Green(ish) Guest Post: Q&A With Margaret Roach, by Ruth from Flowers Forums

Ruth from Flowers Forums sent me an email recently, asking if I would post her wonderful interview with “Gardener Extraordinaire” Margaret Roach. Since I’m a big fan of Ms. Roach myself, of course I said yes:

Q&A With Margaret Roach, Gardener Extraordinaire

by Ruth on Mar 26

The more you know the more there is to learn. This would describe what I am going through with my gardening knowledge, or rather lack there of.  I asked Margaret Roach, Gardener extraordinaire and author of the book and the blog A Way To Garden, if she would answer some questions about her gardening philosophies and how-to’s, and to my joy she agreed. Within the answers are links which expand even more on the subject on hand.

FF: Tell us a bit about yourself and your garden.

Margaret: On a radio podcast for “Horticulture” magazine last year, I was asked to describe the garden, and here’s what came out: “It’s a collector’s garden meets a bird-lover’s garden meets an impossible piece of tilted land, with a side order of sensuality.”

I have gardened for 25 years in USDA Zone 5B, on 2.3 acres of very steep land that’s set inside thousands of acres of state forest and parkland.

I love foliage more than flowers-colored foliage and large foliage, especially-and grow a lot of my own food (including for off season storage and canning and freezing). I don’t use any chemicals.

FF: For most people, especially in cold climates, spring is the start of the gardening year, and they design their garden and plan their gardening chores accordingly. How do you design a garden that is not only beautiful in the spring, but year round?

Margaret: It’s a combination of selecting the right plants (obviously), but also learning how to “see” differently-how to appreciate subtleties like bark and silhouettes and wheat-colored grasses moving in the wind, and not expecting the December or February garden to look like the May or July one.  I am very deliberate about placing winter showoffs (witch-hazels, winterberry hollies or colorful-twig dogwoods and willows and such in masses) on axis from the spots where I sit inside in winter so I can stare at them.This is my 365-day garden philosophy. More here and here.

FF: Either way, spring is a busy time for gardeners, but no less so for all life in the garden, including a large variety of garden pests – slugs, plant eating Beatles (should be beetles), fungi and so on. As an organic gardener, how do you do battle with these critters? Are there any organic pesticides you use? Or, do hunt them all down manually?

Margaret: I do not really even use any organic pesticides-not that I am against them exactly, but they’re often expensive and require precise application/coverage to be effective.  I rather try to use cultural or mechanical practices to help the plants by creating a proper environment for them in the first place. Top priority: feed the soil, not the plants. Lots of compost used as a top-dressing each year, keeping an eye on soil nutrients and pH with the occasional soil test, rotating what I grow in each bed year to year (or even on a longer rotation schedule) and so on. Fabric barriers are a big help against the worst pests (like for Cucurbits and Brassicas). I am OK with some imperfections; most of my big losses are to animal pests like woodchucks rather than insects or disease.

FF: Is there anyway or anything that can be done to lessen the effect or to make the garden less attractive to pesky critters? I am wondering whether planting certain plants together, might help, or building up the plants (should be plants’) ability to resist these pests in some way, maybe with plant extracts to enhance the plants immunity? Or do you just look at the bigger picture, grin and bear it?

Margaret: I am inclined to use mechanical methods as mentioned-barriers such as lightweight Agribon fabric (Agribon 15 in summer, for instance) to cover sensitive crops, and this year I am considering some moveable “sheep fencing” (sort of electrified woven fencing) around the perimeter of certain vegetable beds because as I say we are on the upswing in woodchuck population here at the moment. A local licensed trapper does come remove them for me, but often it’s too late! I have a deer fence around the place-8 feet high-because there is no way to garden with deer, period.

FF: I have heard, for example, of a silica rich plant extract, that if fed to the plants, strengthens their fibers, thus making it harder for insects to munch on them, as well as offering them protection against different kinds of fungi. Do you use anything similar to this (or other plant extracts) to strengthen and fertilize your garden?

Margaret: If I were going to go down this route, I’d take inspiration from the practices of biodynamic farming and gardening, or from heroes like John Jeavons (French bionintensive methods). I have been recently reading the work of Maria Thun (biodynamics), including about the “preparations” (one includes silica) and may use some of them this year in preparing the garden.

FF: You think of your garden as a habitat and designed it as such. Was this planned so that you would have less of a pest problem? Or that the garden would be able to deal with the pests on its own to a reasonable degree of success?

