Mid-summer gardening season is the best time to read one of my favorite books by Margaret Roach. She was an editor at The New York Times, a fashion and garden editor at Newsday, the first garden editor for Martha Stewart Living magazine, and the editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. But it is her most recent chapter, that has proven the most inspiring. In her 2011 memoir And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading In the Fast Lane For My Own Dirt Road, Margaret shared her journey from an urban, over-stressed, unhappy corporate executrix to a rural one-woman horticultural incubator of plants, ideas and community. For anyone considering their own “plan c” all I can say is, read it.
Of her new book, The Backyard Parables, Elizabeth Gilbert has written, “As a passionate, hopeful, and often self-delusional gardener (the only kind of gardener there is!), I loved this book. Margaret Roach writes with intelligence, compassion, and — most of all — sanity. Her work is a blessing.”
Here are a few pearls from her life-earned wisdom.
I particularly love Margaret’s advice to learn, again, how to to see — with your heart.
“Making any garden, but especially one with more than one-trick-pony performance in spring or summer, requires a combination of tactics, not all of them horticultural. There must be water that remains unfrozen, whatever the weather—even a little water, a trough or a birdbath or a small-scale inground pool with the right-sized floating heater to keep it open, not iced over. No other element works harder than water to sus- tain the garden’s community; we are all made of it. And yes, you must also select good plants with a range of features and peak moments, and site them well—easiest to accomplish by first going inside and looking out the window, imagining what the desired view is before digging any holes. But that’s all the intel- lectual part—make a water feature, choose multiseason plants— that’s part of the “how-to.”
I am fairly certain that to make a 365-day garden you must also learn all over again how to see—to see beyond the big blue Hydrangea and other obvious show-offs, right down to the shapes of buds and textural complexity of bark, and the way the play of light and shadow, sounds and smells, and even movement contribute to the living pictures. When I go lecture to garden groups, a process that builds to a crescendo of incessant (insane?) hand- waving as I speak, I always notice that I touch my chest reflexively when I talk about this last bit, as if to say, “You must learn to see with your heart; the eyes won’t do in the hardest months.” You must look viscerally, not somatically; it will take you in the direction of the light. This critical cultivation of the other senses forges a deeper communion between garden and gardener, and recognition of the one life cycle “it” and we are both part of.”
And as a complete math-phobe, by connecting gardening to art and music, Margaret has helped me forge an entirely new relationship with my garden. I’d always thought of it in terms of its palette, but never its rhythm. I want to be “one part artist, one part scientist, and one part honeybee!”
“Actually, though I spared the uncannily numbers-savvy child this thought at the time, gardening is like mathematics, too— and not just in the way nature engineers things like the branch- ing pattern of trees, as Leonardo da Vinci noted more than five hundred years ago, or designs patterns such as honeycombs, spi- derwebs, or butterfly wings that can be described mathematically. In the garden you need to know when to giveth, and when to taketh away, or it just doesn’t amount to anything out there but an incalculable mess. There is a rhythm to the goings-on, albeit somewhat more improvisation than John Philip Sousa; it’s never the same from one season, or year, to the next, or even day-to-day. And then there is this further layer of complexity to the calculation: Forces other than yourself will be doing both adding and subtracting all the while, too, right alongside you but without the respect of advance notice, making any possible mathematical proof a moving target.
There is a higher aspect to this comparison of codas and computations. Galileo famously said nature speaks the language of mathematics, and various prominent contemporary scientists, including the late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, agree. “To those who do not know mathematics,” Feynman said, “it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature.”
On this latest point, the math of really seeing, I think it helps to think as if of three minds: one part artist, one part scientist, one part honeybee—to be one part of each and to witness nature from that triple perspective if you can, and without prejudice. But don’t forget your abacus, because in much of the day-to-day of making a garden out of a tiny corner of the natural world, there is counting, lots of counting, and keeping track.”
And not only did The Backyard Parables change the way I see and experience my garden, Margaret also has given me the benefit of her years of trial and efforts — quintessential insider’s tips — to make sure my new vision will be realized. Talk about blessings!