Category Archives: Germination

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 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.

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.

Sneak Peak: 2015 Spring and Summer Garden Plan

2015 garden plan sneak peak

Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep things simple this year. With the new job I don’t have nearly as much time as I used to, and so this year will be a test of how well I can keep the garden happy, while still showing up to work.

Here’s my thinking on this year’s plan:

First of all, in order to have a sustainable garden that builds soil, rather than just chews it up, I need to grow a lot of grains. In fact for the whole year, 60% of my garden needs to be growing grains. I do more in the winter than in the summer, but it’s still important for me to get a lot of grains going in the summer.

I have experimented with all of the grains you see on this year’s plan, in addition to others such as Pearl Millet, Oats, Amaranth, and Triticale. They all have their pluses and minuses. This year I’m going to back the “winners” from previous years:

  • Quinoa is an amazing crop to grow. After starting out very small, and seemingly not doing anything for a few weeks, it gets happy and grows vertical so quickly you can almost see it. I’ve gotten more than enough quinoa to eat each of the past two years, from relatively little space.
  • Sorghum is a hardy, easy to grow, low maintenance crop that can give you grain or syrup, depending on the variety. The stalks make fantastic compost, and the extensive roots put great organic matter in the soil.
  • Wheat, and in particular Ethiopian Blue Wheat, is a strong, satisfying crop that doesn’t get too tall. It actually does have a blue tinge when it’s close to maturity.
  • Japanese Millet is a fast growing grain that I’ll cut before it goes to seed. This one is specifically for compost material, and is one I’ll cut and let regrow several times this spring.
  • Cereal Rye is a holdover from winter, that I’ll let grow for part of spring, to nurture the soil for my second potato crop.

Low Water Crops
So we’re in the midst of a serious and potentially long-term drought. Being that I grow in a community garden on the edge of a park, I have access to city water. Nonetheless I am super interested in trying several varieties of crops known to grow well with limited water. I will be getting these seeds from the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH which has many seeds from Arizona. There is an area at the back of my plot that is hard to water, and will be a good test ground for these crops.

Calorie Crops
As much as I love Kale, it won’t keep me alive and kicking. It takes calories to do that, and so in addition to being a “carbon farmer” (for the soil) I need to be a “calorie farmer” and be smart about what I grow.

The best known calorie crops, that give a lot of calories reliably, quickly, in a small area, are tubers. I’ll be doing traditional potatoes again this year, as my main calorie crop. I’ll also be continuing to grow two varieties of Andean tuber, Mashua and Yacon. I am not going to grow Oca again this year–it didn’t do well last year, and the tubers I did get were too small; Oca simply lost out.

One tip on growing several varieties of potatoes is that if you want to track yields, your life will be much easier if you plant very different looking varieties next to each other. Last year I did purple, white, and red potatoes and that worked really well. No more squinting at the difference between a Norkotah and a Burbank.

I will also not being growing sweet potatoes again this year. In 2013 I got the plants to grow, but planted them too late to get any useful yield. Last year I got the timing right, and added heat via a black plastic mulch, but the yields were still lackluster. We have enough to enjoy a few meals, but nowhere near the yields I’d hoped for. In future I may track down short season varieties that should do better around here, especially since we don’t get the heat that sweet potatoes crave.

Kitchen Crops
In my early growing seasons I tried growing everything and anything, to see what would happen. It was fun and suspenseful however we sometimes ended up with crops that weren’t much use in the kitchen. Bushy Salsify, anyone?

Thus now we grow things that we know we’re going to want in the kitchen. The big winner here is onions. The trick with onions is that they can be a pain to grow from seed. I have two strategies I’m using this year to deal with that:

1. Grow “walking onions.” There is a variety of onion that propagates itself, by growing the new crop off the top of the old crop. I’m not kidding. In nature the new ones separate and plant themselves (hopefully) next to the old crop. So as you can imagine, it’s very easy to help the new seedlings along by hand.

2. Buy seedlings. Yes, I said that out loud: buy seedlings. I will be sourcing organic seedlings this year, to save me the drama of growing onion seedlings. I get a bit better at it every year, but I still have a ways to go to get the hit rate that I want. Given my time constraints this year, I will throw in the towel and buy from my local garden shops. The good news is that you get a surprising number of seedlings in one container.

I’ll also be doing carrots, which are a pain to transplant (and yes, it CAN be done), and are challenging to germinate, to boot. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try this year.

Root Crops
Parsnips are interesting because the deep root structure means that in properly tended and shield soil, they don’t need much water at all. Also they can stay in the soil for a long, long time and still be good eating. They give a lot of calories in a small space, too. Beware that they are slow germinators, but if you do it correctly, they’ll grow for you. The secret is consistent moisture.

I like to grow beets year round, in part because I can, in part because they are very tasty, and in part because of my Ukrainian heritage. I grow a variety of giant yellow beet that’s called a “Mangel” that has a subtle, sweet flavor. Beets are very strong growers, and are easy to germinate.

