old gardeners, old gardens, new books: ken druse interviews margaret roach
THE LATEST PODCAST is special, because it’s a special time for me, just days from the 21st anniversary version of my first award-winning book, “A Way to Garden,” comes out in an all new edition. My longtime friend and regular guest on the show, Ken Druse, took the driver’s seat and interviewed me for a change.
I had to shut up and turn the mic over to Ken, an award-winning garden author and photographer of more books than I can count or apparently write myself. And he began (jokingly) like this:
Ken: “Hello and welcome to ‘A Way to Garden. I’m your visiting host, Ken Druse. I’m the author of, as someone said, soon to be 20 books on gardening, and our guest, our special guest today is someone who is familiar to all listeners to the radio show and the podcast and visitors to Margaret Roach’s blog, ‘A Way to Garden.’ It’s Margaret Roach.”
We then went on to talk more seriously about each getting older in aging gardens; about plants we’ve lost (and miss) and ones we wish would go away; about editing the garden; about how Margaret came to garden where she does, and more, including some of your questions.
ken druse’s interview of margaret roach
Margaret: Thank you for inviting me, Ken.
Ken: Well, full disclosure, I’ve known Margaret for more years than either of us would like to say.
Margaret: Do you have any idea how long it is? I don’t know.
Ken: What decade is this?
Ken: Since the … oh god, early 80’s, late 70’s, something like that.
Margaret: No, I think 80’s. O.K., cool. [Laughter.]
Ken: I was 6.
Margaret: Yes, right.
Ken: I think didn’t Grandma Marion introduce or something like that?
Margaret: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Ken: Well I have some questions and you got some listener/reader questions, and one of them is a question I have.
Ken: And it’s kind of funny. Yvette wrote: “How long have you had your beautiful home and how did you find it?” [Above, looking at the back of Margaret’s house from the upper meadow.]
And I remember what that house looked like when you first got it [laughter]. It didn’t look like it does now.
“You seem to have a very challenging area to garden,” she said. That’s the truth. And Yvette says: “I am curious about whether you thought about that when buying the house or just fell in love with the property?”
Margaret: You know, it’s funny, I was giving a lecture last night, a lecture I’ve given a lot called “The 365 Day Garden: Nonstop Plants.” And it’s kind of a love story, or history, of my former long-distance romance with the place that I now live full time and garden. You know, when I was a weekender and I would only be there two days a week, that’s why I say long-distance romance. And now it’s a full-time, seven-day-a-week romance.
I think back to that and I write about it and I talk about it in the lecture, but I’ve also written about it a lot. So what attracted me, I think, was the wide-open-spaces kind of thing, the ruralness of the place, and that it was surrounded by a 7,000-acre state park. So I didn’t really have visible neighbors, it was so different from … I was working in a skyscraper in New York City, I’d gone to college in New York City, I grew up in Queens.
It was so different that it seduced me instantly for its bucolic, rural, you know what I mean, farm-like. You know, there’s a dairy farm down the street, that kind of thing. So I think that’s what did. You’re right, it was a total dump, Ken.
Ken: [Laughter.] Well, like me you didn’t buy it for the house.
Margaret: No, no.
Ken: Now we both have nice houses.
Margaret: Yes. And yours is much beautiful than mine [above, a corner of Ken’s New Jersey home and garden], but it also, it was on a steep hillside, and it is a very tough site and I think that’s what Yvette is saying, very challenging, besides being a cold zone.
Ken: It was cold, yes.
Margaret: Yes, a cold Zone 5, 5B now we are, but formerly colder. Yes, the hillside thing is tough and I didn’t realize, because I was more of a beginning gardener then, I didn’t realize how complicated some aspects of gardening on a steep hillside were. But I was seduced by the state park and the open land and these big farm fields and the sky and the bucolic, old—it’s an 1880’s little farmhouse. I was seduced by the bigger aspect of the place.
Ken: Well, I’m not going to get into how you got a basement, although that just crossed my mind… [Ken is alluding to the fact that decades ago my oil tank leaked in the cellar, which used to have a dirt floor. Part of the cleanup and remediation was to excavate the tainted soil, then cap the surface with cement.]
