What I Learned from Margaret Roach’s Garden


These days most of my blog reading is off-topic to gardening (sites like Apartment Therapy and Houzz) but I do listen togardening podcasts and wish there were more good ones, like Margaret Roach’s – she’s the author of the excellent blog A Way to Garden and former garden writer/editor for newspapers and Martha Stewart.  So when she spoke in Baltimore recently to the Maryland Horticultural Society, I was there, and nabbed a dinner invitation, too.

Here you see Margaret ready to sign copies of her memoir about retiring to “Nowheresville”.

More later about that memoir, but here’s what I learned from her thoroughly entertaining talk and gorgeous photos.

The title of Margaret’s talk was “At Home in the 365-Day Garden” and this first scene reminds us that with the right plants, there’s lots to see even in winter, something she knows a bit about there in Upstate New York, Zone 5.  Her comment on this photo was “This is a beautiful day in the garden.”

In the spring, when the photo below was taken, sure, there are flowers but what makes this garden beautiful to me is all the structure – those evergreen bones, the pond, and fieldstone patio.

Again in this next shot we see another 365-day-a-year feature that I love – the house itself, painted olive with orange trim.  (Margaret said she “has a high tolerance for color”.)  And of course the narrow turfgrass paths through really deep borders crammed with shrubs and perennials.

Because my new garden is mostly shade, I’m hungry for scenes like the next one of shade-loving plants that are stunning all season long, thanks to their foliage.  The Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’ grass even looks good in the winter; the hand-out cited it as a “durable, unfussy plants with a long season of interest.”  Conifers fit that bill, too.

This autumn scene below demonstrates another garden principle I used in my former garden, large and woodland-edged – the layering of plants from tall trees down to understory trees and large shrubs (like the brilliant Spicebush here), to shorter shrubs and perennials and then to groundcover.  Copying but improving on how it works in nature.  Then adding an interesting focal point – the plant-filled birdbath.

Readers of Margaret’s blog know that her garden is well populated by frogs, like this one she introduced as “my ex-husband”.  This and other wildlife photos reminded me that my point-and-shoot camera is crap when it comes to close-ups and it’s high time I did something about that.  The message I was supposed to get from this photo is that developing a relationship with wildlife in the garden is a big part of enjoying it year-round.

More good pointers include:

  • In designing the garden, use the views from indoors as guides for siting major plants, especially the ones that look good in the winter.
  • There’s much to be appreciated in plants NOT at their peak – whether the “life force” in newly emerging hosta leaves or the senescence of perennials in late fall.
  • “Portable color”, like the red of her Adirondack chairs, is an easy way to add what designers are always calling “pop”.
  • It’s important to have “true powerhouse plants” like Viburnums, ornamental grasses and crabapples.
  • Ditto “imperfect but irresistible types” with short peaks that you can’t live without.  For her that includes lilacs and Martagon lilies.
  • Then ya gotta have some “late-show stars” like Lespedeza thumbergii and Ilex verticillata.
  • “You have to grow it to know it.”  Ain’t that the truth, and possibly why her blog (and first gardening book) are named A Way to Garden.  Just one way, not the only way.


  1. Wow, it’s amazing to see all these gardens blooming but mine. Still no signs of bud swelling on most trees and shrubs.

    I almost forgot what frogs sound like at night and Sweden doesn’t even have crickets to listen to at night.

    Hummingbirds have to be the worst to loose moving over here.

    I’m glad you guys all have projects to share until I can have my day in the yard. Oh that’s right, I just came in from getting the yard cleaned up for planting.

    Thanks for sharing this gardeners blog, story and pictures.

  2. I have been following Margaret for years on her blog. It has always been entertaining and informative. Her underplantings are an inspiration for all of us, I have a diagram naming all the plants in that one photo, it is a “how to do underplantings properly”. I have spent a fortune buying european ginger whenever I see it for sale. It is a little difficult to get your hands on it up here.

  3. 1. Margaret is such a wonderful mix of knowledge, humour, and pure garden love.

    b. If ex husbands were that cute, everyone might stay married longer.

  4. Spicebush should be used more. Early spring flowers, yellow fall foliage, red berries. Oh, and fragrant foliage, too.

    I also really like the grass paths and fieldstone.

  5. Susan – I finally got tired of my inability to take macro pictures with my point-and-shoot, so I began looking for a replacement. There are some pretty amazing cameras out there in all price ranges, but I finally settled on a Nikon Coolpix s8100. It’s small, lightwieght, easy to use – and takes amazing macro shots from incredibly close focus points. I’m sure many of your loyal fans have similar suggestions – we want you to get a great camera so we can admire your pictures.

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