The Backyard Parables: Book Review

Books rarely bring tears to my eyes. I can only recall two that have inspired a welling up, and both were fiction: The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s unflinching tale of a father and son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world and Mama Black Widow, Iceberg Slim’s gut-wrenching story of a gay, black transvestite living in unforgiving times. I can now add Margaret Roach’s memoir The Backyard Parables  to the list – a non-fiction work that examines both the “how-to” and the “woo-woo” of gardening.  And before you go thinking the book is some sort of dark and dour tale that will make grown men cry, consider first the emotional power of enlightenment.

Perhaps because I know Margaret Roach – as a daily reader, a first-hand admirer of her garden and a sometimes-correspondent – I can say that her words resonate more deeply than those written in books by authors I have never met or personally known. If it is not the story itself that inspires the emotion, then it is the observant spirit behind the telling that harnesses it through the sharing of wisdom.  And Margaret shares it in spades, if you’ll forgive the pun.Revealing the passage in the book that struck this emotional chord in me is not my intent here. What I want to convey is that the book goes far beyond any expectation I may have had about its premise. It reaches past the garden as subject matter into the realm of the human spirit, connecting the external world with the internal one.

In her last book, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, Margaret extolled the virtues of trading in the fast-lane for her own dirt road, sharing with us her emotional journey from the city to the country, leaving a high-powered position in publishing to reclaim her dream of moving to her upstate home where she could garden full-time.  In the book we came to understand how she “gave it all up” and now, in The Backyard Parables, we are given full access to the inspirational garden she began to sow more than 25 years ago. It is here, in the pages of this book, that we truly begin to understand what she gained by returning to her favourite place on earth.

Most of us here at Martha Moments know Margaret as the former editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living magazine, and as the former editorial director of its parent company. We’ve seen her beautiful garden in Copake Falls featured several times in the magazine. Like many of you, her Editor’s Letter was always the first thing I would read with the arrival of each new issue. She was – and will always be – my favourite editor of Martha Stewart Living and I’ve told her as much in the numerous letters I sent to her during her term at the helm. Indeed, her association with Martha is how I came to know her, how I came to meet her and how I came to appreciate the finer points of gardening.

Before becoming the first garden editor at Martha Stewart Living in the mid 1990s, Margaret worked as an editor at Newsday and The New York Times. She wrote her first book on gardening in 1998, A Way To Garden, which is still one of my favourite books of all time for its mix of philosophical and practical gardening wisdom, interwoven with beautiful photographs by Kit Latham. That book’s title and theme were the starting points for her website, Awaytogarden.com, which she developed after leaving Martha Stewart Living in 2007. Today, it is considered to be one of the most informative and active garden sites online. 

In her latest book, which is out today, Margaret shares 25 years worth of gardening wisdom, mixing garden philosophy with practical how-to. The book is divided into four sections, by season. Each is given an elemental heading that denotes the underlying theme of the chapter. Winter is given “Water” as its heading, since during the coldest months of the year her garden is covered in it, in frozen form. Spring is “Earth”, summer is “Fire” and autumn is “Wind.” Each chapter begins with an actual parable from one of the great religious tomes and then weaves into Margaret’s beautifully idiomatic discussions on the season at hand as it manifests itself in her garden. Challenges, highlights, births and deaths are all examined through her wise (and wide) lens. Through Margaret’s words,  we are always brought back to ourselves, to our own struggles, triumphs, births and deaths. We are never left to forget that through the garden’s evolution, we are bearing witness to our own. The garden is one of the most beautiful reminders of the seasons and changes occuring within ourselves.

There is practicality here, too, however. It is not just “woo-woo” growing out there on her steep patch of land. Shaded sections of the book hold her practical tips and straightforward how-to practices for making things grow and look their best, since we are interested in knowledge as much as wisdom, and each season brings its own unique lessons.

I feel honoured to have walked through Margaret’s Eden – the exact way she intends all her visitors to, by starting at the side door and working clockwise around the yard. With each step, I marvelled more and more at what she had created and planted. What I realize now is that I was marvelling as much at Mother Nature’s work as I was Margaret’s, humbled not only by my lack of botanical knowledge and the mysteries of natural science but by the beauty of the spirit that tamed this undulating property. I’m glad to know such a spirit as Margaret’s. I am better for it.
A Margaret Roach Library: A Way to Garden (1998), And I Shall Have Some Peace There (2011) and The Backyard Parables (2013)


Onesnap said...

Great review. I pre-ordered the book on Amazon and I can't wait to read it. I'm a lifelong gardener and gardening (organically) presents a different set of challenges each year. I loved your review (the reviews of her last book can be a bit "harsh" for those that really do not appreciate her as a gardener, writer, and a person). I'm meeting the author for the first time this February in Concord, MA at a book signing. :)

Onesnap said...

I'm really looking forward to reading this book and to meeting the author in Feb (Concord, MA book signing). I agree--she will always be my favorite Living editor. She's also introduced me to a lot of things that I did not know about. Last year I won a gift card and was introduced to a wonderful Maine-based seed company called FedCo. Who knew I was planting melons wrong all these years? Well, FedCo did. :) Thank you for a great review.


You will love the book. It takes you beyond the outdoors and gets you ask yourself why you garden. Beautiful philosophy in those pages. And you will love Margaret. She's the most disarming and charming person.

Kenn said...

I picked up my copy of the book yesterday and I literally cannot put it down. If one could be in love with a book - I'd like to announce my engagement.

Margaret touches my soul.


Kenn, I'm so glad you're enjoying it! Miss you, my friend. xo