“I Garden Because I Cannot Help Myself—But It’s the Best Kind of Compulsion.”

Portrait of Margaret Roach

Margaret Roach worked in publishing for many years, at places like the New York TimesNewsday, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Then at the end of 2007, she left the city and “success” for a life lived much more quietly and closer to nature.

She’s a passionate gardener; has published a popular garden website since 2008; opens her garden for tours a few times a season; writes books; and lectures frequently to help foster an interest in gardening.Not only that, she has a highly praised, weekly gardening radio show and podcast called “A Way to Garden,” produced at “the smallest NPR station in the nation” in nearby Sharon, Connecticut.

Her new book A Way to Garden: A Hands-On Primer for Every Season was described this way by Publishers Weekly: “Filled with expert information, this book is less a ‘how to’ for novices than a meditation on ‘why to’ for veterans. Those with dirt already under their fingernails will treasure Roach’s in-depth knowledge, wry humor, and reflective look at how seasons in gardening mirror the passage of time.”

I myself love reading gardening books, though I have no interest in gardening, just the way I love reading cooking books, though I have no interest in cooking. A great writer makes these subjects compelling.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Margaret about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative? 
Margaret: I always say that I garden because I cannot help myself—but it’s the best kind of compulsion. With the garden as my lens on life, I have opened to matters of both science and the spirit, gaining a tiny glimpse of how all the pieces fit in each realm.

I have written that by becoming a gardener, I accidentally—blessedly—landed myself in a fusion of science lab and Buddhist retreat, a place of nonstop learning and of contemplation, where there is life buzzing to the max and also the deepest stillness. It is from this combined chemistry that I derived the motto of my website and book: “horticultural how-to and ‘woo-woo.’”

I discovered a connection to plants—and in turn, to nature’s complex interconnections—in my mid-20s, during a time that was anything but happy. I found myself suddenly back at my childhood home, managing the care of my widowed mother, who was barely 50 years old but had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. One can only sit inside and watch so much daytime TV. Miraculously someone gifted me a garden book, and I started ordering plant catalogs and then plants, gradually conducting horticultural therapy on myself in the front yard. Daily contact with the world outdoors has been my life practice since.

Just go outside, already. Not willing or able to make a garden? Get a pair of binoculars and the eBird.org app, and go chat up some local birds.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That solitude, and stillness, are not to be feared, but rather to be cultivated, because each of us requires the nourishment they provide.

My impression, perhaps like many other young women of my generation, was that key to fulfillment was finding Mr. Right, like the spirit of that “Jerry McGuire” quote, “You complete me.” (This was decades before that movie, of course.) I chased a lot of boys before it dawned on me: It turns out the “you” in that kind of equation alludes to “yourself,” not another (though loved ones are immense treasures, too).

Learning to kindle joy in regular doses of solitude, rather than rushing to cram every moment with something or someone, was my best life lesson ever. As a complement to that, I make time to really focus my emotional energies on a few key, years-long and devoted relationships (and yes, I suppose the garden is one of those).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I got a first insight into how my own habit-modification inner thing works at the onset of severe asthma in my 20s, when I became a vegetarian, after being advised to “reduce” intake of animal foods that might contain drugs like antibiotics or hormones. A vegetarian diet evolved and has stuck, but first—after considerable struggling—came the revelation that I am a very black-or-white, on-or-off person when it comes to changing habits. It was simpler for me to give up meat, poultry, fish than to “reduce,” and eat it once in a while. (And yes, I still miss bacon.)

That it’s easier for me to flip the switch to “off”—to stop something completely rather than limit it—was an important trait to come to recognize and accept, rather than continuing to bang my head against the wall of attempted moderation, and “failures.”

One other trick I have learned around exercise, which I loathe: I am more likely to show up if I set an appointment involving another person. Though I am happy to do garden chores anytime the weather permits, no urging required, I am highly resistant to formal “exercise”—aerobic workouts or classes at a gym. Making a date, which my brain regards as a contract, means I show up. I won’t let another person down (but I will wriggle out of a workout, endlessly excusing myself, if it’s “just me” scheduled to attend).

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
The quiz says I am a Questioner. As a career journalist, I suppose that makes sense, but the so-called 5 W’s that used to be taught—of who, what, when, where and why—are at this age mostly centered on the why’s. I’ll admit I can be a bit pesky on this score, but what is life without incessant curiosity? I question, therefore I am. [Gretchen: Hmmm….your answers to some of these questions make me wonder if you’re actually an Obliger.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Though friends long said I was “not Type A but Type AAA,” a being can throttle it up only just so long.

A decade or so ago, I made a complicated decision to leave the city and my career for my former weekend home and garden, in a rural small town. The incessant stress and skyscraper existence—total disconnection from nature five days a week—just did not nurture me, I had to finally admit. Though I was described as “successful,” I had to acknowledge that the relentlessness back there also eroded my happiness and wellness, because I was fighting my natural rhythm and inclinations.

The change required that I give up many things, from a salary and benefits to the proximity of some people I love and the city’s amazingness. I wrote a memoir about the transition, called And I Shall Have Some Peace There (a line from a Yeats poem, written about a place in nature that sustained him, as the place I have chosen does for me).

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
All of the above, or so it seemed that some key decisions were sudden at the time, as if the next step has just occurred to me in that instant. Looking back at most of them from a bit more distance, though, I can see that they were not sudden at all but that I had simply reached an “enough is enough” moment. (No wonder we have multiple expressions for such thresholds, like “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and lately “the tipping point.”)

The book or conversation or birthday was catalytic, maybe, but I’d been brewing the change beneath the surface for some time. The decision to drop out of my career, and the city, was like that—sudden, and not so sudden at all.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to“Be Gretchen.”)
Various ones, but among them is “Keep weeding,” as in: working my way through the tangles that life (and a garden) can present, hoping to stay ahead of becoming engulfed or overwhelmed.

I guess in the same spirit, I often find myself ending emails or letters with the one-word sentence: “Onward.”

There is a line from a Wendell Berry poem, too: “All we need is here.” That is what I think of gratefully as I look out the window each day.

A corollary to that (probably watering down a tenet of Buddhism once stated far more gracefully): “Want what you have, and don’t want what you don’t have.” Simpler said than done, but sound advice worth remembering.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Jack Kornfield’s 1993 A Path With Heart, the title of which hints at which fork in the road to choose. I think the core lesson I took away was that struggling to make change—trying through some act of will to change—just reinforces patterns of self-judgment, and isn’t helpful (nor does it achieve any transformation, typically).

Lots of lessons in Kornfield’s teachings are about compassion—including compassion directed at ourselves, which even many of the kindest people I know often forget to cultivate.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
I know that a big barrier to trying gardening is the impression that it is too hard, time-consuming, or expensive. But I also know (because hundreds of people tell me so each year) that those who succeed with even one houseplant can experience unexpected, inexplicable elation. Go ahead.

It should not be a barrier, either, that we are powerless over a lot of what gardening places you face-to-face with—like the weather, or that your subjects are living things (meaning: they may die). In this world of 24/7 connectivity and instant answers from Google and all of it, finding ourselves humbled by forces bigger than ourselves through an undertaking like gardening is a good thing, a reality check, an antidote for hubris. The word humble comes from the Latin humus, for earth or ground. Ready to surrender?

A Way to Garden book



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.