Interview with author (and my gardening inspiration) Gayla Trail

Anyone who’s been in my garden, talked gardening with me, or even been a frequent guest on this site, will know of my love for Gayla Trail’s gardening books and blog. Steph and I could get WWGD (What Would Gayla Do?) bracelets, we refer to her so often. This spring she brought out a new book, Easy Growing, which focuses on herbs and edible flowers. While we grew some herbs last year, this book was probably the push that got us to embrace edible flowers this year. (We’re taking the easy route to start, using Urban Harvest’s edible flowers mix.) Like my perennial favourite Grow Great Grub, Easy Growing is packed with essential info and gorgeous photographs, but really stands out from other garden writing because of its grounded advice that keeps it real and makes gardening a possibility for anyone. (Yes, anyone.)

 JK: I learned to garden from you, but where did you pick up your initial gardening know-how?

GT: Oh wow. You’ve already made me a bit teary. I grew my first successful in-ground food garden while I lived in a student house in the summer of 1993 without consulting anything at all. I do believe that we got some advice from my roommate’s dad who also delivered a trailer full of manure to enrich the soil and a bunch of transplants. I’m not sure how much would have come from that garden without his donation, as I really didn’t know much except that I had to dig up the sod and keep things watered. The tomatoes and peppers were planted too far into the shade and succumbed to slugs, and the lettuces were too far out into the sun and bolted, but other than that I’m shocked by the bounty that I was able to enjoy. I had no income for the month of August before the next school year started and we survived off of that garden. I do recall going to the bookstore to look for a book but I couldn’t find anything that I could relate to and it was all very overwhelming, so I went about it with almost no knowledge other than the few gardens I had observed and the small attempts I had made previously in other spaces. I had the same problem when I started gardening on the roof, but worse because very little of what I had done before prepared me for the challenges there. The first garden book that I could relate to was Planted by British writer Andy Sturgeon. That book was published in 1998 (I can’t be certain when I bought it), and while I know I glanced and maybe even bought other books before that time, they are all completely unmemorable. Over the years I’ve found many older garden books that are really, really great, I just wasn’t exposed to them at the time.

Most of what I learned in those early days was gleaned by doing and failing (with some successes). Later, I found other gardeners and learned more by talking to them in person and online. These days the garden books I tend to buy are a bit dry and are geared more towards niche topics like hardy succulents and cacti or ethnobotany.

JK: Your books contain some great recipes. Did your culinary skills develop along with your gardening skills? 

GT: Thank you! Looking back on my history with both, I think that they may have developed separately and then came together later naturally. I became a vegetarian at 15 (I’m not now) and that forced me to learn about food and how to prepare it. I started taking cookbooks out of the library around that time. I also worked in various pizzerias as a teen but REALLY learned how to cook when I started working in a good restaurant. I was only the dishwasher and short order/prep cook, but I was exposed to ingredients and techniques that I did not grow up with at home. The chef taught me a variety of indispensable techniques that I have carried through my adult life including how to hold and use a knife properly, how to build a soup from scratch, how to make various sauces, homemade pesto, and make a roux.  As the short order cook I was also responsible for artistically plating up various appetizers and making a range of salad dressings from scratch. I have never had a better Cesar salad or bruschetta anywhere, and believe me I’ve looked. I’m very grateful for that early exposure and training. People pay good money for that kind of hands on education.

I also have a passion for travel and experiencing other cultures through food and plants so the two merge well there.

JK: You also take most of the photos in your book (along with your partner Davin). How did the garden play into your development as a photographer?

GT: Here again the photography came first. I took photography while in school, and was still doing it when the books came along. The photos I take elsewhere were and still are in many ways very different, in part because in my personal photo work I prefer to use film, but must use digital for this work. I had to learn how to take good garden photos through trial and error.

JK: What’s your greatest challenge as a gardener? What about as a gardening writer?

GT: Lack of space is my greatest challenge. I want to grow much more than I have space for, although I always manage to fit more in.

My challenges as a garden writer have shifted over time. Way back when I was worried about my lack of experience and being taken seriously. The other big one was not fitting into a mould that I wrongly assumed was required of garden writers. Well, to be honest I’ve found that a lot of those assumptions are there (and pushed), but they’re out of date and tend to breed banality and show the garden world (and gardeners especially) in a very homogenous and unreal light.

For the first 8 years I felt like an outsider and it was unnerving when I first stepped out into this world in a professional capacity with my first book and then later doing TV appearances. I had no idea what it would be like; I struggled to keep hold of and be who I am while navigating a professional space that is very much unlike the joyful solitude I experience in the garden. I suppose I still struggle with that aspect of it, but that’s only one part of what I do.

