Q&A: David Epstein's Growing Wisdom
Photos by Adam Detour
Meteorology lends itself to gardening. Gardening lends itself to cooking. An understanding of the first two makes for good food—and an eclectic career, as David Epstein can attest to.
As a meteorologist and horticulturalist, Epstein’s symbiotic interests have led to on-air work as a weatherman for WBUR and WBZ, columns for Boston.com and the Portland Press-Herald, a landscape design company, a book and college teaching.
Epstein hosts the gardening video blog Growing Wisdom, which has grown into a YouTube channel with more than 30,000 subscribers and a website with over 130,000 page views per month. In bite-size segments, he covers everything from pruning cucumber plants to getting orchids to re-bloom to planting ginger in bags.
We spoke with him at his home in Natick, surrounded by plants he had just brought inside a sunroom before the cold weather. The conversation included the rebound of heirloom tomatoes, container gardening in small spaces, water conservation during Massachusetts’ drought and how his vision of garden design is “painting” with plants.
EDIBLE BOSTON: You started your Growing Wisdom video blog back in 2007. What made you decide there was a market for short, do-it-yourself gardening videos?
DAVID EPSTEIN: I was with Channel 5 since 1992. I was doing weekend weather. I used to bring plants in and educate people in a very short segment called “Extreme Garden Makeover”: what to do in their yards that particular week or couple weeks. It was a pretty big hit. As I looked out at the time at YouTube and other ways that people were starting to put content on the Internet, I decided that I would start creating content.
Did you expect it to become as successful as it has?
I hoped it would be as successful as it has! Because of the success of what we were doing on air in the mornings on the news, I figured that there was at least a market for it.
You’ve been an on-air meteorologist for a long time, and you also write about weather. Not many people get to be good at both appearing on camera and writing. Do you have a preference?
No, I like the variety. When you’re on camera, especially doing the weather—I freelance for WBZ now—you’re telling a story in two and a half, three minutes, and you’re ad-libbing, it’s done. Whereas when I’m writing, I get to really think about it. Editors can find questions about my pieces that maybe I didn’t think of, and that’s really valuable feedback. The end user gets the best product.
Tell me about how you got into meteorology and gardening.
I wanted to be a meteorologist since I was a kid. People knew I was a weather nut. I was also a plant nut at a young age as well. I think they’re definitely passions that I’ve had for my entire life. I consider it really fortunate that I’m able to make a living doing what I love. When I speak with schools, I always encourage kids to think about what they like now and try to hold onto that, and try to make a career out of it.
Did you have a garden as a child?
I had a garden. Actually, [for] my application to Colby, where I went to college, my essay was all about my garden over a year. I took pictures of what the garden looked like during the course of a year. I talked about how I took care of it and the changes. So yeah, I’ve always been like this.
The plants that you were working with in your high school garden—are they similar to the plants you have in your garden now?
The vegetables are really the thing that I’ve done the longest. I’ve grown vegetables since I was probably 10 years old. It’s expanded over the years to trees and shrubs and perennials, but I really started with food.
What are your favorite foods to grow?
I love tomatoes. I mean, you gotta have tomatoes in the summer. I’m really into spinaches because you can start spinach in November and December, and if you protect it, you can actually start harvesting it in March. I’ve gotten into wintering vegetables, greens especially. I was just planting earlier today some savoy [cabbage].
Tell me more about these wintering vegetables.
There are certain greens, especially Asian greens, which with a little bit of protection and no added heat, you can get to winter over. They’ll sort of linger through the late-December- through-mid-February time period but they’ll still be alive. And then as soon as the light gets to be 10 hours a day, which is generally around the second week in February, they’ll start growing again underneath. The passive solar heating heats things up enough. So you can be harvesting with snow on the ground before most people have even put their first seeds in.
How do you continue to learn about gardening when you’re already an expert?
There are always new techniques on gardening. Johnny’s Selected Seeds up in Maine, they’re doing a lot of innovation with vegetable gardening. New seeds and new varieties and cold-hardy things and disease-resistant things. Can you grow things in a lower-light situation that maybe you didn’t think you could? Can you grow things for a longer season?
Do you cook as well?
