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Chat with Gardening Expert Nan Sterman

March 6, 2012

Nan Sterman

Nan Sterman was interviewed on KPBS Midday Edition about spring gardening. Following the radio interview, she answered questions online.

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Moderator | at 1:58 p.m.

The only concern in terms of succession is the tomato/pepper combination. Congrats on knowing that they are best grown together in our soils. I too have three beds and I grow my tomatoes/peppers/eggplants/tomatillos together in one bed, but I move them from bed to bed each year. So, for example, the bed on the west side of my vegetable garden had tomatoes etc. last year so this year, I'll put them in the bed on the east side of the vegetable garden. Next year, I'll plant them into the bed in the middle.

If I had just two beds, I'd just move them back and forth between the two, from one year to the next.

If you wanted to move the peas and beans, you can. They are nitrogen fixers so they add some nitrogen to the soil which is nice preparation for the other plants - but that's a "nice to do," not a "need to do."

Nan Sterman | at 1:57 p.m.

Could you suggest a rotation (and/or succession) planting scheme for a 3 bed vegetable garden? We like to plant peas & beans; tomatoes & peppers; lettuce; swiss chard & beets; squash & cucumbers; leeks & onions.

RossFrank | at 1:53 p.m.

My guess is that you started too early in the season. Buffalo grass is a winter dormant grass (i.e. doesn't grow in winter). It is best planted in spring and summer when soil temperatures are 60 degrees or warmer. If you've had snow recently, chances of the soil being warm enough for the seeds to germinate are pretty slim. Did you get directions with the seed (and did you read them - okay don't answer that)?

Here's a good reference for growing buffalo grass from seed: It covers soil temperature, planting depth, etc.

BTW, if the seed has not yet germinated, and its been wet, there's a good chance that the seed has rotted, so don't expect it to germinate once the soil warms up. It might, or at least some of it might, but I'd bet you'll have to start over again. Sorry about that.

Nan Sterman | at 1:53 p.m.

We live in Boulevard, 91905. I have tried to grow Buffalo grass but am having some trouble. I purchased treated seed. We tilled the ground and covered the seed with about 1 inch of soil. It has rained/snowed here the past few weeks and I expected to see some growth by now. Any suggestions? It has been over a month since planting

dangitall | at 1:45 p.m.

Yes, Carex praegracilis and its close cousin Carex pansa are nearly indistinguishable and many nurseries offer them in place of each other. Carexes are grass-like (but not true grasses), mounding and sometimes creeping, low growing tufts of green blades which is why they look like grass. They do very well in full sun and also in shade. I planted a meadow of Carex praegracilis in my own garden and have done so for several of my design clients as well and its done extremely well.

These two carexes are fairly low water and low maintenance other than weeding until they grow in and cover the soil. They can be mowed for a more "even" or formal look but I like them tufty and lose looking. They make a good "sea of green" but they are not cushy or soft enough to be a play surface, at least in my estimation.

Nan Sterman | at 1:41 p.m.

Do you know about sedges? In particular Carex praegracilis?

natureguy | at 1:36 p.m.

Hmm... are you asking about taking the dome and putting it over a bed of tomatoes? I'm going to assume that is what you are thinking. My first question is is the vinyl clear? If so, that could be a good way to create a temporary greenhouse to hasten the tomatoes growth and fruiting. Be sure that it is not airtight. You need some air circulation for sure, otherwise you might end up with mildew problems. If the dome is not clear, then don't use it. Even if it is translucent but some color like blue or green, don't use it.

Nan Sterman | at 1:35 p.m.

How would using a vinyl dome over the pool work for growing tomatoes?

kaysunday | at 1:32 p.m.

Washing machine water is okay depending on what is in the water. If you use bleach or other disinfectant, then don't use the water, even the rinse water. If you want to use your rinse water for plants, choose one of the appropriate soaps such as Oasis or one of the other "ecological" or "graywater friendly" soaps. Check out the label before you use it.

Nan Sterman | at 1:32 p.m.

I recycle water from my washing machine (rinse water only) to water plants. do you see a problem with that?

keithericson | at 1:28 p.m.

