ARE YOU “MOREGANIC”? My friend Gayla Trail, a.k.a. You Grow Girl, turned me on to that description of how we care for our gardens more than organically. Gayla was the first garden blogger I ever heard of (online since February 2000!) and grows lots of unusual stuff.
She doesn’t have greenhouses or even a giant garden, but Toronto-based Gayla has plenty of homegrown leafy greens to eat over a very long season—including some wild varieties I bet you’ve never tried. Last time I checked, Gayla was harvesting basketful Number 50-something of the season (above) with more to come.
Learn about being “moreganic” plus her favorite greens and best growing tips and who knows what else, because when Gayla and I get to talking…well, you know.
Read along as you listen to the Sept. 3, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
being ‘moreganic,’ + growing greens, with gayla trail
Q. So, before we start on the promised subject of greens: I get a lot of reader and listener questions about what product to use to kill some insect or cure some disease with their plants. I read something on your website the other day, where you mentioned your approach to garden care, and called it not just organic but “moreganic,” and I want you to explain moreganic as a starter.
A. That’s a term that I don’t hear too often, but it’s one that I’ve embraced because what it means is really going beyond what is acceptable or “allowable” within the parameters of organic gardening practices. So that could be what are considered “safer” sprays and organically certified pesticides.
I hear the word moreganic used more with farmers now, who are trying to express that they’re going beyond the certification requirements. But I use it too obviously because I think that is what I’m doing. I’m not using any sprays now and haven’t been for quite a while in my garden.
Q. When I tell people that—because I’m the same, I just didn’t know “moreganic,” I didn’t know that word and I love it, that phrase. But I’m the same way—I’m like, I know, but I don’t buy that stuff even if it’s listed in the U.S., even if it’s OMRI listed, or approved for the NOP (National Organic Program), even if it’s legally approved even on certified farm, but I don’t buy it; I don’t get it. I don’t bother. [Laughter.]
A. Obviously, it’s more complicated when it’s a farm and you’re growing for selling, for market.
Q. Absolutely. Your livelihood, yes.
A. My livelihood is not dependent on a specific crop. So my attitude is, it’s not going to be the end of the world if it’s a bad year for whatever.
Q. Pretty right, yes.
A. If there’s a certain pest that … because the thing is, every year there’s a pest that is predominant. It just depends on what the cycle is, where your garden is in its development, the ecology of the space. But also it depends on the weather. So some years it’s like Earwig City, like last year.
Q. [Laughter.] That’s a horrible thought, Earwig City.
A. Sure, with some years it is. And then other years they’re not, and if you’re just chasing after killing that thing, spraying it to oblivion, then in the end, even those certified organic products are detrimental. They’re indiscriminate.
Q. Some of them are not targeted only to the one insect–many of them are not targeted only to the one insect. And some have residual effects for spraying, like an orchard.
I have very old apple trees and people say, “What do you spray on your trees?” And I’m like, “Nothing.” Because most of those fungicides that I would like to spray, so my apples and the leaves were a little cleaner, those have copper compounds, and copper is then residual in the soil after years of spraying, and it doesn’t go anywhere, and I’m not into it. So I skip it and I have lumpy, bumpy apples [above], but I make great applesauce. [Laughter.]
A. Part of it is, that’s how we’re raised, we’ve been raised in gardening as like “spray it away.” So, I think the organic thing pulls from that same way of thinking rather than shifting the thinking entirely.
I have a neighbor who has a massive, massive cherry tree, and last year was a bad year for cherries around here. There were a lot of aphids. And she wanted to spray, and she had some guy come out who I guess was working with organic sprays but he said to her, “If you don’t spray your cherries will be dead in few years.”
There’s this fear, too, “If I don’t deal with this, oh my God, what will happen?”
And I said to her, “Really, your tree just needs to be pruned [laughter] and it’ll bounce back, it’s just the season this year, there’s a lot of-” And he wanted to kill the ants, too, because of that relationship between ants and aphids. And I said, “Just leave it and it will be fine.”
Q. So I just loved it when I saw the “moreganic,” and I just thought let’s bubble that up for people, because we may have listeners listening today and readers reading the transcript of the show who kind of “get it” and they can go, “Oh, O.K., that’s what I’m doing, too.” So I just wanted to-
A. There are other aspects to moreganic, but it’s not something that seems to be very clearly defined. But sourcing local inputs can be another emphasis.