Ken: …since we renovated over the years. We are talking about your newly revised book. You alluded to the fact that this is a new version of an older book. When was that first book published?
Margaret: 21 years ago this spring, so whatever that makes it, is that ’98 or something? In 2008 … Yes, ’98.
Ken: Well that book was mostly about making your garden, making your now famous garden.
Margaret: Oh yes.
Ken: In Copake Falls, New York.
Ken: But this book is larger and more lavish and has lots of really nice photos, and lots of helpful information, like your charts. The charts seem really useful, especially to your fans who have more sun than I do.
Margaret: Oh, you mean the seed-sowing charts? Like when to sow what? [The charts in the book are based on my online seed calculator.]
Margaret: For all different zones. Yes, Yes.
Ken: Of course, there’s the wit and wisdom and your lovely writing, and like the other book, but I think even more, this book is a memoir as well as a, well kind of a nonfiction guide. Did you turn to the old book to write this book? Is this an update or did you start over?
Margaret: Right. Well when I suggested to Andrew Beckman, a former colleague from “Martha Stewart Living” who’s now the head of Timber Press, the garden publishing division of Workman Publishing. I said to Andrew “You know, it’s going to be 21 years.” And he said, “Oh, I always loved that book, we should redo that book.”
So at first, I think we both thought, “Oh, she’ll just tweak it.” But then I looked and I said, “Let’s both look at it” and we had a phone meeting and we were both like, oh, more than tweaking. [Laughter.] Because my how times have changed, as I say at the beginning of the book and it really is different. I mean, what did we do about pollinator gardens then? What did we know about really, even native plants, you and I would visit New England Wild Flower Society and places like that, but those were the exceptions, not the rule, those kinds of places.
So, so many subjects we didn’t know about. So many plants that then were the “it” plant, the desirable plant, and now are known to be invasives that we all need to get rid of, that have crept all over our gardens, thugs. You know, lots has changed.
So that was the first pass, it was like oh boy, X’ing out some stuff that just is not right anymore, either ethically or because of plant availability, or aesthetically, or was just ill-informed, based on 20-plus more years of knowledge.
So that took out, let’s say, 25 percent of the stuff. And then maybe there was equivalent to another third again as long as the previous book of stuff that I know about now and I’m excited about now, that I’d never even heard of or tried then. I hadn’t had all the adventures, just like you I’m sure. You know what I mean. I mean, you’re propagating, and I know you’ve been propagating forever, but you’ve propagated many more things and figured them out, than you had 10 or 20 years ago.
So your knowledge has grown, my knowledge has grown. So there were subjects I wanted to add, that I’m excited about, about beneficial insects of different kinds, by that I mean native ones, not ones you order by mail. And you know, my thing for moths and birds, and lots of things.
So, I would say it’s probably one-third the original stuff, but updated. One-third new stuff, and one-third is like more than a little updated. You know, like 50/50 updated. Anyway, if that makes any sense. So it was a lot, and it’s all new pictures and, gosh, it’s about twice as big.
Margaret: It’s heavy, it’s big.
Ken: You’re saying this and I’m remembering when we thought when a plant spreads, we thought that was a good thing. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Well that’s the thing right? And I call them “certified confidence boosters,” and they are. They, Monarda makes you feel good about yourself and that’s nice, you know it spreads, but you have to know what to do next and then if it turns out that it’s an invasive plant, not just a very lusty, great native that’s really suited to pollinator attraction or whatever like Monarda, which you need to learn to manage in a mixed bed, if you put it in a mixed bed. Some of them you need to get rid of or never buy in the first place, so who knew? [Above, learn more about Monarda from this interview with Mt. Cuba Center’s George Coombs.]
Ken: Well I think your garden, well maybe all gardens, are metaphors for life.
Ken: And the sections of your book, you have Conception and Birth and Youth, Adulthood, and Senescence, Death and Afterlife.
Ken: It’s funny, when I say senescence, a lot of people say, “What is that?” and I say, “Well, it’s the opposite of pubescence.” [Laughter.]
