Winter rains are a great time to build soil root structure

2016-01-20 10.17.18 (NXPowerLite Copy)When I first started growing food, winter was a time when my efforts would slow down. With the reduced temperatures I couldn’t grow much of what I wanted to. But with the recent drought years in California, especially last summer, I’ve come to see things differently.

In the midst of a long, hot, dry summer it’s rather tough to get crops established, especially if growing from seed. Sure, I can also grow seedlings and transplant them, but for crops that are “many in number” like sorghum and wheat, I’d much rather be direct seeding. With a very full time job, a baby, and speaking engagements, I have to use my garden time very carefully.

I have direct seeded grains in the summer, however even with all of my tricks, it still takes more water than I wish it did, and requires vigilance in the first week to keep the ground moist. Carefully prepping and prewatering the soil, soaking the seeds, planting deep, and carefully covering the soil, sometime in two layers can make it all work in summer.

But in the winter, the relatively warm weather and frequent rains this year in California are making it very easy to direct seed. Basically everything is coming up readily. It feels like I could get a handful of cereal rye, through it in my soil, and walk away, and if the birds don’t eat it, it’ll grow.

2016-01-20 10.17.26 (NXPowerLite Copy)

Why grow grains to cover the soil?

Which brings me to my favorite topic these days: keeping soil covered by growing grains.

1. Life. The soil needs something growing on it in order for the organisms in the soil to stay active. Those organisms are the life (or death) of your soil, and are my favored way of getting good yields. Fertilizer, bought compost, pesticides, herbicides? Screw that. I work with nature to take care of my soil.

2. Roots. Grains put down beautiful, extensive root structures that will support life in your soil fairly deep down. Grains have a decent capacity to dig down.

3. Ease. It is surprisingly easy to grow grains. Wheat, sorghum, cereal rye, even quinoa are hardy growers. I don’t have time these days to baby the soil. (I need to baby our baby.) So grains are perfect.

4. Longevity. Here in San Mateo my grains don’t seem to fully winter kill. Last year I left some volunteer sorghum in the soil just for fun, and it survived all winter. The beauty here is that if you get too busy to replace that crop, you can leave it in and it’ll continue to nurture your soil for a few years. Plus if you don’t cut the seed heads off, it’ll self seed on its own and keep going. It’s easy enough to pull when you need to.

What’s the takeaway?
If you have bare patches of soil in your garden, winter in California is perfect time to get some cereal rye or wheat established, while it’s very easy to do so. The root structures will leave you with wonderful soil for spring. Irrigation-free growing in California? Yes, in winter.

2016-01-20 10.17.04 (NXPowerLite Copy)

Exotic Crops: Burdock

2014 Spring final bed pic

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from other people’s experiences in growing crops. And so I thought it would be useful if I shared my own stories from this past year, especially because I grew a lot of different varieties on my small space. This year, as usual, I tried some crops that are uncommon in backyards.


Kinpira Gobou

Kinpira Gobou

To be clear when I say “Burdock” I mean what in Japanese is called Gobou, or ごぼう. I’ve heard there are American wild varieties of Burdock that just aren’t the same. In any case I’m thinking “tasty, shredded, with carrots, as an appetizer.”

I actually started my burdock late last spring, around May of 2013. It struggled, maybe because of poor soil in that particular spot, and never got that big. I left it there over winter, and nothing much happened. It was still small, still struggling. I was thinking of giving up and pulling it come May of 2014, when it mysteriously started to grow–a lot–and developed huge leaves. It was amazing.

Gobou 2013And so needless to say, I let it grow through summer, and the plants thrived. The roots also got very big, and by the time I went to dig it out, I’d estimate they were at least 2.5 feet deep, if not deeper. I didn’t have the energy or the space to thoroughly dig out all of the gobou roots, and so I got what I could.

This year I have a smaller gobou in the ground, Salada Musume from the Kitazawa seed company, and it initially did well. One interesting observation is that even though I’m struggling through an attack of Bagrada bug, which eats Brassica family plants (like Cabbage and Broccoli), my gobou plants have in the past gone completely untouched. Indeed, gobou are of a different plant family, Asteraceae. However the Salada Musume were perhaps too tasty to be passed up, and something ate them.

