q&a and a giveaway: you grow girl’s gayla trail

gayla trail
TRUE CONFESSION: I USED TO STALK GAYLA TRAIL ONLINE. Long before I started A Way to Garden, You Grow Girl, founded in 2000, defined “garden blog” for me, and I was a regular lurker there. But Gayla gardens in Canada (not the U.S.), in an urban setting (not a rural one). She is a bold world traveler (I am a big baby). We are nearly two decades apart in age (and I, regretfully, have no tattoos). If we’re so different, then why are we posting simultaneous profiles this week on our sites, and giving away four sets of both our books? Because we’re pretty sure you’ll like meeting the other one—we know we hit it off when we did.

In a series of emails and Skype calls since I began A Way to Garden in 2008, Gayla and I have found so much shared turf:

  • We two longtime organic gardeners can get riled up—over topics ranging from the environment, to chemical companies and the “business” of gardening in general, to dyed mulch and more (her most recent rant on offcolor mulch is way down in this post).
  • We both overdo it—on plants, work, and a major inclination to cart home lots of rusty buckets and other “vintage” metal stuff from tag sales.
  • We both live in the garden offseason crammed into spaces where in many rooms, the plants get a majority of the square footage. (And why not?)
  • In addition to the usual tools, you’ll find us both with a camera in the garden, though Gayla is a professional photographer, and I am not.
  • And once upon a time, there was the influence of a grandmother (hers, West Indian; mine, a garden-club lady from New York City’s suburbs) who with potatoes grown in pots on a balcony or standard chrysanthemums planted in the ground, respectively, touched our souls.

YOU KNOW WHAT? Let Gayla introduce herself with this interview (then click over to her site to read my corresponding Q&A). Don’t forget to comment first to enter to win both our books–four sets are up for grabs of my memoir “And I Shall Have Some Peace There” and her latest, “Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces,” and then to comment again when you get to Gayla’s. Details follow the interview, at the bottom of this page.

The Q&A With Gayla Trail

1. How long have you been gardening?

I’ve been asked this question many times and am yet to come up with a succinct, radio-friendly answer–there isn’t one! Gardening happened for me in starts and stops, but the drive to do so has been there since I was a little girl.

The first plant I ever grew was parsley in a Styrofoam cup when I was 5. I remember that experience very clearly. For some reason my parents tilled a garden in the backyard of our rental (they were not gardeners) and I planted my parsley there. We moved into a townhouse subdivision that October and there was no garden to speak of for the rest of my childhood. Well, there are other interesting gardens/gardening experiences, but they are tricky to write about here without providing pages and pages of context. I am saving those stories for the Made-for-TV Lifetime movie I am writing about my life…Okay, not really, although I have the material, and then some.

One day when I was about 17 I inexplicably went outside and dug a patch of earth behind the garage of the new rental house we had recently moved into. I had no plan and I can’t recall what compelled me to do so in the first place, except that I just had to–and immediately! Life at home soon became even more tumultuous and I left shortly thereafter. Nothing came of the patch I dug. At 18 I moved to a new city and started growing indoor plants from cuttings given to me by my high school biology teacher. I also tried growing seeds collected from grocery store produce and eventually attempted (unwisely) to grow onions, raspberries, and other edibles in the shady backyard of my apartment building. Needless to say, nothing happened. I grew my first successful vegetable garden while living in an overcrowded student house in university. Then I moved again and left that new garden behind, this time into an apartment with no yard. Oddly enough, that is where I started gardening FOR REAL. I never stopped.

2. Did you learn from someone in particular? If not, how?

Good god no! I wish I had that sort of pedigree. You know, the wise parent or grandparent that gently leads you through the lessons of the garden, and in doing so teaches you meaningful lessons about life. Yadda yadda, happy, happy, whatever. I am self-taught (and self-directed) all the way. I will say, however, that there was my maternal grandmother and her potatoes. She lived in a high rise for seniors and grew potatoes in a bucket on her tiny balcony. She grew plants but never, ever spoke of it. I have no idea how she felt about gardening or why she did it. She wasn’t the sort to have those kinds of conversations. One day I was out playing on the balcony and I noticed this plant with little blue flowers (like the ones on the plants in my rooftop cans, above left). I asked what it was and she told me potatoes. Even though nothing else was said about it, I kept that memory somewhere in the back of my mind and I think of it as the inspiration that led me to try growing on a garden on the roof of my apartment building.

