August 28, 2023

The Love of Gardening with Instagram Creator & DIY Garden Educator Cassandra Smith

The Love of Gardening with Instagram Creator & DIY Garden Educator Cassandra Smithcass smith

Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to be an Instagram gardening influencer? We sat down with Garden Educator Cassandra “Cass” Smith aka @gardentotablewithcass to find out — and it turns out it’s more about the love of gardening than anything else! 

Cass is a talented content creator, DIY garden education coach, and was one of our first Instagram friends! 🥰 And she’d been a steadfast supporter of True Organic since she first spotted the lineup of colorful bags at her local garden store.

Cass doesn’t only run one of the most fun, inspirational, and informational gardening Instagram accounts around, she also co-founded San Diego Seed Swap and continues actively expanding community gardening in San Diego and beyond. She shares her story with us…

True: How did you get started with your garden? Were you always a plant lover?geodesic dome

Cass: If we go way back to the very beginning, it started when my daughter got one of those cute “seed bombs” as a gift, full of tomato seeds. It was so strange to me. I thought to myself, ‘Who would give somebody seeds as a birthday gift?!’ 

I left it sitting for quite some time. When we finally planted it, I didn’t know what to do with them! I didn’t really do much at all to care for them. I’d tried a garden in 2012 and it failed; I actually had everything removed that needed heavy water and work. I didn’t have an affinity for plants.

But this time, with the tomato seeds, I did one thing differently: I planted them in quality soil. And that’s only because I happened to see the “nicer” bag of soil at the store and thought, “Well, it’s just one pot, it’s no big deal.”

To my surprise, the tomatoes grew! They weren’t huge or gorgeous (like I’m able to do now); they were scraggly, but we got a good sized bowl of tomatoes. And they tasted amazing! I had never ever ever had any homegrown produce. 

I thought to myself, “WOW. If this is what a cherry tomato tastes like, I wonder what else we can do?”

We started growing an eight-by-eight area of containers and some in-ground trees. My mom helped, the kids weren’t interested in it yet…it was just kind of a thing we had in the backyard and took care of it if we had time. It wasn’t a focus for me.

When I look back, I’m kind of shocked because I feel like a different person. Now I’m that person who is gifting people seeds!

True: When did all that change? How did gardening become a focus for you?

Cass: In 2020, I started working from home. I’d been an event professional working at a museum job that I loved for 20 years, but that year, I started to wonder how long it would last. As we started spending more time outside — everybody did! — it became our refuge.

I had a huge backyard, a tiny area of plants, and all this time on my hands. Being outside really gave me a sense of calm and connection to nature that I’d never felt before. I just started to increase the garden. And in 24 months, I went from 10 containers and a few trees to having  100 grow bags, 8 raised beds, and tons of makeshift containers. I had vintage trunks sitting in storage and I said, “Hey, this is a raised bed!”

After the first year of lockdown, I started growing an edible garden at the museum and using the food to cook in the museum café. It all just started to blossom and grow!

True: And how did you start sharing and teaching on Instagram?

Cass: I was looking to connect with people in San Diego and I wanted to learn along with people I could talk to naturally. Someone invited me to a Facebook group for gardeners, but it was people from all over — not just local.

Back then, I thought Instagram was just for famous people and we were all there to watch! All I saw were ads and celebrities. People had amazingly curated feeds, and I had no idea how any of that worked. But somewhere in there, I saw a plant page, clicked on it, and started to realize there were so many niches and areas of interest on Instagram. 

So I thought, “Why don’t I just start a plant page on Instagram?” And suddenly my page went from 100 followers to 1000 followers in a month. (Now she’s got over 21,000!)

True: Wow! What do you think drew people in?

Cass: I was never focused on “growing my following,” I was interested in sharing what I was doing and finding people to learn alongside. And finding people in San Diego!

People who knew nothing about gardening thought it was kind of like, “I grew this…but I’m not sure how!” People connected with that.

A few months after I started my account, Reels came into the world, and that was huge. I never took videos or pictures of myself or wanted to show my face (I wouldn’t even pick up a FaceTime call!) — I’ve always wanted to be behind the scenes.