A learning here is that different varieties can have different rates of survival. So it is worth trying varieties and discovering which ones work best in your space.






Process Learnings from Summer

2014 Spring final bed picOn the one hand, this year’s growing plan was in many ways a lot more intricate and ambitious than last year’s. On the other hand, because last year was my first year at the new location, there was absolutely a ton of infrastructure to build and soil to prepare for the first time. So I actually found this year to be a lot easier in various ways, although I still wouldn’t call it “effortless.” I’m working towards that.


Going into this growing season, as with every year, I chose several objectives regarding what I wanted to explore and work on. One of my bigger picture goals has to do with developing the process and know-how to make growing a lot of food–sustainably–a fairly routine and straightforward thing. Of course it’ll never be as easy as driving to a Farmer’s market and trading paper money for food (how easy we have it!). But growing food also doesn’t need to be arduous, mysterious, or otherwise unattainable.


I’m convinced that with careful focus and experimentation, I can refine the processes I use to grow food so that it takes a lot less time than it does now, without taking much more resource or equipment. I have a clear goal to reduce my “dependency chain” as much as possible when it comes to growing food, and so using anything that contains a computer processes or relies on precision machined parts is what I’m trying to get away from. So that leaves me with my hands and a desire to develop know-how.

Here are process goals I set:

  • Successful direct planting of grains, as opposed to transplanting to save time.
  • Layout to allow stirrup hoeing between plants to simplify weeding.


There was so much to do last year that I didn’t have much time to think ahead. I started the year behind because of when I received my new space, and spent the rest of the year catching up. Then I was taken by surprise when my Spring potatoes matured, and I didn’t have a plan for what to put in the ground next. The soil went unused and uncovered, which is bad, and so I decided to do a much better job this year.

  • Have a plan to keep the soil working w/ no more than a 2 week gap in between crops.
  • Plan ahead for fall, and even next spring, so I can optimize timing and placement.
  • Plan ahead for when to put fertilizer crops on much of the garden.
  • Move my paths around for simplicity. And also to take advantage of the fence as a trellis.


  • Lima beans
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Dryland Rice




A quick guide to growing your own quinoa

YES, you can grow your own quinoa here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve been growing successfully here for several years, and get several pounds of finished quinoa from relatively small amount of space.


  • Quinoa seeds naturally have saponin on them, a bitter substance that deters birds and other wildlife from eating them.
  • Most quinoa that you buy at a grocery store has had the saponins removed via abrasion. In the process, that damages the seed’s ability to properly germinate. I personally haven’t had good luck trying to grow quinoa plants from grocery store quinoa.
  • Instead, buy your seeds online or get them from a local friend who grows. My favorite online source is Bountiful Gardens.


  • I use half compost, half garden soil. A typical potting mix works too.
  • When I do need to buy soil or compost, I go to Lyngso in Redwood City. They are very careful about what they put into their soil, and they are also mindful of sustainability and soil healthy. Cover lightly—if too deep they may not emerge.
  • Just keep the seeds moist for good germination—if they dry out, they’ll die.
  • Make sure there’s good drainage—if they sit in puddles of water for hours, that’s bad. The optimal dampness is “damp sponge” level.
  • The quinoa should sprout within a couple of days. If not, something’s probably wrong.
  • Hint: quinoa, like most vegetable and grain seeds, don’t need sun to germinate. So until they germinate, you can place them out of the sun, where it’s easier to keep the soil moist.


  • Once the quinoa germinate, then they need sun! Otherwise they’ll get leggy and fall over.
  • Shade cloth is helpful so the seedlings don’t dry out. It gives you some buffer if you’re late watering one day, or if it’s a particularly hot day.
  • Similarly, I find that putting the flats onto the top of a raised bed gives them an extra “moisture bank” from the raised bed soil to tap into. The worst place you can put seedlings is on a wood or concrete balcony in full sun.
  • The seedlings are ready to transplant when they’re about 2” high.  But if it’s been a few weeks and they get to 1” and stop growing, transplant them anyhow and keep an eye on them.

