Margaret Roach’s Backyard Parables

– Posted in: Garden Design



Self-described “garden enthusiast” Margaret Roach, author of the newly released book, The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life, is someone whom I wish lived and gardened near me instead of on the opposite side of the continent. Margaret’s wit and humor entertains with information that’s valuable and insightful. She draws us into the natural world (her world) with vivid metaphors and unforgettable sensory descriptions.

I want you to hear Margaret’s voice for yourself, so excerpts follow. I can do this without violating the copyright because this is a review. But please be respectful of her words; if you share them, do credit her and the book.

Margaret is a former garden editor of Martha Stewart Living and editorial director of Martha Stewart Omnimedia’s magazine, book, and internet division. The New York Times described hers as the “best garden blog.” Thankfully, the envy I feel about that is ameliorated by great relief at not having Margaret’s woodchucks, which make my gophers seem harmless as hamsters.

Margaret writes of a flower-loving, nongardening friend to whom she gave paperwhites one year:
I had the best of intentions, I swear that I did.
     “Why don’t I have flowers yet?” Erica’s phone call started, a little ashamed and also somewhat panicky, but with just the touch of gift-horse-in-the-mouth undertones. “Why do I just have all this white spaghetti growing up out of the soil?”
Oh dear…and then some. I guess I forgot to tell her which end was up.

A snowfall prevented her cat, who needed to go outside, from doing so.
 I bundle up; I get my shovel. A path plenty big for even my very big cat is hollowed out as I am buffeted in an egg beater environment of hectic wind and snow…
     And then, finally, at first light, out he goes—barreling headfirst into a snowbank, completely forgoing the paths I’d shoveled, and quickly digs himself a little snow cave of a restroom exactly one cat’s-length off the back porch. He pivots, and carefully backs into it.
     Charming. I turn away allowing him his privacy…

One of Margaret’s metaphors:
I don’t know why I wasn’t paralyzed by such early goof-ups in gardening the way I was in school, music and art lessons, sports, and so much more, where feelings of intimidation allowed me to quit instead of push onward, failing myself. Perhaps the plants themselves were easier to be with than fellow teenagers, their silence and generally cooperative natures a great relief from the taunting and the competition. 

And another.
 It must be my age, the way echoes of what has been insinuate themselves into the here and now. Looking around the yard lately, I see as many plants that are not any longer present as I do ones currently in residence, at least in my mind’s eye, recalling some of the departed with wistfulness and others with grateful relief.

This reminds me of naturalist/author Diane Ackerman, one of my favorite nonfiction writers:
 “I see your eyes,” I say to the otherwise-submerged frog in the seasonal trough by the kitchen door, a big glazed oblong vessel more than three feet long and two-thirds as high. She thinks she has made her slick green self invisible in the velvety, verdant surface of floating pondweed, but her amber eyes are a different luster and color from the tiny plants of Azolla and Lemna she bobs among. They glint, those eyes do, and I am there to catch it. She needs to know I see them; nobody’s fooling me.

As does this:
Wind, which most simply described is the motion of air molecules—the air in motion horizontally—brings us more than just extra leaves to contend with. It is a powerful pollinator, through a process called anemophily. Why is it that all the good words—this one literally translates as “love of wind,” from the Greek anemos for “wind” and philos for “love” —are held in secret in the scientific realms, such as museums’ “study collection” areas that nobody but the occasional academic sees? The United States Forest Service says that about 12 percent of the world’s flowering plants are pollinated by wind, along with most conifers and many other trees (some estimates put the total of all types of plants that are wind-pollinated near 20 percent).

And this:
Bring on the citrus and conifers, and the sharp green notes of the herb garden, of not just mint but sage and artemisia and all the rest, the plants I cannnot pass without reaching down to brush a hand against each one, then quickly moving the impregnated palm past my nose.

But the best bits are the battles.
I thought I had killed the comfrey, with its giant leaves and blue flowers that bees love, but a creature far too ambitious to behave well with its neighbors in a garden setting. Then, this spring, it surfaced again, after four years underground and presumed dead—dead by murder, specifically, as we’d dug and dug until we thought it was a losing battle and that Syphytum officinale was the victor. Next, though, it finally disappeared—as if to take another tack in the turf war altogether and try playing dead. Plants do this, you know—and in the case of comfrey, apparently the roots can go down ten fet, exceeding even the most frenzied homicidal instincts at its eradiction (I read that ten-foot claim in some English gardening book, and they know everything, right?)

Margaret is a kindred spirit, someone who likely would enjoy hearing about your war against weeds, or the time I accidentally caught a weasel. Of an elusive woodchuck, she writes:
Days pass and it seems as if every chipmunk, squirrel, raccoon and skunk in the region has sampled the bait in one cage or another and gotten trapped—but not the woodchuck. I study for ad hoc apprenticeship: learning to let out the squirrels and chipmunks (a try at freeing a raccoon was met with demonic cackling and outstretched claws not extended in a friendly greeting; I never tried again).



Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
8 Comments… add one

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carolyn mullet February 6, 2013, 6:20 am

She has a lovely voice for memoir. Thanks for the excerpts.

ann February 6, 2013, 7:24 am

Margaret Roach seems like a real gardening friend as I have read her writings for a long time, beginning in LIVING magazine and her blog as well as at least 3 books. She does have that way with words and love seeing photos she post on net..

cynth February 6, 2013, 11:29 am

Margaret Roach & Beatrix Potter : Kindred Spirits = )

Saxon February 6, 2013, 1:00 pm

You have written the best sort of review – I want the book. Nicely done, DLB.

Gareth February 6, 2013, 4:41 pm

The backyard parables sounds just like the the kind of book I’d like to read at the moment relaxing and amusing!!

Cathy February 6, 2013, 4:47 pm

OK, I’m sold… I’m buying the book! I absolutely love her prose, her sense of humor, and her realistic approach to gardening. And depending on where she lives, I would even be willing to lend her our neurologically impaired sweet little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel — who is the perfect cure for the damnable woodchucks that used to plague us as well!

Thanks so much for introducing us all to this gem of a book.

professorroush February 6, 2013, 4:50 pm

I ordered my copy last weekend and it’s due via USPS today. And now you’ve teased me into staying up most of the night to read it!

Debra Lee Baldwin February 7, 2013, 11:20 pm

I’m so glad you all enjoyed the “review,” which—as Saxon noted—is really just letting you read enough of the book to want it. A very good read, indeed!

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