This week’s guest is Kevin Espiritu, author of the new book – Field Guide to Urban Gardening. Kevin is a self-taught garden guy. Like many of you, he’s figuring things out as he goes along and letting his curiosity be his guide.
Kevin doesn’t have a background in horticulture. His introduction to the garden world began in hydroponics – before he ever had a spot of earth to dig in. He wanted to grow some of his own food, but he lived in a townhome without a garden. So, hydroponics was his solution.
With hydroponics, the gardener has ultimate control. There are no unexpected weather issues to deal with. Diseases are easier to prevent. Pest issues are minor. Even the nutrient delivery is precise. Those can be huge benefits, but on the other hand, it’s up to the gardener to manage every variable upon which the plant depends.
Kevin’s early efforts produced mediocre results, and when he did harvest his first crop – a cucumber – he was disappointed by the flavor. Meanwhile, his brother was enjoying big success growing basil in containers. From that point on, Kevin was inspired by the challenge of growing in soil.
He realized that successful gardening is about developing a skill set, and he continued to challenge himself to learn and improve.
Today, Kevin gardens in the small urban space of his current home in the Hillcrest area of San Diego. His backyard receives virtually no direct sun, so he converted his front yard into an edible garden.
Like many urban gardeners, Kevin is working within a very small space, so he’s always looking for creative ways to make the most of what he has. He likes to say he is learning in public, and he’s made a career out of it. He’s been sharing his experiences and lessons, first in a blog, and now through a successful YouTube channel, podcast and social media following as Epic Gardening.
Like me, Kevin enjoys the challenges that gardening never fails to bring. No two days in the garden are ever alike, and that’s exciting. It offers daily opportunities to learn, experiment and grow – and to give Mother Nature a run for her money.
Kevin’s garden is the epitome of urban gardening. It’s just 15’x30’ in size, but Kevin makes the most of it. He’s incorporated raised beds, grow bags, vertical gardening, and even uses plant hangers to allow some edible plants to grow downward.
Growing food in your front yard can present challenges regardless of the size of the space. For one thing, there are always times through the growing season when a vegetable garden doesn’t look particularly beautiful. As edible plants mature, and then wane; it can look more than a little messy – especially when you grow year round.
Fortunately for Kevin, a picket fence around the perimeter of his yard provides some screening for those times when his garden doesn’t look it’s best.
Another challenge of your garden being front and center? As people pass by a front-facing garden, they might not be able to resist snacking on your crops. Kevin has experienced this particular problem. So far, no one has wandered into his garden to help themselves, but anything hanging near or over the fence seems to be fair game.
I had this problem myself when I lived in an urban neighborhood in North Carolina several years ago. Neither Kevin or I have ever minded sharing when asked, but someone taking without permission can be disheartening when you’ve worked hard to care for your plants.
To preempt the issue, I began growing cherry tomatoes closer to the sidewalk of my small yard. I hoped that people ambling by would help themselves to those easy-to-pick veggies and be satisfied, leaving the rest of my garden unmolested.
If pilfering has been a problem for you too, try planting some cherry tomatoes along your public-facing space. They are prolific and easy to pick, so hopefully, visitors will enjoy a tomato or two and move along.
A disappearing veggie or two isn’t exactly the worst that can happen in an urban garden. Kevin has watched as some people have allowed their dogs to stop and pee on his grow bags. Yet all things considered, there have been plenty more positive than negative experiences in Kevin’s urban garden.
For one thing, his plants have been a great conversation starter with many of those people passing by. There are so many people who have no idea how a certain crop grew, so visitors are fascinated by what’s happening within Kevin’s garden space. He’s been able to share advice and spur an interest for growing in others – all thanks to gardening in public.
Kevin’s plot, like all small space gardens, presents some unique challenges. Limited space requires you to be more discerning in what you grow. When you’ve only got a few square feet, you need to think twice about planting something like squash. After all, you could grow at least three other crops in the same space absorbed by the sprawling vines of a squash plant. Which crops will earn their place in your precious real estate?
