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Small space vegetable gardening is completely doable, especially if you need to do urban gardening or even from an apartment.
Today’s episode is going to be Epic! Total pun there! I’m talking with Kevin Espiritu from the Epic Gardening podcast. Kevin is an urban gardener and the founder of Epic Gardening, a gardening education company whose mission is to teach 10,000,000+ people how to grow their own food, no matter where they live. He started gardening in a condo in 2011, setting up hydroponic systems and growing herbs and veggies. Since then, he’s expanded into every type of gardening imaginable, even living off of his own food for a month in June of 2019.
One of the reasons I’m excited to be speaking with Kevin today is because his growing background and climate are completely different from mine. This just proves that it really doesn’t matter where you live, how much or how little space you have…If you are determined to grow some of your own food, you can figure out a way to make it work.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #238 Small Space Vegetable Gardening – Urban Gardening Tips of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen, and life you want for your family and homestead.
Melissa: For those who aren’t familiar with you, tell us a little bit about your background about how you grow your food and your environment.
Kevin: I think you’re right, I don’t think our backgrounds could be much more different than they are. I grew up not as a gardener at all. I was a suburban Southern California kid who loved to skateboard and play video games. I came to gardening later in life after I graduated from college. Right now is the most space I’ve ever grown in. I’m growing an urban front yard in San Diego, CA which is zone 10B. I would say it’s about 20 by 40 feet in the front yard…packed to the brim with raised beds. It’s hard to maneuver around because I put so many raised beds in there. I have a side yard where I’m using some stand-up raised beds, self-watering systems, grow bags, and things like that because it’s just concrete there. It’s quite a cramped space and not really what you think of when you think of gardening. But I’m trying to make it work and this is just the place that I’m living in right now. So I’m doing it.
Melissa: I love that because oftentimes people have it in their head that because they don’t have a big backyard, or because they’re renting that they can’t grow anything until they’re in their someday place, or a better area that’s going to be more conducive then they’ll start, essentially putting it off. You’re living proof that you don’t have to wait.
So you’ve said that the side yard is concrete which means you need to have the raised beds and whatnot, but is your front yard actual yard space? Why did you decide to go with raised beds?
Kevin: It’s exactly the reason you mentioned: I’m renting. So I don’t really want to spend years improving the soil because I may not be here for even a single year longer. You never know where life will take you. When I moved in, it was just bare dirt, super heavy, compacted clay. So I decided I would much rather put in some raised beds. First of all, I’m 6’4″. It’s a little bit easier for me to work in a raised bed, but I’d rather put in raised beds and actually build my soil from scratch instead of growing in-ground and maybe six inches of hard clay. It just didn’t make a lot of sense for me. And the raised beds can be easily deconstructed. They’re made of metal and so when I move I can just take them apart. I can give my soil away and move them somewhere else. Then I’m good to go in a new location.
Melissa: I think that’s really key too. Because if I am going to move I need to think about what’s going to be easiest for me to move or to not invest a ton in because that is a consideration, Especially when renting, you don’t want to invest a lot in something that isn’t yours because things change. You never know if a landlord may decide to sell. I think it’s smart that you’re making it work.
Tell us more about your gardening zone. What do you have going on right now (end of January at the time of this interview)? You can grow a ton of food in a little space, more than I think people realize. Explain to us how much you’re able to get out of your garden.
Kevin: The way I think about a 10B zone is we just have a really long start rise and fall for summer. Then we kind of have a forever fall, early spring throughout fall, winter and spring. So whatever you could grow for fall, starting in late summer moving into fall for other zones that actually do have a frost, you can just keep growing that here until it becomes summer again. As soon as fall comes around, I’m not necessarily shutting down the garden, although sometimes I do like to take a little break and rest for a bit to travel or whatever. But what I like to do is to go with leafy greens and root crops if possible. I can succession sow those over and over again and I’m good to go until it becomes time to put the summer crops in.
