Father and Son Charlie and Silas Marder on the Need for Organic Gardening

Charlie and Silas Marder, organic gardeners

At Marders in Bridgehampton, proprietor Charlie Marder and son Silas practice a more instinctive approach to garden design.

HC&G: What are the benefits of an organic garden to a homeowner?

CHARLIE MARDER: Non-organic gardens are very complicated to manage. They’re basically hydroponic systems, so you’re monitoring the water and chemical intake and trying to find a balance. And you’re more apt to deal with specialists and arrange your life around their schedules and applications, making living in the garden less spontaneous and ultimately
less fulfilling.
Silas Marder: Some of the benefits can be invisible—for instance, you don’t see the microbes in the soil that are so crucial to maintaining plant health. A property is really a giant ocean with all kinds of things living inside it. It’s important to be aware of the invisible component of gardening.

Charlie and Silas Marder make their own compost

So how do you build an organic garden? What are the priorities?

CM: You start with the basics—looking at the foundation of the garden and the history of the landscape. You can walk on the property and literally feel it with your feet, and then start fixing any problems you’ve found. But if you’re building a house, keep in mind that it’s a very invasive process. A landscape is being completely dug up, driven over, rained on, and so on.
SM: And now you think you’re going to grow something on it!
CM: It’s a totally bastardized situation. Everything becomes a chain reaction to the stresses of construction. It’s similar to human beings: If people can live in a less stressed situation, their chances for a long, healthy life are a lot better.

How long does it take to make an existing garden organic?

SM: Going cold turkey? It’s very site specific, since each property has a different profile and soil needs. But a transition done properly shouldn’t be that difficult.

What sustainability practices do you employ while designing a garden?

SM: All our vehicles are labeled with their miles per gallon, and we monitor them carefully to try to be more efficient. We also make our own compost, which we use in our projects. 
CM: A lot of energy on our part goes into growing plants, and getting them to live longer and stay healthy.

A colorful garden landscaped by Charlie and Silas Marder

What’s the best way to manage lawns organically?

CM: Basically, it’s best to use high-quality seed mixes with clover that “fixes” nitrogen from the air into the soil. Lawns were essentially organic before World War II, after which they went downhill because of an excess of nitrogen petrochemicals and a massive PR campaign that made clover a public enemy. Clover is actually good for lawns.
SM: Your whole attitude of how a lawn looks has to shift to having turf that’s multicultured, with parts that thrive in heat and parts that thrive in cool weather, and also while trying to keep invasive species at bay.

Is there a backlash against so-called native plants?

CM: There are many non-native trees, shrubs, and plants that have lots of positive attributes. If you only believe in “native” gardens, you’re ignoring the whole history of gardening. Nature left to its own devices is a brutal place for plants. Leaving a landscape natural doesn’t mean it’s going to stay native. 

A version of this article appeared in the July 1, 2014 issue of Hamptons Cottages & Gardens with the headline:Nurturing Nature.