Personal Histories

Phew, that was fast. I put the finishing touches on an article late last night and it is already up on the Guardian website. This one, about the relationship between myself and my maternal grandmother is a bit more personal than usual and I am still getting used to having put it out there. However, it is also just the sort of thing I am pushing myself to write more of despite fears and reservations.

I’ve struggled over the years (more than I care to admit) with feeling like an outsider in the gardening industry. My personal history just doesn’t look like many of the stories I’ve heard from the overwhelming majority of garden writers. And so I have hidden who I am. That’s not to say that my writing is not honest or true, but that there is more, much, much more.

I have often felt that what I had to say about my own experiences was too much, too heavy, too messy, inappropriate for this venue (garden writing) …not quaint and cute enough. I’ve silenced myself in small ways as a result. As what I produce has increasingly become tied to my ability to make a decent living I’ve silenced myself still more.

I took the first steps away from that self-imposed choke hold a few years ago and then moved forward further still last year with the Recreating Eden documentary and a personal piece for Organic Gardening magazine. I saw these venues as opportunities to push myself and reveal more about past experiences that have lead me to where and who I am as a gardener. And as a person too. It’s difficult to separate the two and I suppose maybe the problem is that while my way of creating a palatable public presentation was personable, it withheld the complexity of my humanness. In the end neither the outcome of the documentary nor the article were nearly as dramatic as they felt at the time.

This new piece is another take on the Organic Gardening article, which will be evident within the first few sentences. I suppose the thing is there is no individual story that sums things up. I am often asked to talk about how I got started gardening and I have to admit that I have never been able to answer easily or succinctly. There are many stories, and a book’s worth of experiences that lead me to where I am. I know in my heart that complexity is the truth behind all of our lives and that if I want to see and feel that I am not an outsider (perhaps we all are) then I need to be willing to take a chance and step into my own fears a little bit. Or a lot.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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23 thoughts on “Personal Histories

  1. Just wanted to say that the article has been edited for length (it was over 1, 400 words!). I will publish it here intact, eventually. But nothing pertinent to the story was cut.

    EDITED TO ADD: I originally mistyped and wrote 14, 000 words when I meant to say 1, 400 words. Oops.

  2. I, for one, I’m glad you’re taking the risk. I’m JUST NOW starting a garden for the first time in my life, and am working through all the weird little stereotypes in my head about what “gardening” means. (and incidentally, thanks for writing your book — I just bought it, and it’s SUCH a great resource to start me off!). For those of us who are very new to this, it’s nice having an “outsider” guide the way. :)


  3. Hello, Gayla. I confess that I have enjoyed reading your blog for awhile now, though I have never left a comment before. Actually, yours was one of the first that I happened upon when the interest in gardening started to grow within me. I am starting my first this year and totally in containers. I just read your piece and I wanted to tell you how much I admire you. It is hard sometimes to “reveal” yourself, even to friends or coworkers. There are many things that my coworkers would never guess about me. But it was comforting to get a glimpse into your young life. I must admit that none of my family (mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother) were gardners. My grandfather did grow roses but that was about it. When I was growing it was the age of plenty (right after WWII and Korea) when the already made processed foods and veggies at the grocery store were the choices of the day. I am gaining my confidence and knowledge through people such as yourself and the blogs I have become hopelessly addicted to. Take care and take joy in your life as you are a special person to all who read your blog. K

  4. I loved your personal history, and your unique introduction to gardening. I thought some of your insights were rather profound, if you don’t mind my saying.

    I love your complexity :)

  5. Beautiful piece. We bring our gardening with us from somewhere. It is rare the person who gardens without a link, however tenuous, to a gardening past. I grew up in Mexico and you are right, we did not even call it gardening. Gardening to us was what the landscapers did. We just grew plants. Thank you for feeding my craving for stories (both my parents were excellent story tellers, a talent my younger brother has inherited).
    I look forward to reading the whole article when you post it.

  6. Wonderful article Gayla! I think you did a fabulous job, and pushing yourself to talk more about your past in this way in such an open forum is an admirable task.

    It really is a great article.

    I know I’d love to read the full thing when you get to posting it on here.

  7. That was a great article and brought back memories of my own grandmother who was a bit of a distant figure in my life, but is probably my primary influence as a gardener. Not necessarily in lore (though as I am going on my own journey I have had several “oh geez, this is just like grandma” moments), but just by the simple act of practicing her craft, it set the seeds are just now really starting to grow in my life.

    As far as being an outsider, my feeling is that the center is shifting. Gardens are becoming, in many ways, revolutionary. The way I talk about my garden, and the way I see other people in my generation talking about their gardens is a far cry from the quaint and the cute. I personally want a garden that kicks butt, saves the world, gives me some food and looks beautiful to boot. That isn’t quaint, it isn’t cute, and while those ideals definitely have their place in the garden, you and the rest of our generation of gardeners are the future.

    So keep on growing, keep on writing, and don’t forget to write about Cuba :p

  8. Great article, I can’t wait to read the whole thing. Putting yourself out there isn’t easy for some of us (me included). I’m a jewelry maker and just starting to get out there, but I’m a very private person. Buyers want to know the ‘story’ behind the product and producer, and I just get the creeping willies when I think of being that open with complete strangers. It is something I really need work on.

    It’s funny, but I just did a blog post about my grandfather and his garden in downtown Atlanta.

    Don’t let the trees fool you, they were right downtown. I really wish I knew half as much as he did. I wish I’d had more time with him.

