Keyhole Gardens – a new take on growing vegetables with less water

March 3rd, 2014

A few months back, I did a garden consultation for a couple who asked me about building a keyhole garden in their backyard. Keyhole garden? It comes from Africa, they said, and it’s supposed to be a highly productive method for growing vegetables, yet uses very little water.

High productivity with little water? That’s my kind of gardening, so of course I turned to the Internet and started typing.

Read more here…

Za’atar – The All Purpose Middle Eastern Spice Mix

May 18th, 2012

I’m preparing a talk for this weekend on Jewish Gardening at Spavuot, a Jewish health and wellness retreat at the Shalom Institute in Malibu.

Few people realize that Judaism is firmly rooted in agriculture.  Many Jewish holidays have agricultural roots:  Passover at  planting, Sukkot at harvest, Tu b’shvat marks bud break in spring, and so on.  Plants and trees, fruits and nuts are woven throughout the Torah, both literally and figuratively.

Oreganum syraca, Za'atar Oregano, a key ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice mix of the same name

Many Jewish traditions incorporate planting and respect for nature, particularly for fruit trees.  Pomegranate, fig, grape, etc. translate directly  from ancient agriculture to modern gardening practices, many of which I will cover on Sunday, as I talk about how to grow these same fruits and vegetables in home gardens.

I always like to send people home from my talks with something in-hand to inspire their gardening spirits.  At the end of this talk, everyone will go home with a Za’atar plant.  Za’atar is a special variety of oregano (some people refer to it as a marjoram) used in the all-purpose Middle Eastern spice mix of the same name.  Za’atar mixture is typically sprinkled onto olive oil-slathered pita, roasted chicken, fresh vegetables, hummus, and many other foods.

Za’atar mixes sold at specialty markets are made from dried herbs, but it can be made from fresh herbs, too.  In fact, its even more flavorful with fresh herbs.

Fresh or dried, Za’atar is simple to make.

Za’atar from dried herbs

2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons thyme
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons marjoram
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup sumac

Store-bought Za'atar spice mix

Grind  sesame seeds in food processor or with mortar and pestle. Combine with the rest of the herbs.

Dried Za’atar will keep in an airtight container for several months.

Za’atar from fresh herbs is far more potent so the proportions need some adjusting, based on your taste preferences.  Store the fresh mixture in the refrigerator. Its best to mix small batches as it keeps only a week or two.


There’s still time to sign up for Spavuot which is being held Sunday, May 20th, at The Shalom Institute in Malibu. Click here to register

Spavuot is a project of The Big Jewish Tent, an organization headed by my childhood friend Craig Taubman and co sponsored by the Shalom Institute.

Quick! Click to Win a Cluck

February 16th, 2012

Quick, click this link and you might win a chicken!

I’m not kidding.  Timber Press has a contest going that ends February 17th.  If your entry is selected, you win:

  •  A $50 gift card for chicken feed or supplies from McMurray Hatchery (they sell baby chicks)
  •  One chicken coop plan from The Garden Coop (a $20 value)
  • 1 lb. of organic chicken forage blend and seeds for chicken-friendly plants from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply (a $20 value)
  • A copy of Free-Range Chicken Gardens

This is a promotion, of course, for the Timber’s new release Free Ranch Chicken Gardens, which is a cute Free-Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloombook on creating chicken friendly gardens.

Free-Range Chicken Gardens is written by Washingtonian Jessi Bloom who is a garden designer and a chicken mom.  Jessi is a proponent of free range chickens, though she realizes that isn’t a possibility for all chicken lovers.  Instead, she offers practical alternatives to giving your chickens the run of the yard.

She also covers chicken care, which chickens to choose (there are lots of varieties), protecting chickens from predators (like bald eagles!), plants chickens love and those they avoid, coop designs, and other useful topics.

Its been more than 30 years since I last gardened with chickens.  I’ve thought about doing it again but dealing with kids, cats, and dogs took priority in recent years.  After reading Jessi’s book, though, I might just give it another try.

Please, don’t tell my husband!

The Year’s First Seed Starting Workshop is a Big Success

February 14th, 2012

it was cold and rainy, but that didn’t’ stop anyone from showing up for the year’s first seed starting workshop one evening last week at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant in Old Town San Diego.

