First things first: Why did you write GROW GREAT GRUB?
As an obsessive, passionate gardener I find just about all plants interesting on some level, but I get the most personal satisfaction in growing edible plants. The minute I finished my first book, I couldn’t wait to get started on a food book!
Growing our own food is a little bit subversive and can lead to all sorts of changes in our lives even if we don’t set out with that intention. Gardeners learn through tactile experience what good food looks like, tastes like, and the work involved in producing it. As a result, food growing transforms gardeners into educated consumers who value food on a new level and won’t accept less. This kind of subtle, unintentional transformation is so important at a time when we are coming up against a myriad of environmental, energy, and health crises. Small, simple changes can have a domino effect that lead to more and more meaningful changes without feeling overwhelming.
Growing food also makes us into producers and not just smart consumers. Even the smallest garden with just a few herbs is one step away from total dependency on the food system. Most of us don’t have the space or the time to become fully self-sustaining, but we don’t need to be to reap the feelings of confidence and strength that comes from eating a salad we grew with our own two hands.
I garden in small, unconventional spaces and do not have a yard so I really appreciate it when a plant can serve double duty being both aesthetically pleasing and useful. As a small space, urban gardener I find it especially exciting to teach others who live in environments much like my own that they can have the microfarm they never thought possible.
“Organic” is becoming a buzz word that’s hard to ignore. What exactly does going organic mean for my garden?
In a nutshell, organic gardening is a sweeping category that means growing plants (and food) without the aid of synthetic chemicals or pesticides.
There are all sorts of methods, from Biodynamic to Permaculture that fall under this broader generalization. They type I practice is an eclectic hybrid that draws from my own experiences and the parts of larger theories and practices that make sense and have worked for me.
As an organic gardener, I try to work alongside nature, using it as my guide rather than trying to dominate or control it. This means working to build healthy soil first and foremost, and taking a slower, patient approach to gardening that allows for mistakes and imperfection.
Of course, this can be a tough mindset to keep when the slugs are devouring the cabbages and we want lots of produce, now! Every season is different – no one method will work from year-to-year. The most successful gardeners are those who take time to observe what is happening in their garden and adapt to the changes. On the plus side, this sort of constant change means that each new growing season presents another opportunity to have success with a crop that previously failed.
I live in a tiny apartment but I would love to start growing my own herbs and vegetables. What do you recommend?
Herbs are generally low maintenance and will thrive in small spaces. They also provide the biggest windfall for the least amount of work. If you’re growing outdoors, it’s tough to go wrong unless light is not on your side, so to begin, start off with herbs that you are excited about and will be inspired to cook with. Assorted salad greens, radishes, and strawberries don’t mind small spaces. Of course, you’re not limited to these small-scale plants since you can grow just about anything in a pot. The trick is to find dwarf varieties that will produce a good yield in cramped quarters. I make some great suggestions in Section 2 of the book.
Growing indoors on a windowsill presents a larger challenge so I would suggest beginning with resilient herbs that will tolerate less-than-ideal conditions. Thyme, oregano, marjoram, Cuban oregano, chives, cress, and sage all do well in a sunny window.
Sprouts and microgreens only need to survive a few weeks before they can be harvested, making them an easy, low-maintenance choice, especially during the winter months when the sunlight is dim and the days are shorter. There are also small hot pepper varieties such as ‘Chinese Ornamental’ that will produce fresh peppers during the winter that can be added to hearty, spicy meals.
What is a good starter project for those of us with “black thumbs?”
Firstly, I don’t really believe in black thumbs. Often times it’s just a matter of not having the right plant for your space. Even the most experienced gardener will admit to making mistakes and killing plants – it’s par for the course. I turned out wooden, terrible radishes for years before I figured out what I was doing wrong!
That said, I suggest starting out with fast-growing, short-lived crops like lettuce, mustard greens, chives, and arugula if you’re looking to tentatively get your feet wet as a food gardener. Crops that can be harvested within two weeks to a month means a shorter time commitment, and since they’re easy to grow from seed, you can start again over and over if need be without breaking the bank or feeling badly.
