When Sara and I started Charleston Naturally, we made a commitment to improving ourselves through healthy and sustainable living habits. One of our role models in this quest has been Willi Galloway, an organic gardening expert who specializes in cooking what she grows, and the author of one of our favorite blogs, Diggin Food. Her gardening tips, backyard projects, and healthy recipes have been a huge source of inspiration.
We recently had a chance to chat with Willi. Check out all the great insights she had to offer.
CN: What’s the biggest mistake you see new organic gardeners making?
WG: New gardeners often get frustrated when a crop fails, or birds eat their seedlings, or their lettuce tastes bitter. Instead of getting frustrated, I like to look at every challenge as a learning experience. For instance, I always put bird netting over newly sown pea, bean, and sunflower seeds because I learned the hard way that crows love to eat those seeds. And I now cover my broccoli and cabbage seedlings with row covers after I plant to protect them from cabbage worms. I plant heat-tolerant lettuce varieties (I’m especially fond of batavians) that resist turning bitter in hot weather. I do all this now because I’ve had these crops fail in the past. I’ve learned that something will always go wrong in my garden, but many other things will turn out well. So I just try to roll with the punches and remember that I can always try a crop I had a problem with again next year.
CN: Do you have any tips, insights, or encouragement to offer newbie organic gardeners and those intimidated by DIY projects?
WG: Grow what you like to eat, that way you’ll be excited to tend and harvest what you’ve planted. Also, chat up other gardeners, because the best way to become a better gardener is to learn from other gardeners. Ask which varieties do well, find out which nurseries they like to shop at and why, trade seeds, set up mini work parties in friend’s gardens, visit other gardens and take note of what you like (and don’t like) about them.
CN: What’s your favorite fresh-from-the-garden food recipe?
WG: I love to grill green beans. They get this great smoky flavor and yellow and purple beans retain their color better when grilled. I like to grill up a bunch of beans, pile them on a platter and then top them with a charred tomato sauce. It’s a super fast, summery recipe and fun to make:
CN: How do you balance garden upkeep and daily, homecooked meal preparation with family and work obligations?
WG: I don’t grow everything I eat. I focus on growing our favorite foods and then I shop at our local farmer’s market for other items. I also try to grow what we eat a lot of, salad greens, peas, beans, tomatoes, herbs so we can pop outside and harvest right before dinner. I also try to keep the recipes on weeknights simple: big salads, quesadillas stuffed with vegetables, stir fries. As far as upkeep, I try to spend 15 to 20 minutes in my garden every day. I weed, harvest, plant new crops, and fertilize. Doing a little bit each day helps keep the garden in control and still gives me plenty of time to enjoy the weekends.
CN: What’s the best part of your job?
WG: The best part of my job is I’m always learning something. I get to talk to other gardeners all the time, and I always come away with some nugget of information that I didn’t have before. You could garden for 80 years and still learn something new, and I think that is the best thing about gardening!
CN: Do you feel that organic and healthy eating habits have improved your lifestyle?
WG: Definitely! Having a vegetable garden is the easiest way to make yourself a better cook because you have access to such great ingredients, especially herbs. Also, when you have a ton of vegetables growing in your backyard, you have to eat them. This, clearly, is healthier, but it also forces you to get creative in the kitchen. When I cook with food that we grow in our garden, I feel really invested in making the meal delicious because the food feels special.
CN: Where do you get your gardening project ideas from?
WG: A lot of the projects develop from some sort of problem I’m trying to solve. For instance, I build a lot of trellises because I have a small garden, so growing vegetables like cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes up onto a trellis frees up real estate for other crops. I also carry a little digital camera in my purse and take pictures of good ideas that I see when I’m out and about.
CN: What can we look forward to from you in the year ahead?
WG: Well, I’m at work on my first book! It will be published by Octopus Books in the spring of 2011 and I’m really excited about it. The book is a food-lovers guide to vegetable gardening. There will be 50 organic growing guides for vegetables, herbs, and small fruit. I’m focusing on strategies for growing gourmet quality food, plus the guides will include information on all the edible parts of a plant, the different stages of harvest, how to properly store garden fresh food, basic preparation information, and recipes. We’re also in the process of expanding our vegetable garden, so expect to see tutorials on how to convert a galvanized horse trough into a raised bed, building a gabion wall, and making border-less raised beds on DigginFood soon.
Willi Evans Galloway is the creator of DigginFood.com—a website that serves up organic gardening and cooking inspiration. Willi is a weekly guest on Seattle’s popular KUOW 94.9 gardening program, Greendays, and a longtime contributor to Organic Gardening magazine. She is a Master Gardener and also served for six years on the Board of Directors for Seattle Tilth, a non-profit that teaches urbanites how to garden organically. Willi grows vegetables and flowers in her small Seattle yard with her husband, their Labrador retriever, four pet chickens, and a hive of honeybees.