Margaret Roach on Garden Writing and The Backyard Parables, plus Inkitchen’s First Contest

As garden blogger, I owe Margaret Roach a lot, and have already thanked her for being such an ongoing inspiration.

But it’s more than time to thank her again, and not just for A Way to Garden, blog extraordinaire.  Although she’s working more than full time to build A Way into what I’m sure will soon be a horticultural empire (look out P.W.; there are people as enterprising as you are who can actually write, to say nothing of taking better photographs), she has continued to be a generous friend to all her fellow members of  the plant-besotted community.

That being the case, it’s no surprise that dozens of us who’ve  been given the chance have joined the “ blog book tour” for her latest book, The Backyard Parables.

the backyard parables, margaret roach, cover

Seldom have I seen a book’s cover more in tune with its content: One part ephemeral, beautiful, slightly funny gift from nature; two or more parts eternal, beautiful, serious-but-non-judgmental more or less Buddhist philosophy.


Margaret has now done a very great many interviews, in person, on the radio and online, and although I don’t know whether she’s as bone exhausted as she has a right to be (I’d be comatose, myself), I do know it made a lot of sense to take her suggestion and confine myself to one question. Being me, I cheated a bit and made it an essay question.

Leslie: Both in print and in person you often say, in moving and inspirational ways, that your garden has saved you, that it’s so much a life partner the two of you are more or less married. Being a long time fan of A Way To Garden, which grows more wide ranging, handsome and instructive with every passing year, I can’t help wondering: isn’t this really a threesome?

Ever since you made the commitment to live with your garden full-time, the blog has been an outlet for your writing, an incentive to hone your ever more formidable photography skills, the salon to which you have welcomed thousands of virtual friends and (perhaps not least) an opportunity to exert the kind of control that’s impossible in the garden. Please discuss.


Margaret: Had you not just said this “out loud,” I suppose I would have put the three-part harmony together in my mind only semi-consciously. But of course: You are right. (And I’d guess that perhaps the same holds true for you, which might be why you are particularly aware of the website’s role for me, for us.)

In the nearly 30 years I’d been a journalist before I moved upstate fulltime, and unplugged from the outlet—the connectivity to an audience, and the collegial environment of an office—that professional journalism provides, I’d always had both colleagues and a community of readers. Then, poof!—no more of either. Uh-oh.

So I guess even though I couldn’t literally replace the colleagues, I started A Way to Garden to at least have that ongoing conversation that readership provides. Since Day 1 of the website, I have heard what other gardeners are wondering, worrying about, wanting to find.  That has been an enormous help to me, making me feel like I am still a journalist, and part of something. It has also introduced me to virtual colleagues (like you and other online garden writers).

At first I was like, “But what about photos? I have no photos!” and thought that would be the insurmountable obstacle. Coming from the Martha Stewart world, with its visual richness, I almost let the fact that I had no photo crew and stylist and art director stop me from making the website. Then I just got practical—rural living will do that to you on many fronts because necessity is indeed the mother of invention. I got a digital camera and a cable to connect it to my computer and experimented.

Turns out the camera, and the process of going outside with it (and not just a shovel!) in my hand has slowed me down, made me really notice things I never did when I was all about “chores, chores, chores.” It has helped me really see the garden, at last, to get to know it much better. And it has given me endless topics to write about. I see no end in sight.

margaret roache's desk

Margaret’s desk is the dining room table. Makes sense, I don’t see how she finds time to eat, even though she does offer an occasional vegetarian recipe. That’s “Jack the demon cat” under the window.


As for control, well, you are correct there, too: It’s much easier to put forth a small window on something orderly and “together-looking” in a blog post than to make a 2.3-acre garden behave on schedule. (Or behave at all, sometimes.)

The constant reminder of who’s in charge (not us!) that the garden provides to me (rubs my nose in?) is its greatest lesson, or parable, to use the word from the new book’s title.

A reader who came to a bookstore event the other day said that in “The Backyard Parables” I write more about times of chaos and loss and when all goes haywire than I do on the website, and that she liked that. “Do that more on the website,” she said. “Show us your failures.” Sage advice, right?