3. How many gardens have you made so far (indoors count)?

Quite a lot, especially if I include indoors. Outdoors I have had the one in university, the roof of my old place (photo above), the space between the sidewalk and the building at my old place, two different community garden plots, a yardshare, and now my new backyard along with the front that I am only just beginning to develop into a new container garden. Indoors, in my current place, I think of different parts of the house as different gardens because the conditions are so vastly divergent. I have an unheated, south-facing covered porch that I am calling “The Greenhouse” for want of a better term, my office window where I have about 40 plants, and numerous others that are scattered throughout. Even when I lived in a cramped apartment, the plants were shifted between windows and growing spaces seasonally, so it was like starting over every four to six months. I don’t think I have had less than 100 plants growing indoors, year-round, since my mid-20s.

4.  Any projects or other posts you’d like to share with my readers that sort of introduce you best?
I have three tags on the site that are used to define personal posts that I think offer up some insights into who I am:

5. Do you think of yourself as having a “specialty,” something you know most about, love the most, etc.?

By necessity, my specialty is definitely small-space food gardening (which is what “Grow Great Grub,” left, is about). And I do love growing food. Recently I have found myself moving more and more into weird food: strange plants that are sort of on the cusp of edible. But in reality I consider myself an equal opportunity plant-aholic. I love all plants; I’m just restricted by space. I make do pretty well and grow a frightening number of plants considering how little space I’ve had available to me.

6. What do you think is the greatest misconception about you?

That I have a perfect garden! My gardens suit me, but would they win any awards? Not likely. The trouble with super-small garden spaces is that there is no behind-the-scenes in which to hide the messes. And there are lots of messes. I am so thrilled that I now have a ramshackle shed in which to store the pots, and the scraps of this and that, that I have picked up off of the street but do not yet have a use for. My gardens are also my testing grounds. They are where I try new varieties and push plants to see how they will perform in different conditions. This doesn’t always turn out well for the plant, but it is how I learn so that I can be a better writer. These days, my gardens are more about work than about what I want. Over the years, aesthetics have been pushed out of the way in favor of work-related needs. Last year I was doing the photos for my next book and I managed to cram more greenery onto the roof than you would think possible. It was a bit scary! There was nowhere to entertain or sit for that matter. It didn’t look particularly great because it was just about getting those plants ready for photos.

7. What would you count as your biggest gardening successes?

I’ve grown a lot of different plants in some pretty horrible conditions, but the one that comes to mind first is a simple one: radishes. For years, I simply could not grow a decent radish in a container. They were dry and wooden and just not worth eating. I was pretty proud of myself when I finally worked it out and now I grow a mean radish, if I do say so myself.

Using straw to mulch was another success that I came upon by experimentation and somewhat accidentally. Well, not using it so much as using it as extensively as I now do. I initially started mulching with it in my community garden so that I could cut back on the amount I needed to water, but over time I discovered other benefits and even experimented with burying it into the soil as a cheap, long-term amender. Then I started mulching my containers with it and discovered that it drastically cut back the frequency with which I needed to water through the hottest days of summer. I love straw!  This wasn’t anything I read; just little things that I tried and saw results with. I very recently found out about Ruth Stout and discovered that she pioneered a no-work method based on using straw! Why did it take me so long to find her?

My most recent success is a tomato I grew in my office window this winter. It all happened by mistake, as the best results often do. A volunteer tomato came up in one of my houseplant pots and I was so happy to have a tomato plant around to smell through the winter months that I decided to let it go. Amazingly, it did much better than any indoor tomato I have tried to grow before, and I harvested a few really good, fresh and juicy tomatoes in April and May!

8.  Any failures you care to confess to? Is there a plant that just eludes you one way or another, that is your undoing?

Failures are constant and probably too numerous to list. I am always trying new plants or pushing plants to grow in different conditions, so failure is par for the course. Failure also depends on location. I’m starting out in a new space this year so I expect a lot of failure along the way as I come into contact with a new cast of pest characters. New gardens also tend to be more susceptible to pestilence since they suffer from a lack of diversity. My new space was pretty much a monoculture. There is a distinct lack of beneficials in the space right now. I am not new to gardening with squirrels but the community here are driving me INSANE in new ways. They dig hundreds of holes everyday and are eating the centers out of my sempervivums! It is my first year here so I don’t yet fully understand the growing conditions and the microclimates.  I only have so much time so my focus is on building the beds and soil this year. I figure a lot of plants will be moved next year as I get more time to devote to that end of things and as I come to a better understanding of the space.

9. Do you ever “hit the wall” with gardening, and want to throw in the trowel?

I will say that by mid-summer, when there is a heatwave, I can grow pretty tired of hauling buckets out to keep containers hydrated. This year, for the first time since the mid-90s, I have access to an outdoor water source! No hauling buckets!

