Winter Gardening In San Diego
Monday, December 21, 2009
We'll talk about the benefits of winter gardening with garden expert Nan Sterman.
DOUG MYRLAND (Host): I’m Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. During this next hour, we'll talk about the benefits of winter gardening with garden expert Nan Sterman. Nan is a garden journalist and author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." She also answers calls for the Water Conservation Garden's Water Smart Pipeline on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. And welcome back to These Days, Nan.
NAN STERMAN (Garden Journalist): Thank you, Doug. I’m really happy to be here.
MYRLAND: I want to give that number for the Water Smart Pipeline right away and we’ll have it on our website as well. That’s 866-962-7021, and if you want to speak on Nan on Tuesday mornings or Thursday afternoons and ask her about conservation and gardening, that’s a good thing to do.
STERMAN: Yep, it is.
MYRLAND: Now, I have – I’m not much of a gardener, you know, but I have to say I don’t really think much about gardening in the wintertime. If I’m thinking about doing something, it’s in the spring. So if I want to do something other than just look at my yard…
MYRLAND: …I want to grow something, maybe something to eat, right this time of year, what should I be thinking about?
STERMAN: You know, it’s really funny that you say it that way, Doug, because a lot of people think, oh, it’s cold, I need to go inside. But, really, the time to be inside is when it’s hot in California. The time to be outside in the garden is when it’s cool because that’s when it’s great for plants. And this time year, we’re coming upon what we call bare root season. Bare root season is when all the wonderful deciduous fruit trees, deciduous meaning the ones that lose their leaves in the winter, they go dormant, all the deciduous fruit trees are going to start coming into the nurseries. Peaches, plums, nectarines, apples, pluats, apricots, as well as strawberries and rhubarb and artichoke and all kinds of plants that we can put in the ground now and by spring they’ll leaf out and in a year or two they’ll start producing fruit for us.
MYRLAND: So if you plant a small fruit tree, you can really have fruit in a year or two?
STERMAN: It depends on what type. Some need more time to mature. Like if you plant a pomegranate, they take, umm, five or six years to start producing but once they do, they produce like crazy. Other things, like pluat, which is that incredible plum-apricot hybrid, that intergeneric hybrid that has been – You’ve seen the fruit in markets, incredibly expensive. It’s absolutely delicious. Some of those are vigorous enough that they’ll start producing within a year or two years and you’ll have fruit on this little, tiny tree. And you’ll go, how can a little tree like that make fruit? But it does.
MYRLAND: Why are they called bare root?
STERMAN: Ah, very good question. Because the way they’re sold, is not – you know, you don’t go find it in a nursery can, one of those big black cans filled with dirt and you have a tree sticking up out of it.
STERMAN: Instead what happens is that these trees are grown in a field and when they go dormant, they lose all their leaves, they’re essentially asleep, they go out and they dig them up and they wash all the dirt off the roots. So when you get it, it looks like a nasty old twig with a bunch of – web of, you know, tangled roots at the bottom. But it’s a really great time because that’s when you’ve got the best selection because they’re light weight and they ship easily so they’re least – less expensive than buying it in a can. And because they’re dormant, they’re less susceptible to kind of that shock they go through when they move from one place to another. So bare root, meaning they’re bare of all dirt.
MYRLAND: Ah. Now you brought along some apples…
STERMAN: I did.
MYRLAND: …for us to eat on the radio.
STERMAN: I did. Now how do we do that?
MYRLAND: Oh, we’ll just do it and let people hear the sounds of us crunching maybe.
STERMAN: They’re crunchy, too.
MYRLAND: But the reason you brought along apples is that apples are one of the things that you can consider as a bare root…
MYRLAND: …tree and that surprises me. I don’t think of San Diego as the place where you would grow a lot of apples but apparently you can, huh?
STERMAN: Well, why is it you don’t think of it?
MYRLAND: Well, because it doesn’t freeze here and it’s not cold here and it’s not Washington state.
STERMAN: Well, and those are all the reasons that people usually give me. I just wanted to make sure.
