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360-Reflections on Gardening, with Scott Medal Recipient Margaret Roach

| Care, Podcast

New York Times gardening columnist and “A Way to Garden” podcast host Margaret Roach — who is a repeat guest on “The joegardener Show” and a fan favorite — is back again, on the heels of being presented with the prestigious Scott Medal from the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She shares how she came to be the renowned garden writer and podcaster she is today and her reflections on how gardening can benefit us as well as wildlife.

The Scott Medal recognizes an outstanding person in the field of horticulture, which Margaret Roach certainly is. The Scott Medal was first given out in 1930, and Margaret is only the 70th recipient since then. I tuned into the livestream of the award presentation on March 10, and I’m so glad I did.

 

Margaret Roach was presented with the prestigious Scott Medal last month.

Margaret Roach was presented with the prestigious Scott Medal last month. (Photo Credit: Scott Arboretum)

 

The Scott Medal

Margaret has visited the Scott Arboretum a number of times because it’s one of the premier arboretums in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic area and one of the gardens that gives the Greater Philadelphia region the name America’s Garden Capital. Scott Arboretum’s experts have coached her on caring for peonies, of which the arboretum has an impressive collection. 

She suspects that if she went to a college like Swarthmore, where the campus is an arboretum, she wouldn’t have been a self-described “serial college dropout” and would have gravitated toward plants sooner.

Margaret had no idea she had been nominated for the Scott Medal until she was informed she had been selected for the honor. Her mentor, Marco Polo Stufano, who started the gardens as Wave Hill in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City, had led a campaign to send in nominating letters for Margaret. He kept it secret well, even as they spoke on the phone every morning as they have for decades. When the call came, it was a big surprise.

The awards ceremony was Margaret’s first big live event in four and a half years because she had been ill for half a year prior to the start of the pandemic. Due to her recuperation, she says she had been living like a hermit, with her bobcat, frogs and black bear. (She notes that, possibly due to climate change, she’s seen a lot more of her bear in recent years.)

Margaret was asked to give a talk of roughly an hour during the Scott Medal ceremony, so she offered to give one of the presentations in her repertoire: the 365-Day Garden, Gardening with Birds, etc. However, the Scott Arboretum wanted her to talk about herself for an hour. That was intimidating, but she says in the end, it was fun.

After watching her talk remotely, I immediately emailed Margaret to tell her how much I loved it.

 

Cherry trees at the Scott Arboretum on the Swarthmore College campus. (Photo Credit: Scott Arboretum)

 

Margaret Roach’s Life Before She Became a Garden Columnist and Podcaster

As Margaret mentioned, she was a serial college dropout, but she always loved having jobs. She worked in college as a “copy girl” — a clerical helper — at the newsroom at The New York Times. She gradually worked her way into the journalism field at The New York Times, and later took a job at Newsday, a daily newspaper on Long Island. Next, her career brought her to work for Martha Stewart as the first garden editor of Martha Stewart Living. 

“Early on, because gardening became my hobby, I really wanted to also make it part of my work,” she says, noting that being able to write about what you live is the ideal.

She worked her way up to editorial director at Martha Stewart’s media company. About 15 years ago or so, she became tired of the corporate world and moved full-time to what had been her weekend home of 20 years in the Hudson Valley of New York. She says she finally got to live in her garden instead of seeing it just two days a week. 

When the pandemic started and there was an explosion of interest in gardening, The New York Times called her. They didn’t have a garden columnist when one was sorely needed, and they asked if she could fill that role. She had been writing In The Garden for The Times ever since. 

How the Internet Made Gardening Divisive

Gardening used to be an escape thing, Margaret observes. “It was entertaining. It was beautiful. It was escape. It was happy time. It was the antithesis of work. It was like your hobby, your leisure.”

But now gardening has become a “them and us” kind of place with friction, she says. 

“Either you’re a believer in this kind of gardening or that kind of gardening and you point fingers at the other side, and there’s a lot of animosity, a lot of criticism,” she says.

She attributed the hostility and factionalism to internet comments becoming part of the landscape of blogs and newspaper columns. For instance, native plants versus non-natives, and the absolutists on both sides. 

“The thing that saddens me about that is that if we scream and point and we identify those who do not agree with us as ‘the other,’  we just end up with this paralysis,” she says. “We don’t have any collaboration or cooperation, and there’s no potential for common thinking down the road is there. There’s just a wall.”

The same morning that I spoke to Margaret, I had a similar conversation with Rebecca McMackin, whom I am planning an ecological gardening summit with next month. Rebecca recently delivered a TED Talk that went viral about how wildlife wants the exact opposite of a clean, tidy garden. She shared that she is not used to dealing with all the negativity that came in response to her talk from people who don’t like her ideas and way of doing things. Sometimes, the responses are delivered in very mean-spirited ways. 

 

'Winter Gold' winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata).

“Winter Gold” winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) in Margaret’s garden. (Photo Credit: Margaret Roach)

 

‘The Natural Habitat Garden’

Margaret herself has been accused of anti-nativism even though years ago she collaborated with Ken Druse on  “The Natural Habitat Garden,” about gardening for wildlife. The book was published in 1994, when wildlife and native gardening was not commonly talked about like it is today.

