As gardeners, if we get stuck in our ways, we can’t grow. I love the fact that there is always more to learn when it comes to gardening and that we can push ourselves to be better stewards of our land. To discuss many of the lessons she learned this past year, my friend and guest this week is Margaret Roach, gardening columnist for The New York Times and the founder of A Way to Garden.
Margaret created the website A Way to Garden and she hosts a podcast of the same name. She is nearing her third spring of writing her gardening column for The New York Times, titled In the Garden. She started up the column in March 2020, when the pandemic took hold in New York and millions of people nationally started gardening for the first time.
Margaret comes from a journalism background, which taught her to research thoroughly before writing anything. She also learned to become a good interviewer and listen carefully. She attended New York University and landed a job as a copy editor at The New York Times. She would later become the New York Newsday garden editor and then the first garden editor of Martha Stewart Living. Margaret was a senior publishing executive in 2007 when she decided to leave the corporate world behind to become an organic gardening advocate and dedicate more time to gardening on her 2-acre property in upstate New York.
In addition to writing her blog and producing her podcast, Margaret’s books include “The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life,” “And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road” and “A Way to Garden: A Hands-On Primer For Every Season.” As if she wasn’t busy enough, last year she started The Virtual Garden Club with natural gardening guru Ken Druse.
Margaret’s columns are about 1,500 words each and very in-depth. She writes weekly most of the year, and less frequently in the winter. She can’t just wing out a blog post in a half-hour when she’s writing for The Times; she has to really go deep and vet and verify her sources and facts. Margaret says her traditional journalism training has been invaluable. Her policy is to approach a subject without a pre-formed conclusion. She must open up her mind, listen and research deeply.
Margaret also relies on networking — she’s met so many knowledgeable people over the course of her career. When she needs an expert voice, she knows how to find one.
Getting to Know Crinum Lilies
In her writing and research for The New York Times, Margaret is able to cover some of her favorite subjects, and on other occasions, she writes about something that’s new to her.
Just recently, Margaret learned about Crinum lilies. Though Crinum lilies are familiar to many Southern gardeners, as a Northeast gardener, she was unfamiliar with these flowers that prefer warm climates. She interviewed plantsman Augustus Jenkins Farmer, who is best known as Jenks Farmer, all about Crinum lilies. Jenks has a flower farm in South Carolina that is mostly Crinum lilies.
Through her research and interviews, Margaret learned that there are some Crinum varieties that can be grown successfully in the Northeast. That opens up new opportunities for her and her garden that she wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
The Dangers of Horticultural Vinegar
Margaret says horticultural vinegar was always a “terror subject” for her. She says the gallon bottles at garden centers labeled “30% vinegar” sound like something that belongs on a salad. However, it’s six times as concentrated as the vinegar used in condiments. The warning label on horticultural vinegar says “DANGER,” which is the most severe of the three signal words used on chemical products. (The other signals words are “warning” and “caution.”)
Horticultural vinegar (acetic acid) will often have a dandelion on the label to indicate it is a weed killer. Margaret says there are gardeners who will bring it home and fail to read the label and instructions before using it. They will proceed to apply this corrosive product in 90° weather without wearing safety goggles, a respirator and gloves.
“This can blind you. This can damage your lungs. This is an extremely dangerous chemical,” Margaret warns.
She says she was fortunate to be able to interview Montana State University scientists to learn more about horticultural vinegar and write an article for The New York Times.
She advises always reading the instructions being using pesticides “even if it’s got birds and butterflies on the label.”
For those of us who try to find products that are natural or organic, horticultural vinegar certainly sounds like it fits the bill. As Dr. Jeff Gilman says, just because it’s organic, doesn’t make it okay. Snake venom is organic, but do you really come in contact with it?
Margaret says there are side effects to everything we use in the garden, including organic products, so do your homework. For instance, she points out that many OMRI-approved fungicides contain copper, which is naturally occurring but can build up in soil.
