Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl: Show & Tell Garden Tour

Shari Altman

Shauna Ahearn
Today we're visiting the lovely island garden of mama Shauna James Ahern. You probably know her as Gluten-Free Girl. Shauna lives and gardens in the Pacific Northwest on Vashon Island near Seattle. Come along!

garden on Vashon island
The jungle of the front yard. This just happened on its own!
Tell us a little about your family and your garden.

Danny (41), Lucy (2 in July), and Shauna Ahern (43)  -- we three are a family.

The three of us live in a rented home on Vashon Island, which is a rural island off Seattle. The island is the same length as Manhattan, two miles wider, and has only 10,000 people living here. (And that's at its peak, during the summer months.) We moved here because it's a slow, small town, surrounded by woods and beaches, walnut trees, fiddlehead ferns, and sea beans. There's a big food culture on the island, but there's no real pretentiousness. That's because everyone gardens here. Most people have to dig a giant patch out of their acreage, then surround it with strong fencing so the deer don't eat everything! (Seems there are as many deer as people, if not more.)

The first pea! I jumped up and down when I saw this. I really did.
I'm such a kid. But I had never grown peas before!
We're lucky -- we moved into this lovely home with a garden already in place. Most of the garden is native plants -- azaleas, ferns, rhododendrons, daphne, and lilacs. Those, plus the 20 or so rose bushes, were already in place, so I don't do much but let them grow. The entire yard is fenced, rather than just the garden. That gives our daughter the chance to wander at will. She's not even 2, but she loves to explore. The front yard looks like a jungle after all the rain we've had this spring, so some of the plants are as tall as she is! She likes to walk through the green plants, look at the rhododendrons, stop at the bird bath to see if there are any birds waiting, and talk the entire time. She tells herself stories already, and she's clearly inspired by the hummingbirds, the Italian parsley, and the chance to put her hands into the black dirt and not have to wash them until we go inside.

Lucy and I put most of our efforts into the vegetables I am trying to grow, in pots on the porch and the raised beds in the backyard, just in front of the fence full of raspberry canes. It has been one of the rainiest, grayest springs and now early summers in Seattle history! Most people are complaining that their tomato plants have already died. The fact that mine are still alive? I take great pride in that. But the rest is just luck.

garden on vashon island
I felt bad for awhile that the garden wasn't "finished."
And then I realized just how much Lu loves the wildness.
What's your gardening background? Did you grow up with a garden?

I did not grow up with a garden. I grew up in Southern California, and our backyard was mostly dirt. I have friends who garden, and I've always admired their skills. But I thought it took years of education and a "green thumb" to be a gardener. I didn't really try.

However, when I was pregnant with our daughter, the need to grow things appeared. (I was growing a baby. Why not zucchini?) I planted a tiny patch of dirt with herbs, a tomato plant, and a zucchini plant that eventually grew zucchinis the size of a baseball bat! But after she was born, she ended up in the ICU and we were in the hospital for two weeks. When we came home with her for the first time, healthy and ours, the garden had gone to seed. I didn't really care, though!

children's garden
Lu in the garden. She really has become a good help.
She has learned to pull weeds!
Last year was our first spring in this house on Vashon. We tried to plant a garden, but Lucy needed surgery (a product of that trauma after birth). No one slept for months during her recovery. I kept waiting to really tackle until the garden until I could read all the right books and do it the "correct" way. It didn't happen.

This year, I thought, "Screw the books." I'm just going to plant a bunch of stuff. Every afternoon that it wasn't raining, Lu and I were outside. I had to let go of the notion that I would accomplish specific tasks. I just planted and weeded and worked the soil as I could until Lucy needed to go inside to move on to something else. That has given me a light touch with it I didn't have before.

Light through the spinach. I love how many kinds
of green are in the garden in spring.
Share with us a favorite gardening tip.

We live in the Pacific Northwest. There are more slugs than people or deer combined. With the rainy spring, the slugs are having a banner year. I came home from a four-day trip to find out the slugs had eaten nearly all the lettuce. ARGH! I didn't want to use bait because I have a toddler. I didn't want to stand out in the garden and pour salt all day long. So a friend of mine suggested that I cut open a liter bottle of pop, invert the lid inside, and then pour beer in. It worked. The next morning I found a ginger ale bottle full of dead slugs. (Sorry, guys.) And my lettuce is growing again.

The rhubarb plant. This one just keeps growing and growing.
My husband Danny had a rhubarb plant in the backyard
of his childhood home. He loves it there.
What's on your must-grow list this year?

Now, we have snow peas, fava beans, lettuce, spinach, arugula, fennel, chard, rhubarb, tomato plants, dill, Italian parsley, carrots, beans, strawberries, raspberries, cilantro, cucumbers, two kinds of summer squash, lemongrass, and chives. I kept thinking that I didn't have much this year, but I kept planting something when I could. Now, I look out there and see everything green.

Nothing has died yet!

vegetable starts
The starts. I was so proud when I had these in finally.
What garden blogs or websites inspire you the most?

I really love Margaret Roach's A Way to Garden. She has such a gentle touch, such a sense of educating us without preaching. I love her voice and her sensibilities. I've learned a lot of specifics, but mostly she just encourages me to get off the computer and get in the garden.

I like You Grow Girl as well, although I did buy the book finally and tend to look at that more right now. I flip through that and the Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles on the back porch, with mud on my hands, a packet of seeds in my pocket, and a toddler asking for water.

Lu eating strawberries. One of the sweetest moments.
Why do you garden?

The other day, I picked a ton of little wild strawberries that flourish all over the garden. I sat on the porch and called out for Lucy. She came running, saw what was in my hand, and her eyes grew wide. "Whoa!" she said. "Strawberries!" (It sounds more like Chrawberr, but you know.) She sat down next to me and ate every one, her lips stained red, her smile growing wider with each one.

I mean, I garden because it helps me slow down. Because it helps me to be in my body more than my mind. Because I can see the passage of time in these photos (the garden doesn't look like that anymore!). And because I like the practical faith in my hands and the soil. But really, it's because of that moment. Lucy helped me to water the baby plants every day (when she wasn't tearing out the starts, trying to help me weed!), and now she's eating the fruits of that work. 

child's garden
Lu with her hands in the dirt. And I don't mind that her hands get dirty.
In fact, I want her to. (And then a good hand wash when we go inside.)
Shauna James Ahern started her professional career as a child actor in Los Angeles, in the late 1970s. You might have seen her on Rhoda, where she played Amy Finkelstein, the girl who ate crayons. After that, she taught high school English, ghost wrote a gardening book with the girlfriend of a celebrity, ran a screenplay editing business in Manhattan, and taught more students how to write research papers. Now, she is considered one of the most authoritative sources of gluten-free living on the Internet. (Who saw that coming?) Her popular Web site,, was named one of the best food sites in the world by,, and The London Times, as well as being named one of the 20 best blogs by and for women by The Sunday Telegraph.  Gluten-Free Girl won Best Food Blog with a Theme in the World in 2006 and receives thousands of hits a day. Her book, Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back and How You Can Too (Wiley and Sons) is now in paperback. Her next book, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef: A Love Story in 100 Tempting Recipes, written with her husband Daniel, will be published in the fall of 2010.

All images via Shauna James Ahern

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