STERMAN: And that’s also why Julian is known for their apples, because they get much colder at that elevation than we do down on the coast or in the valleys. But there are low-chill apples that are specifically selected for our type of warmer climate, just like there are low-chill everything else, and I hope we’ll talk about that in a minute. But some of the most popular varieties for low-chill apples, well, my favorite varieties of low-chill apples are the ones I brought you. Those are the Pink Lady and Sundowner. They’re both selected in Australia, which has conditions similar to ours. They both produce fruit that ripens in the fall. My trees are totally filled. We’ve been eating these apples for the last, oh, gosh, we started before Thanksgiving and there’s still plenty of apples to go. They’re both crisp and tart sweet, which is what I really like. So those are my two favorite low-chill apples. You can also grow the Annas or the Beverly Hills and those are – or Fujis, and those are fine. They’re sweet. They don’t have that tart sweet but I like the tart sweet.
MYRLAND: Now, I’m a baby boomer. I have a short attention span.
STERMAN: All right.
MYRLAND: So, if I go out and buy this tree and I put it in the ground now…
MYRLAND: …will I have apples in the fall of 2011, say?
STERMAN: You could.
STERMAN: Especially if you plant two different varieties. You may have to wait until 2012.
MYRLAND: All right.
STERMAN: You know, you’re a baby boomer. I’m a little bit younger than you and I still have more patience than that.
STERMAN: And you’re not moving anytime soon, right?
MYRLAND: Probably not.
STERMAN: Okay. Good. But some of these trees are what’s called self-fruitful. And when you look at the label, that’s something to look for. That means it doesn’t need another tree to pollinate it, another apple or another plum or whatever. But not all of them, and even those that are self-fruitful, if you plant two different varieties you tend to get more fruit.
MYRLAND: That’s a good tip.
MYRLAND: So if I decide – find a nice spot in my yard for a couple of apple trees and I’ve sort of looked ahead and said, okay, they’re going to get big and so I’ve got to have enough room, what do I look for in the nursery? How can I tell I’m getting a good one or the one I should plant?
STERMAN: Well, first of all, go to a reputable nursery.
STERMAN: Okay, don’t go to the drugstore.
STERMAN: All right, that’s the first thing. Second of all, look at the label. It should say ‘low chill.’ Sometimes labels list the number of what they call chill hours. Chill hours are the number of nighttime hours below 45 degrees. That’s just for your information.
MYRLAND: And there aren’t – in most climate zones in San Diego, there aren’t that many nights below 45 degrees, right?
STERMAN: There are not that many so we look for low-chill. Low-chill is generally 500 chill hours or less. So 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, those are a pretty good bet that they’re going to produce well for you. So you look at that, you look at the type of the fruit so that would be Pink Lady, for example, or Fuji or whatever, and then you look at the root stalk because I don’t want to get too far into it but these trees, actually the top and bottom are different. There’s a root stalk that is chosen for its ability to tolerate heavy soil or light soil or whatever the conditions are and then they graft onto that the top, which is the fruiting part. So you’ve got the best of the roots and the best of the fruits. The other part about the root stalk is that there are dwarfing root stalks and semi-dwarf and standard. For most of our gardens we want dwarf and semi-dwarf because the standard trees can get real big.
MYRLAND: Okay. Well, we’ll talk more about that and we’ll also talk about other kinds of things other than apples…
MYRLAND: …that you can plant but we do need to take a quick break. You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. I’m speaking with Nan Sterman. And we’ll be right back after this break.
MYRLAND: You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland, in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and we’re speaking with Nan Sterman about all things plant, gardening, winter gardening specifically. And, Nan, I want to ask a quick question about since we were talking about apple trees and fruit trees before the break, can you grow some fruit trees in pots?
STERMAN: Absolutely. You want to make sure you get the dwarf variety because they don’t have as – they don’t need as much space to be able to produce, but absolutely you can. You do need large pots. They do have extensive root systems and in order to take – have enough – get enough water and nutrients and have enough exposure to the soil, etcetera, you have to have a very large – some very large pots. You can’t do it in a little dinky pot. But, yes, you get these pots…
MYRLAND: Now, by very large, what do you mean?
STERMAN: Ohh, like…
MYRLAND: Three feet across? Two feet across?
STERMAN: Oh, yeah, at least. About that scale. About that scale.
MYRLAND: Even if you’re planting a real small tree?
