How to Grow Great Grub? Green Thumb Advice from Gayla Trail, The Wednesday Interview

As soon as I noticed Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces (yes you can) by Gayla Trail, I knew I had to interview the young lady.


Why?  Because her book (published in February 2010 by Clarkson Potter) shows that anyone can do it even with limited space, she describes 'Grow Great Grub' as an 'essential encouraging guide'.

Why too? The book combines various threads that I've been following from edible gardens to eating local to cooking with fresh ingredients with the shear pleasure of picking and eating the fruit of your labor...

Here's what we talked about.

Q: Gayla, Do you see yourself as part of the 'edible garden' wave?

A: I don’t know how to answer this question. I don’t see this as a fad and it certainly isn’t for me.

Q: Are you keeping a family tradition of growing things?

A: Sort-of. My roots are West Indian and specifically from Dominica where historically people have a long, close, and complicated relationship with the earth and growing food. In that sense I believe that a certain amount of my deep, intense need to grow things is genetic.

My grandmother grew plants but never spoke of it so when I began it wasn’t because I was taught or encouraged by my elders. Yet I do see her as my inspiration and example. She grew potatoes in a bucket on her balcony and I think it planted the seed in my brain that I could have a garden and grow my own food without the benefit of a yard, lots of space, or other traditional trappings.

Q: Was your colder location (Canada) instrumental in deciding to pay attention to growing small things indoors?

A: Canada is a massive landmass—there are parts that are warmer than many parts of the US and other parts that are much colder.  It depends on where you are situated on that massive landmass. I complain a lot through the winter because I am a wimp and we do have a fairly cold winter here in Toronto, but it is only slightly colder than New York City.  We’ve experienced a few anomalies recently, but our summers are actually very hot and humid.  We can grow an awful lot here – the climate isn’t that limiting. We’re not riding around on dog sleds.

I actually grow far less indoors than I do outside simply because I have less indoor space with good light. During the coldest parts of the winter I put my outdoor gardens to bed and focus my attention to the indoors. 

Q: Favorite thing to grow on a window sill?

A: Micro-greens. I have a batch going right now. Although I also like my new scented geraniums. One is already flowering.

Q: Favorite thing to grow in a small plot?

A: Lettuce. There are so many different varieties and a large number of them are absolutely stunning in their own right. They also grow quickly and don’t take up much space.

Q: If you had to pick one thing to plant and harvest for each season which would they be?

A; This is tricky because some things are planted in spring for a fall harvest. That said: Spring: peas. Summer: tomatoes. Fall: mâche.


Q: Does the pleasure you derive from micro=farming comes from smell, taste, proximity, sense of achievement, self reliance?

A: It comes from all of those things and more. I’m not sure I could reduce it down to one. There is also the wonder of new discoveries, and the healing that comes from working my muscles, looking at beautiful plants, and putting my hands in the soil.

Q: Besides what you grow, favorite spots to go food shopping in your hometown?

A: Hands down the farmers markets. I go to the Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market most Thursdays year-round, but during the summer I ride around on my bike and try to hit as many on my side of town as possible. During the really productive times of the year I get really excited to find out what the different farmers will bring and am inspired to find new ways to use the produce or try growing it myself. I go a bit nuts canning.

Q: Any restaurant you patronize?

A: Primarily places that are in my neighborhood because I am inherently lazy and tend to stay within what I call “My Rectangle.”  I like The Beaver because it is close by and they have some excellent staples on the menu that never get boring. I often have lunch at Café Bernate because the owners are friendly and have been in this neighborhood since forever.  I keep hoping they’ll bring back the spinach soup that was so good I couldn’t resist buying more to take home for later.  That was about 2 years ago. I still dream about that soup.

Q: I see you like basil (making basil puree) and baking bread. Is there a dish you cook at home that you would call your best or your greatest hit? 

A: I make a really killer chawanmushi, a Japanese savory custard that is steamed in a tea cup.

Q: From your writing, you sound thrifty, is it by choice or necessity?

A: Both.

Q: Do you make a lot of preserves?

A; Too many. Storage space is hard to come by.

Q: Mostly vegetables or fruits? 

A: It’s probably pretty balanced overall. The spring is more about fruit besides the pickled asparagus that I’m planning to make a yearly tradition. I do a lot of vegetables in the late summer and fall. 


Q: How do you grow great grub? Do you need good soil, light, water, good seeds, good plants or is it all about patience and paying attention?

A: Soil: All gardens begin with the soil. It is first and foremost. 

Light: The amount of direct sunlight your spot receives will determine what you can grow. 

Water: When it comes to water it’s about knowing your plants and giving them the amount they need. It is also about how you apply the water. I always suggest to beginners that they train themselves to water the soil, not the leaves as a way to avoid diseases.  

Good Seeds: Diseases and problems can be passed through seed so it certainly matters. It helps to get your seed from quality growers who have a passion for it and who put a lot of care and attention into the seed they produce.  It also depends on how one defines “good” since there are political and environmental ramifications to where your seeds come from.

Good Plants: You definitely want to avoid buying plants that are sick to begin with.

Paying Attention: The act of gardening develops good observational skills. Paying attention to our plants and watching for changes offers the chance to catch some problems before they get out of hand as well as note what works and do more of it.

Q: Would you say that growing your own is like learning a foreign language or how to play an instrument? Does it take time until you have your Eureka moment when you feel that you know what you are doing?

A: I think it can be in the sense that becoming a good gardener is about discipline and forming habit as well as just doing it. You become a better gardener through the experience of gardening.  In the gardening world there are protégés; we call them “green thumbs.” I don’t believe in black thumbs and I think that the intuitiveness that makes someone a green thumb can be developed through experience since it primarily about cultivating good observational skills and being willing to take risks and experiment.

One can never know everything there is to know about gardening – it’s a lifelong learning process comprised of thousands of Eureka moments, successes, and massive failures.  Gardeners don’t have any control over nature or the weather so they’ve got to adapt to and just go with the flow of whatever happens every year.  There’s no chance to suddenly reach a pinnacle where everything is perfect and there is nothing left to learn.  It’s both freeing and humbling and the reason why gardening never gets old or boring.


Want to dig deeper before getting your hands dirty, Gayla (above) shares more gardening advice on You Grow Girl, her 10 year old child.

My apologies to our Canadian friends for my silly misconceptions on the weather up North. Gayla was kind enough to enlighten me.

Thanks to Gayla for her time and to Allison Malec at Clarkson Potter for making this interview possible.

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