If you haven’t yet developed a green thumb in the midst of today’s climate wake-up call, consider this your sign. Now, more than ever, people are inching their way into the at-home gardening realm not only to benefit the planet, but also their health. And guess what? You don’t need an extensive outdoor set-up to design the edible garden of your dreams. That’s why we went to the modern farming expert himself, Nick Cutsumpas, for some crucial tips and tricks on how to plant, grow and harvest with ease — no matter how much space you have. Bona fide plant influencer and sage environmentalist (pun intended), Nick offers brilliant insights into how we can pave the way for a greener, more sustainable future — all below.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got into farming?
I was graduating from Tufts University in 2014 and was set to live a very corporate life. Job at IBM, you know — very typical of my friend group. And then I was living at home and saving up money to pay back my student loans. My mom said if I was going to live there rent-free, I had to do something, so she suggested I start a garden.
From the moment I put that first tomato plant in the ground, I became obsessed. And the garden grew more and more robust every year; I tried different heirloom varieties, seeds, species and rare plants. It was getting wild.
Three years later, I moved to New York City and I went into a green withdrawal. I didn’t have outdoor space. And I said, okay, how can I bring the green inside? Not just from an edible standpoint, but just from a biophilic design standpoint. That’s when I brought houseplants into the equation for the first time.
So I did what any rational human would do and bought about a hundred houseplants. And that really set the tone for the social media stuff I do, which is how the business started. Folks would start asking me questions. I had families and friends having me over to design their spaces. And then all of a sudden, you get a couple clients here and there, word of mouth spreads, and you end up with a hundred-plus clients between New York and LA.
Ooh, I mean, nothing beats a quality sungold cherry tomato. Off the vine, oh my God, it’s like candy. Half the time I go outside, I don’t end up bringing any back inside with me. It’s unfortunate. But I also love growing sugar snap peas. I think they’re so underrated, because you can grow them twice in the spring and the fall. And because they vine so well, they make a nice green backdrop depending on how your garden is situated, and they look really beautiful on a trellis.
I also love having herbs on hand at all times. You can never have enough basil or cilantro. Having things like this to brighten up your cooking is really important because the difference in quality, flavor and freshness for some of these herbs is incomparable.
Do you have any go-to summer dishes with hand-picked veggies or herbs?
I’m vegan, so I can’t make a true pesto, so my go-to is a leafy green pesto. I’ll take any leafy greens that I have on hand, be it dinosaur kale, basil or arugula. Then I throw in my pine nuts, almonds or cashews, oil, maybe some nutritional yeast. It’s just such a great, fresh thing that you can put on literally anything. It doesn’t have to be an Italian-focused dish. It could simply be a spread that you dip a carrot in for a snack. It’s just so good.
What are your tips for planting an edible garden in small indoor spaces?
If you’re indoors, I would say temper your expectations. You’re not going to be feeding your whole family, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I find that western or southern exposure is best, just because these outdoor plants need so much light. If you think about direct light indoors, you’re going to lose about 50% of the intensity simply going through the window pane. So for that reason, I try to grow all of my plants in the sun or just bordering full-on sun. Leafy greens, herbs, kales, bibb lettuces, basils, cilantros — all of those grow really, really well indoors.
Also, something like broccoli microgreens only takes about seven to 14 days and has the same nutritional impact as the entire broccoli itself. Also, another underrated one is wheatgrass. We pay for these wheatgrass smoothies that can be super expensive, meanwhile you can grow it yourself and harvest it three or four times in the same pot before it’s ready to replace it. And the seed packets cost around two bucks.Plus, it looks beautiful.
Are there any hydroponic systems that you like?
I’m obsessed with a product called Lettuce Grow. Number one, it recycles more water compared to your traditional farming methods, which is particularly important in LA given the drought. It rotates water so I only refill it maybe once every three or four weeks.
Two, it’s also very automated. So if you’re living a very fast paced lifestyle, this is for you. You don’t have to worry about maintaining it more than once a week. I put the plants in, feed them once a week, set a timer and then harvest. I literally can’t keep up with how quickly I have to harvest.
If you have a terrace or rooftop, that’s the best because you’re able to have a more diverse selection of plants. But the biggest tip I have for those folks is that you have to remember to plant pollinating flowers and encourage biodiversity. If you plant just a couple cucumbers or sugar snaps, your yields aren’t going to be significant if you’re not bringing some of these pollinators to the table.
So I always recommend things like marigolds, violas and dianthus, because not only are they pollinators, they’re edible. Throwing them in a salad is a beautiful, nice touch. They look pretty and will increase your yield, which is so important when you only have so much space.
What’s the best season for gardening in Los Angeles? Any specific veggies, herbs or fruits that you think grow best?
I always love the fall as a time to grow. I know it sounds kind of silly — oh, why am I planting things in the fall? But it gives perennial plants a nice chance at establishing their root system without having to deal with the crazy heat. The sun is very intense on a plant if you’re planting in the thick of summer. So I try to do a spring and a fall crop where I’ll start seeds indoors and get them acclimated, and then I’ll bring them outside and harden them off, meaning that I bring them outside in stages so that they can get used to the heat.
But you can grow plenty of great things, especially in LA, all through fall and winter in terms of your leafy greens. They actually taste better when it’s colder, believe it or not. The reason being is because once it gets really chilly, the carbohydrates in the plant concentrate because it acts almost like an antifreeze so it tastes sweeter. If you ever buy a carrot from Mexico, it’s not going to taste nearly as good as the carrot from New York, just because it didn’t have the same chance to develop those sugars in them.
What’s one piece of advice you always give your clients?
The biggest thing that I tell my clients is, don’t grow things just to grow them. Grow what you eat. Because if you say, oh, I really want to try growing sage. That’s great, but how often are you cooking with sage? For most people it’s not very frequent. I don’t want them to feel like they’re boring because they’re growing six pots of basil, but if you love pesto, grow six pots of basil. That’s fine.
What would you say is the easiest edible plant for beginners to maintain?
Ooh. Easiest to maintain. I love fruit trees. I think those are fun. And from a maintenance standpoint, there’s more upfront lift just because a tree is bigger and you have to make sure that it has the right home and a big enough pot. But once it’s in there and established, it’s pretty easy to take care of. You’re not going to have to worry about replanting every year or harvesting frequently. It’s on a very defined schedule. In LA especially, citrus trees are amazing. I walk around my neighborhood in Venice and see people who can’t even keep up with their harvest.
Why do you think the farm-to-table concept is so important in our homes today?
I think it’s super important to grow at home because people need to develop a relationship with the land and what they’re doing with plants. If you’re just going to the grocery store, you won’t understand the process of the plant. You’re not going to respect the farmers who are growing them. Anyone who gardens for the first time is like, oh my God, I didn’t realize it was this difficult.
The more empathy we can create through the act of growing ourselves, the more environmentally responsible decisions we’ll make as a consumer. Because then we’ll start thinking about this whole idea of regenerative agriculture and both farmer’s rights and access that are so interrelated to the idea of growing food.
Most people don’t know where their food comes from. They don’t know what it took to grow that strawberry. They don’t know all the intricacies of that specific plant. And I think it opens people’s eyes to a new world that previously they were just sleepwalking through.
There’s an end goal here, and plants are the stepping stones. Above all, we need to learn how to become better stewards of the earth. We need to protect the future of our planet.