Becoming an ally to Earth

Maya Goer-Palenzuela in the garden with allium.

Robin Robbins

Becoming an ally to Earth

Maya Goer-Palenzuela, the founder and owner of the Stanfordville-based landscape design company Harmonyscape, is dedicated to creating and maintaining outdoor spaces that nurture the delicate bond between humans and the environment through a deeply rooted approach of listening to both the land and her clients.

Goer-Palenzuela grew up in Flushing, Queens, until she was a sophomore in high school, when her parents decided the family needed a break from city life and relocated to Rhinebeck. “I hated it,” she said. “I hated the school, the area, the whole idea of moving out of the city. I was totally scared of deer, and turkey, and the woods,” she laughed.

“I grew up in the city and had no idea where all these things came from, like food. I just took it for granted,” Goer-Palenzuela continued. “You go to the grocery store, and it’s there. I didn’t understand until I moved up here and somehow got very entrenched into the world of horticulture and organic gardening that I realized what hard work it was, and how exactly plants grow, and what it takes to provide things like groceries for people.”

Goer-Palenzuela attended Dutchess Community College, where she pursued a degree in liberal arts focusing on botany, environmental biology and environmental economics. She carpooled to school each day with a friend who offered her a job at Upstate Farms in Tivoli.

Goer-Palenzuela started out managing the warehouse. “I would receive all the produce that they grew, box it up and get it ready to be shipped out to high-end restaurants, like the types of restaurants that don’t put prices on stuff,” she laughed. The job served as an introduction to the relationship between the land and the food industry, an interdependent relationship that would inform her later work.

While at Dutchess Community College, Goer-Palenzuela won an award for a paper called “Cole’s Legacy Emerges in Landscape.” She delivered the paper at the 16th annual Beacon Conference for student scholars. Surprised by the win, she said: “I became a scholar on Hudson Valley romantic landscapes. It was a prestigious award that was basically saying, ‘Now you’re a scholar on this subject.’”

The Romantic period, which originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century, championed an appreciation of nature that went beyond the purely aesthetic. For the Europeans, as highlighted in Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful,” there were five aesthetic elements: the sublime, the picturesque, the beautiful, the ennobling effects of beauty and its associations.

In contrast, Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School art movement, named categories as wildness, mountains, water, forests, and sky. Said Goer-Palenzuela: “One of the things that drew Europeans to this country was that it was so wild. Europe had been landscaped for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Everything was touched and finely clipped, and the United States was not that.”

Goer-Palenzuela had the opportunity to immerse herself in this wildness when she worked on an estate in Millbrook, “which was the greatest experience ever,” she shared. She began her tenure there as a seasonal gardener while still in college and worked her way up to head gardener, where she remained for 13 years.

“It was a thousand acres,” she explained. “The gardens had been done by two very well-known English landscape designers, John Brooks and Antony Archer Wills. The owners care very much about the gardens. They had greenhouses and an organic garden and all these trails and installations by Andy Goldsworthy.”

Having access to “the best of the best,” as Goer-Palenzuela described the estate, allowed her to immerse herself in the landscape, to play and discover at an easy pace. But, she shared, “I realized that if I wanted to be a well-rounded designer, I would need to know what it’s like working within a budget and under a time crunch. Now that I’m my own private business owner, I have a timeline, I have a definite budget, and I have to outsource things like a mason to build a wall.”

Goer-Palenzuela left the Millbrook estate for a job at the Kent Greenhouses while pursuing a landscape design certificate at the New York Botanical Garden: “There, I really learned a lot of the nuts and bolts that were missing. I had this wonderful love for plants and all of the beautiful things that they can do for the psyche and the body, but I needed to learn more about making it work on a flexible scale where people who have a definite budget could also benefit from something like having a little garden.”

Harmonyscape began eight years ago. Mostly serving private homes, Goer-Palenzuela’s design ethos involves reimagining spaces as they might have been before human intervention, aiming to restore natural balances. Using about 95% native plants in her work she shared, “I’ve learned to use things like eco-regions more than state borders, because borders were put here by people, and plants and animals don’t see those things.”

In her work, Goer-Palenzuela also prioritizes creating habitats for wildlife, understanding the crucial interdependence between humans and nature: “I try and provide a space for wildlife, to see what they need and then I can implement a lot of those things, to encourage the relationship that I think is so spectacular and necessary.”

When the conversation turned to how humans can become better allies to nature, Goer-Palenzuela spoke with both passion and practicality. She emphasized the importance of eschewing chemicals in everyday life. “Never use any kind of chemicals,” she advised, “from just trying to get rid of mice in your home, the weeds in your yard, or the bugs on your plants.”

Another key aspect Goer-Palenzuela highlighted was the significance of being mindful about what goes down our drains. “Be careful with what you put down the drain. That’s a big one,” she asserted, pointing out the often overlooked impact of household waste and chemicals on ecosystems.

Recycling, for Goer-Palenzuela, goes beyond the mere act of sorting trash. She is a fervent advocate for a more comprehensive approach to reusing materials. Sharing a personal anecdote, she said: “We have this beautiful baby now, and I was more than happy to accept everybody’s hand-me-downs, from toys to clothes to bottles. There’s no need for anyone to throw this stuff away; it’s in great shape. I will use it; I love it, and I love that it came from so many people.”

Goer-Palenzuela also touched upon the creative and practical use of natural resources, especially for those with land. She recounted her own experience with a spongy moth infestation at her home in 2017. Instead of seeing it as a mere problem, she and her husband, a former carpenter and current supervisor at Metro-North, saw an opportunity. They responsibly harvested the affected oak trees, utilizing the wood in various ways.

“We use it for a wood stove that heats our home almost exclusively,” she explained. The wood was not only used for heating but also creatively integrated into their home infrastructure and garden. “He cut some of the wood into boards and planed them, faced our whole basement with oak wood, and we created vegetable garden beds with the wood,” she described. Even the smaller branches were repurposed, stacked on dead trees to create natural habitats for wildlife.

Through these practices, Goer-Palenzuela illustrates how being an ally to Earth isn’t just about grand gestures, but also about the small, everyday choices and actions that collectively make a significant impact. She shared: “My biggest mantra is ‘leave it alone.’ People always want to know what they can do and sometimes the best answer is to just let it be. It’ll fix itself. Trust me. Or it was never meant to be.”

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