Just as Margaret Roach knows a thing or two about organic gardening, she is also pretty damned confident with the written word. Most readers of Roach’s wildly popular gardening blog, A Way to Garden, already know that in the not-so-distant past, Roach served as editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and before that the first garden editor of Martha Stewart Living and garden editor at Newsday. Roach is a gardener with one fine editorial pedigree.
In early 2008, Roach drastically switched gears when she ditched her high-powered, career-centric Manhattan existence and relocated to her weekend home in rural Copake Falls in upstate New York to tend to her 2.3-acre garden full-time. In the book, Roach writes: "I admit it: I garden because I cannot help myself." In March 2008, she launched A Way to Garden and hasn’t looked back.
Those who know Roach’s back-story may wonder why in the world someone with a successful career and all of the trappings — designer clothing, generous paychecks, and fancy spa vacations — would willingly “drop out” to live a semi-reclusive existence in the middle of nowhere, sorting Tupperware, planting vegetables, and taking in stray cats. In her recently released book, "And I Shall Have Some Peace There" (Grand Central Publishing), Roach attempts to answer the big question — who am I if not mroach @marthastewart dot com any longer?” — with candor, wit, wisdom and a healthy dose of soul-searching.
That said, those expecting straightforward gardening advice won’t find it in "And I Shall Have Some Peace There." Although there’s plenty of garden talk to be found, the book is a memoir. And an excellent one to boot. While reading it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to exile myself from the city and make for the country like Roach had — “I’ve decided to go live in the woods (it’s for the best)” — or rewind back to graduate school, where I devoured (and dissected) memoirs not too dissimilar from Roach’s. It inspired both the writer and the solitude-seeker in me. Roach's engaging voice — heartfelt, humorous and not afraid to let the profanity fly — certainly helped this along. In certain sections of the book, I was reminded of Mary Karr plus a John Deere ride-on mower and vegetarian cookery and minus the family dysfunction and substance abuse.
Roach was kind of enough to take the time — she's one busy lady ... just check out her events page — to answer a few questions that I had on influences both green-thumbed and literary, country-living phobias, gardening tunes and feline companionship.
MNN: You credit your grandmother for fostering your love of nature. During your years as a gardening writer and more recently as a gardening blogger, you’ve no doubt inspired many greenthumbs-in-training through “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” Have any specific gardener or gardening guides been strong influences along your journey?
Margaret Roach: I have probably learned most of all from Marco Polo Stufano, the founding director of horticulture at Wave Hill in New York City, now retired, and two Seattle-based gardeners he introduced me to many years ago, Glenn Withey and Charles Price. All of these cherished friends adhere to the mantra "never stop wanting more plants," but have keen eyes for discerning the really good ones, the "do-ers," as we call them, among the riffraff.
My first garden book was by “Crockett’s Victory Garden” by James Underwood Crockett, and if you can overlook the unknowing use of chemicals and fast-forward the palette of plants, he is otherwise still relevant today, month-by-month practical and can-do. As a northern gardener who grows a good share of her food, the undaunted, all-season approach of Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch of "Four Season Farm" in Maine continues to inspire.
By the end of the book, I was left with a strong impression of what the interior of your home in Copake Falls looks like, but I was left wondering what particular titles reside on your bookshelf given that "And I Shall Have Some Peace There" is a memoir, not a gardening book. Do you have any favorite memoirists or non-gardening writers?
I read mostly fiction and woo-woo, I suppose, but among memoirists I have long been moved by the late May Sarton (particularly her journals, including “Plant Dreaming Deep” from 1968, and “Journal of a Solitude” from 1973). Lately another New England story of escape to a rural life, “Goat Song” by Brad Kessler, has charmed me (and his earlier novel “Birds in Fall” is one of my all-time favorites).
As you might expect, I have enjoyed many of the works of Anne Lamott. Don’t miss Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s “Little Heathens,” from 2007, about her childhood on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. Inspiring.
Woo-woo is the biggest share of my shelf space, though: Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, the interpretations of mystic poetry of Sufi masters by modern-day “translators” such as Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky. Magic.
You’re quite candid about confronting and coping with many of your country-specific fears — snakes and lightning storms being the two biggies (but not spiders) — along with general phobias like air travel. As someone who loves the outdoors but is horrified of many of the critters that come with the territory, I found this the most fascinating aspect of the book. Are there any other things that go “bump, rattle and crash” in the night that have been a challenge?
I have gotten pretty good with most of this critter stuff in the three years full-time here — practice (preceded by panic) makes perfect! — but still prefer when no animals other than Jack the Demon Cat or the occasional frog get into the house proper.
