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Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

We are Upstate NY with Landscape Design Creatrix Carol Washington

By Jenny Wonderling | May 19, 2023

Carol Washington has extensively traveled the world but it’s to the Hudson Valley that she has always returned to spread roots… to grow thriving gardens and nourish her family.  A 2nd generation Woodstocker, Carol brings the perspective of someone who has grown up within an area that is quickly undergoing changes, yet who still peers through fresh eyes, always passionately working to reclaim and promote balance in our natural world. She brings a frankness that is interwoven with a deep sensitivity; a background in yoga, herbalism and nutrition, permaculture principles and more than three decades’ of hands-on experience to her work as a landscape designer.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

Inside+Out: Can you describe some of your main philosophies in regard to gardening?

Carol Washington: I’m currently working on a book on my gardening philosophies, but I would say my first words of advice are to spend time observing what makes the property unique before imposing your ideas. We may have preconceived notions based on the house style, theme gardens, or something we saw on Pinterest… but it’s of utmost importance to first notice what is already there on the land. See what qualities you can bring out from what exists before imposing upon it. Notice things like the beneficial wildlife and see how to factor in allowances for them with what you plant. Habitats for birds and pollinators are just as important as having awareness of the herds of deer and rodents we have to contend with. See what plants are thriving and take note.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

Refine and encourage the special qualities of your land. Maybe there is a mossy area, or a wet area you can incorporate into a garden by adding water-loving plants. Maybe there’s a rocky area that might inspire a more Zen feel. Lawns and uniform hedges are becoming a thing of the past. Start thinking outside the box and get a feel for the land before bringing in a lot of store-bought plants.

Part of the draw to living in this area is the wild spaces. Listen, observe and drop judgment upon plants that have historically been labeled as weeds. If you think it’s pretty or cool then it is, unless it is invasive, of course.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

You were born and raised in the Hudson Valley, you’ve traveled to far-reaching corners of the world, but have chosen again and again to return here and call this home. What are your favorite things about living in the Valley and what has always drawn you back?

I think travel is one of the best reality checks in life. You experience different cultures and lifestyles when you open yourself up to them. It also allows you to see and appreciate the special traits of a home. Most places outside the United States still live very connectedly with the land like I feel many of us do here in the Hudson Valley. Again and again, though, I have too often seen the negative influences Americans have had on other places – with the demands we make as tourists and the impact our consumerism is having by creating unchecked pollution in places all around the world.

I was on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand) when I saw reams of plastic waste floating miles from land. It was then that I committed myself to a lifestyle and career to help educate people and improve the environment. I also returned specifically to this area because I was starting a family and could not imagine my kids not experiencing the things I knew as a child – swimming in streams, riding bikes for hours on end, exploring the woods and picking wild fruits. Plus we have a community here that supports many of my own ideals.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY
Why is preserving open space so important?

I don’t know if it is so much “open space” that is as much of a priority as it is “wild space.” Different terrains may be naturally open, others wooded, but areas that are untouched by humans are allowed to regenerate in ways not possible in heavily cultivated areas. A rotting log for instance can be home to all kinds of mushrooms and reptiles, such as salamanders, which add to a vibrant ecosystem. If an occasional dead tree is left standing, it becomes a great perch for owls or a supply of fodder for woodpeckers. There are whole ecosystems in small scenarios such as these.

Also, there are many types of plants that have a fragile existence and can only thrive in certain habitats. They may not be capable of living in cultivated or cleared areas. Some of those specifically feed species of animals or insects. For instance, fireflies love open fields with woods nearby. If you make it all lawns and hedges, they won’t thrive on your land. Where is the magic then?

Thankfully there has become a movement to stop eradicating things like milkweed. That is about the only food for the migrating monarch butterflies. It is also a structurally interesting plant that is finally making a comeback.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

What about native plants? How much do you work with them and why?

I love working with native plants. There are so many beautiful gardens that can be made with them. They naturally thrive here. I also try to encourage many patches of unusual flowering natives that I find on-site. This allows me to create landscapes that blend with the natural surroundings and maybe incorporate something I would not have thought of by myself. In doing that you can’t really tell where the “garden” ends and ” nature” begins. My trick is to gently define spaces for them, which evokes what I like to call a manicured wild look.

Because of my background in herbalism and nutrition, I also see the qualities in a lot of plants that have been rejected in landscapes for the past few decades. Many of them were part of herbal gardens and were revered for their medicinal qualities for ages. Sadly a lot of that knowledge was lost as we began to fill our medicine cabinets with packaged products. Those plants were then labeled as weeds even though some are quite beautiful. There has been a movement to reclaim that knowledge.

Thankfully I grew up with wise women here that retained and passed that on to the younger generations. I feel that if you ask any kid that grew up here what to do for a bee sting for instance, they would immediately go grab some plantain from the lawn, crunch it up and apply it. I appreciate that things like that are part of the norm around here.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

How have you seen Woodstock and the Hudson Valley change? Do you like the changes? Suggestions on ways to better move forward with intention and consideration of the environment?

Wow.  Well, it’s changed a lot since my childhood in the ’60s and ’70s! First of all, there is a lot less space on the roads. The bike riding I spoke of is now a lot more dangerous with the traffic and distracted drivers. The swimming holes sadly get trashed so crowded locals can’t go there anymore. Weekends always had tourists, and we knew that brought commerce to many of the shops, but I sometimes feel that people come here looking for something, but don’t know how to achieve it. It is not about Instagramming a picture of you in front of a peace sign; it’s about communing with nature and maybe taking time to meet the locals or opening up to explore your own creativity.

Something that makes this area special is the familiarity we have with one another. No one is better than anyone else because of fame or economic status. We recognize each other as being part of the whole. The guy who sweeps the street gets the same respect as the man with four gold albums. It’s a community that respects and encourages authenticity and individual expression, so long as it’s peaceful.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

Why is cultivating and honoring a relationship with nature important and what is lost when that is not fostered in children and even adults?

First of all, the Earth is our lifeline. If we don’t respect and care for it, we have to contend with an avalanche of ill-fated consequences. Secondly, nature has this amazing intricate web of balance. It contains an infinite well of lessons if one is observant. Nature is healing to the mind and the body for reasons scientists are just catching up with but wise people have known. There is such beauty and magic. I think all ages prosper from experiencing that. It’s not found in places where there are no natural elements.

Where is your favorite place in your home garden or land?

I have an outdoor bed by a stream that is about the best place on earth for me. I can take a cup of tea out there and read, or just listen to the multitude of sounds of the water or the bird calls. Unfortunately, it’s only a very rare occasion that I get time to relax and enjoy it.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

What was your favorite project you have worked on?

Each project that I create, I hope can endure for decades, if not more. It becomes part of a bigger picture. They are living creations and all have different qualities. I’m always honored when clients give me a license to create for them, especially when there’s an element of healing to the land. I have favorite gardens, but mostly I love the challenge to co-create style with nature. I try to match up people’s personalities and lifestyles in the gardens I create. I pick out elements I think reflect and connect them with their land. It makes me happiest if I can lure them outside to experience the magic in nature, not just create curbside appeal.

Carol Washington Landscape Designer in Saugerties NY

What are your favorite things to do and places to go in the valley?

Some of my favorite things to do include travel, as mentioned. I love meeting new people and understanding different perspectives. I especially enjoy being exposed to others’ creativity through music and art which there is a plethora of here. Of course, being in nature is a given, although ironically not hiking or camping. Although I have many more places on my bucket list: Brazil, Thailand, Turkey and the Netherlands are a few favorites. The Hudson Valley I think will always be home. It’s part of me.

All photos courtesy of Carol Washington

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