Epic Gardening’s Kevin Espiritu walks us through the basics in prepping a raised bed this season.

Epic Gardening's Kevin Espiritu

Courtesy of Kevin Espiritu

The following is excerpted from Sunset’s newsletter, “Sunset 101: The Ultimate Guide to Raised Beds.” To find out more about Sunset’s newsletters, click here.

Kevin Espiritu has been teaching the world how to garden for more than 10 years.

The author of Field Guide to Urban Gardening and creator of the website Epic Gardening first began using a hydroponic system in his apartment in 2011, and has since grown to be an expert in urban gardening (and expanded to a beautiful urban farm). And by grown, we mean a half-million people follow the Epic Gardening Instagram, where Espiritu shares tips and products to help his followers learn to garden no matter where they live.

Here at Sunset, we’re currently on a mission to demystify gardening for first-timers. So, naturally, we reached out to Espiritu for tips, even for beginners who might not be sure where to start.

Planning is key to starting a garden, Espiritu says. “For first-time gardeners, it goes back to auditing your space and knowing your light access,” Espiritu adds. “Gardening’s about finding what works for what you’re given.”

That might mean making a decision between planting in a raised bed outside versus a hydroponic system that can be used to grow lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and more indoors. These vertical gardens are all the rage, thanks to lower water use and a strict watering schedule.

We spoke with Espiritu to learn how to plan out your space, choose the right gear, and pick the best soil. With his help, you’ll be on your way to growing a healthy, flourishing garden in no time.

How do you choose between a raised garden bed, a hydroponic system, or a vertical garden?

Assess your space and see what’s possible with the options that you have. From there it comes down to preference and accessibility. Maybe you’re growing on concrete and you need a raised bed. For me, space requirements are the biggest gauge to which method you should use.

Epic Gardening's Kevin Espiritu in his garden

Courtesy of Kevin Espiritu

What is hydroponic gardening?

Hydroponic means growing without soil. It’s a way where you can provide nutrients in a nutrient solution. You have to know what your plants need and when they need it, and it’s a more scientific approach to growing. For this type of gardening, plants tend to grow faster and larger because you’re putting them in a cocktail of nutrients. In a raised bed they’re growing more similar to the environment that they were evolved in, so it’s easier to get into raised bed gardening. But if you’re growing indoors, you can do hydroponic so you don’t have to cart soil into your home.

Does hydroponic growing work for all plants or only some? Is there ever too much water or do the plants self regulate?

Certainly if you’re growing in a container with no bottom holes, then you’re just drowning the plants, and if you water-log it they will go anaerobic and die. But if you have a container with a lot of drainage holes, then you might be washing nutrients out of the soil, and it’s a situation where, generally speaking, the plants want a deeper, irregular watering [more] than a certain amount everyday. If you’re growing indoors, you need to build a routine. Another thing soil does that hydroponic or container gardening can’t is there’s way more of a buffer for the water. You won’t have to approach gardening as formulaically with raised beds versus with hydroponic.

For first time gardeners, it goes back to auditing your space and knowing your light access. Gardening’s about finding what works for what you’re given.

Kevin Espiritu

How can apartment dwellers create lush vegetable gardens?

Vertical gardening is fantastic because it makes use of the Z axis—you can grow UP instead of OUT. When you’re on a balcony in an apartment, it’s about sun access and knowing where the light is coming in. South is ideal, east and west are OK, north is bad. If you don’t have a balcony and are gardening entirely inside, for light your dream scenario is a south-facing window, and even then that’s not as much for the plant. While it may look like there’s a lot of light, your plants need to photosynthesize, so if you can afford to, adding supplemental lighting will be crucial, and get the plants as close as possible to the window.

Feb/March 2022 cover
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Sunset’s Wellness Issue 2022

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How would you choose your soil for projects like these?

If you’re building a large garden, I’d recommend finding a local buyer and getting it delivered, especially if you’re building four or five beds because that’s cheaper. One way to make the soil cheaper is to buy half the amount you need as a potting mix—it doesn’t matter what type—and to mix it with your native soil 50/50. That mix can help quite a bit, or you can take your native soil and buy compost to mix with.

What are your favorite foods to grow?

In hydroponics, I typically do leafy greens and expensive herbs like basil, dill, and parsley. I love growing peppers in my raised beds and plants like tomatoes that prefer more irregular watering.

What is your favorite garden tool?

You can’t go wrong with a good hand pruner. I love the Felco F2 pruner and a quick saw.

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