Archive for the ‘Vegetable gardening’ Category

The Last Harvest of Summer

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Pumpkins, just in time for Thanksgiving

Sorta sweet, sorta sad… the last harvest of summer.

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

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

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.

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!

Start Your Own Edible Vegetable and Herb Garden from Seeds

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

When I was speaking at the San Francisco Flower Show a few weeks ago, I  was asked to be on View From the Bay, an afternoon talk/variety show on the ABC TV affiliate in the bay area.

I did a segment with correspondent Lisa Quinn (who is a hoot) where I demonstrated how to start an edible vegetable and herb garden from seeds.   It was great fun!  Take a look.

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!

La Cocina Que Cantar

Sunday, January 18th, 2009


Weather Report:  Last night’s low 35.7 F.  Today’s high: 81.5 F.  Precipitation: 0. 


I spent most of this morning pruning fruit trees -an activity that I both love and hate.  More about that another day since it was the afternoon that was the highlight of my day.

I attended a talk by Deborah Szekely, founder of Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door, the spas that spawned no pun intended) the health and fitness spa industry.  Rancho La Puerta (“the Ranch” to those who’ve been there”) came first, founded in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940 when Deborah was barely 18 years old. 2009 marks her 69th year in the business!

I’ve had the honor of interviewing Deborah for several articles over the years.   She is one of the most fascinating and inspiring people I’ve ever met.  At 86 years young, her energy and creativity are the envy of people half her age, myself included (though I am a bit more than half her age).

Today’s talk was to promote the Ranch’s new cookbook, Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta – Recipes from the World Famous Spa, a collaboration between Szekely and chef Deborah Schneider.

Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta - Recipes from the World Famous Spa

Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta - Recipes from the World Famous Spa

The two Deborahs spoke at the Bookworks, a wonderful, independent bookstore in Flower Hill Mall in Del Mar, California.   For an hour, Deborah Szekely addressed a packed house on healthy eating, personal determination, being true to one’s self, and taking power over one’s life, among other topics. 

The audience laughed as the diminutive Szekely (“I’m five feet tall but I used to be five one and a half”) spoke about the evils of dieting (“The word ‘diet’ has the word ‘die’ in it”)  and how much more sense it makes to eat in moderation.  

So, for example, when Szekely dines out, she asks for at take-home container at the time her food arrives.  That way, she is done eating when she is full, rather than becoming so engrossed in conversation that she loses track and finishes everything on her plate.   That’s a great idea for us small people (On a tall day, I measure 5’ 3”) and one I’ll try next time I dine out.

Clouds hang low over Tres Estrellas organic farm on a late winter morning

Clouds hang low over Tres Estrellas organic farm on a late winter morning

Deborah Schneider spoke about Saturday cooking classes offered as one-day visits to La Cocina Que Canta (the Singing Kitchen), the Ranch’s cooking school located on the grounds of Tres Estrellas, the organic farm that supplies Ranch guests with fresh herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers. 


Gardeners care for organic vegetables destined for Rancho La Puerta's kitchens

Gardeners care for organic vegetables destined for Rancho La Puerta




Red and golden beets grown at Tres Estrellas

Red and golden beets grown at Tres Estrellas

Having spent time at the Ranch, I know how fabulous the cuisine is.  So, of course I bought the book.  Actually, I bought three, one for me, one for my mother, and one for my youngest sister, and had them signed. 


The books for my mother and sister are a surprise, so don’t tell them, please!