By Julie Jackson I have long been fascinated and impressed by the many talents of Gayla Trail: gardener extraordinaire, photographer, writer, columnist, speaker, veritable font of creativity. You may know Gayla as the creator of the leading online gardening community, You Grow Girl (also the title of her first book). You may know her from her photos or photo blogs like Making Happy. You may even remember her online shop full of “pithy gardening products”, Superfantastico. If you don’t know her yet you’re really in for a treat, because now Gayla has brought together all of her talents into one gorgeous new book: Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces (Clarkson Potter, 2010). I think it’s the most inspiring thing since garden.com, the now-defunct online gardening company which was the only other thing that ever got me outdoors and into the dirt (except for that time I fell face-first off my porch when I was drunk, but that doesn’t really count).
Julie: The first thing I noticed about your new book is that it’s gorgeous — I was very impressed by the look and feel. I was even more impressed when I read that you and your partner Davin did the design, illustration and layout (a Fluffco production). This project is obviously a labor of love! Gayla: Thank you! And yes, tell me about it! I’m a visually oriented person – I went to school for Fine Art and work as a photographer and graphic designer. Gardening is a visual, creative pursuit with a story-telling component, so it all goes hand-in-hand for me. When I sit down to write the words, I also have an image in my mind of the photos I will take, and how it will all be packaged and presented. It’s not an easy way to make a book as it means I am in the process much longer than I would be if I wrote the manuscript only. Yet I am a lifelong, passionate book lover. I have never lost the childhood excitement of a new book in my hands. It gives me great pleasure to see a book through from beginning to end. I just can’t for the life of me imagine my role ending with the text. Julie: Well, your effort really shines through. Tell our CRAFT readers what your book is about in a nutshell and what surprises we might find inside. Gayla: I am a city dweller and through my life have only lived with a “proper” backyard for short stints. But I also have a deep need to grow plants so I garden wherever I can. This book is for people like me who want to grow their own food but feel limited by a lack of space, money, experience, inspiration, or a combination of. It is filled with practical how-to information to guide readers through the process of growing productive edible food gardens on balconies and rooftops, fire escapes, windowsills, community gardens, little backyards, using whatever you’ve got. In my experience, a food garden can be aesthetically pleasing – I made this book with the mind to inspire and get people excited about finding joy and satisfaction in making their food garden both bountiful and beautiful. The food we grow ourselves often takes on a special quality. I’ve included recipes, preservation methods, and projects for using the food you grow and stretching the bounty beyond the growing season. Julie: Sounds downright delicious! Didn’t you recently take a trip to Barbados to discover your family roots – gardening and otherwise? Gayla: Yes! We traveled to three islands, although only two were connected to my past. We stayed in Barbados for four days and Dominica (a small island in the Windward isles that is NOT the Dominican Republic) for three weeks. I wanted to spend time in Dominica searching through public records in an attempt to find out about my maternal history. I come from a racially and culturally mixed background, and my surname, Trail, was passed down matrilineally from my grandmother. There was a gardening component because while I know that my love of gardening is experiential, the need to garden is so intense and comes so naturally to me that I have been curious about how imbedded the genetic link is or might be. Dominica, it turns out, is a Garden of Eden of sorts (and yes, the Biblical reference is intentional). It is an insanely lush island, and it is hard to tell at times where wildness ends and cultivation begins. The connection to the land and to growing things runs deeply. Finding information about my family was not easy, although at times connections were made in very surreal and serendipitous ways. I did manage to answer some questions and discovered a few new ones along the way. I wrote about some of those answers here. Julie: That is so incredible. What a journey. I enjoyed your photos as you posted them on Flickr. I can’t imagine how moving it must have been. Gayla: On the nature and gardening side I felt like I was enrolled in an intense thirty-day immersive experience. I gained an incredible amount of new knowledge about plants and gardening in the tropics that I have been able to apply to my own gardens at home. I hope to go back soon. I need to go back soon. Julie: How many months of the year can you have plants outside where you live? I always visualize Canada as being covered in snow. Set me straight! Gayla: That’s a common misconception of Canada. That, and we’re all riding skidoos or dogsleds to work. For the record, I