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:
- There is also a section at the bottom of my About page that provides brief outlines of some of my gardens.
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 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
- You Grow Girl on Facebook
- Buy “Grow Great Grub” now
(All photos courtesy Gayla Trail.)