2013: my good, bad, and ugly garden year

IF I HAD TO GIVE 2013’S GARDEN A NAME, I guess I’d borrow one from Clint Eastwood’s early career: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Thankfully, il buono—represented then by Clint’s role as Blondie—came out ahead this time, too. But did we really have to go through quite so many shootouts, hangings, and battle scenes to get to the buried treasure? Oy. A recap, in words, photos, and videos (including my public-TV debut, above) of a wild, worrisome, and also truly wonderful season.

January: It started out with a bang, and a new book: “The Backyard Parables” earned praise from readers that included Liz Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” renown (who called my book, “a blessing.”) My weekly public-radio podcast got a new format in January, too (see the March entry for the payoff!).

Feb. 9, 2013 snowfall, Margaret Roach gardenFebruary: What I want in winter is a big, fluffy duvet of snow, and February cooperated (above, the back garden then). So far, so good. Defying the weather, I raced around nonstop to do lectures and bookstore signings. (By year end, the total events I would do would number nearly three-dozen! My old car and I are both showing the wear.)

The Guardian newspaper garden blog logoMarch:  “The Guardian” newspaper in England named my radio show in its top-5 garden podcasts, alongside programs from the BBC and the Royal Horticultural Society.  (What? You haven’t subscribed yet? The details for iTunes, Stitcher, RSS and more. It’s free.) All was basically well outdoors, and by month’s end, I was planting peas on schedule (with Mendel in mind).  I even wrote a piece for “The New York Times” op-ed page, on seed ethics.

homemade vegetable soupApril: The month was crazy-busy, of course; cleanup time always is. I launched a new seed-starting calculator on the website (when to sow what); planned my “soup garden”    (while continuing to dine on last year’s brew); scoured the web for seeds for my favorite but elusive sunflower…you know, the usual get-the-garden-going stuff, all done in a hurry.

May: Garden Conservancy Open Days began with a rainy tour, but hundreds of you came to visit, anyhow. I have never seen the garden’s flowering trees and shrubs—apples, crabapples, lilacs, etc.—more luxuriant. But before we could get to the next tour date, the year’s first really ugly outburst: The worst hail I have ever seen in more than 25 years of gardening here fell on May 21.  Goodbye, garden. (Note: This is the ugly part.)

rhubarb after hailstormJune: What is usually my busiest month of visitors saw the gates closed instead. The rakes came back out to gather the carnage, in the form of hundreds of wheelbarrows full of shredded foliage.  From the giant forest trees around me to my vegetable-garden garlic and rhubarb (above, what was a massive, 4-foot-tall plant), nothing seemed to escape—and all of it was strewn about, often far from where it had once grown. We salvaged the battered rhubarb stems for crumble, compote and even syrup (below) to eat and freeze. When life deals you lemons, and all that, right?

rhubarb syrup for drinksJuly: Because of loads of rainfall, the grass never slowed down as it often does in high summer. Vroom, vroom—and away I mowed, every few days. By now, most of the hail-battered ornamentals had sprouted new leaves—but smaller, pitiful ones, leaving lots of gaps. I shopped the summer sales for “filler” plants (because another tour was coming up a month hence), and meantime enjoyed the view of simpler things, such as the new unmown area up the hill, that was starting to really work, catching my eye and attracting dragonflies and other insects, birds and more. See the amoeba-like shaggy portion up by the copper beech tree in the photo below?

High summer view out back window of unmown area above houseAugust: All I remember about August centers on one very busy, very good week in the middle. First, Joe Lamp’l and his director of photography came to shoot an episode of “Growing a Greener World” to air on PBS affiliates. (That’s the whole show, including me, on the player up top if you care to stream it.) Then a couple of days later, on August 17, an astonishing 650 pairs of feet marched on the garden at my biggest Open Day ever. Insane. Wonderful, too.

applesauce to freeze in jarsSeptember: Again owing to plentiful rain, I have never had a better apple harvest from my century-old trees than I did this year, and it started early.  By mid-month I had exceeded my freezers’ capacities and was driving around looking for homes for quarts and quarts of Pink ‘Po Sauce, as my beloved niece calls it.

October: For the third time this wacky year: the cleanup begins! I took time out for a walk in my garden and the surrounding woods with a naturalist—adding through his savvy eyes many “aha’s” to all that I have learned this year from science-savvy guest experts on the radio show and blog. Around this point, I also realized that a hallmark of the year (and of the creatures I’d studied up on all season) was the word resilience.  My new mantra.

Marion and Margaret Roach with Brussels sprouts from Margaret's gardenNovember: The Brussels sprouts and I spent a very happy Thanksgiving with my sister and her family, thank you, after finishing most of the garden chores (no, not all!) and tucking in for the dark days.

December: Want to honestly know how I wasted much of December? I shopped for a car to replace my nearly 10-year-old one, and also for health insurance (along with millions of other “canceled” Americans). The results on both counts: frustration. On a more productive note, the website reached 1 million unique visitors this year (that’s 1 million different people who came to say hello). And more exciting:

I sat here typing in fixes and new features for A Way to Garden [dot] com. A website relaunch is the first achievement I hope to mark on the calendar for 2014 with a giant check, as in: mission accomplished.  Stay tuned! (And now cue up the most famous of soundtracks ever, from that classic spaghetti Western, won’t you?)

