Archive for the ‘low water’ Category

Hot Colors, Dry Garden #1

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

For months I’ve wanted to start this series, “Hot Colors, Dry Garden” so consider this the first installment.   And what better way to start out than with a pair of mind blowing images taken just a few weeks ago in my front garden?

Hot Colors, Dry Garden is an invitation to people who are afraid that low water gardens are brown, drab gardens.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Check out the colors and textures in these scenes.

It takes some planning and lots of trial-and-error to create moments like these.  It also takes some willingness to challenge your biases.  Long ago, I swore I would never plant a Bougainvillea. They are in my “way too overused” category and frankly, I’m sick of them.

But then,  one  caught my eye.  ‘Orange Ice’ is a smaller boug with cream and green variegated leaves and the most amazing colored bracts (they’re not really petals) in coral pink, blush orange.  The color glows in the sunlight.

Will it look the same next year?  Only time will tell!

'Orange Ice' Bougainvillea, Agave bracteosa, Agave guiengola, Senecio mandraliscae, and hunnemannia fumariifolia - a heavenly combination!

'Orange Ice' Bougainvillea, Agave bracteosa, Senecio mandraliscae, and Hunnemannia fumariifolia - a heavenly combination!

Main plants:

  • Bougainvillea ‘Orange Ice’ with variegated leaves and pink flowers blush orange
  • Agave bracteosa, a small, solitary agave with twisty, turny blades
  • Senecio mandraliscae also called blue chalk fingers for obvious reasons
  • Calylophus, a low growing shrublet with yellow flowers that fills in the empty spaces
  • Hunnemannia fumariifolia, Mexican tulip poppy, also with yellow flowers and creeping perennial stems that pop up here and there.
  • An  Aloe whose name has been lost to time
  • Palo verde ‘Desert Museum,’ the best of the palo verdes
  • Schinus molle, the cursed California pepper tree that is neither Californian, nor pepper.  I’d never plant it again but I admit to loving it!

Here’s a detail

A bit closer view shows the touches of bronze from Aeonium 'Zwartkopf' and one of the bronze leaved cordylines

A bit closer view shows the touches of bronze from Aeonium 'Zwartkopf' and one of the bronze leaved cordylines

Nan’s Garden Tip #101: Mulching Vegetable Gardens

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Want to make your vegetable garden more waterwise?  Here are two suggestions:

  • Switch to drip irrigation

Most vegetables dislike having wet leaves. In fact, wet leaves often become mildewed leaves.  Drip irrigation is far more efficient than overhead spray and it keeps leaves dry and mildew free.

  • Mulch with a three-inch thick layer of home-made compost.  If  you don’t have enough compost, use seedless straw.
  • Straw is the perfect vegetable mulch. It is lightweight, but keeps weeds down and soil moist

    Straw is the perfect vegetable mulch. It is lightweight, keeps weeds down and soil moist

Wood based mulches, stone and gravel mulches are fine for ornamental plants, but in the vegetable garden, home made compost and seedless straw are better choices.  Both insulate the soil from water loss and both are light enough for seeds to push through.

Zinnia seedlings poke up through the straw

Zinnia seedlings poke up through the straw

If you opt for straw, be sure you don‘t get hay or alfalfa or anything  that has lots of seeds.  Why?  Years ago, I mulched with straw and grew a lovely bed of wheat…. instead of tomatoes!

If you can get old straw, that’s even better.  As straw ages, the  fibers start breaking down and residual seeds begin to rot.   That’s a good thing.

And, old straw can’t be sold for animal bedding, so feed stores (the best places to get straw) often regard them as waste.  In fact, they may even give you the straw for free!

If you don’t have room to store an entire bale of straw, ask for a “flake.”  A flakes is simply a section of a bale.

This bale of straw will last me two or three seasons

This bale of straw will last me two or three seasons

On the radio this morning

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Had a great time doing my quarterly gardening radio gig on KPBS FM 89.5, Public Radio in San Diego. Host Maureen Cavanaugh is a blast to talk with, and the callers had great questions about tomatoes, how to water, the cool weather, and lots more.

Click here to listen!

Bye Bye Grass!

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

Its the “default landscape,” the “worry-free garden,” “the easiest thing in the world” – or is it?

