Growing

This viral YouTube gardening channel mixes tech tools and ancient practices

The poker player-turned-gardener explains why gardening provides the ultimate digital detox.

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Gardening is making a comeback. With so many of us locked down in 2020, many are turning to the internet for tips and tricks to bring nature closer to home. And type in a search for gardening tips online, and you're bound to find Epic Gardening.

On YouTube and various other platforms, the channel serves up planting tips, debunks gardening myths, and helps people learn to grow their own food — and sometimes prepare for the apocalypse.

Epic Gardening is a popular resource for new gardeners and full of advice we can all use, no matter your green ambitions: plant propagation, how to grow in small spaces, solving watering problems.

Some videos feature tips for getting started growing your own food: Google your USDA zone to figure out what to plant, and when, in your area. You can also use Google Sheets to track what you’re growing.

Other videos explain the science behind common practices and debunking myths. For example, despite what you see on Instagram, it does not make sense to grow aloe vera in a banana. And misting your houseplants is fine, but it won't save the plants from dying of low humidity.

All that plant knowledge is gaining traction online. Epic Gardening has nearly 900,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel, 260,000 followers on Instagram, and 12 million likes on TikTok.

Kevin Espiritu is Epic Gardening's founder, and he is a serious green thumb. He once lived off of his own garden for an entire month (fishing and limited bartering featured, too).

Vegetable gardening is among the hobbies that has gained interest with more people spending time at home.Roy JAMES Shakespeare/Photodisc/Getty Images

Espiritu grew up nature-curious, collecting bugs in his hometown of suburban San Diego. But he didn’t envision becoming a gardener. At first, he was going to become an accountant. Then, disillusioned, he started playing online poker.

“That kind of set me on a different path: I don't want to be an accountant, let alone do any sort of job that I don't like.”

Somehow, this path eventually led to gardening. The catalyst came some ten years ago, during a conversation Espiritu had with his younger brother, who was home from college.

“I suggested stuff to do outdoors— surf, skateboard, whatever — and threw gardening in there at the end. He kind of perked up, and he's like, ‘Oh, that sounds kind of fun. Maybe we could grow some basil, make some pesto or something.’”

Espiritu’s gardening fascination led to hydroponics. His first serious attempt at growing his own was growing cucumbers — “but they were really gross.” The cucumbers over-ripened, and the nutrients they were fed were out of whack.

"It's a very basic, sort of primal, level of satisfaction."

Still, he was hooked. Espiritu began scouring university websites and forums for information, focusing on hydroponics.

Eager to share his newfound passion with others, Espiritu started blogging. He wrote "basically notes to myself about how it all worked,” he says, “and it turned out that people also wanted to read those notes.”

Over time, his focus shifted from hydroponics to soil gardening, and he branched out into video and other media.

Today, Epic Gardening is an essential multimedia toolkit for anyone interested in growing plants, whether it is edible gardens or lush houseplants. It's entirely digital, largely social, yet aims to teach something ancient and fundamental.

Inverse asked Espiritu how he navigates being an online gardener — and what, if anything, gardening has to do with playing poker.

The following is the transcript of our interview, condensed for publication.

On your website, there's a target amount of people you want to reach: 10 million. When you first set out, what was your goal in bridging tech and gardening?

Oh, man, I don't think I had a big goal at the start. You're just like, “can I even do this sustainably? Can I do this for a living anyway, or even make enough money to pay rent, and I'll still do something else for work?”

And then I said, what I have to have is a greater purpose behind this, because otherwise I won't be motivated to keep doing it. Otherwise, it's just a job. That's when I started with the numbers.

I started initially with 1,000 gardeners. And every time I felt that I had hit that number — which is kind of hard to quantify — I would just raise it by 10^X. It'd be 10,000 and 100,000, and then a million.

So that's where that came from. The goal was basically: I know what [gardening] did for me. If I'm not that special of a person, it should have the same effect on other people. So I should share it if I can.

What is it that you want to give other people?

I think it is a weird realization that a lot of '90s kids — somewhere in that band of generations —just don't know how the world actually works. Like how does stuff get to you? How do you get food? How is the food grown? A lot of kids today, if you go into a second-grade classroom, don't know how any plant is grown. They'll draw carrots on trees, or they'll draw apples in the ground or whatever. They just don't have the knowledge.

It doesn't seem like that's a good future, a future in which no one understands how like the basics of what we need to live or produce. So there's that element to it — like a reconnection to the way the world works their natural world.