I have yet to have a stellar bean crop, but I will keep trying until I get it right. I’m doing big beans, Lima, and maybe some Soy beans specifically for making tofu.

When they are working, strawberries are a very happy crop to have in the garden. But they are a fickle lover: rain at the wrong time can ruin everything. Last year an oddly timed rain resulted in a disease the full die off of my Seascape strawberries. They were great while they lasted. The Sequoia are still kicking, though. It is important to cut off the runners, if you want lots of berries.

I planted a white strawberry called a “Pineberry” last year, and got a few fruit. It’s true; it is like a cross between Pineapple and Strawberry. Rest assured that it isn’t *literally* a cross, though. This year I should get a real crop of Pineberries, which I’m very excited about. Strawberries typically don’t yield much in year 1, from what I understand, and besides, the Pineberries went in late last year.

I have several types of raspberries and blackberries along the back fence. Some of them are going to go nuts this year–let’s help the Ollalieberries are among them. I’d love to grow Tayberries but can’t find the canes.

Stuff everyone else grows
Yeah, I do grow some “normal” stuff. Tomatoes because they are tasty, and why not? I saved some seeds from farmers market tomatoes, but will probably buy Master Gardener seedlings this year.

There is a specific variety of Squash, Fordhook, that John Jeavons recommended and so I’m going to grow those.

We like eating cucumbers so hopefully we’ll get a decent crop this year. I haven’t had much luck in the back right of the plot, so we’ll try more upfront this year.

What now?
I hope this rundown has been useful for you. I haven’t yet finalized my plan, but it’s pretty close. I need to do some calculations (hello Excel) to make sure I have my 60/30/10 Grains/Calorie Crops/Everything else dialed in properly. And then I need to consult my notes from past years to finalize crop placement. And finally, I need to figure out how to make this as year’s garden as simple as possible!

If you have any questions, contact me.

Successful Direct Planting of Grain Crops

sewn cereal rye established 20141106_131102For Grow Biointensive, the system of growing that I’m using, it’s critical that I use ~60% of my growing space to grow grains such as Wheat, Sorghum, and Corn. The short version of the story is that grains are a fabulous way to build and ensure lasting soil fertility.

But here’s the thing: the Grow Biointensive folks are a lot more energetic than I am, and they put in the time to grow their own grain seedlings, and then transplant them one by one into garden beds, with optimal spacing. On the one hand, their garden beds look beautiful and they get optimal yields. On the other hand,  based on calcs I did for a theoretical garden and diet plan, for a garden for two people I’d be planting about 15,000 grain seedlings every year. It’s daunting.

So this year I decided to make yet another attempt at direct seeding of grains. I tried half-heartedly last year, and I got crummy results. The reality is that getting strong germination requires technique, and I wasn’t applying much. “Just chop in the seeds and keep them well watered,” was what I heard. Yeah right.

But this year, after spending too much time transplanting Cereal Rye seedlings, I said “no mas” and put in a real effort to get direct seeding of grains to work. Here’s what got me results:

1. Good soil prep is critical. Before seeding, I removed the previous crop, weeded, did a single dig (deciding that a double dig wasn’t necessary this year), and then worked my compost and amendments in. In my experience, this is a big part of the labor it takes to actually plant. Putting seedling or seed in the ground can seem easy after all of the prep.

2. Protecting the prepared soil is critical. Once the soil was prepared, I watered it well and then covered it. Burlap is best, but regular black landscape/weed fabric is fine. Just try not to leave it uncovered. And keep watering it through the cloth, since the soil is very much alive and needs the water.

3. Pre-soak your grain seeds. I had heard about doing this, but now I realize how critical it is. It helps tremendously to get the seeds into the “blast off” phase of germination. And since your soil is already prepared and well watered, it has a good home waiting for it. I soaked my grain seeds for about 12 hours, but my sense is that you could even soak for a day or two. I found a Wheat Emergence study that looked at length of soaking, and planting depth. 12 hours (the longest they tried) and 3″ (the deepest they tried) was the best.

4. Plant your seeds deep enough. I have often been worried that if I planted my seeds too deep, they wouldn’t come up. There is often repeated conventional wisdom about burying seeds no more than twice the depth of the size of the seed. However in my experience it really depends on the seed. And indeed, when I took the advice of the study and planted my Cereal Rye 3″ deep, it did really well. In fact my direct-planted Cereal Rye is growing much better than my transplanted Cereal Rye.

5. Keep the soil covered until seedling emergence. The biggest enemy of germinating seeds is lack of moisture. You have to keep them well watered, but if you don’t live next door to your garden, or even if you just get a very sunny day, this can be tricky. Fortunately, pretty much all vegetable and grain seeds *do not* need light in order to germinate. Thus after planting the seeds, we can cover the soil with burlap to keep the soil as moist as possible during this critical time.

6. Keep the grain seedlings shaded until they are tall and strong. Even after emergence, moisture can be a real issue for new seedlings. I think that moisture is a bigger issue than sunlight at this point, and so I’m willing to trade off 30% of the sun power for dramatically better moisture retention in the soil. It’s a matter of judgement as to when to remove the shade cloth.