Margaret: Exactly. It’s the winding down, it’s when you’re not making all kinds of new cells and growing up, it’s when you’re at the stage of life, if I dare say, that you and I are at, where there’s more days behind is than in front of us. We’re kind of falling apart a little bit around the edges. [Laughter.] Cell growth has slowed. It’s kind of a medical biology kind of a term.
So each section in the book, just like in the original book and just like I’ve always thought of the garden, again and again, and how in my lecture I talk about this, too, is anthropomorphize. The season of the year in the garden is anthropomorphized to be likened to the seasons in my own life from conception to death and afterlife, as you say, because I see the garden and the gardener as really, one organism with two parts, working together.
Ken: Yes. I’m still thinking about the spreading. What’s the worst plant you ever planted intentionally? Can you think of it?
Margaret: Oh it’s an easy question. It’s also the most popular story I’ve ever done on awaytogarden.com, Houttuynia [above]…
Margaret: …cordata, the chameleon plant, and it’s still for sale and I can’t believe it and you’ll never get rid of it. It’s a nightmare. Nightmare, nightmare. Yes.
Ken: Mine is a native plant that’s actually threatened in Massachusetts, Anemone canadensis.
Ken: And I was warned not to plant it, and I did.
Ken: It will definitely outlive me, it’ll be here forever.
Margaret: Yes. And it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s good in nature, because it can do its thing in wide open spaces.
Margaret: But no, it’s not a good companion—and that’s what I said about the Monarda, a lot of the bee balms are not a good companion for… do you know what I mean? For neighbors, they overtake their neighbors.
Ken: They do for you. What you need is more shade.
Margaret: [Laughter.] I know, I know, I know.
Ken: And then they’d be little spindly things, incredible to come back.
There are so many things that we’ve planted over the years, like they say they’re perennials, but I think they’re annuals. A lot of the woody plants in my garden are alive and have been here a long time. But when I look at pictures from 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. And the garden looks great, but those plants aren’t here anymore.
Margaret: I know.
Ken: They’re just gone. It’s almost like nothing lasts forever. What’s your worst or saddest loss? Can you think of something that you bought and it died? Or maybe something that you bought, died, planted again, died again, planted again?
Margaret: Yes, the woody plant that sometimes I’ll see it mentioned somewhere… I don’t have many roses, I have the blue-leaf rose, Rosa glauca or rubrifolia or whatever it’s called these days. I have a few of those because I like the foliage, but I had a rose called ‘Veilchenblau.’ [Above, ‘Veichenblau’ from Wikimedia Commons contributor Spedona.]
Ken: Oh, purple-y.
Margaret: Yes, it’s like a-
Margaret: Yes. It’s a really unusual color and I loved that thing, but the bed that it was in is now a patio. [Laughter.] So it was a sacrificial, you know what I mean, and I kept saying to myself, “Oh, I’m going to get another,” and I never did. There was nothing like that color, it was just an incredible color. So I still think about ‘Veilchenblau.’
And then, I don’t know, perennials. I guess early on, I started growing various of the hardier euphorbias, the spurges, and not the super-invasive crazy ones.
But I need to … some of them have now, talking of shade like you’re saying, the garden has gotten older and bigger, the woody plants have made more shade. And some of my favorite euphorbia, like Euphorbia palustris [above], or Euphorbia griffithii ‘Dixter’ [below] and a number of other ones, they just have gotten too much shade to really be … not that they need to be in baking sun, but do you know what I mean? They’re just not as happy as they c were and I need to give them more space. And a couple of them I’ve lost, so I used to love that gold, that chartreus-y color … you know what I mean, that color.
Margaret: And then silver plants.
Ken: I think you get some of these … oh, silver plants.
Margaret: Well I failed.
Ken: Well, we had a question about a silver plant. From Tracy, who said, “Everyone says lavender is easy to grow, I’m in Zone 5 and I can’t seem to over winter lavender, any hints?”
Margaret: Well I can tell Tracy how to kill it, if she needs more help with that.
Ken: [Laughter.] It’s easy to kill.