We all knew that spring is just around the corner and with it, spring and summer vegetable gardens.

Nan Sterman with host and Cosmopolitan Hotel proprietress, Catherine Miller

I panicked a bit when the rain began, but Cosmo proprietress Catherine Miller knew just what to do.  Rather than have us work on the patio under the stars, Catherine had her fabulous staff set up tables, chairs, and lights on a covered walkway alongside one of the Cosmo’s historic dining rooms.

The group was small and very enthusiastic.  Several people were new to seed starting, others had tried seeds but with mixed results. All were eager to learn.

I began with a discussion about how seeds work, how to know which seeds to start at what time of year, and how to read a seed package.  We compared seed packets from Renee’s

Garden, Nichols Garden Seed, and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, three of my favorite seed companies.

We planted more than a dozen types of seeds

The best containers are those that support each plant from seed to transplant size









I introduced the group to my favorite seed starting strategy, one honed by years of trial and error growing my own vegetables  and testing seeds for Organic Gardening Magazine.

My best success, I explained, comes from using containers that can support each seedling from sprout to transplant size without having to separate and repot tiny seedlings.

Then, we got busy.  I had set up big trays of seed starting mix, containers for starting seeds, and a huge array of seeds to plant.  Each person planted four or five types of tomatoes, several types of pepper, two eggplants, basil, squashes, cucumbers, pumpkin, watermelon, cilantro, chard and more.

Containers are filled with seed starting mix

Gettin' down and dirty










Part way through the evening, Cosmo’s Executive Chef Andrew Sasloe decided we needed some nourishment.  He had prepared small bites using the same kinds of vegetables we were planting.

We swooned over eggplant carbonara on crusty bread, an eggplant, squash, and tomato lasagna, and a tomatoey bruschetta,.  For dessert, there were steamed lemon custards.  These dishes that aren’t usually on the menu but they certainly should be – they were absolutely delicious.  I’m drooling at the memory.

As we got back to work I listened to the excited chatter.  No one was in a hurry, they were simply enjoying the process and taking their time.

By the end of the night, everyone had a smile on their face and big tray of pots seeded and ready to sprout.


Done! Seeds started and ready to go

One of the participants left me a voice mail message the next day.  “It was amazing and wonderful,” she said, “lots and lots of wonderful information.”  That’s music to my ears!

I’m holding six more workshops just like this one between now and the end of March.   Workshops are scheduled all over the county, including a daytime workshop at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on March 18th.

You can find a list of dates and locations  on my homepage,  Space is limited to only 15 or 20 people per workshop.  If you are thinking of signing up, I suggest doing it soon.

Happy seed starting!

Turn the Water ON

February 5th, 2012

This is the time of year when I’m usually telling people (in the strongest terms) to turn their irrigation systems off.  Problem is, we’ve had almost no rain this winter.  Our rainfall total is far below normal. While the weather is warm, sunny, and beautiful for us humans, it isn’t so beautiful for plants.  This is when low water plants in particular should be storing up to survive next summer when its dry.  Without that winter water, they may not make it through the rest of the year.

So, as much as it pains me to say it, Turn the Water On.  If you live along the coast where the weather is pretty mild, you probably don’t need to water more than once a week.  Inland where its warmer and drier, water a bit more often.  Either way, water for a long time each time.  Water until you stick your finger in the soil and its wet all the way down – even further.  Each time, water for the same amount of time, just change the frequency.

Though its February, we may still get some rain.  Last time we went dry for this long was winter, 1991.  I remember the day the skies opened up.  It was March 20th, and my water broke (literally) at 4 in the morning.  After a Madd Hatter ride in the pouring rain to the hospital, my son, Asher was born at 9:30 am.  I’ll never forget what they called “The March Miracle.” It was a rainfall miracle for the weathermen and a “welcome to parenthood” miracle for my husband and me.

The Last Harvest of Summer

November 19th, 2011

Pumpkins, just in time for Thanksgiving

Sorta sweet, sorta sad… the last harvest of summer.