Placement becomes more critical in small spaces too. How will you layer your plants to maximize light, for instance?
Kevin is growing a loquat tree in the center of his front yard, which creates shade in one particular area throughout the day. So, he needs to be careful about what he grows in that location. Also if he opts to plant an indeterminate tomato near the front of the garden, it could grow to heights which shade out other plants further back.
The small space gardener needs to plan – and be creative.
Kevin makes creative use of all his vertical space, with fence planters and railing planters. He also takes a unique approach to growing in hanging containers.
Most of us trellis peas, so the shoots grow upward. In Kevin’s garden, he found that his soil surface wasn’t receiving enough sunlight to provide peas the energy they needed to grow well. So, he began growing peas in hanging containers.
The light strikes the elevated container for a longer period of the day. That provides the young seedlings the energy they need to mature. As they grow downward, they have more foliage to produce more energy. That’s smart gardening.
Kevin grows many of his crops in galvanized metal raised beds. They look like feedstock tanks, but they are actually bottomless, which provides great drainage.
If you’re planning to build raised beds, there are all kinds of options available to you for structure. Check out my series on raised bed gardening where I covered the pros and cons of materials and just about anything else you might need to know for planning and building.
Kevin’s raised beds are approximately 16” tall. Thanks to the thin galvanized walls, he didn’t lose precious inches to thicker sidewalls made of wood – just one more way to maximize in a small space.
His first raised beds were just 6” tall, but he prefers his current, deeper beds. I can relate to that. My sixteen raised beds are all 18” high, which makes them perfect for sitting and provides even more space for plant roots to spread downward and out.
Kevin’s favorite method at the moment, though, is using grow bags. They offer a lot of options which can help make the most of an urban garden space. Grow bags are available in lots of different sizes. They’re easy to move, and they’re lightweight and foldable, which makes them easy to store in the off-season.
Grow bags are designed with plant health in mind. They are porous for great drainage, and since air reaches the entire perimeter of the bag, roots seem to respond better than in a solid container.
Getting Started Can Be the Hardest Part
Kevin and I both hear from so many want-to-be gardeners who are hesitant to start because they fear failure. Of those who do give it a go, many give up after just one season – or part of a season.
In fact, 40% of new gardeners never start their second season.
Anyone with ambitions of growing their food will understandably become frustrated when pests and diseases take a toll, and the garden doesn’t wind up looking like the idealized images we see in professional gardens. But more often than not, it’s garden overwhelm that does new gardeners in – striking even the most excited and ambitious new gardener.
It’s so easy to grow too much – no matter how much space you have to work with. In no time at all, young plants mature into a jungle of pest and disease issues and more crop than you know what to do with. Add to that the inevitable mistakes that every gardener makes, and it’s a wonder that any of us stick with it.
So if you’re gardening for the first time or know someone who is, heed this lesson from those of us who’ve learned the hard way: Start small. I mean, really start small. Choose two or three varieties of plant that you use in your kitchen all the time – things you love to eat – and stick with those for the first year.
You will get more satisfaction out of growing and harvesting a favorite edible than you will from growing something just because it’s what everyone else has in their garden.
Still looking for ideas? Well, some of Kevin’s must-grow recommendations for the urban garden include herbs, leafy greens, and root crops. Each of those are easy to grow, which means they will make it easier to feel successful. As your skills improve, try peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.
Even though tomatoes are one of the most popular garden edibles, tomatoes can be a challenge, so they might not be the best choice for a first-year gardener. When you are ready to give tomatoes a try, I’ve got you covered with plenty of tips for how to plant them, how to support them, and how to care for them through the season.
Grow your edibles as near to your kitchen as possible – especially if you’re new to gardening. That way, you’re more inclined to check your plants daily and get more pleasure from the literal fruits of your efforts.
As Kevin says, rack up some easy wins in your early garden years. After all, we all enjoy what we are good at, right? So, set yourself up for success by taking it slow.