Moisture is a key to good germination

I’ve been experiencing low seed germination rates and I haven’t been sure why. I looked around quite a bit for germination advice, but all I found was either very general or very industrial. At first I thought the cause of my germination problems  might be my flat soil mix–and that may be a factor–but I think I’ve finally found the real culprit: dryness.

I have been keeping my flats on the east facing concrete balcony. On the positive side, they are right next to my living room so I can see them readily and observe several times a day as they grow. But as I’ve learned this spring, there are several big negatives to doing seed starts on my balcony:

  1. Bad place for flats, on a hot, dry balcony.

    Bad place for flats, on a hot, dry balcony.

    The balcony is very dry.
    The concrete holds a lot of heat and causes the soil to readily dry up. I’ve been watering twice a day, but it just isn’t enough.
    The silver lining here is that in early spring I can potentially use the balcony to heat up the soil for germination earlier than would otherwise be possible. However I’d still be concerned about dryness; a sealed cold frame might address this.

  2. My east facing balcony only gets about 3 hours of sun a day. 
    At first I thought that less sun would be better for “tender” seedlings however I’m finding that what they really need is moist soil. They seem to do fine in full sun, and in fact they need it to go at the proper pace.
    In any case, for seedlings in all day sun, I can protect them with shade netting, which also keeps out the snails. And where possible I can put them near a tree, so they get some shade through the day.

Here is my latest thinking on best practices for raising seedlings in flats:

  1. Where appropriate consider pre-soaking your seeds.
    For some seeds, overnight soaking is a common recommendation. For smaller seeds, like clover, it’s recommended to mix the sides with soil after soaking, so that they are more easily broadcast.


    Nice, moist place for flats, on a well watered, double-dug garden bed.

  2. When appropriate, consider pre-germinating your seeds.
    I am currently experimenting with this technique that combines pre-germinating seeds in a zip-lock bag and then has them go directly into the flat, moist paper towel and all. I’ve had good luck with carrots and daikon radish using this technique. I’ll post as I discover more.
  3. Make sure the flat mix is good at holding water.
    Newly planted seeds, in particular, need consistent moisture. However I’ve found that if I put too much compost in my flat mix, it doesn’t hold as much moisture as I need it to. There’s a balance of nutrient richness, lightness, and ability to hold moisture, and since I’m careful to not compact the flat soil, I’m thinking that erring on the side of humus-rich, moisture-holding soil is the way to go.
  4. Err on the side of burying seeds slightly too shallow, rather than too deep.
    This is one of those tricky issues that you’ll need to pay attention to. How deep is too deep? How shallow is too shallow? Alan Chadwick said under-cover not over-cover. What that means, then, is you need to pay extra attention to watering.
  5. After planting your flats, soak them from the bottom up.
    I think that soaking your flat, after planting the seeds, can be a great way to start with an evenly damp soil structure. I’ve observed in soaking that there are often water pathways that show up very quickly in parts of the flat. If these are left to run their course, it seems that you will end up some areas of the flat being well watered, and others being very dry.
  6. Note that it’s important for the soil to be moist when you first prepare the flat and before you plant the seeds. But to “take it to the next level”  of moistness, I think it’s most convenient to do that after planting. Most of the seeds I work with are small, and those can easily stick to my seed placers if the soil is very moist.
  7. Place the flats in moist surroundings.
    I was initially concerned about putting my seedling flats in the garden, on an empty bed, because I thought that the all-day sun would quickly dry out the flats. But what I’ve found is that they actually dry out at half the rate of the seedlings on my balcony. My theory is that the surrounding soil acts as a giant sponge that keeps that whole area under the flats moist, and that can move moisture up there as it evaporates away. So a bed itself can be a great spot to hold flats.
  8. Keep seeds in a shady spot until the cotyledons appear.
    There are apparently some seeds that need light to germinate. From what I’ve seen so far, vegetables can germinate just fine in the dark. I think a good balance is to keep them in a shady spot where on the one hand the soil doesn’t dry out, and on the other hand the seeds can get diffuse light.
  9. Water the bed soil around your flats.
    It seems to me that the bed soil on which your flats sit can be a great reservoir of moisture for your flats. Of course they need to have proper drainage so that you don’t have pooled water.
  10. When seeds are just starting to germinate, be prepared to water extra on hot days.
    At the initial stages of germination, it’s very easy for a seedling to put out the initial root and then dry up. So in those early days, it’s important to be very diligent about watering. Of course this is extra work, but it only goes on for a limited time.

I’ve been surprised at the lack of specific guidance for germination of vegetables, and so I’ll be sharing my observations as I go. Please do share your own observations and tips.

Underlying all of my germination experiments, I’m thinking in the back of my mind, “how can I scale this to work for a 1/2 acre mini-farm, and not go nuts?” Thus I’m steering away from methods that require a lot of exacting hand work, and towards those that I can see being done efficiently.