A Talk with Margaret Roach about The Backyard Parables

by Seasonal Wisdom on November 13, 2013

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If there’s one thing Margaret Roach can say with conviction, it is that “my garden saved me.”

The former editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia left at the pinnacle of her career to move to upstate New York. Now she’s head gardener at her highly acclaimed garden blog A Way to Garden, and hosts popular garden tours at her 19th-century house in the hills, while writing bestselling books.

Margaret’s latest book is The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life.  In this post, she sits down with Seasonal Wisdom to talk about the book, the wonders of nature and the timeless value of parables.

In “The Backyard Parables,” you will find Margaret’s award-winning garden writing advice on everything from succession planting to critter-proofing flower bulbs. But if you think this is just an ordinary gardening book, think again.

Beginning in winter and ending with fall, this seasonal ode to nature is part memoir, part gardening handbook.  Along with practical and scientific information, you’ll find a healthy dose of spirituality and philosophy in the parables that Margaret has gathered over 30 years of gardening.

In these parables, or simple stories with deeper intent, she explains how she deals with insect pests, invasive plants and other gardening tasks, while connecting closely with the natural world around her. It’s the perfect book to read on a winter day, while waiting for another gardening season to arrive.

Enter to win an autographed copy of “The Backyard Parables. For more information, keep reading…

The fall garden of Margaret RoachA Talk with Margaret Roach

Recently, Seasonal Wisdom had the good fortune to ask Margaret about her book. She kindly agreed to answer from her home garden in upstate New York (shown above), USDA Hardiness Zone 5B garden, where she explains that “the fall was long, and dry—but spectacular.”

Above, a Fothergilla major bursts into yellow and orange in her autumn garden. The shrub is native to the Southeastern United States.

Question: Margaret, why did you feel compelled to write your book as a series of seasonal parables, rather than a simple gardening how-to guide?

Answer: My motto on A Way to Garden is “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” It’s never been enough for me to memorize how deep to plant a tulip bulb, or when to prune lilacs.

Yes, I can rattle off those facts, and answer such reader questions. But I always connected far more deeply to the other side of the equation, the intimate relationship with the garden; the lens it provides into spirituality, into science, into sensuality. For more than 30 years, the garden has been my primary teacher, my mentor.

So, while I didn’t think “Horticultural How-To and Woo-Woo” would make a very good book title, I wanted to reflect the two layers of learning the backyard provides for me, and the word parable came to mind.

Question: Let’s talk a bit more about parables, these simple stories with deeper intents.

Answer: I chose the word “parable” to use in the title before I knew much about the tradition of parables. I had no idea they were vital in many (all?) cultural and spiritual traditions throughout history.

I ended up reading the 40 parables in the Koran, for instance, and others from Talmudic literature, and parable-like lessons from Confucianism and ancient Greece. And perhaps no surprise: A lot of them were derived from the facts of nature.

Question: You include some of your famous garden and food tips, but your book’s main focus is on the seasonal ebb and flow of nature. Why was this approach important for the book and what you wanted to write?

Answer:  I feel fortunate to have glimpsed the elemental cycle playing itself out outside all these years that I have gardened—which is not that different from the measurements of our own human lives, is it? Fresh starts and false starts; triumphs and losses; lots and lots and lots of do-overs.

As I say in “The Backyard Parables,” if you keep at it for more than four seasons, until the patterns inevitably repeat themselves you get your first big hint of what the garden can teach you: This has been going on like this before you ever stepped into the circle, and will do so after you leave.

This winter garden belongs to Margaret Roach.Question: What did you hope to convey by beginning The Backyard Parables in winter?

Answer: Everything that grows actively needs rest. Though quieter, winter is the season of Conception, in my garden calendar (and also in the calendar of a human life). It’s when things begin, even though we don’t see evidence of it above-ground up North. It’s like the vernalization of many seeds that need a cold period before they can sprout.

In winter, we get ready for the rigors ahead.

Question: In the book, your detailed descriptions of the natural world, and attention to fine details, seem to reflect the mind of a biologist. What motivates you to study birds, frogs and other creatures with such determination?

Answer: If there were one thing I could list as a regret in my life so far, it would be that I didn’t know when I was in school that I had an affinity for science—or at least for the natural sciences.

It turns out that studying insects and birds and small mammals and such doesn’t simply help us understand what’s going on in the garden (e.g., who’s eating the kale leaves, and why—important stuff, but only part of the education you get).

By investigating those “why’s” you also become privy to a whole other language with words such as marcescent  or altricial and a thousand other examples of juicy, loaded terms—which to me inspire even deeper thinking.

Question: How important/beneficial/enlightening do you feel it is for others to become intimate with nature?

Answer: Put simply, what other teacher is there, who is always available with a curriculum of endless lessons appropriate for any level of student? Don’t skip class!

