You Grow Girl an Interview with Gayla Trail

Since I have been blogging and thinking about gardening so much lately I thought today I would repost the interview I did with Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl.

Several years ago when I did the interview for my zine Gayla only had her website with tons of gardening tips. Now there is a You Grow Girl Book which is equally amazing. If you are a girl or guy in need of some gardening advice You Grow Girl is the place for you!

I am going to spice the interview up with pictures of my gardening I did this weekend!

At what point in your life did you know you were addicted to plants? Was there anything in particular that set you off down the green thumb path?

I really started buying plants and trying to grow them in highschool. I had my own apartment so it just kind of happened naturally. I don’t remember ever making a conscious decision. At the time I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned the odd thing in my grade 13 Biology class and that was when I thought maybe I should start reading up on it. I had basic scientific knowledge (like cellular respiration and transpiration) but I didn’t have practical knowledge or a sense of geopgraphy about plants (where certain plants came from and how that affected their care and needs). My Biology teacher actually gave me some spider plant cuttings from the classroom plants and I still have offspring from that cutting. However it was years later before I ever really got around to reading about plants in a practical sense. I started off buying books in thrift stores that were all circa 1970’s. They were mostly dusty with that water damage mold smell. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really started to make a concerted effort to learn about what I was doing. I knew the odd thing from books, but most of my knowledge was either common sense or based on experimentation.

Why did you decide to start You Grow Girl? Tell us a little about the site.

It was a few years ago. Out of nowhere I had really started going crazy with plants. I was making a real effort to learn more and I was trying to grow everything from citrus pits from the supermarket to anything I could find at my local corner store. My deck was filled with my experiments. Looking around on the web I noticed that there wasn’t much for people in my age bracket (under 45). Everything was still geared to what I felt was a really conservative perspective on gardening. I wanted to do something that was about gardening but also just about plants in general. I’m not just into plants because it’s fun and relaxing and makes my apartment look nice. The more I learn, the more fascinated I become with the complexity of the Plant Kingdom. Plants are crazy. They’re like aliens. They are so different from animals yet also very alike. I wanted to do something that projected those feelings. I think that most gardening literature doesn’t leave you with a sense of respect and wonderment. Since then I have found a few things that do. But they are so few and far between. People don’t respect plants because they don’t notice them. For too long the mentalilty of “that plant is a weed and that plant is a prized rare specimen” or “rip everything out and put something foreign in” have prevailed. Those attitudes need to be changed. Plants as a way to increase your property value despite the fact that the environment is being destroyed by the fertilizers and chemicals used to grow them.

I was already working as a designer and building sites for a living so making the site made sense. My friend Beate is a writer and she had the same values and interest in plants so I asked her to help me. It was years before I actually got around to doing the site. The name came about as a joke because a friend was making fun of my experiments and said that I should have a show on the local community cable station called “You Grow Girl”. I thought it was a funny and memorable name so I registered the domain.

OK, for a novice at gardening in general, what is a good starter plant? Let’s assume our typical reader has little more than an apartment balcony to work with.

Well I now have little more than that to work with so I can relate. I think that as far as house plants go the absolute easiest from my experience has got to be Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata). They’ll withstand light or shade and they are relatively drought tolerant. They are very forgiving plants.

For on the deck it depends on the light intensity. The traditional annuals such as marigolds are always easy. But I think if you have limited space then go for something that you can use. There are lots of flowers that can be eaten such as some of the scented geraniums, nasturtiums violas, and calendula to name a few. You can grow a hanging basket of strawberries very easily.

To fertilize or not to fertilize that is the question. Then the second deep thought would be, do you think all fertilizers are created equal? Is there any you recommend in particular?

Definitely fertilize. Especially flowering plants. I believe in organic fertilizers 100% now. No more drop solutions and powders. My favourite fertilizer for indoor plants are worm castings. They do an amazing job, they don’t burn the plants and they don’t smell. Obviously outdoor garden plants need something else. Unless you are producing your own castings using a vermicomposter, it would be expensive to use on the garden. In the last few years I’ve become very happy with sea kelp (bought dried and mixed with water). Compost tea is extremely good as well. Plus you can water it down and use it on the leaves as foliar spray. fertilizers are important because it puts nutrients back into the soil and creates a healthy environment for your plants. The healthier your plants are, the more resistant they are to disease and insects. It’s just like human health. An ounce of prevention…

In your opinion if you have the yard and the space, is making a home compost pile worth the trouble?

It is absolutely worth it. Instead of going into the landfill, all that organic matter is recycled and put back into the soil (which means richer, better soil). Not only is it environmentally the right thing to do, but it is economically beneficial as well.

Herbs seem to be a biggie that people try and grow. Are there any that are harder than others to grow. If you have the option is it better to grow herbs in a container or in the ground?

The difficulty comes in trying to grow things that aren’t right for your climate. For instance lavender can be somewhat difficult in my zone because they sometimes don’t make it through the winter despite proper mulching. I grow a lot of herbs on my deck every year. I use them a lot in cooking and for tea.

I think that with the exception of invasive plants such as mint, herbs are better grown in the ground. But that doesn’t mean you can’t grow them in containers. I grow lots of herbs in containers with little trouble. The key is to pick the right container for the plant and also pick the right location. If you have a shady balcony then don’t choose something that needs lots of light and vice versa. I grow lots of basil on my deck every year very successfully. Plants like chives, mint, lemon balm, oregano, coriander, catnip are all easy to grow. Sage can be somewhat more difficult because it is susceptible to a disease called powdery mildew.

