cultivating herbs, and curiosity, with you grow girl’s gayla trail
WHEN I SAW on social media the other day that my friend Gayla Trail–a.k.a. You Grow Girl–was planning to self-publish a new book with crowd-sourced funding, I was curious. And then when I clicked over to have a closer look, it turned out that the book Gayla’s writing is actually called: “Grow Curious.”
Gayla’s subtitle is “Creative Activities to Cultivate Joy, Wonder, and Discovery in You and Your Garden,” and that’s exactly how I’d describe the approach she has always taken to her pursuit of plants—especially herbs, which we talked about on my public-radio show and podcast.
Gayla’s not just horticulturally expert, but also creatively crafty and a great cook who puts up the harvest in inventive ways for offseason use—including treats like Nasturtium Leaf Pesto, above (don’t just compost those plants!), and homegrown turmeric and ginger, and the best basil of all for a calming, restorative tea. In other words, engaging with every dimension of what the garden has to offer, savoring every drop.
We did a postmortem of our 2016 gardens, revealing how Gayla achieved her long-held goal of “greens self-sufficiency” from spring and ongoing this fall, by including some unusual suspects in the mix—and by “letting go” a little about over-zealous tidying up.
Read along while you listen to the October 17, 2016 show using the player below (or at this link). Links to recipes, her growing and propagation tactics for favorite herbs, and to information about her new book, are at the bottom of the page.
q&a: great greens, curious herbs and more, with gayla trail
Q. I love the idea for the book because that’s how I feel—that it’s all about joy and wonder; the garden is a constant companion that entertains and fascinates me.
A. And I also think for me, one thing I discovered over time, is that it teaches me about myself.
Q. Yes. It’s like therapy for me…but we don’t have to go into that too much. [Laughter.]
Let’s start with the idea of the garden as curiosity-fueler. The other day you posted a photo and story on YouGrowGirl.com of a particular cool-looking spider, and what you’d learned about it and other spiders by following your curiosity. It was weird because I had just seen and photographed the same one here and done the same exploration. So case in point: It can even be a spider! [Laughter.]
The new book comes from a childhood memory of yours, and is meant to encourage us to regain a childlike inquisitiveness, like looking at the spider and wondering about them.
A. That’s the gist of what I was getting at. I’ve noticed that in the garden and nature world, as far as books go, there are lots of books that are for kids to engage them with eh garden in a particular way—to engage their curiosity and sense of wonder and discovery and learning. But I don’t see books like that for adults. [Laughter.]
I think that a lot of adults end up coming to the garden in that way through their kids, because kids have permission to be playful. I don’t think this is our intent, but a lot of the garden world ends up focusing on productivity and aesthetics.
Q. Sort of outdoor decorating, and work—getting your chores done. I know I’m guilty of telling people to do their chores, too. And then outdoor decorating—does it look pretty, does it look pretty?
A. And that’s a part of it; it’s not to be denied. But sometimes it ends up pushing all this other stuff aside.
Q. And it makes you feel like you really have to perform at a high level…
Q. …both of productivity, and of, “Oh, it’s not beautiful enough; I can’t have people over. It’s not perfect.” That perfection cult is probably not a good thing with nature.
A. It was interesting to me personally when a number of years ago I really started letting things go, and being messier.
Q. [Laughter.] I remember that; you wrote a beautiful essay about that.
A. This is when I talk about how the garden ends up teaching me about myself. It was very interesting to see what happens psychologically for me, personally, when I started to let things go and be messier, in some ways it really got at stuff in my head. But also on the flip side of that it was really interesting to see how the garden performed; what happened within the garden as I observed it when it was messier. Nature doesn’t really care about messiness. [Laughter.]
Q. Well, no, perennials don’t cut themselves back in fall or rake around themselves in spring.
A. That’s all our anxiety, our needs. The more I was able to let go, I noticed that there were more pollinators in the garden—more insects in general, good insects. Things balance themselves out.
One anxiety I hear from gardeners is, “I didn’t get to keep things as clean as I wanted to.”
Q. Again, that cultivating perfection—which is a ridiculous goal when you’re dealing with living things, living plants, a habitat.
A. The fact is, it’s fine.
Q. Let it all hang out, baby.
A. You might have some issues with your neighbors, or at least I will.
Q. You know me, I don’t have any neighbors.
So with an eye to being more curious and creative going forward…dare we look back at the highs and lows of the gardens we’re teasing apart right now during our respective cleanups? What were some highpoints—I think you mentioned a greens bonanza that was a 2016 victory, yes?
A. It’s funny, because for years I’ve been saying. “This year I’m going to be self-sustaining in greens.” Usually am to a certain degree, I but never like I was this year. Part of that was really letting go more so than usual in particular ways.
So letting more wild greens—edible weeds—do their thing. Sometimes it meant they came up in places I didn’t want them, like pathways, but if the plant was really healthy and was worth preserving I just said, ”Oh, well,” and let it be.
I was harvesting so many greens this year, I was having friends come over—putting out the word to come shop in my garden, especially in the spring. It ended up being through the whole season, and I am still harvesting greens right now.
