If memory serves (the older I get, the less accurately it does), I met Margaret Roach online three years back, when she emailed me to introduce herself and her (then) new blog, A Way to Garden. Of course, I recognized her at once as the garden editor of Martha Stewart Living magazines (and later editorial director of several departments). Like many gardeners, I rarely took a second glance at the magazine, but was often compelled to pick up the spring special gardening editions through Margaret’s years as its editor.
I have to admit that I was initially surprised to hear from her and even more surprised by how charming, warm, funny, intelligent, sincere, corny, and down to earth she is. Why I was surprised at all is the result of poor judgement and a ridiculous class-based bias on my part. If you have ever read Margaret’s first book, “A Way to Garden” then you will already know these things about her. She won me over utterly and completely from the very start. So much about our lives (and gardening lives) is vastly different, and yet we have an awful lot in common.
Probably the most surprising thing I learned about Margaret and the detail that still tickles me most is that she is a 100%, all-around badass. Oh yes, perhaps not the best word — and I hope she doesn’t stop speaking to me over this– but even now, a few years and several meandering emails later, when I think of Margaret, “rebellious” is the first word that comes to mind. It takes a lot of guts to leave a high paying, uber “successful” career, and move out to the country alone to pursue a personal passion. Margaret doesn’t pander, follow the rules, or march to anyone else’s beat. Not anymore. She made a radical life change, is continuing to live it, and has chronicled the very personal details of the first year of this experience in her recently published “drop-out memoir”, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road.” I won’t give anything away, but the story is a compelling and revealing one. Margaret doesn’t hold back on the difficult parts or steep it in an unrealistically saccharine glaze. She tells it with her whole heart including a cast of unexpected characters (Jack the demon cat and the frog boys to name a few), beautiful prose, and a lot of that corny humour that makes her so especially charming.
Margaret and I recently decided to interview each other and offer our respective books up as a giveaway on our sites. The following is my interview with Margaret. You can read her interview with me on her website. Below that are instructions for entering to win one of four sets of books.
- How long have you been gardening?
Though I was exposed to gardening from toddlerhood by my maternal grandmother, Marion (whose name for me is synonymous with zinnias, standard chrysanthemums trained to a single bloom on tall stems, wisteria pergolas and floral arranging of the garden-club-lady version), gardening requires terra firma, or at least a spot for pots.
I went to college in Manhattan—lived there from age 17 onward, and never had my own “outdoor space” until I was about 30, except one stretch when I moved home to help my widowed mother, who was just about to turn 50, but was declining with early onset Alzheimer’s. I cut down the overgrown foundation plantings of my childhood home and started over, armed with a couple of books and no knowledge otherwise. My first “plant combinations” were things like Kniphofia with Sempervirens (torch lily or red hot poker with hen’s and chicks), planted on a checkerboard grid of every other one–get the image? Oy!). I was probably 25 years old, and the “occupational therapy” aspect of gardening in that rough patch of my life stuck. I starting seeking a piece of land of my own—the place I now live.
- Did you learn from someone in particular? If not, how?
I was already working in newspapers at the time when I got my first place, this place, and though I couldn’t get the garden-writer job for myself (I was not knowledgeable enough, but very enthusiastic), I volunteered to answer the reader questions for a weekend column at Newsday newspaper as a freebie add-on to my job there to prove myself. I eventually got the real position when Anne Raver, my predecessor there, left for “The New York Times.”
I signed up for classes at New York Botanical Garden, went to nonstop lectures, and also “studied” by interviewing experts for the column each week, which I did like a reporter would with any unfamiliar subject: through research and interviews. What a gift, the chance to call up (or go visit) masters of so many disciplines, from a leading rosarian, to the head of a big organic vegetable gardening group, to the fancy-leaf begonia curator at the botanical garden. And, of course, I read.
- How many gardens have you made so far?
I don’t think you could count the dabblings like my hideous checkerboard of red hot pokers and hens and chicks, or the occasional pots and so on here and there at city rental places I had during my working years, so I suppose this place is it: one.
- Do you grow indoor plants as well?
