Our garden & chilli vinegar

I can remember the first thing I ever planted. I must have been nine. I planted a few mustard seeds in a handful of soil in a small used amrakhand carton. The seeds were from my mum’s spice box and the minimal labour involved was a school project. There are vague memories about it involving monocotyledons and dicotyledons. Much clearer is the remembrance of my being dubious of my mother’s and the science text book’s strong assertion that those tiny black spheres would amount to anything, let alone new plants; but I put the seeds in and smoothed the soil over, just as the textbook said I should. I poked at the mud with a toothpick for the first two days for signs of life. It was impossible to tell; the mustard blended in just perfectly with the soil. It may have been the first time any lesson in patience and faith was brought home to me with any sort of permanence or gravity.

Sure enough, just as they said, little mustard plants grew out of their containers, mud clinging to the dual leaf structure I was supposed to be observing. I was enthralled. There they were, tiny comma shaped flecks of green all woven through the brown soil, little bits of earth clinging to the frail green leaves as they pulled themselves up to face the sun. First there were two leaves, soon there were many more. I scribbled notes and drew hasty diagrams. I remember taking that little pot to school, the little seedlings standing up like so many valiant soldiers in a row. After that, I moved the seedlings to a bigger pot with my mom’s help. Unfortunately they didn’t survive the harsh May sun that year, but the fascination stuck. We hadn’t much room to grow things where I was growing up but my mom did her best with what room she had. I vowed to do the same one day.

Our first grown up apartment was a lunch box, but we still had a few tiny pots on a sliver of window sill. Amey shares my enthusiasm for growing things and has a true green thumb. We grew a few herbs and the chilli namesake of the blog. Our enthusiasm got the better of us with that chilli plant. We found peppers can’t be grown indoors in chilly San Francisco, but how we loved watching that plant grow from seeds and bear many flowers and some hot, meagre fruit. If you like to cook, there is no greater pleasure than snipping a few leaves of fresh rosemary or thyme from your own pot. All one needs to grow something is the desire to do so and the willingness to get their hands dirty from time to time. Or wear gloves if you don’t. I did. Plants require very little from us by way of help. Sunshine, a little water, an occasional smattering of fertilizer and they go out of their way to reward you with cheerful green. Herbs especially are so gosh darn easy to grow. Absolutely anyone with a tiny pot and a sunny ledge can do so.

  The green car at Flora Grubb

One of the features that sold us on our current apartment was ample back yardage. That first year, we started small, a few herbs, more chillies. As those plants thrived, we got bolder, planting flowers and vegetables. At this time, after having harvested onions, kale and peppers, I think we can safely call ourselves successful urban gardeners. It is no unattainable title given how easy it is to be one.

It is spring and the garden is all flowers and leaves. I am truly stoked about our motley pot collective this year. We have a grand fifty or so of them, with a variety of plants. Some, like the rosemary and thyme, have been with us since our old tiny North beach apartment but most others are new. We are growing at this point, what seems like every conceivable kind of herb. There are a few vegetables and some gorgeous flowers. I’m thrilled to share our growing garden with you.

The English pea plant. Its snaking tendrils, variegated leaves and bilaterally symmetrical white blooms remind me of the Alien movies for some odd reason. The plant is bursting with flowers right now and visions of pea pulao and pesto are already dancing in my head.

We love mint. We have at least three varieties right now. This is the native California mint, the one that gave San Francisco the name of Yerba Buena. Pretty, isn’t it? Also, ridiculously fragrant. Brush past it once and you are reminded of mojitos for the rest of the day.

I spent my growing years surrounded by these flowers as it is a sought after flower of worship in India. I never realized marigolds have a fragrance, hidden as it was amongst the many supremely fragrant tropical flowers it was surrounded by. These dual flame and gold coloured specimens are bringing riotous colour to the yard right now.

 What the dahlia lacks in flamboyant colour, it makes up for in arresting charm. Check out that wonderful integrity of petals. This is a truly elegant flower. The cut bloom last for days in water.


