AT Offline: Margaret Roach

AT Offline: Margaret Roach

Aaron Able
Mar 26, 2010

March Guest: Margaret Roach
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Attendance: 102

In March, we "Metup" with Margaret Roach, the author and blogger of A Way to Garden. After a very successful career with Martha Stewart, Margaret has left the city to live in her upstate New York home where she writes, blogs and gardens. In addition to her chat with Maxwell, and audience Q&A you can see a full House Tour of her beautiful and inspiring home and garden…

MGR: I first met Margaret at the Martha Stewart offices. Sara Kate (my wife) and I were called in so the staff could learn more about Apartment Therapy. When we got there, we were led to a conference room where we sat around a table with ten people, who very politely grilled us about Apartment Therapy and what we were doing with the site. I got the feeling that the people in the room had a glimpse of what their offices were like 20 years ago and felt inspired by our new beginning.

Fast forward years later, and I run into Margaret again. At this point, she had left MSLO (Martha Stewart
Living Omnimedia) and rediscovered her love of gardening, along with the wonderful world of social

Just a quick background (you can learn more from Margaret's bio on the MSLO site): Margaret started at MSLO in 1994 as a gardening writer and held many other positions at the company before becoming Editorial Director for 7 years, where she was in charge of books, magazines, and all digital properties. After 14 years at the company, she decided to hang up her hat and take on her own projects, running two successful blogs (which we'll hear more about later) and living full-time at her home in upstate New York. She has also written two gardening books, the second of which will be coming out next year.

So Margaret, welcome to Apartment Therapy's monthly Meetup. Sara Kate and I visited you last year at your home upstate, which looks amazing. Why don't you take us back to how you got started in your career, and how you found yourself where you are right now.

MR: From a very young age I knew there was no way around a career in words. My parents were both journalists, and my sister became a journalist as well. College was not for me — I dropped out six times from three different schools — but I knew that I needed a college degree to follow a writing career.

Eventually, I completed my degree and got a position at The New York Times. It was a great time to be there (it was the days of women like Anna Quindlen, who started when I did) although we didn't have glamorous positions. You have to remember that at that time, women were not given "serious" journalism jobs. It was a total boys club.

Eventually I found myself in a better position, at Newsday, thanks to a lawsuit at The New York Times which benefitted many young female journalists. It required more women to be employed in "serious" journalism positions, which ended up translating to pushing women into departments with a lot of men. For me, that meant a position at the sports desk, which, as you can imagine, didn't sit that well with me.

Soon after this I got an offer at Newsday — which at the time was the tenth largest paper in the country — I thought I was being hired as a gardening writer, but they stuck me in a more traditional department for a female journalist — the fashion department. For five years I was put in charge of covering the European shows four times a year, and since I hate to fly, it was not exactly the dream job I had hoped for.

My gardening writing did not get me the job I wanted at Newsday, but, luckily, Martha saw the gardening writing I had done and liked it. She was starting her magazine and needed a gardening writer, so for two years, Newsday was kind enough to let me freelance with Martha, whom they referred to as "that blonde with the glue gun".

You have to remember that at this time, there were no gardening magazines like it, not in the US at least. Martha was willing to devote many pages and thousands of dollars to photo shoots. Seeing the text and the colorful images in the magazine was amazing.

MGR: And didn't Fritz Karch (MSLO Collecting Editor) start around that same time? We had him here a few months ago and he talked about the early days at the magazine.

MR: Yes, Fritz is a dear friend. I remember an early trip we took to the MET, where we went to see the English lustre ware collection. I had inherited my grandmother's collection and was adding to it myself, and Fritz was also interested in it. We were at the magazine right at the beginning — we didn't know where it would go, but we knew we were part of something amazing.

MGR: So eventually you made it to the magazine full-time, and got to write about what you love. But, you didn't do it for very long.

MR: No, I was quickly made one of the "Creative Core Heads" at the company (Fritz Karch for Collecting, myself for Gardening, etc.), and then eventually became head of all of the departments. I am very much a left brain / right brain person. They constantly duke it out, and for much of my career, the left brain won.