Margaret: I have a moist soil, I’m on a downhill, on the slope of a big hill and I have a very organic soil that has a lot of … it holds moisture well, I don’t have dry spots. I even have some places that are poor drainage. So including lavender, the silver-leafed plants are not my specialty, although I was very attracted to them early on in the garden and remember ordering everything–Ballota, B-A-L-L-O-T-A, I think, and who knows what else, from Well Sweep Herb Farm, which is still in existence over by you in New Jersey, and trying all these things and coddling them and whatever.
So I think the key with lavender is you’ve got to get the species and variety that are the most matched to your situation, and I don’t know enough about lavender. I mean, I’d call Well Sweep Herb Farm, let’s make it a commercial for Well Sweep. I’d call them and say, because they’re in what, Zone 6? I’d say, “Hey, which one is going to do the best for me?” I’d want to talk to a herb specialist to answer that question. [The Well Sweep plant list pdf has several dozen different lavenders listed, starting on page 46 at this link.]
Ken: Drainage, drainage, drainage.
Margaret: Yes, exactly.
Ken: Especially in the winter. Drainage.
Margaret: Exactly. Yes.
Ken: Well, let’s see. Joan Marie asked, this is pretty funny, “I’d like to know about your editing process in your gardens? What are the factors to remove plants? How often do you edit? Once a year?” That’s a funny question, isn’t it? [Laughter.]
Ken: It’s self-editing.
Margaret: And the hardest thing to learn as a gardener is to edit, I think.
Margaret: Our friend, Marco Stufano, formerly of Wave Hill, the public garden in Riverdale section of the Bronx. He says, “Bury your dead and fast.” And by that, he means if you have stuff that’s not really doing so well, like an under-performer, that looking a little nasty, just don’t nurse it along and have a spot where there’s this pathetic thing sitting there. You know, throw it away, compost it, try something different. And he’s very … he doesn’t think twice about that, about editing. But he’s a master, master designer and a master plantsperson. I want to nurse everybody along-
Margaret: You know what I mean. I don’t want to thin the carrots. [Laughter.]
Ken: That’s terrible. Especially when they’re having a slow, 10-year death.
Margaret: Yes. So as far as editing, what I find works best for me, if I walk around the place—and it’s very old now, the garden is more than 30 years old, so things have really changed and a lot of things have come and gone as we’ve been talking about. If I walk around, the whole place, and think, “Oh my god, I’ve got to fix this, I’ve got to fix that, oh I’ve got to …”
I’ve got to focus on one area each year and say, “Hey, let’s shape this back up,” right? One big bed, and my beds are really big, so that’s a project.
If I wander all over and try to edit, not so easy. Some plants need editing every year, like early on I planted Petasites x hybridus, a big-leafed thing that runs sideways 100 miles an hour. I still have the plant, but I have to dig a trench around it every year. So that’s editing, right? [Above, the Petasites in the foreground on a Open Day, with visitors strolling about.]
The Monarda that I keep mentioning, if I still had that bee balm, I would want to edit around its perimeter to keep it in check every year. So some plants need that every year.
Ken: Well that’s funny because to me, that’s almost like picking lettuce. You’re controlling, you’re harvesting, it’s not like … I mean, Marco would, oh this tree? Throw it out.
Margaret: Yes, yes. [Laughter.]
Ken: Not me.
Margaret: Yes, Yes, Yes.
Ken: It’s in the wrong place, well just plant stuff around it.
Ken Druse: So it looks like it’s right, and suffer for years.
Ken: You mentioned Wave Hill, so that makes me think, what gardens have inspired you the most that you’ve seen, and do you have a favorite garden ever? Besides your own?
Margaret: Ooh. Well I suppose … inspired me as in gave me confidence to make my garden on a steep hillside-
Ken: And turns you on. That’s two questions.
Margaret: Yes. It was Powis Castle in Wales of all the crazy things, which is a castle, with giant terraces leading up it from the valley floor. So nothing like my place, my little hillside and my dumpy little house. But, it said to me: if on this steep site can have become one of the world’s most visited gardens over so many years (I think it’s a National Trust Garden), I can certainly garden on a hillside. So that was one.
And I think the first time I went to Great Dixter in England, I think that shook me up because … In a lot of the books that I had read, it said what colors go together or don’t go together, like there was some kind of implied rules or something. And Great Dixter was just this incredible abandon and daring and I thought, “Wow you can do whatever you want. It’s your garden, go ahead.” You know what I mean? I felt an excitement seeing plants put together in ways that weren’t in the books.
