Category Archives: How To

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)

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 a 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 Wild Garden Seed.


  • 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.

Resources for Growing Quinoa

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


Soil and Compost


Hand Tools