As usual with Margaret, sage advice indeed. One of the best things about being a garden writer is that you’re not at all dependent on the garden’s doing well. It’s just as easy – easier, actually – to be both instructive and entertaining when you’re writing about failure and catastrophe.

I knew that long before I knew Margaret, just as I’ve long known that the same logic applies to food writing (one of many reasons I’ve never wanted to own a restaurant). But it did take Margaret to teach me how much blog readers love contests – at least contests that award valuable prizes.

So. Here’s our first contest! I will be giving away two copies of the Backyard Parables. To enter, use the comments. One winner will be chosen by blind drawing from the names of everyone who asks, even if all they say is “count me in.” The other goes to the person who is best able, in my sole judgment, to write without being cloying, predictable or religious about a happy garden experience. Feel free to be as wordy as you want. By the time we get to the comments, the only people still with us are readers. Contest ends on Fat Tuesday, February 12.

Contest update – just to be sure there’s no confusion. The Happy Story winner will be chosen first, then the names of all the runners-up will be added to the count-me-ins for the random drawing.

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  • Dana Said,

    HI there
    just found your site thru Margaret’s… thank you for having this contest!

    Welcome Dana, and congrats on being first name to go into the drawing. Maybe it’ll bring you luck!

  • Glenda Shaeffer Said,

    Grateful to have found your wonderful blog, Leslie. Thank you.

    Happy to have you aboard, Glenda.

  • Cheri Said,

    Count me in! Now I’m going to browse your site.

    Cheri, consider it done. Enjoy the browsing.

  • Janis Said,

    Which happy garden experience should I select? There are so many awesome things that occur. Last year we planted leeks for the first time. Not certain as to harvest time I left them in the ground too long and they became woody. We decided to let them go to seed. What an amazing display! Sixteen four foot high plants with glorious seed heads that attracted beneficial insects. This year there will be some for eating and some for nature.

    Hi Janis, that IS a happy story…

  • Maria Said,

    Count me in! Always enjoy reading your blog!

  • Sue Said,

    Just found you…love the blog!

  • Gina Fox Said,

    I designed my first garden nearly 25 years ago under the able guidance of Meg Crawford of Twin Ponds nursery in Rhinebeck. After much research I drew plan after plan. Measured. Dug and prepared for all the plants I had bought for a true cutting garden. I had much help from my 3 year old son Jack (now known as Jack Fox, Forager) and my new born Olivia laid on a blanket in the shade. After a long day of getting everything in, I looked it over with great pride. All the baby plants watered, mulched and tagged for identification. (Look, I’m a real gardener!). I took baby Olivia in. Washed up all the shovels, trowels, boots, etc. and as I’m drying my hands, Jack comes running up to the hose with both little fists filled with every identification tag I had so carefully attached. “Mom, mom…we left these in the garden!” I still love him to pieces but ever since that day, each of my four children had their “own” garden. He still brings me ramps and morels every spring to make amends.

  • Terri Ashby Said,

    It’s always fascinating to see where a writer works. I have my little dog ‘Harry’ with me and an old grey tabby cat ‘Gypsy’ who always gets between me and the computer screen!

    An inspirational blog! Thank you.

  • Carol Freeman Said,

    Hi, count me in.

  • Kelly M Said,

    My Happy Garden Experience – I bought a flat of asparagus roots at a local hort society’s sale. I came home, read up on what to do with them and then got to work. Dug and dug, lugged soil and compost, made mounds to spread the roots over, back filled ….. and then watched and talked to the tiny little fronds for the rest of the summer. Winter came and I worried and fretted over my little asparagus babies. Spring came and I must have looked like a complete psycho because first thing EVERY morning, out to the asparagus patch I went …. and with my face about 2 inches from the soil looked and looked to see any sign of life … any at all. Day after day, I crouched down and studied the soil. When I was just about to give in to total depression …… what? what’s that? ….. a teeny tiny asparagus spear poking it’s beautiful little head out of the soil. I swear to you, I did the “Snoopy Dance of Spring” right there in full sight of anyone who was watching. If they didn’t already think I was a nut job, well they sure did now !! I was ecstatically happy and told EVERYONE who would listen that my asparagus was growing. This year will be the year that I will be able to FINALLY harvest some asparagus and I am SOOOO excited – but I don’t think anything will ever beat that feeling of pure and absolutely joy that I had when I saw that first little asparagus spear poking out of the soil.
    Thank you.

