Gardening all through the calendar
A crowd packed the Brubeck Room at Wilton Library on Monday, Oct. 7, intent on hearing Margaret Roach discuss gardening. Instead, she told, in her own words, “a love story.”
After more than two decades working in the corporate world — for Martha Stewart Living, The New York Times and Newsday — Ms. Roach retired to Columbia County, N.Y., where she had purchased a weekend house 27 years ago.
“Like any long-distance love affair, eventually you break up or one of you has to move, and my garden refused to move,” she said.
The six years she has been there full-time have been gratifying. “It means so much to me,” she said. She opens her garden several times a year to the public as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, and in August 650 people visited. Although at the end she and her property were a little ragged, she said, “I love seeing what other people see at the place I think I know so well.”
Ms. Roach entertained with garden war stories and showed slides of her property throughout the year, emphasizing that even though gardeners in the Northeast cannot plant year-round, “our relationship with the garden never stops.
“There is always something to see, from the sensuous curves of snow on a garden hardscape to green shoots emerging from black earth in spring to a riot of color in the summer to the dropping of leaves in autumn.
“What we need to do … is we have to adjust the way we see. We need to see more with our hearts than with our eyes.”
An organic gardener, Ms. Roach also warned against the use of commercial products such as fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. A garden that can be home to snakes, amphibians, birds, and other small creatures will have fewer pests.
“I love frogs,” she said. “Frogs have taught me a lot about patience, about waiting for things to happen.
“The next time you pass a caterpillar on a plant, resist the rush to crush,” she said, eliciting laughs from the audience filled with members of the Wilton Garden Club, which sponsored the talk, and garden clubs from neighboring towns. “Find out who it is you’re going to reflexively crush. Maybe you’ll like them instead.”
When Ms. Roach purchased her Victorian frame house, it was painted white and surrounded by a grass lawn. It has been many colors and now is olive with orange trim. She favors plants with gold foliage and bright-colored flowers.
“Don’t let anybody tell you there’s some rule that some things don’t go together,” she said in talking about colors. She urged everyone to plant what they like.
Color can also come in many forms, from flowers to stems, leaves, twigs, and bark.
She told the audience to consider where they most often see their garden from and plan from there. Many people forget they view their outside from inside their home.
Ms. Roach breaks up the gardening year into six seasons.
January and February make up the season of conception; the time for dreaming and planning the coming year.
March and April are the season of birth. The first perennial to bloom in her garden is the hellebore Christmas rose. “Early awakening pollinators are happy to have early pollen,” she reminded her listeners.
The season of youth is May and June. “Look for the subtleties, not just the obvious,” she said, showing a slide of hosta spikes breaking through the earth.
July and August signal the season of adulthood when the garden is going full bore.
The season of senescence — September and October — is the time when the garden is winding down. As with people, she said, this can be “a rich and interesting time” when the passing of life should be celebrated just as the coming of life is.
Finally, November and December mark the season of death and afterlife. Some plants will hold their fruits through the cold months, and others will add visual interest coated with snow or ice.
Two final tips she left her audience involve light and water.
“We’re blessed with very beautiful light in this region of the country,” she said. It can be as much a decorative element as anything else and should be taken into consideration so plantings do not block it.
“Having unfrozen water in your garden 365 days is the single biggest thing you can do to attract wildlife,” she added.
Ms. Roach is the author of The Backyard Parables, published earlier this year. Her garden blog is online at awaytogarden.com.