Many gardens in the Hamptons are strictly summer affairs, full of color from June to August and not much to look at the rest of the year. But those who live and garden here year-round dream of a garden that has something to offer in all seasons.
Margaret Roach has worked for more than 20 years to achieve that dream in her garden upstate in Columbia County. On Sunday, November 17, she traveled to Bridgehampton to share her secrets and strategies with the members of the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons at their monthly meeting. Her illustrated talk, “Non-Stop Plants: The 365-Day Garden,” was full of insights that can be gained only with years of hands-on experience.
Ms. Roach began gardening in her mid-20s when she stayed home to care for her ailing mother. Since then she has scaled the heights of the media landscape, as an editor at Newsday and The New York Times, the first garden editor of Martha Stewart Living and the Vice President and Editorial Director of Martha Stewart Omnimedia. Throughout her years in publishing she gardened on weekends upstate.
Then she left it all behind, walked away from her high-powered career in exchange for solitude, immersing herself in the creativity of writing and to forge a closer connection to nature by working in her garden.
“My friends thought I was nuts,” she said. But it proved to be the right move. Since that time she has published three books, most recently “The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening and Life,” which she called a “blend of memoir and how-to.” She started her widely respected website and blog—awaytogarden.com—which she described as a blend of “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.”
On Sunday she shared her philosophy and expertise on how to create a garden for four-season interest. Her message, above all, revolves around the importance, and great rewards, of forging a close connection with nature.
“We must make the connection deeper,” she urged, “see with our hearts, not just our eyes.”
A garden is an ecosystem of its own; a community of the plants and the living creatures also resident there. Ms. Roach nurtures the wildlife in her garden—from birds, toads, salamanders, snakes and bees to the microbes in the soil—by avoiding using “quick fix” products to solve problems and instead embracing organics.
The ecosystem strikes its own balance, she said. For example, garter snakes love to eat slugs, so she is able to coexist with them despite her intense fear of snakes. Additionally, she put in a small pond (which she keeps ice-free in winter) to provide a water source for the local fauna.
“Let’s connect with everything [in the garden], not just the plants,” she said.
Ms. Roach said that she does draw the line at deer, though, and has fenced her property to exclude them.
Before planting anything or changing the garden, the garden expert urged those in attendance at her talk to “go inside and look out the window, then plant on axis from the best views of the garden.” After all, most see their gardens more often from inside the house, so that’s where the best features should be visible. Also, she advised, take advantage of natural light, and how it passes over the property. Make light part of your design—don’t block it off with an ill-placed tree or shrub.
Part of the secret of having a year-round garden is noticing the subtle beauties of winter. When the leaves and flowers are gone, she explained, there are still shape and texture to appreciate.
The real key to creating a year-round garden is to seek out plants that serve a variety of functions, Ms. Roach reported. She recommended including ephemerals—plants that bloom early, before the trees leaf out, and spend the summer in the shade—and other early bloomers such as hellebores, pulmonaria (a groundcover; she likes a red-flowered variety to contrast with the predominantly yellow palette of early spring) and early bulbs such as winter aconite (eranthis) that start blooming as soon as the snow melts.
She also deploys “an army of soldiers,” durable undemanding plants with multi-season interest. Good choices include golden hakone grass, Japanese painted fern and evergreen conifers.
There should also be some “late-show stars,” such as the winterberry (ilex verticillata) whose brilliant red berries are focal points in autumn when the leaves fall and last into January, when the local birds will finally have consumed them all. Ms. Roach has lots of winterberries—about 70 shrubs—in her garden, she said.
Some shorter-season plants should be included too. The gardener and author included lilacs and Martagon lilies in that category as her favorites.
Finally, Ms. Roach relies on plants that fit into more than one category or season, which she called “true powerhouse plants.” On example is crabapple trees (flowers in spring, fruit in summer, fall foliage, winter silhouette and dropped softened fruit available next spring for early-arriving birds). Another is viburnum, which also offers spring flowers, dark summer berries and fall foliage.
Above all, the greatest joy for the gardener is learning to appreciate that the garden is an endless cycle of change: birth, growth, death and renewal, she said. The greatest joy of the garden lies in connecting to the never-ending cycle of life.