  • Sharon Said,

    Please count me in.
    Years filled with ‘happiest moments’ swirled together with horrors and failures. Like my life, the happiest occlude the saddest. Today, a 10″ seedling stewartia purchased at a symposium in Boston in 1988 is taller than my second story ceiling.

  • carolyn Said,

    I have been with your blog site for sometime and enjoy each reading. I always read with a smile, a nod of the head or a thought of I must try that.

  • Kerin Norris Said,

    Hi, I would love a copy for myself, I did purchase one but had that sent straight to my sister for a birthday present,as I know she will just love it!

  • Sosh Said,

    Count me in please.

  • Matt Said,

    Count Me In!!!

  • Ashley Said,

    My daughter (5) has been helping my parent plant their garden since she was 2 and every year I just love watching how much she learns about the food cycle/life in general from doing that. (I also love that I can get her to eat her veggies if I remind her that they’re the ones she planted)One of my favorite pictures is of her walking through the rows of corn that were now well above her head admiring “her” work. I’m so excited this year to be able to put our own garden and for her and my toddler son to be able to watch in their own backyard how gardens change throughout the summer and maybe learn how much patience is involved. Plus nothing beats the excitement in a little ones eyes when they bite into the first fresh harvest of the year.

  • Donna Helmes Said,

    Please count me in!

  • Krysta Said,

    When reflecting on my favorite garden experience, dozens of memories of moments spent with my two year old last season popped into my mind. I was trying to pick a favorite, shuffling through all of his moments of wonder and discovery. Each of these memories are dear to my heart, but I realized none of them are my favorite. With a two year old, moments of discovery are plentiful,everything is fresh and new. In my heart, it became clear that my favorite gardening moments are those I spent on my grandmothers porch. I am relatively new to gardening (about 4 years) but have dove in whole heartedly. Everyday I spend time reading, researching, planning, and gardening. My grandmother has been gardening for over fifty years. I look to her as a wealth of experience. We will sit and talk about gardening, and at first I would just sit and listen, trying to commit each of her tactics to memory. Slowly I began adding in little tidbits of gardening information or hints I had researched or read about. To my suprise, my grandmother was enthrolled with the new ideas, I could bring up. Through our conversations, I began to see in her (and feel in myself) the wonder and discovery I see daily from my two year old.

  • Tina Knezevic Said,

    Please count me in!

  • Jessica Said,

    Count me in! 🙂

  • Judith Flynn Said,

    Thanks to Margaret Roach for bringing me to your blog. Saw the recipe for Prunes in Armagnac – perfect…… my husband loves prunes and can’t get enough of them.

    Happy Garden Story from last week:
    Seen and Scenes from My Connecticut Garden while walking with a light foot, searching out deer damage and armed with preventative.
    Underfoot, the grass a bit greener, daffodils peeking out; Up above, buds swelling on
    branches; In the air, the sweet song of the birds and the unmistakable smell of spring to
    come. YES!!!

  • Carol Said,

    After forty years of marriage, my divorce took place seven years ago, and, with other items, I was left a garden that hadn’t been tended to for at least 25 years, was overgrown with vines extending across the yard, even to the asphalt of the driveway, and rampant poison ivy. Although the house was also falling apart, I threw myself into the reclaiming of the property, which extended 400 feet back from the house. On many days, for many weeks, for at least four years, I worked for most of the day, dirt under my fingernails, back hurting from pulling up vines and lariat-roping them into bag after bag, and task after task first waiting to be done, and then being accomplished, all with manual tools. As my outside ownership slowly came back to life, so, too, did I heal my heart. Inch by inch, all grew from brown and brittle to green, growing and glowing.

