Today’s theme is fast-becoming a hot topic around the map. Gardening – growing and storing food, to be precise. Along with being a means of producing food in front of our very eyes and enhancing our physical and mental health, gardening can also lead to a lighter shopping bill at harvest time, provision at home even in times of supermarket shortages, all while beautifying the space we live in.
Julia Benn, an interior designer and gardening enthusiast joins us from Maryland, and shares helpful steps, solid advice and encouragement to get you growing food and flowers well at home. We recently recorded a good conversation that’s now at editing stage so stay tuned for the video (with a cameo virtual tour of her garden) and audio uploads.
JulBeArtGardens and JulBeArtInteriors on Instagram beautifully showcase her professional portfolio in interior design and her undeniable gift for gardening. In this post, she shares her inspiration, steps for those who don’t have a lot of land to plant on, uplifting advice for nervous newbies and even some tablescape tips.
JWI: You’ve shared in your first guest post how you were inspired to start gardening, but for those who missed it, how did your passion for it grow?
“I grew up in St. Peter, Barbados, at Jerusalem Farm which was managed and run by my grandfather who was an agriculturalist. That farm was the start of how I got my passion for gardening. There were mango groves and it was an amazing place to grow up. That’s where I used to watch my grandfather in the garden – not just growing vegetables, but flowers and I remember hearing the elders talking about the time when the movie, “Island In The Sun’ was being filmed at Farley Hill, which was just a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem Farm. The producers asked grandfather if they could use his crotons for props and he would always deny.
Just watching him in the garden had a real impact on me. Then, I watched (both) my grandmothers (Muriel Gilkes-Benn and Rosaline Carter, my aunt and late uncles – these were all gardeners.
JWI: Were you always growing flowers and food?
Julia: I started growing flowers and food simultaneously in my first official garden when I was living in Ohio, back in 2001. I didn’t have a big garden; I started with a container garden. I wanted to grow sweet peppers and herbs and tomatoes and so on and I grew them in pots and they did so well, including cucumbers.
Then I started reading about companion planting and planting marigolds near the tomatoes because it attracts the good bugs and repels the bad ones, and then I would go to the garden center and I would see elders and seasoned gardeners purchasing there. They started saying, ‘don’t just grow vegetables; you have to incorporate the flowers cause they attract pollinators which are important for the vegetable garden.’ So from that time I’ve always been growing flowers and vegetables simultaneously.
Encouragement For Aspiring and New Gardeners
JWI: Gardening and growing food have so many benefits. It’s amazing that we can grow food from food – from seed. Can you share 3 or so tips to help people who are new to gardening? It could be a bit intimidating for some people. Could you share some starting steps, like how saving seeds is one?
Julia: The first step is getting over the fears that you have about gardening – that it’s difficult and that you are not a gardener. We are all gardeners, and if you start collecting seeds – you open a sweet pepper, and each seed is a plant. So, if you start collecting – say, 2 dozen seeds from sweet peppers you can start building up a seed bank.
Tomatoes are very easy to grow because it’s a vine…it doesn’t take a lot of work at all. You just throw it in the ground – even if you put no props and it just starts growing and growing, without much effort. And once that tomato (in the early stages) gets the right amount of water – preferably rainwater and not the water from the pipes ‘cause water from the pipes still has a lot of chemicals and all the other things – but they love rainwater and sunshine, you can get a fantastic crop.
And often times, even if you don’t have a big backyard, if you start planting things in pots – a tomato doesn’t need a big pot – even in very small pots and you put on a bamboo stick, it will start to climb that stick and before you know it will have tomatoes. Same thing with string beans, watermelon, cantaloupe – all of these things are vines and they’re very easy to grow.
Bio-diversity is important; it’s important to think about the soil and what you’re doing to the soil. Fertilizers for the most part, are a slow death to a plant. It’s like feeding your body an artificial drink. What you’re doing is getting the plant a ‘high’ – it gets 10 million leaves and it puts out a lot of fruit the first year. Then you watch it the second and third year and see if it’s the real thing.
Plants are living organisms just like human beings are living organisms. When you feed your body artificial stimulants, your body crashes. Just like plants. I like to keep things natural.
You have to get rid of your fear.