If you’re nervous about the seed-starting process when it comes to long-season plants like tomatoes and peppers, you can always skip that part and jump straight to tougher transplants. In the herb department, Cuban oregano is a lesser known herb that is incredibly fragrant, can be used like oregano and thyme, and is virtually unkillable.
I’m starting my first garden on a limited budget. Can you suggest some tips that can help me save money?
Container gardeners can save money by foraging for potential pots on garbage day. Recycle the big white buckets that once contained pickles or cooking oil found outside food shops, supermarkets, and restaurants. Jumbo tin cans that once held olives and olive oil are an aesthetically pleasing option to grow herbs and smaller-rooted plants in. Wine and fruit crates, used tote boxes, broken watering cans, and old wash basin also make good pots. When shopping new I suggest looking in the household good area of the department store for large garbage cans, pails, and tubs. Real “containers” bought in the garden section tend to sell at an inflated rate, while a repurposed item can cost a fraction of the price. Anything that can hold soil can work as a pot. If there are no holes you can always add some with a drill or large nail.
When you do shop at garden centers, look for end of the season sales on pots and plants. Most garden shops close at the end of the growing season and are looking to get rid of stock come fall. Annual veggies are not worth getting when the season is nearly up, but perennial herbs such as oregano, sage, and thyme or perennial fruit bushes and trees that look a little worse for wear can be planted in the fall and will bounce back by spring.
In the spring, look for fund-raising plant sales put on by horticultural societies and botanical gardens. Bramble berry canes, fruit bushes, strawberries, and perennial herbs all go cheaply and you tend to get much larger plants than those bought in garden shops. Seed exchanges are another great way to come by a wide variety of free plants. Organize a transplant exchange with local gardening friends just before planting time. Gardeners tend to over-sow tomato and pepper seeds and friends with established gardens often have more strawberry runners than they can handle. You can also exchange cuttings from basil, geraniums, and other herbs that will easily root in water or soil to double your collection.
The one place you should not skimp out is when buying container soil. Go for the good stuff. You get what you pay for -- cheaply priced soil tends to be just that: cheap.
What is the one plant in your garden that is a “must have” to grow every year?
My must-haves are tomatoes and basil, hands down. Don’t make me choose. I’m a big fan of black, purple, and brown tomatoes so I am always on the look out for a black variety I haven’t tried. Of those I have grown, I try to grow at least one ‘Black Krim,’ ‘Black Plum,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Purple Calabash,’ or ‘Black Seaman’ every year. My must-grow basil favorites include ‘Purple Ruffles,’ ‘Dark Opal,’ and ‘Mammoth’ a plant with crinkly hand-sized leaves that fit perfectly on a summer sandwich.
What would you say to someone living in a very urban setting about why they should have a garden?
Beyond the obvious benefits of stepping just outside your door or reaching out a window to harvest some of your own, homegrown food for dinner, a garden offers you the chance to green your environment, connect with nature, and a way to reduce stress after a sunless day in an office cubicle. They say that simply looking at a plant lowers the heart rate so imagine the kind of health benefits we receive while nurturing our little Edens.
Even the pests can be a blessing at times. As much as I am battling the birds to keep them off the goods, I really enjoy the sound of their presence in the mornings on top of the cacophony of backing trucks and honking horns. Keeping a few flowers also attracts butterflies and other interesting pollinating insects to our corners of the city. Something new is always happening in even the tiniest gardens on any given day. Having a few plants to look at can invite a long lost childhood sense of wonder and discovery back into our adult lives.
What can I grow on a hot fire escape?
Fire escapes are surrounded in metal and tend to get very hot. It’s also important to note that they will continue to release heat at night after the sun has gone down, so you really need to choose plants that can withstand high day and night time temperatures as well as a bit of drought. Small, dwarf sized tomato plants and peppers will grow, although some of these heat-lovers will drop their blossoms prematurely if night temperatures are too high. You can avoid this problem by keeping your plants watered and growing in larger than average containers.
Unfortunately, most fire escapes are a tight squeeze. If space is not on your side, stick with smaller, drought tolerant plants such as sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram, amaranth, dill, garlic chives, okra, and purslane.
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