I cook and can. We have some vegetable every night. When I cook, it’s really about protein and vegetable balance. The protein could be fish, chicken, pork, steak, anything. The vegetables— whatever is in the garden at the time that we want to harvest.
With that kind of spontaneity, do you follow recipes?
Loosely. I’ll look at a recipe and think, “Oh, that’s good, they’re adding an acid or they’re adding something sweet or they’re adding a nutty flavor,” and I might replace, say, a walnut with a pecan or I might replace toasted sesame seeds with toasted pine nuts.
Do you recommend any particular fruit and vegetable plants that require little maintenance and space?
There’s nothing that’s no work. I think some of the newer patio tomatoes are great because you can grow them in a container. There is one called “Little Bites.” It’s very prolific and the tomatoes are small, but if you only had one pot and you wanted tomatoes, that would be a good one. There’s a lot of stuff you can grow in containers. You don’t need a big plot of land to grow a variety of vegetables.
The key with container gardening is that you have to keep it evenly moist and well drained, so that the containers don’t end up soggy or completely dried out. Also, they need their nutrients replaced more, because unlike garden soil where you have worms and things like that working the bigger area, the nutrients will get used up out of a container a lot faster.
I imagine container gardening is helpful to the millennial generation, who aren’t buying houses as quickly and getting their plots of land to garden.
Yeah, you’re renting an apartment, you’re in the middle of Boston, you want to have a little garden, you could have three or four containers. There is almost nothing you can’t grow in a container if the container is big enough.
Do you know offhand about how many plants you have in your whole garden?
I can’t even imagine. It’s got to be hundreds and hundreds, if not over a thousand.
Massachusetts is experiencing a bad drought right now. Is it impacting the hundreds and hundreds of plants in your garden?
The drought this summer was certainly major. We haven’t seen a drought like this since the late ’70s, early ’80s, or even the mid-’60s. The harder thing in a drought is smaller plants [like vegetables] where the roots don’t go as deep. Because they don’t go as deep, the topsoil gets drier and that becomes harder and harder to work with.
How can people be ethical gardeners during the drought when there is all this focus on water conservation?
How we conserve here in New England is different from how people would be asked to conserve in other parts of the country, like the far West, where they have a shortage of water, period. There’s a shortage of ground water, there is a shortage of stored water. For us [in Massachusetts], it’s getting through a short-term drought.
You’ll want to drip irrigate if you can, because then you’re not wasting the water through evaporation. Watering between, say, 3am and 9am is best, because the water is all going to go into the plants.
Even with the drought, your garden is beautiful. Do you have any particular design theory?
Some people have more formal designs where things are in threes and fives and sevens. It’s wider swaths of color. That’s one way to design. My garden tends to be a collector’s garden and so I have a lot of ones and twos of plants and they’re scattered around. I see my design as almost like paints, so each plant represents maybe a brushstroke. It should look like it’s one continuous palette. They should all sort of blend together. For me, that’s more of a natural feeling. But there’s no right or wrong. I always say that the only “wrong” thing is if the plant dies.
What do you like so much about gardening?
I’m pretty spiritual, and so I think a lot of this is—without being too dramatic—nature and watching things grow is a way to remind me that this is way bigger than me.
It’s also challenging. Like, “Can I grow this? Can I grow this particular squash? Can I get this tree shaped in a certain way?” Some people feel challenged by running a triathlon. I feel challenged by, “Can this particular plant flower really well this year?”
Do you think part of the success of Growing Wisdom is that people enjoy living vicariously? They like seeing a beautiful garden and imagining that they could have one too?
Some of those [gardening] shows that we’ve all watched on TV, a lot of that is just not practical for us to do here in New England. Everything that people see me doing, they could do. There’s no reason you couldn’t have a garden just like this if you had the space. It’s a ton of work but there’s nothing so over the top or so expensive in my garden that the average owner couldn’t do it if you had the time and the desire.
This interview has been condensed for length.
Twitter and Instagram: @GrowingWisdom
NICOLE FLEMING is a metro correspondent for the Boston Globe and a columnist for WGBH's Craving Botson. She is also the author of The Girl Who Ate Boston food blog at TheGirlWhoAteBoston.com. Follow her on Twitter @ GirlEatsBoston.