In terms of the writing the challenges now are more about pushing the work to evolve with me and to write in ways that scare the crap out of me.

JK: Why write these books, and specifically Easy Growing? What didn’t you see in existing gardening books that you wanted to offer?

GT: When it comes down to it I write for the person that I was when I first started out as a gardener. I make the sort of books I would have liked and needed then: books that are beautiful and full of inspiring images that are doable for someone living on a budget in a truly small space, who wants a garden that is both functional and creative. At the same time I am also making books for the gardener I am now and appealing to my ongoing excitement for unusual plants, my love of exploration and discovery, and the fun I have experimenting in the kitchen with the edible plants that I grow.

I made Easy Growing because there wasn’t enough space in the second book, Grow Great Grub, to delve into herbs and edible flowers in the detail that they deserve. In the end I like that it is its own book as that gave me the chance to focus on and highlight the attributes that make them so unique in the edible plant world, especially for small space urban gardeners who are faced with specific challenges (poor, compacted soil, very little room, container-only gardens) that herbs in particular are generally very amenable to.

JK: You’ve made your name as an urban gardener, but would you ever be tempted to defect to the countryside for more space?

GT: Good question! I love nature but I’m also a city dweller through and through, so I don’t see myself moving out to the countryside full time. I like walking or biking and can’t picture a more car-centric lifestyle. I also hate the winter so if I were to go live in the country it would have to be somewhere warm, like, say, Spain. That said, my dream is to have a little place in the country that I can go to for the growing season and have a gigantic garden to play around in. My partner and I have only just got our driver’s licenses as a first step to making that dream possible.

JK: If you could encourage people to grow just one thing, what would it be? What would you grow if you could only grow one kind of plant?

GT: Gardening, and especially food gardening, is very subjective, so I try not to tell people what they should grow, but rather encourage them to grow something that they really want but maybe don’t think they can grow.

I’ve thought about this desert island question at length. I am an equal opportunity plant lover and have found that the more I know, the more I like, and the more I want to grow! Every trip I go on seems to unleash a new obsession in me. I’m a plant monster. For that reason, growing just one kind of plant is my version of hell, but if I HAD to narrow it down I’d choose tomatoes. There have been years in which I’ve found myself slightly less enthusiastic about the tomato harvest than others for whatever reason, yet regardless of my mood or the weather, they never let me down. There’s also so much diversity, one could only grow tomatoes for the rest of their life and never get bored or grow the same variety twice.

JK: What are your essential destinations for gardeners in Toronto?

GT: I’ve been blown away by some big botanical gardens, but when it comes down to it I prefer to see real gardens grown by passionate gardeners. I really like Ward’s Island for that reason, because you can stroll or bike along the sidewalks (without cars) and experience a lot of real gardens. Most places don’t have backyards or fences so you can see many of the gardens from a distance. Plus there are some really nice wetlands there and it’s all easily accessible by a short ferry ride from the city.

The High Park and Leslie Spit allotments are also worth seeing if you can get access. They’ve both been around for years and have that great lived-in look that is more like you’d expect to see at a British allotment garden. There’s a hardy cactus garden at the Leslie Spit allotments that is a very unique use for a public garden space. My favorite public garden in the city is the Music Garden at Harbourfront.

JK: I’m building a soundtrack of songs to garden to. (There will inevitably be a lot of Sarah Harmer). Do you have any suggestions?

GT: Yes! I wrote a post on this subject in 2008, complete with soundtrack.

I also recommend this song, “Sliced Tomatoes.” Listen to it while you are sowing your tomato seeds and picturing all of the delicious sliced tomatoes you’ll be enjoying on sandwiches come summer.

JK: Are you planning another book anytime soon?

GT: Always! I have lots of ideas that should keep me busy for years to come. The hard part is finding the energy. These last two were marathons and I’m finding myself drawn to spending some time in my garden just enjoying it without the frantic pull of book-related deadlines. I have a few ideas that are very different than the first three, and there is one in particular that I have had outlined for several years now and almost did before Easy Growing.

Many, many thanks to Gayla Trail for taking the time to answer these questions so thoroughly, and of course, for inspiring me to take up something which has brought me so much joy in the last couple years. (Sappy, but true.) And thanks are also due to Lindsey Reeder at Random House, who made this interview happen: Reeder, your favourite person stock has gone through the roof.




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