Five Big Questions: Margaret Roach

by Andrew Keys on January 22, 2013

Margaret Roach and The Backyard Parables

Update: Congrats to commenter Lizzie, who won a copy of Margaret’s book! Thanks to everyone who entered!

Margaret Roach and I first bonded over a mutual love of a wild plant obscure in cultivation: Aralia spinosa, the devil’s walking stick, a plant close to my own heart because of its early presence in the story of my own fascination with plants and nature. (You can see photos of Aralia here on Margaret’s blog, A Way to Garden.) Margaret’s new book, The Backyard Parables, landed last week, and like most everything she touches, it’s terrific: a meditation on a life spent gardening, portrayed through the seasons as characterized by the elements of water, earth, fire, and wind.

Margaret’s book is the perfect opportunity to kick off a new long-form interview feature I’m calling Five Big Questions. (See if you can figure out why.) ALSO, I have a copy of Margaret’s book to give away for one lucky commenter/liker on this post or on Facebook. If you live in the U.S., comment here or comment/like the post on Facebook by midnight EST Friday, Jan. 25, and The Backyard Parables could be yours.

Q.The way you’ve sought to connect with the land your garden is planted on has always inspired me to try to connect with my piece of land in a more meaningful way. Then there’s the constant hum of traffic, the busy dentist’s office I share a driveway with, awkward grading that means privacy is at a premium. More people live in and around cities than ever before–how would you advise those of struggling to connect with our bit of land in the midst of the often-distracting busy-ness of other people? (Click question for answer)

A.I am terrible with unwanted sound; I find it very distracting/irritating. And remember: I lived in New York City for much of my life, so I know from noise.

I think that the delight of running or splashing water can greatly help, and even here where the world is quiet, basically, I really am hooked on the sound of my two smallish in-ground water features, which run from March through Thanksgiving. Water is the most significant thing we can do to make our gardens—even urban and small-space gardens—bird-friendly, and it refreshes us humans, too, with its auditory and visual effects.

I have sat listening to a manmade waterfall in the open courtyard of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, with cars and sirens and crowds and the urban din all around me, and only heard the water once I really tuned into it.

As for visual overstimulation: While I don’t want to feel all walled in with the stereotypical hedge of a single species of fast-growing conifer on four sides, I do like the use of selective “panels” of solid plantings. Sort of more “folding screens” than “walls,” positioned to hide the worst of it.

For instance, to erase my compost heap from one key view, I planted an island of Miscanthus x giganteus, and I can’t see the telephone pole across the road from inside the house because of a Thuja plicata nominated for that erasure task.

And this: In the busiest urban places I lived in, I always found I oriented my living space (and any garden) away from the hubbub. Sometimes we have to entirely rethink the way we use the space, indoors and out, to find its hidden pockets of refuge. (Click the question above again to hide this answer)

Q.I’ve always believed that every garden has a story–or a parable, as it were–and every gardener is a storyteller. You’ve taken it a step further in your writing and, in many ways, articulated your life story through gardening. I think the book on the whole is a depiction of this, but tell me briefly why you think the arts of storytelling and gardening go so well together? (Click question for answer)

A.Gardening–the contrivance we impose on the bigger picture outside–is my window in to Nature, and it’s Nature that sets the best example of life’s rhythm, one that we should not disregard. We are, after all, just creatures in its giant food chain, nothing more, despite our endless hubris to “control” things (outdoors or within ourselves) and our frequent refusals to let go. We need to listen to the teachings in our backyards.

I think I explain it like this in the introduction to The Backyard Parables:

“To my ear, and heart, the garden is a perennial dharma talk–a meditation, a reminder to reflect. It teaches us to live with intimacy and attention, and asks that we feel the pulse of more than just our own interior life force, instead seeing ourselves as part of a vast, complex organism and story. As Emerson wrote in Nature, ‘every natural process is a version of a moral sentence.’”

The garden is provocative for me—one big, nonstop harvest of parables. Out they pour onto my keyboard! (Click the question above again to hide this answer)

Q.It’s fun to find another plant geek who’s also a weather/climate geek. You’ve logged 25 years in your garden, and the next 25 could be… Interesting? In terms of weather and climate? So… Gardeners: selfish and frivolous to have the audacity to try to grow things to beautify our little worlds in the face of global climate change, OR stewards of nature that will aid in a world that will have to adapt? (Click question for answer)

A.Can the answer be, “C, both of the above”? I think we get to play with a slightly widening palette, perhaps (though it’s risky as who knows what is coming next!). But I think we have to do so with an ethical, not just aesthetic, mandate. I will continue to collect oddities, but not if they require chemical heroics to be kept alive, or if they threaten to escape.

