Romantic and colorful aren’t words that typically describe a sustainable garden: a humus-generating, native-growing, non-pesticidal retreat. The gardens that Lucy Berkoff designs, however, paint a different picture. And it’s a style that resonates with almost 20,000 people on Instagram (@lucysgardenlife). As Lucy says, “Using natives should be exciting, not a compromise or bad medicine.”
Although her garden design business is only four years old, her talent is evident. She balances the use of natives with North American showstoppers, bursting with a mix of cornflowers, wild geranium, asters, dahlias and roses for a romantic, playful sustainability. Her other talent is connecting people with plants. Tune into her Friday Instagram grids, where you may find yourself discovering a garden or gardener you never heard of: Each square features a different garden.
Her own outdoors space in Rye, New York is part playground, part creative retreat that inspires her “through all of life’s crazy and unpredictable ups and downs.” It’s not only shared with her family but with whatever wild species nature throws her way.
JM: How have you been coping with the pandemic?
Lucy Berkoff: I have been home with my four small children (ages 5-13), and my husband has had to continue working in Manhattan this whole time. At the same time, my real life clients and my Instagram followers have never been more eager to garden! Balancing the two has not been easy. I am lucky that my children and my clients have been very understanding. It’s been frustrating at times, but I think we have all grown a lot. Observing the garden and living in it have been an incredible comfort and diversion from the stress of the world at large.
JM: What’s your favorite season?
LB: I look forward to spring because of the enormous hope and anticipation for the full year of gardening ahead. But truly I enjoy every season. Living seasonally is one of life’s greatest pleasures and a huge reason to live in the Northeast.
JM: What’s your top 3 favorite plants and why?
LB: Daffodils, for heralding spring,
Nasturtiums, for cheer, color, and spice
Coneflowers, for color, pollinators, and goldfinches
Sorry, but I need to add another: Dahlias, for romance.
Oh, I need to add roses, too ... and Crepe Myrtle. Too hard to choose three!
JM: What plant gets no love and why should we pay more attention to it?
LB: Mountain laurel! A beautiful native evergreen, its spring flowers are more beautiful and complicated that any azalea or rhody could ever be. We should all be planting more of them!
JM: What are some of your favorite “rooms” in your garden?
LB: My garden has quite a few rooms on less than a quarter acre. The two most popular with my Instagram followers are my raised-bed kitchen garden, and my small, hornbeam-walled back patio. There is also a large space for my four children to run and swing and play; and my Dahlia patch is open to all but also a room into itself.
JM: What’s the one garden tool you can’t live without?
LB: The poacher’s spade. Light and easy to use in almost any application. Very underutilized.
JM: What’s public gardens have you loved?
LB: I would say that my favorite gardens combine color and form in a magical and exciting way. I’ve adored Wave Hill (the Bronx) since my college roommate first introduced me in my early 20s. I discovered Planting Fields Arboretum (Oyster Bay, New York) last summer with my children. The pool garden there and the pollinator arches are so close to my ideal — playful, respectful of ecology, a pure delight for the eyes.
JM: When is the last time you hugged a tree? Or what’s a sign of respect that you give to nature’s green beings?
JB: This question almost brings tears to my eyes. The last time I “hugged” a tree was when a beautiful historic beech in my town was taken down and I wrote a letter protesting it. Sadly, so many real-estate developers do not care to thoughtfully edit and to design around older trees. Those developers that can and do are wonderful treasures. I design around many mature trees in my own home and they are a delight and a challenge.
JM: What’s one of your favorite resourceful/inspirational books on gardening?
LB: Anything by entomologist Doug Tallamy and Erin Benzakein (of Floret Flowers). My design work blends their two approaches — one of native ecology and one of breathtaking seasonal beauty — into something the modern American family can feel comfortable with and have fun in.