As far as how much food you can grow, I did an experiment last year in June where I tried to live off of only what I could grow in my garden, fish for in the ocean, forage for locally, or trade with other gardeners or farmers. And it had to be a fair market value trade. I literally grew enough potatoes in my front yard that I could actually just calorically speaking, live off of the potatoes. I didn’t do that because that would have been pretty boring, but it was possible is what I’m saying. To speak to what you asked, if I can’ do that in a 10 by 20-foot urban front yard, then certainly if you’re in an apartment or condo or townhouse, it’s definitely possible to grow something.
Melissa: We’ve done a similar challenge to see how far, how long we can go with just what we have put up. When you did this, it was in June, which I’m going to assume is good harvest time and a good time of year where you have a lot of stuff coming on. Were you successful for the month? How did it go? Do you plan to do it again?
Kevin: It was really interesting because for me that meant, because I have such little space, I had to devote almost all of it to the potatoes because I just had to think from a caloric perspective and not necessarily nutritional density. So I grew tons of potatoes, most of which came out of the ground early to mid-June. On the coastline of California, there’s a fish called the grunion, which does a grunion run. So it spawns on the beach. Their major reproductive cycle is done by June so the last run in June we’re actually allowed to harvest them. So I ran around the beach grabbing fish. It was the easiest fishing I’ve ever done in my life.
I was certainly a challenge because I wasn’t used to not eating sugar, bread, meat products, coffee, any sort of alcohol. All that was completely gone from my diet the day before the challenge. I just had to stop eating all of that because I didn’t have any of it. I didn’t grow, fish, forage, or barter for it so I couldn’t eat it. So the first five days were really rough. I started to slowly get acclimated to that living. It was just very mentally taxing having to spend all my time growing or fishing or foraging, or trading for food. I mean, that’s really what my day was about…can I get enough to eat?
Was it the most healthy I’ve ever eaten? In a way, yes because it was all-natural, homegrown, home fished food. In another way, no because my calories were way lover than they should have been. I lost 13 pounds and the balance of macronutrients wasn’t ideal, but for a month I was fine. It was a little tough, but it wasn’t intended to be an example of living the most healthy life I possibly could. I went into it with a survival mindset, to see if it was possible. If the world was to end, could I have a chance?
Melissa: Especially in an urban environment. So you didn’t allow yourself anything that you might have had in your pantry for this challenge. It wasn’t just restricted to not buying anything from the store if you were only eating what you had produced, foraged, or hunted. Did you let yourself use salt for flavoring or only herbs that you had grown for flavoring?
Kevin: That’s actually a good question. The one caveat is that I did allow myself salt and one container of coconut oil, which I tried to use sparingly as possible because it’s pretty dense calories. So I may be used a tablespoon”ish” of coconut oil a day. For the salt, I thought about just going to the ocean and dehydrating it because it’s actually not that hard but decided it was fine to use a little bit of salt for the challenge.
Melissa: My hat off to you! We’ve done pantry challenges where we use what we’ve grown and stuff that we had purchased in bulk already. So it was more focused on not buying anything new and trying to make the majority of our meals from our homegrown, which a lot of our regular life eating is that way anyway since we raise our own meat and such. But I’ve never done it to the extent that you did.
Is the grunion a white fish?
Kevin: It’s a white fish but it’s really just a baitfish. They don’t get much bigger than six inches or so. I would say they’re very small. The regulations prohibit you from capturing them in any way besides your hand. So you have to run around and grab them with your hand and put them into a bucket. You’re not allowed to take more than you would use, which is interesting because that’s a subjective regulation. So in my case, I went out with my cousin, who runs a fishing website, and ran around late at night…midnight until around 4 AM. I got a couple of hours of sleep that day because you have to clean and preserve them that day or else they’re not going to be great. It was pretty taxing but also an exhilarating experience.
Melissa: I like that. It’s proof that if you’re resourceful you can survive in a very urban environment. Are you going to repeat it ever?
Kevin: I think not in the current place that I’m living. It changed so much about what I grew that season because by taking the potatoes out of basically 100% of my garden in June, I’m already late on starting things in the summer. So it actually changed the character of my whole garden. I want to have a more classic structure to it this year. If I ever move to a larger space, I see no reason why I wouldn’t try it again. I think this year I’ll do a one day a week during the growing season, fully homegrown, foraged or traded for. I think that could be fun but I don’t think I’ll go a full month again.