Margaret: I do think of it as a community, a slice of the food chain, and I am just one creature in it, of course. I garden organically because it supports all the members best -not poisoning birds, reptiles and amphibians and smaller soil organisms, in particular, who do so much work to keep things in balance. And yes, the snakes and frogs eat slugs and other “pests” and the birds eat lots of insects and so on. But again: I see the outdoors as one big food chain, and know you need all the members to have it function correctly (now will the natural predators of those **** woodchucks please have an upswing in population this year and get things back in balance on that score?!). Tee hee.

FF: Spring is also a time for preparing new beds, renewing old ones and doing a lot of planting.  What are the most important things to take into consideration when laying a new bed? How long does it take you to prepare the soil before your plant, how important is the kind of mulch you use?

Margaret: When I was younger I used to double dig, and add lots of amendments to the soil (not just compost, but including, in those years of ignorance about peat not being a renewal resource, bales of peat moss, too). It has been eons since I either double dug or used peat (a non-renewable resource that I avoid) or for that matter really prepped a new bed with too much effort.

At this time in my life I’m heading more in the direction of Ruth Stout – and tending to till less.

There is a persuasive argument that tilling cam damage soil structure, and also that it unearths more weeds than it thwarts. For more than a decade I have simply smothered an area I plan to plant with corrugated cardboard or newsprint (neither should have colored printing on it!) and topped that with mulch and cut X’s to plant through.  All my vegetables are in raised beds, into which I turn compost and other organic amendments yearly, and then I simply cultivate lightly to open up the soil to create a seedbed each year; nothing more required.

I use a composted mulch that will feed the soil as it breaks down from above-my philosophy on what makes good mulch is on my mulch FAQ page.  You can’t passively improve soil from above (sort of like composting in place, which is how I think of my mulching tactics) if you use those hideous giant woodchips or (eek!) landscape fabric on your beds.

FF: I have been reading in your blog about cover crops. Could you explain a little about cover crops and green manure?

Margaret: A month or so before killing frost, certain areas of the vegetable garden get a meal, or at least the promise of one. I sow soil-sustaining cover crops (always from non-GMO, organic seed) as the various food crops are harvested, gradually turning my vegetable beds into mini-fields of winter cereal rye or mammoth red clover for the colder months. (There are many other choices for various seasons of cover-cropping, and cover crops also serve as living mulch.)

Come later winter, I’ll cut the grain and legume down or mow them, depending on where they’re located, and then turn under the remains-like composting in place, with the foliage and underlying root system decomposing to improve soil texture and fertility.

Cover crops can serve other purposes: Some specialized ones, like various Brassicas, can also provide not just biomass but other benefits like pest and disease control. Simply: • Grasses (like rye, sorghum-sudangrass crosses, and wheat) add organic matter to the soil very effectively; • Legumes (clovers, cow and field peas, vetch) with their inherent Nitrogen-fixing capability, provide Nitrogen effectively; • Brassicas and Mustards (rapeseed or canola; radish; mustard) have proven effective against various nematodes, fungi and insects. Depending where you live, and what your purpose and timing is, here are some sources of high-quality seed Territorial Seed in Oregon, breaks its list down by season; Bountiful Gardens in California calls them “compost crops;” Johnny’s Selected Seed in Maine offers many varieties, too. Cornell University has a longer list of sources, many commercial and geared to organic farming.

FF: You have mentioned that you do not do vermicomposting. Is there a reason why not? How does your method work? You have a giant compost heap, and a large garden, and I am wondering if they way you compost would work in a compost bin, for example, or in a bit wound you necessarily need to do vermicomposting?

Margaret: My compost heap is 40 feet long and probably 6-plus feet high and wider than that at peak times like spring and fall. There is no bin that size! I compost slowly and passively, basically, because of the volume, but do make sure to water the heap (it should not be soggy but slightly moist) and aerate it by turning occasionally.

I think vermicomposting is brilliant; I read Mary Appelhof’s book “Worms Eat My Garbage” when it first came out, and highly recommend her work. I just am on too large a scale here to apply it.

FF: Do you have a favorite corner/plant in the garden? Could you share it with us?

Margaret: I love the compost heap, because it’s really the recent history of my life as a gardener-like an archaeological record of my activities here.  The garden was made to be viewed from inside-by me-since when I am outside I am doing chores, not viewing the place, so I suppose I also love what I can see from my favorite chair in the house, in the dining room. I wrote my recent memoir “And I Shall Have Some Peace There” from the viewpoint of sitting in that chair, basically.

FF: I know you are working on a new book, which would be your third. What is it about, and when will it hit the shelves?

Margaret: The new book is what I always call a blend of “horticultural how-to and woo-woo,” mostly a memoir but with sidebars of key practical aspects of gardening, too. It will be out in January 2013 from Grand Central Publishing.

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