  • Annie Mesa Said,

    One of my most memorable garden experiences took place in a garden not my own, not even in my own country. I was 27 years old, newly married and so in love with the world and life. We had spent 3 challenging and exhilarating months bicycling around Scotland in the cold and rain, and were in the Normandy region of France, enjoying incredible food and warm sun before our return to America and the rest of our lives. One Sunday in a small village, walking up the street from our small hotel towards the church, we passed by a tall hedge with a faded turquoise garden gate complete with a small opening in the top through which we peered. Enclosed by the hedge and beyond the gate lay a delightfully chaotic garden. Espaliered fruit trees in neat rows appeared to be the only orderly element. There were raised beds bursting with August’s vegetables, flowers rampant with color laced among the chard and the tomatoes, cucumbers intertwined with melons on a netting wall, the low hum of bees and the constant warbling dialogue of the birds. In the background of all the exuberance came the sound of water moving over stones, a hidden fountain. I was enchanted, exhilarated, and completely opened up to what a garden could be. We walked on, feeling a little shy about invading the privacy of this hidden place, and attended church services in an old, small scale gothic cathedral, surrounded mostly by elderly women dressed in black. The service was in French and Latin and with our phrase book French, the words flowed over and around us and we understood next to nothing of what was spoken. What we did get was that the words and the rituals were important in the lives of these people, and we felt privileged to experience the fringe of that. Of course, our post church meanderings found us back at the blue gate later that day, and as I paused to peek in again, an older woman (probably younger than me at this point in my life!), looked up from her crouch in the flowers, saw me looking in, raised her arms in an exultant pose, and just laughed! I laughed, my husband laughed, the birds chattered, the flowers shimmered, and I knew I would have a figurative blue door into my own gardening rites and rituals wherever I lived, and that my gardens would bring me such joy. And so they have, and do continue, hopefully until I am old and grey and exultant in my garden.

  • Kathy Said,

    Please count me in on the contest. Happy gardening experience is working w/my grandmother in the garden as a child. I learned a lot and really enjoyed shelling peas.

  • Rachel Said,

    Just moved into my first home of my own and am delighting in learning my way around my garden. Hoping to plant a fig tree – my favorite! – next weekend.

  • Sarah Said,

    A happy gardening experience has been the redesigning of my front garden. Like most, it faces out to our street, and ours is fairly shallow, maybe 25 feet deep, and about 40 feet wide. I wanted sitting areas there, for it to have a sense of enclosure– a place that felt “protected”–but not entirely cut-off from passersby. Not many people seem to spend time in their front gardens unless they have a porch, which seem to offer just enough separation from the street, via higher altitude, to make people comfortable spending time there. But we have no such porch, and as we were soon going to be constructing an addition to the back of our house, and anything I did there would be temporary, I forged ahead with revamping the front garden. This could be a space where I could just sit (maybe even with my husband if I could convince him the mosquitoes weren’t biting) read the paper, sip a glass of wine, and say hello to various neighbors out walking, even welcome them into the garden for conversation.

    So, a low stone wall (no more than 24” on the inside elevation) went up around the perimeter of the front yard, with a generous opening for the front walk running from the street to a broad landing of brick and flagstone below the front stoop and our front door. The front walk dissects this garden into nearly equal halves.

    Our new landing features large containers, but it’s also big enough to accommodate two chairs on one side of the stoop. A large sitting stone straddles this landing area, and an adjacent pea gravel sitting-area about 9 feet in diameter, which is on one side of the front walk. Two low¬-slung chairs work best here, anything taller and I feel too exposed and seems out of scale with the space. I haven’t found the perfect chair yet, but those collapsible metal beach chairs are about right, and two fit easily with room for a small table (the top of a stump?). Sitting in one of these, I’m hugging the gravel and looking across the front walk to the other side of the garden to the north, towards our driveway hidden by the wall and plantings, and our other adjacent neighbor’s house. I feel enveloped by the garden, the now 4 to 5 foot Bottlebrush Buckeye screening my back and separating me from my next door neighbors to the south, and a second stand at the northeast corner of the garden providing a screen from the cars coming up the hill. Facing the street to my right, there is a an evergreen Daphniphyllum in the corner, which eventually could be limbed up when it’s larger, but for now provides partial screening from the street. Some Euonymous americanus stretches across in front of the wall, providing a nice see-through screen. A couple of erect Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ planted outside the wall next to the sidewalk do the same.