A lot of times I meet people or they go to my JulBeArtGardens page and they send DMs saying, “Oh, I want to start a garden but…” and they start with all the fears and reasons why and – they don’t have a backyard and so on…
I always used to say, “you can start small.” You don’t have to start on a big scale. Even if you have a lil balcony, small patio, a small porch and you have some plant pots and soil, you can have a garden. You would be amazed at how much produce you can grow on a small balcony in pots. Actually, a lot of the plants like pots, like mint for instance. If you contain it, it does well. You take one leaf from a broad leaf thyme and put it in the soil and it starts to catch root so easy. As long and you have a sunny room, you can have it in a pot an growing inside; that way you can snip it and use in your recipes and as tea. It’s a plant that keep growing and giving. There’s a lot of joy that comes with gardening. You got to start with the things that grow easily.
Weather and Gardening and Growing Food In Seasons
Julia: For persons who live in cold climates, putting plants inside…you have to have the space for it. I have a lemon tree and an avocado tree and broad leaf thyme and I bring them inside during winter. The lemon and avocado trees can stay inside until the first frost. I lost a mango tree because I left outside for too long so I’m starting new mango trees in pots.
For persons who want to start doing fall crops, if you have the space there are certain crops that do well at this time like beets and carrots. For instance, thyme. I still snip thyme outside in winter. Rosemary, you might have to bring that inside. For persons who are living in the tropics, they won’t have to worry about bringing thyme inside. Lavender you can bring inside, if it’s in a pot..even though if you have it in the ground, it’s a perennial so it will come back every year. Somehow, from my experience when I have (lavender) in pots and leave them out in winter, they die.
Plants you can bring inside during winter and set on kitchen sill:
Thyme, chives, scallion, rosemary, parsley, cilantro, basil and more.
They do very well in small pots.
JWI: Are you into canning and fermenting?
Julia: I haven’t done canning. Bottling, yes I’ve made preserves and jams. I learned to make jam at my Food & Nutrition class in The Alexandra School in Barbados. There are so many different jams you can make. Bajan cherries – golden apples the American cherry. You can make jams with the cherries, plums, strawberries, blueberries – all of these things you can make jams with. I’ve just done bottling; I’ve also done pickled (red) onions.
You can freeze produce, do pickling and canning. Drying is the oldest form of preserving food, which is ‘salting’ it. Our grandmothers would take flying fish when it was in season and they would ‘salt’ it and then hang it up to dry. That’s how you get saltfish.
With potatoes and so on, just keep them in a dark place. Before they had refrigerators and drying and sheds and so on, they used to bury food. They used to bury potatoes and so in the ground so that’s why a lot of people who have the space in their home they have a (dark) cellar.
Tip: You don’t want to store potatoes with onions. They are not friends. They are some foods that are not friends.
Growing your own food is a good thing. You will save on your food bill, you know what is going into your body because a lot of the commercial farmers use all kinds of commercial fertilizers and so on. We don’t know what they do to our bodies when we ingest food that has been grown with artificial fertilizers and GMOs – we don’t know. These things are genetically modified, so if we can grow our own foods at home, especially in the tropics…everything from avocado to lime to lemon to bajan cherry, golden apple, soursop, sugar apples, tamarind, ginger, guava…I’m growing ginger for the first time and I’m growing it in a pot.
Harmonizing Interior Design with Gardening
JWI: You’re a professional interior designer and you have a clear passion and God-given gift for gardening. Do you ever fuse the two together?
Julia: Oh, absolutely. To me they go hand in hand. Interiors and gardening; the two mesh well. I incorporate a lot of what I grow in the garden in my interiors.
I do tablescapes. When hydrangeas are dried they make a beautiful floral arrangement. You don’t need a lot of money to have natural elements – leaves, croton bunches, breadfruit leaves, birds of paradise, palm leaves…
If I took a vase and you pick two breadfruit leaves, that is art. Crotons are so beautiful; the leaves are so interesting…cut some crotons, put it in a vase and that makes a beautiful centerpiece. Small breadfruits that haven’t developed yet; they make an interesting textural centerpiece.
There’s so much that comes from the garden, in terms of interior design – flowers and plants – the decor is not complete without flowers and plants. That’s how I was taught.
Being in the garden for hours, it feels completely comfortable for me. Gardening is my therapy.”
Julia Benn is an interior designer and gardening enthusiast in Maryland. Visit her on Instagram @JulBeArtInteriors and @JulBeArtGardens
Stay tuned for the upcoming video interview with a virtual tour of her beautiful garden.