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Gardening Columnist Margaret Roach Thinks Beyond the Plant

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The end of March signals the beginning of spring and warmer days. For Margaret Roach, who writes the In the Garden column for The New York Times’s Real Estate section, it also means it is time for the first plantings of the season — peas. A former garden editor for Newsday and editorial director for Martha Stewart Living, Ms. Roach has been providing gardening advice to readers stuck at home for the past year. In an interview, she spoke from her home in Columbia County, N.Y., about how gardening has shaped her life and how she hopes to share that with others. Here are edited excerpts.

How did you first get into gardening?

In my mid-20s, my father had died and my mother, who was about 49 at the time, got early-onset Alzheimer’s. Since she was a widow, I came home to Douglaston, Queens, to manage the situation and I ended up getting a job as a “copy girl” at The Times at night and caring for her during the day. Someone thankfully gave me a James Underwood Crockett book, a companion to the PBS show “Crockett’s Victory Garden,” as a gift, and I just started doing everything in the book.

What did you take away from that experience?

It was occupational therapy. I had to be near my mother, but I could be digging in the front yard or pruning. So my initial connection with gardening was refuge. That was what did it for me — with the imprint of my grandmother Marion, who was a great gardener.

When I came here to Columbia County 35 years ago, I dug up two plants and brought them in the moving van. Both are still here. One is a Japanese umbrella pine, which is taller than the house, and the other is a Siberian iris, which I don’t think you could kill if you tried. I also have a clivia, a house plant that belonged to my grandmother. It’s a companion.

What do you hope readers take away from your column?

For me, the garden is kind of part Buddhist retreat, part science laboratory. It’s not outdoor decorating. There’s a lot of beauty, a lot of aesthetics — but that would be a shallow interpretation and a shallow experience.

My articles are probably eccentric to a lot of gardeners and garden writers. They can be everything from why I go out in the dark to attract moths to my bird passion to hard-core horticulture specialty nurseries. I like all those sides. I know how far apart to space tomatoes and how deep to plant a tulip bulb, and I try to layer that into every story and to have things that are beautiful, but also to ask: What’s going on here? Why does this happen?

I want to encourage people to dig into the whole garden, because it offers everything — it offers a lens into the food web, to the story of evolution and adaptation among species.

How do you come up with ideas for your column?

The season is the first tip. I also tap people who have taught me about gardening for decades. I was a college dropout, studying English at the time, and I didn’t even know there was horticulture or botany. I learned to be a journalist by coming to work at The Times, and so I retrofitted it and took my journalism skills — research, reporting, interviewing, listening carefully — and applied them to writing about gardening. I still come at it like I did when I first started.

Tell us about your garden.

I have about two acres on a steep hillside. That means nothing about it is linear — it’s more curvaceous and undulating. Most of the property is naturalistic, not formal. I have a meadow above the house that I think is the most beautiful part, and two in-ground water gardens that are the most attractive and active gardens for wildlife. About 70 species of birds come into the garden each year. That’s the stuff that interests me.

I grow some things to eat, stuff that is special, like snap peas that you’re just going to pop in your mouth and heirloom varieties of green beans, stuff that is beyond belief when you do it yourself. Otherwise I’ll buy from my organic farmer friends just down the road and all around here.

What are you looking forward to this spring?

As happens when you’ve been gardening in a place for a long time, you have to right your wrongs; you have to face some of the stuff that doesn’t work, is out of shape or was just always a bad idea. The garden is way too big and way too much, so it’s more about serious editing and taking a long look.

Like every single person, I have lawn repair. The voles had a field day this winter. Just because you have expertise doesn’t save you from the same stuff as everyone else.

Spring migration quickens the pace for me. All of the sudden it’s, “Oh my goodness, look who’s back!” And seeing birds like the American redstart, which fans its black and orange tail out, or the Northern waterthrush, which bobs the rear of its body as if doing some dance move, delights me. I feel thrilled when I see things like that.