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, 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.

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.

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, Container gardening, Edible gardening, Limited space, Urban gardening

Cinderblocks in the edible landscape

I had 12 cinderblocks left over from a backyard seating project. I hit up Pinterest for ideas, and there were several cool ones. I debated between building a cinderblock seating vs using it for planting vs building a retaining wall. So guess what I finally ended up doing…

Continue reading “Cinderblocks in the edible landscape”