I always have, much longer than I have gardened outdoors, and my oldest “houseplant,” a Clivia, has been with me since my parents’ home (it’s now many large pots, not just one). I think of “houseplants” as true 365-day plants, and have a good number of fancy-leaf begonias and bromeliads, as well as various weird caudiciform things like Bombax with big, swollen bases, that can store up enough water and other sustenance for a long dormancy each year. The clivias, begonias and bromeliads are an important part of the spring-through-fall outdoor garden, used as “annuals” in the semi-shaded area near the house. So do some other tropicals or sub-tropicals that are too big for the house proper, and sleep every offseason in the basement—cordylines and phormiums and a brugmansia and so on.
- Any projects or other posts you’d like to share with my readers that sort of introduce you best?
- The video that explains the motto beneath the logo on A Way to Garden dot com, “horticultural how-to and woo-woo”…
- …and probably the video that explains why I left my “successful” city career to live in Nowheresville.
- A piece that explains why I garden for all 365 days of the year, even in my USDA Zone 5B climate; the garden never closes, even if the local garden centers do.
- Probably something food-related, since I am a 30-plus-year vegetarian and have been putting up part of my food each year (canning, freezing, etc.) for decades.
- Though I am not a professional photographer like you, Gayla, I do love the camera as a garden tool and I have a lot of slideshows to click through. [Oh Please. Your photos are always gorgeous. I sometimes post pictures taken with my cellphone, so whatever. - Gayla]
- Then there’s always my “most popular” page — sort of a rundown of what people seem to like the most. Not a bad place to start, perhaps.
- Do you think of yourself as having a “specialty,” something you know most about, love the most, etc.?
I don’t really, unless you consider either my woo-woo slant, approaching gardening as spiritual practice, or maybe my love of foliage to be specialties.
The one tangible thing that seems to carry though all my horticultural pursuits is that I am drawn to leaves more than flowers, whether for their finish (matte, shiny, whatever) or texture or scale or color.
Hmmm…I just thought of something else that’s sort of defining, or a bit of a “specialty” or at least a slant I take on things:
I have a very “Why is that true?” mentality. I am always wanting to know the science behind things that seem curious, like the way certain plants (species peonies, some bleeding hearts, twinleaf or Jeffersonia, blue cohosh or Caulophyllum…) push out of the ground in shades of purple or pinkish or other non-green colors each spring instead of having green leaves early on. (I looked it up: It’s probably a co-evolution strategy to say “I’m not green, don’t eat me!” to hungry awakening herbivores, and also a “Come hither and pollinate!” cry to awakening insects, who respond to the more flower-like colorations.) So I guess I love and try to dig deeper into the spiritual, visual and scientific aspects of gardening all at once.
- What do you think is the greatest misconception about you?
I am always surprised when people come to a book event or workshop or garden tour and meet me and then say afterward, as they often do, “Wow, you are so funny and so regular,” as if I would have been some stiff or a fancy-pants. I think that is a remnant of my Martha Stewart years, the assumption that I would be more formal and my life quite grand, just because we made such beautiful magazines with aspirational images in them. Sometimes it actually hurts my feelings that people presume I’d be inaccessible or standoffish – or especially that I’d be fancy. Just ask the postmaster at my tiny post office about the getups I show up in down there when I come for my mail, or catch a glimpse of me after twice-weekly bouts of pushing the mower around here for a few hours each time. [As mentioned above, I made the same, very wrong wrong wrong-headed mistake. - Gayla]
- What would you count as your biggest gardening successes?
I suppose it’s that I have stayed put for 25 years to get to see that the spots where I placed those first beds and borders all those years ago–when I hardly knew anything at all, really–were good choices. Instinct is so critical in gardening; it’s not intellect but getting the feel of a place, watching where the light passes when, and where the best vantage points are on the different seasons and times of day.
I unconsciously sited my garden beds in prime view of spots where I look out from inside—my favorite wintertime chair, out the kitchen window where I cook a lot, and so on.
Most real gardeners I know don’t sit outside and observe their handiwork–when they’re outside, they’re working. Maybe they sit on a deck and see that spot as a visitor would, but the rest they see only when working in it, so it’s the vista from inside that makes a home garden hold together visually. A selfish approach, but true (unless you’re making a public garden). I guess I knew how to look out a window to good effect right from the start.
And I was always a patient person. That’s the other critical skill in gardening; everything takes a long time, so if you’re in a hurry, you will hate this gardening life.