Front-of-my-mind: the folly of reliance on chemicals; the arrogance of wasting water, no matter where you are on the planet, even if it doesn’t seem “dry” there; and again, that no matter how pretty the plants looks, if it’s thuggish in your area, don’t grow it.

As for the “high inputs” of water and chemicals that many plants we purchase—especially our so-called annuals—are raised to demand, I am sick of it. This is a pet peeve of mine with the nursery industry: that we gardeners bring things home that have been fed and watered to the max during breeding and in the propagation greenhouse, and in our care (if we don’t keep them on an IV drip of all those blue liquids and more) they are less content.

I am likewise sick of commercial seed that has been grown under similarly coddled conditions and isn’t really thrilled with life in my organic garden, where the soil is well-cared-for, but I don’t dose plants up on lots of extras. I want seed that’s been bred for real-garden conditions, and that’s where I put my seed dollars these days—with organic or sustainable producers who focus on growing the way I do.

Sorry for the mini-rants, but I guess what I am saying: I lust for the continuing introductions, both ornamental and edible, but to earn a place in my garden they must be able to be grown without heroic, environmentally costly measures. (Click the question above again to hide this answer)

Q.How does one reconcile the meditation of gardening with the “endless chores” you describe in the book? (Or, how do you make the #*!$&@#$&^ chores more meditative?) (Click question for answer)

A.What, you don’t find trying to eradicate garlic mustard soothing, Andrew? The mower’s engine isn’t humming your mantra?

Seriously, though, there are two things that help me: One, I love lists, and especially checking things off lists, so there’s that Type A person who gets to feel like she was a good girl. Check, check! Not very spiritual, but true; that side of my brain/personality loves to feel like something got done. But on a deeper level, there’s this:

If I weren’t outside doing all those #*!$&@#$&^ chores, and still 30-something stories high in a Manhattan office tower all day, I’d never come upon the infinite diversity of life on Earth. I mean, do you stop between pruning cuts to notice who’s sleeping under that leaf or on that twig, or in the leaf pile you are raking up? It’s the best part.

Last summer I became aware of—obsessed with—moths, for instance. Have you seen the hairy beast of a Small Tolype, for instance, or the flashy, giant Cecropia? Or what about galls—various odd growth patterns on plants in response to insect activity or fungi? Fascinating.

I’ve made it part of my daily chores practice to stop and look, take a photo, and later find out what all these magical discoveries are, and why they occur, and whether I can learn anything from them. I remind myself I am not “too busy” to take these moments—even when the task list is really long. I make time to learn something new, and so every time I head outdoors I know I will probably get not just exhausted, but also exhilarated. (Click the question above again to hide this answer)

Q.I *really* appreciated your urging people to keep their cats indoors and not out hunting for songbirds. Any tips for keeping marauding neighborhood cats out of your bird-friendly garden? (Click question for answer)

A.Even here in Nowheresville, this is a challenging issue, and sadly probably one with no certain solution. For all the reasons we may love them, cunning creatures that they are, cats can also unhinge us.

In instances when it has been someone’s cat that I could identify, I have gone to speak to the owner, and asked that they keep a better eye out. No kidding; we need to each be responsible masters, no?

A certain stray gray Persian male, whom my neighbor and I call Smokey Joe, spent much of last year hiding at dawn in the shrubbery near my feeders, for the easy pickings. I had to stop feeding the birds, and I tried to trap Joe (my neighbor wanted to adopt him; he sometimes visited her as well).

Eventually I behaved unhappily (insanely?) enough with consistency, every single morning without letup, to convince him that I was not a welcoming hostess. I used a hose-end sprayer of water, and also tossed things across the yard in his general direction, and did a lot of screaming and chasing.

Crazy, I know, but he eventually got the idea and now lives with my neighbor, and doesn’t visit “that nut Margaret” any longer.

As with any animal “pest”—and here it’s rabbits and woodchucks and raccoons more than cats, most weeks—you can fence them out, or use solar-powered very-low-voltage fencing kits that give a tiny deterrent shock (for instance around a vegetable area), or one of those motion-activated sprinklers, or spray a repellent (in some cases). But I loathe all such things, so I just acted like a madwoman, and this time it worked. (Click the question above again to hide this answer)

Thanks to Margaret for The Backyard Parables and for being the inaugural Big Question interviewee! Disclosure: Margaret’s publisher, Grand Central, sent me the book to review and give away, and thanks to them as well.

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