Q. And we should say to people you are in Toronto, so not in a warm climate where we would expect you to necessarily be having a prolific harvest at the moment.
When you say “edible weeds,” for example…?
A. For example lamb’s quarters, and purslane—a personal favorite that’s really a summer green that’s very nutritious and also very tasty, with a bit of a tang. Mallow is what I am still getting. Dandelions like crazy—that’s definitely one of those plants that if it comes up in the middle of a pathway I’ll let it go for awhile, especially because you can also harvest the root and use it too. There is so much goodness to harvest from dandelions.
I have chicory that self-seeded last year, so I had chicory everywhere [laughter], and again you can use the root and I have been—roasting the roots of dandelions and chicory and using them to make a coffee-like substitute.
Amaranth is another big one. There are wild amaranths—weedy amaranths—that come up in the garden, but I also grow callaloo, a West Indian amaranth. I like that one a little bit more for eating. It gets huge, and if you let it self-seed you’ll have a gazillion, so I try not to let that happen. [Gayla also loves wild nettles, above. Learn about that here.]
A. I always allow some self-seeding, but I try to keep it within reason.
Q. I have a few things where I am, “I’ve got to get out there and get that before it lets go of its seeds.”
A. It’s finding that balance between letting things do the work for you, versus becoming such a problem that you make more work.
A. So those are some of the wild ones, and on top of the wild ones there are also the ones that I cultivate. And then there are the ones that I used t cultivate but I don’t have to sow them any more.
Q. So you let your lettuce self-sow. I have ‘Black-Seeded Simpson,’ a lettuce that I Iike very much, that I planted probably 20 years ago, and have no planted since, and I have it every year. It sows itself—and it knows just when to do that. It’s so smart. [Laughter.]
A. I don’t know about you but I find that the greens that self-sow is tougher and lasts longer—it doesn’t bolt so easily.
Q. I think it puts down roots exactly when the right time is—it’s not like us forcing it to germinate at a certain time by watering it. It “picks” the right time—and I don’t mean to anthropomorphize the plants, but it just seems to know.
A. I don’t know, lately I’ve been anthropomorphizing the plants a little bit more. [Laughter.] They have an intelligence that we underestimate.
Q. [Laughter.] They’re pretty damn smart, you’re right. So greens were a win this year, I have already mentioned on the show that in 2017 it’s going to either be drip irrigation or no vegetables. We’ve just had a couple of years where it’s been hard to keep things growing vigorously with erratic rainfall. That’s one of my post-mortem list things—do invest the time and the supplies.
A. And I really can’t. I wanted to when I first set up this garden five years ago, but I have really sandy soil. Even though I work against that in the raised beds by adding lots of nutrition in the form of compost, it’s still quite sandy. I find that still doesn’t work for me’ for the most part the water goes right down and doesn’t wick. I’ve been more and more trying to embrace the reality of this garden, where it is, and what happens happens.
I was surprised this year, considering it was so dry and hot, that I continued to have greens—and it was really about the wild greens. They are so adapted.
Q. So a takeaway from this year for both of us: Go with the palette of plants that are suited to our conditions even more so as conditions seem to be getting trickier.
A. Unless you want to be out there with a hose every day…
A. The great thing about the wild greens is that not only are they adaptable, but they are nutritious. Its good to have that diversity in the diet—it’s a win.
Q. Every time I look, you’re getting to know some new herb or using a familiar one in a new way that I’ve never tried or even thought of–herbed salts, vinegars, dyes, teas…
You make pestos from things I’d never thought of making pestos from. Let’s talk about some victories with herbs that you may do again next year. Are you growing turmeric and ginger?
A. Yes, that’s something I’ve done on and off over the years. I did turmeric, ginger and cardamom this year—like a trinity of ginger-like spices. They’re all similar in terms of how they grow and the kinds of needs they have. [Above, pot of cardamom.]
The only plant I bought was cardamom, because you can’t buy cardamom root at the store. I did go to a specialty nursery for the cardamom plant. That was a big victory for me because I had a cardamom plant like 15 years ago and I rapidly killed it. It was a big deal—this year I thought, “I know what it needs now; I figured it out.” [Laughter.]
So the turmeric and ginger I grew both from roots or rhizomes that I bought at the store.
Q. So you went to the vegetable section and you bought some as if you were going to cook a dish with them, but you potted them up, or put them in the ground?
A. I find the best place to get either of them is a health-food store. You can have some success with grocery-store roots, but the problem is I think they spray them with some kind of inhibitor.
Q. So they don’t sprout in the bins.
A. From the health-food store, they just sprout on their own. I just put them in a fruit bowl on my counter, with the rest of the fruit and whatnot, and they end up sprouting on their own. And then once they sprout what I do is cut the sprouted parts off and let it harden over a bit like you do with a succulent.
Q. Or like you do with a potato, if you were going to cut up a seed potato into two—you’d look for where the eyes are, and once you cut it in half you’d then let each part heal over a little.
