Tilling the Soil Without Battling Mother Nature

This garden expert knows what's really in control

Many gardeners like to compare themselves to painters who have total control over the colors and canvas.

Margaret Roach sees things a bit differently. "Gardeners think they're in control, but ultimately all of the actors - plants, weather, climate, and soil conditions - are in charge," Ms. Roach says emphatically. "All a gardener can do is maintain a little order. It's like a soap opera."

Roach is the garden editor for Martha Stewart Living magazine. And, like Captain Ahab humbled by the mighty Moby Dick, she has learned not to battle the forces of nature. Instead, she says she works with and around them.

Roach tells how she once tried to do away with a bothersome groundhog with a smoke bomb because the critter had burrowed holes in her lawn.

"My groundhog did not die," she says, sounding somewhat relieved. "He didn't even bat a droopy lid. He just sat up high on his haunches mocking me."

Because Roach has stopped trying to rule her garden with an iron trowel, she says she feels more relaxed. In fact, she says her garden in up-state New York is where she feels most comfortable. It's a place where she can be herself - with shovel in hand, battered L.L. Bean boots on her feet, and composting on her mind.

Her garden is also what inspired her to write "A Way to Garden" (Clarkson Potter, $30), a how-to horticulture guide that's sown with life lessons Roach says she learned from nature.

The idea behind the book, she says, was to fashion a guide that would attract beginner as well as experienced horticulturalists.

And although she scatters botanical Latin names on many pages, Roach's writing is mostly conversational, her wit earthy, and her approach to gardening hands-on.

She introduces each chapter with anecdotes that allow the reader to understand why she is so emotional about caring for a garden. And there's plenty of practical instruction as well: on pruning fruit trees, selecting frost-hardy shrubs, growing "late-start" vegetable gardens, and growing bulbs indoors. There's even a section on building a fish pond.

The garden is a good place to learn about limitations, Roach says. Her advice to budding horticulturalists is simple: "Start small to test your aptitude. Try growing something in an old barrel. And most important, don't be discouraged if your tomatoes or geraniums don't turn out the way you thought they would."

She also believes that all good gardeners have to develop patience - "something people have little of these days," she says.

Roach has learned the virtue of patience from Martha Stewart. "When you've got so many projects going on like Martha does, you have to be patient."

When people hear that Roach works for Martha Stewart, they want to know how the doyenne of perfection behaves off camera.

Is she really a perfectionist, or does she just play one on TV? Does she sit around thinking of ways to turn house-hold junk and bric-a-brac into quaint crafts? Is she demanding or hard to work with?

"I guess you could say she's a perfectionist, and she does demand a lot from her employees, and she is extremely creative," Roach eagerly says. "But at the core of Martha is a gardener. And that's why we relate to each other so well; gardeners, typically, get along with each other. Martha is a tremendous woman, a sort of mentor to me."

Roach has distinguished herself as a quirky, unconventional gardener by her anthropomorphic approach. To her, a garden is a living being that goes through a life cycle, like humans and animals. It lives, grows, dies, has a disposition, and like us all, needs constant nurturing and guidance.

This philosophy took shape about 20 years ago while caring for an ill relative. As she tended her garden she became intrigued with the parallels between how plants and people should be cared for. This caused her to become emotionally attached to her garden, she says.

"My garden is the only place where I can totally be myself. It's a place I look forward to going. Gardening is a spiritual experience for me."

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