In the garden with Christie Brinkley

Christie Brinkley shows produce from her garden at Christie Brinkley shows produce from her garden at her Bridgehampton home. (July 25, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday / Ana P. Gutierrez

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print

She's a model. She's a mom. An actress. An artist. A photographer and writer. A jewelry and fabrics designer. And she speaks French fluently. But the best part is that Christie Brinkley is a gardener and avid organics enthusiast. Call her a Renaissance woman, if you will.

Brinkley is the first model to have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for three consecutive years, and, at age 52, she's still representing Cover Girl cosmetics. She has three children, Sailor Lee, 11, and Jack Paris, 14, who live with her at her gambrel-style home, Tower Hill, which is set on 22 acres of rolling hills in Bridgehampton, and singer Alexa Ray Joel, 23, who comes home most weekends, often with her band in tow. (The house is for sale.)

I spoke with Brinkley last month about my favorite topic, gardening, which turned out to be a shared passion between us.

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How did you become interested in gardening?

I grew up on the beach in Malibu, and we didn't have gardens there. My house was on a pile of sand. My mom had a couple of ice plants in a container on the deck, so, for me to get my hands in the soil, I was so intimidated. I thought I had to be an expert. I didn't know what to do, so I called a gardener, Scott Chaskey, whose son was on my son's baseball team. He's a major organic farmer out here and he came to my house and demystified it for me. But I still throw the seeds in and read the back of the pack.

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What's your gardening style?

I'm an experimental gardener. I mix and match, and I love it. I have a cutting garden and themed terraces. One of my patios near the house - I call it my California terrace - I have planted things that remind me of home: orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit trees, and I underplant them with orange nasturtiums that cascade - those grow on the hills in Malibu. And on my kitchen terrace next to it, I plant things that look so East Coast to me: all my cascading petunias, and I usually have geraniums and dahlias in pots.

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Do you grow vegetables?

I always mix my tomatoes together, so I have heirlooms and cherry tomatoes and yellow tomatoes all mixed up. And I have perennial tomatoes! They're voracious and vigorous and they come back and take over the entire plot. But I'm a little embarrassed about my vegetable garden because of the weather and my lack of time - launching my new jewelry line took a bit of time.

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Do you have a color scheme?

I try to do different pinks. I love them all blended together. I always think of hydrangeas as so Hampton-y. To me, they're such an East Coast thing, and I love them so much. I love picking them when they're young, before they turn blue, when they're still greenish, and in the fall when they're like apples.

Tell me about your house.

Tower Hill was built by the Gardiner family of Gardiners Island. It has a folly tower that rises eight stories high so they could always keep an eye on their garden. I go up there to watch the rainbows, the sunset and the storms. Then I have a little shack on the beach, and I plant Rosa rugosaand all indigenous beach plantings, native grasses, Montauk daisies in flower pots. Easy-breezy, carefree stuff there. All my properties are all organic.

Why organic?

That is very, very important to me as a mom. I would rather have my kids running around on weeds and clover than on nitrates and chemicals and scary things they put in fertilizers. And I really believe that buying organic fruits and vegetables is a huge step in helping our planet because, when you think about all that runoff going into the streams and the oceans, we just have to stop doing that before it stops us dead. I really encourage everyone to go green, go organic. A lot of people will say, 'It's so expensive,' but I always explain to them it's so shortsighted to look at the cost of an apple when you look at the cost of health care in America when all those pesticides are causing so many problems all along the line. If we all join in and start buying organic produce, the cost will go down rapidly, and so will health care costs down the line. For my new fabric line, we're using all organic fabrics; we're even making polyester out of recycled water bottles. It's like silk.

Were there any gardens on the property when you moved in?

There was not. I actually carved this garden into a hillside. I trellised the hillside and used the terrain and put in all the boulders that were coming up from the earth during the renovation of the house, and I used them in the retaining walls. They hold the heat in the spring and help my seeds get off to a great start.

What did you first plant?

I got the most perfect gingko tree to put by my kitchen door, and it grew so perfectly across the kitchen patio you actually have to duck to get into the kitchen. It's just lovely. I added a couple of great Kousa dogwoods. I found a lot that didn't look so perfect, so they'd fit into the landscape. I'm more into the English garden look where things look natural.

Do you take care of the gardens yourself?

At first, I made a point of making the vegetable garden that just me and the kids would tend. And for many years we did. I still feel that way, but the reality of my life is my kids have moved on and they're not that interested in the garden anymore, and nowadays I can't always get out there to water, and the caretaker helps me get things in. It's still my garden.

How much time do you spend out there now?

Not enough. I deadhead my terraces with my morning coffee. I just pinch my petunias between my fingers. I noticed that my fingertips were a little sore from all the deadheading. Usually sometime in the afternoon I try to get out to my vegetable-flower garden and mainly go out to see what's going on and to cut bouquets, because I cut all the bouquets for the house.

What are your favorite plants?

I love dahlias, sunflowers - they're so country and happy, and I absolutely adore peonies. This season, the Chinese tree peony captivated me. I also have some spectacular roses, and I also love simple flowers like daisies and cosmos.

I understand some of the jewelry in your new Celebrate line is based on your garden plants. Which offered the most inspiration?

The simple daisy. The eye in the center and the petals. There's something so simple and pure about it. I had a little white sailboat and I named it The Daisy because there's something so fresh and appealing about it. I wanted to do something fresh and summery and I did a bracelet that's like a smattering of little daisies all around your wrist. I also did a turquoise earing that looks sort of like a cosmos but more pointed.

What do you enjoy most about your garden?

I literally can get a lump in my throat thinking about my garden and the peaceful moments I've had there and the moments I've shared with my children there. The peace and the gentle conversations. I step into my garden and I feel this peace, this gratitude that just swells up in me. I'm so grateful to have my little piece of Earth. To get there early in the morning and see the little dewdrops. This connection with nature, this deep humbling gratitude for this overwhelming beauty that we're provided with. It just really moves me to be able to have that time to just appreciate nature's beauty. It's a miracle.

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