Q. Right, like I don’t buy bagged mulches shipped from across the country that were from the bark of a tree in the Pacific Northwest or something. I use a local source of mulch that a farmer neighbor has composted hot, and aged, and then he sells it as mulch. But it’s recycling material from my community—that kind of thing. And then I make my own compost and whatever, but yes, so local inputs. That makes sense.
So greens? At the beginning of this year, I guess, at the beginning of 2018, I remember you posted a recap on yougrowgirl dot com of your leafy-green harvest from 2017, and I looked at the list and it was epic. [Laughter.] I was like, “Wow, she’s eating a lot of good greens.”
A. Making that list, it was like wow.
Q. You had to take a nap in the middle of making the list. So, in this year you’ve been posting most of your harvest—until we all just got so hot in the Northeast and into Canada. We always get so sick of it—I think the weather just burned us all out. But I think well into July you were posting every picture of “Here’s today’s harvest,” and “Here’s today’s harvest,” and “Number 41…” and whatever, on Instagram and places like that.
Is the greens thing … is that something you’ve always been into? It’s like you seem to have this record-keeping practice, noting your greens, is this a favorite thing?
A. I think probably, I don’t know, when I moved to this space, which the first year was 2011, I did have this goal, long-term goal, as being sustainable in greens. We eat a lot leafy greens. I wanted to minimize how much I purchase as much as possible; I really wanted to grow as much of it as I could on my own. Obviously, I grow a lot of other things, too, but I do eat a lot of leafy greens and it’s just that, that has evolved over time and it’s become even more of a priority for me now, just in terms of health.
Q. Yes, for great health, sure.
A. The diversity of greens is something that has really become more of a focus.
Q. So, do you plant them all or are some of them wild? Are they all annuals? Are they perennial? What are some of the hit parade of the things that you wouldn’t be without, maybe?
A. It’s such a mix. It’s a hodgepodge of all of those things. So, I’ve really embraced wild greens.
A. Dandelion, I can’t live without dandelion. I think it shocks people. So many people here trying to get rid of dandelions and I’m allowing them to grow [laughter]. But they’re one of the first greens to become available very early in the growing season.
Anything that’s perennial and hardy through the winter and for this climate, which is the same climate as yours, Northeastern, is really vital. It means I’m getting those good greens as early as possible because by the last leg of the winter, I’m feeling pretty desperate for them. I’m eating just what I can get at the store which is not-
Q. Not as good, no.
A. No, it doesn’t have the vitamins and nutrients and whatnot in it, and that diversity is really important getting all those different phytochemicals into our bodies. So, I love dandelions.
Violets are another big one that I’ve really embraced, and learned through time that they’re so healthy and I had no idea. I was growing violets for years without … I was really focusing on the flowers … and then eventually learning, oh, not only are the greens edible, but they’re really good for you. [Gayla’s recent harvest of violet leaves, above.]
Q. That’s so interesting because—this is crazy—but the way I know when there’s a woodchuck in the garden is my violet foliage all disappears. I have a lot of wild violets at the edges of beds and I will see suddenly just the stems—it looks like a pincushion on a bunch of clumps, and I know there’s a woodchuck present because they love violet leaves. Isn’t that interesting? I didn’t know they were edible except by woodchucks. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, and if you’re eating them raw, then you’re going to want to get them as early in the season when they’re young and tender and soft. But I cook my greens a lot of the time, and so, I don’t eat them the violet in the height of summer because that’s when the plants are usually not at their best.
But early season and then late season, and I also have taken to collecting them when they’re at their peak and dehydrating leaves or freezing leaves so that I can extend into the winter. Nettles are a big one, they’re so good for you, and I even grow nettles now, which is insane. [Laughter.] Anybody who has had experience with nettles would think: “You’re crazy.”
Q. No, but all my biodynamic farming and gardening friends, who practice biodynamic theory, that’s one thing that they always do. And they incorporate it into their compost, and they make concoctions out of it to spray on plants for the health of the plants and stuff.
A. They’re just such useful plants. You just have to be respectful of the plant [laughter], and it has its own space. Chicory I’m really big on, another biennial.