Prepping soil

  • Pre-water for a few days—and cover.
  • The deeper down your soil is loose, the better. At least a foot loose, preferably two or more.


  • Re-water and transplant after.
  • 12” centers.
  • Shade them until they get settled and start growing again.

Watering and Growing

  • I like to keep the soil moist until the plants are about 4′ tall.
  • Once they are established, they need much less water. At some point, lots of water will just make them grow very tall, without any gain in yield.
  • Straw as a mulch can really help until the quinoa canopies.
  • Right after transplanting ,the quinoa may “look at you” for a while, seemingly doing nothing while they establish. They they’ll grow fast. FAST.


  • Quinoa looks a lot like Lamb’s Quarters, which I consider a weed. You won’t be able to tell the difference until they’re about 4″ high.
  • The most reliable giveaway is that the leaves of Lamb’s Quarters have a strong smell, whereas the leaves of Quinoa, in my experience, have a pleasant smell.
  • Another giveaway is that Lamb’s Quarters puts out seeds much earlier than quinoa, and the seeds are much more dominant on the plant.
  • You’ll want to pick Lamb’s Quarters as soon as you positively identify it, because it can generate a lot of seeds quickly, which can become tomorrow’s weed problem.


  • Need to put in stakes or they’ll fall over.
  • I use electrical metal conduit (the thinner one) from Home Depot; Bamboo would be better if you have access to it, but it’d have to be very thick bamboo.


  • When the leaves dry out, the stalks go brown. It’s ready.
  • Pull the plants, cut the seed heads off, and dry them in the sun.


  • You can remove the seeds from the dried stalks with your hands.
  • You can also use a home made Bucket Thresher.



  • You can wash off the saponin just like how you wash rice. You know you’re done when you can’t taste the bitter saponin any more when you sample a grain of quinoa.
  • At the “Ichican-kan” Japanese variety store in Japantown, I bought a strainer cup specifically for washing rice, that works great for washing saponin off of quinoa. I haven’t been recently but hopefully they still sell it because it’s a great tool for washing quinoa and rice thoroughly, while saving water.
  • By the way, the “waste water” from washing quinoa and rice is fantastic in your garden or your compost pile. For rice in particular, don’t let that water sit overnight in a container because it will begin to smell.


  • Quinoa cooks well in a rice cooker. Of course you can cook it on a stove top too.
  • Sweet and Crunch Quinoa Salad is one of my favorite recipes! You can substitute the pine nuts if you want.

Resources for Growing Quinoa

Here are my go-to sources for quinoa growing supplies.


Soil and Compost


Hand Tools




Why I don’t use “city compost” in my vegetable garden.

Here's what hidden pesticides in city compost can do to your tomato plants.

Here’s what hidden pesticides in city compost can do to your tomato plants. Why risk it?

I was recently copied on an email to a community garden regarding the safety of city compost. The email pretty much said “Don’t worry, the city compost company says that the compost is OMRI (the Organic Review Materials Institute) approved, therefore it’s safe.”

But it turns out that OMRI doesn’t require testing for herbicides or pesticides! So you could have city compost with nasty stuff in it, even though it has passed all OMRI requirements.

And this isn’t hypothetical problem: a quick search of the internet turns up a number of incidents where nasty persistent chemicals, both pesticides and herbicides, have been found in city compost and have caused big problems for backyard gardeners. Persistent chemicals are ones that survive the composting process and remain in the soil for years.

I found a very relevant article on the topic that shares important information and perspective:

When you think about it, it’s not surprising that city compost contains these products. Practically every garden store has a full assortment of herbicides and pesticides, and people buy them and use them. Even if vegetable gardeners are less likely to use them, you’ve got the lawn industry, which is probably 100 to 1000 times larger than the vegetable gardening industry.

