Life lessons in the art and ardor of gardens

This time of year, when Margaret Roach looks at the remnants of her garden in western New York State, she doesn't bemoan the faded hosta leaves or feel nostalgia for the boon times of summer as many gardeners do. Instead, she enjoys the leaves' translucent, almost parchmentlike texture and enjoys winter and dormancy.

"I need a rest, just like the bulbs do," she says with a quick laugh.

Ms. Roach's dual roles - as garden editor for Martha Stewart Living magazine and homeowner with 2-1/2 acres of rolling countryside - keep her in constant motion. She has also written several books, including her most recent, "A Way to Garden" (Clarkson Potter, $30), which has made her a perennially popular speaker on the garden-lecture circuit.

While Roach can reel off Latin botanical names with ease, she remains deeply focused on what brought her to gardening in the first place: the inspiration and energy that flow between a gardener and her plot of earth.

In "A Way to Garden," the author follows that inclination, reveling in the serenity of nature, but also offering tips on how to get around the thorny patches.

In a telephone interview from her office in New York City, and later at a presentation at the Massachusetts Horticulture Society in Wellesley, Mass., Roach talked about her approach to gardening.

"In my writing, and in my lectures, I ask people to look beyond the big, obvious blooms of a peony, rose, or hydrangea," she says. "I like for them to look elsewhere, too, at a shoot coming through the ground [in spring], for example. And even this time of year, to notice the seedheads that plants leave behind, and how much fun the birds are having with them. Look at the miracle that represents."

Roach is unapologetic about using religious imagery to describe nature, because, for her, nature teaches about larger issues. "Gardening has a spiritual dimension, if you let it," she says. "You have to acknowledge that you can't control the forces at work. [They're] bigger than you are."

Roach's serious interest in gardening began 25 years ago, when she moved back to her childhood home in the Queens borough of New York City to help care for her ailing mother. Yard work offered breathing room and a distraction from domestic tasks.

As she pruned, planted, and tended the garden, and "made big mistakes along the way," she found a peace that stayed with her. Her mother was eventually moved into a nursing home and later died.

"I have a lot of experience with the deaths of people close to me," Roach says quietly, but she adds that watching the cycles of death and rebirth in the garden has taught her to be less afraid of these passages. "The winding down that autumn symbolizes and the dying back in winter - these are great taboos for us culturally. But without winter, there would be no spring. All the seasons are part of an organic whole."

For the past 15 years, Roach has watched the seasons change from her renovated farmhouse in Columbia County, New York. From spring to fall, she splits her week between that house and a home in Queens, from which she commutes to the magazine's offices in Manhattan.

In the beginning, Roach did nearly all the gardening herself; these days, a savvy neighbor does much of the maintenance.

Roach remains a hands-on gardener, and she laughs ruefully at the memory of lessons learned the hard way. "Gardening isn't a science, it's an art," she says. "While certain parts of gardening require that you understand the basics, there are no guarantees."

She casts a somewhat skeptical eye on such sacrosanct rules as the one that says gardeners should follow the USDA hardiness map, which divides the country into climate zones according to lowest average temperatures.

Following that guide, a garden in Zone 5 should not contain plants rated for Zone 6 or higher, because they won't survive the winter.

Gardeners sometimes try to get around these ratings by seeking out a "microclimate" in their yards - such as an area with southern exposure - that will support plants from the next highest zone.

But Roach has a warning about microclimates. Plants sited on the southern side of a building are more vulnerable to vicissitudes of weather, such as early thawing, or temperatures that soar in the daytime and plummet at night, which will often kill off flowers on such trees as magnolias.

Better to plant the same tree on the northern side, says Roach, so that it sleeps a little longer and wakes when the weather is more settled.

She considers herself more as an impulsive experimenter than a garden designer, and so urges that gardeners not be afraid to move plants around.

She also recommends keeping a garden notebook, and, in each season, seeing which plants bloom at the same time and might look good grouped together. She does this by clipping and pressing blooms into the notebook, or at least photographing them.

What most impresses Roach is the camaraderie that exists among gardeners.

"Ninety percent of them want to give you some plant, and the other 10 percent want a cutting from your garden," she says of gardeners. "They are seized with a lust for every plant - they want to own it, to try it. They have a curiosity."

But at the same time, she cautions against the dissatisfaction that can creep in when a gardener comes up against limitations.

"So many of us want what we don't have, and have what we don't want. One of the biggest lessons of the garden is to want what you have. If you have shade, don't plant roses. But you can create a woodland, and that is not a bad thing. Don't waste time on that longing. See what other incredible plants are out there."

Roach says she knows firsthand how hard it is to be practical, in gardening and in living. "For me, this is my whole life, to be at peace with what is."

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