Do you love books? I have a fairly large library, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it’s comprised of mostly garden-related volumes. One of my favorites has long been A Way to Garden, written 21 years ago by Margaret Roach. So, I’m pretty excited that Margaret has just released a fresh publication of this garden classic.
Margaret and I have been friends since the Growing a Greener World® crew and I first had the honor of filming her garden in 2013. She lives and breathes a very spiritual approach to her gardening, and her oneness with her landscape emanates from every page of this new publication.
She thinks of the garden and the gardener as one organism – on a shared journey of growth. She and her two-plus acres in upstate New York have been maturing together for over thirty years.
Over the years, she’s come to recognize that the seasons in the garden are parallel to the seasons of our own lives. It’s an insight she has leaned on to engage with the world around her at a deeper level.
Working the landscape largely on her own, in addition to a busy speaking schedule and managing her own gardening-focused website and podcast; Margaret stays very busy. So, why craft a revised version of her book now?
Well, a lot has changed during the past two decades.
Throughout the years, Margaret has continued to host open tours of her property and hundreds of gardeners have come three or four times during the growing season. Many of them bring copies of the first book.
As visitors inevitably referenced specific passages or featured information, Margaret became more keenly aware that the garden and the “gardener’s wisdom” depicted in the book were becoming outdated.
For example, the first book included a list of what Margaret dubbed “certified confidence builders” – plants inclined to thrive and add a rich lushness in spite of any mistakes the gardener might be inadvertently making. Today, many of those plants are considered invasive species. It’s hard to believe that we, as gardeners, weren’t particularly familiar with the concept of “invasive” plants back then, but the fact remains.
Brought in to North America as “collector’s items” or to achieve a specific garden purpose, invasive species were so successful in our growing conditions that they escaped their intended environments. Kudzu is a great example. It was first introduced as a fast-growing ground cover option at the Philadelphia Flower Show in the late 1800’s. Today, kudzu is a powerful and destructive force all over the southeastern United States.
Our collective knowledge of gardening has changed significantly during the past two decades, and Margaret’s garden has evolved too.
The Only Thing Constant
Nothing lasts forever in the garden. Seasons change. Plants mature or fail. Flowers turn to fruit and seed head. Margaret encourages gardeners to celebrate these passings – the moments in the landscape which will only ever happen once. She considers gardening to be a life practice.
It can impress upon us a humility and need for patience as our natural world reminds us always that we are not really in control. We may think we are until that freak storm hits us or disease creeps in and overruns our garden beds.
We tend to seek out black and white answers in gardening too – one right way of doing something, but the natural world has its own ideas.
Margaret reminds gardeners that getting out into our little corner of the world and really looking at what’s going on out there can be our best learning tool. Observe the structure of various plants and the changes which take place throughout the seasons. They have a lot to tell you.
Want to know how to prune a particular shrub? Take a close look at the twigs of the plant. How is it structured? Are there flower buds swelling? What would happen if you cut now? Pay attention – and you will learn.
Amplify those lessons with the information available through educational websites and research papers on the internet now, and you’re well on your way to navigating the subtleties of good gardening practices.
You’ll also begin to notice similarities you can apply in surprising ways. A good friend of Margaret’s used some of his observations to teach Margaret the difficult lesson of taking risks to enrich your garden experience.
Margaret’s friend, Charles Price, is a well-respected garden designer in the Seattle area. Once during a visit to Margaret’s property, the pair were gardening in separate beds. Margaret came upon Charles just as he had plucked a prized plant from the soil – the entire plant. Her Hylomecon japonicum was a rare specimen, and she always felt proud to have this unique plant in her garden.
On this particular day, she discovered Charles on his knees in the dirt and a hole in the ground where once her treasured blooms had been. She was furious.
Fortunately, Charles had her best interests at heart. He pointed out to Margaret that she was being so selfish with the plant that she wouldn’t even share it with herself.
Following what he had learned from similar plants, Charles skillfully cut the Hylomecon japonicum into small pieces with his grafting knife, and together, he and Margaret planted those pieces in new spots all around her garden.
Today, her landscape is awash with the results of this learning moment. The lone rare Hylomecon japonicum, a member of the poppy family, which Margaret had guarded so carefully has now spread by the thousands all throughout her garden.
Charles’ knowledge of the structure and tendencies of this family of plants – and confidence to take what appeared to be a drastic step – taught Margaret the important lesson that if you have something you love, repeat it elsewhere.
Margaret learned how to repeat the trillium she loves thanks to garden observations too. Did you know you can dig and divide trillium while they are in bloom? Gardeners in England call this approach “transplanting in the green.” Once carefully dug from the ground, the knot-like rhizomes of trillium (Margaret compares them to hazelnuts) can be gently teased apart without disturbing the foliage or flower.
Each rhizome can be planted in a new location to spread around the garden. Since it’s early spring, the weather is still cool and moist – great conditions for successful transplanting.
