bay area, Edible gardening, Nutrition, Urban gardening

How to build rich soil in your home garden.

Those of us that live in the Bay Area deal with heavy, clay soil that are often treated with fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and the like. Though clay is excellent at holding minerals and water, plants struggle to establish roots. Wanting a quick fix, we end up with the cost prohibitive task of buying bags of potting mixes to fill raised beds and planting areas only to quickly realize that it doesn’t fix the problem entirely.

Bagged soil is often inconsistent in quality and expensive over time. Plants need supplemental food as the bagged soil is not alive, nor rich enough to provide all the minerals necessary for optimum growth. The supplemental food is not always good for long term plant health, and is often detrimental to the environment and soil life.

Rich soil should look nice and dark, feel crumbly, have plenty of soil life, should retain moisture, and provide adequate drainage. It should support healthy life in the soil which in turn supports a healthy plant with no need of additional plant food. A healthy plant will naturally resist pests thus reducing or even eliminating your need for pesticides and insecticides.

Now, how I got there is the point I am addressing in this blog post. Let me warn you though, in the age of instant gratification, this method is not a quick fix but rather a reliable and long standing one. Good soil takes several years to build depending on what you start off with, approximately 3 years of conscious effort in our case, as we were lucky to start with nutrient rich, undisturbed, but heavy clay soil throughout the property.

A few years back when we moved into our new home we had started planting out fruit trees. Not knowing enough about soil lifecycle and its contribution, we thought that the magic fix to nourish a fruit tree is to dig up a decent sized hole in our clay soil, back fill with bagged soil, throw in some amendments, fertilizers and plant up the tree. Little did we know that this was simply not enough, nor a wise choice to support a healthy perennial tree. We found ourselves feeding the trees twice a year with fertilizers and yet the trees did not do great as we thought it would. I then came across several content on how wood chip mulching transforms the soil web. The information made complete sense, and I decided to test it out. After the very first year of laying out a 4″ layer of good quality wood chips the beneficial organisms started to respond, and there was good fungal activity. The soil was nice and soft to dig through and the trees looked happy and produced nice fruits. Here’s a link to my experience from couple years back Fruit explosion with mulching…

The journey continued, and we have transformed one area after another of our barren, hard soil into a rich ecosystem where beneficial fungi, bacteria, earthworms and several other soil life thrive.


We have slowly gotten to a point where we do not have to rely on fertilizers, yes, even the organic ones nor any pesticides / insecticides to raise healthy plants and trees. We are constantly learning and finding ways to improve our ecosystem and respect the life around us. Some steps that we took to get here are as follows.

  • We practice no-till gardening. We do not disturb or till the soil at all. Yes, that’s right, not even a few inches, and here’s why. Several microbes, bacteria, fungi, beneficial nematodes live in the soil at various layers in the soil. Tilling disrupts the intricate soil web and the life it holds.
  • We do not pull out the plant at the end of life. I simply cut the plant at its base and leave the roots in. The roots feed the life in the soil and continue to decompose adding to the nutritive value of the soil. This is even more pronounced in nitrogen fixing plants such as legumes/beans etc. I do this for healthy plants only. When plants are unhealthy or diseased, throw the entire plant in trash or burn them.
  • We add a few inches of good quality compost once a year to our garden beds. Preferably we add this in the fall, so that the compost has time to settle in during the rainy season, and life has a chance to proliferate. I sometimes buy OMRI listed compost in bulk from local vendors as I do not always make enough compost for my needs. I amend periodically with home made compost and leaf mold.
  • We cover the soil completely by adding a heavy layer of mulch . Some options we have tried are dried leaf mulches during fall, 3-4″ of wood chips or 3-4″ of untreated mulches. The mulch layer will eventually breakdown with the help of soil life over the years thus enriching the soil. This has dramatically improved the soil structure over time and has turned things around in the garden.
  • For soil that is rock hard, work in several bags of gypsum. I had to double dig certain sections of the garden one time before we started off the process of topping off with compost and mulch layers.
  • Well composted cow manures conditions the soil. I routinely add cow manures to my compost pile as and when I have access to it.