Expressive beauties: Peruvian lilies are low-maintenance flowers with a lot of personality

November 19th, 2011

I remember clearly when I saw my first Peruvian lily. It was the early 1980s, and I was in graduate school in Santa Barbara studying the tiny plankton that swim in our oceans. At the end of another weeks-long research cruise, my then boyfriend (now husband) met me at the dock with a huge hug and an equally huge bouquet of Alstroemeria, the Peruvian lilies.

I was thrilled to be back on terra firma (I get horrendously seasick) and equally thrilled by the beautiful bouquet. We both marveled at the delicate, trumpet shaped flowers with the most amazing color patterns. The flowers were the palest yellow, as I recall, with spots and dashes of deep burgundy all through their throats. Somehow, the patterns made the blooms look almost like they were smiling.

Illustration by Cristina Martinez Byvik

I’d been at sea for a long time, but honestly, the flowers had expressions.

Now, more than 20 years later, I still think Peruvian lilies have expressions. I grow four or five varieties in our garden, and I plant them in all the gardens I design. They are easy to grow, full of blooms, make excellent cut flowers, and are incredibly drought tolerant. Exactly my type of plant!

Peruvian lilies are perennials that form upright green stems from 3 feet tall all the way down to 8-inch dwarfs. Each stem is lined with delicate green leaves and topped in a cluster of up to a dozen lily-shaped trumpets, each about 3 inches long.

While my first Peruvian lilies were soft yellow and burgundy, garden hybrids range from nearly white, soft pink and soft yellow to brilliant gold, bright red and intense magenta, coral, even purple. Most are multicolored with yellow throats and those burgundy/black speckles and streaks.

Peruvian lilies are native to Chile and Argentina (ironically, not Peru).

The varieties commonly available are nearly all hybrids. The wild species live a true Mediterranean life. They sprout new stems in fall, bloom through spring, then retreat back into the ground to avoid the heat of summer. The new hybrids are “everblooming,” meaning they are bred to shorten the dormancy cycle so plants bloom nearly year-round.

If you have a Peruvian lily that goes dormant through most of the summer, chances are its an older hybrid. Nothing wrong with that; it just doesn’t bloom for quite as long as the newer ones.

Dig up a clump of Peruvian lilies and you’ll see how they survive dry times. Stems arise from fleshy, white, pinky-sized tubers that store water underground. As plants mature, they make more and more tubers. So, allow enough space (at least 4 or 5 feet across) for them to spread. If the patch gets too large, it’s easy to share those tubers. See one you love in a neighbor’s garden? Ask for some tubers to take home.

Peruvian lilies prefer well-draining soil, in the ground or in a pot. Plants need very little water once established.

They bloom best in full sun but tolerate part shade. If blooms are sparse, transplant to a sunnier location and/or increase water a bit. For maximum bloom, fertilize once in early spring and once in early fall with all-purpose, organic fertilizer.

Some older hybrids reseed aggressively. Newer ones, though, are bred for sterile flowers so they don’t reseed.

If you want cut flowers, do not cut the stems. Instead, grab a stem just a few inches below the flowers and yank (yes, YANK) the entire stem out of the ground. As stems finish blooming, yank those out, too. Somehow, yanking stimulates the tubers to sprout more flowering stems. So, the more you yank, the more flowers you get.

Some Favorite Varieties:

I’ve yet to meet a Peruvian lily I didn’t love. Here are some to start with.

‘Casa Blanca’ has white petals, each with a soft pink streak and pale yellow throat. Burgundy brown dots and dashes. Three-foot-tall stems.

‘Third Harmonic’ petals are golden orange and coral pink with burgundy dots and dashes. Three- to 4-foot-tall stems.

‘Kyty’ has butter-yellow petals with deep red dots and dashes on 3-foot-tall stems.

The ‘Princess’ series dwarf Alstroemeria have multicolored pink, orange, magenta or coral flowers with burgundy/deep brown dots and dashes. Most are under a foot tall.


While most nurseries offer a few varieties of Alstroemeria, you’ll find the largest selection at Garden Glories in Vista. This small nursery is open by appointment, so call first (858) 449-5342 or email

(This entry first appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, Saturday November 5, 2011)

Don’t Plant This: Palm Edition

November 13th, 2011

My husband and I had brunch this morning with Celia and Nate Levy at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.  Celia is the travel agent who has done such a fabulous job putting together the garden tour I am leading to Holland and Belgium next May. Brunch was delightful – both food and company!

