woo-woo back atcha, margaret roach


Margaret Roach’s blog tour for her new book “Backyard Parables” has been going strong for two weeks, and I’m kinda late to the party.  But like any opinionated gardenblogger, I have things to say.

At first I was confused by the title but soon learned that this book is a one-year gardening memoir, with how-to sidebars.  And the how-to stuff is fabulous.  I believe absolutely everything Margaret tells me about how to garden (in writing or on her podcast), and will refer newbies to her comprehensive sidebar about mulch.  In another how-to, on the subject of overwintering nonhardy bulbs, she writes what’s totally obvious but never, ever written – that no two places to stash them are the same.  Thank you!  Then she goes on to give some overwintering tips that DO make sense.

woo-woo and oh yeah, the subject of death

But on to the memoir, which is where we get some of Margaret’s famous woo-woo (the tagline of her blog is “horticultural how-to and woo-woo”).  For her, “Gardening is my spiritual practice, a moving meditation not unlike the motions of a well-practiced vinyasa in yoga.”

Asking herself why she gardens, Margaret answers that it’s “my way of coping with my own denial of death” and “I garden because I cannot help myself.”  I’m not deep enough to give that first answer but I suppose the second one fits for me.  Though the answer her friend Marco Polo Stefano (of Wave Hill fame) gives hits home with me even more: “I garden from a compulsion to make things beautiful.”

Photo by Erica Berger

A primary theme in the book, at least to my eyes, is the question of whether to slow down with age, something I’ve thought about and DONE something about.  Margaret’s just a bit younger than me and starting to say things like “The garden is my fickle dominatrix; I am enslaved.  Mow me.  Shovel me. No-mow me again.  I love for your rough, noisy touch, Margaret.”  Yeah, who wouldn’t feel that way about a garden that requires 7 hours of mowing every week from April into November?  And about a garden that’s overrun by woodchucks, among other robust pests.

But leaving a high-maintenance garden isn’t easy.  She describes another gardener who left her “too-big garden, the one that has been a mainstay and compass of her adult life and identity the way my very own monster has been of mine.”  Margaret can obviously relate to that sentiment, saying she loves her garden but “love-spelled-loathes the grip it has on me.”

That perfectly describes how I felt gardening in my large, hilly garden once I hit my 50s.  I was working my butt off to maintain-maintain-maintain a fully developed garden (meaning, the fun of designing it was mostly in the past) and starting to feel oppressed by it.  YET, I’d long expressed my attachment to in almost the words Margaret uses, determined as she is to “live here in the garden, where I hope to drop, facedown, one day while weeding and be done with it all at that.”

But let’s get realistic. Death comes, but probably not suddenly like that.  And probably after many sessions with your professional(s) of choice (PTs, massage therapists, etc).

And I agree it’s so sad that her gardening grandmother’s friends all downsized one after another, “taking up residence in the same new brick highrise.”  But Margaret, girlfriend, I agree that living in a highrise would be hell for a devoted gardener but it doesn’t have to be that way!  There are townhouses, and garden apartments.  There are even balconies chockful of plants.

Even her friend Marco keeps reminds her she’s now in her “shrub season.”  He explains: “That’s where it heads, eventually, for gardeners who last:  away from the flashy, more momentary seduction of herbaceous plants… and back to the shrub aisles of the garden center.”  He even predicted that one day she’d figure out that perennials are too much trouble.

There’s more gardening-while-aging wisdom to be found in Sydney Eddison’s Gardening for a Lifetime.  Sydney’s well into her shrub season of downsizing while staying in place.  Or follow my adventures starting from scratch in a townhouse-sized garden – and loving it.

soul sisters

Something I kept writing in the margins of Backyard Parables is “Me, too,” proving that I’m as self-centered as the next person, I suppose.  But in that vein, let me count the ways:  Unlike so many other things Margaret tried – music, the arts, sports – in gardening she wasn’t paralyzed by early failures. She goes on plant “kicks” that last a while.  She’s had coneflower, Sedum spectable and Russian sage kicks.  I’ve had kicks for daylilies astilbes and those S. spectables.  She hates blue fertilizer!  She loves gardening alone until “lonerism backfires,”  like when she’s on a ladder and could use someone to steady it. She dresses for gardening all the time:  “I used to clean up pretty good.  Now I don’t really clean up at all, at least not on days when my workday will be spent outdoors.” Countering the low-maintenance come-ons we see everywhere she proclaims that “Nothing about gardening is easy, instant, nonstop, or guaranteed, no matter what the label says.”  And she uses slogans from 12-step recovery programs in the garden and boy, do they apply.  One day at a time.  Easy does it.  First things first.  This too shall pass. Live and let live (except, in her case, for weeds and woodchucks).  And of course: Keep coming back.

not so much

One of her pet peeves is the use of the nonword “horticulturalist,” even in the New York Times!  I have many pet peeves and now that’ll probably be one of them.  She hates the heat but has never, ever worn shorts in the garden.  She loves “screaming, outsize foliage,” which I’ve never really tried.  And boy, can she go geeky, explaining anemophily and other arcana from the natural world.  (I’m a fan of science, too, but reading it makes me glassy-eyed.)