More and more, people acknowledge they are tired of having to mow, water, fertilize, weed, and pesticide (is that a verb?) lawn that they hardly ever use. Fortunately, there are lots of options for replacing lawn with gardens that are beautiful and far easier to care for.  (read more…)

This lovely patio, fire ring, seating area and water feature replaced our old lawn

This lovely patio, fire ring, seating area and water feature replaced our old lawn

My Greener, Waterwise World

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

I had a delightful morning as I welcomed the crew from Growing a Greener World into my garden.  Growing a Greener World is the new PBS television gardening series hosted by Joe Lamp’l, one of my co-authors on my latest book, Waterwise Plants for the Southwest.

My reaction to working with Joe Lamp'l and his crew on Growing a Greener World

Theresa Loe, associate producer for Joe’s show, contacted me about being the guest expert for an episode on saving water in the garden.  Since that’s exactly what I spend most of my life talking,  writing about, teaching people to do, and doing myself, I was delighted to participate.

Me and Joe Lamp'l in my garden shooting an episode of Growing a Greener World

Me and Joe Lamp'l in my garden shooting an episode of Growing a Greener World

Joe and I discussed low water gardening, why it is important, and why I started doing it.  Being a California native, I have known forever that water is a precious resource.  One of my major gardening goals is to create maximum beauty with as little water as possible.

We toured my garden, looking at my new, low-water meadow, now six months old.

Part way through planting my new meadow

Part way through planting my new meadow

We talked about how to select plants that are waterwise, whether you live in Maine or Miami.  We most talked about efficient irrigation technologies, and ways to grow vegetables with as little water as possible.

Joe and his crew were a delight to work with.  The show will air on or around September 11th this year.  I can’t wait to see it!

Carl (or maybe Kilroy?) sets up a shot

Carl (or maybe Kilroy?) sets up a shot

Leo decides between iPhone and video camera

Leo decides between iPhone and video camera

Living in beauty and privacy

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

When Maury and Heather Callaghan moved to their newly built Olivenhain home in 2001, they carpeted the two-thirds-acre lot in sod. The New Zealand natives had lived all over the world, most recently in Kentucky where they had a large, woodland garden. Both had gardened with their parents as children. As adults, however, Maury’s business had taken them around the world, mostly where there wasn’t much opportunity for gardening, until they landed in Kentucky, where Heather became a Master Gardener. (read more…)

Save water in your garden with my “Canary Test”

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

People constantly ask me how much and how often to water their plants.  There is no definitive answer.  It depends on your microclimate, the type of soil in your garden, the type of irrigation you use (drip, overhead, etc.) and more.

That said, figuring out how to water your plants isn’t all that difficult if you use my “Canary Test.”

Miners used canaries as an early warning system.  You can, too.

In the old days, miners took canaries with them into coalmines. Since canaries are very sensitive to lethal but odorless carbon monoxide gas, the miners knew to leave the mines when the canaries started to get sick.

My “Canary Test” is way to test how often and for how long each of your garden’s watering zones actually needs run. In your garden, the “canary” is the first plant to show signs of water stress.

The Canary Test

Test one watering zone at a time (a watering zone is a set of sprinklers or drip emitters that are connected to the same valve and run at the same time).

Figure Out How Often to Water

  1. Pick a zone. Make sure you know which plants that zone waters
  2. Turn the zone off.  Mark the date on your calendar
  3. Wait and watch for the canary –  the first plant to show signs of water stress.  When you notice a plant whose leaves look a bit wilted, you’ve found your canary. It might take several days or it might take several weeks. Eventually, you’ll see the canary.
  4. Check your calendar to see how many days passed since you turned that zone off.   Make a note of it.
  5. Figure out how often to water.  If, for example, it took 14 days until you noticed a canary in a particular zone, then water that zone every 12th or 13th day (that’s two weeks, minus one or two days). If it took seven days, then water every sixth day, and so on.

Your goal isn’t to get your plants to wilt, but rather to to avoid watering before plants need the water.

Figure Out how Long to Water

  1. Once you identify your canary, run the irrigation in that zone.  Check the soil every five or ten minutes for overhead sprinklers, every 10 to 20 minutes for rotating nozzle sprinklers, and every 30 minutes for drip irrigation.
  2. Note how long it takes for water to soak deep enough that when you stick your finger all the way into the soil, it is saturated not just at the surface but as deep as you can feel.

If the soil is really hard, you may need to dig down with a hand trowel or soil probe rather than using your finger.

  1. Repeat the process for each watering zone.

The point is to get water to plant roots deep in the soil. However long that takes is the amount of time to irrigate that zone.

You’ll soon realize that each zone needs to run on its own schedule. Your lawn, for example, may need to run ten minutes, three times a week in summer, but your flower border can go for a week between waterings.  Your shrub border can go two weeks or a month, especially if you deep-water each time.

Areas irrigated with overhead spray  need to run for only minutes at a time, but drip irrigated areas run for an hour or longer since they release water very slowly.

Repeat the Canary Test for each zone, once a month to create a year-round watering schedule. Winter’s rainfall may provide enough water for weeks or months. On the other hand, in the dry heat of summer, plants need watering far more frequently.

Every time you water, water deeply and thoroughly. Don’t be afraid to use your finger as a  probe to test how wet the soil is.

Whether you control your sprinklers manually or use an irrigation clock, adjusting your watering schedule to match your plants’ needs saves tremendous amounts of water and grows healthier plants.

The Water is ON

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

I just turned the water on.

Is that a big deal?

I’m talking about irrigation water. And YES its a big deal because it has been off since  October. Yes OCTOBER.

How did I manage to avoid watering for nearly six months? Easy! I grow low water plants.

When I started working on this garden in 1992, all the other gardeners I knew labored to create the perfect, flower-filled English garden.  I was planting my back corner with natives. While they toiled over roses, I planted aloes and agaves. When everyone wanted a lush lawn, I went for ornamental grasses set amidst un-thirsty flowering shrubs from Australia and South Africa.

My goal was, and still is, to see how much beauty I can create using as little water as possible.

So how did I do? Judge for yourself. Most of the photos decorating the pages of this website are photos from my garden.  Previous blog entries have photos of my garden as well.

A low water, high flower combination: golden orange South African annual Ursinia anthemoides  with 'Dusky Rose' California native poppy

A low water, high flower combination: golden orange South African annual Ursinia anthemoides with 'Dusky Rose' California native poppy

I can’t take credit for it all, of course. I am fortunate to have good advice from designer Linda Chisari who helped with the original design for my backyard (in 1992) and became a valued friend in the process.  Nearly a decade later, designer Scott Spencer, another of my favorite people, got me going in the front yard. I have learned and continue to learn a tremendous amount from both of them.

And then there are the dozens of nursery folk who endure my never-ending questions as I search and research plants to write about, talk about, and of course, try out in my garden.

Not that my garden is entirely low water. I couldn’t live without a vegetable garden (I have a hard time understanding how anyone can live without a vegetable garden).

Late summer harvest in the vegetable garden

Late summer harvest in the vegetable garden

Vegetables take a considerable amount of water, but I use drip irrigation to target the water to each plant and drip it directly into the ground above the roots, so it is used very efficiently.
Fruit trees take more water than natives, but probably not as much as you’d expect. Deciduous fruit trees – those that are bare in winter – need water only when they are actively growing in spring and summer.

Evergreen fruit trees need water year-round except when it is raining. Still, their well-established roots are less thirsty than, say, an equal area of lawn.

And besides, if I am going to spend water, I want to spend it on plants that give me something back – like food!

Time to Go Grassless!

Monday, March 9th, 2009
Lots of green, no grass in my front garden

Lots of green, no grass in my front garden

I finally made front page news today!  The San Diego Union Tribune’s front page story was about people removing their lawns as a water-saving measure.  Reporter Mike Lee quoted me as a local expert:

“It’s the beginning of the end of lawn at home,” said Nan Sterman, who teaches a class called “Bye Bye Grass” at the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon.

Last week, the garden’s managers started a hotline for people to seek advice from Sterman about “water-smart” landscaping.

“It’s not just the early adopters anymore,” Sterman said. “It’s (average) people who are really getting the sense that we have to do something . . . which tells me that it’s becoming part of the mainstream.”

Yes, going grassless it is becoming mainstream.  No longer do people walk by my front garden and scratch their heads, wondering where the grass went, or giving me funny looks when I tell them there never was any grass.
In fact, I just taught a Bye Bye Grass series at Quail Botanical Gardens this past week.  It was a full class of men and women, from all over the county, all of whom came to learn how to get rid of their lawns and replace them with low water plants – and a few with vegetable gardens.

Are vegetable gardens lower water than lawns?  I get this question all the time.  It isn’t that easy to answer but generally, when you water a vegetable  garden the idea is to target each plant.  A lawn, on the other hand, is blanketed in spray. And most vegetable gardens are smaller than lawns.
Either way, as I like to say, if you are going to “spend” water, spend it on something that feeds you.

Click here to read the entire story.

And by the way, if you are interested in getting rid of your lawn, the next series of Bye Bye Grass is April 1 and April 4 at the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College. The next series at Quail Botanical Gardens is May 13 and 17.  To register (which is required) for either series, click here.

The class travels too… in case you have a venue where you’d like to have me teach it!

Stroll With Me Through Stone Brewing World Bistro Gardens

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Yesterday, I visited Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in anticipation of the program I am doing there next Sunday, March 15.  For the Ides of March, I am leading a stroll through the brewery’s wonderful gardens.

I remember the first time I visited Stone.  It was September of 2005 when CEO Greg Koch toured me through the not-yet-open brewery. 


 I was totally taken by the amazing facility.  A plane Jane tilt-up building was being transformed transformed into a beautiful, striking structure, adorned with local rocks, boulders from on-site, worn brick from a historic building in downtown San Diego, and slabs of granite leftover from a quarry not far away that makes tombstones.   Countering the gray and black, and white textures were vast surfaces of coppery rusted steel.  But that would not be finished for a while.  Click here for a photo log of brewery and garden construction

Inside the brewing facility were two story tall stainless steel silos –

Stainless steel silos await their fate brewing Stone beers


or so they looked to me – where the brewmasters soon would be doing their magic.

An enormous glass wall stood between the brewery and the soon to be bistro.

The bistro itself was a vast space with soaring ceilings, bamboo planted water features, a long bar (of course), and a huge, outward slanting wall of glass with roll up glass doors that when open, erased the line between inside and outside.

At that point, however, I had to wonder why anyone would want to go outside.  Greg pointed past the construction zone he called a dining patio to a HUGE hole in the ground.  It looked like the entry of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The hole, Greg explained, was the detention basin for the entire commercial development around Stone Brewing.  If or when, there would be a 100 year flood, all the water in the surrounding properties would rush into the big hole where it would enter an enormous culvert and diverted to who knows where. 

What I saw as a hole, however, Greg saw as a garden.  He talked about making it the brewery’s backyard by filling it with fruit trees and natives. He envisioned boulders and seating areas in a garden where patrons would learn where their food came from.

Who was doing the design, I asked.  Well, Greg said, he’d talked to some landscape architects and some other folks, but he was thinking he’d just do it himself.

Honestly, I thought he was nuts.  But then again, I it was the first time I’d met Greg Koch.

Today, the hole in the ground is indeed a lovely garden filled with fruit

 trees, natives, bamboo, and other plants that together, create the brewery’s backyard.  There are lawns surrounded by groves of fruit

 trees, natives, and bamboo.  A stream running through the center is filled with cattails and other aquatic plants.  It flows into what looks like the most wonderful swimming hole, thanks to strategically placed boulders and cascading waterfalls.  Of course, it isn’t a swimming hole.  It is the big hole that I once imagined leading to the inner world.

This coming Sunday, I have the honor of leading folks on a stroll

 through the garden, pointing out its

amazing and fantastic features.  The fruit trees are coming into bloom, the natives are thriving, the pine forest (not native but pretty darned impressive) of formerly distressed trees, the fantastic agave hill, and


It is a lesson in success that comes from not listening to the experts (though there are some features of the garden that I know Greg will eventually live to regret, like planting running bamboo without a root barrier), a lesson in sustainability, and a lesson in following one’s heart.

Come join me in Stone’s garden at 1 pm on March 15.  Come early and eat lunch, have a beer (but not too many), and then mosey on over to the patio bar where we will be gathering.