Archive for the ‘Mediterranean’ Category

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

Saturday, 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)

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!

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