Gayla Trail is a writer, photographer, and graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the creator of the popular gardening project, You Grow Girl
and the author of “You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening
” and “Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces
”. Gayla is also a frequent speaker, and spokesperson on the topics of urban gardening, ecology, and community. Gayla’s third book, “Easy Growing: Organic Herbs and Edible Flowers from Small Spaces
” was published in February of 2012 (Clarkson/Potter). We caught up with Gayla to ask her about her green thumb inspirations.
When did you first fall in love with gardening?
I got my first taste of the joys of tending plants when I grew a little parsley at five years old. We moved into a townhouse subdivision shortly thereafter – it didn’t have much in the way of nature and gardens were primarily comprised of a few, sad geraniums with big red pompom flower heads. Later, in my teens and college years, I attempted to garden and grow food in starts and stops, but I wasn’t sure why I felt so compelled to do so. That early childhood enthusiasm didn’t fully find its footing again and turn into a full-blown obsession until I was in my 20s.
What inspired you to start You Grow GirlTM?
Eventually, I found myself with an obsession with plants and gardening but all I had as a growing space was the harsh, exposed rooftop of my apartment building and the well-trafficked waste space (and no water source) between the sidewalk and the side of our building. I learned to grow in those harsh environments by trial and error as I could not find gardening media geared towards people like me with small wallets that did not have a yard. Worse still, as a 20-something, I did not have many peers who had the same enthusiastic mania for gardening and plants. Most of my friends were confused and thought I had gone a little bit nuts. I started the site for a number of reasons, but the biggest was to express this growing interest and find a community.
Do you have a favorite plant or flower?
My favorite plant is often the one I am looking at. That said, I could probably narrow my favorite herb down to basil and tomatoes are my favorite vegetable to grow. However, I can’t choose a specific a variety of either and I’d say that the diversity among tomatoes is one of the reasons why I love growing them so much. You could devote your life to growing tomatoes and never run out of varieties to try. Agaves are probably my favorite succulents.
Your books have a focus on gardening in small places. What made you decide to focus on small-space gardening?
I found my niche in the gardening world simply by living it and being my own audience. I have always lived in small spaces, without a sprawling backyard or the sort of outdoor space that is typically associated with a “proper” garden. I write from my experiences and most of the photos in the books were taken in my own gardens, as small and imperfect as they are. Making the most of what I have has always been a point of pride for me, and showing others that they don’t have to wait for the perfect space or the right conditions to come along in order to have a garden has been my focus as a result.
I’ve read that you remember your first plant. Could you tell us about that?
My first plant was a little parsley that I grew in a Styrofoam cup from a seed when I was five. I do not recall planting the seed – it is possible that my child brain just didn’t comprehend what I was doing or what would come of it. But I remember the plant vividly. I remember getting out of bed in the morning to check on it and tentatively sneaking little tastes, trying to curb the desire to devour it all up. I was very proud of that plant, but it stayed behind when we moved at the end of the summer.
Do you grow plants indoors as well as outside?
Absolutely! I never stop gardening. EVER. I’m primarily known for my edible plant knowledge, but I’m an equal opportunity plant addict – I grow everything anywhere I can.
The apartment I used to live in was small, but blessed with south-facing windows so I managed to cram a good 60-100 plants into that small space. Unbelievable when I think back on it. Friends used to remark that our place was very humid. In my new place, I have an unheated porch and an office window that both face south, so I maximize their usage as best I can. I just counted and there are 40 plants crammed into the office window, which is a shallow bay. The unheated porch acts as a cold greenhouse, but because it freezes occasionally, I can’t keep tropical plants. It’s been wonderful though for over-wintering cold tolerant plants and bulbs. I can’t tell you how many plants live in there: lots. Through the winter some of the tropicals, cacti, and succulents live underneath lights in the basement, and the low-light-tolerant plants reside on the remaining windowsills.
I try to relocate as many houseplants outside through the summer as I can, especially my collection of potted agaves as they really need the extra light.
Can people really eat violets? What other edible plants might surprise our readers?
Without a doubt – they taste much better than those old time violet candies
. Their leaves are also useful as a salad green in the springtime, and you can also eat their close cousins, pansies and violas. I once found a variety that tasted like Bazooka Joe bubblegum
Many new gardeners realize that the flowers of most culinary herbs are also edible. Sage, basil, oregano, cilantro, garlic, chive, and mint flowers are just a few of the flowers worth eating – they are often subtler and sweeter than their herbal counterpoint. Daylilies are edible. So are squash blossoms. Both can be served stuffed with soft cheese. I have fried closed daylily buds with mushrooms.
I grew tropical roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa
), an edible hibiscus, last summer. They are primarily known for their edible flowers, but the leaves are useful, too. They are tangy like sorrel.
What does your gardening bring to your life?
Growing a garden has and continues to be a transformative experience – I discover new reasons to garden every year. It make me feel good physically, mentally, and creatively. It helps me to be more attuned to the seasons and has given me a deeper understanding of how important it is to take care of the environment. It has changed the way I look at my city and my community and the role I can play as a steward. I notice and appreciate the life that lives in my garden and beyond it in a way that I didn’t.
The garden is my teacher. It introduces me to insects, birds, and other living creatures and has shown me to appreciate nature in its many forms. It teaches me patience, the rewards of hard work, how to adapt, and to accept failure.
It provides food for eating and a feast for the eyes. Growing my own food offers a tangible feeling of self-reliance, which is powerful. If only more girls were introduced to gardening at a young age! No matter how bad the economy or where ever I end up in life, I will always have the skills and knowledge to attend to one of my most basic human needs: I can feed myself.
You’re a writer, photographer and graphic designer. When do you find time to garden?
I often wonder that myself! The garden is my respite, my grocery store, and my laboratory. It has become an essential part of my life, akin to breathing. I HAVE
to do it. No matter what, I always fit it in. Through the growing season, I often stay out in the garden until it is too dark to see my hand in front of my face. I sometimes keep working at night with a flashlight. And when I am not at home, I am always off somewhere looking at and photographing plants. They’re everywhere, and travel gives me the chance to see and experience new ones as well as garner a better understanding of my plants at home. It is tricky though, so I try to avoid travel for work (or pleasure) during the peak weeks of the growing season.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to try their hand, or green thumb, at growing edible plants?
It sounds trite, but honestly the best advice I can give is to just do it. If I pocketed a quarter every time someone told me they can’t garden because they kill plants, or have a black thumb… I’d be very rich. Gardening is a lifelong learning experience. You can’t expect to know it all right away. In fact, knowing that I will never know everything gives me a license to relax and just enjoy it.
Start out small so that you aren’t overwhelmed. There are no black or green thumbs: try to accept failure and mistakes as a natural part of the learning process. Everyone kills plants, even the very best gardeners. Part of the reason for this is because while we can control many things in the garden, we cannot control the weather! Every growing season is different, with new challenges to overcome, but also loaded with potential and the opportunity to begin anew.
All of that said, my second piece of advice is if you are growing in containers, use the biggest pots you can afford. And if you can’t afford them, recycle objects from the curbside economy and put lots of drainage holes into the bottom. Don’t mess with little containers. They dry out quickly and their lack of proper growing space is one of the main reasons why new gardeners fail. Big containers are less work over the long-term and your edibles will be more productive to boot.
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