The second part of it is an unplugging from the digital world, which we are all in all the time now. Getting back into a more analog way of being, which I think, just from a biological perspective, is more prone to making us happy. We've evolved in that condition for longer, you know — so like, sunlight, doing work, eating good food, the pride of growing it, that sort of thing. It's a very basic, sort of primal, level of satisfaction that I think a lot of us don't have now.

"You don't grow plants. The plants are organisms, they grow themselves."

A lot of your focus is on urban gardening. Why is that important to you in particular?

I think the reason why that's important is because the people who live in a more rural or sprawling suburban area, with large yards and stuff — I don't really need to convince them. It's way more likely that they were already doing this to some degree, or they have a familiarity with it. Whereas there's way more people in urban environments, and those people tend to skew a little bit younger. So if you're going to catch someone who is more like me, that's where you're going to catch them.

There's also just a space constraint in the gardening required space. You're not going to be able to grow watermelons on a balcony. But what can you grow? It's coming to people where they are, instead of saying, look at me, I have this huge homestead and here's how I live off it. That's more of an aspirational thing, to watch someone do, rather than being in it with the audience.

When I was growing in downtown San Diego, I was doing balcony gardening and microgreens and sprouts and stuff. And I was maxing out what I could do. I think that was a lot more relatable than, honestly, than where I'm at now. I'm on a 13,000-square-foot lot downtown in San Diego — in an actual house. Even now, I'm purposely having separate sections of the garden that are smaller and more compact. So I can still relate to the people that I think I'm trying to hit.

Some of your most popular videos debunk gardening myths.

I think the main motivation there is, it's an entertaining form of content, and we just try to kind of evolve the model of what I'm creating. But also, it is a cool way to talk about what actually works, like correct gardening methods — versus just doing a video and saying, here's how to propagate succulents. It’s sort of a backdoor way to get good information out there.

I'm curious if there's any connection you've been able to identify between your life as a gardener and your background in poker — do those two things ever link up in your mind?

Oh, yeah, I think they do. Poker is like a microcosm of life itself in a way, because it's a rapid decision-making based on imperfect information. It's one of a few games that you could win long-term, because you're not playing against the house, you're actually playing against other people and the house just takes a small percentage. So if you're better by a large enough margin than other people, over the long term you actually go away with money. It's one of the few games that you can do that.

And you're forced to make decisions. You have your physical tells, if you play in person, you can watch someone, and then you have sort of your probabilistic or mathematical knowledge and understanding of the game. But still, the cards fall, right? Even if it's improbable, it still may happen. You may win something you should have lost or lose something you should have won.

In that sense, it helps you rapidly make decisions with not-good information, which kind of is what life is, if you think about it. In the same way, in the garden, that helps me troubleshoot different plant problems. It helps me find things out, figure out what to dedicate more time to, what not to. I think it kind of spills into everything, not just gardening.

I was chatting with a horticulturist who teaches gardening recently, and he mentioned how you can give all the advice you want, but plants don't read textbooks. So sometimes things just don't go the way you intended.

Yeah, totally. I was talking with Imperfect Produce earlier today, and we were talking about this idea that you don't grow plants. The plants are organisms, they grow themselves. Your only goal is the gardener is just to give it the environment in which it prefers to grow. That's really all you have to do.

Besides that, you kind of just let it do what it does.

What are you up to now — do you have any big projects you're excited about?

I just bought a house. I was growing in a rented house in downtown San Diego, about a mile from downtown, with this little front yard garden, for the last four years. Earlier this summer I purchased a house maybe 15 minutes away from downtown. A little urban-suburban, but definitely more space. I got a maybe 12,000 square foot, or a little bit less, space to develop — I can grow trees, I can grow berry bushes, all sorts of stuff. I can have chickens.

It’s kind of moving now into the next phase. The garden is one element of this high-tech, natural-style life I guess I'm heading towards. Coming up next year is adding in chickens, solar energy, water capture, taking garden harvests into the kitchen, growing things on a larger scale. All that kind of stuff.

In the past you were able to live off of your own garden and foraged food for a month. Do you think you will break that record in the future?

I think at the very least I'll match it, but I'll tighten the rules. When I did that last time I was able to fish, I was able to forage locally, and I was able to barter with other people as long as they produce it and it's a fair trade. But this year, if I do with this coming year 2021, if I've got chickens going on by then, it should be 100 percent from my own yard. I just feel like the stakes are higher.

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