  • Collect all fallen leaves during Fall. Ask around in your neighborhood if you lack diverse trees in your own property. Trees extract nutrients from deep down using their deep and extensive root systems and hold it in the leaves. Every leaf is like a multi vitamin pill.
  • Composting at home and help reduce carbon foot print for shipping the compost, plastics for bagging up the soil etc. Do the best you can. There are several methods of composting based on individual needs. Pick any and follow through.
  • Cultivate local soil microbes. They are beneficial for your own health and that of your plants. Soil is a living thing, similar to local honey. The more local it is, the better it is.
  • Encourage diversity, by growing a wide variety of plants and trees in your immediate environment. Plants such as nettles, borage, comfrey, legumes are nutrient accumulators. Use these as chop and drop mulches. Grow living mulches to protect the soil and to encourage life to thrive in the soil. Try to accomplish several layers in your food scape – ranging from tall trees to ground covers. Visualize the amazon jungle and how the rich flora and fauna thrive in the company of each other. Try to emulate a similar environment in your garden.
  • Practice poly culture and move away from mono cropping. Although rows and rows of the same crop look pretty, they are not always the best for your plants, soil and finally you the consumer. Some examples of poly culture include intercropping different types of edibles, companion planting, interplanting edible plants and flowers that attract pollinators and/or repel insects.
  • Plant pollinator friendly and natural insect repellent plants. Liberal plantings encourage birds, bees, butterflies and various other insects that help improve the ecosystem. Plants that are strong smelling such as various herbs such as dill, basil, marigolds, repel pests commonly seen in tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Likewise there are several other combinations that operate in harmony with each other. This will result in attracting predatory insects that will keep the bad bugs away from your main plant. Such plantings often result in less use of pesticide and insecticides.
  • Earthworms are happy in such soils and they will leave their castings behind.
Polyculture – bush beans and lettuce in the front row, with eggplants in row 2 and 3 with purslane growing as ground cover. Pops of red is amaranth which self seeds each year. The last row against the trellis has pole beans alternating with bitter gourds. Peas visible is from spring planting, which I will cut when the weather heats up.

A healthy soil is a backbone to a fruitful and nutrient rich landscape. If we make deliberate efforts to consistently think of soil health, the rest else will take care of itself. Once soil health is restored you will be ready to do away with confusing fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and what not. The fruits and vegetables produced from such a soil will be superior in taste, high in nutrition and pretty much low maintenance.

I hope my journey helps inspires you to nurture the soil for it to nurture you.

Happy Gardening!

Edible gardening

Green house tour – January, 2021

Happy New Year, 2021!

In this blog post, I wanted to share the greenhouse progress through the winter months and how the plants held up through the chilly days of November and December. This year we barely got any rain in the Bay Area, but on the days that we did get some, the plants in the greenhouse were sheltered from the cold and rain.

With the sun axial tilt which puts the Northern hemisphere in a more direct path of the solar energy, we can see various forms of life in the garden wake up and respond to the sun. January 14 is celebrated in several parts of India as Makar Sankranthi, the day when the tilt of the sun changes, celebrating and honoring the sun and all the life force around us. In our home garden, its usually around this time of the year when I start seedlings for early spring and summer plantings.

This is my first year with a permanent greenhouse, and the first winter growing in it. I decided to experiment this year with an unheated greenhouse, and no supplemental lighting. Check out my other blog posts on the greenhouse for setup of Palram greenhouse and using the greenhouse through the season.

Peppers, eggplants and tomatoes are perennials and could produce well for a few years if taken good care. In zone 9a, its tricky to overwinter these plants outdoors reliably without adequate protection. By digging them up during Fall and overwintering them successfully, the plants get a head start in spring and they produce fruits for an extended period of time. Overwintering is well worth the time and effort as it allows me to dig up only the vigorous plants. It also saves me a lot of time babying pepper and eggplant seedlings during spring and instead focus on other aspects of gardening.

The permanent greenhouse has been valuable in saving eggplants, peppers and tomatoes. I had several yard long beans growing inside the greenhouse which continued to produce heavily until the end of November, whereas the ones planted outdoors died by October. We continued to get good quality tomatoes and an abundance of eggplants and peppers and even basil for pesto! Several tender plants such as tulsi, mango, papaya and ginger thrived in the humidity in the greenhouse with protection from the cold rains and dry air. Tulsi in the unheated greenhouse did a lot better than the ones I had moved indoors. Overall, I am very pleased with the success this year. I had some issues with aphids on peppers and eggplants, for which I sprinkled some diatomaceous earth. Neem spray should help in controlling aphids as well.

