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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The backyard makeover - Part 1

It has been 2 years since we started working on the backyard and with all other updates about the garden this one begins a few years late.

This is how a part of the backyard and it's main centerpiece (the pool) looked on the day of the move in. You don't see the dead lizard that was also floating in there !

You can see the multiple shed like structures and all the concrete around the pool area. The shrubs were never pruned well and the structures were infested with termites. Around that was an asphalt driveway that connected the 2 driveways in the front of the property.

The pool was what people in the trade called a "liner pool". It was 38 * 17 ft (approximately) and about 14ft deep on the deepest end and occupied the pride of place in the backyard.

One of the first things we agreed upon right away was that we should get rid of the pool, and the events that happened in the next few days just expedited the process. I realized fairly soon that the pool pump was running constantly trying to replenish the fast evaporating water. Being the penny pinching self i proposed that we turn off the pump because we were going to get rid of it anyway. And morning we woke up to see that the liner had developed cracks (thanks to Mr. Sun) and almost all the water had magically vanished. I was elated that we don't have to rent a submersible pump to pump all that water out !

Later, Guru explained that things aren't all that good and i was just not seeing the BIG picture....we could have foundation issues if all that water was going to unsettle our foundation structure. Well, nothing ominous  happened and thank god for that !

After spending the full summer trying to figure out pricing from contractors and the like, we decided on going with one of the guys who gave us some free fill dirt (from a construction site he was digging nearby, that we found on Craig's list). This was our first big project (and we did it with all the permits and by the book) and we were pretty much running against time to get it done before the rains showed up. In all this, we missed reading the finer details on his scope of work.

After all the pool work, the guy said he would just remove the asphalt on the driveway (as per his contract) and not the base rock that was underneath the asphalt ! So we were left with 5-6 truckloads of base rock kind of junk debris that he claimed would cost us close to 5 grand to get rid of.

After bidding adieu to the guy and vowing never again to use him, we decided to let that base rock lie in our backyard. We didn't have any major plans nor the money to do any work, so might as well let it be there. Ads on craig's list brought in some people who took some base rock for free during the fall/ winter of 2008.

Spring of 2009, we got some renewed enthusiasm and found another guy who offered to clean up the place for us for lot cheaper. The rains had done their part by promoting the vigorous growth of weeds all over the area.

Finally in Spring/Summer of 2009 we had a clean backyard to start working

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The garden in 2009

A post describing the garden in might wonder why it is being written in 2010 !

The blog and the posts have been in the works for over 2 years. Getting around to posting anything was a challenge with all the firefighting we were doing around the house.

This is a summary of the what went right and what went wrong in the 2009 garden

First the good

1. the rubble and base rock pile (from the pool demo in 2008) in the backyard was finally hauled away in Spring and we had a clean slate to start.

2. 5 planter boxes went in to the ground (these were boards that came off our old fence). I am glad we got started.....(the bad part on that start later)

3. We had a huge harvest of beans, good for 4 adults for over a 5 month period plus lots to share with friends and family too.

4. We learnt a lot along the way (mainly what not to do), and I hope we don't make those mistakes again

On to the bad

1. We started our seeds late (In early May)

2. I just put all seeds in a packet into one of those nursery pots, too much shock when trying to transplant them and they should have been direct seeded in the first place ! Never read any instructions and thought that it would not matter.

3. We didn't do any companion planting of beneficial plants.

4. Never knew about slugs or what to do with them. They wrecked havoc on the eggplants.

5. We planted almost 8 zucchini plants (when a garden book will tell you that 2 plants would be more than enough for a family of 2). But we never had the problem of plenty. We barely got 2 Zucchini's out of all the plants. There were loads of flowers but no produce. I wonder why.

6. We added fresh wood chips on to the surface of our tomato planters to help prevent evaporation without realizing that it depletes the nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes.

7. We never fertilized any of our beds during the growing period. The only saving grace was that we amended our soil by mixing in compost.

8. That brings me to the last blunder....there were 2 beds where we just dumped pure compost instead of combining it with the soil and it proved terrible.

I hope 2010 is more productive and we put to good use all the reading we have been doing online and offline.

Potager-Part 1

I had not heard of this term until i read this post on Gardenporn. It dawned on me that this was what we were trying to do in my garden- a garden planted with vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.

I was then off to my next task-Google the term and read up all about it. I came up on these 2 links on Brooklyn Botanical Gardenpost 2 on bbg. I have quite a few of their books and like the simple way in which they explain things.