have never been anywhere by either mode of transportation, although growing up, we did have a non-functioning skidoo in our backyard for several months. My family’s version of the front lawn fridge. Geographically, Canada is a very large landmass so there is a wide variety of climates and conditions across the country. I live in Toronto, which dips quite a bit south and is surrounded by the Great Lakes. Technically our zone is somewhere around 5b or 6b with varying microclimates. We sometimes have cold, snowy winters, but thanks to climate change, those are fewer and far between these days. Our summers can be very hot and humid. I start growing cool-weather-loving crops in March and pretty much pack it in by late October, depending on the year. We don’t typically get snow until November, but this last year saw very little snow at all. You can stretch the season even further by employing cold frames, hoop houses and other homemade devices. The frost-free safety zone starts somewhere around mid-May. Traditionally, gardening weekend is lauded as May 24, as that’s when it is considered safe enough to put out the warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers. We’ve been enjoying a warm spring this year so I expect to put my tomatoes out early. There are few formulas in gardening – a lot of it is just observation, taking chances, and experience. Unfortunately, even here, few people realize just how many edibles (peas, spinach, leafy greens, lettuce, radish, kale, broccoli, cabbage, Swiss chard, etc) can go out weeks or even months before the frost-free date. Many of these plants prefer the cooler weather and are more productive in the spring and as a second crop in the fall. I am on a personal mission to change this misconception and get people growing earlier and later. Julie: If anyone can do it, you can! Next we’ll set people straight about Texas and how we’re not all a bunch of gun-totin’ rednecks. That might take a little longer, though. Can you throw out a couple of easy gardening suggestions for beginners? Something that’ll encourage non-gardeners to try it out? Gayla: When it comes to growing edibles, I suggest beginning with an herb or two that you really love to eat. Most herbs will grow happily and productively in a small space or pot. And because the end product is leaves, rather than fruit (i.e tomatoes and cucumbers), they’ll start producing a harvest quickly, and often keep going straight through to the very end of the growing season – more return for your effort. Salad fixings and leafy greens are also good producers that can be grown fairly effortlessly in small spaces. Most greens can be harvested at any size – as soon as a few weeks (microgreens) and as late as a month or so for a mature head of lettuce. If you screw up the first batch, you’ve always got a second or third chance. And lettuce seeds are cheap so not much is lost. I suggest sprinkling a few seeds in a window box, or an old wine crate or drawer with holes drilled into the bottom for drainage. Pop in a radish seed here and there. You can eat the fresh sprouts or harvest the roots. Did you know that pea flowers and their fresh, new shoots are edible along with the peas themselves? Start peas in early spring. Julie: Actually, I did know this – and I loved that in your book you explained how they’re best eaten right from the garden. We used to grow snap peas and it was so fun to go out in the yard and nibble on them like a couple of rabbits. Delish! Gayla: Also, most people want to grow basil but often have problems and then assume that 1) They can’t grow plants or 2) All herbs are difficult. Neither is true. The problem, especially in more northern or wet climates is simply that they put the basil plants outside too early in the season. Basil is easy to grow, but only when the climate is right. It’s a finicky plant that does not like cold, “wet feet,” meaning that their roots are sitting too long in wet and cold soil. Of course all of the stores put basil out as soon as they can to get people buying, giving the impression that it’s okay to start. I often wait until my tomatoes have been outside for a week or two before daring to put my basil out permanently. Last year was unseasonably cold and wet. I had trays of basil sitting in my living room for weeks. An annoying hassle but worth it for all that fresh pesto we enjoy through the winter. Julie: Oh yeah, we’ve done that before – the pesto harvest. I also like to make tomato sandwiches with our basil in the summer, but I buy the heirloom tomatoes from Whole Foods because I’m a chicken when it comes to growing tomatoes. Maybe this is the year that will all change. Thanks, Gayla, I’m really inspired!! Take an online look inside Grow Great Grub – you’ll be inspired, too! Book Giveaway Time! Three lucky CRAFT readers will each receive a copy of the book, Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail. Just tell us why you would like this book in the comments. All comments will be closed by Noon PST on Wednesday, May 5, 2010. The lucky winners will be announced later on the site. Good luck! About the Author: Julie Jackson is the creator of Subversive Cross Stitch and Kitty Wigs. Her new book, Glamourpuss: The Enchanting World of Kitty Wigs is now available in bookstores.