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Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category


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

Monday, 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

Friday, 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.

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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.



Turn the Water ON

Sunday, 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 organic way: Be Wise Ranch has found success through tenacity and innovation

Friday, October 8th, 2010

A tall man stands in the field, surveying a vast sea of green. It is late summer, and veteran organic farmer Bill Brammer has rivulets of sweat running down his neck. The mercury passed 100 degrees around midday. This oppressive heat is hard on people but great for ripening tomatoes. At peak harvest, workers will pick more than 60,000 pounds of the juicy red fruits from these fields in a single day.

If you buy organic heirloom tomatoes, grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or Jimbo’s, chances are, your future tomatoes are growing under Brammer’s gaze. Back in spring, the organic strawberries you bought at these outlets also came from “Farmer Bill’s” fields…..(more)

Farmer Bill Brammer (center, in blue shirt) leads a tour of his tomato fields in the San Pasqual Agricultural Reserve

Farmer Bill Brammer (center, in blue shirt) leads a tour of his tomato fields in the San Pasqual Agricultural Reserve


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


Tom Sawyer and My New Wall

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Is it okay for my blog to quote another blog?  Oh, what the heck!

The wonderful Sharon Cohoon, Southern California editor for Sunset Magazine (and the woman I’d like to be when I grow up) wrote about my new garden wall in her blog, Fresh Dirt.   I love what she wrote!

When you walk out onto Nan Sterman‘s back patio, you see this intriguing fountain wall ahead of you that invites you to come out and explore the garden.  It looks so right where it is I figured it must have popped into Nan’s mind as a fully-fledged idea.  Not exactly.  The truth is the San Diego garden writer/designer/lecturer got all the favorite men in her life involved in coming up with this perfect-for-her-garden design. (read more)

My new garden wall, a collaboration between myself, my husband Curt Wittenberg, his brother Jan, and my stepson, contrator Gabe Evaristo


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!


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…)


What a Rat’s Nest!

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

My intent for tonight was to write about starting seeds for my summer garden.  The weather is nice and warm now, days in the 70s, nights in the 50s, just perfect for starting seeds outdoors, which is my preferred way to do it.

I have a potting shed  – well, not really where I pot.  As it turns out,  other areas of the garden are better for potting.  Instead, I use the shed   to store hand tools and start seeds.  The roof is clear corrugated fiberglass and one side wall is a big old salvaged window, making for plenty of light and just enough air circulation.

For the past five or six years, I’ve tested vegetable, flower, and herb seeds for Organic Gardening magazine.  Each spring, I get an envelope filled with all kinds of seeds.  Some years, there are themes, like the year we tested six kinds of eggplants.   There are always plenty of tomatoes, a couple kinds of peppers, cucumbers, squash, melons, and flowers.  That’s how I re-discovered my love of zinnias.  Have you seen zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime?’  It makes a prolific display of the most unexpected bright green flowers.  The plants bloom all summer.  ‘Benary’s Giant Coral’ is another of my favorite zinnias – – and honestly, I had give up on annuals!

Zinnia 'Benary's Giant Lime'

Zinnia 'Benary's Giant Lime'

I can’t tell you what I’m testing this year.  You’ll find out later by reading Organic Gardening.

But I digress.

This afternoon, I pulled out the year’s seeds, wrote out the labels, then went to the potting shed for planting containers.  Before I found the containers, though I found something amazing.  A rat’s nest.  Literally.

I haven’t been in that shed much in recent months, but clearly, someone else had.  The potting table was caked in  dried out red Eugenia berries surely put there for winter food storage.  When I was a kid, we’d pick the red berries to paint our faces.  These, however, looked more like dried cranberries than the plump juicy berries of my childhood.

The space beneath the potting bench was stuffed with pieces of mulch, leaves, shredded wood, and who-knew-what.

The big decision then, was whether to put off cleaning until another day, or go ahead and tackle it now.  I’d rather put it off, but where would I put my seeds to germinate? I needed the space, and I needed to make sure that the rats were no longer in that space.

So, gloves firmly in place, I went to work. The rats had pulled everything off the shelves, shredded it, and mixed it together  – hard plastic, string, jute, plastic bags, popsicle sticks used for plant labels, clothes pins that hold frost cloth, irrigation parts….  I pulled out a big funnel that  use to filter worm tea.  The rats had lined with shredded, dried sphagnum moss.  Quite honestly, it looked pretty cozy!

The rats pulled everything off the shelves to make their own brand of mulch

The rats pulled everything off the shelves to make their own brand of mulch

It was a stinky and messy job, but on the flip side, I cleaned out stuff shoved into the shed long ago.  There was a dried out 5-gallon can of wood preservative last used more than 10 years ago, I’m sure!    Old yogurt containers I use for scooping and storing stuff were brittle and crumbling.  They went into the recycling.  Out went broken plastic nursery containers and old green mesh strawberry baskets from a test I did years ago.  I turned the  baskets upside down over strawberry plants, then poked the developing berries up through the mesh.  That kept them off the ground and way from hungry slugs and sow bugs.

I was sad to find the rats had chewed up  the liner for an insulated seed starter kit that has a built in heat mat.  The brand label has long worn off but the heating element still works.  Maybe I’ll line it with heavy duty plastic now.

I filled one 30 gallon trash can and part of another.  By then it was dark and my husband was calling me for dinner.

Part way through cleaning

Part way through cleaning

Tomorrow, I’ll start my seeds.


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.