Helping a Kitchen Garden to Grow in Clay Soil

Author: Meera, September 2, 2017

Under the searing summer sun, the clay soil of my farmette will grow amazing pin oaks, white oaks, and pine trees. But for a gardener like me who wants to grow  vegetables and herbs, clay soil frustrates and challenges.


Plants can be coaxed to grow in clay soil with help from the resident gardener

Plants can be coaxed to grow in clay soil with help from the resident gardener




Before planting next year’s kitchen garden in a new area of the property, I’ll have to change the soil structure now. This will take time and a lot of effort, but it will pay huge dividends over the long term.


Here are a few things things a gardener can do to improve clay soil.


1. A few weeks before working an area, mulch the area with an eight to ten-inch layer of wood chips to help the soil retain moisture and regain structure.


2. Use a pickax to break up the soil to the depth of 10 inches and work in composted organic material.


3. Avoid working the soil after a rain or when the ground is wet because the soil will ball up into unwieldy clumps.


4. Work in sand or perlite to create more pore space for aeration and drainage. Beware of adding too much sand; the soil becomes like concrete. Ideally, the soil should have roughly fifty percent pore space with minerals and organic matter filling in the rest.


5. When not growing plants, sow a cover crop of legumes to reduce weed germination, prevent erosion, and help water penetrate deeply into the soil. A legume cover crop provides plant matter that can be turned back into the soil or mowed, leaving the plant’s bio mass  in place. Legumes fix the nitrogen in the soil that will nourish the plants of the kitchen garden.


6. Repeat all of the above steps annually and dig, turn, rake, and water. Over time, the soil should support healthy roots of plants and give you a robust kitchen garden that will provide many tasty vegetables and culinary herbs.



A healthy garden visually delights

A healthy garden visually delights






If you enjoy reading cozy mysteries and are interested in gardening/farming topics, keeping bees and chickens, or creating delicious recipes from heirloom vegetables and herbs, check out my Henny Penny Farmette series. All are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other traditional and online bookstores everywhere.





Coming 9/27/17

       Murders at a N. California winery is a catalyst for ex-cop turned farmette owner Abigail Mackenzie



PUBLISHERS WEEKLY  08/14/2017 noted:
“Lester’s sensitive portrayal of Abby’s struggle with her wounded psyche raises this traditional mystery above the pack.”


See more at:



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The Challenge of Dealing with Peach Leaf Curl

Author: Meera, February 23, 2016



Peach leaf curl causes deformed leaf shape, blisters, and a reddish coloring in affected areas

Peach leaf curl causes deformed leaf shape, blisters, and a reddish coloring in affected areas



The rains have turned Northern California hills and fields green with wild grasses and weeds. On my farmette, the fruit trees are blooming and the peaches have leafed out. The dreaded peach leaf curl is apparent on many leaves of my peach and nectarine trees.



The peach leaf curl disease is caused by a fungus, Taphrina deformans, according the integrated pest management information posted on the U.C. Davis site: This fungal infection can involve virtually every part of the tree, especially the new leaves, young twigs, new shoots, and fruits. It winters over, too, ready to infect the new growth in the spring.



Picking off the affected leaves and disposing of them in a garbage bag (never in the compost pile) seems intuitive as new the tree will produce new leaves. However, until it does, the tree is exposed to sunburn.



Many expert gardeners say the most effective treatment is prune in the fall to remove any affected branches and twigs. Spray the tree with a fixed copper fungicide after the leaves have fallen in November.



If the winter rains are heavy, you may need another round of spraying in the spring before the blossoms open. Failure to control this fungus can result in the decline of the of quality fruit and ultimately the death of the tree.



Copper fungicide, like any pesticide, is a poison. If you decide to use it, follow the directions on the packaging. Do not spray on a windy day or where the possibility of the spray can drift and contaminate areas where vegetables are ready to be picked.



