Archive for the ‘Sustainable’ Category

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

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

Festival of Flavors!

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

What’s the surest way to get the most flavor from vegetables and fruits?  Grow em yourself…..from seed!

Starting vegetables from seed was the topic of the talk I gave at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden’s Festival of Flavors this past Friday. The topic seemed fitting since the huge variety of vegetables seeds on the market offers gardeners their widest range of possiblities!

It always seems so magical to me to start with little pieces of what look like wood; Add with some water, light, and a bit of seed starting mix to make those seeds  sprout and grow into bountiful plants that produce delicious vegetables.

Homegrown veggies always put supermarket veggies to shame.

By 3 pm Friday, the seats in the speakers’ area were full and everyone had a package of gourmet red chard ‘Scarlett Charlotte’ seeds I brought with from my good friend Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seed.

My dear friend and mentor Jan Smithen, author of Sun Drenched Gardens, introduced me to the audience and away we went.

I love the fact that people are interested again in growing their own vegetables, herbs, and fruits. It only follows that they are interested in starting them from seed. It is a skill that was once commonplace, then nearly lost, but is now coming back around again. Much to my delight!

We started with a lesson on reading seed packets.scarlet-charlotte-2


Its ironic how important label information is and how little effort most companies put into their labels. Some companies do a great job and Renee writes some of the best. She deftly combines romance and detailed how-to with delicious suggestions for cooking and eating each variety.

Being a frugal gardener (is there any other kind?), I presented several examples of containers for starting seeds – old cottage cheese or yogurt containers, take-out food containers, or plain ‘ole four packs recycled from the nursery.

I prefer four packs to six packs, since the cells in a four pack are large enough to support seedlings all the way to transplant. With six-packs, seedlings can get only so large before they need to be “moved up” to larger containers. Saving that step saves my time, and it also means seedlings develop faster since they don’t have to go through transplant shock twice (once being moved up and the second time when I put them in the ground).

And by the way, someone asked me about using egg cartons. The simple response is: “don’t bother.”

Anything being reused has to be disinfected first, of course, to keep the tiny seedlings free of deadly bacteria and fungi. I give containers a good soak in a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach to 9 parts water). While I’m at it, I throw in plastic plant labels so I can reuse them, and I give my pruners a dip too (I dry and oil them afterwards).

Fresh seed starting mix is important as well. As compared to potting soil, Seed staring mix is more finely milled so the tiny seedlings have an easy time pushing up through the surface. It is also pasteurized to kill the pathogens. Black Gold seedling mix is one of my favorites. I had the purple-and-black label bags with me on Friday.

We spent half an hour going through the how-to process of how to start seeds, both small and large, in containers and as what I like to call “seed sandwiches” (more on that in a future blog).

When we ran out of time to talk about how to do cuttings, the audience insisted on continuing. So, I spent another 15 minutes demonstrating cutting basics a beautiful pink-flowering perennial Salvia chiapensis from Monrovia growers.

The audience was wonderful. They were tremendously enthusiastic asked great questions – always the most fun part of any talk.

During the hour-long presentation, I divulged some of my favorite hints for success …Think I’m gonna give them all away here? No way! But I’m happy to share those secrets when you invite me to speak to your group or event!

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