It’s important to understand that horticultural vinegar is not a systemic herbicide. It kills the top growth but not the roots of plants. That makes it good for killing seedlings that have just emerged but not established weeds. So use it on your driveway (while wearing full protection) but don’t expect it to kill perennial, deep-rooted, rhizomatous weeds. “To use it as such is folly and dangerous and a waste of a substance that doesn’t belong out in your soil anyway,” Margaret says, noting that vinegar is lethal to frogs, salamanders and snails.
Asian Jumping Worms
Margaret was one of the earliest voices calling attention to invasive Asian jumping worms, which broke out in 2013. She wrote a story about Great Lakes Worm Watch and efforts to raise awareness of the problem in the Midwest. She also spoke to Brad Herrick of University of Wisconsin–Madison, where jumping worms were found in the campus arboretum. (Brad’s also been a guest on “The joegardener Show”.)
Though Asian jumping worms have been on Margaret’s radar for some time, she says it’s only in the last two years that the problem has received widespread attention among gardeners. “They’re spreading really fast,” she says. “They’ve been in the Great Smoky Mountains Park, and they’ve been in again in the Great Lakes for a long time. So they’re not new. They’ve been destroying natural habitats for quite a while.”
Asian jumping worms gobble up all the organic material in soil, leaving just a pure mineral soil that has no moisture-holding capacity and does a poor job at conducting nutrients to roots.
In forests affected by Asian jumping worms, the seedlings of native trees have “tree root gingivitis,” Margaret says. She explains that the seedlings cannot get a foothold in the mineralized soil and can’t stand up.
“This is our greatest invasive pest issue,” she says. The soil layer is the bottom of the food web, affecting everything else, she wonders how this issue cannot become catastrophic.
Adding organic matter to our soil is how we improve it, but that’s just what these invasive worms want. Should we keep adding organic matter to replace what they have consumed — even though that feeds them? Gardeners are really in a tough spot.
Margaret asked Brad if putting more mulch on was a good idea, and he told her, “Choose your own adventure.” Because even scientists don’t know for sure. However, they are experimenting with different methods to reduce Asian jumping worm populations, such as using heat and cold, because while adult Asian jumping worms don’t survive the winter, their eggs and cocoons do.
Margaret wrote a column in November all about lichen, which is a symbiosis of fungi and algae. She interviewed lichenologists Jessica Allen and James Lendemer, the authors of the new book “Urban Lichens: A Field Guide for Northeastern North America,” about these fascinating but underappreciated composite organisms.
Margaret has long been fascinated by lichens, and this book renewed her interest. However, as a garden writer, she has received many questions from readers who want to know how to get rid of lichen on their trees. The readers would often mistake lichen for moss and would assume it was bad for the trees. In reality, lichens are barometers of the environment around them, and they indicate healthy air.
Lichens come in an array of beautiful colors, including some colors that are unique in nature to lichens. They don’t detract from a beautiful garden — they add to it.
Starting Wild Seeds
Margaret and I, separately, both had the good fortune to interview Heather McCargo of the Wild Seed Project last year. Heather is an expert on winter sowing of native seeds. Heather says her goal is not to save native seeds but to sow native seeds and make more plants.
The idea behind winter sowing of native seeds is to plant seeds outdoors in propagation trays, protected from animals with a lid or hardware cloth and mulched with sand. (You can read the full instructions in the show notes from my interview with Heather.)
The repeated freeze-thaw of winter weather breaks down the hard seed coat and prepares the seeds to germinate. Some will sprout in December and January, others in spring and still others in summer. And there are seeds that won’t sprout that first year but then will surprise you when they sprout one or more years later.
Summer and fall meadow plants tend to most readily sprout the first spring after sowing and are best for beginners, while other plants can be trickier.
