The lawn, as we know it, is an anachronism: It’s a living fossil from the 1950s, the era of Levittown, glorified suburban sprawl, and better living through chemistry. And our lawns require a lot of chemistry. Landscapers often apply chemicals to lawns at more than double the concentrations used in industrial agriculture.

Edwina von Gal, a landscape architect, has a vision of a new lawn to match the changing times. It’s a lawn with a diversity of plants, taller grasses, and a gentler, undulating appearance. The shift from the traditional buzzcut carpet of grass is a change in fashion that von Gal compares to burning the bra.

“Ending that kind of strictly imposed landscape maintenance on a lawn is like taking off the corset,” she said. “You are giving your grass a chance to move and live and breathe.”

Perfect earth3
Alan Pollack-Morris

The organization she started, The Perfect Earth Project, is working to make this new lawn the next must-have fashion item for the American mass market. And she might succeed, thanks, in part, to her location. Von Gal is based in the Hamptons and her roster of clients include the fashion designer Calvin Klein, media kingpin Martha Stewart, and the well-known art dealer Larry Gagosian. Another designer, Isaac Mizrahi, will host an upcoming benefit for the Project at the artist Cindy Sherman’s house this fall. When wealthy celebrities adopt a new style, it’s much more likely to catch on with the general public. You may have dug up your lawn long ago for moral reasons, but the bulk of Americans aren’t going to change unless the rich and famous — who define the aspirational “good life” — change their landscaping first.

Perfect_Earth_Project_Square_Leif_Combination_PMS_116I love the idea of removing pesticides and fertilizer from our national lawn. Still, I worry that von Gal’s campaign could have further demonize important agricultural chemicals. It’s an easy shorthand to think “synthetic chemicals are bad,” but I’ve talked to scientists working on 100-year-plus soil sustainability studies who say that popular notion is absolutely untrue: used properly, synthetic chemicals can be better for the environment than the alternatives. And the Perfect Earth Project’s goal of “toxin-free landscaping” sounds great, but a toxin is a poison made by nature, and of course there’s a lot of those in grass.

In a recent interview, I talked to von Gal about the magic of clover, water-logged lawns, and the risk of relying on simplistic chemophobia to achieve noble ends.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.