Growing Vegetables in the Heart of Silicon Valley – You Don’t Have to Be a Master Gardener!

Gardening – It’s Just Another Day at the Plant.

This is the sixth year that I am planting an edible garden in the heart of the Silicon Valley.  My gardening journey started in spring 2012. While I had always planned to construct a raised bed veggie garden myself, family obligations, hectic schedules, and a lack of handyman skills always got in the way.

That year in the spring I had just suffered a herniated disk that required surgery and started to take on running the group exercise department at our Y, so it would have been another year without planting a veggie garden. Luckily, my husband came across the website of two young men in our area whose mission it was to “transform many thirsty lawns into vegetable patches, one by one.”  We set a budget and decided to get help for this project – something that I consider to be one of the best investments I have ever made. Josh and Troy from StartOrganic [1] came over right away, found the best spot in our small backyard to install three raised beds and got to work. Within two days, I had my vegetable spot in the backyard and it looked great. For the first few years, I learned with them (and their wonderful gardener, Hannah) which plants to put in or how to lay out the different vegetables as there are some smart ways to gain more planting ground; for instance, you can grow beans around corn, and you want to make sure that all long plants like squash or pumpkins, grow at the periphery of the box so that their fruits can grow “outside” of the box. Over time I read and learned more and became more experienced in these matters myself. I attended free talks with the Master Gardener Program [3] on pests and soil amending and a composting workshop with the City of San Jose which resulted in installing a worm compost and a regular compost in our side yard that helped to amend and fertilize our garden.

I still remember our first harvest of deeply red and juicy heirloom tomatoes and sweet yellow cherry tomatoes – it was divine! It is true that nothing tastes like a home-grown tomato, and we loved the short ways and immediate picking of our vegetables from the raised bed to our plates.
For me, there is something calming and connecting when digging in the earth, and very rewarding when sending my kids outside to pick some tomatoes or cucumbers for dinner. In these busy times when more and more people don’t have the time to cook anymore, but choose to eat out or use meal delivery or preparation services, some kids don’t know any more what a potato looks like (as British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver found out when he visited schools to quiz students), and Michael Pollan emphasizes in his books and talks that we are on the verge of losing the connection to our food, I find it even more important go grow at least some of our food myself and in particular to teach my kids where it really comes from.

Last summer, five years into the California drought and caught with another brown and dead lawn in front of our house, we decided to take things to the next level – to take out the dead lawn in the front yard and convert it to a drought tolerant landscape including three raised vegetable beds right next to the sidewalk. It turned out this would follow the 2017 trends for gardening – front yard vegetable gardens listed as #1 – bringing together the community neighborhood and raising awareness that it is indeed possible to grow food in an urban setting. Especially in California with our warm and sunny weather – almost anything grows here!

There was even some nice additional impact: since we live right next to an elementary school with lots of families walking by every day, quite some conversations were sparked and we met neighbors we had never talked to before, with people stepping up and asking how we built the boxes or inquiring about the Landscape Rebate Program [2] – as we got a little refund from our local water district for converting lawn space into a drought tolerant landscape. (Unfortunately, they don’t refund the space for the vegetable boxes – yet.)

With a total of six vegetable boxes, last winter I grew our first winter vegetable garden including different kinds of kale, broccoli, arugula, beets, onions, garlic, cauliflower, lettuce and herbs like chives and cilantro. With planting in the hot weather in the summer and growing during the first rainy winter months in many years, we had an abundance of different kinds of dark leafy greens, all a great source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, and broccoli, which we had for our meals several times a week, inspiring all kinds of new recipes (kale chips and salads, roasted broccoli, and several new recipes with beets and cauliflower).

While the winter veggies were still growing, I started a new endeavor – this February I joined two friends for a “Growing Tomato Transplants from Seeds” workshop, in the Santa Cruz Mountains with Love Apple Farms [4] and Cynthia Sandberg’s incredible collection of tomato seeds [4]. We learned about the different kinds of tomatoes, determinate vs. indeterminate, hybrid vs. heirloom and how to care for these little babies on heating pads and under shop lights. Little did I know how this would turn out when I brought home a small tray of about 150 little seeds that would turn into 130 healthy tomato plants! I had no idea and it wasn’t that hard! I now understand why this is a fundraiser for many schools and clubs and how some people make money from their backyard planting. I shared the abundance of tomato plants with friends and neighbors (while keeping 13 different tomato varieties around our property), and my idea going forward is to give away the extra tomatoes and other vegetables I’ll harvest, hoping for some neighborhood trading and connecting, creating some sort of “marketplace” on the weekend, a seed swap, resources where the neighbors meet, get to know each other and share ideas, resources and even recipes.

Overall, it is so encouraging to see more people growing herbs or vegetables even in their front yards. There is a great project in Orlando, “Fleet Farming” [8] that I find very inspiring. An intergenerational fleet of volunteers on bikes teaches the neighborhood how to grow their own food. Wouldn’t it be fun to have something like this here in the busy Silicon Valley?

Every morning, when my family is still asleep, my first action is to brew a cup of tea and have a quick walk into the garden to see what has happened overnight. I am curious to see how the tomato plants in the containers and geo-pots will be doing as I planted a few extras outside of the raised beds.
Each geo-pot holds one tomato plant and these need extra care as they depend on all the water and nutrients from outside. These pots or geo-pots do well on a small backyard porch or even balcony.  I just saw a few of these in one townhouse complex’s garage area the other day. Challenged for space? No problem! Think pots and window sills – a few herbs in pots on a window sill can add so much flavor and vibrancy to your cooking.

And wait – there is more! I am still learning! This year I am very interested in learning how to do canning and how to save the seeds of tomatoes so I can use them for next year and grow my own tomato seedlings again – without the extra cost. My gardening friend Hannah and I plan to do some “canning parties” in the summer and we can’t wait to invite others to join us. This will be a great project to continue to have fresh tomato sauces or salsas throughout the year.

Stay tuned –  on my website I’ll be adding recipes that I have collected and developed using my own crop of fruit and veggies and I am always happy to get gardening or recipe ideas from other veggie lovers too!

Happy gardening!



[2] Landscape Rebate Program in Santa Clara County

[3] Master Gardener Program

[4] Love Apple Farms / Growing Tomato Plants from Seeds Workshop

[5] Yamagami’s

[6] Article: “Welcome Edibles Into the Front Yard for Fresh Food and More”, by Rebecca Cuttler

[7] Book: “Food Not Lawns – How To Turn your Yard into A Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community”, by H.C. Flores & Website

[8] Video: “Fleet Farming/ Community Farming”