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!

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

Growing lush cilantro

Lush vibrant cilantro

Cilantro is the leafy counterpart of the spice coriander seed, which is ubiquitous in Indian, Mexican and Asian cuisine. They have incredible detoxification benefits, particularly well known as a chelator for heavy metals. Added to smoothies, made into chutneys, or garnished they are versatile in their use.

Cilantro is a cool season edible and aromatic leaf that grow well in both containers and in the ground. Growing them is fairly easy, but they bolt pretty fast if they are heat stressed.

Here are 6 tips for lush cilantro growth :

  1. Seed choice: Choose slow bolt variety seeds, and not the one from the pantry for reliable good leafy growth.
  2. Growing media : Easy to grow in containers / ground alike. Pick a shallow (4-6″ deep) and wide container, and fill with a mix of compost, perlite and coco coir for good water retention, nutrition and aeration.
  3. Germination and timing: Best germination is between 55 deg -70 deg. Each spherical seed pod has two or more seeds in it. Gently crush to separate the seeds in half. Soak in water for up to 24 hours. Densely spread on growing media and add about 1/2 inch soil to cover the seeds. Once they germinate, thin them optionally. If you want large plants, thin the plants and replant in separate areas of the garden.
  4. Watering and feeding: Use a regular watering schedule and ensure that the soil is moist. A high nitrogen fertilizer will promote good leafy growth. I use a liquid fertilizer periodically but most often good compost is adequate to provide the nutrients.
  5. Harvest : Regularly remove leaves from outer sections of the plant once the plants are at least 4 inches tall. If allowed, the plants could grow as tall as 1 – 3 ft.
  6. Extending the harvest: Start the first couple batches indoors with the help of a heat mat, when outside temperatures are still in the 40’s. Set out transplants once the seedlings are 2-3 inches tall. Direct sow seeds every two weeks when day time temperatures are between 55 deg – 70 deg, until summer and start again during fall season once weather starts to cool off. As temperature rises, pick different cooler spots in the garden at each sowing. Under a tree canopy is a great location. Mulch with bark or compost to keep roots cool. Water adequately and frequently when temperatures rise.

A cilantro pesto recipe for a savory spread for breads / flat breads:

2 cups cilantro leaves and stem

1/2 cup walnuts, almonds – optional

2 chillies, salt to taste and a 1 tbsp of cooking oil

1/2 tsp turmeric powder.

A small bit of tamarind or 2 tsp lemon juice.

Heat a heavy bottomed pan, add oil, chillies and turmeric. Add all the other ingredients. Saute’ them together until the cilantro slightly wilts. Blend until well incorporated into a paste, adding a bit of water as necessary. Alternately, you can skip the saute’ and blend the ingredients raw. Store in the refrigerator and use it liberally as spreads/chutneys. Its particularly tasty as a spread in an avocado sandwich. It also tastes great with freshly steamed rice and a dollop of ghee.

Cilantro is an excellent addition to the front yard garden. Lush bright green is refreshing to look at in late winter/early Spring. They add ornamental value besides culinary and medicinal uses.The whiff of smell as you water the cilantro plants is delightful to the senses. Try some in your garden this season!

bay area, Edible gardening, Limited space, Nutrition, Urban gardening, Zone 9

May – plantings and harvests

Weather is fluctuating quite a bit in the Bay Area. Temperature soars to low 70’s and dips to high 50’s. With this I’ve had plants that are a bit confused, but several thriving. I have a steady harvest of spinach, truck loads of chard from my chard jungle, French and red viened sorrel, vitamin greens, cilantro, Okinawa spinach, parsley, sage,  oak leaf lettuce, frissee, and various other greens easily half pound each time. We harvest the greens atleast couple of times each week and either prepare salads, or saute with mild spices. The peas are still producing flowers when the temperature dips, and slows down when they rise. My son loves to snack on them routinely, straight from the plant. This week we harvested purple cauliflower, which had formed 3-4 inch heads, totaling to about 1.5 lbs. In this bed I plan on sowing okra once the temperatures are consistently warmer.

Strawberries are growing and ripening, and between slugs, roly polies and pests, we are harvest atleast 4-8 oz of berries every couple of days. The cinderblock idea for strawberries are going great so far, however when temperatures rise, I will need to figure out a consistent watering schedule as the cement blocks could scorch the tender roots. The dwarf mulberry tree is loaded with goodness. The blueberries have started to ripen, and with that is our regular visits from “Blue the bluejay”, as my kids fondly call it.