Melissa: It’s great that your’ thinking of ways to do it in moderation because really any of us who have a garden could do the same. Sometimes when I do those pantry challenges I can get a little bit lazy if I’m being honest, and rely on the same recipes a lot. The ones that are good and your family likes. But when I get lazy, I’m not always using all the stuff that I’ve put up. All of us have stuff in our pantry that was bought and hasn’t been used for whatever reason. I like doing those types of challenges too because it does make me look at my food and decide to put things to use. Sometimes some of our newer meals become a new family favorite. It also makes me rethink what I’m growing in the garden this year. I like your idea of trying it maybe once a week.
For those in an urban environment what is your best advice as it relates to small space gardening? What are some things you wish you had known when you first got started?
Kevin: For urban gardening, small space gardening, you just have to play with the rules of your space. That’s your biggest limiting constraint. And if that’s your biggest limiting constraint, then the thing you have to think about is, where are you getting the most sun? For someone with a quarter acre, half-acre, or more sun is more or less everywhere. You don’t have any obstructions. But for me and my front yard, I knew it as soon as I saw the house. I said the front yard has to be the spot where almost all of my production is because it’s a south-facing front yard with a relatively low picket fence that’s just blocking the sidewalk off. For me, the side yard is where things like leafy greens and root crops that tolerate a little bit less sun. The backyard I can’t do anything. It’s a two and a half story tall Victorian house that’s facing north in the back with a fence on the other side. So I’m growing more ornamentals there.
You have to really audit your space. When I lived in San Diego in a condo I had a west-facing balcony and that was it. So questions I had to ask myself: Where am I getting the light and how much space do I have in that area? That determines what you can grow. So when I was living in the condo, tomatoes were not an option. To max out the production of the space, I went with microgreens, leafy greens, some root crops, some carrots, things like that. So that’s my number one tip. Then we get into, what method are you going to use to actually grow the food?
Melissa: You’re right, if you don’t grow to the climate or space you have it’s kind of wasteful. You’ll be really disappointed because you’re fighting the elements and space that just doesn’t exist. I have the luxury of doing in-ground and having space, although I do some raised beds and container gardening. I don’t think many people think of root crops as something to grow in a raised bed or container. I think they think it’s strictly something to be grown in-ground. So when you’re growing them in containers, you obviously need to ensure it has the right depth for what your growing. Do you have any tips in regards to growing root crops in container type gardening?
Kevin: First off, I like growing root crops just for the joy of growing them. Watching them develop and then being able to pull them out is just so satisfying. I would grow them even if I didn’t like them.
Melissa: I always talk about choosing the right variety to your climate but you’re saying to also consider what it’s going to be grown in. I just have to ask this, when it comes to harvesting root crops I have absolutely no patience. I’ll take my hand and lightly brush back the dirt just to see how it’s growing.
Kevin: Yeah, I do the same thing. I get this question a lot: How do you know when a root crop is ready to harvest? Since the part you are trying to harvest is underground it’s not readily apparent. Like if it’s a Danver style carrot and you know that it’s supposed to be mature at an inch and a half, you just brush the soil back to see if it’s reached the inch and a half diameter. I do the same thing with my beets. I have some growing in my stand up raised beds in the side yard and I can tell they’re ready cause I’ve excavated like an archaeologist around the big fat beets. I can’t wait to pull them up.
Melissa: I’m glad I’m not the only one. I sometimes do that with my seeds too.
Kevin: Me too, like if I’m planting 20 different varieties it’s easy to forget how long it takes for each one to germinate. Then I get paranoid that maybe they didn’t come up, so then I’ll dig up one to see if it germinated at all. I don’t think it’s a good idea but I still do it.
Melissa: True confessions of a gardener. I do the same thing, especially if I’m worried it’s rotting.
