Vail’s Greener Pastures: Become a small-space gardener |

Vail’s Greener Pastures: Become a small-space gardener

Cassie Pence
Greener Pastures

VAIL, Colorado –If all of in the Vail Valley just had a can-do grandmother to learn from …

It was seeing her West Indian grandmother grow potatoes in a bucket, after relocating to an apartment in the cold Canadian north from Barbados, that opened Gayla Trail’s eyes to the possibilities of growing food in an urban, small-space environment.

This bucket sprouted Trail’s own ingenuity in gardening. It made Trail question, and subsequently, push the limits of what a “normal” garden looks like. So since college, with an “appalling” lack of gardening knowledge, Trail began growing vegetables anywhere and everywhere.

Years later with a lot more gardening practice under her belt, Trail is a bona fide urban farmer, and for the last 10 years, she has shared her expertise on her Web site,, which is really a community of DIY vegetable gardeners. She has two books, too, “You Grow Girl” and her newest, “Grow Great Grub,” the subject of this column.

What I love about “Grow Great Grub” is it gives me the courage to drop my preconceived notions about having a garden. It gives me the courage to try to grow vegetables even though I don’t really know how nor do I have any formal training. It gives me the courage to experiment and to fail.

Part of my obsession with moving to the tropics is that I want a full blown 10-acre organic farm with the perfect conditions to grow just about everything, especially (as you know) avocados. Perfect location, perfect land, perfect weather is what I used to think I needed to have my perfect vegetable garden. “Grow Great Grub” has changed by thinking, even if it hasn’t changed my desire for warmer weather.

“Many urban dwellers suffer from an incapacitating anxiety complex about space,” Trail writes in “Grow Great Grub.” “We’ve gotten it into our heads that either we need to own land or we need lots of it in order to grow food. And if it’s not a lack of space it’s the wrong type. Barring those problems it’s a lack of knowledge, money or … There’s always something that keeps us from giving it a go.”

I have at least given it a go. For the last two summers, I have successfully grown arugula, micro greens, butter lettuce, purple beans, zuchinni and a bucket-load of green tomatoes in a raised garden on a small plot of land adjacent to my Eagle-Vail town home. But I have fallen victim to the urban dweller attitude, albeit in the majestic Rockies, Trail writes about in her book.

I’ve caught myself many times looking down at my garden from my kitchen window and frowning at its lack-luster: It sits next to my blacktop driveway and my beater Jeep Cherokee. And I’m pretty sure vegetables do not like to be frowned at. I’ve also caught myself abandoning the project midway through summer because it’s not an ideal space, and I rattle off obsurd excuses for orphaning my plants – “If it were a bigger garden, I would be more inspired” and “If it were warmer, I would be more committed.”

But this summer, I am inspired. Because besides being chock full of step-by-step instructions on how to grow just about every vegetable in every imaginable space, “Grow Great Grub” has taught me that the garden of Eden growing in my daydreams is really a big pile of steaming compost. It’s not about having an ideal space. It’s about growing your own food. It’s about self-sufficiency, and as Trail writes, it’s about staving “off full dependency on the supermarket and to live rich in homegrown goodness throughout the year.”

The book covers everything you need to know to become a microfarmer: where to buy plants and seeds, how to get started, the equipment you need (and don’t need), growing in the ground and growing in containers, taking care of your plants and what to do about garden pests and predators. It’s filled with beautiful glossy colored photos and includes chapters on how to harvest, recipes for the harvest and how to store and preserve your vegetables. There’s a grow chart in the back and cute canning labels that you can copy or download from Trail’s Web site.

She infuses the book with practical tips, like “the best place to look for equipment is in the recycling bin, and not the garden department.” And the book is full of humor to remind you that gardening is supposed to be fun, don’t take yourself so seriously. I especially like her intro to growing Brassicas.

“Brassicas, aka the cabbage family, are a famously maligned group, disliked by small children and former U.S. presidents alike. Predictable, our prejudices are the result of a lifetime of suffering through meals of the same boring handful of factory-farmed mainstays. Once you’ve grown an orange cauliflower or tasted purple broccoli, you may start to wonder what else politicians are wrong about!”

So this summer, armed with a copy of “Grow Great Grub” in your gardening apron, try your hand at growing your own food. Even in the mountains, with our cramped apartments, multiple roommates and short growing season, you’re bound to have some success, even if it’s just a little can-do inspiration.

Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She and her husband, Captain Vacuum, own Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company. She is interested in hearing your High Country gardening stories. Contact her at

Support Local Journalism