This is how our garden beds looked last year. A recap......these were re-purposed from the fence boards on the north side of our property

The tomatoes went in buckets (and in the background you can see the missing boards on the fence).

Granted that this didn't turn out to be a true Potager because it was all vegetables of one kind in one bed, and no ornamentals/ companion plants. The intent was there though and hopefully it gets implemented this year.

The 2010 Going Native Garden Tour

Before I write anything at all on this topic, I should say that these are the things running in my head and are by no means critical in any way shape or form of the subject matter being discussed.

This was our first ever tour or gardens here and I was totally excited to be going. My imagination was totally shattered, partly because my expectations weren't level set and I had not envisioned what a native garden would be (I was in denial actually. I didn't want to accept that native gardening and sustainable gardening were very different). We didn't get to as many gardens as i would have liked because we did not plan our schedule well enough.

I wonder if it makes more sense to go native and essentially plant nothing edible (i mean vegetables) in a home garden, or go the sustainable route by using gray water and the like to grow and develop a sustainable garden. I see the logic in shopping at the farmers market and local grocery stores, but shouldn't the home garden contribute in at least a small way?

My biggest takeaway from the tour was on permeable driveways which are essentially made of decomposed granite. They are available in a lot of different colours and would be our choice for the walkways we are designing in our revamped backyard. coming soon in another blog post !

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Let's get thins straight right away....i LOVE ceramic planters and when Costco started carrying them this summer, I just had to get one of each variety they had.

This is the tallest one they had. I did put in a few Elephant Ear bulbs and set them in front of our little seating area in the front to get some some much needed privacy.

The big and wide one was going to house the Jasmine

And it does, with a funky trellis we picked from the clearance section in Ikea a few years back ;)

The smallest of the planters where i am looking to plant my Coleus collection....which is still not set up

This is not one that Costco carries, but my all time favorite, where i have not made up my mind on what i could plant in there to enhance the color of the planter itself.

Maybe some exotic stuff that needs no maintenance !

My Fruits and fruit trees

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now". I have no idea where i read that, but i couldn't agree more.

Here i go again on my complaining spree. We had just 2 fruit trees on the 1/3rd of an acre land. A weeping Mulberry and a lemon tree. We have not figured out a nice way to harvest the mulberries. Well the first summer...we didnt even know we had a Mulberry tree until the day the berries ripened and fell all over the corner of the driveway. The birds always have a blast.....and our car is full of reddish coloured poop !!

So i set out to buy fruit trees for the garden...and i read up whatever i could lay my hands on. I ordered Lee Reich's books-Landscaping With Fruit: Strawberry ground covers, blueberry hedges, grape arbors, and 39 other luscious fruits to make your yard an edible paradise. (A Homeowners Guide)
and Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden

I just bought my plants from the big box retailers instead of a specialised nursery. Here is what we planted in the summer of 2009


Here is what is in line for the planting in teh summer of 2010
Kafir Lime
Blood Orange

I have many more on my wish list that i can buy this summer and get them planted. Growing up in a tropical country, i still yearn for a lot of the tropical fruits. I saw Papaya trees, even a mango tree. Maybe I should get it and raise them as potted plants....maybe they might do well with some protection. I also took a few seeds from the Jackfruit we found at the Indian store once and have potted them up. I would love to see it grow and wish that i might have a Jackfruit tree in my backyard some day

One of the few things on my wish list that i have pushed out to later (hopefully spring 2011) are the berries (bare root berry shrubs of all kinds). With all the furry and winged friends who share our property, i figured I had to put up some protection for the fruits so we could enjoy them. Our bandwidth is pretty limited this summer with all the projects that are planned and are going on that i have to move this out for another year.
I am so looking forward to drive down to Peaceful Valley Farms to pick up our bare roots plants next winter. I love their site and their product offerings and shop online for all my garden supplies and seeds.

The curry leaf tree

The curry leaf tree is a mainstay or south indian cooking. Here in the US, it is a prized possession. In the bay area you can get them at the local  indian grocery store and they are pretty darned expensive.

About 3 years back we spotted a small plant on sale in the Indian grocery store in San Diego and quickly grabbed it on ur way back. We were not in CA then and were renting. So the small plant went into a smallish pot and in our patio. It did not grow much but was in good shape overall.

