Gardening As Urban Art with Cheli Cuevas

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Gardening As Urban Art
Cheli CuevasCheli Cuevas expresses her passion for beauty through her gardening.  What makes it even more interesting is her garden is a former clay patch beside an apartment building in the sprawl of Los Angeles California. Battling slugs, drought, and heat Cheli has created a gorgeous oasis that creates relationships and serenity for herself and her neighbours.

Cheli is a lover of DIY projects and her mantra is “if you can sow it, grow it!”.  She generously shares her gardening adventures on social media, creating a visual delight with her photography.   Cheli has a love of sunflowers and considers them an integral part of her garden.

 In This Episode You Will Discover:

  • how to express your passion for art through gardening
  • SLUGS! how to fight them and how to BEAT them
  • using lantana as a sensible ground cover
  • why sunflowers are wonderful
  • why you can grow a garden where common opinion says you can’t


Melissa Will –

Annie Haven –

This is the book Cheli mentioned!


Interview Links

Follow Cheli on Twitter:  @gildthegarden

Cheli on Instagram:


Watch the Podcast Interview Here:


Interview Transcript:

David:  Well good morning, good afternoon or good evening, depending on where in the world you are when you hear this. I’m David Ledoux, and welcome to another edition of Back To My Garden.  Today I’ve got a good one for you folks.  It’s pouring rain here in Southern Ontario, and we’re going to one of the dryest points in North America.  They’ve only had rain once in a year.  Our guest today is a lover of everything garden related and do-it-yourself.  Her motto is, “If You Can Sow It, Grow It”.  She learned her ABC’s at an early age, it stands for Always Be Creating.  We share a mutual love for sunflowers.  She’s big on Instagram, Twitter and a big announcement about her upcoming TV show on the interwebs.  Please help me welcome, from Los Angeles, California, Chelie Cuevas.  Cheli, welcome to the show.

Cheli:  Thanks for having me Dave, I’m very excited to be here.

David:  I’m excited to hear your stories about your gardening adventures, and our listeners are as well.  Can you take just a minute and share with us a little bit about yourself.

Cheli:  Absolutely.  I grew up here in Southern California and in the garden I grew up in, it was huge.  The previous owners to my parents, they travelled the world and collected seeds from all over the world, and they brought them back to the garden and they planted them.  So I grew up with avocados, kumquats, loquats, bananas, macadamia nuts, tangerines, oranges, plums … everything you can think of was at my disposal.  So gardening, for me, was always there.  And you know, you go to college, you grow up and you think you’re not really into it anymore because your focus is on everything else going on.  I moved out, and when I had a garage sale, I met my Fairy Garden Mother, and she sort of brought me back into the world of gardening.  And ever since then, it’s just been non-stop.

David:  Fantastic.  I know a lot of our listeners are just envious right now because they live in parts of the world where growing a carrot is about all they can muster.  And you’re growing up with exotics.  Loquat.

Cheli:  Yeah.  It’s pretty crazy the amount of fruits and vegetables that were at our disposal.

David:  I find a common theme in talking gardening with people is they’re exposed to it as a child and then as a young adult it’s almost a stress or a drama, and everyone’s too busy.  And then comes the gardening moment.  What was your first gardening moment?  Do you remember what the first thing you started growing was as an adult?

Cheli:  I started off with succulents because we have very desert-like conditions here in Southern California, and I actually read in the Farmer’s Almanac that succulents are a “gateway plant”(LOL).  And it’s true because it started off with succulents, and then I got brave enough to grow bulbs, flowers, and then that worked out, so I thought let me try some other flowers.  And I moved on to zinnias and sunflowers and now I’m on to vegetables, that’s the newest for me.  It’s working, so the sky’s the limit.


David:  I walked out on our deck the other day, we have a container garden, and I saw something that wasn’t there yesterday.  And it’s a pot with chicks and hens in it.  I think ‘where the heck did this come from?’  My wife has this habit of when she drives by garden centers she just pops in to see what’s going on and she cannot leave a garden center without buying something.  That’s our first succulent of the season, we got these teeny tiny chicks and hens.

