Lush Life, Naturally

Practicing what she preaches, a Frenchtown landscape designer proves that organic gardening brings spectacular results in her own backyard.

Armed with a degree in botany, Helen Grundmann set out to combine her knowledge of plant life with her lifelong philosophy of healthy living. To that end, she created Helen Grundmann Garden Design, an organic, holistic approach to landscape design. “We take care of our bodies first, then our environment,” Grundmann says. “It just makes sense. We go from being organic consumers to organic gardeners.”

Grundmann has designed and maintained gardens throughout the state, but it’s her own backyard that makes her most proud. A work in progress that blooms in a rainbow of colors from mid-March until first frost, the garden is a virtual petrie dish testing various plants and flowers. It’s a picturesque landscape that’s tranquil, serene—and fully organic.

It helps that Grundmann works alongside her husband, Bill—a certified tree expert with a forestry degree who, like his wife, takes an organic approach to lawn, tree and shrub care. They practice what they preach on their 12½ rolling acres; sprawling farmland just outside Frenchtown, with views of the Delaware River in the distance. For starters, the couple believe in composting kitchen scraps, which provides a natural fertilizer while helping the environment by reducing waste.

“Soil is the most important part of the garden,” says Grundmann. “You need to start from the ground up.” To make the nutrient-rich soil that plant life craves, the couple start by collecting food scraps in a plastic coffee jug kept by the kitchen sink. They dump the scraps into a large worm farm, where, Grundmann says, hundreds of wrigglers eat the food. “We feed them well, and they do all the work,” she jokes. That soil is either used as topsoil for the gardens or is processed in a 200-gallon water tank to make a liquid they refer to as compost tea. This is sprayed on plants and flowers, as well as on the grass, as a fertilizer throughout the summer. (Different batches of tea are made for different purposes, Grundmann explains. Trees and shrubs require a fungal-based brew, while lawns and gardens require a bacterial-based brew.)

Short of making your own compost tea, Grundmann suggests asking for organic products at your local garden center. “The more we ask for these products, the more readily available they’ll become,” she says. Organic gardening may sound complicated, but Grundmann insists it’s anything but. Here are a few tips for beginners:

•    Start from the ground up. “The health of your plants directly depends upon the health of your soil,” Grundmann says. Be sure to use topsoil rich in organic matter and nutrients that support plant life. “Remember that soil is alive,” she says.

•    Compost rules. Spread about 1-inch of compost on your garden in early spring. “There’s no need to work it into the soil. Worms do all the work.”

•    Attract the birds and the bees. Certain flowers, including Cosmos, Zinnia, Coneflower, Marigolds, Dill, Parsley and Lavender, attract beneficial insects and birds.

•    Harvest rainwater. Use a large barrel to collect water. Use drip irrigation to make watering more efficient—water and fertilizer go directly to the roots through an efficient network of tubes and valves rather than where it isn’t needed.

•    Shred your leaves. Rather than raking fall leaves and taking them to the dump, use them as mulch. They create a pretty and effective autumn-colored bed for dormant gardens.

•   Support the locals. Plant native species, including fringe tree, which yields fragrant flowers in May and June, and blue berries for birds late summer through early fall. There are many varieties of Viburnum, a shrub that blooms after the dogwoods, with fall berries for birds and spring flowers. Beautyberry has small white flowers that attract butterflies and amethyst berries that persist through winter. For perennials, look for black cohosh or blazing star, white and magenta spiked flowers that are an excellent source of nectar for insects and seeds for birds.

Helen Grundmann Garden Design, 908-285-1281.For more information about Helen Grundmann’s organic techniques and landscape design, visit


Seed-To-Table Gardening

While a peaceful garden full of blooming flowers certainly serves its purpose, what about a garden that actually helps to feed your family? Burlington-based gardener Mike Podlesny came up with a clever idea to encourage just that. His Seeds of the Month Club, offered through his website, Average Person Gardening, ships packages of seeds to encourage home vegetable and fruit growing for, well, the average person. “The idea hit me a couple of years ago when my wife and I signed up for a movie club, and I thought doing something similar for vegetable seeds would be great,” says Podlesny. Now in its third year, Podlesny has nearly 800 active members in New Jersey (California ranks number 1, with more than 4,900 members) who receive eight packs of seeds their first month and four each month after. In April, for example, his members receive open-pollinated heirloom varieties of beans, beets, parsnips and an herb, for about $3 (pricing depends on how many years members choose to subscribe for). “I have set up the club in such a way that you can be a novice or experienced, because I want everyone to enjoy growing their own fresh fruits, veggies and herbs,” Podlesny says.  New Jersey gardeners are especially successful growing tomatoes, he says, since the hot, humid summers are ideal for large red cherry, roma and beefsteak varieties. “Zucchini is a close second,” he adds. And, he’s quick to point out, the same organic principles can be applied to vegetable gardening as flower gardening. For more information, check out

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