I BUILT MY OLD-STYLE wooden raised beds for vegetables about 30 years ago, and they’ve served me well. Lately on social media, I love seeing younger-generation gardeners embracing raised beds, too, but using creative designs and even doing so in smaller spaces than mine, or temporary spaces where they rent, like Kevin Espiritu of the “Epic Gardening” podcast.
Kevin’s new book, “Urban Gardening: How to Grow More Plants No Matter Where You Live,” includes many raised-bed construction styles to consider, some impromptu and others more permanent, and his tips for success growing in them.
Kevin’s garden [above] couldn’t be much more different from mine. He’s in urban San Diego Zone 10B; I’m rural New York Zone 5B. Most of his garden is in raised beds and other containers, and mine is mostly in the ground, but we have lots in common, too. We talked about successful above-ground growing methods and more, how he plants intensively and focuses not on per-plant output but on each bed as a whole, using some creative thinking.
Read along as you listen to the July 8, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). Plus, enter to win his book at the bottom of the page.
raised beds for any location, with kevin espiritu
Margaret Roach: Hey, Kevin, how are you?
Kevin Espiritu: Hey, Margaret, I’m really good. How are you doing?
Margaret: O.K. We should tell people that we’re visiting each other’s shows this week and we’ll have links this show transcript on A Way to Garden.com and on social media and stuff to our conversations back and forth, so people who aren’t regular subscribers to your “Epic Gardening” podcast can find out about it from my transcripts, and that we’re giving away each other’s books because we both have new books out. Yay for us. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Yes, yes. Awesome little cross-pollination we got going on. [Note: Margaret’s week of daily appearances on Kevin’s podcast begins July 9, 2019.]
Margaret: There you go, across 3,000 miles. That’s a pretty, pretty fierce insect that goes and pollinates that far away.
Kevin: Yes, it’s a digital insect.
Margaret: Yes, exactly. Before we started talking raised beds, something I haven’t confessed to you when we’ve spoken, Kevin, is that the word “epic” is one that has special significance to me. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Oh, no way. I didn’t know that.
Margaret: It does. It’s a little funny. Old friends call me type Triple A. They say, “Margaret, you’re not type A, you’re type AAA.” I get a little obsessive sometimes, and I overdo it, and I’ve 100 things going on at once. I’m a little perfectionistic sometimes. One of the things I say to myself to calm myself down or stop that is I say, “Don’t be epic Margaret. Don’t be epic. Don’t always be epic,” so it’s a funny word for me.
Kevin: That’s interesting.
Margaret: Do you know what I mean? Because sometimes perfect is the enemy of the good, or something. But your “epic” is not that at all. It’s super-positive and supportive and welcoming. That’s interesting for me, that word. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Yes. That’s so funny. Yes. I think of epic I guess in just a different way, but I can see that. I wouldn’t call myself type Triple A, but I certainly have those personality traits, and I have to remember and remind myself to calm down a little bit sometimes.
Margaret: Yes. But, can you give us a little 411 on yourself, and your garden, and the range of your growing spaces, and your season? Paint us a picture of your place.
Kevin: Yes, sure. I didn’t really grow up as a gardener. I definitely grew up as a kid who was into nature, but growing up in suburban San Diego you find yourself skateboarding or surfing and just not… I wasn’t really into the world of plants until later in life after I graduated college, so the first time I really, I would say gardened in any significant way would have been when I was 21 or 22.
I did it with my brother. We just went to the nursery, and I think he got basil in pots. I know he got basil and pots because I remember he had these giant basil bushes throughout the whole summer that I was very jealous of, because what I decided to grow was cucumbers in a hydroponic system because I was in a townhouse. That’s been the story of my gardening life is always being space-constrained.
Kevin: I thought, “Oh, I don’t have any light. I might as well go the hydroponic route and grow my cucumbers under lights.” But, that’s a tall task to take on for a first-time gardener. They didn’t turn out that well.
Kevin: And by “not that well” I mean they set fruit, but the fruit… I took this very positive and enthusiastic bite out of the cucumbers and just immediately spit it out because it was disgusting.
Kevin: But, that’s the name of the game when you’re beginning. Since then, I was fortunate enough about six months after that to mentor under Mel Bartholomew of “Square Foot Gardening,” which kind of set me off.
Margaret: Oh, wow. That’s amazing.