Cheli:  I love it.  You know I’m the say way.  Every time I go to Lowes, because that’s my local store, my husband always says, ‘ok, I’ll meet you in the garden section’. (LOL)  After work, I just pop in there to walk through the garden section, I love it.  It’s very therapeutic, gardening, for me.  I live literally in the middle of this hustling, bustling city.  I hear cars, ambulances, there’s all kinds of noise around me, and I live in an apartment.  My garden is in the apartment.  And my landlords, were nice enough to say ‘hey, this is all yours if you want it’.  So I was able to start my own garden in our apartment building, and it’s incredible how many neighbours stop by and say, “I have the bluest thumb of all, and I could never be a gardener” and I find myself giving them lessons. (LOL)

David:  I always start out these interviews with an agenda and notes.  We just derailed our notes because you are the perfect guest for so many of our listeners.  They live in big cities, in apartments in cities like Tokyo, big cities, and you can totally relate and they can relate to you.  Please share with us the challenges unique to apartment gardening.

Cheli:  Well, I’ll tell you what, my garden is actually right next to the driveway, so there are times when I’m doing a massive project, and a car will need to get in and I’ll need to move all my pots and put them back.  But you know my neighbours, they’re really sweet, and they understand, and they’re very appreciative because I’m doing something for the apartment building.  I’m making it look nicer.  It was literally a dry slab of neglected dirt, and now I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures of my garden on Twitter or Instagram, but it’s just gorgeous now.  I don’t mean to toot my own horn but I worked really hard at making it a nice garden and it’s definitely paid off.  As far as challenges go, the California weather, the dry weather, that’s definitely been one of the biggest challenges.  We don’t get a lot of rain here.  I do water frequently, however, there is a rule here that I’m not sure if you know about here in Los Angeles.  You can only water once a week, legally.  They’ll fine you.  Of course people will water more than once a week just hoping no one catches them, but we do have a limit as to when we can water.

David:  For those of you driving your car, or riding your bike or jogging with your earbuds in listening to this podcast, you have to check our Cheli’s Instagram.  It is a visual treat.  You share a lot, it’s really documenting all the pieces and components.  Head over to  The Guild the Garden brand is a brand you’re developing, correct?

Cheli:  Correct.  I named it Gild the Garden because, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the expression Gild the Lily, to embellish.  And if you’ve seen pictures of my garden, that’s exactly what I did.  I sort of embellished everything.  It’s not just a regular garden, I have a ladder turned into a plant stand, I have topsy turvy planters.  It’s kind of like Mad Hatter garden.

David:  When I was looking at your Instagram, do you have a background in photography, or are you using some special camera?

Cheli:  You know what, I use my phone.  It has these really cool features on it.  No, I do not have a background in photography.  But I’m really glad to hear that.  That means I’m doing something right.

David:  Not in one photo is your thumb in the corner, so that’s why I asked.  You mention your neighbour with the blue thumb, my thumb ends up in all my photos.  You’ve got a new Facebook Fan Page also under the Gild The Garden banner, you’ve got Twitter@GildTheGarden.  Do you want to take a minute and talk about your new project that’s coming out on YouTube?

Cheli:  Yes, yes, yes.  It sort of happened organically.  I didn’t plan it by any means.  As I was mentioning earlier, I have neighbours coming over asking me for tips.  I’m sharing plants with neighbours, and the neighbours next door they’ll bring me their succulents, and I’ll give them something that I have.  We exchange seeds.  My other neighbour is part of the Succulent and Cacti Society or California, so we share stories together and it’s just such a great experience that I thought I would love for people who live in apartment buildings and think that they can’t have a garden, to have a garden.  So basically, what my show is, it’s for people who don’t know how to garden, they’re just starting off.  We’re going to talk a lot about container gardening, and working with small spaces and doing little DIY projects for your garden along the way.  It’s going to be fun, I’m really excited.

David:  search for Gild The Garden.  Is there a place where they can send you their questions?