Q. Do you plant that?
A. At this point, it’s just self-seeding.
Q. But you started out with a chicory variety, a pack of seeds?
A. Radicchio, yes, I should say it was chicory/radicchio. It’s confusing because we only tend to use chicory to talk about the wild version, but I’m actually growing cultivated Italian versions, which now they just sell seeds. And they’re just beautiful plants, you can buy such beautiful varieties that get red and colorful.
Q. Do you let them head up? Do you wait, wait, wait, or you grow or are you eating smaller leaves or what?
A. I tend to focus on just eating leaves and not heading things up, even lettuces. I prefer leaf lettuces, for example. It’s not that I don’t produce heads, it’s that it is harder to produce heads in seasons when it’s very hot and dry, so I don’t make that my focus. I think that focusing on individual leaves instead is easier.
What else? So, lots of wild things–lamb’s quarters, and now we’re talking about summer greens, because my goal is also to have greens that go right through the season. And I have been successful and a lot of that success has come from, again, allowing these wilder plants to take over that are adapted to dealing with hotter conditions. So, purslane and lamb’s quarters are both what I’m eating a lot of right now.
Q. Now, is that Chenopodium is that what that is? What’s lamb’s quarters? I’m sorry, I’m drawing a blank.
A. Chenopodium album, yes.
Q. Chenopodium, O.K., and any kind of arugula?
A. Oh yes. And I particularly though like the wild Italian arugula; it’s in a different genus. I like it because it’s not as hairy for one, I don’t attend nuts like the rocket-ish varieties because they’re hairier and I don’t know, they can also be tougher. And they do not like the heat, whereas the wild Italian arugula comes on a little bit later and just goes all through the season. So, it’s another very dependable green that I get in the hottest summers, and it has been a very hot summer.
Q. [Laughter.] Haven’t I noticed that, oh boy.
A. Hot and dry.
Q. Then we had the monsoons here. So, we had like 10 inches of rain in three and a half weeks or something after no rain for three and a half weeks.
A. Yes, it’s those extremes.
Lots of mustards—and all of these things at this point are mostly self-seeding in my garden. Lettuce self-seeds. I’ve talked about this with you before, about how I think that the self-seeding plants tend to be more bolt-resistant, more adapted to your environment. You see a lot of gardening books that talk about starting lettuce and other greens indoors, and I just find that they don’t last.
You can jump the season a little bit by doing that, but then once you shift them outside, they just don’t adapt well, especially if you get them in too late. And that’s another topic, I always emphasize to people: The greens season begins the second you can start working the soil. You could have had snow yesterday, but today it’s ready to go.
Q. Do you grow any of these amaranth edible-leaf things?
A. Oh yes, definitely. I have a background that’s West Indian, and callaloo, which can be different things in different regions, but in some islands, callaloo is an Amaranthus species.
Q. And what part of the season do you grow that in?
A. That’s definitely another summer green. It really comes into its own—it starts a little bit late. That’s one that will not germinate in the soil early in the season. There are years where I think, am I going to get any and amaranth? And then all of a sudden it’ll pop up once it’s warm enough.
Q. One perennial, one we didn’t mention, it’s not so much wild as cultivated, but it stays around forever and ever, is sorrel. Do you grow sorrel, because it comes early, that’s the first thing to wake up in my garden [above].
A. It’s definitely one of the very earliest for me as well. I grow the regular garden sorrel and then I also grow the French one that has a prettier shaped leaves.
Q. Yes, and so delicious and so lemony, and especially that’s like the first thing. My ex-boss, Martha Stewart, she used to take the first whole cutting, had a big bed of it, and she’d take the whole first cutting and make like a pureed soup. And it was just the most, because you hadn’t had anything, like you said, good greens all winter, you’re just starving for them. And she’d make this soup, and it really didn’t have many ingredients in it and it was just amazing. And nettles sometimes makes a great spring soup, too.
A. Oh yes, I love nettle soup.
Q. She would make that too. So, those are of the things I see that you sometimes are using, in the heat of summer, you have purslane, yes?
A. Yes, it’s funny so many people don’t realize that it’s an edible, and it’s a really healthy edible, too. It’s got a lot of omega three fatty acids in it. So yes, I love that one. Mostly, you can cook it and I do cook it, but that’s when I tend to have more as a fresh salad, especially with cucumbers because it’s a summer one. It comes on around the same time as cucumbers.
