Q&A with Sally Roth, Author of ‘The Beginner’s Guide To Starting A Garden’

By Shelley Pierce | April 16, 2017
Image by Timber Press
by Shelley Pierce
April 16, 2017

Sally Roth is a lifelong naturalist and gardener, and the author of more than 20 books about birds, nature, and gardening, including the best-selling Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible. Her very first book, Natural Landscaping, won the Art of Communication Award, a discretionary honor (not awarded annually) from the Garden Writers of America association.

A former contributing editor of Fine Gardening and a contributing editor of Birds & Blooms since 2010, she’s also an enthusiastic public speaker, whether it’s grabbing a stranger on the street (“Hey, want to see something cool?”) or talking to an audience of hundreds (“Hey, want to see something cool?”).

She and her naturalist and photographer husband Matt Bartmann share their off-grid home in the high Rockies with an elderly dog, a family of pine squirrels, an entertaining packrat named Bob, a well-fed bunch of birds at the feeder, and a stable of old Volvos.

In her latest book, ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Starting A Garden‘, she provides fast, easy, and affordable ways to transform a yard one project at a time.  Read on to find out more about this Timber Press book and enter to win one of two copies below!


1. In your book you mention how “biting off more than we can chew is a common malady among gardeners”. Why is it that we gardeners have this affliction?

Can you hear me laughing here, Shelley? 😉 Just expanded my own garden some more today!

Think it’s because we love beauty, and we love picking out and playing with plants””and we have that finished image in our heads when we first get started on a new garden.

But somehow we’re so busy thinking about that beauty we’re going to create that we conveniently forget to think about all the time, energy, money, and physical work involved in getting to that beauty. Nor do we remember to consider that it may take our plants a year or two to mature.

So we make a big space for a garden””oh boy, let’s turn the whole front yard into a garden! TODAY!””and then come face to face with our real-life limitations.

Also, many of us gardeners (ahem) are plant addicts 😉 Gardening can quickly turn into a lifelong obsession, and that’s not a bad thing.

2. Even though this book is called “The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Garden”, would those who already have gardens in place or consider themselves to be above beginner level find value in this book?

Absolutely! This book does include all the info needed to grow plants successfully, but it mainly focuses on instilling the basics of good design, in a whole new way””and without ever saying that can-be-scary word “design.”

It’s about creating a beautiful yard by making one small, easy, beautiful garden at a time. No bare spots, no half-finished major jobs, just one successful small garden after another, to continue building upon. As you make the individual gardens, or read about them, you painlessly learn what it is that makes a garden visually appealing, almost through osmosis lol.

3. How does your book help us get from the garden we have to the garden we will love?

Lots of suggestions throughout on how to punch up a garden””add bold leaves, add a vertical plant, and many more, to turn a ho-hum garden into an eye-catching and appealing one.

Learning the important locations for gardens (at the entrance, at the corners, and so on) is a big help right away, too, because it shows you where and why your efforts will be most valuable””and why your existing garden might not hit the mark or even “get lost,” visually.

Photos and their captions illustrate every design point (contrast, texture, color, repetition, focal points) in easy to understand language, and, along with the text, explain how such things work together in a fun-not-intimidating way that makes it easy for a reader to get from “Oh, that’s a pretty plant!” to “Oh, that’s a pretty plant, and look how its color stands out, and how its leaves catch the eye!”

Maybe the biggest thing, though, is that this book will give you confidence in trusting your own eye””once you know what to look for. “You can do it!” is the motto of the whole book.

4. In your book you discuss how your mother was one of your main gardening influences. What are some of the most important things she taught you about gardening?

Oh gosh, my mother was obsessed with rearranging plants until they looked “just right” to her. Even as a little kid, I saw that she was fearless about transplanting anything, from a 10-foot-diam forsythia bush to a dainty rock garden plant to a clump of blooming tulips, and doing so at any time of the year, as long as the ground wasn’t frozen. That was a lifelong lesson in not being afraid to make changes””and that there is no such thing as a “finished” garden.