STERMAN: It won’t stay small. Well, the dwarfs will stay small. That’s the whole point of dwarfs but we’re still talking about a tree that’ll get four or five feet tall and wide. So it’s got to be big enough to accommodate that.
MYRLAND: Now, if you’re planting in a pot, does it still matter what time of year it is?
STERMAN: Well, the thing is, you don’t want to plant these plants in the heat of summer, for sure. The point of planting them now is by the time spring comes, their roots, even though we can’t see them, will have become pretty well established so they’re ready to support the leaves and the flowers that the plant wants to sprout come springtime. And, also, this is when you have the most variety available, so when you go looking for an apple tree in April or May or even October, you’re not going to find the number of options that you’re going to find now. Same for peaches, same for apricots, same for pluats, etcetera. You’re just not going to have the number of varieties available to you that you have – you’ll have – actually, not now, coming in a couple of weeks.
MYRLAND: And here in San Diego County, you can grow peaches.
STERMAN: Yes, we can do…
MYRLAND: You can grow apricots.
STERMAN: Apricots are a little dicey but, yeah, you can grow them, yep. You can grow almost anything you can think of. Cherries, ehh, not so great unless you’re up in Julian.
MYRLAND: Now, we want to talk a little bit about the different climate zones here in this county. How do I know what climate zone I’m in? Do I need to just go on the web and look around or what?
STERMAN: Well, you know, we have two different schema for climate zones and one is the USDA schema, which is – the one that we use most often is the hardiness zone and that’s based on the coldest temperature that your garden will get. The thing is there are 11 zones for the entire country, including Hawaii. So it’s not very finely divided.
MYRLAND: But if you’ve lived here very long you do know that the weather is quite different just a few miles away, right?
STERMAN: Well, the climate’s different, not the weather. The climate’s different, right.
MYRLAND: So it seems like that would affect your plants.
STERMAN: Yes, it definitely does. The more precise schema is the Sunset Western Garden schema, which we – most of San Diego, well coastal San Diego’s generally Zone 24, so it tells you that it’s much more finely divided. And that is a really good resource. For the kinds of things we’re talking about, the fruit trees, most of the coast, all of the coast and even into the inland valleys, we’re still looking low chill. It’s not until you get to the mountains that you can really accommodate high chill. And the other thing is, we have these microclimates so, as you said, you know, what happens in your backyard and what happens in your neighbor’s backyard are going to be different. You know, you said you’re – you told me that you’re on the north side of the hill, so you’re going to have a different exposure than someone on the south side that’s always getting beaten by the sun. So these microclimates are important to pay attention to not necessarily for selection but for where you choose to put what plants in your space.
MYRLAND: Now while we’re still talking about planting these bareroot stalk fruit trees…
MYRLAND: …I want to ask you a question about soil.
MYRLAND: If I go out and dig a hole to put this tree in, what kind of soil do I want to have? What do I want to do to the soil to make that tree healthy?
STERMAN: No, this is a very good question. If you’re growing something like figs or pomegranates which are from the similar kind of climate we have, Mediterranean climates where you’ve got those long, hot dry summers and precipitation comes in the winter, they are not picky at all about the kind of soil that they’re going to grow in. You just dig a hole and you plant it in the native soil and they will adjust. If you’re talking about apples or peaches, plants like that that come from different kinds of climates where the soil is innately richer, then you do have to amend your soil and they’re going to walk a more fertile soil. So you’re going to want to add some really good composted organic matter, compost essentially. You’re going to not necessarily add potting soil, it’s the organic matter that’s important to add. So you’re going to want to add that, plus you’re going to want to add – I always like putting worm castings into a planting hole because the worm castings bring in a lot of beneficial microbes, little, tiny things you can’t see that interact positively with the roots and help the roots become established and take up nutrients and water and all that. So those are the things that I would add to a planting hole.
MYRLAND: Now I know you’re all about low water use.
MYRLAND: And you’re a real advocate for that.
MYRLAND: How do you reconcile that with a brand new fruit tree? Seems to me that would need a – my dad used to have an orchard years ago and he was always flooding it from the irrigation ditch.