    I’ve played with the symmetry of the garden, going with it by placing two round Ilex glabra ‘Shamrock’ on either side of the walk near the entrance from the street, and two sentinel-like European hornbeams flanking the walk a bit farther into the garden. I intend to keep them pruned, clipped even, as they are a satisfying foil for the bold texture and more informal outline of the Buckeyes. Just as grammatical punctuation encourages a pause or a breath in the reader or speaker, this living punctuation elicits a minor pause – even if a nearly imperceptible half-note – in the visitor as they enter the garden. It’s a subtle way to reinforce — that was “public,” this is “private.”

    I’m not sure if it’s the formality or the structure, or both, of this entrance planting that provides additional separation and therefore comfort to me when I’m sitting in the front garden, but somehow it has contributed to the feeling of enclosure I was seeking without sending a message of “keep out.” (The step up from the sidewalk into the garden also helps signal a transition. ) There’s an abundance of more naturalistic, informal, asymmetrical plantings in this space, as well — pools of ground covers of various textures cover the garden floor, the lawn having been eliminated. And a large Green Ash creates a canopy overhead to at least half the garden. All of this, too, helps make a sanctuary.

    So have I succeeded in what I set out to do? Well I do gravitate to my front garden to sit alone and relax, have a cocktail with my husband, or just stare off into space. If I want, I can situate myself so I won’t be engaged by, say, anyone walking by with their dog. But several times during the warmer months, when neighbors have spied me in one of our sitting spots, they have, happily, paused to say hello, to browse the garden, and a few have come on in for a chat. Indeed, I think I must have done something right, for these moments in my garden—that allow me to detach from the outside world, and, at other times, connect with my neighbors—are truly happy gardening experiences.

  • Peggy Said,

    I am 81 years old and love gardening even yet. My favorite part is sharing with my niece, Brece. She loves it also but has a much larger arena for it than I. She lives in Mass. and I live in Virginia, so we must talk fast when we have a chance to share.
    I would like to be included for an opportunity to win also.
    Thank you very much.

  • tropaeolum Said,

    Perhaps it isn’t a happy experience, but it is one that has stuck with me…

    Several years ago, I was gardening in my parents’ front yard when I heard a bird hit a window. I walked over to see if the bird was still alive and discovered a ruby-throated hummingbird laying stunned in the pachysandra. I picked it up because I didn’t want a cat or dog to kill it. It was so light, so delicate! I believed that it needed nectar, so I carried it around and offered it nasturtiums, fuchsias, hybiscus, calliandra, etc. It sat in my hands and obediently drank from the flowers while I watched in wonder. After several minutes, it was strong enough to climb up my shirt. I walked it over to a daylily, picked it off my shirt, and laid it inside the large blossom, and then walked away. A few minutes later I saw it fly off.

    There is something so special about hummingbirds. Cradling one in my hands was an unforgettable experience.

  • Jeannette Fisher Said,

    Count me in. Looking forward to visiting here more often.

  • Donna Said,

    Please count me in!

  • Emma Dickson Said,

    Please count me in.

  • Brenda Bit Said,

    Count me in!
    Great new blog find thru Margaret!

  • Debby Callahan Said,

    Please count me in! I can’t wait to read more!

  • Gene Said,

    I live in North Dakota. An awful place to garden, so I might as well read about it during the winter. I will be happy when the last frost is gone and I don’t have to rely on just my limited window space for gardening.

