Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
The end of March signals the beginning of spring and warmer days. For Margaret Roach, who writes the In the Garden column for The New York Times’s Real Estate section, it also means it is time for the first plantings of the season — peas. A former garden editor for Newsday and editorial director for Martha Stewart Living, Ms. Roach has been providing gardening advice to readers stuck at home for the past year. In an interview, she spoke from her home in Columbia County, N.Y., about how gardening has shaped her life and how she hopes to share that with others. Here are edited excerpts.
How did you first get into gardening?
In my mid-20s, my father had died and my mother, who was about 49 at the time, got early-onset Alzheimer’s. Since she was a widow, I came home to Douglaston, Queens, to manage the situation and I ended up getting a job as a “copy girl” at The Times at night and caring for her during the day. Someone thankfully gave me a James Underwood Crockett book, a companion to the PBS show “Crockett’s Victory Garden,” as a gift, and I just started doing everything in the book.
What did you take away from that experience?
It was occupational therapy. I had to be near my mother, but I could be digging in the front yard or pruning. So my initial connection with gardening was refuge. That was what did it for me — with the imprint of my grandmother Marion, who was a great gardener.
go out in the dark to attract moths to my bird passion to hard-core horticulture specialty nurseries. I like all those sides. I know how far apart to space tomatoes and how deep to plant a tulip bulb, and I try to layer that into every story and to have things that are beautiful, but also to ask: What’s going on here? Why does this happen?
I want to encourage people to dig into the whole garden, because it offers everything — it offers a lens into the food web, to the story of evolution and adaptation among species.
How do you come up with ideas for your column?
The season is the first tip. I also tap people who have taught me about gardening for decades. I was a college dropout, studying English at the time, and I didn’t even know there was horticulture or botany. I learned to be a journalist by coming to work at The Times, and so I retrofitted it and took my journalism skills — research, reporting, interviewing, listening carefully — and applied them to writing about gardening. I still come at it like I did when I first started.