During this latest very harsh winter, what went bump in the night was usually related to the slight shifts in giant ice dams on the roof, and coping with that is the latest man-against-nature skill set I have had to tackle in my evolving life here. Think: pole-vaulter, but one who never leaves the ground. I have a stick as long and strong for the task as those airborne athletes, but I don’t leap.
Although it’s been around for ages, urban gardening has taken off in recent years. As a former long-time city dweller, do you have any creative tips for aspiring urban homesteaders working with small, seemingly impossible spaces?
Most important: Do a comprehensive soil test before planting anything you plan to eat, to see what your soil has going for, or against, it. Oftentimes serious raised beds and imported soil, or very large containers, are called for instead of what’s left of the local 'terra firma.'
Then force yourself to really challenge your wishlist of crop choices: Don’t give space to something you can get cheap and easily locally in season (e.g., zucchini) when you can have pricier or hard-to-get treasures homegrown. Even with some space to stretch out into, I have what I call my “seed-catalog shopping rules” that make me challenge every choice to see if it’s worth growing.
Succession sowing is critical to getting the most out of every square foot. Here’s my version of it.
In tight spaces, choosing compact yet prolific varieties adds to success. And don’t forget to use the vertical dimension: erecting simple trellises or teepees/tripods and the like can multiply your growing space and keep hoggish plants going up, not sideways. Then maybe you can, in fact, fit in that zucchini after all.
There are numerous references to music throughout the book: Al Green, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Lou Reed and the “Celine Dion music that I should have run screaming from.” Anything in heavy rotation on the Margaret Roach garden boombox this season? Have you found that different genres of music match different gardening tasks?
I waited impatiently all winter for the March releases of Lucinda Williams’ latest, “Blessed,” and also the one called “Long Player Late Bloomer” from Ron Sexsmith. I have been listening to each of these artists since their first albums were released, and doubt I will ever tire of either one. Sexsmith’s album title is perfect for my new life of second chances, no? Actually, so is Lucinda’s, come to think of it.
Your blog offers organic gardening information. Did you ever use agricultural chemicals, herbicides and the like, in your early years?
In the early years here, when it was heralded as 'safe' and therefore a big breakthrough in herbicides, I used some glyphosate here to knock back serious poison ivy. It has long been known that it’s not harmless, and I therefore years back learned my lesson.
The other thing I used was sustained-release fertilizer beads (such as the brand Osmocote) that are so convenient for use in pots ... but I have forsaken them, too. I am excited to see some organic brands trying to tackle that sustained-release niche for container gardeners lately; we shall see (I have tried a couple so far). Here in a rural environment, diluted liquids like fish and seaweed emulsion (both suited to container plants, though not timed release or as convenient) attract a lot of animal pests, from skunks to raccoons and such, who dig up everything in the container that apparently smells like fish dinner to them.
What plant do you find the most difficult to work with?
My weakest suit is what would at the professional level be called “turfgrass management.” I grow lousy grass! I simply mow my combo of grass and weeds (and dig up a lot of dandelions by hand so they don’t take over). I dread early spring when I see the damage that tunneling animals like voles caused under the snow cover to the lawn areas, because I am so bad at repair. Funny, huh? Should be easy. I love the contemplative monotony of mowing, but not to reseed and renovate.
Your garden tours and workshops are quite popular. Anything special on tap in terms of workshops?
I am teaching container-garden workshops again this season, but not hosting spring tours because I am rejuvenating some aging woody plants and making other big and disruptive (but needed!) adjustments. Goings-on are always listed under “Useful Stuff” on the top left of A Way to Garden, as “The 2011 Events Calendar.” I will add some more sessions once I see how much work I get done (if the latest snow ever melts!).
I have to ask: How’s your partner in crime, Jack the cat, doing these days?
Jack the Demon Cat, who appeared in the upstate driveway the morning of 9-11 when I arrived in a frightened hurry from Manhattan, had no interest in even coming into my house all the years since … until I moved here full-time six years later. He gradually started investigating what I was doing in here, eventually sitting with me while I wrote in the daytime but retreating to his cabin out back at night, or going out to hunt.
Then last September, there was ungodly shrieking from the yard around 4 a.m., and I searched for an hour and a half in the darkness before finding him in the bushes, one paw sliced to pieces. His first-ever overnight shacked up with me were the three weeks of his recuperation from surgery, and he got the idea that it’s not so bad in here, and despite a full recovery, won’t leave. He averts his gaze when I offer him the door, in fact.
Demon Cat is now a Mama’s Boy, and the décor features five impromptu pet beds perched in various spots for his lounging pleasure. Do you have a good pet-hair removal device to recommend, perhaps? I am doomed.