Cheli:  Oh, absolutely.  Definitely to my Facebook page.  I’m going to have a Gmail set up once the show is rolling, which will probably be in August.  I’m shooting my first 4 Webisodes in 2 weeks, so it will probably go live in August, and then they can send any questions to

David:  For those of you listening 10 years into the future, do you have flying cars yet?  Because it’s going to be live so you can go over to YouTube right now, and by the time you hear this Cheli’s YouTube channel will be live, so go and check it out.  Make sure you subscribe, and YouTube will push you all the updates and you’ll be able to leave comments, vote it up, share it on Facebook and Twitter.  Remember the importance of the social community and help her launch her Webisodes.  It’s very exciting.

Cheli:  Thank you so much.  I’m all for people building their own gardens.  It’s a beautiful thing.

David:  Try to remember a time when you weren’t gardening.  Living in downtown L.A.  It has the population of some small countries.  It’s probably nearly the population of Australia in one giant city.  How has your life changed because of gardening?

Cheli:  That is a loaded question. (LOL)  It’s changed significantly.  It has just helped me quiet the noise inside, and outside.  When I’m in my garden I’m just in my garden, and there’s nothing that can take me away from it.  And I really have literally stopped to smell the roses.  It’s made me appreciate the birds and the bees working so hard to pollinate, and the importance of butterflies, I find caterpillars in my garden.  There’s just so much noise in life with work, and friends and this and that, and when I’m in my garden it’s just not there.  I’m just literally in nature planting seeds, watching the lifecycle of a sunflower is quite possibly the most beautiful thing.  It makes me cry.  I’m sure you can relate to that Dave.

David:  When I lived in the big city, it’s not uncommon to live in the same apartment, or townhouse for 5 years and not know your neighbours.  Except for gardeners.  When you give someone an heirloom tomato or zucchini or a flower, a conversation breaks out and you develop a new friendship.  Has it been like that for you in Los Angeles?

Cheli:  You have no idea.  Gardening for me and my neighbours, I was able to meet several neighbours just be seeing them water their garden, or they see me watering my garden.  I can’t tell you how many people walk by and say “I love your garden” and I have no idea who they are, but we strike up a conversation.  There’s a neighbour down the street that I’ve been monitoring, their little patch of dirt, they plant pumpkins, they plant wildflowers, and every time I pass by, even though we don’t know each other, I say “hey, I love your wildflowers”.  The other day the neighbour said, “well, I’m growing sunflowers next” and I said “I’ve got some seeds for you from my Mammoth” so I brought him over the seeds.  It’s a beautiful thing mingling with neighbours and having the same common ground.

sunflower & bees

David:  You mentioned the Mammoth.  I love sunflowers, I have a bunch of Mammoths in my garden this year.  You have a Mammoth story to share.  Please go ahead, and walk us through what happened, the good points and the bad points.

Cheli:  Okay.  Well my husband was so scared it wasn’t going to work.  Because I put so much emphasis on growing these sunflowers.  I was really excited about it.  He was really worried it wasn’t going to work and I was going to be really sad.  So, I planted about 20 and only one grew and it could have been for a number of reasons.  I had a slug problem that I solved with beer, but that’s neither here nor there.  And one survived, and I always told him, at least one will survive, don’t worry.  And one did.  And she grew and she grew and she grew and her face was just the prettiest face and you can see photos of her on Instagram and Facebook.  I literally woke up in the morning and go by and scratch her little head, (LOL).  The neighbours would walk by and I would take a picture with everybody who came around to the apartment building and say “take a picture with the sunflower”.  So the one sunflower just became almost human-like.  She gave me some seeds, she’s no longer with us, however there’s several sunflowers growing from the same stalk and it just doesn’t stop, I love it.  She was able to give me about 100+ seeds, and she didn’t grow to full mammoth size, by the way.  Sunflowers need a lot of room to grow for their roots, and where I planted her I don’t think the dirt goes that far down, so she only grew to about 4-1/2 feet, whereas they normally grow to 8 feet.  They’re pretty tall, but I don’t think she had enough roots to fully reach her potential.  But she did and in her 4-1/1 feet and it was beautiful.  And I just harvested her seeds last week, so now I have a bunch of little babies to plant. (LOL)

David:  All documented on Instagram.