Maybe one more thing: I always loathed chemicals—even the smell of that aisle in the garden center was revolting, long before I understood the dangers. So choosing to opt out of using them all these years, based on my nose alone, has yielded my biggest success: My garden entertains 50ish kinds of birds each year, every species of frog and toad possible in the region, snakes and salamanders and you name it galore. Life is good.
- Any failures you care to confess to? Is there a plant that just eludes you one way or another, that is your undoing?
I can’t do passable lawn repairs or successfully reseed an area that gets beat up somehow and needs a fresh start. I don’t know if the birds always eat the seeds, or I don’t water enough while waiting for germination, or tamp it down well enough or what, but I just always end up with spotty results at best. Pitiful, huh? I suppose I hate lawn, and therefore haven’t mastered it, yet I rely on it as a low-care groundcover connecting all my beds, so I’d like to be better at the tuneups it sometimes requires. My “lawn,” which I don’t feed or anything, is a mix of whatever grassy things were here on this former farmland when I arrived, plus various weeds, not fancy turfgrass. But still, when voles chew up a large area in a prominent spots, I’d like to be better at fixing it!
Most of my other failures are from underestimating pests. For instance, I need to pin down, using earth staples, lightweight row cover over various crops right when I sow; I can’t even let the seedlings emerge or they will be imperiled some years by this or that. So though I have a deer fence, I have to remember that everyone from a flea beetle to the tiniest caterpillar to rabbits, woodchucks and chipmunks are out to get me, tee hee.
- Do you ever “hit the wall” with gardening, and want to throw in the trowel?
I am frequently overwhelmed, almost to the state of paralysis, especially in spring. There are two moments then: right at the start, when it’s time for the cleanup and you think “How will I ever get this mess together?” and then again after the first bloom cycle passes and so many things need attention again, just about now here.
It’s like a double-whammy of spring cleanup, the original one, and the repairs once thousands of lilac flowerheads and daffodils and perennial geraniums and so on all go by and need deadheading or shearing.
Now, with a 25-year-old garden plus being self-employed and on a tighter budget, I am overwhelmed in a new way. So, so many things need to be divided yet again; 13 shrubs finally met their maker this year (too big for the space they were in, or victims of one too many winter storms and beyond rejuvenation, etc.). It’s almost like starting over at this life stage in a garden.
This year to offset my sense of impending freakout, I’m trying something new: mowing 45 minutes a day (instead of three- or four-hour stints twice a week), and I’m trying to break other tasks up into chunks to make them seem doable. Sort of devising rotations of to-do’s to fool myself.
One thing about mowing: You see instant results. So when I am really feeling daunted, I mow and then admire the progress right in front of my eyes, and that spurs me on to tackle some other 45-minute thing or other.
Quick One Word Questions:
- Favorite edible plant? One word? I’ve been a vegetarian for 30-plus years and put up or store a lot of my food, so this is impossible, but…potato!
- Favorite non-edible? Astilboides tabularis.
- Gardening: hobby, art, job, political act? For me it’s a spiritual practice, a moving meditation.
- Favorite season? Maybe fall? (I love winter, too, odds that seems.)
- Favorite plant fragrance? Aromatic stuff like wormwood or peppermint geranium, or other can’t-help-but-touch-those-leaves-when-I-pass-by things.
- Favorite gardening film or garden in a film? “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” is what comes to mind. Thanks for the reminder; I will watch it again.
How to Win 1 of 4 Sets of Books
MARGARET AND I HAVE FOUR SETS of our latest books to give away: Margaret’s memoir, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” about moving to her garden away from the city rat race and my urban edibles instructional, “Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces.” To enter, you have to comment here AND on Margaret’s blog, answering the question, “Do you ever hit the wall in gardening?” just as she and I answered it in our twin interviews here and on her site.
Remember: You double your chances to win by entering on both blogs — just copy and paste the same comment both places, below and at A Way to Garden.
And one more thing: If you’re feeling shy, and just want to say “Count me in” or “I want to win,” that’s OK; we will honor your entry anyhow. We understand.
Four winners, two from each site, will be chosen at random using random dot org’s tool after entries close at midnight Tuesday, June 7. Good luck to all!