass naturally. Ms. von Gal said she hadn’t paid much attention to lawns over the years, as she focused on gardens. “I’m an old hippie. I was always organic, yet I never insisted that my clients do the same.”

A visit to the website, still a work in progress, will have you shivering in your flip-flops when you read about the dangers of lawn pesticides, many of which are considered carcinogenic or may cause birth defects, neurotoxicity, liver damage, on and on.

 “What we found is that it’s just a big marketing thing,” she said by phone from Panama earlier this spring, where she was showing farmers how to manage their land without depleting it.

One day about two years ago a landscaper here was telling her “about the chemicals he wanted to pour over something. “Right then and there I decided to do something about it.”

First, she realized, she’d have to try it herself. In Panama she founded the Azuero Earth Project, whose mission is to preserve the earth’s ecosystems, protect biodiversity, and promote healthy communities. The Perfect Earth Project will be a sister initiative, but focusing on lawn and landscape maintenance in this country and around the world.

 So far, Ms. von Gal said, everyone she has helped convert to a natural lawn is satisfied. “No one is going back.” The organization has now “alerted as many landscapers as we could find,” she said. She is also at the conversation stage in opening a center in Bridgehampton where training, in English and Spanish, will occur on a regular basis. If a professional tells a homeowner that natural lawns are more expensive and don’t work, “it’s because the landscaper hasn’t been educated.”

A visit to perfectearthproject.org will provide advice on how you can get going on a natural lawn. Rule one: Don’t mow too short.

“If you have short grass you don’t have a healthy root system.” Photosynthesis in the blade feeds the root. “If you chop it to nothing, the roots aren’t getting anything.” Thus begins a vicious cycle where you need more water and fertilizer. But under-nourished roots can’t hold onto water so it sits on top of the soil causing fungal diseases. Hence the use of fungicides, which Ms. von Gal claims are “probably the most dangerous chemicals.” Not only that, they kill nematodes, an organism that feeds on grubs. “Once you use a fungicide you have a grub problem.”

Aesthetically, Ms. von Gal appreciates a longer than normal lawn, about three times longer than your typical golf course lawn. “If your lawn is 3 to 3 1/2 inches high, which is what we recommend, it’s thicker and so much lusher.” The rule of thumb is to “never cut more than a third of a blade.” So you don’t want to let it grow to six inches and cut it back halfway, say. “That’s a big shock.”

You also don’t want to water more than once or twice a week. “When your irrigation company comes in spring, do not let them set the clock to turn it on till the ground is truly dry,” she said, adding, “They’re not lawn people, they’re plumbers.” People worry, she said, that if they miss a day their lawn will turn yellow. But, she said, a lawn is not meant to be rained on everyday. “If the surface of the soil is constantly wet and soggy, it’s not getting oxygen to the roots.”

“I would like to raise the level of professionalism in chemical-free landscape care,” she said. In other words, what goes for lawns also works for trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables. “You don’t need to spray anything with toxic chemicals,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t put her nose into a rose “with what they treat it with.”

Ms. von Gal had good words for the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society. The village’s median strips, which are cultivated by the L.V.I.S., are all toxin-free.

And she was pleased to report that the Perfect Earth has collaborated with Guild Hall for its annual Garden as Art tour this summer: All the gardens on the tour will be toxin-free, and there will be a lecture by experts in the field and people to answer questions about how to make your own garden toxin-free.