Jen McGuinness always loved plants, but never had much space. Growing up in New York City, she was surrounded by plants and love of gardening, but always had to get a little creative with how and where she grew them — and even what she grew. She realized other people might find what she learned helpful.
McGuinness is the author of the upcoming book, “Micro Food Gardening: Project plans and plants for growing fruits and veggies in tiny spaces” which will be available on April 6, 2021. In this Q&A, she chats about being a plant nerd, her 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 interested in gardening?
Answer: I grew up in Queens, New York and lived in a two-family house with a back garden. A lot of my friends and neighbors lived in apartment buildings or only had a small spot to garden outdoors.
I was lucky in that I grew up in a family of gardeners — my mom loved houseplants, my dad grew ornamentals and my grandfather focused on edibles. I spent a lot of my childhood around plants, and as a teenager I read a lot of gardening books for fun.
Q: When and why did you start your blog, Frau Zinnie?
A: I wanted to document what was happening in my garden, but I thought it would be interesting to include coverage of gardening events and interviews with experts, too. The blog is a mixture of reporting and creatively documenting what is growing in my garden. I also like to showcase photos of the plants and wildlife that visit and live in the garden.
Q: What did you learn from writing Frau Zinnie that you took with you in your writing and gardening?
A: I’ve been able to interview gardening experts and cover gardening events, such as the New York Botanical Garden’s Orchid Show and the Philadelphia Flower Show. Since I am also a garden blogger, I’ve attended three past Garden Blogger Flings, where I not only got to meet up with fellow (awesome) garden bloggers but [also] tour private gardens.
I feel like you never stop learning when you are a gardener, and you 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 unfold, and what did you learn from it?
A: I was sponsored by the National Garden Bureau in 2017 to become a “NGB Plant Nerd,” where as a small group we visited various plant breeders and learned about the seed industry. It was an exhilarating, educational experience packed into four days in August.
We walked through trial fields (such as [in] Salinas and Maxwell, California) to view all sorts of edible plants that were either newly available or up and coming. It was there that I learned about the smaller dwarf versions of plants that were being 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 that topic?
A: I do have a garden, but my full sun areas on my property are in and along my driveway. So I’ve had to be creative in growing edibles in containers there. I started to grow more plants in containers that were considered “dwarf varieties” in order to fit that space better.
I knew from growing up in the city that many people do not always have a lot of available space to grow plants, so a lot of the projects are designed to work in smaller spaces — which can include a table, hanging from a wall or set up in a walkway. I had an idea of what type of projects could be possible for growing micro edibles in 2019. I worked with my editor and soon I was writing, starting seeds and beginning to photograph the plants and projects featured in the book.
In the book I define a micro veggie, fruit or herb as a plant that is 18 inches or smaller when the plant has reached harvest size. Some plants, such as vines, may grow a little larger but still produce mini-size fruits.
Q: Tell me about the 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, that added another creative element to the entire process. I had to be very disciplined about making time in the evenings and on the weekends to write. My walkway, driveway, patio, shed, kitchen countertops — every available space was put to use to grow the plants in the various projects.
Q: Even prior to writing your book, you were an award-winning journalist and published photographer. How did your previous career experience inform your approach to writing and putting together this book?
A: My background is in journalism, so that definitely influences my writing style. I tried to keep my audience in mind when writing the book. For those new to gardening, they will find the first section of the book as a “Gardening 101,” where the basics of choosing a spot, soil choice, along with lighting and watering needs are addressed. Taking that information, they can apply it to the project they choose in the book.
I’m also hoping that more experienced gardeners will get inspired to try one of the 30 projects for something different to shake up their gardening routine.
Q: What’s next for you — in gardening, in writing, or in anything else you might have planned?
A: I am going to continue growing micro edibles this year, and I am excited to be starting some new varieties and implementing them in the projects in the book. I hope as people try out the projects, they share what they grow. I’m also planning to continue to share content over on my blog. I have a few more project ideas percolating in my mind — we’ll see what happens!
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.