  • Deborah Banks Said,

    All gardeners experience many moments of happiness in the garden, such as the joy of seeing a new plant taking hold and pushing out leaves, the pride of sharing the garden with friends through tours and digging up plant starts for them, and the satisfaction of looking at the results of a hard day of work. All of these make me happy. My favorite moments are those times in the evening when my husband and I sit on a bench at the top of the garden, relaxing with our beers while I talk about newly blooming plants and point out nice plant combinations. In turn he tells me about his work in the vegetable garden that day. Then we just sit for a while listening to the mourning doves in the spruce trees or the chatter of a flock of red-wing black birds. Our dogs start barking for attention, ending our break, but the shared moments stay with me.

  • Sally Said,

    My earliest gardening memories are of my grandmother’s backyard flowers. She lived in a brick rowhouse in an old Baltimore neighborhood called Wyman Park. Three sides of her yard were bound by chain-link fence – separating her from the Lafayettes and the Perrys on either side and the alley in the back. I was most fascinated by the seedpods and buds and the anatomy of the flowers. I would spend hours pulling the husks off the dry, flattened wheels of hollyhock seedpods and finding the ring of flat brown seeds, separating them and spreading them out to dry. Perennial sweetpeas twined in and out of the links of the fence; when their seedpods were ripe enough, I’d collect the brown, shiny seeds. Grandmother had beautiful blue cornflowers, too, and Peace roses. I don’t know if you can have a cottage garden behind a Baltimore rowhouse, but those beautiful, classic, country flowers lined the three runs of fence, becoming part of my childhood memories of happy hours in her garden, exploring seedpods.

    How nice to hear from a fellow seedpod enthusiast! Hollyhocks are a favorite of mine, too. So orderly.

  • Sandy Douglass Abalos Said,

    My happy garden experience is finding the first greenery poking up from the ground, sometimes in surprise places, from bulbs I carefully planted. Thanks to the squirrels, birds, raccoons, possums or whomever dug up & relocated these bulbs–it’s like finding a secret buried treasure!

  • rachelle Said,

    Hello Leslie – Got my hot chai in hand and some wonderful reading to do here – Thank you for your inspirations!

  • Leslie Said,

    Welcome to the blog, Rachelle, Sandy,Sally, Deborah, Gene, Debby, Brenda, Emma, Donna, Jeanette, Tropaeolum (nice nom-de-trowel!), Peggy, Sarah, Rachel. Kathy, Annie, Carol, Judith, Jessica, Tina, Krysta, Donna, Ashley, Alan, Matt, Sosh, Kerin, Carolyn, Sharon, Kelly, Carol, Terri, Gina, Sue and Marie… what a happy garden party!

    And what a bunch of inspiring stories! I hope you’re all having as much fun with them as I am.

  • Karen Said,

    What a wonderful dimension you’ve illuminated – the threesome of garden, gardener and audience/enjoyers. It has me thinking that, rather than considering as happenstance the visitors, the occasional photographs my friend with the huge view camera makes (she likes the old-fashioned feel of the herb garden), and the sharing of vegetables as summer fills that garden to overflowing… rather than just chance occurrences these are really part of my purpose in gardening. Thank you for bringing that into focus for me, that I intended my garden to share.

    Nicely put, Karen, I agree – more and more as time goes on – that one of the great things about gardening is the power it brings to bring good things to others.

  • Kristin Freeman Said,

    I have just found your blog and am delighted to now follow you. Also love that you have Margaret’s book as a giveaway. Please count me in on that.

  • Carol Bryner Said,

    A happy story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. When I was nine years old I planted bachelor button seeds in a strip of dirt between the lawn and the white picket fence of our Connecticut home. Then I went away to camp. Thinking about my potentially beautiful flowers helped relieve homesickness, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Wallingford and see my little garden.

    What I remember now is the excitement of the anticipation and not the happiness of the real flowers, which is a good thing, since my father, unrepentant and claiming that “they looked just like grass”, had mowed them flat.

    We learn early on how to make our own happiness and how to tell our own happy stories. The gardens of my imagination help me weather the long winters in Alaska, where I now live. On the canvases I paint and in the stories I tell, flowers can bloom at any time and in any place, without the threat of overzealous yard maintenance.

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