Today, our featured blogger is checking in from New York’s Hudson Valley. She’s Margaret Roach, who, after 15 years at Martha Stewart Living and a decade each at Newsday and The New York Times, now writes the nationally acclaimed blog A Way to Garden (dot com). For 25 years, she’s been cultivating a garden that’s “a visual treat every day of the year.” Here, Margaret shares lots of gardening expertise, plus lets us in on some of her plans for the future.
1. How did your blog, A Way to Garden, come about?
The website was my first stab at making a new life in my 50s, sort of a trial balloon on a fresh start. I walked away from my longtime career as a publishing executive at the end of 2007 hoping to finally get to express my personal creativity again, and also to garden—no more meetings! When I arrived at my former weekend place, a little house in a town of 300 in the Hudson Valley of New York, to start my new life, I suddenly thought, Uh-oh, now what have I done?
Going from being surrounded by hundreds of colleagues a day to none was startling at first, and though I knew I wanted to write again, I didn’t exactly have any book proposals or even rough ideas up my sleeve. Sitting here in my newfound solitude, I thought: I know; I’ll go back to where I began as a writer—garden writing—and make a blog about what I know best. It was the ideal topic for me—familiar, and with a readymade supply of possible photos to shoot just outside the door. So A Way to Garden (named for my 1998 garden book) became my warm-up to rekindling my “voice” after too many silent years.
2. Though A Way to Garden focuses primarily on plants, you sometimes write about birds, as well. What are some of the trees, shrubs and flowers you’ve planted in your yard with them in mind?
I see the garden as simply part of a big food chain, so I can’t imagine not including the creatures I live here with in the mix. I write about birds (and frogs, and caterpillars—which incidentally are favorite food for various birds—and millipedes and other insects, and even fungi) on A Way to Garden with regularity.
When I began gardening these couple of acres 25 years ago, knowing relatively little about gardening and less about birds, I read all kinds of bird books about what they eat and need for shelter, and bought plants that would accommodate them. It has worked: More than 60 species visit me here.
I focused mostly on fruit (Viburnum, Aronia, Malus, Lindera, Cornus, Ilex, and Sambucus to name a few top choices) and also on shelter (varied kinds of protection, such as from wind and winter in conifers, and from predators in thorny thickets of mixed shrubs and vines). Birds like seeds, too, of course, but I’ve never really concentrated on that consciously because the whole place is loaded since I am careful not too clean up too fast in fall when it comes to spent seed-bearing garden plants. I let the birds pick over ornamental grasses and faded annuals and such first. Waste not, want not.
The most important thing we can give birds isn’t a plant at all, by the way, but water that remains unfrozen year-round. I learned this because early on I dug two little frogponds out back, and the garden’s appeal to avian species quickly multiplied many times over (plus I host every frog and toad species as well as most salamanders native to this region, all of whom breed in the backyard).
My entire bird-friendly plant list and 11 tips on making a wildlife-friendly garden are here.
3. What notable gardening projects are you planning to take on this year?
Sadly, my dance card is largely filled with repairs this year. Last October’s freakish snowstorm, when most of the leaves were still on many shrubs and trees, was very damaging, and I lost 13 large shrubs and three trees outright, with lots of others missing parts (click here to read the final body count). So corrective-pruning chores all spring followed a late fall of carting away the carcasses, and now the silver lining: I get to shop for a few new woody plants to fill some of the gaps.
I’m not replacing everything, because the plan this year had been to start to simplify the garden to make it easier to care for gradually—the garden and I are both middle-aged and need to plan ahead!
Having a storm edit out lots of big things wasn’t exactly the way I had planned to go about it, but that’s where I am at. A gardener quickly learns that he or she is not in charge of things, no matter how many lists and plans have been made. Loss of control and surrender to greater forces are what I kneel in the dirt each day to try to come to accept.
4. What’s one of your favorite or most popular blog posts, and why do you think that is?
A while back, after running the annual traffic-based tally of my top-50 blog posts according to reader interest, I made my own list, that I call “21 to Love: My Oddball List of Favorite Posts.” The top post is about how my life here often seems to me like a Cabinet of Curiosities, one of those Renaissance-era rooms full of oddities, many of them nature-inspired, that held the haul brought back by explorers from the new world and such.
I think I like the post because I wrote it shortly after I moved up here, when I was just starting to come up with a new story of my life, a way to describe it without the trappings of the corporate-executive life I had so long lived: without a job title after my name, or business cards, or anyone to tell me what to do next.
On a more practical note, I am pretty adamant about what mulch is—and isn’t. And it isn’t a decorative accent, but instead the most important tool a gardener has to support plant and more important soil life. That one’s here.
5. Any new developments underway at A Way to Garden? If so, please share!
I recently relaunched a new design for the site, which celebrated its fourth anniversary at the start of March 2012. What’s underway (in production now, actually) is a new book, The Backyard Parables, which comes out in January 2013. My previous book, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, was published in February 2011—so writing keeps me very busy. Between the books and the blog, I also spend a lot of time lecturing, and hosting garden tours (three in 2012 here at the garden, in collaboration with the Garden Conservancy, plus a series of workshops—here’s the overall schedule). And then there is the weekly radio podcast with the local NPR affiliate, and…good thing I left my busy career, huh?
6. When you’re not doing yard work, what’s your favorite backyard activity?
I am not in the least bit hesitant to strike up a conversation with whatever creature is crawling, flying or hopping by at any given moment (and I even talk to the occasional plant), nor am I shy about pointing my camera in their faces. So if you see me outside without a long-handled shovel (my favorite tool) it will probably be with a camera, or just looking like I am talking to myself.