Getting Grubby

Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces
Gayla Trail
Clarkson Potter, paperback, copyright 2010, 207 pages, $19.95

It’s a romantic notion to think that we could all move to the country and start a farm. The fact is, the majority of people live in cities out of necessity, and few of us have space for a huge garden. But Gayla Trail thinks that fact shouldn’t stop us, and that most people have a little bit of space, whether it’s a yard, a balcony or a fire escape, in which to grow great grub.

Trail’s book is an excellent primer for anyone looking to get started on their own organic garden. Concepts and directions are presented in a straight-forward, down to earth manner that is welcoming to even the most alternative of personalities – and which will speak more to hipster than horticultural society matron. In fact there are a few passages that were even a bit shocking to me, such as the chapter where Trail discusses companion planting and uses the analogy of sticking “Jesus-loving uncle Bill next to your abortion doctor sister-in-law” at a wedding. Funny stuff, but it might offend anyone picking this up without being familiar with Trail’s style of writing.

Grow Great Grub touches on all the basics of gardening in small spaces, from how to build boxes or plant potatoes in garbage bins to creating great compost. A small section on community gardens and guerrilla gardens offers more alternatives to those with no space of their own, and Torontonians will recognize photos of some of the garden spaces included in the book from various spots around the city, particularly Queen West and Parkdale.

Trail speaks to the importance of rotating crops, knowing your soil and even figuring out how much to water different plants based on soil and location. There’s a comprehensive list of common pests and diseases (which is always what terrifies me about gardening), including how to deal with them.

The second section offers a list of different types of vegetables to grow in small spaces, with a sidebar for each with special advice for growing items in pots. Trail also recommends varieties of each vegetable for both in-ground and small container gardens. There are also a few recipes interspersed through the plants section, all of which use very simple, fresh ingredients that most gardeners will have on hand – for instance, in the entry for cucumbers, the author offers a recipe for cucumber, mint and yogurt soup. Tomatoes get a fairly extensive entry of a few pages with a recipe and information on growing them upside down from hanging planters.

Fruit is not left out and Trail also offers information on various types of berries, melons and edible flowers that will thrive in small spaces.

The final part of the book deals with what to do with your harvest, with instructions on canning, drying and storage. Directions for sewing a dishtowel bag for storing greens accompanies information on preparing food for freezing, and storing home canned goods. Again, these are all basics to get the reader started, but anyone with an intense interest will want to move on to books specific to the various topics.

Seasoned gardeners (organic or otherwise) probably won’t find much new here. But Trail speaks to a whole generation of people who want to get into gardening but either don’t have the space or have been put off by the perfect rows or what seems like a huge expense to get started. With a focus on organic and eco-friendly alternatives (Trail offers resources for heirloom seeds, non-chemical fertilizers and even directions to start seedlings in toilet paper rolls), she shows her readers not only that gardening doesn’t have to be overwhelming, but that it can be done almost anywhere.