I’ve seen whole herb gardens grown very effectively in kid’s swimming pools filled with potting soil. This year I’m building big wooden troughs for growing mine.

For someone starting their very first vegetable garden, what is some good advice? Are any veggies any easier to grow than others? Are some pretty tricky?

I don’t have a lot of experience with vegetable gardens. We had a garden on and off during my childhood and about 8 years ago I lived in a student house with a yard and I dug up and planted a huge vegetable garden there. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing and it worked out fine. I find things like carrots, lettuce, radishes, onions and beans very easy to grow. Even tomatoes do well if you can avoid the slugs. I think plants such as squash (zucchini etc) can be somewhat more difficult because they are susceptible to some insects. Beate is the veggie garden expert. She has a huge garden and grows large crops of organic veggies every year.

Again, for the apartment dwellers, any vegetables that are particularly easy to grow in a container?

This I have experience with. I grow tomatoes every year. Choose dwarf varieties such as tiny tim. As long as you provide enough sun and water and the deepest containers you can find, they’ll do well. I’ve grown tomatoes in large detergent buckets but had more success with large galvanized metal tubs. Leafy greens such as arugula and leaf lettuce are also extremely easy to grow in containers. You can even grow them in small pots if you plant one plant per pot. I’ve grow radishes, carrots, onions, peas… In the case of carrots choose the half-sized varieties. That way you can avoid requiring depth. Just about anything can be grown in containers. Make sure to monitor the amount of water they get, place them somewhere where they get the appropriate light and fertilize regularly with compost tea or another organic fertilizer. I highly recommend a book called “Urban Eden” by Adam and James Caplin about growing edibles in small spaces.

Mulching, how important is it? And then what kind of mulch do you prefer black plastic, cedar chips, the list seems to go on.

I use cedar chips and leaves. I don’t have a mulch preference; that just seems to be the most readily available. I often have to take what I can get as I don’t drive so I rely on friends to transport me to the garden centres. Although aesthetically I do like the reddish colour of the wood against the green of the foliage. Of course leaves are free mulch and I can’t argue with free.

Is there any garden pest to watch out for like no other? Any arch enemy to all plants? I have a constant battle with snails and slugs in particular, any advice on killing off the slimy suckers?

I think it depends on your location. What plagues me might not even be a factor to someone else. My worst enemy used to be the aphid. I have a better understanding of how to avoid it now. Slugs are hard. Most insects can be controlled with natural predators (such as stocking your garden with lady bugs) or by making sure your plants are really healthy and resilient and don’t provide an opportune environment for insects. With slugs it’s more about diverting them away from your plants. The beer trap seems to be a preferred method for most people. Dig a hole. Place a container of beer into the hole and the slugs will be attracted, fall in, get drunk and die. Or for a more hidden effect you can cut a pop bottle in half (the pop bottle is a versitile garden tool), turn the top upside down and place it inside the bottom half with the funnel facing down. Pour some beer into the bottom and place that in a hole in the ground with the top near the surface. The slugs will fall through the funnel to get to the beer.

Could you please shed some light on this sterilization of your pots thing? Should I be wearing rubber gloves or what?

If you are using bleach then you should wear gloves to protect your hands. I find that oxygenated bleach aka hydrogen peroxide is a good, safe, environmentally safe way to sterilize pots. Soak them in hot water, scrub with some all-purpose cleanser and then soak them in hot water with some of the hydrogen peroxide.

Another issue that confuses me is when you read to pot a plant with a soil-less potting mixture. What is soil-less?

Good question. Soil-less potting mix is a mix that basically contains no soil. That means no humus, clay, silt or sand–all components of soil. A soil-less mix is considered to be the best for seed starting because it is light and airy with good drainage yet it holds water well–which is ideal for growing seeds. Potting soil tends to become compact, and depending on its purpose can actually be less water absorbant. Soil-less mix is also sterile which means no diseases that can harm fragile seedlings.

When outdoor gardening, vegetables and flowers, do you use starts or seeds?

I use both. If you want to grow a lot of one thing, seeds are the most economically feasible. Seeds are also good because you can get unusual or heirloom varieties that often aren’t available as seedlings, and you can trade seeds with friends. I suggest getting together with friends and splitting the cost on a bunch of packs of seeds. If you split up the packs there’s always lots to go around for everyone and it is much cheaper. Seedlings are good if you don’t have the space or time to start seeds indoors.

How relevant is the zone in which you live?

Very relevant. This will determine how much rain you get, how much sun, the temperature, how long the growing season is… I think the key to growing plants is to understand the environment (natural habitat) each plant originated from. If you can mimick that environment, your plant will be happy. If you can’t mimick that environment, or it’s too much work for you then forget it. In your garden the best plants to chose are the ones that are indigenous to your region.

Is there any one key piece of gardening wisdom you like to pass down to people?

The above answer would be my first bit of advice. My second is to lighten up and relax. Talk to other people and find out what they’re doing and what they’re growing. There’s a million ways to go about things in order to come to the same conclusion. There are often many “right ways” and not just one “perfect way”. Thirdly you don’t need to spend a lot of money on “the right tools” and “the right equipment” in order to grow healthy plants and create a nice environment. That’s a fallacy that has been perpetuated in order to entice you into spend lots of money on needless stuff. Buy the tools you do need from auctions or garage sales. Older tools are often better anyway.

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