But once I got in front of the camera, I realized people just genuinely wanted to know more about who I was and I knew that being like everyone else wasn’t the way to do it. 

What I was doing was authentic and Reels brought in a new level of authenticity. My goal was just to have fun. But once I got “viral,” I learned more about how to spark people’s attention, inspire them, and stay true to myself. 

True: What’s going well in the garden right now? Any surprise successes?

Cass: The corn is going great! I thought it was going to be a miss, because I thought I’d accidentally double-fed it. They shot up to seven feet tall but weren’t growing any ears — just foliage and long silks. I’ve never seen silks so long. I could brush them! 

Then suddenly, they started growing these huge ears! They’re bigger than store-bought. It taught me something: when I double-fed at the point between transplant and when the plant was really thriving, that “over-feeding” was actually good for growing bigger ears.

I was hoping to get the Guiness World Record but I saw that the record is about 16 inches. Mine’s about 14. 😉

True: What’s not going so good in your garden this year?

Cass: My grapes. Last year we had tons of grapes but they’re just not thriving right now. 

Everything was going good: we got rain, fruit started to form…but then they just stopped thriving. Once the rains ended, the leaves started getting a disease. I looked into it and it looks like Anaheim disease (also known as Pierce’s disease) — something that happens to a lot of grapes in Anaheim. Although I’m further South, it can spread. So I’m not sure if it was something I could’ve prevented given our climate or if it was something I did. Given that I have a lot of plants, I do occasionally miss somebody when it comes to watering and feeding. 

I just take notes, do the best I can, and use what I learned for next year. And, of course, use quality organic ingredients to nourish the plants and soil.

True: What are the hardest parts about growing a garden as large as yours? 

Cass: Keeping up with organic pest management — since we don’t spray (any pesticides), we really try to do what we can with the spritz of a hose or picking off pests by hand. (Key principles of integrated pest management!) But all of that starts with curating our soil, so we take a lot of time and effort to make sure we take care of all the plants’ needs. Hand watering and feeding are two of our biggest chores, but we know that taking care of our soil and plants will provide us with all of that yummy garden goodness. 

True: So you were using social media to find local gardeners to learn with…and now you’re teaching people all over the world, running your local seed swap, and more! How does that feel?

Cass: I am absolutely floored! I’m so thankful that I have the opportunity to create content…but mostly that I get to connect with folks who also have a hope and vision to create a brighter future. That makes me feel like I have a purpose to help others — and this is the way I’m going to do that.

True: What does your future have in store?

Cass: Going forward, I want to make bigger connections so we’re able to reach young people in San Diego and show them that all of us can do something small in order to make a greater impact. San Diego Seed Swap is going to be the conduit to connect the community to the resources to achieve their goals.

My vision for my own future is bigger than just expanding the garden. I’d like to build a family compound and start from scratch: build a sustainable home from shipping containers and building dwellings for my children so they can continue to build and live on the land. That’s my ultimate goal for my garden and for my family. 

The goal for my Instagram work is to keep serving my community by sharing what I learn in the garden. I want to keep inspiring everyone who wants to learn how to do things for themselves, from making your own homemade syrups to growing your own sponges.

True: What are some of your favorite things about having a garden? 

Cass: We love to make a meal with our barbeque or smoker from items we grew in our garden and enjoy it at sunset. And we obviously love harvesting! The kids love harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers and especially watermelons — and really any fruit.

What makes me happiest is seeing something go from a tiny seed into a full plant that’s providing nourishing food for my family. That’s so important right now because — well, quality isn’t always easily accessible. 

We asked Cass’s kids what they love about the garden too! Here’s what they said:

“I just like waking up and looking at it while I’m eating breakfast — it’s beautiful!”

“Whenever we need some vegetable or fruit, we can just go outside and pick it. We don’t even have to go to the store.”

“Something that makes me happy is being educated on what we can grow here in our area — what fertilizers we need, what can we use as compost, all of that!”

“I like giant flowers! All kinds of flowers.”

“I love that it provides a lot of food for our family.’

“I love when I walk outside I can see a whole world of plants.”

cass smith