A few months after we moved into our new home, we saw this. We were newbies and literally clueless about what we saw. But we went online, researched, and solicited help from our friendly garden center. Turns out these were scales

Guru carefully took out all the damaged leaves, and with a ear bud and rubbing alcohol took off all the scales from the branches. Gave it a nice application of Neem and a thorough watering every other day. In a couple of months we were excited to new growth coming up. We had heard the soothsayers say that they didnt see much hope in it recovering.....and weren't we glad

Fast forward another year and in winter I forgot to move the plant inside and let it deal with the first winter frost in the bay area. It looks weathered and bare, but there is new growth sprouting out. Hopefully it will do well and we can set it in the soil this summer. After that it gets a nice burlap coat every winter to keep it nice and toasty.

Savoury way

Until I read Mark Bittman's article on the NY times, I thought I was the only soul that liked a savory oatmeal breakfast.

I am a convert. About 12 or so yeas back my parents made the change to Oatmeal for breakfasts. Prior to that point, morning breakfasts were elaborate (by my current standards) and freshly made from scratch every morning. But by the typical Indian norms in that period it was very typical- Idlies, Dosas, Uppumas with a chutney or two for the side was bare minimum. When the switch to Oatmeal was made, i rebelled. Not because I was a rebellious teneager, but because i could not fathom how to eat that sticky gooey thing that was horrible in presentation. But here I am today, writing and a lot of times drooling for it when i don't make it    for a week. All the credit for being persuasive goes to my dear husband who kept pushing me and to my parents for coming up with a tasty salty recipe.

Here is my version of savoury Oatmeal - south indian style
2 cups of heavy rolled oats and water enough to submerge the oats. There is no set rule and i would alter that to suit the consistency one might prefer the end product to be.
I typically set it to cook in the microwave at half power for about 5 minutes. I like to feel the bite in the oats so change the timing to suit your requirements.

To this gooey mixture, add some milk and plain yoghurt and salt. More about my homemade yoghurt on a separate post.

And as with all things South Indian you add the seasoning. My favourites are 1 tablespoon of mustard seeds and 1 green thai chilli in Oil (The typical protocol is to add the mustards in the oil and wait for them to pop. And then you add the slit green chilli). I wait till the green chilli is nicely roasted before i add it to the oatmeal.

If you want to make this even more healthy, you can add cucumbers and fresh tomatoes to get that crunchy feeling going.

Budget friendly landscaping

Yes the budget is a big factor in doing anything around the house, and being the bean counter and the budget owner in the house, I watch everything very closely.

The house is a fixer upper (upper...i am not quite sure at this point) and had lots of potential for fixing especially in the yard. 

After the first few estimates from landscapers/ designers we figured it was very massive and completely outside our affordability range to do it all at once. The travails with the economy just cemented that decision.
The last 2 years we have been going at the garden in small pieces addressing one little thing at a time. It will be a while before i get to post "after" pictures.

One of our strategies has been to leverage as much as we can off free resources that are easily available and to put our time to use to read and distill the information instead of having a landscaper do it all in one shot and have a nice garden in a few weeks (read SOD). Try

1. Your local library for gardening books

2. The internet (google for ideas) - of which my favourite has been garden designs on

3. Buy seeds and start your own plants (instead of buying 1 gallon plants from the nursery)

4. Start your own vegetable garden. Functionality and beauty are not mutually exclusive. (Not sure if i have broken even in a year, but i love that i know what goes into my veggies, and the priceless effect of starting your own garden and seeing them produce). 

As with everything we have done (but for some BIG things where we completely completely missed the boat because we trusted people ( family)who literally cheated us) we have done a lot of groundwork on landscaping and how much it should cost and what a good deal will be. 
Last weekend we had one of the contractors who represents a Big box home improvement store come home and give us some ideas and numbers. In most cases we find the big box contractors to give us a reasonable idea on pricing, especially the fact that they don't tend to be zip code sensitive. Having been in this neighborhood for the last 2 years and done our due research, I can say for sure that prices in our area are at least 20-30% of what is quoted in the nearby cities. (We don't fit the bill for the typical family that lives in our city). Back to the landscape designer-this time around, I really got a sticker shock for the amount that was quoted (a ball park).

My take (and i guess this might change by the time we are done with our landscape work) is that the whole design process is for people who do not have a very good idea of what they want and possibly lack the resources to plan and execute it. As we were being showed the drawings and what to expect, we pulled out a copy of our initial sketch. The designer was pretty surprised to see one.

This is one of the many versions.

This one is drawn to scale and has all the hardscapes clearly marked. This particular one with the blue lines denotes the sprinkler lines(in the front yard) and our planned sprinkler layout (for the back).

So this weekend we are officially beginning work getting the garden in reasonable shape. We are getting some help on the trenching and bender boards in the backyard and all the planning and design is done completely by us. More on our progress in the coming posts