Secrets and techniques of small-space gardening

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Jen McGuinness always loved plants but never had much space. Growing up in New York City, she was surrounded by plants and a love of gardens, but always had to get a little creative with how and where she grew them – and even what she grew. She realized that other people might find what she had learned helpful.

McGuinness is the author of the upcoming book, Micro Food Gardening: Project Plans and Plants for Growing Fruit and Vegetables in a Small Space, which will be available on April 6, 2021. In this Q&A, she chats about being a plant nerd, his favorite container gardening project and what she means when she says “micro food”.

Question: Tell me about your background. Where are you from and how did you get into gardening?

Answer: I grew up in Queens, New York and lived in a two-family house with a garden. Many of my friends and neighbors lived in apartment buildings or only had a small space to garden outside.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of gardeners – my mother loved houseplants, my father grew ornamental plants, and my grandfather focused on food. I spent much of my childhood with plants and as a teenager I read a lot of gardening books for fun.

Q: When and why did you start your blog, Ms. Zinnie?

A: I wanted to document what was happening in my garden, but I thought it would be interesting to also cover gardening events and interviews with experts. The blog is a mixture of reporting and creative documentation of what grows in my garden. I also like to show photos of plants and wildlife that visit and live in the garden.

Q: What did you learn from Ms. Zinnie’s writing that you took away from writing and gardening?

A: I was able to interview gardening experts and cover gardening events like the New York Botanical Garden’s Orchid Show and the Philadelphia Flower Show. Since I am also a garden blogger, I visited three previous Garden Blogger Flings, where I not only met with other (great) garden bloggers, but also [also] Tour of private gardens.

I feel like as a gardener you never stop learning and always pick up cool tricks or tips, whether the person is passionate about growing dahlias, growing their own food, or including plants for pollinators in their design.

Q: Tell me about your experience at the California Vegetable Trials in 2017. How did that experience develop and what did you learn from it?

A: I was sponsored by the National Garden Bureau in 2017 to become an “NGB Plant Nerd” where we visited different plant breeders as a small group and learned about the seed industry. It was an exciting, educational experience packed into four days in August.

We went through test fields (like [in] Salinas and Maxwell, California) to see all types of edible plants that were either newly available or emerging. It was there that I found out about the smaller dwarf versions of plants that were made available to home gardeners.

Q: When and how did you get the idea to write your book “Micro Food Gardening”? How did you choose this topic?

A: I have a yard, but my full sun areas on my property are in and along my driveway. So I had to be creative about growing food in containers there. I started growing more plants in what were considered “dwarf strains” containers to better fit this space.

Jen McGuinness. Image Credit: Courtesy Rob McGuinness

I knew from my childhood in the city that a lot of people don’t always have a lot of space to grow plants. As a result, many projects are designed to work in smaller spaces – including a table hanging on a wall or a set on a sidewalk. I had an idea what kind of micro-food growing projects could be possible in 2019. Working with my editor, I was soon writing, starting with seeds and taking photos of the plants and projects featured in the book.

In the book, I define a micro-vegetable, fruit, or herb as a plant that is 18 inches or smaller by the time the plant is at harvest size. Some plants, such as B. Grapevines, may grow a little larger but still produce small fruit.

Q: Tell me about your experience of writing your first book. What were some of the challenges and joys of the process?

A: It was very exciting. Since I was also photographing the plants and projects, this added another creative element to the whole process. I had to be very disciplined to have time to write in the evenings and on weekends. My sidewalk, my driveway, my patio, my shed, my kitchen countertops – every available space was used to grow the plants in the various projects.

Q: Even before you wrote your book, you were an award-winning journalist and published photographer. How has your previous work experience influenced your approach to writing and compiling this book?

A: My background is in journalism, which definitely influences my writing style. I tried to keep an eye on my audience while writing the book. For those new to gardening, find the first section of the book as “Gardening 101,” which covers the basics of site selection, soil selection, and lighting and irrigation needs. With this information you can apply it to the project you selected in the book.

I also hope that seasoned gardeners will find inspiration to try one of the 30 projects for something different to shake up their gardening routine.

Q: What’s next for you – in the garden, in writing, or in anything else you might have planned?

A: I will continue to grow micro-foods this year and I look forward to launching some new strains and implementing them in the projects of the book. I hope when people try the projects they share what they grow. I also plan to continue sharing content on my blog. I still have a few project ideas in mind – we’ll see what happens!

These questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.