On the way back to our car, I noticed this amputated palm stump literally attached to the home next to the museum.  Its a perfect example of “Don’t Plant This!”

A stump is all that remains of a palm tree planted way too close to this house, many moons ago

Clearly the palm was planted many years ago, and by someone who had no idea how large it would get.

The point of attachment

Unfortunately for the palm, it was planted way to close to the house.

The palm literally grew into the home's exterior wall

When it became a problem, rather than removing the entire palm, the owners simply cut it down to eave height!  Such a pity.

This palm tree will never recover from being cut part way down

Lessons from this pitiful situation:

1) Do your homework.  Know how large a plant will get (height and width) before you buy it and certainly before you plant it.

2) Don’t plant large plants too close to a house, a driveway, a sidewalk, etc.

3) If you have to remove a plant, remove the WHOLE THING.  Don’t leave a stump to die and rot in place.


Blades of Glory: Whether catching morning dew or in your morning brew, lemon grass has it covered

November 8th, 2011

It’s summertime and the living is easy, as long as I have a tall glass of lemon grass and mint iced tea to cut the heat. Fortunately, I grow both mint and lemon grass, so I can make ice tea whenever I want — and you can, too.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) gets its fresh, lemony scent from citral oil, the same oil that is found in lemon verbena, lemon balm and, of course, lemons! Thai and Vietnamese cooks harvest sheaths of lemon grass, chop up the tender bases and add them to soups, salads and curries. Lemon grass citral oil is even used in cosmetics like soaps, creams and deodorants.

This evergreen perennial grass comes from India and Ceylon. In our gardens, lemon grass makes a 4- to 6-foot mound of inch-wide, bright green leaves that sometimes take on a purple tinge in the cooler days of winter.

Lemon grass is beautiful and adaptable to almost any garden style: tropical, Asian, Mediterranean or modern. Plants prefer full sun or bright shade, and soil that drains reasonably well. Along the coast, lemon grass is fairly low-water. Inland, though, more water keeps plants looking their best.

Site lemon grass plants with enough room to reach their natural height and width. Fertilize only sparingly if at all, to keep growth under control. These are two key strategies of low-maintenance gardening.

Over time, older leaves turn brown. Simply comb them out by hand (wear gloves; the leaf edges are sharp). If the mound starts to separate in the center, simply dig it up and divide the plant into three or four sections, then replant each one (or give some away).

If you don’t have enough room in the ground, lemon grass does very well in a large container. You might even add some colorful variegated coleus and red- or orange-flowering canna for color. Water regularly through summer.

To harvest lemon grass, find the base of the mound, where you’ll see leaves arranged in bundles. Cut a bundle just below the rounded bottom edge and just above the roots. That tender, fleshy, ivory-colored, rounded base is the part used for cooling. Whatever you don’t cook with, simply steep in boiled water, along with fresh mint leaves, to make aromatic lemonade.

East Indian lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) also contains the citrusy citral oil but tends to be used in the perfume industry rather than for cooking. Mosquito repelling citronella oil comes from lemon grass cousins, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.

Making Olives, Attempt #2

October 21st, 2011

Last year at this time, I bought olives with the idea that I would salt cure them, much like I saw in France a few years ago.  My French friends salted black olives, put them in perforated plastic bags, then hung them from tree branches.  As the salt drew the bitter compounds from the olives, it formed a liquid that dripped into a bucket below the bag.

The olives were delicious.

I’ve looked for black olives in San Diego, but all I seem to find are green olives sold by the Temecula Olive Oil Company.   I tried my hand at replicating the French process using Temecula’s green olives last year.  I suspect I took too many shortcuts, however, as the olives rotted.

With olives ripe again now, its time to try again.  So, here goes….

First, I rinsed the olives

I slit the olives to help the salt reach the inner flesh

I combined a cup of kosher salt and two pounds of olives in each perforated bag

Olive bags hang from the drying rack in my laundry room