Creative Genius: Garden Guru Linda Ly
Get to know Linda Ly of Garden Betty and the inspiration behind her cookbooks.
Linda Ly of the popular gardening blog Garden Betty is a world traveler, avid outdoorswoman and master home cook. When she's not busy snowboarding, hiking or on an extended road trip, she's creating recipes from seasonally fresh garden goodies. We sat down with Linda to find out more about her creative processes.
How did you first get into gardening?
It happened when I moved into the current house that I’m in now. It’s just a very fortunate series of events, where I originally was living in an urban loft and lots of concrete and lots of brick, trying to grow herbs on a windowsill or on a fire escape. Then I came to a point where I wanted to find a house with a yard for my dogs to run around in. I found this house on Craigslist. It was a little cute, 1920s bungalow; very small, but there was a lot of space; like a big, big garden. I had come to visit this in the middle of summer and the owner had a garden going already. Just walking around there was tons of tomato plants and these massive zucchini plants…rhubarb. Once we signed the papers to move in, I did not even step into the garden for two weeks. It was hilarious.
What made you take the next step and walk into the garden?
I was afraid that everything was going to die as soon as I walked in. So, my husband like walks in one day with this big, like, two-foot long zucchini. He was like, “Hey, I think these things are ready now. Like, we really need to look and start harvesting the vegetables that are outside.” I was like, “Well, how do we know that they’re ready?” We just pick the tomatoes that are red and the zucchinis that are two-feet long? From that moment, I just got involved in the garden. My blog became a little personal diary of what I was growing, what I was harvesting; just little tidbits of the things that were growing outside and it was just a way for me to share with my friends and family, who were not gardeners.
How did your first cookbook come about?
My blog grew into this resource for other gardeners who like to grow vegetables and herbs and fruits and edible flowers. I really found my niche in edible gardening. Through the years as I’ve been gardening, I would look at a huge squash plant with big beautiful leaves, and wondered if you can eat the leaves? It felt like such a big waste of a plant. The same thing for carrot tops, which I had always thought were poisonous, but you know, the carrot is not; so why would something that was attached to the carrot be poisonous, but not the root? And, the same thing went with cucumber shoots and pepper leaves. I started wondering if we can eat more of the plant that we’re growing, because there’s so much work that goes into growing them. I wanted to get more bang for the buck. I had this idea formulating in my head about a book that tackled all of that, because people are always asking me questions like “you say in your blog that we can eat broccoli leaves, but then what do you do with a broccoli leaf. There needed to be a resource, because you can’t find recipes that used these parts of vegetables. That’s what my first cookbook, The CSA Cookbook, is about.
How do you get inspiration for recipes?
I would say that 99% of my inspiration comes from my garden. When you’re at home and cooking with the same ingredients day after day you must get a little bit creative and think of new ways to use them so you’re not eating squash the same way 10 different times. I’m always looking to use the fruits and vegetables I have in my garden in new and somewhat creative and inventive ways for me. There’s so much you can do when you are exploring new ways to cook it. I find a lot of my inspiration from places that we’ve traveled. And from cultures that I’ve visited; how they cook.
Tell us about your process of shooting/testing your recipes for your new cookbook, The New Camp Cookbook. Why did you feel the need to shoot it, well, while camping?
Well, it’s a camping cookbook, so I thought it would be disingenuous to write my recipes and present them in a camping cookbook if I had not actually camped with them. Cooking outside on a camp stove on a fire that you make out in a fire ring is very different than cooking on your gas stove at home or even on your gas BBQ grill at home. Out in the campsite you don’t have as much control over all the different variables like the wind, how sticky the grates are or how much weaker the flames are on your camp stoves. So, that’s why I really wanted to make sure these recipes would work across a greater variety of outdoor environments. And it was also a great excuse for us to go out and do something that we love.
What are the pros and cons of cooking on a campfire?
The pros are that one of my favorite things about campfire cooking is always the smell and you know the little bit of chars that you get and just the fact that it feels so wild and so rugged. It’s the most primitive form of cooking, but it sometimes turns out better than what you can make at home and in a carefully controlled environment. I’m a sucker for campfire cooking just because of how different it comes out each time. You can have the same recipe but if you’re making it over fire at camp, there’s always something a little bit different and special about it each time. You can never fully recreate it the next time that you’re out camping. And, to me that makes the recipe so much more special. So many of my memories at camp revolve around some type of dish that we made and I can’t do it again because the next time I make that dish it comes out differently, whether it’s the water that we’ve brought along or the type of firewood that we’ve used or even the elevations that we’ve cooked it at. It’s an interesting, organic, natural process. And, then the con of cooking is also that over a campfire it come out different every time.
What is the next creative endeavor you have up your sleeve?
I’m always making tweaks to my blog. It went through a redesign earlier this year. Even after a big redesign the next few months are always [about] getting people’s feedback, improving it even more and adding new features. And so, the blog always evolves. There’s always something new going on with it. Right now, I’m working on adding a shop section to my blog that sells my cookbooks of course, but also links to all the things I use at home in the garden or when I travel. It will be a place where you can learn what are my favorite garden tools and my favorite tools and utensils for camping and cooking at camp. Then there could be another book in the works. There’s ideas bouncing around in my head. So, and that already, plus the baby, that keeps me plenty busy.