She's in a Garden State of Mind

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 11, 2008

As the twin towers stood burning seven years ago this morning, Margaret Roach knew she had to do two things. The first was to get in her car and head out of Manhattan, where she worked. The second was to take herself to her garden two hours away in the rolling farmland of Columbia County in the Hudson Valley.

The garden, more than 20 years in the making and the subject of a book she wrote a decade ago, had always been a weekend refuge. On Sept. 11, it became a palliative to the horror unfolding 100 miles downriver.

Gardens, she says, "are the antithesis to this out-of-control world we live in."

Mystically, as she turned into the driveway of her 1880s farmhouse that day, she was greeted by a stray cat, which said to her with his eyes: "I need you this day. Take me in."

Today, Jack lives like a king, enthroned on a soft chair in his own heated cabin just a few feet from the farmhouse.

Roach soon returned to her office on 42nd Street, and as the shock and grief of 9/11 slowly subsided, her life settled back into the frenetic world of publishing Martha Stewart Living magazine.

This former fashion editor turned garden columnist for Newsday joined Martha's empire in 1993, near the beginning, and the two clicked. Roach climbed the ladder, becoming the magazine's garden editor and then a vice president for Internet ventures and, finally, editorial director of Martha Stewart Living and other titles.

As such she had a ringside seat to the rise, fall and rise again of her friend and boss. Roach remains bowled over by Stewart's energy and curiosity and her days stuffed with broadcasts, road trips, meetings, working meals and public appearances. "I would always say to her, 'You're an omnivore.' She wants to taste everything, see everything, know everything, meet everything."

Then there was the darkness four years ago, when Stewart was convicted of obstructing justice in an investigation of a personal stock sale and served five months in a women's prison in West Virginia. As Stewart's monthly letter disappeared from the magazine, it was left to Roach to thank readers for their support while she and her colleagues soldiered on.

"It was a crazy situation, no rulebook, no map." Advertising revenues went through the floor, but readers remained loyal. "We never reinvented the brand under duress." Or, as Stewart counseled: "Stick to your knitting."

Stewart was welcomed back on the cover the following April, holding a pet chicken. All was right with the world again, except as the company rebounded and Roach helped to implement the next publishing strategy, she inwardly yearned for the house and garden she knew only on weekends. It is a tortured dance familiar to many New Yorkers with weekend places, a love of the soil and a sense of displacement.

From her kitchen table, she can look up to see antique nursery blocks that spell out "Carpe Diem," the Latin phrase meaning seize the day, and she would think, "How many more years am I going to look at that stupid thing and put my things in the car Sunday afternoon?"

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