I mean, of course they were in Christopher Lloyd‘s books, who made that garden; his mother had made it and then he continued it. But do you know what I mean? That weren’t in the other books that I was reading back at home. So those would be two highlights I recommend seeing in one’s lifetime.
Ken: Remember how we used to shop all the time and look for the latest plant and there were lots of nurseries and we would shop and shop.
Margaret: Yes. All gone.
Ken: And now, I find that I hardly shop at all, and I feel guilty because I wanted to support all these places. But there’s no room, and as I’m thinking of it, it’s sort of like, the garden has a peak and then it’s a slide.
Ken: And you’re planting and growing and planting and then you’re pruning and controlling, like the Petasites-
Ken: Do you know when that happened? Was there a period or time when-
Margaret: When the senescence began [laughter]?
Ken: Yes, right, I guess so.
Margaret: I think the first 15 years are uphill, and then I think after you get somewhere 15 and 20, you start to have some of the shrubs overtake each other and something’s got to give; you’ve got to take some out in the big borders. And you’ll have one too many ice storms and lose some of your woody plants, some of your backbone, your architecture. I mean, and a lot of the perennials as you said, are really more like long-lived annuals. [Laughter.] [Below: A truckload of shrub carcasses being carted away at Margaret’s after an October snowfall.]
Margaret: The so-called “short-lived” perennials. They disappear on you. We have about three minutes by the way, I can see the clock, but you can’t, even though you’re in charge.
Ken: Yes, I’m in charge.
Ken: So I mentioned that we don’t shop so much.
Ken: But is there a plant you’re wishing you had or is there something you’re thinking about getting or something you wish you had bought 10 years ago? Oh, there’s lots of that. What’s on your bucket list? Any shopping plant on your bucket list?
Margaret: I’m more and more, maybe because I’m overwhelmed at the prospect as I get older and older of being able to maintain even what I have and trying to simplify the areas that I have. I’m more and more attracted to things that I can put in a pot and enjoy for the season and then put it in the basement and store. And you and I both do that, we both have a lot of Eucomis [above, a collage of some of the pineapple lilies at Margaret’s]. And I’ve been interested in the aroids, like the Amorphophallus and the Sauromatum [below], the voodoo lily stuff.
I’m interested in these oddball, very … plants with lots of character, but that I can, again, have in a pot but have for many years and store in my basement. So that’s the thing that I find that when the catalogs do come, I look in that section.
Margaret: Yes, I don’t know why. But that’s one of the things that I’m still buying, is Eucomis and-
Ken: You like the stinky plants, and maybe we can think of something like “the schlep plants.” Because you’ve got to move them.
Ken: As long as we can still move them.
Ken: You have a hand truck I guess.
Margaret: I do, I do. I do, yes.
Ken: Wow. There’s so many things I want to ask you, I know we don’t have, but just a few minutes. You know, we’re talking about everything, life and death. And can you think of the saddest loss?
Margaret: I can’t remember which year it was, it was in the last six or seven or eight years. It wasn’t too long ago. We had a horrendous ice storm, a series of winter events, including a big ice storm. And a number of shrubs were erased. They were just broken beyond being able to rehabilitated with pruning. In my head right now, I can’t even think—as soon as we hang up, I know I’ll remember all their names.
But woody plants, I fear the loss of woody plants because it takes … I have this copper beach up on the hill that was 5 feet tall when I planted and now it’s this massive creature. I fear … or my Japanese umbrella pine. I fear the loss of woody plants more than anything else because they’re such important companions, you know.
Ken: It’s time. It equals time.
Margaret: It’s time.
Ken: And I guess, speaking of time.
Margaret: Speaking of time Ken Druse, thank you very much for doing this. And thank you very much for your kind words about the book also before. Thank you.
Ken: And what’s the name of the book?
Margaret: “A Way to Garden,” of course.
Ken: Yes, look for it. Right now.
Margaret: Right now. Go look for it. All right, well thank you, I’ll talk to you soon, O.K.?