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.)

  1. alicia MacFarland says:

    I hit a wall in our current house after 3 years of planting a garden and watching the deer chomp it to bits. I finally got a 12 foot fence built in my yard and it’s been great fun the last two years. And, the deer don’t touch it!

  2. Aimee says:

    Like Gayla, I hit the metaphorical wall mid-Summer. By then my melons (which I love too much not to grow) take over the entire floor of my back deck, my cucumbers and tomatoes are all on the verge of outgrowing their stakes, and I just can’t escape my hose.

  3. Joyanne says:

    It’s my second summer with a garden and it’s been a challenging one for me. My seedlings never really took off for some reason (I think it was the light) and then something was chomping them down when I set them out in the garden. But even with all that the wall hasn’t hit me yet. I still love going outside to see how they’re doing and if my latest protective concoction is working. Even if it’s not going well, it’s a bit of peace at the end of the day.

  4. Alma says:

    This is my first real attempt at a garden so I’m hitting all kinds of walls. I’m so excited to have a garden this year that I have to stop myself from buying more plants to grow. If I buy more plants then I need more dirt, more containers and more space (And more work for me). Then there’s the realization that I can’t just grow anything in my garden. I purchased a couple melon plants and had to remove them after a month because it just doesn’t get hot enough where I live to grow them. Oh and there’s Earwigs, I’m trying out the vegetable oil traps.

    I wish I would have helped my mom with her garden when I was a kid. I would know so much more now but I’m learning.

  5. Margaret says:

    GIVEAWAY ENTRIES ARE NOW CLOSED, meaning we welcome more comments but they won’t count toward the book drawing this time!

    This has been an amazing conversation. I have to say that I am happy to meet so many first-time commenters, so many F.O.G.’s (Friends of Gayla’s), and also so many other gardeners who are willing to admit they get overwhelmed.

    Especially hearing that right now, when I am overwhelmed, has made a huge difference for me. (Now can you all get over here and water, edge, mulch, weed, mow…)? : )

    We’re drawing the winners and they will be alerted via email. Check the mailbox whose address you gave here to see if you’re one, and thanks again.

  6. Lisa says:

    I just got your email letting me know I’d won the books, and I want to say THANKS one more time. I’m enjoying your blog and appreciate the opportunity to know more about your garden. Thanks also for introducing us all to Gayla’s garden!

    And now, since the weather on the West Coast is cooler than normal, I’m off to the garden to weed and re-ponder how best to deal with my mulched “lawn”.

  7. Laura Margaret says:

    My wall would have to be when plants bolt- specifically cilantro! I still can’t figure out the balance of not too hot to quick… I would love to find a magical way to keep my cilantro edible for longer!

  8. Laura S says:

    I sometimes “hit the wall” when I find cigarette butts (from a non-gardening neighbor) or dog poop (from the dog of a dog-loving-but-not-poop-picker-upping neighbor) in my postage-stamp-sized front garden in Portland, Maine.

    But then I go out early on a beautiful spring morning, see the birds at the feeder and the columbines and lupines blooming, see all the purple flowers coming up at once, and the wall melts away.

    I really got into gardening about 17 years ago in San Francisco, when my daughter was a newborn and I had a stressful, full-time job. I tore up a long, rubbish-strewn patch at the side of my apartment building, hauled in soil amendments, and never looked back. I will always have a garden, even if it’s on a balcony or fire escape.

    (And I love both of your blogs, by the way. Thank you.)

  9. jess says:

    The biggest “wall” I hit is also not having enough time. And having recently (three years ago) moved to a completely different climate, I struggle with the limitations of my new climate. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can appreciate the good things about the pacific northwest climate yet.

  10. Shannon Clarke says:

    I don’t hit the gardening wall – it hits me! Here in Edmonton, that gardening wall is a rock hard, cold-blooded, rude winter situation. The long winters mean that I dream about gardening for 8 months and then only have a few to actually get things going. I feel sad that it’s so cold and that only the hardiest of plants grow here…so some of my dream garden members can’t reside in my beds. Garden wall…stay away…just for a few more months??

  11. Karen says:

    Here in TN, the wall is the oppressive heat of the summer months, where it might be a few days until I actually get out and garden because it is so hot. We power through and are usually rewarded with plenty of tomatoes and other summer vegetables and fruits. I’ve garden through the pregnancy of two August babies. You just carry on and garden in the early, early morning!

  12. Jen says:

    From the wind whipped balcony of my first apartment to the dry shade conditions of a giant maple, I have pulled my hair out many times. I have hit walls. But the wonderful thing about growing things is you can have as many second chances as you have growing seasons. I don’t hit walls anymore. I am so accustomed to things not going according to plan, they are no longer walls! They are part and parcel of what mother nature dishes. So what if there’s early blight on my fruiting tomato plants that I nurtured organically from seed on my windowsill. That’s life. I will learn something new. I will try something different next time. So I missed my window for planting strawberries, it’ll give me something new to try for next year. Okay, those peas needed more trellis to climb and are now falling over. Let’s see what happens. Just mark it in the journal. I will never let gardening become a chore. The garden is where I dream, admire my accomplishments, relax, and recharge. I take a longer view now, and recognize gardening is only enjoyable if I’m not too hard on myself.

