Saucy Magazine Interview

From: Saucy Magazine

With Chan Stroman

Gayla Trail is a graphic designer, writer and gardener in Toronto. She wrote, took most of the photographs for, and designed the new book You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening, which grew out of, the popular gardening web site created by Trail over five years ago. Trail talked to Saucy about her new book, her web site, and her adventures in gardening.

Where do you garden — that is, where in the world do you garden, and where are your garden(s)?

I have three gardens in Toronto, Canada. My primary garden is comprised of containers on a hot, exposed rooftop deck. The second was a patch of land between the sidewalk and the side of my building that I dug up, planted and continue to maintain. It is located on a very busy street corner. The third is a small plot in a community garden in my neighborhood.

When did you start gardening, and when did you realize that it would become a passion for you?

I’ve been growing plants on and off for a long time, but it only really became a serious passion in my mid-20s. It kind of hit me by surprise. One day I just woke up to the fact that my plant collection was growing exponentially at a rapid pace and that I couldn’t get enough of it.

What inspired you to create the web site and to keep it up and growing for five years? In Internet time, I think five years counts as an epoch.

I was as shocked as anyone when I realized it had reached the five year mark! If I tried to add up the time spent working on the site I’d be frightened by the number of hours clocked.

I had this new passion that I wanted to explore and I wanted to find other like-minded individuals to share in it. When I started looking around at the gardening literature out there at the time (this was the late 90s) I couldn’t find much that reflected my experience as an urban-dweller with no yard and a limited budget. The website started as a vague idea (I was resistant to using the word “gardening” in the beginning), the basis of which was to fill the gap that I saw in the media.

Over the years it has changed, expanded and grown but the basics such as the fun, laid-back tone has remained the same. I’ve kept at it because I think it fills a need that isn’t being met elsewhere, I really enjoy and appreciate the community that has come of it, and because I’m stubborn.

Imagine someone who lives in an apartment in a city with limited time, a modest budget and no yard space. Maybe they’ve always liked flowers or maybe they wonder when they’ll ever get to taste a tomato with fllavor. How would you encourage them to get started with gardening?

Well the first thing they need to do is assess their space because that is going to determine what they can grow. How much space do they have and where is it located? Do they have lots of sun or limited sun exposure? What’s the heat like? For example, some rooftops can be incredibly hot, nearly uninhabitable environments in the height of summer.

Then they’re going to need supplies. With no yard containers are their only option. These can be cheap; from buckets or crates found on the street corner, to pots purchased at a yard sale, to wash basins from the hardware store. Anything that can hold soil can be fashioned into a container, so this is the best place to save cash on a tight budget. Just be careful to choose containers that are appropriately sized for the size of the plant at maturity. Most tomatoes require a really big pot. You’re also going to need specially formulated container soil — dirt dug out of the ground won’t do. Don’t get the cheapest stuff at the store. You want good quality stuff that is light and nutrient-rich — potting soil is not the place to cheap out.

Of course plants are necessary. City dwellers have access to farmers markets and plant sales in the springtime that offer a cheap supply of plants and sometimes seeds. Chinatowns are also good for unusual herbs and vegetables. You can also trade seeds and cuttings with friends and neighbors to save money.

Container gardeners don’t require a lot of gadgets or tools. All you really need is a good hand shovel, a watering can (buckets work too), and possibly some kind of hose. I like a coil hose for small spaces because they’re compact but have a lot of reach.

Tell us about your career as a designer. You are a hard-core gardener, you run an active and established web site about gardening, and now you’ve produced a comprehensive book about gardening that you both wrote and designed. How do you fit it all in?

I have no special secrets to time management. Work and play are often intertwined although I do make an effort to keep it as balanced as possible, but during the makingof the book time was extremely tight. Basically, I had no free time, days off, or social life for nearly a year!

Who would you like to read your new book, You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening?

I’m not sure who couldn’t benefit from a little plant life in their space since it’s such a good way to learn patience, self-reliance (growing something you can eat rather than going to the grocery store), and achieve a new perspective on things like nature, the environment, or where food comes from.

I wrote the book for people who want to garden but think they can’t, whether their obstacle is a perceived lack of space, money, or knowledge. My goal with the book and the site has always been to take the intimidation factor out of gardening without dumbing down the quality or quantity of valuable information. However, I also believe that gardening is a life-long learning experience with no absolute right way to do things. I really don’t subscribe to those hierarchical labels like “expert” or “authority” since we all have something to learn from one another. I made a point to insert lots of projects that would appeal to a person like me who likes to be creative and make things, and information about interesting plants and processes that knowledge seekers would enjoy.

The title says “girl” but that was never meant to exclude men or target a specific age group.

What kinds of edibles do you grow, which of your gardens do you grow them in, and what are your favorites?

I grow a wide assortment of edibles and herbs but tomatoes and basil are my favorites and the most rewarding. I grow them on both my rooftop container garden and in my community plot. The tomato varieties that are most successful on my deck include: black plum, silver fir tree, sunrise III, Ceylon, and lemon boy. In the community plot I favor: black krim, purple prince, and Cherokee purple but I have grown many others. I love basil because there are so many different and unusual varieties to try. The flavours and look of each plant can be vastly different; I think they are both pretty and tasty. My favourite varieties are: purple bush, “Mrs. Burns” lemon, “Siam Queen’ Thai, African blue, and Lesbos basil.

On my deck I also grow: lemon cucumber, beets, tomatillos, ground cherry, okra, corn, peppers, greens, an assortment of herbs, and whatever takes my fancy. Tomatoes take up most of the room in my community garden, but I do grow swiss chard, greens, and lots of herbs.

I do not grow edibles in the street garden because I have never tested the soil — just about anything could be in there. It is right next to a busy road and there is a lot of car exhaust — there are just too many reasons not to bother. I do have a red currant bush there but I leave them for the birds to enjoy.

The You Grow Girl book and web site both highlight organic growing techniques, and in particular composting. How do you compost, and how would you encourage an apartment dweller to consider home composting?

We use compost bins and a pit at the community plot. There is very little space on my deck but I do have a small bin made from a Rubbermaid container and a vermicomposter. The vermicomposter is the most space-efficient for an apartment dweller and can be kept indoors, year-round.

Lots of gardeners are drawn to the contemplative aspects of gardening, but gardeners also bond in a unique way when they garden together and, these days, when they can talk about gardening online across a continent or an ocean. How have you enjoyed gardening in a community garden and being a hub of the online gardening community?

Unfortunately my community garden community consists of a small number of people, and I tend to garden there at odd times (often in the evening) so contact has been fairly minimal. Of course the Internet is 24 hours so there is always someone to commune with through You Grow Girl. I started the site as a way to meet other gardeners like me and it has been successful in that way. Our growing conditions may be different but as passionate plant lovers we have a great deal in common. It’s great to have so many other people to geek out with who get it. At times people have written very gushy, excited posts about harvesting that first ripe tomato, or acquiring a new plant — that kind of exuberance would be laughed at anywhere else. And of course the learning and support is very important too. We may not be side-by-side while weeding and digging but it is still a community that works very much like a community garden.

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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