For the Record
Rather than chasing perfection in the landscape, celebrate the evolutions. Margaret’s new book is structured with that in mind. Set into six chapters, the book follows the months of the year and how they correlate with the phases of the life of the gardener.
Each chapter opens with an essay by Margaret and follows with practical advice for the period covered within the chapter. The lessons taught here are relatable in all hardiness zones and are timely for the season represented.
The first section focuses on the months of January and February. Titled “Conception,” it explores the planning stages of the garden and the benefit of journaling through the year’s experiences.
Margaret is a big “to do” list kind of person and has been keeping journals since her earliest gardening days. Her first journals were notebooks packed with observations, plans, lessons, and bits of paper describing plants and purchases.
Now thanks to computers and smart device apps, journalling can be an even more effective tool. The gardener can organize information chronologically, store photographs (with date stamps!) and continually edit and search the data collected.
Margaret’s journals have become a great way for her to track climate shifts in her area. She can refer back for years to determine which plants are blooming earlier, which birds or other garden creatures are stopping by, etc.
A garden journal doesn’t need to be a literary masterpiece. It’s for the gardener, alone, and should match the format preference of the gardener.
Margaret recommends using a free blogging platform, like WordPress, to gather and record anything you might find useful in seasons to come. The blog doesn’t need to be shared with anyone, but it provides a robust and relatively easy to use platform for information gathering.
Personally, I love my DayOne app for journaling. I have my smartphone with me at all times – maybe a little too often, actually. Well, with the DayOne app, I can just pull out my phone and say whatever I want to have recorded. The app will transcribe my comments into searchable notes. I can also attach pictures, scanned or saved invoices, or anything else I want to save for future reference.
While you’re making notes, consider sharing some of those observations and benefiting science in the process. Sign up for websites like eBird to become a citizen scientist. As a gardener, you’ll notice the timing or presence of a plant, insect, bird, etc. in the garden. By sharing your observation with these information sites, you’ll be providing important data for research which often lacks funding for boots-on-the-ground scientists.
For years, Margaret has been entering sightings of the birds and moths she spots in her landscape. It’s not just rewarding – it’s important in this era of shifting habitats and warmer temperatures which push species to expand their territories beyond the normal range. Nothing may last for long in the garden, but this information will be valuable for generations.
The Early Season
The book’s second chapter – “Birth” – brings us to March and April. Plants are sprouting after a long winter, and many gardeners are in the thick of seed starting indoors and transplanting out into the garden beds.
The past two years have been big for me in terms of seed starting experimentation. I’ve been growing many types of seeds indoors; using different watering methods, providing various light sources, etc. I’ve grown thousands of seedlings, which I then sell with my daughter, Amy, in hopes that she will catch the garden bug.
Margaret starts different plants from seed nearly every year – although not by the thousands. Some years she enjoys starting vegetable plants, other years she focuses on annual flowers. If she wants a particular plant or large volume of plants that she can’t find inexpensively, Margaret will start them by seed instead.
There’s so much to learn about plants in this earliest stage. Before we ever even get them outdoors, time spent in observation of how differently seeds germinate and plant foliage responds to variable conditions can provide a wealth of knowledge to help you to be more successful outdoors too.
I Love Great Garden Pics
Chapter after chapter – “Youth”, “Adulthood”, “Senescence”, and “Death and Afterlife” – Margaret walks us through a year in the garden with specific examples and lots of photographs. Oh those photographs!
Before I ever got my hands on a hard copy of the book, Margaret shared the digital version (called the “galley”) with me, and I nearly broke my keyboard drooling over the gorgeous images on the screen.
Margaret is a brilliant photographer in her own right and took most of the shots herself. She prefers macro-style photography – really getting in close and capturing the detail, the moment. She’s also fortunate enough to have a skilled professional photographer living nearby to capture more.
Mick Hales visited Margaret’s garden often throughout 2018, and his images help to portray the beauty that Margaret has crafted over the past 30-something years.
So much has changed since the publication of Margaret’s first book – the extreme weather challenges we face, many of the recommended approaches to good management, the relevance of garden topics, and many of Margaret’s favorite nurseries have disappeared from the scene.
Before the days of online ordering, some of the more specialized nurseries published text-only catalogs. The garden shopper’s only guidance was the carefully-written plant description. They may not be as exciting to page through, but catalogs devoid of photos are a great way to increase your overall plant knowledge.
They force you to pay attention to the description, rather than allowing yourself to get lured in by a beautiful picture. That description is an invaluable and under-appreciated tool to guide you to finding the plants which will be more likely to thrive in your conditions.
In the opening of the book, Margaret includes a quote from Alfred Austin: “Show me your garden and I shall tell you who you are.” You can scroll to the top of the page and press the Play icon in the green button under the title bar to hear how Margaret describes what her garden says about her. What does your garden tell of you?
Links & Resources
Beginning Gardener Fundamentals – my online gardening course
Part 2: Margaret Interviews Joe Lamp’l for her A Way to Garden podcast series
A Way to Garden, a hands on primer for every season, by Margaret Roach