MGR: Yes, until now! So tell us a bit about your home in Upstate New York.

MR: My house is several hours upstate, on the Berkshires border. I have had it for many years — even before my Martha days. It's an experimental place. It's funny, because I always wanted to be a back-to-the-land person, and I imagine my true self as that person, even though I was a career-driven woman much of my life (again, left brain / right brain in conflict). I fantasized about living off the land, doing my own canning (which I actually do now), etc. I just couldn't fully commit to it for a long time.

MGR: What's amazing about your home is that it looks so much like the magazine. You can really see yourself in the magazine after seeing where you live.

MR: Thank you. It is very much a reflection of myself and my gardening beliefs. That's part of what was great about working at the magazine. We could push it to the limit in terms of
images and articles related to gardening, and Martha was fully behind it. She's an amazing gardener and
fully supported giving that part of the magazine top billing. We call her an omnivore. She truly likes to "eat everything", if you will — she is not afraid to embrace it all. If she is going to include it in the magazine, it is done to the fullest.

MGR: I also noticed that your home and gardens are similar to Martha's, in that there is little separation between the house and the gardens themselves. In most homes there is a strong separation of the two, but with you, the home and the land coincide well.

MR: Like Martha, I truly believe that a garden must be created by the one who owns it. It can not be installed — it needs to have an emotional connection with the owner. Martha's Turkey Hill home (CT) was very much intertwined with the gardens.


Q: Can you tell us a bit more about Wordpress?
MR: It's one of the most popular blogging platforms out there. It has a free version with pre-set templates, but you can also pay to customize your blog.

Q: I'm a new blogger and I realize I need to get a good camera. What kind do you have?
MR: I'm better with film, so the first year I bought a Nikon D40X, which is a DSLR. I needed the heft of an SLR in digital format. I recently upgraded and purchased a D700, and I purchased a 14-24 lens this week. You really do need good photos on a blog, so it's a great investment.

Q: What was it like making this life transition?
MR: Wine helps! But yes, if you're inferring it was scary, it was. My bigger fear, however, was running out of time and not being Margaret. Financial fears are persistent, but I just try to figure out other ways to make money doing what I love. For example, I started doing workshops at a local nursery. I also joined my local Chamber of Commerce to get health care. It's a little known fact that Chamber members can get their own health insurance. I'm also helping others build websites. But in addition to all of this, I spend a lot of time indulging myself by looking out the window. Again, I only spent a few weeks a year at this house, for years, until I moved here full-time. I do not get tired of my view.

Q: And it doesn't seem like you feel lonely?
MR:Not at all, I feel so in touch with people. Again, the beauty of technology. And my many solitary hobbies take up a lot of my time. I deprived myself of that for many years, but I'm making up for it now.

Q: For city dwellers, what do you recommend for us in terms of gardening?
MR: Foliage and plants with lasting visual impact is important. Yucca is hearty, and makes me smile. Pick durable plants that have a long "season of interest". Get biggish pots — don't have tons of the little ones around, plants just can't grow in those. Also, plants with low water needs are ideal.

Q: Does your water garden attract mosquitoes?
MR: A lot of people ask me that. It doesn't, mostly because it's in the shade. The in-ground frog ponds attract gnats, but the basins are shaded. Also, it's important to know that I live within a 5,000-6,000 acre state forest, so many amphibious creatures are present. Snakes, frogs — it keeps the land in balance, and keeps the insect population in balance in particular.

Q: What about the frog pond. Did you have to buy frogs to inhabit it?
MR: No, it's amazing, I built it and very soon after they started to come. The first summer, I identified every species of frog in my region within my own backyard. I also have over sixty kinds of birds. Water is the most important element. If you have water, the creatures find it.

Also, my home is open for public tours several times a year. You can learn more about it on the blog.
And my book is coming out next year (February 2011).

MGR: Thank you for joining us Margaret. It was a pleasure.

MR: Thank you.

Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!

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