Kevin: Yes, it was a really a cool opportunity. I was actually just doing web design at the time and he needed help with his website, and it just went down this fortuitous path, which was really cool. Since then, I’ve basically been living in urban spaces—so condos, townhouses, small homes. The biggest place I’ve grown in is the one I’m in right now, which I think for you would be one segment of one segment of your garden. [Laughter.] So I’m growing in a front yard, maybe 15 or 20 feet by 40 feet-ish. And maybe 150 feet square feet of growing space because I’m growing in raised beds like you mentioned.
Kevin: That’s my primary growing space.
Margaret: Yes. Mel Bartholomew, a pretty good mentor to have. I admire his work and it was important to me as I was learning to garden also, years ago. We have another guru-mentor person who is even older than I am, Ruth Stout. We both love Ruth Stout and her no-work gardening, crazy stuff, right?
Kevin: Yes, yes. I love Ruth Stout. I think to me, Mel and her have a similar philosophy or ethos where they’re stripping it down; instead of adding more complexity, they’re taking it away, which is something I really enjoy.
Margaret: Yes. Why lift an extra finger if you don’t have to, and you can do a productive task rather than just an obsessive task? And there goes Margaret, going to be epic again. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Yes. You’re getting too epic, yes. Maybe I’ll rename my whole company “Anti-Epic Gardening.”
Margaret: No, no, and I don’t mean to be offensive at all. It’s just it’s a funny word for me because it was how I had to talk myself off the ledge for a number of years.
Margaret: But, I love your version of epic…your version is epic.
Margaret: I love that your book, “Urban Gardening,” which is just out this growing season, showcases raised beds in all their variations.
I have the traditional. Well in the old days, I got 2-by-12 lumber [above]; some kind of rot-proof lumber. I’d put, I guess what you would call “dead men,” like wooden stakes into the ground that helped to bolster them, so that the long beds didn’t bow out in the middle. Mine are 4 or 5 feet wide by 20 feet long, with supports, and so forth and some reinforcement. But it’s just basically boxes on the ground, right? But, you have a lot more going on in the book, a lot of ideas that caught my eye.
Kevin: Yes. First of all, that would take up my whole growing space, right? Just one of your beds would take up everything.
Margaret: Oh, no. [Laughter.]
Kevin: I had to rethink and just try to keep the perspective of… For me, a lot of the readers that I have are beginning gardeners who are very similar to me where the most space they have is potentially a somewhat large backyard.
Kevin: The plans in the book are just, they’re almost like the blueprint of a plan. Things where you’re taking a 2-by-6 piece of lumber and you’re sliding it into some pre-made planter blocks [above] and you can mix and match it and do almost like a Lego or an erector set-style garden. [Photos by Angela LaVellee from “Urban Gardening.”]
Kevin: That for me as a renter, it’s amazing because then when I need to leave I can just deconstruct that without even having to unscrew anything, and off I go.
Or using these very lightweight corrugated metal beds [below, at Kevin’s], growing in grow bags, all these different methods that it does the same thing as your raised beds. It’s just a way that’s a little bit more palatable for someone with either smaller space, or they don’t know if they’re going to be there for too long.
Margaret: Well, and I loved… I mean you even show cinder blocks. It’s like, “Hey, it’s O.K. folks. Like: make a raised bed.” Some people have used straw bales in the past in a more rural environment where that’s an available material to either enclose a space, or in fact you could even grow in the bales, but these above-the-ground ways of growing.
I love that yours are “you can take it with you” if you move, as you say, and that is the case for a lot of people, especially younger gardeners. It’s so important to not make gardening seem irrelevant and too much for people who may not be in a permanent home yet.
I worry about that, being an older gardener in an established place where I’ve been for decades. I don’t want to look irrelevant. Do you know what I mean? I want people to think, “Hey, I could just do that little tiny thing she’s got over there and that would be enough.”
Kevin: Right, right. I’ve thought about the same thing because I have plans to move to a scenario closer to yours.
Margaret: Uh-oh. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Where I am in a more permanent space.
Margaret: Epic? Are you going to go epic?
Kevin: I can get truly epic with my space. I do have that fear of once you see someone’s garden that’s been established for 30-plus years, you look at it and you get that… You would get the same effect if you looked at a bodybuilder as you were just trying to go to the gym. You’re like, “O.K., well what’s the point of even trying?” Right?
Yes, always trying to keep it at that beginner layman’s level and make it seem possible I think is something I really try to focus on.
Margaret: Yes. I loved some of the, I mean some of the raised beds you had. For instance, if I just wanted one year even at my place, if I wanted to just try something new, a crop that I don’t have room for right now, or that I’m not growing, I mean I could do with those corner kits, those preformed… I don’t know what you call them?