The tomato is neither elegant nor colourful. While it is fairly ungainly, those little flowers are an indicator of upcoming ruby red gems. Our initial try at growing tomatoes last year was far from successful. We are trying one more time this year to prove that they can grow in the fog-covered west of San Francisco. Hell, the peppers did. Plus, I can be mule-headed about certain things that way.

We were moderately successful with peppers last year. Hoping to do better this year. This is a serrano chilli plant just strting to grow buds. (Yes, the peppers grew. Tomatoes didn’t. We don’t understand it either.)

Eagerly awaiting this years strawberries. This Saint-Pierre variety is small and very sweet. Its scarlet fruit is a tart delight. Last year’s crop only has us ready for more.

We highly recommend the underrated daisy. They are the most cheerful flower ever. I swear they grow all on their own with no help from us at all.

This new addition to our garden is one I’m very excited about. It’s a mogra or Arabian jasmine plant. It has always been my favourite fragrance and I love that I have it in my backyard. I’m really rooting for this one to thrive.

Here’s a recipe for something I made from last year’s chilli harvest.

Chillies in Vinegar
Own creation, inspired by every Chinese and Thai restaurant out there

When we have Chinese or Asian food in our house, this is what we reach for before the Sriracha. It was omnipresent in every Chinese restaurant in Bombay and I’ve seen milder, albeit less appealing versions here in the States. It will add zing to practically anything that could do with a spritz of sour but it works especially well with Asian food. This one is hot! You’ve been warned.
I’ve seen the same thing done here with jalapenos. To me, this mild version has no appeal, but I realise I’m a chilli-crazy freak. You may prefer jalapenos.

Distilled white vinegar – 1 cup
Sugar – 1/4 tsp
Sichuan peppercorns – 4.5, toasted
Thai or Serrano Chillies – 5 to 6, chopped into thin discs

This creation of this condiment is less of a recipe and more of a procedure. Coarsely crack the toasted peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Combine all the ingredients in a glass or ceramic jar, one where the lid has a good seal. Stir to combine to dissolve sugar. Prepare a day or at least four hours before use.


  1. Kadambari Badami Vamanan via FB

    Absolutely loving it. Have dreams of growing stuff myself, but waiting a year when we move into our own place. Can’t wait. Its so exciting 🙂

  2. Shakuntala Ray Banerji via FB

    love it. i share your interest of growing plants and hence, admiring this blog. keep it going sharmi.

  3. Pooja Agshikar via FB

    I never got into gardening..always had the love for it but never dived deep into it…had a similar monocotyledons and dicotyledon childhood experience which made me build a small terrarium for Nyah…love the way she watches the sprouts popping out 🙂

    • Sharmila

      Kadambari – Once you start growing things, you can’t stop. Addictive! Most fun you can have at a very slow pace 🙂
      Shakuntala – thanks dear!
      Pooja – I think all of us must have had that experiment. 🙂 start with a few herbs, very low maintenance and an easy place to start. Nyah must be enjoying herself watching the terrarium change.

  4. Laura

    I haven’t really thought about gardening until recently. I’ve never kept anything alive except a few gerbera daisies in college. However, I worked on a gardening project in Malawi and it was so nice to pick spinach, tomatoes, onion, and eggplant that we grew and take them home to make dinner. Not sure I’m up for all of that (yet) but I think even growing herbs would be a good start. I love the picture of the dahlia plant you have!

    • Sharmila

      That dahlia sends me into transports of delight every time I see it. It’s truly gorgeous and best of all very easy to keep alive.
      I love your Africa stories. If you’ve grown these veggies there, then herbs here will be a piece of cake for you. I recommend rosemary and thyme ’cause they’re easy. But also oregano and marjoram. And mint will even grow anywhere, it’s really hard to kill unless you don’t water it for weeks.
      If you get started, I’d love to see photos.

  5. arundati

    came here via nupur’s blog. what a gorgeous blog you have Sharmila…. loving the posts… stopped to say hello before I go back to browse