Cheli:  Yeah, it is actually.  I can’t wait to post the full picture from seed to full growth to harvest.  That’s something I haven’t done yet.  But coming soon.  I just want to tell you a quick story Dave.  Yesterday, because I’ve had some neighbours say “have you seen the Mammoths, they’re huge, down the street on San Jacinte”.  So I walked over there yesterday, and a storefront planted about 20 American Giants and Mammoths, and they’re huge. They’re probably about 9 feet tall and they’re so pretty.  And what was just an ugly sidewalk with cars passing by has now become this beautiful home for 20 sunflowers.  It’s a beautiful sunflower garden and I love seeing things like that.  People improving their city just by planting little seeds on the street.

David:  That’s so profound, that statement that you just shared.  The beautification of the urban spaces just by a few people with a bit of imagination, and nature does pretty much all the rest.  Talk to me a little bit about what your garden is like today.

Cheli:  She is at her peak.  I’m growing garlic, green onions and this is all from posts that I’ve seen, blogs and other garden videos and such, about buying vegetables from the store and being able to root them just from a store bought vegetable and grow them.  So this is something I’m experimenting with right now and it’s working.  I just planted a garlic bulb from the store and it’s sprouted in a week.

David:  Let me interrupt.  You just went to the store, you bought a bulb of garlic.  Did you put it in wet paper towel, or did you just stick it right into a pot?

Cheli:  I just stuck it right into the dirt in a pot, and it’s funny that all my neighbours were laughing that that’s not going to work.  They happened to be there when I was doing it and they thought, no you can’t do that.  But sure enough, after a week, it was poking it’s little head, the sprout.  So that’s something I’m experimenting with.  I have a ton of flowers growing right now, I just planted buttercups and alliums and I’ve got Lantana growing, man that’s a great ground cover.  If you’ve got an ugly dry patch, plant some Lantana and you’ll have beautiful purple flowers or whatever kind of you get, they have orange, etc.  I moved some pots, and I have some new sunflower sprouts that popped up, I have about 6 mammoths growing, and I guess they were seeds that were covered up that I forgot about.  I rearranged my garden and they popped up.  So I’ve got 6 Mammoths growing, I still have the same Mammoth and more sunflowers growing on the same stalk.  It’s pretty wild.


David:  In such a challenging climate too.  You have to do a little bit of planning ahead, don’t you to deal with the drought?

Cheli:  It’s not only the drought, it just so happens that half of my garden is clay soil so that’s been a challenge as well.  But oddly enough the sunflowers are growing in the clay and I know you need well-drained soil for sunflowers, but they’re doing pretty well.

David:  The sunflower is a target in the spring of all the chipmunks, mice, rabbits.  My sunflowers grow 8-10 feet, and every September you see something blue hanging upside down on the heads.  And the Blue Jays will not touch the sunflowers until September, and then it’s just a daily battle to keep them away.

Cheli:  Wow, I’ve never heard of that.

David:  You just see this blue thing hanging upside down from the head munching away on 3-1/2 months worth of work.

Cheli:  (LOL)  I’m so sorry to hear that, (LOL)

David:  Living in the city you have your challenges with your garden.  The prevalent one I hear from a lot of people is deer rabbits, skunks.  In Los Angeles, it’s drought, clay. Do you have any pests?

Cheli:  Slugs. Gosh, I cannot stand the slugs.  So I went online and did a little research on the best way to get rid of them because I didn’t want to harm my cat because she goes in my garden and I certainly don’t want to harm any children, my neighbour brings over her one-year-old and I don’t want him picking up any slug killer and eating it.  So I try to research organic methods of killing them and I found beer.  Are you familiar with this Dave?

David:  Let’s pretend I’m not.  I’d love to hear your beer recipe for slug killing.

Cheli:  (LOL)  Well, apparently slugs are raging alcoholics and they love beer.  I set out a little bowl with beer, just to where they can crawl in.  I certainly don’t want to waste a whole can of beer on slugs. (LOL)  So I set it out, I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but literally the next morning I come out and I had set out several traps.  There were about 20 slugs to each trap.  They crawl in and they drown.  They’re attracted to the carbohydrates in the beer, so you just put a bowl of beer wherever you can see they’re eating your plants, the roses or anything that has holes in the leaves.  You set it right there, and I guarantee you’ll have some slugs in the morning.

