Margaret Roach. For years it was just a name, one that I had seen in the masthead or the editorial pages of Martha Stewart Living. Occasionally, it appeared at the bottom of the television as I watched Martha’s show, an identifier of the woman sitting next to the host.
Yes, Margaret Roach was just a name.
When I started this blog, I also learned of the top gardening blog in America, A Way to Garden — and once again, I was staring at that same name: Margaret Roach. Maybe, I thought, there was a reason her name kept entering my world — and maybe, it was time to discover if there was more to Margaret than a name.
Margaret began her blog, a tribute to her first book written so many years ago, after leaving her corporate world for a more rural life in upstate New York. Once I explored every nook and cranny of her blog, it was clear that I had cheated myself in not taking the time to get to know her. That’s when I read her second book, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, a memoir of her process in leaving one life to start another. With each sentence, I felt as if Margaret were speaking directly to me, especially since reinvention is a topic that has weighed heavily on my mind of late.
Her words added flesh to her name, and soon Margaret Roach became a very real person, one who is passionate about gardening and nature, is a teacher at heart, is not afraid of being imperfect, is constantly learning and enjoying her journey, and is able to drop the phrase “woo-woo” into any gardening conversation.
She also dropped the phrase “blog tour.” Simply put, Margaret asked a group of garden bloggers to participate in a digital book tour to help promote the release of her newest book, The Backyard Parables. We were given a choice of a Q&A, an audio interview for a podcast, or other. As one of the stops, I submitted ten questions via email — which Margaret so graciously (and promptly) answered. Although we never had a face-to-face talk, I pictured us sitting in a pair of brightly painted chairs (in warmer weather, of course), taking in her garden over a cup of tea, and just breathing.
NGDM: In your previous book, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, you chronicled your trading in the fast lane for your own dirt road. You did what so many people, especially these days, dream of doing. What’s it like to be a folk hero?
MR: Very funny. I need to hire you to spread the word that I have achieved that status!
Frankly, because I no longer live my former urban career life, where I was in more contact with big groups of people all the time, there are now fewer instances when I am aware of what people think of me: during Garden Conservancy Open Days (tours I host here a few times a year); when I lecture; and in the comments on A Way to Garden [dot] com each day, though that’s not in-person, of course.
People are always very kind and generous in sharing their experiences after I share mine (or my garden) with them, and I’m glad they feel comfortable enough to do so.
I find it very reassuring to hear from others that they, too, have felt trapped in some aspect of their lives—that it wasn’t “just me” who wondered, “Is this all there is?” It affirms the thought that we all have more in common than we often realize, or admit to one another.
NGDM: How does The Backyard Parables differ from your earlier books?
MR: A Way to Garden (the first garden book I wrote) is mostly how-to, with each of its six chapters opening with an essay, a short piece of memoir. In the new book, The Backyard Parables, it’s sort of reversed: The memoir is the bulk of the book, with some how-to sidebars supporting each chapter.
I think I have grown in my confidence both in gardening and in memoir writing in the 15 years between them.
What I grow and how the garden looks has really shifted between the first (1998) and the new one (2013), but I’m still as spiritually connected to the garden, and as crazy about plants. But I hear “me” loud and clear in both books: quirky, in love with plants and birds, trying to have a sense of humor even when it doesn’t rain for 6 weeks (or rains nonstop for longer).
As far as the new book and the one in 2011, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, I feel like one’s a sequel to the other, though the Parables one is much more garden-centric. The birds, frogs, plants, weather—all characters in the Peace book—and of course Jack the Demon Cat are all present and accounted for again in the newest.
I think Parables is a lot about a journey, as Peace was, and about taking your cues from the natural world’s rhythms. I was only just starting to explore those thoughts in A Way to Garden, but listen between the lines and you’ll hear them.
NGDM: I think what impresses me the most is not only your passion for gardening and nature, but also your honesty and openness — which I find so fascinating since you went to such lengths to find your rural sanctuary and privacy. Is it difficult to reveal so much of yourself in your writing or is it more of a cathartic process?
MR: In the new book, I think I say that writing memoir is like ripping the shutters off the hinges of your personal privacy. But, of course, much of my life remains private; there are many areas I never cover in my writing (and I could never be on reality TV!).
Though I don’t have a formal writing practice (no specific time of day or number of hours) I do write every day—whether blog posts or something for a magazine or book (or this Q&A!). I cannot imagine living without writing; it’s how I sort things out and understand them: by writing them down. It clarifies, and comforts.
NGDM: What other ways do you express yourself creatively?