That's a bit challenging for sure. I am very fond of the bush anemone, Carpenteria californica which is from the foothills above Fresno (really!) and has deep green leaves and white, anemone like flowers on a 6 or 7 ft tall shrub. There are a few varieties of California lilac such as Cenaothus 'Skylark' that will take some shade. Douglas iris tolerate some shade. Ribes, the native currants do very well in shade. Some of the monkey flowers (Mimululs) take dry shade too. A good resource for a list of shade natives is Tree of Life Nursery. Take a look at this page: and scroll down to find a list of plants for dry shade.

Nan Sterman | at 1:28 p.m.

I would like to plant something in my front yard that is water-wise and can grow in full shade. California-native is a plus, but because I live in El Cajon, it needs to be able to handle a little bit of frost each year. Any suggestions?

kjames | at 1:22 p.m.

For removing the lawn without chemicals, it depends on the type of lawn you have. If you look at the roots, are they thick like the roots that form from old potatoes? Or fine and thin like threads? If the latter, you can just dig it out or smother it in a really thick layer of mulch, etc. If the former (the fat roots), its pretty hard to get rid of those without chemicals. Your only non-chemical option is to dig dig dig and dig some more. It will take a long time, months or years to get rid of it, unfortunately.

Nan Sterman | at 1:21 p.m.

I am taking out a lawn strip and wondered if you can recommend a resource for how to do that without chemicals. Thanks!


devonna32 | at 1:18 p.m.

You might want to check out one of my videos on starting seeds to see how I like to do. Here's the link. it:

Nan Sterman | at 1:17 p.m.

This is one of the reasons that I like to start my seeds in pots. I can control the conditions very easily in pots whereas in teh ground, its much harder to do, as you are discovering.

I would recommend straw mulch (not hay) rather than bark. The seeds will have a hard time pushing up through the bark. It also sounds like you planted your seeds too deep. The rule of thumb is to bury seeds three times as deep as the seed is thick. Few seeds should be planted deeper than a half inch or an inch based on that calculation. If I were you, I'd get some good organic seed starting mix NOT vegetable soil, and start again, in pots, and keep the pots where you can monitor them. If you use seed starting medium, you'll need to water maybe once every week or two, rather than every day or two.

Nan Sterman | at 1:17 p.m.

I planted vegetable seeds in the ground and in pots using Miracle grow veg soil and other amendments. I planted them about 2 inches deep. I water every 1-2 days. I am concerned that the midday sun will dry out the top soil and kill the sprouting seeds. I put a thin layer of bark on top to insulate protect from the sun scorching. Is the bark a bad idea? Will the sprouts be unable to make it through the bark? Are there alternatives?

bbookser | at 1:13 p.m.

I suggest planting twice as much as you want to eat!

Or, if you are willing to do a bit of construction, you can exclude those critters by enclosing your vegetable garden in wire mesh. I've seen vegetable beds topped in wood frames with hardware cloth or chicken wire stretched over the top. You can hinge the frames to open and close them. OR, if you are really ambitious, you can build a screened "room" around your garden to keep them out - kind of a huge cage. Just remember to add a door so you can walk in and out!

Nan Sterman | at 1:13 p.m.

I live in Tierrasanta and have a problem with wild life like rabbits, possum, racoon, that love to eat my vegetables, before I get a chance to harvest them. What do you suggest?

jwongcsp | at 1:09 p.m.

Unfortunately, all fruiting plants do best in full sun. Blueberries can handle some shade but still need considerable amount of sun - six hours or more - in order to produce. Strawberries can handle a little shade but not alot, especially as close to the ocean as you are.

Nan Sterman | at 1:09 p.m.

What kind of fruit trees or shrubs can we plant in part sun/part shade? We are in Coastal North County (near La Costa Spa). The guava shrubs/trees we planted are doing great, but we find we're allergic to the fruit.

RossFrank | at 1:06 p.m.

Great question! If you want to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes or tomatillos in the same container, you need to replace the soil totally each year. Those plants are all in the nightshade family and all susceptible to harmful microbes in the soil. If you are growing anything else, all you need to do is to add some new soil, compost, and fertilizer each year.

Watering large containers requires patience or drip irrigation in the pot. Always water until water drips out the bottom.

Nan Sterman | at 1:05 p.m.

How often, if ever, does one need to "start over" when gardening with large containers? should new soil be added to, or completely redone? and what guidance do you have for watering large containers. Thank you, you are such a blessing.

lavender_lucy | at 1:01 p.m.