Q. Are you still sowing things? So you’re in Toronto, I’m in New York State. So here in Zone 5B, I could probably still do salads—arugula, lettuces—spinach probably for fall and then even for a spring crop, by putting it under cover. Maybe even some of the other greens like kale and so forth, which we didn’t mention, to eat as baby kale; it’ll only grow a few inches tall, but it’d be delicious as a baby green.
Peas, I could probably even with the leftover peas, I could put those in a bed and I’d have pea shoots, and I could put that in a stir fry. Radishes, I could eat the greens off radishes even if sowed as late as right now, and put some cover over them. Do you put cover over things, and are you still sowing?
A. Yes to both of those things.
Q. Yes, yes. Check it, yes. [Laughter.]
A. Although I haven’t done any sowing this year because everything is so you just know, is there even any space to sow anything? [Laughter.]
Q. She’s run out of room, folks.
A. I just did a big cutting back in some of my bed and so cutting back some of those things, like the wild Italian arugula, will mean that I get another crop before the end of the season.
Q. Another thing I think people don’t know that a lot of these do work well as a cut-and-come-again, unless you let it go too far in and burn out. You keep cutting, you get more harvest, right?
A. Yes, but because I also save a lot of seeds, that’s another reason why I have less space because I have all these gnarly plants right now that are producing seed. A nice, compact little lettuce—once it’s gone to seed, is a whole other creature.
Q. [Laughter.] What was the one who was going to ask you about? Do you grow any cresses, that’s something I love when my local farmer friends have it and I am like, “What is this?” Where do I start? Do you grow any cresses at all?
A. I grow a few different cresses actually.
Q. O.K., recommend some.
A. I grow a flat-leaf one, and there is curly cress. That’s definitely one you want to start early in the season, it really likes the cold and it’s one of the first bolt and mine self-seeds. So even being self-seeders, they still bolt full quite early. I save some of the seed, and one of the things I would suggest is to save seed, and letting some self-seed as well, because it means that you have a lot of seed to play with the next year.
So, for example, this year, I have a lot of big containers that are out in the garden, that stay out year round, and I will sow those very, very early in the season, at a time when you think there’s no way anything is going to survive
Q. Almost like winter-sowing. [Laughter.]
A. Well, it is practically, especially a year like this year where we had the sudden winter return. But that means something like cress that bolts really early and likes the cold, I get quite, quite early. And I also I’ll protect those very early sown containers with plastic.
Q. So, we only have a couple minutes left and you were saying “wild.” And I’m imagining the garden and I remember, oh it’s going to be three, four, five years ago, you and I wrote a series of letters on the blogs, back and forth to each other. And one was about what’s your word of the season and mine was resilience, I think, and yours was messiness, or messy, and I think your current word is wildness.
A. And it has been for a while because I realized eventually that I was using messy, but really what I meant was wild. And it just took me, it was an evolution to move away from the idea of messiness towards wildness. I was conflating the two. [A recent photo of the garden, above, from Gayla’s website.]
Q. So, you weren’t a bad girl who wasn’t doing her cleanup chores. You were letting things do their thing and reveling in and relishing it?
A. Letting things do their thing for various reasons. That could be because the pollinators were enjoying the plants, and I didn’t want cut them off from that food source. Or it could have been that I was going to use that plant material to make something, and sometimes that means growing plants to a stage that you wouldn’t.
Q. Well, and to sort of circle back to the beginning, where I did find the word moreganic on your website. It was where you were writing about one of your current obsessions, which means growing plants through to different stages, because you’ve been making hydrosols. And I’ll explain more there’s sort of, I don’t know what you call them.
A. It’s distilled material.
Q. Flower waters, who knows what they are…
Q. Rosewater is a hydrosol, and you’ve been making them and now you’re selling them and stuff, and I’ll turn people onto that page because it was very interesting reading about them and the parts of the plants and the distillation process. And so that was a whole another adventure; we’ll have to have another visit on the show and talk about that, I guess. O.K.?
So, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time. I’m glad you’re wild and no longer labeling yourself messy. [Laughter.] I’m trying to still be resilient, the weather notwithstanding.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. 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 Sept. 3, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).