My biggest hitting the wall this year is more about not having time to garden than it is about becoming overwhelmed by the garden itself. The trouble with being a garden writer is that it can get in the way of actually gardening. Spring is our high season. I was losing my mind for a while there, looking out at the garden everyday, but knowing that I HAD to go back to my desk and work on my book, answer people’s questions, etc. It is such a necessary part of my life now that I can feel myself suffocating when things get too far out of balance and I don’t have the time to do it. The irony is that having time to garden, experiment, and interact with plants is also essential to my job. My writing is better when I have time to re-fill the well with new experiences and discoveries.

10. Quick One Word Questions:

1.  Favorite edible plant? Tomatoes. Followed closely by basil.

2.  Favorite non-edible? Arisaema triphyllum.

3.  Gardening: hobby, art, job, political act? All and more. It is a requirement for life, like breathing or eating. It keeps me sane and grounded. It brings me back to myself and connects me to something that is bigger than me. It is where I experience wonder, which is about as religious as I get. (Oops. That’s more than one word!)

4.  Favorite season? Spring. Although this spring was lousy. So this year it will be summer.

5.  Favorite plant fragrance? Tomato, although I recently went to Thailand and have to say that ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) is pretty fantastic and even better than the essential oil!

6.  Favorite gardening film or garden in a film? It’s neither about gardening or gardens; however, the landscapes in “Days of Heaven” are the best. There is also a scene in “Ratcatcher” where the main character (a kid) travels through an open field to explore a new subdivision that is just being built that reminds me of my childhood living next to brown fields behind The Towers/Food City Plaza.

How to Win 1 of 4 Sets of Books

gayla margaret books
GAYLA AND I HAVE FOUR SETS of our latest books to give away: Gayla’s “Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces,” and my memoir, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” about moving to my garden away from the city rat race. To enter, you have to comment here AND on Gayla’s blog, answering the question, “Do you ever hit the wall in gardening?” just as she and I answered it in our twin interviews here and on her site.

Remember: You double your chances to win by entering on both blogs–just copy and paste the same comment both places, below and at Gayla’s interview with me. And one more thing: If you’re feeling shy, and just want to say “Count me in” or “I want to win,” that’s OK; we will honor your entry anyhow. We understand. But do that in both places.

Four winners, two from each site, will be chosen at random using random [dot] org’s tool after entries close at midnight Tuesday, June 7. Each will receive our two books. Good luck to all!

Where to Find Gayla

(All photos courtesy Gayla Trail.)

June 1, 2011


  1. says

    Last year I put in a small veggie garden. By the end of July I knew something was wrong; my soil was devoid of any nutrients and my seeds just couldn’t grow. I amazingly came across some organic manure on the side of Highway 6 on the way to Waterloo, Ontario in the fall and bought two large bags. Several days later my garlic arrived in the mail and I planted it in the poop. Things are much better this year thanks to the poop. I never thought I would be so happy about poop, but it really got me excited about trying my hand at veggie gardening again. Wall averted until I get overwhelmed by weeds and heat :)

  2. deidre corbet says

    I hit the wall when the days go up over 100 and there is no rain in sight. Thanks for the chance for the books.

  3. Jennie says

    It’s difficult for me when things don’t grow. Whether it’s pests eating them, seeds planted/watered incorrectly, or fall planted bulbs that don’t come up in the spring… sometimes when that happens I give up for a little bit (ok, so only a day or two. But still.)

  4. Virginia says

    The biggest wall I’ve hit so far is not having enough room to plant everything that I want to. We’re getting there.

  5. says

    Count me in. I’m an avid gardner. I have a wonderful space to play with at home and I also have an acre at church to create a wonderful community garden. I am learning as I go.

  6. Mark says

    I probably hit the wall about the time the snow is hitting the yard…after intensively caring for my various veggies throughout the season, I reach the point where I am finally ready for a respite from gardening. I’d probably never make it in California….I am actually ready for fall in Iowa.

  7. Pat says

    My wall is now the biggest ever for me. Due to illnesses and surgeries over the past year, I am now physically handicapped. My garden is very large and winds around in different patches among huge oak trees. Not having been tended to for over a year, it is overgrown and looks like a small forest with tall weeds that look like they could take me on. You can’t see the paths anymore. I finally found my peony bushes. Out of five, only two have survived and each bush has only one huge bud, but they’re being strangled out and denied sun by the weeds. I now long for the old walls of heat and weeding. So, I threw in the towel this week, but there was something about those poor two peony buds trying to live. I knew I had to help them. They touched my heart and brought back that love of gardening feeling. So I’m “picking up” that towel and going for the gold. It will never make “garden beautiful” this year, but there WILL be two beautiful peonies. Good luck to all you wonderful gardeners.

  8. says

    I hit the wall every time I walk past my neighbor Sophia’s. Every spring I start seeds, fuss over a mini hoop house I built out of pvc, stare at my little seedlings, and pray for warmer weather in my soggy Pacific Northwest vegetable patch. Every year Sophia up the street waits until mid June to till and plant her sidewalk garden strip and every year she is blessed with a bounty of produce, and every year my little plot just struggles along. I hit a wall when I compare my gardening to others. Sad but true.