Here’s a collection of plants thriving in the greenhouse through the winter:

  • 25 pepper plants – ghost pepper, habanero, serrano, black cobra, pusa jwala, birds eye, hawaaiian pepper, japapeno and several other varieties
  • eggplants – japanese eggplants, ratna eggplant, and thai eggplant varieties doing very well and producing continuously
  • tomatoes – Nivenha, Shorba, san marzano and get stuffed varieties
  • yard long beans – they survived until early December and produced reliably
  • cilantro – self seeded and continuously producing
  • malabar spinach – extended the growing season
  • ginger, turmeric – continued to thrive in the humid greenhouse in the raised bed
  • other plants – papaya, mango, tulsi, brahmi, jasmine, crossandra, ixora survived well. Pandan however did not make it. Note for next year to bring this baby indoors.

Since we can start seeds for peppers, eggplants, tomatoes right around now, I hope you check out my blog post on a good setup. Its fairly easy and can be completed in a couple hours. Once the plants are about an inch tall, I move them over to the greenhouse and they continue to grow with sunlight.

In my experience this past year, I found that Greenhouse can very well be useful for folks in the Bay Area for all-year plant growth. I hope you found this post useful. Please drop in your comments and do share your experiences.

Happy Gardening!

bay area, Container gardening, Edible gardening, Urban gardening, Zone 9

What to plant in August?

Summer is at its peak and the garden is full. Next set of planting is not in our minds yet and there is no space to fit yet another plant. But it is important to plan this now and get going with planting, to get the garden continue to produce during the Fall and winter months.

March/April plantings of melons, squashes, beans, cucumbers, determinate varieties of tomatoes and cantaloupes are probably dwindling down in production or diseased. Determinate varieties of tomatoes would have put out all of their tomatoes and maybe giving you just an occasional one. It’s time to replace it with another set of determinate/bush variety of tomatoes that will ripen right before the first frost. Cucumbers are slowing down and probably have powdery mildew and you are unsure what to do with them. Zucchini and summer squashes have become very long and though putting out a good harvest, may have powdery mildew, squash bug infestation or look unhealthy. Beans may be affected with spider mites or other diseases, or look tired after spending hours in the hot sun past couple months. Whatever the case maybe, Bay Area temperatures and long growing season allows us to do another round of planting before the summer growing season officially closes.

For several years I thought growing vegetables successfully was only during the summer, until I educated myself about growing cycles, frost free days and how to read the information on a seed packet to determine what to grow.

Here’s how to determine what to plant in August.

Determine your first frost date. A good resource to use is Key in your zip code and you will know your first frost date and last frost dates. Based on that you can determine how many frost free growing days you have in your area. We are lucky to have a total of ~ 273 frost free days with no protection, and most often can extend the season a beyond that using frost blankets and greenhouses.

For my zip code, the first frost date is the last week of November. The number of days between August 1 and last week of November is about 16-17 weeks, which is roughly 120 days before the frost hits. The seed packet will indicate the number of days for plant maturity, which is the first date when we can expect a harvest. While these number of days are not exact and will vary based on soil and weather conditions, it does provide a good idea of what to expect. To be on the safer side, I would pick seeds/plants that will mature in about 100 days. Just for a fun experiment I chose the butternut and honeynut squash variety that matures in about 120 days. You will be surprised to see that there are plenty of options to choose from.

Some options to choose from…

Here is a breakdown by the week to ensure that there is continued harvest in Fall and early winter.

August 1st week – With ~ 120 days left, you can now sow sweet potatoes, bush/determinate tomatoes, corn, mini watermelons, salad leaves, sambar cucumber/dosakaya, peppers, papdi/avarai/hyacinth bean for an early spring harvest, chillies, early maturing eggplants, okra, early maturing cantaloupes, zucchini and summer squashes.

This is a good time to transplant beetroots, peppers and eggplants if you already started them indoors. With cooling temperatures in September / October bell peppers have less of a struggle with the scorching heat and tend to flower and fruit better.

