‘Horticultural woo-woo’: Margaret Roach, joy and gardening

  • Margaret Roach is an organic gardener who uses raised beds, as seen here in after spring cleanup. MARGARET ROACH

  • Margaret Roach enjoys focusing on the relationships among the living things in her gardens. Here a giant swallowtail butterfly visits a Verbena bonariensis. MARGARET ROACH

  • Margaret Roach, the keynote speaker at the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners’ Association spring symposium March 18, heads out on her tractor to mow her property in New York’s Hudson Valley. ERICA BERGER

  • Margaret Roach gave up a publishing career in New York City to spend full time on the gardens at her home in the Hudson Valley. MARGARET ROACH

For the Bulletin
Thursday, March 09, 2017

In 2007, Margaret Roach said goodbye to the fast-track life of corporate publishing in New York City and moved to her modest weekend home in New York’s Hudson River Valley. She wanted to write and garden full time.

It was a huge change for someone who had spent her entire professional life in the hectic newsrooms of The New York Times, New York Newsday and Martha Stewart Living.

“It was winter,” she recalls. “Friends worried that I’d be isolated and lonely. But I loved the solitude.”

The following year Roach launched a website, “A Way to Garden.com.” The popular and widely praised website’s mission, she says, is to provide “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” The phrase, in its down-to-earth tone, perfectly describes her gardening philosophy.

“Horticultural how-to is about mastering techniques,” she explains, “like how to cut a clean edge, or what makes good mulch and how much mulch you should use.” For many gardeners, she adds, the “how-to” is all there is to gardening. Roach encourages them to dig deeper.

“Horticultural woo-woo involves the intimate, spiritual side of gardening.” she says. “It’s revealing, vivid, a place of potential healing, escape, meditation, creative self-expression. It brings you into contact with your place in the world, with science, life cycles.”

Roach will be the keynote speaker at the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners’ Association spring symposium March 18: “Unlocking Your Garden’s Potential.” In her talk, “Unlocking Seed Secrets: From Politics to the Practical,” Roach will reveal some surprising facts about seeds and seed production.

Finding joy in the soil

“I’m a dirt farmer,” says Roach. “I do everything manually. I’m a mad composter and fastidious weeder. You might think this is just gardening “how-to.” But not for Roach. “That’s where the joy and contemplation come from, what I call the ‘woo-woo.’ That’s the best part.”

She explains that gardening is about being present in what you’re doing. “It’s like the Zen saying, ‘Chop wood, carry water.’ There are many ways to meditate, like walking or counting one’s breaths. Weeding is a kind of meditation. You pull weeds for an hour and you get into a meditative state. You have a rhythm, you are there. It’s very good for you if you’re in a corporate job.”

For Roach, a pair of clasped hands signifies the interlinked relationship between gardener and garden. “A garden is a contrivance. It’s imposed on nature. It doesn’t exist without the gardener. We are one organism. Hopefully, we work well together.”

Roach compares her relationship with her garden to that of “an old married couple.” While she was living in the city, the relationship was “a long-distance affair.” She spent weekends in the garden but missed most of what happened in her absence. “After a while in a long-distance relationship one of the partners has to move to make it work,” she explains. “My garden couldn’t move.”

Living with her garden full-time has given Roach a different perspective on it. “When you’re in a long-distance relationship, you don’t see everything about your partner. When you start seeing it seven days a week, 365 days a year, you see every little subtlety. Now I get to see so many things that happen in the garden that I’d never seen before because I was away most of the time.”

She admits that day-to-day proximity has a downside. “Now all is revealed,” she says. “There are no more secrets. I no longer miss out on things, but I sometimes see things that don’t look so good.” Still, she said, she finds the full-time relationship immensely satisfying. “I’m more engaged in enjoying it and feeling compelled to get down to work.”

Roach also has written three highly acclaimed books. “A Way to Garden,” published in 1998, was named Best Book of the Year by the Garden Writers of America. She published “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” which she describes as a dropout memoir, in 2011, and “The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life” in 2013.

Nature’s connections

An organic gardener from the very beginning, Roach maintains a vegetable garden in a series of raised beds. “It’s not a complete vegetable garden,” she explains. “I grow the expensive stuff like winter squash that I eat a lot of. I don’t grow things like zucchini that I can buy cheaply at the farmers’ market.”

Roach says she’s increasingly open to the complex web of life that exists in her garden. “Gardening fuels my curiosity about the natural world. I get inspiration from animals, the seasons,” she says. “What I’m most consumed with now is understanding all the other living things out there. How is it working? Who eats who? What havoc is the climate creating? Things happen that you’ve never experienced before.”

In her garden, Roach favors plants with interesting texture, foliage and scale. She doesn’t grow flowers for their own sake, but chooses plants whose nectar, berries and seeds provide nourishment to the birds, insects and other creatures that inhabit the garden. She has several large bottlebrush buckeye bushes, for example, whose fluffy white flower wands are popular with hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators.

“I see about 65 species of birds out my window. Last year I saw three new species of birds. That excites me. It makes my day.”

Even the lowliest of insects delights her. She recalls searching through her many entomological guides to identify a silverfish-like insect in her garden. “This tiny little thing is a called a bristle-tail,” she explains. “It doesn’t reach sexual maturity until it’s two years old. At that point, it does a ritual courtship ceremony. The garden lets you into this whole other world. It’s spectacular; it’s mind-blowing.”

Filling a void

Roach was first drawn to gardening in her 20s, when she returned to live at her childhood home in Queens to look after her recently-widowed mother, who had developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Back then, she was working nights at the New York Times, but needed something to fill her days. “I’d stare out the window at the overgrown front yard and think about what I might do,” she recalls. She bought several gardening books, including Crockett’s Victory Garden, and “just followed the directions. It was like self-imposed occupational therapy.” She adds, “Many people come to gardening as an escape from something. That was my experience.”

As a journalist, she covered many fields for the Times and Newsday, including women’s sports, finance and fashion. She had always coveted the gardening beat and finally got that assignment at Newsday.

A new direction

Martha Stewart was so impressed by Roach’s garden writing that she hired her as the first garden editor of her newly launched magazine, Martha Stewart Living. Roach eventually became editorial director of MSL’s magazines, books and internet. But when MSL offered her a substantial promotion, she balked. She says she had reached a point in her life when she had to pursue what was most important to her. “Life is short,” she recalls thinking. “I want to write and see my garden every day.”

Speaking of seeds

Though she will talk about seeds at this year’s WMMGA symposium, she said she had never thought much about where seeds come from until recently. “I always bought organic seed because it suited my gardening ethic, but I never understood that organic seed actually grows better in organic gardens because it isn’t programmed to depend on chemical fertilizers.”

Among other seed-related topics, she will answer questions such as “Are hybrids OK?” and “Are heirlooms better?”

The planting season is nearly upon us. As seed catalogs multiply in our mailboxes, Roach’s talk is well-timed to help gardeners sort through them more knowledgeably and make better choices for this year’s vegetable gardens.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.

The WMMGA symposium takes place March 18, from 8:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. at Frontier Regional High School, 113 North Main St. in South Deerfield. In addition to the keynote address, the symposium offers small-group morning and afternoon sessions on a variety of subjects. There will also be a marketplace, book table and refreshments. The cost is $35. Go to WMMGA.com for more information and to register for sessions. Early sign-up is advised to guarantee participants their first choice of session topics.