So you said that your raised beds are constructed with metal so that they’re easy for you to deconstruct and move. What are some other options if you don’t have the space for a raised bed, especially if growing on a balcony?
Kevin: I think about it in three categories:
So let’s go with the balcony example. If growing in-ground and the light is right, then I like grow bags. They’re foldable, flexible, movable, lightweight containers with good drainage. They come in a many sizes such as 5, 10, 15 or more gallons. You can move it around, reposition as the sun moves throughout the season, whatever the case may be. Grow bags are big part of my growing methods.
For something that’s attached to a structure, I would say any kind of railing planter, if you can get it to hang off the balcony, then you’re just capturing more sunlight. So that’s just better and is a fantastic idea.
Then there’s the forgotten one. I think a lot of people think of hanging baskets only for ornamentals but there’s no reason why you can’t do a hanging basket of lettuce or herbs. I’ve done hanging peas before. It does work, maybe not as well as trellising but it does work. You just have to be sure to get the pole variety so that they have to fall down instead. It works pretty well. If you’re dealing with a balcony and the question is, should I grow them or not? Well, I’d rather grow them and get some rather than none.
Melissa: With the peas, you also have the shoot part that you can eat too. I haven’t tried peas but I did try tomatoes. One of those infomercials in an upside-down bucket with a special lid. I personally never had any success. There wasn’t enough soil and I felt that no matter how often I watered it, I just didn’t get any production off of them. Peas don’t have the root system that a tomato does so I can see them doing better.
I find that I have to water more frequently when I’m using containers, especially hanging ones. Walk us through how you handle that in your southern climate.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s the biggest challenge. Especially like the grow bags because they’re fabric and very porous on all sides. You’re going to get evaporation out of the entire container rather than if you’re growing in a five gallon bucket, which is another type of container that I grow in. Five-gallon buckets will drown your plants unless you drill drainage holes.
To help combat a container drying out too fast I would typically mix in a little bit more coir or something like that because it’ll hold onto the water a little bit longer. I will say that the grow bags have evolved. The designs are getting better so that while they’re still foldable, easily movable, etc. they’re retaining a little bit more water than some of the earlier designs. It’s a mix of adjusting the soil slightly but you can’t go too far because if a plant likes a certain type of soil, that’s probably the soil you should give it regardless of how quickly it drains.
There are things you can do though. One thing is to put mulch on top of the pot, either a solid piece or something like micro bark. I have a cutout that is sort of a foam-type material that was supposed to be used on a five-gallon bucket as the top. But I put it on a tomato in a grow bag just right around the main stem and that protects the top preventing evaporation.
You just have to monitor the water quite a bit more than you would if it was an in-ground or even a raised bed.
Melissa: Is hydroponics something that you use in your gardening?
Kevin: Yes, hydroponics is the way that Epic Gardening actually started. When I was growing back then it was probably the worst living space I ever had for growing plants. I didn’t have a garden back then and wasn’t selecting where I lived based on that. I was in a townhouse that had one little patio that was completely shaded throughout the day. I figured if I was going to grow something I should use hydroponics because I was going to need a light of some kind. Nothings going to grow if there’s no light at all. That’s why I went with hydroponics. Straight out of the gate I did cucumbers, which was probably a little ambitious. They grew and formed fruit, but they tasted awful. That’s because I didn’t know how hydroponics worked at the time.
My philosophy is to grow outdoors in the soil if you can, but if you don’t have the option or you want to experiment with it, hydroponics is actually an incredibly efficient way of growing a plant. For example, growing leafy greens in the soil it might be 55 days to maturity but in hydro you can probably get it to the same point in about 35 days. So it’s a lot faster.
The reason why is that the plant is sitting in an oxygenated bath with exactly the right nutrients that are completely bioavailable getting the exact right amount of light. And the plant is free from pets and isolated from diseases. There’s no reason why that plant wouldn’t grow extremely fast.
Melissa: So you’re really able to tailor the nutrients specific to the plant in an easier way using a hydroponic system.
