Gar­den­ing evolves over the decades

Cli­mate pat­terns, tastes, philoso­phies con­tinue shift­ing

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE - By Adrian Higgins

Some­times the longdis­tance gar­dener looks out the win­dow and no­tices that the maple tree he planted as a 6-foot sapling 21 years ago has be­come a shade tree 25 feet tall and 20 feet across.

Ma­tu­rity creeps up on you — in trees, in the gar­den, in life. Year to year, the changes seem slight; cu­mu­la­tively, they are enor­mous.

The same might be said of the world of gar­den­ing it­self.

In con­ver­sa­tion with another hor­ti­cul­tural scribe, Mar­garet Roach, it turns out that she too has thought a lot about the jour­ney through the gar­den’s fourth di­men­sion: time. Over sev­eral decades, we have seen marked shifts in plant palettes, tastes and, most im­por­tantly, philoso­phies.

Since the 1990s, for ex­am­ple, we have turned from or­na­men­tal to eco­log­i­cally minded gar­den­ing — to land­scapes in which na­tive plants play a larger role and gar­den­ers seek to pro­vide refuge and sus­te­nance to pol­li­nat­ing in­sects and other wildlife. De­spite this move­ment, the world of gar­den­ing has never been more mul­ti­fac­eted, with pos­i­tive trends in pas­sions for suc­cu­lents, house­plants, trop­i­cals, or­ganic grow­ing and heir­loom veg­eta­bles.

Weather and cli­mate pat­terns have changed too, along with pests and dis­eases that have ma­te­ri­ally al­tered what we grow. Or­na­men­tal plants once con­sid­ered vig­or­ous and flat­ter­ing of the gar­dener turned out to be thugs or wild in­vaders.

Another trans­for­ma­tion is how a long­time gar­dener has changed over the years. This is an in­te­rior evo­lu­tion, in­her­ently veiled, per­haps even to one­self.

Plants that were trendy at the time have be­come old hat or dis­ap­peared. Whither the Ja­panese snow­bell tree or the Arnold Prom­ise witch hazel or se­dum Au­tumn Joy?

Roach thinks of the “it” plants she ex­cit­edly in­stalled that would not be wel­comed to­day.

The hout­tuy­nia Chameleon, a leafy ground cover, is im­pos­si­ble to re­move, much like eq­ui­se­tum, and both go wild in wet soils. She planted lami­as­trum as a ground cover; it also doesn’t know where to stop. The dou­ble­file vibur­num, from China, was once con­sid­ered the choic­est of all vibur­nums but now is show­ing up in nat­u­ral ar­eas and on in­va­sive plant black­lists.

Roach is sin­gu­larly well placed to re­flect on these changes.

Twenty-one years ago she wrote a book, “A Way to Gar­den,” that com­bined prac­ti­cal as­pects of gar­den­ing with its more meta­phys­i­cal re­wards. Her lab­o­ra­tory was her 2-plusacre property in the Hud­son Val­ley, north of New York. At the time, she also had a high-pres­sure post in the New York pub­lish­ing world, as editorial di­rec­tor of Martha Ste­wart Liv­ing magazine.

Roach left that be­hind 11 years ago, de­camped full time to her gar­den and has de­vel­oped “A Way to Gar­den” as a brand of sorts, with a web­site, blog and ra­dio show. She has re­vamped her book, and its re­work­ing inevitably tracks the changes in her gar­den­ing out­look.

She painted her­self as a neo­phyte when the first edi­tion came out, but in her ex­am­i­na­tion of the tem­po­ral space be­tween the old and new, Roach il­lus­trates that gar­den­ing is a jour­ney and not a des­ti­na­tion. It is some­thing you do and some­thing you live, not some­thing you have.

When I asked her about her for­ma­tive years, I could see a mir­ror image of my­self in her pained ex­pe­ri­ences.

The 1980s and 1990s were decades when books and glossy mag­a­zines trum­peted the English herba­ceous bor­der — col­or­co­or­di­nated, very pho­to­genic and im­pos­si­bly de­mand­ing. Young, driven to per­fec­tion and want­ing to make a mark, we were too im­pa­tient for ef­fect, not suf­fi­ciently com­pre­hend­ing the pur­pose of gar­den­ing, and inevitably way too hard on our­selves when things flopped.

“I would run up here from the city at week­ends,” Roach said. “I had to do this, I had to do that, and it was never good enough. I could barely walk up the stairs af­ter a day’s gar­den­ing. Noth­ing ever looked like the beau­ti­ful pictures in the gar­den books of the day.”

Now her ex­panse of lawn, at its edges, is al­lowed to re­vert to a meadow, and Roach finds de­light in sim­ple chores and ob­ser­va­tions, such as find­ing a cater­pil­lar dis­guised as a twig. And she loves to weed.

“I have my best thoughts weed­ing,” she told me, “and I know their bi­ol­ogy. I like that I would never (have) thought I would be a girl who loves know­ing her weeds by name, but I do.”

The other as­pect of Roach’s gar­den­ing story is that she made a con­scious de­ci­sion to walk away from a high-pres­sure ca­reer and re­set ev­ery­thing.

“When I was in my early 50s, I said, ‘Mar­garet, you don’t know how much time you have,’ ” she said. “There were some eco­nomic sur­prises, but other than that I haven’t had a day when I wasn’t happy to wake up and look out the win­dow and know where I was.”

“I have my best thoughts weed­ing, and I know their bi­ol­ogy.”


In early spring, the sea­son’s first peren­ni­als bring the gar­den year to life.


Mar­garet Roach, au­thor of “A Way to Gar­den,” has a rich frog pop­u­la­tion in her gar­den in Copake Falls, N.Y.


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