David:  That’s a fantastic tip.  Dropping the wisdom, that’s good stuff.  Slugs are a big deal.

Cheli:  As far as snails, I’ve seen photos where they’ll go in there as well.  I didn’t catch any snails, which I’m kind of glad of because they’re cute. (LOL)

David:  They have a purpose, the birds like them.

Cheli:  Exactly, so I hand pick the snails, and move them to another area where they can’t harm my plants.

David:  You know Cheli, the half hour goes by so quick.  We’re at the time now in the podcast where we get to play my favorite game, called 5 Quick Questions.  Are you ready to dig in?

Cheli:  Absolutely!

David:  Question Number One: What do you thing stops most people from starting their own garden?

Cheli:  They think they don’t have enough time.

David: Time starved.  Good.  Question Number Two: What is the best gardening advice you’ve ever received?

Cheli:  Definitely the beer traps for the slugs.

David:  Fantastic. Question Number Three: If you had just two websites to share with a novice gardener, what would they be?

Cheli:  Your website Dave, (LOL).  With a link to your show.  There’s a gal out of Canada, Empress of Dirt and she gives some great advice and she has some wonderful photos, and I really like what she’s doing.  I believe it’s

David:  The internet’s so fantastic.  If we were gardening in the 60’s we would have to go to a public library and rent a book and hope that book had the answer to our slug problem.  And now you just shared it with thousands of people around the world, that’s great.

Cheli:  I would add Pinterest as well.  It has opened up my eyes to so many garden projects and garden blogs, you can literally find everything you need to know about gardening as far as pictures go through Pinterest.

David:  And you’re on Pinterest through GildTheGarden.  Question Number Four: What’s the number gardening book or gardening resource that you can suggest for a novice?

Cheli:  I’m a fan of the Farmer’s Almanac.  I’m always reading it.  It’s updated yearly, and they even have Farmer’s Almanac online, so that’s been a wonderful resource for me.  It breaks it down in zones, and everything, so wherever you are you can figure what to plant, when to plant it and how to plant it.

David:  We’re zone 4-5 with lake effect, so in the winter we’re minus 30 and in the summer in Fahrenheit we’re in the 90’s.  So we get really extreme highs and lows.  Number Five: What is the number one thing that either you want to experiment with next year in your garden, or that number things every gardener should try to grow next year?

Cheli:  Vegetables. I have recently become obsessed with becoming self-sustainable and community gardens are a huge thing here in Los Angeles.  So much so that I contacted three of my local community gardens, and there’s a wait list of 700 people.  So if you have a garden and you have a little garden plot that you can experiment with, at least grow one type of vegetable.  I’m gung-ho and I’m growing pumpkins right now in a little space, but would I love to start growing all vegetables.  That would be fantastic.


David:  Pumpkins are awesome because they’re so seasonally symbolic.  When that pumpkin’s ready, you know that summer’s over and it’s autumn.

Cheli:  And autumn is my favorite time of year.

David:  We have a couple of competitive pumpkin growers where I live, you know those guys that grow those thousand pounders?  They grow them on a skid so they can put the front end loader under it in the fall to take it to the contest.

Cheli:  Wow!  Do you get to go and see that?

David:  My neighbour’s a pumpkin farmer, and they often, in the competition circuit, will feed the pumpkin whole milk.  So where you might water it with water, they might have a milk regimen to feed it with milk.  There’s a whole subculture of these competitive pumpkin growers.

Cheli:  I always wondered how they grew those huge pumpkins. (LOL)

David:  If you haven’t met her yet, I want you to follow her on social media, her name is Annie Haven.  Her website is  Annie is the secret weapon of competitive orchid growers and rose growers and a lot of vegetable people.  They have pure organic cow or horse manure that you brew like sun tea to feed your soil.  Like secret weapon steroids for plants.  (LOL)

Cheli:  You know what, I think I’m friends with her on Twitter.  I may already be friends with her.  I’ll check it out.