Organic approaches are less effective but include the following:


1. Keep the plant healthy, but don’t over-fertilize it because that produces more tissue for potential infection.

2. Use good hygiene on and around the tree. Remove diseased leaves, twigs, and fallen leaves and discard (not in the compost pile).

3. Consider replacing the susceptible tree with a peach tree that is more resistant to peach leaf curl such as Redhaven or cultivars of Redhaven.

4. If you defoliate the tree, allow it to re-foliate in warm, dry weather when re-infection is less of a problem. Also thin the fruit crop in a season when there is a particularly severe infection because that will help keep the plant vigorous.




For more tips for farming, gardening, keeping bees and chickens, check out my Henny Penny Farmette series of cozy mysteries. Each chapter features almanac sayings and ends with farming tips or delicious recipes. The books are available through,, as well as other online and conventional bookstores everywhere.




The first book in the Henny Penny Farmette series, Kensington Books 2015

The first book in the Henny Penny Farmette series, Kensington Books 2015




The second cozy  mystery in the Henny Penny Farmette series, available Sept. 29, 2016

The second cozy mystery in the Henny Penny Farmette series, available Sept. 29, 2016





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Tis the time for Cool Season Planting

Author: Meera, February 15, 2015

If you love the cool season plants like lettuce, spinach, kale, onions, leeks, sugar snap peas, and artichokes, Valentine’s Day weekend is the time to start planting cool season crops in the Bay Area and other warmer climates.



When the early blooming varieties of apples break bud, it's time to think cool season planting

When the early blooming varieties of apples break bud, it’s time to think cool season planting




I put in onions throughout the cool season and am rewarded with burlap bags of red onions, yellow, white, and the walla walla variety for kitchen soups and other culinary creations during the first months of the year.




My husband is building more growing boxes (4 x 4 x 3) in which we shovel amended soil, some planting mix, bone meal, blood meal, compost, and chicken manure. The soil will grow almost anything.



Herbs in a pot for use in the kitchen

This is the time to also tuck some herbs in a pot for use in the kitchen




This weekend, we’re moving a couple of citrus trees and three rose bushes. I’ll feed and water and watch for the new shoots to show within a week or two if the weather stays warm. So, you see, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for lovers but also people who love to garden.


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Spate of Warm Weather Brings Out Early Blosssoms

Author: Meera, January 8, 2015

While schools across the nation are taking snow days because of frigid temperatures, the fruit trees on my Bay Area farmette are showing signs of bud swelling and early blossoming because of a winter heat wave.


Cities around the San Francisco Bay are experiencing early January temperatures of 70-plus degrees Fahrenheit, breaking weather records in some areas. Mother Nature certainly behaves strangely at times.



Desert Gold peaches are ready to eat in May but buds are swelling and showing color now

Desert Gold peaches are ready to eat in May but buds are swelling and showing color now



My five-variety apple tree and the early Desert Gold peach trees are covered with buds that are already showing color. I haven’t as yet gotten around to the winter pruning and spraying with organic oil. Maybe if there’s no wind today, I’ll squeeze that chore in with the others.


I did cut back the Washington navel orange that is infected with Leaf Miner, a pest that’s crossed the United States from Florida. It attacks new leaves, so I’m thinking if I prune and spray now before spring is in full swing, maybe I won’t lose this tree. Curiously, the pest hasn’t widely infected my blood orange trees but there are signs of it in the leaves of our Satsuma seedless tangerines.




The dark line inside a tunnel is the frass (feces) trail

The dark line inside a tunnel is the frass (feces) trail of the Leaf Miner



Elsewhere, I’ve done deep digging in the chicken run and added some wood chips and leaf material for compost.


The tea roses have been pruned back to 12 to 18 inches and old canes removed. I’m torn between wanting to add more roses in the beds in front of the bamboo plants on the east/west axis of our property or adding more lavender and sunflowers, favored by the bees.