Kevin: Oh yes, the planter block ones.
Margaret: The planter blocks.
Kevin: I found them at Home Depot, actually.
Margaret: Yes, they were great. You just slide the wood in and you can make it any size I guess you want. It was so smart. It was like, hey, on the fly, if this year I decided I’m going to grow a lot of (fill in the blank), I don’t have to make a permanent decision, right?
Kevin: Yes. The beauty of those ones, too, is if you’re in a space that has a very irregular area that you’re able to garden in, well you can just take the 2-by-6 pieces of lumber and cut them to whatever size you want. You can make L’s, or U’s, or whatever shape you want.
You can even do a tiered, stairstep garden and stack them on top of each other and make it make use of available light, if perhaps that’s something that’s unique to your growing space. Something like that I think is so cool, because it just allows someone to understand the theory of it and then just customize it completely to their space.
Margaret: Right. I love the corrugated metal ones you referred to briefly a minute ago. I know you’ve helped that Australian company find a market here in America, which is great because those are… they look great. They’re like a cross between a container—a beautiful patio pot—and a raised bed, because they’re this corrugated metal, and they’re painted. They come in different colors, too.
Kevin: Yes, they’re a powder-coated galvanized steel. I’ve had those for four years now, I think, and they look the exact same as when they came out of the box.
Kevin: I have nothing against wood, and I love wood raised beds, but they’re not going to look that good for that long. You’re still going to get some fading. And even if you get a rot-proof one that will eventually start to break down; it’s an organic material. So I’m a big fan of those. They’re really lightweight, and you can customize those into different shapes as well, which obviously you’re seeing a theme here with my level of customization that I like in a garden.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. Now I can’t even remember if 30 years ago I put underlayment, some type of a weed barrier, or fabric-y thing in the bottom of my beds. I have no idea, but you do, right? Before you fill a bed whatever it’s made out of, constructed out of, you use a weed-block or some kind of fabric?
Kevin: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. When I moved into my yard, it was just bare soil, just open dirt and it really didn’t have any weed pressure, fortunately, and so the beds that I put in are 15 inches tall. When I’m putting in soil into those beds my thought was that, that would just smother what already didn’t seem to be there. That’s proven to be true.
But, if you have a digging pest then you can throw some hardware cloth on the bottom. And certainly if you’re putting a raised bed on concrete—many readers don’t even have growing space, of open soil—then it might be a good idea to throw some landscape fabric down to protect the concrete. [Above, Shutterstock photo from “Urban Gardening.]
Kevin: And pull it up the inside of the bed.
Margaret: Right, O.K. Yours are, did you say 13 or 15 deep? How deep are they?
Kevin: Mine are 15 deep. I’m about to get some that are 30 inches deep, too.
Kevin: As a 6-foot-4 gardener, it’s really nice to have something that tall.
Margaret: Oh, I didn’t realize you were that tall.
Margaret: You see, on Instagram and stuff, I can’t tell. There is no perspective. Usually you’re leaning into the camera when you’re doing a video. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Yes, yes. I think people get surprised when they realize I’m that tall.
Margaret: Soil mix, and I say “soil” a little bit in quotes because it’s not just fill like someone would use in a construction site or something. What do you put in your beds when you’re starting a new bed?
Kevin: Yes, I’ve tested a lot of different things, and actually this is one of the biggest mistakes I ever made when I first moved into this space, which would have been about three years ago now. I would have only been two to three years into my gardening life, I guess you could say, so I made a really classic mistake, where I ordered a couple of cubic yards of a screened topsoil and compost mixture.
But, I just did it a bit too blind and the mixture was not as advertised. It was exceptionally heavy in clayey and very compacted. I made a very big mistake there, and had to dig it out and re-amend it and do all this nonsense. What I like to do now, I follow the advice actually of Joe Lamp’l, who we both know.
Margaret: Oh, Joe. We love Joe.
Kevin: Yes. He’s a great guy. He’s got a great recipe, where he tries to do about 50 percent topsoil, 25 percent compost, and 25 percent locally available organic matter, whatever is good and close to you. For him, that’s leaf mold, or autumn leaves.
Kevin: For me, that’s not, because I don’t have that. But, I could do things like grass clippings, or I could get a little bit more local compost from my local municipality. Just things like that and try to balance it out that way.