“We traveled all around the country to photograph and to interview gardeners who were doing what we called habitat-style garden practices,” she recalls. 

Among the gardeners they visited was Lorrie Otto, the founder of Wild Ones, which now had chapters throughout the United States that foster native plant landscaping.

Lorrie took Margaret and Ken to see gardeners in Wisconsin with prairie front yards, which was nearly unheard of 30 years ago. They met Neil Diboll who founded Prairie Nursery, one of the oldest native plant nurseries. Neil demonstrated a controlled burn for them and explained the role of fire in native landscapes. They also visited the New England Wildflower Society, which is now called the Native Plant Trust, and learned the science.

“It’s funny to me to have fingers pointed when this is something that I have included in my coverage of gardening as a garden writer over many, many years before it was popular,” she says. “And it’s something that I know a lot about, and I’m very, very interested in. And so I want to share it. I don’t want to scream about it.”

A few weeks ago Margaret wrote a column about Japanese maples, and she says it got more hate comments than she has ever seen. The hate was because Japanese maples are not native plants in North America, and are allegedly wildly invasive. She says they are wildly invasive in Australia and self-sow in some places, but it’s unusual for seedlings to grow to a significant size. 

 

Black bear in water garden

A black bear visits Margaret’s water garden.
(Photo Credit: Margaret Roach)

 

How Garden Writing Has Evolved

Margaret says when she first began to write about gardening, there were two ways to go: how-to’s and Q&As. How to grow tomatoes, how to sow seeds — that sort of thing. That’s still an important part of what garden writers do, but now, there are so many places to learn the how-to’s, she points out. 

“I feel like I need to take it further in this era and not just do those things,” she says. “And of course, I do those stories sometimes — seed starting and whatever. But I also want to make people think more widely about nature and the landscape and what the garden can mean sort of emotionally and spiritually, and what it can do for your life. I want to talk on all the levels because that’s what it’s been for me. It hasn’t just been a series of instructions on when to prune what, and how to prune what, and how deep to plant your daffodils.”

Gardening has been much more than that for her, she says, and she wants more of those dimensions to come through in the topics she chooses to write about. 

Margaret recently wrote a column about a seed seller in war-torn Ukraine, and it resonated with many readers. She learned about Alla Olkhovska, a gardener, writer, photographer, and clematis seed grower, via Erin Benzakein of Floret Flower Farm, who was my guest on the podcast last month.

Margaret valued the opportunity to connect with Alla and share what gardening can be in extreme situations: a refuge, a profession, a distraction. 

“It’s been wonderful to correspond with her and to connect with her and to watch how the readers then connected with her,” Margaret says. 

Also for her column, Margaret spoke last year to Marc Hamer, an English-born estate gardener and memoirist in Wales. His memoir trilogy started with the indie hit “How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom From a Life Lived in Nature.”

“That book was just transformational for me,” she says.

Hamer was a freelance mole-catcher in addition to his full-time gardening job, but he grew to understand that moles are fossorial creatures — which means they live underground — and came to identify with them. He couldn’t bear to do the job of exterminator anymore.

 

Green female frog

In Margaret’s garden, a frog female on the lip of a water trough with floating Lemna (duckweed) and Azolla (fairy moss). (Photo Credit: Margaret Roach)

 

Supporting Birds by Supporting Moths

One of Margaret’s passions is supporting the birds that visit her garden, and making changes to attract more. 

She recalls talking with entomologist and conservationist Doug Tallamy about her interest in moths — which are an important food source for birds to rear their young. Doug explained to her how to attune herself to noticing caterpillars in trees on the underside of leaves during the daytime. He explained that she should have an image in her mind of what she is looking for, like scientists out in the field do.

When she first came to her home in the Hudson Valley 30-some years ago, she recognized the robins and bluejays but did not know many of the birds she was meeting as she started her garden. There were indigo buntings, which are tiny turquoise birds, and scarlet tanagers, which are red with black wings — but she didn’t know their names yet.

“I was completely flabbergasted, and so I got field guides because there was no internet, and I bought field guides and I found out their names and tried to find out where to learn more about what do they do and how come some of them are always high up in the trees, and how come some of them are always down in the bushes and at the brushy edge.”

She was full of curiosity, and she wanted the birds to want to stay in her garden 

“Thankfully, I put in, right at the beginning, two in-ground water gardens, and that turned out to be one of the magical things,” she recalls. “That was the big magnetic thing that I did that made more birds and animals happy to have unfrozen, available water year-round.”

Margaret planted about 40 winterberry holly shrubs that are great for the pollinators in spring and summer, and then make great fruit in the fall to feed birds all winter. She planted Viburnums and chokeberries for similar reasons and stopped mowing a field above the house to make it a meadow. The birds came to harvest seeds from the meadow.

“They were the ones that underscored those lessons that I’d learned from visiting Lorrie Otto, the founder of Wild Ones, and Neil Diboll, the founder of Prairie Nursery,” she says. Those birds and that meadow showed her, in action, what the scientific principles are behind native gardening. 