A. Exactly. I don’t know how I didn’t make that analogy [laughter].
Q. You say one thing, I say potato.
A. Once they scab over a bit, I just plant those. I plant both those together typically in a really large plastic container, because they really like it moist and they tend toward shade.
Now I have talked to a lot of people who say they put theirs right out in the sun, and I think you can do that as long as it’s tempered by having consistently moist soil. But for me I do best when they get a little shade protection, and aren’t out there in the blazing sun where they’re most likely to dry out most quickly.
Q. The cardamom is a pod—it’s not the below-ground root that we’re using, right?
A. With the cardamom chances are good that I’m never going to get cardamom pods. I just don’t have the climate. It’s really more about the leaves, which you can use. They’re very aromatic, like the cardamom is, and I just love having that smell.
Q. It’s fantastic.
A. It’s the same with ginger and turmeric—you can use the leaves as well for cooking. [Left to right, above: Cardamom, turmeric, ginger leaves.]
Q. And then the big harvest of those other two is the roots later on. But are you overwintering a portion of the roots for use as your start for next year, or overwintering the whole pot or what?
A. It depends on what I have room for, as I have to bring in so many plants each year. It all comes down to who gets to stay and who gets to go. I do usually overwinter some of them, but I am also fine with harvesting it all and starting over again. They do well inside, so you can extend the season and get more growth of the leaves. It’s great the have the leaves available, and then have some really fresh roots. The roots you get are so different from what you get from the store. They look different; they’re very tender.
Q. The ginger especially I see at the farmers’ market doesn’t look anything like what we see in the grocery store.
A. It’s very tender and bright.
Q. And it’s colorful.
Some of the herbs you grow—I don’t even know how to pronounce them. [Laughter.] Papalo and pepicha—I don’t even know what some of them are. Gotu kola. You’re really the herbal gardener up there.
A. I like plants that have multiple uses. I think that’s come out of having
such a small space. I want to get as much as I can—get every drop out of the garden. So herbs are aromatic—it’s nice to be out there and just running your hands over them. and of course you can use them in so many ways.
I think I have this natural affinity toward herbs particularly.
Q. And many are beautiful and quite pollinator-friendly—things in the mint family, for instance, are some of the best attractors for beneficial insects.
A. Absolutely. For years I grew holy basil and didn’t even use it myself—I grew it because the bees love it.
Q. Tulsi—it’s also called tulsi—and a friend gave me four little plants this spring. Every time I went by these four plants, it was like whoa, abuzz. If I would touch it, the fragrance was amazing. I didn’t use it; I just enjoyed the spectacle of nature happening out there. But you do things with it.
A. With the tulsi particularly, I make tea out of it, and drink that every single day. It’s very calming for the body.
Q. Do you use the fresh leaves or dry it first? [Above, a harvest of holy basil.]
A. Either or. I use it fresh in summertime, and especially the flowers, which add sort of a sweetness. And then I dry it for the winter.
Q. I took plants out last week—we were supposed to have a frost—and I pulled them by the roots and hung them in an airy place. They’re dryish now. Do I chop them up?
A. I dry the whole thing and then I chop it up and use everything, even the stems. I just keep them in paper bags because it takes up less space.
Q. And it won’t get moldy like it might in closed plastic. And you do infusions—an apple-cider vinegar thing with the tulsi, too.
A. Infusing the tulsi in apple-cider vinegar is another sort of calming thing, you take a little bit, and it also helps with digestion. It helps with craving for sweets.
Q. I can’t say enough about it. I hadn’t grown it before and it’s on my list to repeat. That was a win.
A. And there are so many different kinds.
Q. I know, Horizon Herbs—it has a new name now, Strictly Medicinals, but owner Richo Cech out on the West Coast has an amazing list of them.
Before we run out of time: pestos. I made my usual basil one, plus garlic-scape pesto earlier in the season, and a parsley one. But you make it from nasturtiums, too? [Get the recipe.]
A. From nasturtium leaves—that’s the one I’m doing right now, because as soon as hard frost hits, goodbye nasturtiums. Just pull out the plant, and you want to cook the leaves very slightly in water. I can’t think of what that’s called right now.
Q. Blanch. [Laughter.] I’m the girl with the words, you just tell me the concepts.
A. Pressure; time pressure. [Laughter.] Blanch them very quickly, and you can use even the large leaves, and make a pesto.
Q. And you freeze it?
recipes and how-to’s from gayla
- Gayla’s essay, “We Dance This Mess Around,” on allowing a little garden messiness
- Gayla’s Nasturtium Leaf Pesto recipe
- Growing culantro from store-bought herb [above, culantro starts]
- How Gayla multiplies her herb plants with cuttings
- A pot of homegrown ginger
- In praise of the “weedy” green called stinging nettle
about gayla’s new book ‘grow curious’
GAYLA TRAIL’S next book, which she is seeking to self-publish with crowd-sourced funding via a Kickstarter campaign, is called “Grow Curious.” Learn about how the book idea got started, and what is planned at this link, where you can also support the campaign by pre-ordering.
prefer the podcast?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the October 17, 2016 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Photos from Gayla Trail at YouGrowGirl dot com.)