Margaret: I think that’s the No. 1 “mistake” that is made. This is even true… You mentioned grow bags before, and I’m a lover of grow bags. If people don’t know what they are, they’re, I think they were originally created for the nursery industry, especially tree and shrub growers, to grow above ground, but not in plastic pots. They’re more easily moved and so forth. They’re made of recycled materials I think maybe like old soda bottles, or something.
Kevin: I think so, yes.
Kevin: From what I recall, I think they might be made out of some sort of spun plastic or sometimes felt.
Margaret: Yes. They feel felt-y. That’s a good word for it. Some of them have handles on the side. I ordered a bunch years ago. The ones I have are probably 18-plus inches across or something and at least as deep. They look like a big tote, a big gray tote or something.
The thing is I used half of them for growing things in, and the other half, because I bought a dozen, I use when I’m around weeding as opposed to bringing a wheelbarrow with me around the yard all the time. Sometimes I just drag one of those around and fill it with debris as I’m working during the day. I have a little handful of weeds over here.
Kevin: Oh, that’s smart.
Margaret: Do you know what I mean? I use it as a tote, and it’s great. They’re not expensive, and yes. They don’t take a lot of space to store because obviously they’re fabric. They fold flat.
Margaret: I love those. But whether you’re growing in those, a lot of people are like, they just, again, they get this “fill,” “clean fill” or “topsoil” stuff that’s advertised, and it’s not as advertised, or they dig it up out of the ground and put it in there. It’s like the plants don’t thrive in that. It’s too heavy in clay as you said.
Kevin: Yes, yes. The crazy part was the mistake that I made, I bought a mix that was advertised as 60-40 topsoil compost and it just clearly was not.
Margaret: Yes, not.
Kevin: There was just no way that that was true.
Margaret: Not, yes.
Kevin: When you buy 3 cubic yards and it gets dumped on your driveway, you’re not returning it once you find that out. That’s just the end of the equation.
Kevin: Definitely would say, if I could give any beginner gardener the No. 1 piece of advice would be to make sure you research and get the soil correct because besides light that’s the No. 2 thing for a plant. If it’s not right, then every other problem is going to stem from that.
Margaret: I was very interested in and some of the tips that I’ve gotten from you besides coming from the book from “Urban Gardening,” I also find them on your “Epic Gardening” Instagram account. It’s so interesting when I see you, how you’ll just put out a tip like it’s nothing special, but I know it is a special really insightful tip.
For instance, how you do greens. You do them intensively, and maybe because you have the Mel Bartholomew connection. You have this limited space but you plant it pretty ambitiously and then you thin in unusual ways like the way you do your greens and your beans. Tell us a little bit about those.
Kevin: Sure, yes. I think again, it is a function of just having such little space where even a single raised bed that I have, and I think I have maybe 15 now of various sizes, but I pretend as if the raised bed is an entire plot. Like, what if that’s the only plot I had? And then I look at it almost as if it’s a bird’s-eye view of a larger farm. If that makes any sense?
Margaret: Yes, it does.
Kevin: Then what I do is I say, “O.K., well if that’s the case, there is no way you would space things the way that they’re recommended, because that would be an incredibly wasteful use of space.” Yes, you might have to spend a little extra time doing some more thinning out or making sure that the plants are getting enough air flow, all that good stuff. But for me, especially with that greens tip that you were talking about, I’ve got a 4-foot-by-4-foot bed. I was doing roughly one per square foot, going back to the Mel Bartholomew method, of different types of greens and brassicas, so your kales and your collards, etcetera. But, anytime I’m starting a seed, I’m usually throwing two or three into that same hole just to guarantee germination.
Kevin: Oftentimes more than one comes up, which is great and normal. Then what people will do is they’ll find that once they see the one that looks most viable. What I decided is, O.K., well I don’t think I have to thin it as soon as I know which one is the most viable. I think I could just wait maybe two extra weeks, and the ones that I would have thinned will become a baby green.
Margaret: Dinner. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Yes, exactly. I cut them at that point.
Kevin: Which that won’t impede the growth of the one that I want to grow to maturity, right? But when I do that, out of 16 plants, you cut off two, three thinnings per six… per each plant.
Kevin: That’s pounds and pounds of greens that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Margaret: Right. And you didn’t even know you had space for if you spaced it according to the formal directions.
Margaret: But it was extra. You weren’t gardening at the time that one of the other formative books for me, and it’s a Californian though, Northern Californian from up by the peninsula south of San Francisco, John Jeavons.