Some of my take-aways from Backyard Parables are:

  • To consider a higher tolerance for color.  Margaret explains that “There are few places where adults can act out and be applauded for it, where we can color outside the lines with impunity, but the garden – your own backyard – is a haven for outlandish behavior.  What goes with what?  Whatever the proprietor deems appropriate.l  Screw everyone else; this is my place.”  Damn right.
  • The long sidebar “12 Steps to a Bird-Friendly Garden” is golden, including  “Less mown lawn means more botanical complexity”  and the step of creating an “edge habitat.” Oh, and evergreen cover.  I’ll be appropriating her list (with credit, grudgingly) in my efforts to get more people gardening in my town, where there’s plenty of old trees and lawn, and not enough of anything else.
  • Echoing Margaret’s experience of gardening as a spiritual practice, she spends lots of time observing and writing about nature; I could do more of that. And despite gardening in Upstate New York, fer crissakes, she never bitches about winter.  Just this morning she wrote this in an email to me: “Really cold here, but a little snow cover, so I am grateful for anything winterlike, I think.”  Love that attitude.

Click here to see my earlier post about Margaret’s garden, with some of her gorgeous photos.

what, no giveaway?

Not here, but click here to find lots of giveaway opportunities across the blogosphere.

Photo credit.


  1. I thought I was in my shrub phase. I moved to a much smaller property, planted trees and shrubs and lots of easy care foliage plants. I was fine for a couple years, but now I’m back salivating over lilies, roses, gaura, anything with a bloom really. Oh dear. But I am a lower maintenance garden, I do let things stand through winter, and just break the stocks up with my hands and leave them in the garden in the spring (if they bother me that is).

  2. I am wondering what the basis is for Margaret saying, “horticulturalist” is a non-word? I admit to changing my career from horticulturalist to horticulturist a little while back, but are they not both words? I am confident that what I do involves horticulture. According to The USDA, “Horticulturists work in crop production; plant propagation; plant breeding; genetic engineering; plant physiology; plant biochemistry; landscape design, installation, construction, and maintenance; and storage, processing, and transit (of fruits, berries, nuts, vegetables, flowers, trees, shrubs, and turf). They improve crop yield, quality, nutritional value, and resistance to insects, diseases, and environmental stresses. They make plants more adaptable to different climates and soils and better fit for food uses or processes. And they grow and improve plants used for medicines or spices.”

    Just curious.

  3. Wonderful review/personal essay, Susan. I’m a bit older than the two of you and have downsized in place in my garden with intense gardening in small areas and the rest gradually being transformed to a the shrub garden Mr. Stefano mentions. Getting an occasional hired helping hand is my best advise. Takoma Park properties are just too big for doing all the leaf raking at my age. Plus I’ve learned to avert my eyes when it suits me.

  4. Thanks Susan, for your very lively look at my book (and our common plights as shrub-season gardeners, in particular).

    It was as ever fascinating to see what bits stuck with you; you really zeroed in on my pet points.

    As for “horticulturalist” I don’t see it (and never have) in “Webster’s Unabridged” nor “The American Heritage College Dictionary,” which of course do list horticulturist. I count among my close friends many, many horticulturists, but I don’t think the other is a word so I don’t know any of them! (<–smiling.)

  5. O! How to cope with coming across not just one, but two possibly like minded and interesting, challenging garden writers in one go and first thing in the morning too….

    Issues of being driven to this thing – creating a place, and issues of how to go on coping: how can it be even possible to think of leaving a garden you’ve made over seasons and traumas?

    Off to find out more about both of you.

    XXXXXX Anne

    PS I don’t know what a horticulturalist is either. Or, for that matter a ‘master gardner’. But then, I’m from the UK…

  6. Hello Susan
    I jumped into ‘shrubdom’ when I left CT and retired to a 50 acre farm in Vermont seven years ago. What fun it was to start a garden from scratch. This time it was just for my wife and I, no one else. Following Marco Polo Stufano example we have used “color to make the heart sing.” I have also created a willow nursery taking me into an area of horticulture that is new to me and exciting. As a 71 year old horticulturist (don’t know any of those “uralists” either) I can tell you condo living is only interesting when I am wintering in the Santa Fe, hiking and soaking up some other kind of culture. Isn’t Woo-Woo Margaret special!

  7. So much wisdom in Margaret’s book about both gardening and living well (which does not translate EASY). ‘The Backyard Parables’ teaches many hard learned lessons, and is a valuable read for not only the novice gardener who has much to learn, but the seasoned one as well, who can chuckle and nod in agreement.

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