Her meadow became home to five species of native Solidago (goldenrod) that she never planted. What she did do was support an environment in which native plants can thrive.

I have visited Margaret’s garden a few times and have experienced the meadow come to life before my eyes.

 

Uphill meadow

One of the “unmown” meadow areas of little bluestem, goldenrod and more on a hill above Margaret’s house. (Photo Credit: Margaret Roach)

 

In a native garden, there are thousands of opportunities to witness the food chain in action, Margaret points out: ladybeetles eating aphids, and flycatchers swooping down to eat flying insects. 

Margaret has gone out at night with a white sheet and CFL blacklight to see night-flying moths and other arthropods, and has also noticed the detritivores, which she explains are the creatures whose job is to process the debris on the forest floor or your garden floor.

She has become quite the moth photographer.

“A lot of them are very beautiful,” she says. “I’ve photographed a lot for ID purposes — I photographed almost 200. Here, there’s probably more than 1,200 species in my county.”

Many are not fancy and very plain, she notes, but she says some will outshine any butterfly.

“They’ll lead you into your garden at night if you let them,” she says. She has witnessed moths sipping nectar from phlox and other beautiful sights. “You’ll see things that you have no idea are going on if you only go out in your garden during the day.”

I’ll never forget Doug Tallamy’s thrill over finding moths with a sheet and a spotlight in the predawn hours. After many years of studying insects, he’s like a kid in a candy store still to this day as he works to identify some new moths.

 

Moth collage

Clockwise from top left: painted lichen moth, Pandorus sphinx moth, Tolype moth, spiny oak slug moth. (Photo Credit: Margaret Roach)

 

Attuning Ourselves to Wildlife and Letting Go of Control

When we go out there and pay attention, it increases our awareness and makes us realize that there are natural systems that have been in place forever that are there to take care of things that we think we need to control ourselves. Trying to control it is often a waste of time.

Margaret gives the example of no-dig gardening. Many gardeners till and many farmers plow, but when plants grow in nature, no one is turning the soil.

“We don’t have to do everything fastidiously for the plant,” she says.  

I admit to being too hands-on and OCD sometimes. For example, I have started thousands of seeds for my annual seedling sale, and I have been micromanaging the growth rate by controlling the temperature in my greenhouse. Earlier, I started some seeds just so I could test different soil mixes, and then set them aside and ignored them. Those seedlings that I forgot about and never watered or moved are the most beautiful seedlings in my collection right now. How about that?

 

Dew covered caterpillar

A dew-covered caterpillar on goldenrod (Solidago). (Photo Credit: Margaret Roach)

 

How-to and Woo-woo

Margaret describes her approach to gardening as “horticultural how-to and ‘woo-woo.’”

She says you need that how-to knowledge to succeed, but just as important is the “woo-woo,” the part that lets us be intimate with the flow, the process, and recognize that we’re part of it.

“Recognize that we’re one of the organisms in the habitat, in the ecosystem,” she says, and it’s not about domination and control but rather this flow, this thing that we’re part of, unfolding before us.

“It’s mind-blowing, and for me, it’s contemplative or meditative. It’s spiritual. It’s a life practice,” she says. 

 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.

How have you gardened for birds and other wildlife? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

 Episode 015: Life Lessons on Gardening and Design, with Margaret Roach

Episode 020: Gardening for the Birds with Margaret Roach

Episode 065: Tips For Reducing Garden Overwhelm, with Margaret Roach

Episode 080: Putting the Garden to Bed: End-of-Season Advice from Margaret Roach

Episode 101: A Way to Garden: Observations and Lessons, with Margaret Roach

Episode 126: The Scentual Garden: Exploring Botanical Fragrance With Ken Druse

Episode 157: How to Prevent Weed Overwhelm: A Practical Organic Approach for Real Results, With Margaret Roach

Episode 243: Always More to Learn in the Garden, with Margaret Roach

Episode 355: Growing Flowers, Seeds and a Business, with Erin Benzakein of Floret Flower Farm

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

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.

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joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®     

GGW Episode 418: Garden with Margaret Roach

GGW Episode 1010: Creating a Bird-friendly Garden, with Margaret Roach

The Ecological Gardening Summit – Wednesday, May 8 

Margaret Roach – A Way to Garden

The New York Times: In The Garden

In The Garden: Why Japanese Maples Are Like Potato Chips (or Orchids)

In The Garden: For a Ukrainian Gardener, Flowers Offer a Way Forward

In The Garden: Why You Can’t Really Be a Gardener Without Mindfulness

And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road” by Margaret Roach

A Way to Garden: A Hands-On Primer For Every Season” by Margaret Roach

The Virtual Garden Club 

2024 Scott Medal and Award Presentation

Wild Ones

Prairie Nursery

Native Plant Trust 

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Earth’s Ally – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Soil3Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com  Enter code JOEGARDENER24 for $5 off

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JG10 for 10% off your first order

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 was 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: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. 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.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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