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NATURE’S TURN: Gardeners’ new gold standard: Wealth of biological diversity

This year's Berkshire Botanical Garden Winter Lecture featured Edwina von Gal, renown for a career distinguished by designs that support thriving ecosystems and nourish the human spirit in relationship to the natural world.


March 5–18, 2022

MOUNT WASHINGTON — A gardener’s currency and wealth are measured in the teemingness of life in the garden. An inventory rich in biological diversity is the new gold standard: the source of environmental health that drives productivity, as well as sustains and inspires the gardener, community, and world.

Flowering meadow: pollinator garden, wildflower cutting garden. Photo: Edwina von Gal

In the lead-up to one of its hallmark programs, Berkshire Botanical Garden (BBG) urged the community to make “a transformative commitment to actually do something incredibly effective about climate change and the loss of biodiversity.” BBG’s annual Winter Lecture, held this year on February 19, has introduced internationally celebrated landscape professionals to Berkshire audiences for decades. This year’s presenter, Edwina von Gal, is renown for a career distinguished by designs that support thriving ecosystems and nourish the human spirit in relationship to the natural world. She has collaborated with luminaries including architects Frank Gehry and Toshiko Mori. Projects for trendsetters include designs for Ralph Lauren, Richard Serra, and Larry Gagosian.

Edwina von Gal’s lecture, “Messy or Marvelous? The Heart of the Beholder,” was slightly different from that in BBG’s press, “The Eye of the Beholder: Is it Messy or an Acquired Taste?” Consider both as you learn of von Gal’s provocative talk and her initiatives, the Perfect Earth Project and 2/3 for the Birds. What could be more messy than the fact that “North America has lost close to 3 billion birds since the 1970s”?

Through pictures from common catalogues, von Gal drove home the uncomfortable fact that most yards and landscape designs are shaped in the image of our living rooms. No matter the healthy organisms in the soil, and the flowering plants that have co-evolved with insects, birds, and mammals in “perfect” wilderness, our citizenry is obsessed with tidy, “clean” landscapes with a familiar geometry imposed upon living earth, deadening both land and our culture. Add toxic industrial chemicals to prove how dangerous the trend. Needless to say, lawns stand out as primary offenders.

Edwina von Gal’s garden in autumn: meadow design with crisp-edged, limited lawn, and hardscape. Photo: Alan Pollack-Morris

According to von Gal, “If we could plant even half of our 40 million acres of lawn in two-thirds native plants, and keep them pesticide and herbicide free, we could turn the bird losses into gains. If all our yards and parks and campuses become two-thirds, they will eventually connect and create life-filled corridors of habitat. A life saver for our birds, our biodiversity, ourselves.” She referred to ecologist-entomologist Doug Tallamy’s conception of this greenway of private lands becoming a de facto “Home Grown National Park.” Learn more about Tallamy’s work through a filmed interview on the occasion of the publication of his book, “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts In Your Yard.”

Adding to the imposing desert that is the ubiquitous lawn, our yards are filled with exotic plants that exist outside the local food chain. Our birds have fewer and fewer bugs and berries to eat, no cavities for nesting, and no thickets for protection from predators. “Messy or Marvelous?” In sum, “There’s a difference between messy and complexity: complexity is overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Complexity is way more interesting than simplicity.” No bugs or know bugs? Compelling when they are a food supply for birds. The remedy is evident in the illustrations of native flowering and grass-broadleaf mix meadows where lawn and exotics have dominated.

BBG’s Winter Lecture with Edwina von Gal was held virtually; the recording of the one-and-a-half hour lecture is available for a limited time. To subscribe, click here.

Norway maple log wall, part of deer fence strategy. Norway maples are invasive. Upon removal, the wood may be useful, as shown here. Meadow mowings “Homage to Monet’s Haystack.” Photo: Alan Pollack-Morris

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