  9. says

    this is my first year vegetable gardening in over 25 years and i am loving every minute of it. the labor, the sweating, the birds singing, the pure unadulterated joy of digging in dirt and seeing things grow!! i’m sure a wall will go up a bit when it is suffocatingly hot and i’m out in the sun harvesting but it definitely won’t stop me from my love affair!!

  10. says

    You mentioned straw as being one of your great mulch discoveries. Mine too for two years running – getting lovely shredded straw from a nearby nursery to keep in the moisture and keep down the weeds. Then this year I planted my garden – a mix of seedlings and seeds – added heaps of straw as is now usual on 75% of the beds before I ran out, and then it rained and rained. I didn’t get round to getting more to finish off the other beds as am super busy working on a play. Then last week I went out to see how everything was doing and lo and behold all the beds with the straw now growing something other than what I had planted, namely barley. So now, I have a gigantic job of weeding out all this barley before it gets too mature and goes to seed and becomes a perennial weed. Btw, I scraped as much of the straw out as I could along with a fair bit of my good home-made compost and who knows how many of my seeds that were germinating as well as damaging a number of the growing seedlings, but most of the barley seeds were already well rooted and didn’t come up with it. Now I have a large barrel load of straw and no mulch and a lot of uncalled-for weeding work that I really don’t have time for. Any ideas that can help????

  11. says

    I hit the wall all the time. Being a renter with a small outdoor space is just the start. Although it’s usually the creeping charlie/bindweed that does me in. No matter what you do, you can’t get rid of the darned stuff and it’s a constant battle for the entire season.

  12. says

    I hit a wall gardening for a couple years now, trying to water only with collected rain water and/or grey water. Let me tell you, in the middle of August in Virginia there was no keeping up and it almost kept me from trying a third time. This year, I supplement regular, deep hose waterings from my new outdoor faucet with rain barrel water during the less scorching days. It gets me at my greenie soul, but the benefit of fresh herbs and veggies in 90-degree weather has really helped me push through the wall!

  13. says

    Yes, my wall is mid-summer when the heat hits, the plants look ragged, and I too am watering containers every day. That point when it’s too late to plant new things to fill in the gaps so you just have to throw up your hands and wait for fall.

  14. Jen says

    I think I need a “I’ve hit a wall” support group! I live in northern Canada (Whitehorse, Yukon), where our soil is very poor and we have a short growing season. Gardening in the north is a lesson in patience for me–I often start out with what I think will be the ‘perfect garden’ this year and then invariably encounter setbacks (zucchini wasn’t happy because it wasn’t hot enough outside, the cabbage didn’t grow a large head because there weren’t enough nutrients in the soil, etc). And maybe because I am a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes these bumps in the road are hard for me to absorb. But every year I come back to my garden and believe (hope?) that it will be the best year yet….!

  15. says

    I used to garden on a roof in the middle of Boston, where I had to lug buckets of water up a ladder through a skylight. I definitely hit a wall in mid-summer when I was watering every day with three or four trips up and down. But now I’m in a new place that has a little patch outside – haven’t spent enough time here to figure out whether I will hit a wall or not, but I hope not!

  16. LInda says

    The wall I hit involves trying to garden amongst tree roots! I absolutely love the trees that border the front garden, but they have taken over and I literally can’t turn over a spadeful of earth without hitting good sized roots. It’s probably time to move the garden as the roots and the shade are making this spot unworkable, but I would never part with the trees.

  17. says

    Since moving to the country, the overwhelming, never get through everything, what was I thinking, “hitting the wall” moments are tempered with the pure joy of creating and tending gardens bigger than my previous lot. It is a good lesson in tackling projects one piece at at time, and choosing to celebrate the accomplishments rather than lament the challenges.

  18. Gracia says

    Today, I did hit the wall and the ceiling, when someone removed a barricade I had around the sunflowers I’d planted 2 months ago that were doing so nicely. He took it to use to protect a dahlia, not realizing it was a sunflower barricade. My chickens got into the sunflowers and ate every last one. I was so mad!

    And then slugs I think ate a Sunrise Serenade morning glory over night. It’s been wet here and bugs are eating everything.

    And then my new red petunia appeared to suddenly come down with a case of powdery mildew when the temps hit 79 F– so early in the season for P.M. And then a Lavender Simplicity rose branch withered, on a rose that has so few leaves I doubt it is going to make it, due to winter harshness here.

    When it rains, it pours, literally and figuratively.

  19. Christine says

    The wall for me this year is my new baby. Not much energy left to tend the garden after tending the baby!

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