Kevin: I know his name. Yes, I just haven’t read the book though.
Margaret: I’m going to blank on the name of the book, but it’s like, “How to Grow More Vegetables,” or something like that. But he follows the French biointensive method. It’s raising up the soil. That’s, by the way, another form of raised bed, which you show in your book, “Urban Gardening,” which is you could just raise up the soil in a row in the ground and put planks to walk, pieces of wood to walk on in between the rows of these mounds that you made. But he planted that way and very intensively, using every square inch. In a little bit of a way you remind me of him, too. He’s a real guru. He’s great.
Your beans: I plant a row of beans down the side of, or part of the side of one of my 20-foot beds. But, you would do bush beans differently.
Kevin: Yes. I don’t really have the ability to do a long row or if I did, I would. Let’s say my average bed is about 3 foot by 4 foot, so I could do maybe two-ish rows down 4 feet or something like that.
Kevin: Instead of doing that, I went actually probably too intensive this time around, but it still worked. I went 9 per square foot, which is pretty… I mean that’s pretty extreme. But, the thesis there was am I going to get as much yield on a per-plant basis? Definitely not, because they will crowd each other a little bit. I might have some loss just due to competition. But in general, if you just look at the bed as a single piece of output, then I got way more beans from the bed than I would have if I just did the rows, right.
Kevin: The bed output was higher even though the per-plant output was lower.
Margaret: Right, right. I think that’s an interesting way to think. And even people as myself where I have more space, why aren’t I using the space I’m cultivating, and maybe putting a cover crop in a bed that I don’t need? Why am I spacing everything out? Do you know what I mean? Like too much, a little bit, and having to weed more space than I need. I could probably do a grid, a block of beans, like what you’re talking about, and get what I need, and not have to keep that whole 20-foot area weeded. It’s an interesting different way to look at spacing.
In the last few minutes, one of the things that I love, well there were so many things I loved in the book, one was in the balcony garden section. I saw these pictures of hanging baskets of parsley and stuff and I thought, “Margaret, why don’t you use hanging baskets more?” Talk about creating more growing space, right, is up above. [Above, Shutterstock photo from “Urban Gardening.”]
Kevin: Right, right. I have a side yard that gets maybe half day’s worth of sun, but the area of my side yard that gets the most sun is, or at least the sun in the earliest day, part of the day, is the balcony or little hanging area.
Kevin: What I decided to do then was throw some hanging baskets there. Then I put peas in and I just let them fall, instead of climb.
Margaret: Cool, yes.
Kevin: Because then the young seedling is going to get sun early, and it’s going to grow, and then it’s going to trail. I got a lot of peas out just doing that, which it definitely looks kind of weird [laughter], but it was the only way I could make use of that in an edibles way.
Margaret: Yes, yes. The other thing that I loved was that you had a sidebar, a box, early in the book toward the front, where you talk about this essential skill of observation, so just in closing, tell us what that means to you and why you wrote that little sidebar there?
Kevin: Right, yes. I think we also talked about this on [the “Epic Gardening” podcast taping] when you came on my show, and it’s so important, right? I think really it’s not just a gardening skill, it really just is a life skill, the mentality of the observer.
As soon as you see what’s going on, then you can understand how to potentially fix it. Instead of going out into the garden and seeing a dead tomato and just saying, “Oh my tomato is dying. What’s going on?” and maybe Googling that problem. I mean, of course that’s going to help, but to understand and look very deeply at, O.K., well what, how is it dying? In what ways is the plant suffering, right?
Kevin: Then if you get that, then you can say, O.K., little black spots on the lower leaves of my tomato plant, and you Google that.
Kevin: Then it says, O.K., it might be septoria leaf spot. Then you say, “O.K., now I understand.” Then maybe you even read about that disease.
Kevin: And you say, “O.K., now I know even how that disease presents.” It goes back to even what you were saying on my show, about identifying the different types of pests by their dentition, and how they chew.
Margaret: Right. Animal pests who are eating something. Who is it? Right, right, right.
Kevin: Yes. It’s getting that deep about it, because as soon as you can start to observe more, then you can solve your own gardening problems for yourself, instead of always looking to an outside source.
Margaret: Yes. I would vote for that. I think the two skills of great gardeners are what you just said, observation and slowing down, and looking carefully, watching things as they evolve, taking note…and also of course, patience. [Laughter.]
Kevin: Yes, yes. I struggle with that one. [Laughter.]
where to find kevin espiritu
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 8, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).