MR: Besides gardening and writing, I take photographs most every day, though I have no training (and frankly find digital cameras so overwhelmingly loaded with features that I sometimes wish I had sheets of film and a pinhole camera instead!).
I cook three meals a day for myself, which I think can often be creative—the relationship with food is a juicy and provocative one, especially if you have grown some of it yourself.
I love my house being stuffed with things that please me visually, so I have created lots of “vignettes” all around me of things that are meaningful, colorful, bright. I add and subtract all the time—a found feather here, a teapot there, an acorn or a frog figurine or whatever.
NGDM: Tell us about your writing process. Do you believe in an outline? Is there a special place where you like to write? Are you a morning writer? Do you write each day? Do you write feverishly and then edit at the end, or do you edit as you go?
MR: I feel as if I never stop writing, and as I say, I write every single day. I never start writing (especially a longer piece of work) until I know what I really want to say, so if, perhaps, I have a one-year deadline I might ruminate for 6 or 7 months and then write for 3 or 4, all in a torrential fashion, then polish a little more and hand it in.
I don’t make an outline, exactly, but I must know what the structural concept, or the gestalt, is before I start writing, what the title and the section headings are, because I want the writing to “fit” with those. So I have a strong concept, if not a detailed outline.
I edit as I go, and never throw anything away or make major revisions. I was an editor in my past career, so I think that little editor brain is always “on” while I am typing, watching each sentence unfold. Most of my writer friends do just the opposite of what I have just described, by the way.
NGDM: Which is easier — gardening or writing? Does gardening teach you about writing, or is it the other way around?
MR: I wrote before I gardened; I come from a writing family, so I was comfortable with words before I knew about plants. Both involve surrender, facing our loss of control. Both are meditative (at least for me). In both things I behave reductively (editing myself, pitching out unhappy plants) and additively (writing more words each day, buying more plants). For me, of course, what’s outdoors informs what I write about (and how I live).
Which is easier? Neither one is easy, exactly, but they are second nature; I cannot imagine not doing them both till I die, anyhow.
NGDM: As a garden blogger, I feel I’m always torn between gardening and writing. Are there times when you wrestle between the desire to garden and the desire to write? How do you achieve balance between the two activities?
MR: This is very, very hard to juggle. Gardening (especially a big space) requires many hours outdoors. What I try to do is look at the forecasts, and work around the weather, planning my “blogging” for too-hot or too-rainy times each week as much as possible.
Sometimes (often) in peak weeks of garden prep I can’t do all the stories I want to on the website, and I have to forgive myself. I know the other gardeners who read the blog will!
NGDM: One of my personal pet peeves is that HGTV seems to have forgotten that their G stands for garden. Any chance that you might bring your expertise to television — you know, “A Way To Garden (the series)”? There are a lot of gardeners out there who would like a change from “House Hunters International.”
MR: I was happy to chuck my old career and all the attendant chaos of corporate/media life for Nowheresville five years ago. I would never, ever go back—or into anything that would take me away from here, or away from the best part of my “new” life: the fact that each day I get up and decide myself what I will work on, and do it in a quiet, spacious-feeling environment.
NGDM: At the risk of sounding creepy, I feel like I’m becoming a bit of a Margaret Roach groupie. Do you get that a lot?
MR: Again, very funny. No, I don’t think I get that a lot, though in my area people will often say hello in a restaurant or store because they have visited my garden over the 15-plus years it has been open for tours a few times a season, and recognize me.
I got that reaction a lot more when I wrote the editor’s column in Martha Stewart Living all those years, and a photo of me ran with it.
Nowadays, a more common reaction than anything approaching groupie-ism: A lot of people who come to garden tours come up to the sign-in table and I welcome them and tell them the way around, and then suddenly they look at me and say, “Wait—are you Margaret?” (I guess at a lot of gardens on tour the owners don’t manage the sign-in table and all the rest, so they are startled.) “Yes, it’s me,” I say, and we laugh. I used to live in a fancier world—my former work world—and then, as now, people think I will be fancy and formal, too.
NGDM: There are many people out there who are intimidated about gardening. They say they kill everything, even silk flowers. What can you tell them to convince them to take a chance on gardening?
MR: I’d say: You are missing out on the best teacher of all life’s essential truths—plus you could taste a fresh-dug potato or peapod (not like the store at all).
Gardening is not simply, no-fuss, instant, or guaranteed (we’re not talking microwave popcorn) but it’s definitely worth toughing it out through the disappointment of killing a few plants, and then some more. The successes more than overshadow the mishaps, but we learn valuable lessons from both.
All photos courtesy of Margaret Roach at A Way To Garden.