Win an Autographed Copy of this Book!

The Backyard Parables by Margaret Roach

To enter this book giveaway, please use the Rafflecopter device below. But hurry! This giveaway ends at midnight on November 19, 2013.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclosure: This prize package was provided at no charge to Seasonal Wisdom. However, I was not paid to run this promotion, and my opinions are strictly my own.

Good luck everyone! Please note this giveaway is only available to U.S. residents. Don’t forget to check your spam folders, in case you win.  This giveaway is over. Congratulations to Anne of Pensacola, Florida for winning.

Learn more about Margaret Roach:

Book Review: And I Shall Have Peace There


Julieanne Case November 13, 2013 at 2:06 pm

I am a Reconnective Healing practitioner and paint with the intention of putting healing frequencies into my paintings. I am on a spiritual path and I love to cook, I love having fresh vegetables growing the garden and preparing wonder foods. I believe I can learn things from this book too.

Julieanne Case
Always from the heart!

Reconnecting you to your Original Blueprint, Your Essence, Your Joy| Healing you from the Inside Out |Reconnective Healing | The Reconnection| Reconnective Art |


Jennie Brooks November 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I adore anything nature. Would love to read this book. It might teach me to appreciate the seasons more (particularly winter).

Fadra November 13, 2013 at 7:02 pm

I’m a terrible gardener. I’ll take all the advice I can get!

Jill Plumb November 14, 2013 at 11:02 am

LOL! An open mind is the first step!

Samantha Olden November 13, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I can also say that my garden has saved me, on many occasions, and in the most difficult seasons of my life.

Katie Zack November 13, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Learning to eat seasonally and to grow things that work in your zone, to work your soil, this is ever new and renewing.

Lindsey November 14, 2013 at 3:34 am

A friend of mine is an aspiring garden writer in the same vein as Margaret. I am looking forward to giving her this book for Christmas.

Amy Nebb November 14, 2013 at 3:49 am

The more one gardens, the more one grows.

Anne Brewer November 14, 2013 at 4:31 am

I’m a garden designer and my goal with clients is to connect with them on a spiritual level through the landscape and gardening. Co- creating with nature has been such a pleasure and I stress the importance of natural beauty in our lives- it is a balm for our stress filled lives. Margaret’s book resonates with me.

Karin November 14, 2013 at 4:57 am

Gardening is my Therapy.

jonquil November 14, 2013 at 5:19 am

I would like to win a copy as gardening books arranged seasonally are so much easier for me to integrate into my wee space. Plus, Margaret Roach’s writing is such a pleasure to read!

Oreet Herbst November 14, 2013 at 8:23 am

I have been trying to garden with the seasons this year, rotating crops in and out on a quarterly basis in my garden beds. This provides a more varied homegrown diet for my family and allows us to try new things on a regular basis.

Linda Cooke November 14, 2013 at 8:37 am

Over the past 30 years, I have worked to make my backyard a sanctuary for wildlife and am continually rewarded by something new in my observations. I have found that the more I know about nature, the more there is to know. I am sure I will be surprised by how much I learn from Margaret’s book of parables, but not surprised by how much I enjoy reading it! I love her writing!

Jill Plumb November 14, 2013 at 11:01 am

Looking forward to enjoying this new book. I believe gardens are spaces of infinite possibility in any season. Love the title, and the intent.
Grow Beautifully!

Kerrie Rosenthal November 14, 2013 at 11:27 am

Delighted to read your interview with Margaret Roach. How enlightening ! It does seem that as I listen closer to the areas I garden they become more responsive. Maybe that’s because then I truly hear what they need. Have added Backyard Parables to my holiday wish list!

karen j kennedy November 14, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I have the book on my wish list on Amazon, hoping some family member sees it for the holidays! However a signed copy would be just fabulous to have as well!

Gail Shochet November 14, 2013 at 7:38 pm

The book sounds lovely and I have added it to my ‘to-read’ list.

Terry Teitelbaum November 14, 2013 at 8:03 pm

I would love to have the book. I love gardening ideas.

Lisa Winters November 15, 2013 at 4:50 am

Love the concept!

Terry Teitelbaum November 15, 2013 at 6:19 am

Gardening has slowed down to leeks, kale & spinach. I’m looking forward to extra time reading!

Maddie Ruud November 15, 2013 at 9:48 am

I love what Margaret says in this interview about ebb and flow, trials and errors, and endless do-overs. Gardening (especially edible gardening) really does teach life lessons. Learning to go with the flow, enjoy what’s in season, and let go of failures are invaluable lessons for anyone!

Elizabeth Fox November 16, 2013 at 5:03 am

To read it is on my bucket list.

Tom Mann November 19, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Great Q&A interview with Margaret. I’ve been wanting this book since I first heard about it on Margaret’s page. Thanks for the chance, and good luck, all!

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