Life changes

Life changes

Elaine Silverstein now advises homeowners on how to green their gardens.

New directions can stem from old passions.

Some 20 years ago, Elaine Silverstein of Glen Rock read a book by gardener/writer Sara Stein called “Noah’s Garden.”

“It just clicked with me,” Silverstein, 62, said. “It was about sustainable landscape management, particularly in the suburbs. I started to do some plantings, learning as I was doing.”

She drew inspiration, she said, from her annual trips to Maine.

“There’s more untrammeled nature there than here,” she said. “I would walk around the cabin and see how a forest is put together. I learned how it works.”

Inspired to learn more about such things as the benefits of growing native plants and how to grow perennials, Silverstein began to share that knowledge some 10 years ago through a column in the Glen Rock Gazette called “The Backyard Environmentalist.”

She also became active in the greening of her synagogue, Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, putting native plants in select areas outside the shul, removing invasive plants, and inviting a local farmer to speak to the sisterhood about sustainable agriculture.

“It was eye-opening,” she said of the Sukkot program, noting that the speaker talked about difficulties faced by small farmers. Later, with the help of fellow congregants, Silverstein led an effort to plant a perennial garden outside of the synagogue.

“This summer it was quite beautiful,” she said.

A former synagogue board member and sisterhood president, Silverstein also joined the congregation’s GreenFaith Energy Shield-Sustainable Synagogues Initiative committee. A graduate of the Florence Melton Adult Mini School for Jewish Learning, she said she was strongly influenced by post-Melton courses she took with Rabbi Lawrence Troster, GreenFaith’s rabbinic scholar-in-residence.

A concern for the environment is deeply embedded in the Torah, Silverstein said, “particularly in the book of Deuteronomy, where you can see that the ancient Israelites were keenly aware of the environment and how it affected them.” In addition, in studying the Book of Job, she discovered that “the environmental knowledge expressed in that book is astonishing. God asks Job, what do you know? Do you know why the eagle is soaring? Who made the mountains? [We learn that] we don’t know how things work so we shouldn’t meddle with them.”

Silverstein’s personal journey has been incremental but steady.

“You could certainly say that I’ve gone in a new direction,” she said. After almost 40 years in publishing – she has worked as a developmental editor of college textbooks and publishing executive – “I realized that I didn’t want to continue being bored for the last ten years of my working life. So three years ago I went back to school at the New York Botanical Garden and became certified in sustainable landscape management. I now advise homeowners on how to green up their environments, work with clients who want to manage their own properties, and design eco-friendly landscapes.”

Among other horticultural efforts, Silverstein volunteers at the Glen Rock Arboretum and participates in a citizen science program run by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.

She didn’t make a complete break with her former life, though; she still freelances for publishing companies.

In making a decision to try something new, Silverstein brainstormed with friends, inviting them to dinner to help her chart a new course. She thought at the time that she would write a book, since she already had a column in the local newspaper as well as a blog ( She decided instead to attend courses. Now, certificate in hand, she plans to speak to garden clubs and other interested groups about native plants and sustainable landscaping practices.

“What I came to realize was that the suburban backyard was the last piece of the environmental puzzle – the missing piece that no one was thinking about yet. In the suburbs, our backyards are the environment. They comprise an ecosystem, and if homeowners took some easy steps to manage their properties in a more sustainable way, that ecosystem would be cleaner, greener, and safer for us and our children. My own garden is a working model of these principles”

In that garden, she said, she has been gradually eliminating the lawn and planting other things in its place. Her husband, Bruce Thaler, whom she calls a good amateur photographer, has supported this effort.

“He likes to look at it,” she said. So too did a former neighbor.

“She loved it,” Silverstein said. “She was the one who saw the perennial garden grow up, and she was in agreement with what I was doing.”

Silverstein is hoping her passion will become a new profession. She already has a few paying clients. What she offers, she said, are environment assessments of a person’s property and designs based on native plants.

“A lot of what people do, particularly with lawns, is not sustainable,” she said, adding that lawn care also is expensive.

“What people think they know is based on old science and old ideas about soil and plants,” she continued. “We’re finding out so much more about plants than we knew in the past. You want to put the right plant in the right place and leave it alone. We’re trying to create an environment, not a pristine backdrop.”

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