New Gardener Mistakes
Plants are predisposed to grow and produce. We just need to help them along – to shepherd their growth. Instead, we often get in their way and kill them with kindness. Lots of new gardeners love their plants to death, and watering is a great example.
Gardeners tend to overdo their watering. It’s a well-intentioned act of care, but the truth is that more plants die from overwatering than underwatering.
Plant roots require oxygen to be healthy. They can actually recover more quickly from getting a little too dry than they can from suffocation in soil with too much moisture.
Remind yourself to step back a little and let the plants (and the other process at work out there) do what they are designed to do. That can take some willpower, but you will be a better gardener for it.
How do you know when to take action and when to wait? Observation – spend a few minutes every day just observing what’s going on out there. Are the leaves wilting? Before you turn on the water, observe the soil. Stick your finger into the surface. If it comes up dry, the wilted leaves are an indication that the plant does need water. If your finger comes up dirty or muddy, the leaves have likely wilted because you’ve watered too much.
New gardeners commonly make another mistake: focusing on the plants and ignoring the soil. I get it – buying new plants or growing seedlings is really exciting, but pay more attention to what those plants will grow in. Healthy soil is crucial to a healthy plant, so start with a good foundation.
Buy good quality soil. I shared tips on how to recognize good soil in a podcast last year on raised bed gardening. In that episode, i also shared my perfect soil recipe, describing the ingredients you can blend for soil that will drain well (in case you do overwater) and be packed with nutrients to feed your plants.
There’s a flip side to loving our plants to death, and that’s during those times when life gets in the way. We all get busy, so sometimes rather than killing our plants with kindness, we allow them to flounder in neglect. The right balance can be challenging to find.
If you can find just a few minutes a day for your garden, that can usually be enough. Grab a cool beverage and take a walk around your plants – even if it’s just for a few minutes. Not only will it bring a little more peace to your day, but those are the moments when you’ll notice early signs of trouble and be inspired by new growth or fruit development.
You’re in Good Company
Every gardener – no matter how long we’ve been gardening – still makes a mistake or two every year. So if you’re new to gardening and feel like you are in over your head, take a deep breath, and remember you’re in good company.
Be a proactive gardener. It’s the best way to prevent (or correct) any mistakes you do make out there. When you are present to notice the subtle changes in the garden, you’ll be able to avoid big changes which can cost more time to correct and could ultimately cost you your crop.
Consider setting some garden goals for yourself. Goals force us to push ourselves. They should be challenging enough that we occasionally miss the mark.
Kevin likes to live by the credo that if you set goals and meet them all, the goals you set weren’t hard enough. When he fails at 10-20% of his goals, he takes his failure as an indication that he’s challenging himself appropriately. It’s one of the ways he continues to progress in his gardening skills. Failure isn’t really failure – it’s just an opportunity to learn and improve.
So, be realistic, but expect a failure or two. That’s just part of the growth process.
This past year, Kevin opted to grow a new crop – peanuts. He realizes in hindsight that he didn’t fully understand the conditions peanuts required to produce and grow well, and he may have even chosen an inappropriate variety for his zone. So, guess what? His crop was a failure.
Well, not entirely – he grew eight peanuts. Disappointing, to be sure, but in the process, he learned some new aspects of plant growth. Not to mention, he really cherished those eight precious peanuts.
Have you set any garden goals this season? I hope you’ll share them in the Comments section below.
If you haven’t already listened in to my conversation with Kevin, I hope you’ll scroll to the top of the page and press the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. You’ll hear more about Kevin’s journey through the world of gardening, and he shares what’s next. Like this summer’s “survival challenge” – when Kevin plans to live off of the food he grows, what he can forage, and what he can barter at a fair rate. He’ll be living this challenge through the month of June, and he says it’s transformed his garden.
Links & Resources
Field Guide to Urban Gardening: How to Grow Plants, No Matter Where You Live: Raised Beds – Vertical Gardening – Indoor Edibles – Balconies and Rooftops – Hydroponics, by Kevin Espiritu