August 2nd week – plenty of time to direct sow cucumbers, bush/container zucchini, mini butternut and delicata squash, yellow squash, bush tomatoes, mini watermelons, cilantro, swiss chard, salad leaves.

August 3rd week – direct sow beetroots, kholrabi, bush beans, peas, last chance to sow mini early maturing watermelons such as Ice box. Now is the time to transplant tomatoes and anything else that you started in July and early August. Keep an eye on the temperatures as it could still get very hot risking a safe transplant. Start seeds indoors for brassicas such as broccoli, kale, collards, Napa cabbage, cauliflower, cabbage, herbs such as parsley, sage. The cabbage and cauliflower varieties I am trying new this year are the Pixie cabbage and Amazing cauliflower from Renee seeds. I have not had much luck with broccoli in the past and this year I am going to try my luck with Long standing broccoli from Renee seeds.

August 4th week – Swiss chard, peas, beetroots, carrots, kale, parsley, plants in the brassica family, khol rabi, turnips, diakon radish, beans such as dragon tongue from Bakers creek heirloom seeds.

It is important to start the cool weather crops such as the ones in the brassica family by August as it will provide enough time for the plant to grow large enough before the day length shortens. To give the plants the best start, it is best to start these seeds indoors in a controlled environment as the outside temperatures continue to soar. Cauliflower and cabbage do better as plant starts rather than directly sown in the garden.

Vegetables that you can sow continually every 3-4 weeks are beetroots, carrots, radish, cilantro, bush beans, pole beans. Stop sowing bush and pole beans ~ 70-80 days before first frost date, as many varieties mature in about 55-60 days.

Kick start your fall garden and please do share tips on what has worked for you. Happy gardening.

Edible gardening

Indoor seed starting setup for reliable germination.

An indoor seed starting setup gives 4-6 weeks heads up on the season, and enables us to grow seedlings in a protected environment until they are ready for transplant.

Last year I had used a simple folding table with heat mats and grow lights. I was able to accomodate 4 10*12 trays and couple lighting setup. However, I had several growing on the floor as well and it was not the best use of space. I scoured around for a vertical seed starting setup, with heat mats and grow lights, but the professional ones costed north of $600. So, I decided to build my own, since I already owned the lights and heat mats, I only needed to add a sturdy shelving system.

Walking down one of the aisles @Costco, I found “TRINITY 6-Tier Wire Shelving Rack, 48″x18″x72” that will work very well for my needs. The system is super easy to assemble and comes apart as two separate shelving systems if need be. It fits my space very well, and costed about $100. After assembling the shelving, the remaining tasks were to install the lights and heat mats.

Materials used in the setup

  1. TRINITY 6-Tier Wire Shelving Rack, 48″x18″x72
  2. 2 grow lights – I used the ones I already had purchased at a local store. There are a lot of options available online, but here is the ones I used. They are not the best, but works quite well for my purpose.
    1. Hydrofarm T5 light with 4 light bulbs.
    2. Hydrofarm with 1 light bulb. I got this as it happened to be on a good sale at my local store.
  3. Heat mat – Vivosun 2 pack seedling mat. Link
  4. Chain links with “S” hook or anything sturdy to attach the lights to the shelving. I had a few curtain hoops that I repurposed for attaching the lights to the unit. I recommend using the chain + S hook option as it gives you the flexibility to raise or lower the light source quickly and easily.
  5. Timer for automated control of light. I leave mine on for about 12 – 16 hours during the day and turn off manually at night, if I remember. I will be investing in a timer for reliably controlling the light exposure for the seedlings. Here’s the option I have narrowed down, to be able to plug in all the heat mats, and lights :

For most seed, you only need bottom heat via a heat mat to help the seeds germinate. Plants like eggplants and peppers benefit from bottom heat to germinate reliably. I use the damp paper towel method to help with germination and check for seed viability. Simply place seeds in a double folded thick paper towel, and close it on all sides to prevent seed from falling out. Label or number the paper if you are growing several varieties. Lightly dampen the paper towel and place it in an air tight container such as used salad box or ziploc baggie. This will help retain the humidity and keep the seed moist. No additional water is needed until the seeds germinate. If the paper appears dry to touch, add a few drops of water. Place the bags in a warm area such as the top of a refrigerator, or near a fireplace or as in my case above the heat mat. The seeds typically germinate within 3-7 days depending on the kind of seed. Once the seeds sprout, I transfer the sprouts into the growing medium covering lightly with soil. The sprouts are quite resilient and easy to pick up using fingers or with tweezers even if they are stuck to the paper towel. Some sprouts may root through the paper towel if left too long, in which case I simply cut a small bit of paper along with the sprout and place it in the growing media.