  13. Anne Reese says:

    I was SO impressed with Margarets visit on the Martha Stewart Show yesterday that I got on the internet looking at “A Way to Garden.com” I have been unemployed for the last year and became wrapped up in the website ALL the rest of the day. The next time I make Baked Beans, it is going to be the recipe you shared on the show. It sounded so scrumptious! I absolutely love to grow things and get such satisfaction out of their beauty. My issue is, I live in a townhome and have VERY little room and MANY containers. I would like to grow some container vegetables, but have not had much luck with them. I am going to go through both websites (Margarets along with Gayla’s and see what successes I will have. I know with your help, I will do better. I hope I really get the opportunity to win the books. I absolutely do not have the funds to purchase the books, but if I don’t win them on this go around, when I get back to work, I am going to be sure and make that one of my first purchases. You both be so proud of how you have reached out and went for what you really wanted in your lives. I am at a time in my life that I am trying to get the courage to do something I have always wanted to do, but at 61, I am struggling whether to take that chance so late in life. Thank you so much for making my day yesterday.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Anne. I am not so far behind you in age, and I am taking some chances, I suppose. Still growing over here, you might say. I am glad you found me and Gayla — she is lovely, isn’t she? See you soon!

  14. Kristen says:

    Sometimes, I do. As in this spring when I could only do things on the weekends, and I kept putting in 5 and 8 hour days in my little container-only garden. I kept thinking, why am I doing this? This is so much work! And then I get it done and feel pride, and success at my small striving to make my little corner of the world a better place.

  15. Susan says:

    I’d had a very big wall that kept me from doing much gardening for several years. Over the years I’ve lived with several people who were gardening “experts.” One or maybe two even had Master Gardener certificates. When they were living in our community, they pretty much did the gardening, and if I helped out, I was following their methods. And I can’t tell you how many different sets of rules for composting there were.

    Even when the garden became my own, I hesitated to do much, thinking I had to do it “right.”

    So the wall is now knocked down, and I’m enjoying experimenting with my neat container garden. Perhaps my garden good produce more food, maybe look neater and stuff like that. But for the last 3 years, I’ve looked forward to getting up in the morning to see what’s going on in my garden, enjoying having a variety of unusual containers, mostly that I’ve found on trash day. So yes, it is useful to have a certain amount of information, and more important to me, to enjoy my garden.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Susan. Love your tale. I have to say, I think that I am semi-paralyzed from knowing some truly great gardeners, and knowing I am not able to “see” quite like they do — and judging myself too harshly. So I get just what you are saying, and am grateful that you brought it up. Very helpful to me to think on that a bit and stop editing myself!

  16. Martha Ross says:

    The wall i bump into is caring for my seedlings. I get the seed to sprout and start the first leaves. I have a issue with making it grow past that. I am not sure what I am doing wrong. Its pretty disappointing after all the care I give them while they are sprouting :(

  17. Candace says:

    Yes, I have been on the same property since 1983 and inherited several gardens. Over the years plants have come and gone and our climate has changed and we seem to have more deer and woodchucks. I have beautiful, fragrant phlox by the house that bloom all summer and are the main stay of the garden and they have already been attacked by groundhogs and white powdery mildew, which has set me back. Once all this rain stops, I have to treat the mildew and spray with deer repellent to ward off the woodchucks. Any other helpful suggestions that do not involve trapping or shooting would be appreciated.

  18. suzanne says:

    I don’t know if I hit a wall when gardening. I’m kind of ready to hang up my hoe by October, but my garden was on the garden tour in my town this year, and it was a lot of work to prepare. I was exhausted and relieved the day of the tour. Now I actually have some time to merely weed and enjoy the garden… :)

  19. Poosahkie says:

    This summer has been very hard on the plants in pots as well as everything else. Yes, I’d say we’ve hit the wall!

  20. Mimi says:

    I certainly do and have “hit the wall” in gardening. Some days I am really tired from the very early harvest (when it is cool) to cleaning the vegetable of the day, to getting it ready for the canner and pulling the jars from the canner when their time is up. from 5:30 am to midnight some days; and legs and back hurt like ?!@#$$%T!!!!!!!!. But the shelves in my storage rooms are beautiful with all the canned, dehydrated goodies.

  21. Kath says:

    My DH converted the sandbox he made for our kids into a garden bed for me. Herbs and greens love it, but I have hit my wall with tomatoes… :( I have tried pots, & sandbox garden bed, but continue to get blossom rot on my plums and low productivity with the cherries, pears and small fruits. I will not give up!!! I know your books will help and I appreciate allll the help I can get!

  22. Ellen Peavey says:

    I have found 10 volunteer tomato’s pop up in my empty garden in November, I put 6 of them in containers and left them in the greenhouse. The first freeze I lost 3 of them, so I brought the other three in the house. The smallest one already has a yellow flower on it. My question is it is in a very small flower pot should I transplant it to a bigger pot now or wait? The other 2 are in much bigger pots, already have one staked up it is so tall. I move them to the sun everyday near the big window, these tomato’s came from our garden. We had to call the tomato patch the tomato jungle because we planted 60 plants, it all grew into one big jungle. Thanks Ellen from Georgia

  23. elarieta says:

    last year while in Texas, I grew the biggest beautiful tomato plants…
    one plant produced one tomato..smiles)))))
    and all my others grew BIG and beautiful..along the fence..not one fruit…
    This summer I’ll be growing my garden in Chicago..
    Going from too hot TEXAS to Too cold Chicago..grin*

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