Archive for the ‘Grass/Lawn’ Category

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.

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

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.

Its raining! But this drought will never be over…

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Today’s weather:  

High 59.9 F, Low 38.6 F.  

Today’s rain: 0.03″.  

Rainfall so far this month 2.08 inches.  

Rainfall so far this season (since July 2008) 6.56.”  


Its raining!  So, is the drought over?

Hardly….  Even if this year’s rainfall is greater than normal, water travels hundreds of miles to reach Southern California and the mountains it comes from have been suffering years-long droughts.  

And frankly, even if they weren’t in drought, we’d still need to cut back.  Southern Californians use too much water!

Gardens are our top water conservation opportunities.  One of the easiest ways to cut back on garden water is to get rid of your lawn.  

That’s why I teach “Bye Bye Grass.” Bye Bye Grass is a class that teaches you how to get rid of your lawn and what to do with the space once the grass is gone.  

My next class will be on  Thursday March 5 (6:30 to 8:30 pm) and Sunday March 8 (2 to 4 pm) at Quail Botanical Gardens ( (Advance registration is required).

Hear me talking about the class and about low water landscape on this morning’s local news:

By the way, lest you think that no-grass gardens are dry and brown looking, nothing could be further from the truth! Look at these gardens….


A Suburban home that shed its front lawn

A Suburban home that shed its front lawn

This drought tolerant border features plenty of green, yet there isn't a spec of lawn in sight!

A colorful drought-tolerant flower border