  1. JDJS says:

    Loved your description of December. I spent more hours than I want to admit comparing cars to replace my 10 yr old Volvo. Finally, said “Oh, hell, just do the easy thing” and bought the same model Volvo. Even more hours were spent trying to find new health insurance. I never successfully navigated the new site and finally said “Oh, hell, just do the easy thing”, called my current company and got a policy through them. Now the seed catalogs are coming in and I’m already imagining the perfect garden I will have in 2014. That’s why January is my favorite gardening month–I don’t have to deal with the reality of late freezes, hail, early heat waves, hungry groundhogs and the million other tragedies that will surely befall my garden. I can sit in my easy chair by the fire and imagine perfection.

  2. Sally Ross says:

    What a year! After all that practice in Resilience, lets hope the lovely dark days of winter bring some time Restoration. And maybe some health insurance (bloody hell New York, what were you folks thinking?). As for the car search, it seems that car makers are still caught up in the post 9/11 craze for get-away-fast SUVs. Wish they’d get over it and give us some wagons. Volvo where did you go? But January is, as JSDS said, the perfect month to sit by the fire and imagine perfection… Seed catalogs!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sally – and I laughed to read your characterization re: the SUV mania! Never thought of it that way, but YES. Want a new Saab wagon, but alas: bankrupt. Want a fuel-efficient small Volvo wagon with a stickshift (alas, no more such thing, either). My antique-car loving neighbor says restore the Saab and drive it for 10 (or 50) more years. At 30 mpg and super-safety-focused, I probably should! :)

  3. Molly says:

    What a year! Thanks for sharing the ups and downs and all sorts of fascinating and educational, fun and funny stuff with us. Smooth gardening and lovely times for you in 2014.

  4. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    The amoeba shot with the copper beech is SO inviting. I want to leap into the photo and dip my toes in the pond. Beautiful.

  5. Debby Goodrich says:

    Thank you Margaret !
    You have inspired me all year, even after I lost my special gardening friend at the beginning of June. My gardens were the best ever. Zinnias, Sunflowers, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers galore. The frogs in my little pond were very abundent. 2 of my kitties, Oliver and Roo helped me every chance they could. ( mousing is first of course ) I relished your new book and look forward to each new entry. Wishing you a very Happy New Year. Debby

  6. ellen says:

    question please, i have just moved to the south from ny, i had build my own pond there and loved it, my question is people are saying ponds in the south attract snakes (i have to say i hate snakes) is this true?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Ellen. I know, many people are skittish about snakes. But here’s the thing: Even up North here, we have water snakes, so you may just have never seen one! (And even snakes up here who are not called “water” snakes, such as our common garters, can swim. Truly.) :) Some Southern states do have a venomous snake that likes to be in water or near water — the cottonmouth or water moccasin — that we don’t have, and copperheads (which we have here, too) like to be near water, too — as do many non-venomous species that find good food sources in and near water (such as frogs to eat).

      So a pond wherever it is can be an attractive habitat for snakes (and for birds, and frogs, and salamanders, and dragonflies, and other insects, and mammals….). Lots of action near a water feature! Before I worried I’d get some expert advice from a local resource such as my County Cooperative Extension or state Dept. of Environmental Conservation.

  7. kristi says:

    This was my first year having a greenhouse so it was an “experimental” year but this year should be better! I always enjoy reading your blog for ideas. I especially liked the Growing a Greener World entry! Looking forward to all the seed catalogs coming!

  8. Stephen Andrew says:

    Ahhh I hear you on the Saab woes. I had a pretty white Saab convertible. Saab actually filed bankruptcy about four hours after I bought mine. That car was cursed but I loved it. Like a big, fast boat. My vote on your new car is an Audi Allroad. I probably don’t get a vote-but if I did that would be it :) happy new year! Love the photo of you and your sister.

  9. Carole Clarin says:

    I dread the day when we have to replace a car, hoping that our 2001 Acura and 2007 VW AWD
    wagon, no longer available, last for many more years. However, we have made a list of requirements for a new car, just in case, including features we do not want since the cost of repair is obscene! My husband dreams of an Audi AWD wagon… Enough of that-you made it through a challenging year with flying colors and in spite of setbacks I have always marveled at your incredible garden when I visited on open days. I wish you a peaceful winter (maybe yoga in GB) and a gardening season of cooperative weather! Happy new year and thanks for sharing your knowledge and encouraging so many of us to make that lemonade!

  10. Pat Yurkunas says:

    I had a lovely spring in the garden…then it got hot and wet and icky and I gave up for awhile! Some years you got it, some years you don’t!

  11. Paula deroy says:

    This was the year the critters invaded and decimated my suburban garden – chipmunks, squirrels, DEER, foxes, hornworms….
    Stems were all I had left by August. So I really enjoyed seeing your garden grow.

  12. Matt Mattus says:

    I am SO happy that was able to view your appearance on PBS with Joe, and his show does not air here in the Boston area. You are a star on TV! You should do more. Your philosophies about organic gardening, soil, and color are fascinating and inspirational to hear, not to mention the guts it took to jump into what you love so deeply. I need some of that strength and confidence. When you mentioned that you always used the excuse that you had no time, I could hear my voice saying it hundreds of time. That, along with your “tolerances list” , you know, from your book, stay with me throughout most of my busy days each year while I am in meetings and meetings, and meetings. Soon. Soon.

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