David:  Her father or grandfather had one of the largest seed businesses in California, in the early of the last century.

Cheli:  Wow, then I definitely need to get to know her.

David:  I love the sharing aspect of this.  I think I met you on Twitter through Annie, I think.

Cheli:  Dave, what are you growing right now?

David:  I’m the reluctant husband gardener, so I started as unpaid slave labour in the early days.  And I think like a lot of people in the big cities in their 20’s or 30’s they’re so caught up in making a living in the competitive corporate environment.  My wife though, moving from the city to the small town, she grew up reading Little House on the Prairie and dreaming about this.  She’s been gardening 15 years, whereas I’m really in my third year gardening.  This is the first year that I’m really heavily involved.  She has 22 varieties of heirloom tomatoes this year.  I didn’t know you could grow purple and black and brown and tiger tomatoes.  As a kid a tomato came from the store and it tasted like cardboard.  Now it’s just a whole new world.  I’m kind of getting into the peppers, the Jalapenos, and I have a Naga Viper growing this year. 1.3 million Scoville Units.

Cheli: Wow!

David:  It came with a warning label, it’s no joke.

Cheli:  I wish I could taste those.  (LOL)

David:  On YouTube, if you search Ghost Pepper, you’ll see how powerful this is.  A friend of mine is a Caribbean chef, and he uses it in his cooking, so I’ve been coming into the pepper world.  But we have raised beds, and we have little four foot squares that we made of lumber and filled the box with soil, and we have a dozen of those this year.

Cheli:  I know we’ve got to wrap things up here, but you brought up raised beds, and this is something that’s huge right now in Los Angeles, a lot of people are doing it.  I heard that you can line the bottom, instead using all soil, you can use cardboard or something, did you do that?

David:  You read my mind.  Before this interview I was talking to my wife and were sketching out the notes for a YouTube video and a project for next season called the milk crate garden.  Where you literally take a plastic milk crate and put in a cardboard box or newspaper, half fill it full of the best soil you can afford, and grow a square foot.  You get started at whatever level you can start.  Anyone in the city can find a milk crate in an alley and turn that into a garden.

Cheli:  Or pallets.  Pallets are here on the street, I use them for everything.  I’m building a walkway out of pallets.

David:  It’ll never end. You can create a project whenever you get the inspiration.  Vertical gardening using pallets for limited space … the future is this, urban gardening. Getting people to grow their own food supply.  I don’t think there’s anything more important in the next 20 years than people starting to take back growing their own food.

Cheli:  Right. I’m seeing it all around me.  My neighbours have raised beds in their apartment buildings.  People are experimenting with growing their own vegetables, even if it’s just starting off with one thing like tomatoes.  The proof is in the pudding.  When you have a waiting list of 700 people for one community garden, it’s out there, people want to do it.
boy planting tomato

David:  Well, I want to say thank you so much, and all the people driving, make sure when you get home you get in front of the computer.  I want you to go to Cheli’s YouTube channel and subscribe.  Please leave a comment and rate on her videos so they rank high on YouTube.  Follow her on Instagram on GildTheGarden, and follow her on Twitter on GildTheGarden and on Facebook and share her content.  The more you share the more she’ll create and keep documenting her gardening journey.  I want to give the last word to you today.  A lot of our listeners are novices, can you give them a note of encouragement or a pearl of wisdom?

Cheli:  Gardening, although you can go online and research it, it’s trial and error most of the time.  You never know when something’s going to work, but when it does, it’s the most beautiful thing ever.  And there’s just nothing like it.  So even if you think you can’t do it, you can, trust me.

David:  Cheli, in a city of millions and millions of people, turning an urban space into something beautiful and productive.  I want to say thank you so much for sharing and being so generous with your time.  And thanks for being on BackToMyGarden.

Cheli:  And thanks for having me.  It was wonderful to talk to you Dave.

David:  Fantastic.  Everybody, have a sensational week.


Great Gardening Resources:


Listen to Cheli Share her Vision for Urban Gardening Here: