Archive for the ‘Garden techniques and methods’ Category

Quick! Click to Win a Cluck

Thursday, 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

Tuesday, 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!

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

Tuesday, 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.

LEAD the Way With Outdoor LED Lighting

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Move over halogen bulbs, the new bulbs on the block are revolutionizing the world of outdoor lighting.   LEDs, the light emitting diodes that illuminate our car break lights, alarm clocks, and our household electrical appliance, are exploding into our gardens.

This beautiful nighttime lighting uses Kichler LED fixtures

LEDs are so energy efficient that the State of California promotes them for indoor and outdoor lighting. The State’s goal of lower energy use is intended to “reduce air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels in power plants while producing the same quality of light as traditional incandescent bulbs.”

Traditional outdoor lighting is low voltage. A cable connects a string of light fixtures to a transformer that converts household current to 12-volt direct current.  LED systems use a driver rather than a transformer to regulate the electricity.

Outdoor LED systems like the ones on this page from Kichler, offer both opportunities and challenges. Experts agrees that silica based LEDs are shatter resistant, a definite plus for outdoors.

Cool temperatures are another plus.  Incandescent bulbs generate light by heating a metal filament until it glows. Incandescent halogens can reach 500° F, according to electrical contractor and lighting design instructor Paul Bussell of Ladybug Lectric in Encinitas, California.  Extreme temperatures singe leaves, branches, and fingertips. LEDs generate almost no heat, making them safe both in the landscape and to the touch.

While burnt-out bulbs are a common complaint for traditional outdoor lights, LED lifespans are estimated at about 10 years, though, Bussell points out, they’ve not been used in outdoor lighting that long.  Only time will tell.

Bussell says that LED light quality is almost up to his standards. “Its hard to put one into an uplight and expect to dim it,” he says, “ and in a sequence of lights, they may not  all  be the same color.  Some might be more blue or more yellow.”

Joe Bell, general manager Lightbulbs Unlimited in San Diego agrees that color is “people’s number one concern.  We can get warm whites that look like (the color of) an incandescent bulb….you wouldn’t notice the difference.”

While Bell recommends a driver for new LED systems, he says that for retrofitted systems and those with both halogen and LED fixtures, simply use the existing transformer.  Lightbulbs Unlimited also carries LED bulbs that fit into traditional halogen lighting fixtures, “You can retrofit what you have already… Still, you have to match the draw to the transformer.”  And if you want to dim an LED, Bell says, use a dimmable driver.

Both men agree that reduced energy use is the biggest driver for outdoor LED lighting. Bell says, for example, that a13-watt LED lamp puts out as much light as a standard 40-watt incandescent bulb.Several tiny LED lights go into a single fixture like this one from Kichler

Cost, of course, is a factor.  At Lightbulbs Unlimited, a normal halogen uplight may cost $9, while an LED uplight might cost $25 to $45.

Despite the upfront cost, says Bussell “If you factor in usage, longevity and replacement, LED systems are a fifth the cost of halogen systems.”

“Its a huge difference,” Bussell continues, “That one factor alone is the quickest and most efficient way to cut energy use.”

The State of California maintains on-line database of products that meet state-mandated criteria for energy efficiency including LED bulbs.  When you visit the database, select the category “Lighting Products,” and the type “High Efficacy LEDs.”

Killer Rays from the Sun

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Thinking of replacing your lawn but not sure how to kill the grass?  Just as we use the sun’s rays to power our houses, heat water and run our cars, we can use the sun to kill lawns as well.

The process, called solarization, uses the heat of the sun’s rays to literally cook plants, weed seeds, nematodes, and pathogens (the “bad guys” that cause plant diseases) in the uppermost layers of soil.

Summer is the best time of year to solarize. The air is warm, but more importantly, the sun has its greatest heating potential.  Solarize for six weeks or so and your lawn will be gone with a minimum investment of time, energy, money, and best of all – no herbicides!

Solarization comes to us from the clever folks in Israel where resources are limited but demand is great.

Steps to solarization

1. Cut your lawn very, very short.  Make the surface as smooth and even as possible.

2. Irrigate to saturate the soil one to two feet deep

3. Cover the lawn with 2 to 4 ml sheets of clear plastic sheet (available in the paint section of the hardware store.  This is the most environmentally ‘unfriendly’ part).  Spread the plastic so it is in contact with the soil surface, leaving as little air space as possible

4. Extend the plastic six to eight inches beyond the edges of the grass.  The edges of don’t heat as well as the center so extending the plastic assures even heating throughout.

5. If the lawn is large for several sheets of plastic, overlap the seams

6. Anchor the edges of the plastic with rocks, bricks, pieces of wood or mounds of soil.

7. Turn the irrigation off (imagine what would happen if the water went on with plastic covering sprinkler heads!)

8. Wait six to eight weeks.

9. Remove the plastic carefully.  If the plastic doesn’t have UV inhibitor (nice but not necessary) it will likely fall apart by the time the lawn dies.

To make the process even more effective, spread a second layer of plastic over the first.  Use two-by-fours or bricks to create a few-inch air gap between them.  Research shows that the second plastic layer can raise soil temperature another two to ten degrees.

Since the plastic is clear, you can watch the lawn turn from green to yellow, then to straw brown.  Once that happens, let the plastic sit another week or two, just to be sure.

Once the lawn is dead, you have a few options.  Clear away dead grass where you plan to put walkways or otherwise need an even surface.   Where the lawn is to become planting bed, just treat the dead stuff as compost.  Leave it in place and plant into, or mound soil atop it.  Eventually, it will disintegrate either way.

Since solarization works best in the upper foot or so of soil, don’t rototill or spade after you are done (actually, its best not to rototill ever).  Rototilling, or turning the soil deeply, brings seeds and pathogens to the surface where they will again proliferate.

Solarization Q and A

Why irrigate first?

Wet soil heats more quickly than dry soil.

Why clear plastic?

I’m often asked if black plastic works as well as clear.  The answer is a definite “NO!”  It’s a matter of physics, but rather than give you a complex explanation, here’s an example from our everyday experiences to clarify the concept.

Imagine a hot summer day.  Park your car in a sunny parking lot.  Roll the windows up, close the doors and leave for several hours.  When you return, open the door.  What’s your first thought?  “Boy its hot in there!” We all know from experience, that the air inside a closed up car gets far hotter than the outside air.

Now, have your car windows tinted.  Repeat the process and compare the air inside the car to the air outside.

What happens? Even though the outside surface of the car gets just as hot, the air inside stays cooler when the windows are tinted (like black plastic) than when windows are clear (similar to clear plastic).

This is the “Greenhouse Effect.” Clear glass and clear plastic trap the heating power of the sun’s rays. That’s why soil beneath clear plastic heats up more than soil beneath black plastic. Adding an air gap and a second layer of plastic heats the soil even more.

Can I solarize other areas of my garden too?

Certainly!  Raised beds, perennial beds, weed infested fields, even slopes can be solarized to kill weeds, pests and pathogens.  Just make the surface flat enough for the plastic to lie tight against the soil. Keep in mind though, that solarization will kill all plants under the plastic so if there are some you want to keep, dig them out first.

Pot Medic to the Rescue

Monday, September 6th, 2010

This time of year, its pretty hot in my garden – too hot to for new plants to go into the ground and too hot for me to be out in the garden all day. Instead, I turn my attention to my container plants. I have dozens of them, so several are always in need of attention. I walk the garden looking for pots in need of help:

Problem: Potting soil disappears from the pot to the point where the pot is only half filled!

Poor quality potting soil used in this pot has sunk by about six inches in less than two years

Poor quality potting soil used in this pot has sunk by about six inches in less than two years


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

Spring Cleaning in July

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

In most gardens, spring cleaning means preparing for spring.  In my garden, it means cleaning away the spring.

Here in Southern California, spring is when plants explode into growth, expanding inches, it seems, each day.  By time we get to the heat of summer (which should be about now, though this summer, we’ve hardly seen sun), plants sink into the slumber that allows them to survive the dry heat.

This is when I do my spring cleaning.

I spent most of this afternoon and evening cleaning my tiered garden.  It was, in a way, like a grand treasure hunt.  I pulled away waves of nasturtiums, revealing plants set into the ground last fall.  Some are most certainly drowned, others may survive.  Only time will tell.

I found baby agaves beneath sprawling wands of a salvia whose name is long forgotten but whose coral colored flowers glow from spring through summer.  Two new Darwinias, the prostrate shrubs named for the prophet of evolution, appear to have a 50/50 chance of survival;  one looks like it will make it, the other looks to be a goner.  How ironic.

Plants uncovered as the nasturtium and salvia are cleared away

Plants uncovered as the nasturtium and salvia are cleared away

Lots and lots of old nasturtium foliage.

Lots and lots of old nasturtium foliage.

The tall, running perennial sunflower leaned so far down from its perch that it nearly smothered the pale yellow ‘Lemon Leigh’ Spanish lavenders on the steppe beneath it.  It took me 20 minutes of pruning to rescue them.

Piles of debris from spring's growth

Piles of debris from spring's growth

My arms are sliced, my hands chapped, but the garden beds looks so much better.  A new layer of mulch and they will be ready for summer!

From Sticks to Stems

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Years ago, a neighbor introduced herself to me as “the plant pincher.” I must have looked surprised because she explained that whenever she saw a plant she liked, she pinched a piece and took it home to try to root it. And, she continued, would I mind if she pinched some of my plants.

She assumed I was surprised to hear that plants could be rooted from pieces. On the contrary, I was surprised to learn I wasn’t the only plant pincher in the neighborhood!

My friend pinched because her budget was limited and her property large. I pinch hard-to-find plants in friends’ gardens (with their permission of course).

Rooting plants from cuttings is surprisingly straightforward. Not everything is easy to start, but once you understand the basics, try your hand at anything.

(more at….)

Fig tree cutting six months after rooting in potting soil

Fig tree cutting six months after rooting in potting soil

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.