Oh, and I learned from her that playing favorites was absolutely the way to go. Your garden should be full of plants you love! She’d talk to her plants as if they were friends, and I do, too.

5. What are some specific features of your book that readers will find particularly helpful?

I think everyone will take away something different from the book, depending on what’s most important to them.

1. Self-confidence“”The idea that it’s perfectly possible to make a small, satisfying garden from start to finish in one day, using easily available plants, and have it look beautiful”” no matter what your budget of time or money.
2. Saving money“”The many tips for gardening without breaking the bank, for instance by quickly and easily multiplying your plants yourself or growing from seed, or by depending on plants that spread quickly to fill bigger areas.
3. A love for nature“”The mentions of plants that attract hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other insects, because their presence adds so much to our enjoyment of our yard and gardens.
4. An attitude adjustment“”The commonsense, you-can-do-it attitude that makes it fun, not a chore, to garden.
5. Saving time and muscles“”The labor-saving tips, such as planting closely and using mulch to block weeds.
6. Inspiration to make changes“”The section on transplanting at any time; the revelation of how our eye perceives color and form; and maybe even the “more is less” suggestions about garden ornaments 😉

6. What’s in your garden?

High-mountain natives and Mojave Desert annuals, and pocket gophers and golden-mantled ground squirrels that wreak havoc on everything grrrr, and rocks, lots and lots and LOTS of rocks. (There’s a good reason these are called the Rocky Mountains.)

Boy, talk about a humbling experience””thought I knew how to garden, after having lived in the East, the Midwest, and the PNW for the first 50-some years of my life, but had to learn all over again when I moved here to the east side of the Rockies””the dry side””at 8100′ elev, where it’s Zone 4 in a good year, and essentially a high desert.

Growing season is only about 8-9 weeks long between frosts. We have no irrigation system, nor any running water for a hose (we’re entirely off-grid except for wifi)””all watering is done by hand-carried buckets.

So I depend on a handful of super tough “garden perennials” that can take extreme cold, high UV light, severe lack of water, huge 50-degree temperature swings between night and day, and lean, lightweight mineral soil (no humus to speak of; mostly rock dust)””feverfew, catmint, bearded iris, Armenian poppies, Campanula superba, hens-and-chicks, sedums. Biggest discovery””that sweet Williams are amazingly tough plants that are happy here!

And, as always in any garden I’ve ever made, I include hundreds of what we used to call wildflowers but now call native plants”” blue columbines, gaillardia, black-eyed Susans, wild asters, cinquefoils, mountain sage, a dozen different species of native penstemons, blue flax, and many other high-altitude natives, transplanted from wild meadows on our place.

But the most fun thing I’ve learned from gardening here””many Desert SW native annuals do fantastic here! (We have very, very few native annuals here, none showy, and “regular” annuals like cosmos, marigolds, and zinnias don’t bloom fast enough in our short season, or can’t take the dry conditions or cold nights.). But the desert ones do GREAT! Their self-sown seeds even survive our 30°-below winters. So there’re a lot of CA poppies, several blue CA phacelias, baby blue eyes, gilia, and many others filling in every bit of bare space.

It sure isn’t like the carefully planted gardens I’ve grown and loved in previous places I’ve lived””it’s more like survival of the fittest. Oh yeah””and any planting scheme is quickly destroyed by our many native burrowing rodents, or chomped or stomped by moose. I’ve learned to love a mishmash and to cherish every plant that survives.

And as much as I whine, I do love learning! My CO gardens have taught me a lot about how to coexist with Nature when she’s being kinda tough on a gardener.

WIN ONE OF TWO COPIES OF ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Starting A Garden‘!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, April 23, 2017 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

What burning question do you have about how to start a garden? Or – what advice do you have to offer from your own experiences starting a garden?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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