Tomorrow, I’ll open and inspect my bee hives. I left honey stores this past autumn instead of harvesting. But if the bees have gone through all the honey, then I’ll have to add bee food until we get the first early bulb blooms and wildflowers. The French perfume lavender that the bees love is about the only bloom (bee food) in the garden now.  Luckily, I planted a lot of it.




A stalk of lavender rises out over the rose-scented pelargonium

A stalk of French perfume lavender rises out over the rose-scented pelargonium plant




The farm chores don’t just seem endless, they are. But whether the work is daily, weekly, or seasonal, there’s something deeply rewarding–even magical–about living close to the earth in harmony with cycles of seasons and the rhythms of nature. But I admit, it is a little strange to have such warm weather when winter has only just started.



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To-Do List of Chores for the Fall Garden

Author: Meera, September 16, 2014



Harvested pumpkins and heirloom butternut squash symbolize the arrival of autumn

Harvested pumpkins and heirloom butternut squash symbolize the arrival of autumn



From my office widow, I look out over what once was a lush and thriving garden. Not so today.


I can hardly bear to gaze upon the sorrowful, dried tomato vines that for me have come to symbolize the severity of the extreme drought on California gardens.


Now that fall will soon arrive, I’ll toss onto the compost pile those vines along with others from pumpkins and hard-shelled squash.


So with the garden cleared, I’m thinking ahead to next year, ever hopeful we’ll get rain rather than a repeat of dry conditions like this past year.



To ensure the viability of our fruit trees, citrus trees, and various berries through the fall and winter, there is a spray regimen to be initiated. I’ll add it to my long list of chores that will need to be done.




Pomegranates hang heavy on the tree that is beginning to lose its leaves

Pomegranates hang heavy on the tree that is beginning to lose its leaves






Turn the soil, add amendments like compost to hold in the water.



Prepare new beds.

Build cold frames and 4- x 6- foot boxes for new raised beds.

Cut the canes of blackberries (berries only set up on two-year-old canes that won’t again produce; cut to ensure new fruiting canes will take their place).



Prune away the spent floricanes of red raspberries, once they’ve produced fruit.



Clean up around the bases of all trees and evergreen plants; add mulch.

Also remove all leaves at the base of all fruit trees and dispose.


Remove rose leaves after blooming season, cut canes to 18 inches, and spray for diseases and pests.


Stake young trees so they’ll survive windy winters, growing straight and tall.

Treat the trees with an organic spray (one containing copper and protector oil) to prevent fungal disease and pests.



Get out the frost cloth in readiness to cover tender citrus trees.

Prune back the hydrangeas.

Plant fall bulbs for spring flowering.


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The BGW of Composting

Author: Meera, April 23, 2013

Perhaps you’ve wanted to try composting but are concerned about not knowing the ABCs. Forget the ABCs. Try remembering three other letters: B for brown, G for green, and W for water. Those are the three key ingredients of any successful compost pile.


The B (brown waste) includes twigs, branches, and dead leaves. The G (green material) is made up of fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and coffee grounds, among other things. The W (water) adds the necessary moisture.


The brown material provides carbon, the green material provides nitrogen, and the water creates the magic, turning that brown and green stuff to turn into that dark, crumbly, earthy compost that worms and garden plants love.



If you are like many gardeners, you might pay for compost purchased in bags at local nurseries. But keep in mind that food scraps and yard waste make up about one-third of the material that goes into landfills. Put that material into a compost pile and it saves you money in several ways.


Using compost in your garden reduces water usage because the compost keeps the roots of plants moist and cool. Reduced water usage lowers your water bill and leaves more money in your pocket. Your compost material enhances the richness of your soil while keeping down weeds. Your garden thrives, meaning you won’t have to spend as much on fresh produce if you are growing your own.


You can make a simple bin out of galvanized chicken wire. Stretch the chicken wire into a cylinder shape. Stick some posts in around the circle to hold the wire up and in position. And start throwing in the brown and the green waste, plus some water. Turn every so often.


Once you know the BGWs of composting, there’s really no reason not to try it. Composting not only saves you money, it helps our planet.



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