Once the seeds have germinated and has rooted its time to turn on the lights for upper plant growth. Place the light about 2″ above the seedling. As the plant grows up, maintain the 2″ distance. If the seedlings do not have adequate direct light, the seedlings will be leggy and weak. Mine is by a very sunny south facing garage window, and yet the additional light makes a huge difference in the quality of the seedlings. Once the outside temperature is in the 60’s take out the seed trays and give them a sun soak for few hours each day between 9 – 3pm. Make sure to bring them indoors in the evening.

A heat mat and grow lights have made a huge difference in successful seed starting, especially in the colder months. The shelving system is mostly for convenience and you can do away without one if you have a small set of plants to grow.

I hope you find this post useful in setting up your own seed starting space. Happy Gardening!

bay area, Edible gardening, greenhouse, Urban gardening, Zone 9

Greenhouse construction

Past couple years, after using the small plastic sheeting greenhouse, I decided that it’s time to upgrade to a more permanent one. As backyard plans firmed up, the location of the greenhouse became more apparent. We decided to take the plunge and invest in a 12*8 Palram Essence greenhouse from Costco. After waiting for missing parts to arrive, and rains to subside, we got working on the massive undertaking of putting them together.

First step: Open the packages, sort and group all parts and name them with a sharpie. Order any missing parts. Expect 2 week wait time for missing parts to be delivered. Meanwhile work on setting the foundation.

Foundation: We have uneven ground, and had to level it quite a bit. We did not want the greenhouse to sit on ground as that part of the garden gets soggy when wet. Once the base was fairly level we used 6*6 and 4*6 lumber for the base and reinforced it to the ground with 18″ rebar. We added sturdy weed blocker, as the structure was being built over a grassy area.This took us two days of physical work.

Hiccups: Once the foundation was done, we put up some of the structure. Unfortunately, weather turned for the worse, and due to lack of free time and we ended up not completing it immediately. We ended up with a few bent parts due to high winds. We undid parts of the frame, and decided to tackle it once weather got better. It just took us 3 months of wait and a test of my patience!

Restarting the project: Luckily, Feb bought us some unexpected warm days, and sunshine. That was enough to motivate hubby to get started on it. It took us 2-3 days of consistent work to put the structure up. We filled the base partially with lava rock as it helps with heat retention.

The structure is up! YAY! I moved the overwintered peppers into the greenhouse. Many of the plant starts from my garage seed starting setup moved up to the greenhouse for growing. I already had a vegetable bed inside, and the plants in the greenhouse continued to thrive.

Next steps: We plan to add a fan and possibly some heat source for winter. There are alignment issues and gaps, so I’ll have to add greenhouse tape, or foam to seal any gaps before winter arrives. I am working on the perfect configuration for adding a workbench to place all my starter plants. We already have plumbing and drip irrigation for the greenhouse bed, but we will need to extend it to the container plants. I am beyond excited and so glad that we purchased a large greenhouse, instead of opting for the smaller sized one.

Completed greenhouse

Experimental garden during summer: Growing inside the greenhouse is quite tricky, in dealing with pests, as well as temperature control. I plan to try out a few vegetables such as tomatoes, okra, yard long beans, ginger, turmeric and see how that goes.

Lava rocks on the floor. 8’*2′ raised bed and several containers.

Few tips:

  1. Level the ground, and square the edges perfectly. If not, you will experience issues as you build the greenhouse, with doors / windows misalignment.
  2. Follow instructions to the T. Instructions are mostly visual, with barely any text.
  3. Sort and group all materials ahead of time. There are usually missing parts, and this will help pre-order before you start the project. Palram customer support is good, and we had no issues reordering items missing.
PALRAM greenhouse garden tour 2020

Overall though it took a while to build the greenhouse, the structure is permanent and expect several years if not decades of use from it.