Kevin: Yeah. There are some downsides to it. Some will say that the flavor is not quite as good as using synthetic nutrients. Everything has a trade-off. I just find, that if this is what you need for your space then it can work really well.
Melissa: Using the cucumbers for example, once you have the nutrients dialed in is there a huge flavor difference or is it small? Or does it depend on the crop?
Kevin: It depends on the crop and to me it’s harder to tell. I can’t tell how much of it is me knowing how it was grown in the first place. Like some sort of placebo effect. They’ve done double-blind scientific studies on it. Apparently those studies have concluded that you cannot tell the difference. So the jury’s still out. All I know is for me it does feel like there’s a little bit of a flavor differential. Someone else’s experience might be different.
Melissa: If someone was looking into getting into hydroponics or adding a hydroponic component, especially if they are limited on space, are there any tips for getting started?
1. The first thing I’d recommend is plant selection. Don’t grow something that fruits or flowers because it’s more complex, there’s more moving parts, and the plants will probably grow a little bigger which means more lighting and nutrient requirements. It’s easier to start with an herb or leafy green setup first.
2. I also recommend that everyone look up a system called deep water. It sounds fancy but it can easily be built with just a five-gallon bucket, an air pump and some nutrients. Basically what it is, is a reservoir of water. So imagine, you have your five-gallon bucket, fill it with water, add your nutrients, and put an airstone (kind of like you’d have in an aquarium) that bubbles up the air. That’s to oxygenate the nutrient solution. Then what you would do is have your seedling that you started in the system or transplanted. What’ll happen is that the roots will grow down into the nutrient solution. You might think that they’ll drown but they won’t because you’re oxygenating the water. So it’s a really efficient system.
3. Lighting. You need some type of grow light set-up. The easiest one for someone to start with would be just any kind of T5 flourescent shop light which you can get at any big box store. If you want to get fancy. (This is the grow light I’ve used for 6+ years, including the same bulb)
It’s a really great way to have herbs year-round, especially if your in a zone that cannot do that. If you want fresh basil or oregano year-round then a little simple indoor hydroponic set-up could be a really good way to achieve that.
Melissa: I said I’d never done hydroponics but I guess I have done sort of a version of it. I grew basil in water in a quart size mason jar. I added some liquid silica to it and it did okay for a couple months. It didn’t grow a ton and wasn’t super robust but it did allow me to harvest some from it. Eventually, it did turn yellow probably because it didn’t have enough light and I didn’t add any nutrients to the water. I assume that if I had added nutrients and aerated the water and put more light on it, it probably would have been a great little indoor herb garden.
Kevin: That’s actually called a Kratky. The Kratky method is a passive hydroponics method where you don’t have to have an air pump or anything like that. That’s effectively what you did there. And you’re right, it can work really well for a decent amount of time. If you want to optimize that mason jar set-up a little bit you could use a straw that you blow air in every now and then. Then just add a little bit more nutrients and that basil would do pretty darn well in that system.
Melissa: I might give that try! When I first did this experiment I just used a plant from the grocery store and plopped it in. But if you were going to do this where something was started in soil, can you transition it to hydroponic?
Kevin: What I would do is take it out of the pot and gently rinse off the soil because you don’t want to introduce a whole lot of soil into a hydroponic system. There’s a product called a net pot, which is basically a cup with slits in it. You would put the plant in the net pot and then fill it with something like coconut coir, expanded clay pellets or perlite. Something to anchor the roots.
What I would recommend though if you want to go straight into a hydroponic system, just start your seeds in a way that works well for hydroponics. For me, that could be one of those Jiffy peat pellets that would work really well if you started lettuce. Or you could use a rapid rooter, which is biodegradable but a somewhat sponge type of material. The reason I like these for hydroponics is because it’s an inert medium that doesn’t have a lot of particulates to fall into the system.
Melissa: I assume it has to have some type of root before it can be put in the water; you can’t just throw a seed in the water system and expect it to sprout.
Kevin: Yes, the best way is to have a plug of some kind.
Melissa: I think I have a new winter project.
Airstone for hydroponic garden
Net pot for hydroponic gardening
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Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.