All of this yard waste, and the chemical residue on them, go into the collection bin, which goes into the shared city compost. Many of these chemicals are not broken down by the composting process, and they can go on to cause terrible problems for the vegetable gardener.

It’s critical to understand, as well, that OMRI doesn’t require testing for pesticides:

The nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute, which reviews organic inputs, requires approved composts to be tested for heavy metals and pathogens every five years. The US Composting Council operates a voluntary accreditation program in which the largest participants must submit to similar metals and pathogen tests once a month. Neither program requires testing for pesticide residues.

So unless we see 3rd party tests on Recology compost for persistent herbicides and pesticides, that show at what ppb (parts per billion) they were detected, then we have to assume they’re present and that they could cause a problem. I imagine that there is a standard ppb threshold at which the presence of a pesticide becomes a concern.
This is NOT a hypothetical concern! From Mother Jones:

Composting Council executive director Stuart Buckner believes that the EPA still hasn’t learned its lesson from the early aughts, when the herbicide Clopyralid was banned for lawn use after turning up in damaging levels in compost.

Here’s a study of what Clopyralid does to plants:

pesticide clopyralid 3 pics

To me it’s just common sense: given where the raw materials comes from, I assume that city compost contains harmful pesticides and herbicides, unless proven otherwise. Why take the very real risk on city compost, when you can make your own compost from known good materials?

Danger of frost has passed for peninsula gardeners.

One of the challenges that any gardener faces is deciding when to plant seeds in the new year. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in particular the peninsula, we are very fortunate to have extremely moderate weather and so it means that we can start the planting season very early. But how early?

The one danger that we face is that we can get frost in February. Frost is particularly damaging for certain types of seedlings, and so it’s important to consider. In fact early last year we had about a full week of evening frost. I remember this vividly because I had potatoes that were about to go to maturity and so I was out there every night covering them, and out there every morning uncovering them. I know that people’s memory of weather can be unreliable and so it got me wondering if there was good historical data out there. It turns out that there is.

A few years ago I really got into analyzing weather data. I discovered a UC website that had free, rich, downloadable set of climate data for various spots in California. And with the help of Excel I did a lot of analysis on it. At the time I was just doing it for fun but now as a gardener I can look back at the analysis that I did and pull out some very important information.

Frost danger climate chart SFO RWCHere is a chart of climate data from the year 2000 to the year 2010 for the San Francisco Airport and a spot in Redwood City. The red dots show the high temperature for the day and the blue dots show the low temperature for the day. The green dots are precipitation. For the purposes of deciding when it’s safe to plant, let’s focus on the blue dots.

Although technically 32 degrees Fahrenheit is freezing temperature, I personally start to get concerned when the temperature is below 34F. And so I have drawn a blue dotted line showing approximately where 34F it’s. And you can see that from around the middle of February onwards, the nighttime temperatures in this 10-year period have never dipped below 34F. So this gives me a fair amount of confidence with respect to going and putting seeds or seedlings in the ground.

I would say that mid February is a fairly safe guideline overall. Granted, it depends on what you’re planting, but I feel comfortable that I can plant from now going forward and I won’t have frost problems. Keep in mind that some vegetables need much higher temperatures than 32F in order to work, but the point here is that frost creates special problems for many food crops.

One might reasonably ask what happened to the data from 2011 to 2014. The problem I ran into is that the University of California website stopped published the data I was using. Fortunately somebody at the UC extension office was able to refer me to a data source from Utah State University which for some reason has California climate data. (Thank God.) And so if I wanted to I could work that data into my spreadsheet and update my chart.

In any case I just downloaded fresh data and did a quick spot check of weather data from 2011 to present. What I found is that in 2011 there was a late frost from 2/26 to 2/28. And in 2013 there was one night of frost on 2/20. To find the previous late February frost, I have to go back to 1996, and before that, 1990. So while historically there is a *chance* of frost in late February, it’s rare.

The key point I want to communicate here, besides mid-February being a safe time to start planting, is that there is wonderful free data available, if you know where to look, and we can learn a lot from it.