March planted cabbages are thriving. The 45 day cabbage is almost getting ready to be harvested, with heads firmed up and about 4-5 inch in diameter. Tomatoes are thriving, and are loaded with flowers, with promises of juicy harvests. A volunteer tomato near our air conditioner has overwintered successfully and is happily growing again. Surprisingly this spot does not get much direct sun, barring for couple hours of intense heat in the afternoon. Overwintered peppers have taken off and started to produce flowers. Moringa has shown signs of life after being dormant for months. Curry leaves are prolific with new growth and shoots. Eggplants have set fruits, and so have the summer squashes. Onions planted in December last year have set good sized bulbs, and I will be harvesting them as needed. The consistent rains have helped. Garlic seems to be ready, with most of the leaves losing its bright color. Icicle and watermelon radishes are consistently producing in the canopy of tomatoes, and in between lettuces, and just about every where. Cucumbers, winter squashes, melons and cantaloupes successfully transplanted and are growing slowly but steadily. Couple of them got eaten up by pests however, and I need to direct sow.  All home grown eggplants and peppers have had a slow start, but I think there is adequate time for it to take off once the hotter summer kicks in.

The tindora root I had purchased from ebay has produced shoots and is steadily growing. Sweet potatoes vines have rooted and I need to transplant them into the soil this week. I think I might be a bit late for the sweet potatoes, however there is no harm in trying. Ginger has produced shoots and are ready to go in the soil as well.

On the not so rosy side of gardening, something has been eating off all the bitter gourd, ridge gourd, gavar beans, and pole beans. I am truly puzzled of an insects affiliation towards bitters! I was very confident that no pests would bother a bitter gourd plant, but I was so not right! Perhaps the insect kingdom knows the value of bitters and chomps them off to balance their blood sugars!

Feb through April being very busy with starting seeds indoors, preparing beds, sowing and transplanting, May onwards is the time to kick back and enjoy the fruits of labor. Happy gardening my friends!


May 2019 – plantings and harvest
bay area, Container gardening, Edible gardening, Limited space, Nutrition, Urban gardening, Zone 9

Lesser known herbs… Cuban Oregano

Several years back, in the Niles antique market I stumbled across a pot of cuban oregano / Indian Borage / Mexican mint / Karpooravalli / Doddapatre. I was beyond delighted, as this was particularly hard to find 8 years ago, and was always grown in my mom’s kitchen garden. Growing up, I found delight in nibbling a couple of leaves while watering the plants. It has a sharp taste to it, and is medicinal. When added to a kashayam (steeped medicinal herbs) its used to ward off a chest cold or digestive discomfort. Its also periodically incorporated in cooking, for micro-doses of herbal goodness. The seller was surprised and intrigued when I showed such keen interest in the plant, as he had no clue that it was edible or what to make of it. I wrote down a recipe for him to try.

It was fairly easy to grow. I always planted them in a pot and little bits would fall off and create new ones, much similar to a succulent. The plant is currently in the edible landscape in our front porch, by the steps. They are beautiful succulents to look at, grows quickly trailing over the pot, needs very little water, and adds to the aesthetics of the front yard garden. What’s more to say, they are edible too! Crushing it gently releases aromatic essential oils, which is quite refreshing. They are frost tender, so a bit of protection under the eaves may be necessary. Its very easy to root indoors in just plain water, and I’ve liberally shared cuttings with my friends. I have never seen it flower or produce seeds. Often, I like snipping cuttings to arrange it in a flower vase for our dining table. This arrangement stays good for several weeks, if not months!

Pictures …


Popular Recipes…

  • Kashayam : Snip a few leaves and add it to boiling water with a tsp of black pepper, and cumin. Allow to steep, strain and drink several times a day. This is quite relieving for congestion. By itself, its excellent digestive aid, and I’ve often given this to my children when they were less than a year old, and is pretty much a must have plant for young families.
  • Dish or dip to go with rice: Sauté a cup full of leaves in a tsp of ghee, with black pepper, cumin and optionally a green chili. Transfer to blender, and add 2 tbsp of coconut and 1 cup of thick yogurt. Blend well. Optionally, add tempering of ghee with mustard or cumin and curry leaves if using it for eating with hot rice.

Remember, a little goes a long way as the smell is quite overpowering, similar to thyme.

 I would love to hear from you in the comments. Drop me a note if you like some cuttings. Pick up only.