  9. This is wonderful Gayla! I love reading a more personal history of your start with gardening. Can’t wait to read the whole article when you post it, and looking forward to more in the same style.

    Good job :)


  10. Hi Galya: My Grandfather up North he died years ago and had a garden in his yard and when we went to visit i used to sit in his garden and eat all his Pea`s. My mother had an idea to grow cucumber`s and then at the end of the season she made pickle`s when the pickles where ready i ate a whole jar on the front step. My wife`s grandmother let me sometimes work the hose. The think what these people really taught me was like the vibe you needed to be a Gardener.

  11. Another longtime reader here who has not commented before. I love the Guardian article and the Organic Gardening piece. I was very intimidated when I attempted to start gardening in my 20′s without a blissful childhood spent gardening with grandparents. I thought I could never be any good at growing anything because I didn’t have the early gardening experiences of the people who write most of the gardening books out there (not to mention those “professionally” trained in landscape horticulture or botany). It is SO reassuring to hear your stories of a not-so-traditional gardener’s background & I imagine that others will feel the same way.

    This post also made me thing of something I wanted to suggest — talking about gardening without a car. As a gardener who does not drive, I was ecstatic the first time I looked at your book and saw the photo of soil in a “granny” cart. I would love it if sometime you would share your experiences in this area (if you have done so already here and I missed it, apologies!) I thought maybe it was something you didn’t talk about much because it may not seem appealing to folks who already might see gardening as difficult, or because you didn’t want focus on this part of your lifestyle, but I think it would be of great interest to urbanites and also to the many more people who are trying to drive less or not a all these days.

  12. Just read your article and I wanted to let you know that I thought it was great. Honest and thoughtful. You were respectful to your grandma and of your path to gardening. Life is often not “picture perfect” – the best stories (and pictures) show us a glimpse of real experiences.

  13. Thanks so much for all of your comments. I am pushing through on some deadlines so won’t be able to reply individually but I wanted to say that I am reading them all and appreciate your words.

    Jen: I have mentioned the no car thing on occasion when it comes up (like when it is time to get container soil and other heavy items!). But never a full breakdown. Thanks for the idea.

  14. I loved the article…I love knowing peoples’s history – it somehow puts them in context, and makes talking to them or reading their stuff so much more interesting. I guess its kind of like knowing a plants history and background – its not essential, but it makes a garden so much more beautiful.

    Thanks for putting it out there…

  15. This:

    “Here in the first world we think too much about whether or not we can or should garden. We mull and fret over what we don’t have, always certain that there is never enough space, knowledge, or gear. We talk ourselves out of gardening and wonder endlessly whether we have what it takes to be a gardener.

    Everyone can garden. You don’t even have to call yourself a gardener. You can grow a potato in a bucket on a concrete balcony. You can raise chickens in your backyard, grow and harvest your own fruit, and fashion your houseplants into a Christmas tree. You may never speak a word about gardening or being a gardener to anyone, and still be one anyway.”

    made me tear up. Thank you Gayla, for always being inclusive. You know that sometimes those perfect pictures of $500,000 gardens in Better Homes and Gardens, or Living, or Sunset can feel awfully alienating.

    But you’ve always provided us a home here, even if we plant one spindly tomato plant, or an acre, or just want to chat about seed catalogs and food prices.

    From your street garden, to your books, to your blog, to your photos, to this article, again, thank you.

  16. Gail, I read your article and found it beautiful and moving. I was born in the Caribbean and now living in North America. We grew up on the land and growing plants, animals and a family was a way of life for us. You grow fruits and vegetables because you needed to eat. The nutmeg, cocoa, bananas and other spices had to be taken care of cause they were part of the landscape and were cash crops. You learn, teach, play, explore, and enjoy the lessons that the land provided.
    The story about your grandmother and her garden is beautiful. I would say that gardening is in your blood, given to you by your grandmother on a “composted platter”. One question, where in the Caribbean did your grandmother grow up.
    Thanks for sharing your story and continue inspiring others on their gardening path.

  17. What really puts me off gardening is how superior and snotty some of the older types can be. My neighbour is always coming round and telling how to do it, offering me weedkiller and fertilisers and telling me how I should design my garden. I can’t break it to him that I think his garden looks messy and naff and I may only be 24, but I still know quite a bit about gardening. I’m fed up of being patronised and fobbed off just because I’m young and wear high heels to work (not to garden in). That doesn’t mean I don’t know how to cook compost, take cuttings or grow parsnips!

  18. My mom has always said that my grandad was a wonderful gardener. I never knew him well, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask him for guidance, but when I started growing plants he was long gone. I like to think that in some way he is helping me, whether it’s by putting gardening “in my blood” or some other mysterious way.

    Thanks for sharing some of your personal history Gayla.

  19. Lovely article. It reminds me of flowers that bloom between cracks in concrete. Also, saw your small article in Organic Gardening – can’t wait to try the lettuce balls!

  20. Really lovely piece. Honest. My favorite is the last point on the availability of the practice of gardening to anyone and everyone. I love how central that is to your approach to gardening. I imagine that some of the best and most interesting gardening and garden writing (yours included) comes from people who don’t fit a certain style or a predictable history.

  21. FWIW, I think you’re fabulous, and love reading your stories. “I know in my heart that complexity is the truth behind all of our lives and that if I want to see and feel that I am not an outsider (perhaps we all are) then I need to be willing to take a chance and step into my own fears a little bit. Or a lot.” I’m working on doing the same thing as a way to work through a lot of the grief/pain. It takes courage. And you have that in spades. Just know that you’ve got yet another huge fan of yours cheering you on. xo

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