Margaret notes that it is illegal to gather seeds in wild spaces but you can still collect native seeds from a friend’s meadow or your own. You can also contact your state or county wildflower society for recommendations of where to order seeds.
Another fact Margaret learned last year is that there are 50 million Fraser fir trees being grown in North Carolina alone, while Fraser firs in the wild are under threat. She interviewed Travis Hall, the supervisor of the Horticulture Division at Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, on this topic.
The Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) is native to the Southeast. Though tens of millions are being raised on farms, that doesn’t guarantee a future for wild Fraser firs. In the wild, trees adapt to pests, diseases and climate shifts by pollinating each other, setting seed and producing a next generation that is genetically diverse. That diversity is key to a species’ longevity.
On tree farms, the trees are bred and selected for their marketability, so they lack the diversity found in the wild.
The main threat to Fraser firs is the balsam woolly adelgid, an invasive species that came to the United States from Europe. (Another adelgid, the hemlock woolly adelgid, from Asia, decimated hemlocks in the North.)
2021 was the Year of the Ox in the Chinese zodiac, but for Margaret, it was the Year of the Raccoon. Having lived in her upstate New York home for 35 years (full-time for the last 15 years) Margaret knows the habits of the native animals there. However, while raccoons are said to be solitary creatures, she had “disco parties” on her front porch night after night, she says.
Raccoons are among the animals that are in the habit of making a community toilet. In the case of raccoons, it’s called a “scat latrine.” Raccoon scat carries a lot of diseases, so Margaret carefully removes scat and cleans the area with diluted bleach to dissuade the raccoons from using her porch as a latrine. Unfortunately, nothing would stop the raccoon disco of 2021.
Margaret called in licensed trappers to remove 13 raccoons from her property and relocate them, two or three a night until they were all gone.
The silver lining was that she began to learn about raccoons. One thing she found out is that raccoons are hard to study because they are nocturnal, but advances in wildlife cameras that work in the dark have helped.
As much as we think we know about our gardens, we can’t know all that goes on at night. One activity Margert suggests in going mothing: Put up a white sheet in the garden and go out with a CFL blacklight to observe the “night shift.”
Even something that’s as annoying and as hazardous to your health as raccoons using your porch as a toilet is an opportunity to study and to get closer to nature.
The scientific name of raccoons is Procyon lotor, and “lotor” means “washerman,” Margaret points out. Raccoons love to wash their food, so her two water gardens may be why they are so attracted to her property. And I know that the water bowl that I put out for my barn cats attracts raccoons. Plus, cat food is so beloved by raccoons that it is used as bait in raccoon traps.
Margaret feels most at home these days — as a gardener and journalist — talking about ecological landscaping and what we can do as gardeners. It’s hopeful, she says.
She interviewed Rebecca McMackin, the director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, about ecological landscaping last year as well as Rebecca’s mentor, Darrel Morrison, the 84-year-old “elder statesman of the ecological landscaping movement.”
My two-part conversation with Rebecca was one of the most popular “The joegardener Show” podcasts in 2021 because learning how we can take our environmental consciousness further really resonated with listeners.
Reopening the Garden During the Pandemic
In 2020, for the first time in 25 years, Margaret did not participate in Garden Conservancy Open Days. She was accustomed to opening her garden to the public four days a year but has not done so during the pandemic. She wants to reopen her garden in 2022, at least in a small way, so she is preparing and enlisting help well ahead of time.
The Virtual Garden Club
Margeret and Ken’s The Virtual Garden Club opens for a new semester today, January 13. The club meets for an hour and a half every two weeks, including a Q&A and a seasonally relevant presentation, such as seed starting during the winter semester.
Margeret and Ken both miss going out and lecturing, which has been on hold due to the pandemic, and The Virtual Garden Club is a way to fill that gap.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Margaret Roach. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
What lessons did you learn in 2021? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute)
“Urban Lichens: A Field Guide for Northeastern North America” by Jessica L. Allen and James C. Lendemer
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.