MYRLAND: I mean, that’s why I don’t know anything about plants because he was always trying to get me to help him and I was always trying to find some reason not to. But it seems to me that it’s kind of counterintuitive to be talking about low water use and then planting fruit trees. How do you judge how much water to put on it?
STERMAN: You know, that’s a great question, Doug. It’s not a matter of judging how much water to put on it. To me, it’s a big picture thing. These plants are going to feed you. So, to me, if I’m going to spend water, which is what we do with water, I want to spend it on something that’s going to give me something to eat. If it’s going to be a higher water plant, it’s got to be justified somehow. If it feeds me, then that’s a justification in my mind. The other thing is these deciduous trees that we’re talking about, they don’t need water year round. Once the leaves are gone, stop watering. In fact, once the fruit’s gone, you can pretty much slow down on your watering. But when they’re dormant, they don’t need water. The water that we get through the rain, after the plants are established, not that first year or two because you’ve got to water them the first year or two to make sure the roots get deep, etcetera. But once they’re established, when it comes to wintertime and the leaves fall off, you stop watering. So that means you can stop watering November. Don’t start watering again until April. That’s a long time for…
MYRLAND: Well, I suppose not coincidentally those – that time from November to April is the time that we get what little rain…
MYRLAND: …we do get. Yeah.
STERMAN: That’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right. So that – the amount of rain we get will keep those roots wet enough, wet enough. And in addition, these are plants that you really want to mulch very, very heavily by putting mulch around the base of the plant and, you know, I cover everything in mulch. But by putting a real nice, thick layer of mulch out, you are insulating the soil from water loss so you reduce the amount of water you have to use significantly, and over time the mulch breaks down, it enriches the soil, so you’re creating, again, a really good growing medium for that tree.
MYRLAND: So, in a nutshell, go to a reputable supplier.
MYRLAND: Ask lots of questions.
MYRLAND: Take some time to prepare the soil.
MYRLAND: And be a little bit patient, then in a few years you’ll have fruit in your yard.
STERMAN: That’s absolutely true.
MYRLAND: Well, I want to talk about other things that you can grow other than trees, other kinds of food kinds of things, but we do need to take another break. You’re listening to These Days in San Diego. Our guest is Nan Sterman. And we’ll be right back right after this break.
MYRLAND: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Doug Mryland, in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and our guest is Nan Sterman, garden journalist, author of “California Gardener’s Guide Volume II.” And we also want to remind you that Nan answers calls for the Water Conservation Garden’s Water Smart Pipeline on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons so if you want to talk to her about water conservation or some other issues related therein, you can call her at 866-962-7021. And, Nan, we want to talk about growing other kinds of food other than food on trees, talk about growing food in the ground. And if I decide I want to plant some vegetables during this nice winter season, what should I be thinking about in terms of how to prep that soil?
STERMAN: You know, prep depends completely on what you’re growing. So, for example, if you want to grow artichokes, which are one of my favorites, artichokes, again, are those Mediterranean climate plants so they don’t need a whole lot of soil prep. They’ll do great if you plant them in really rich soil but they don’t need it. And when you buy artichokes, it’s really kind of cool, you go into the nursery and you look for a bin of sawdust with a sign next to it that says ‘artichoke.’ And you go digging through the sawdust and you pull out this hunk of wood and what it is, it’s the root, it’s a piece of the root that was dug out of the ground and it has little growing eyes on it. You may or may not be able to see. Sometimes they have little tiny leaves that are already starting to come out. And you take that—it’s kind of the size of your fist—and you plant it in the ground and by the – kind of at the surface level and before you know it, you end up with these amazing fountainy, huge gray ferny, frondy leaves. They’re so pretty you could grow them in your flower beds actually, mix them in with your ornamental beds. And if you don’t pick the chokes, which are actually the flower buds, they’re unopened flower buds, and you leave them, they will eventually open into these gorgeous like iridescent blue-purple fringy flowers.
MYRLAND: Now is an artichoke a perinneal so…
MYRLAND: …you could leave it in your garden all…
MYRLAND: …for years.
STERMAN: Yes, you could, and they produce for many years. Though in the summertime, they will lose their leaves and go dormant, which is one of those strategies of hot weather adapted plants that when it gets really hot, they go to sleep. So don’t be surprised if, umm, June, July, after you’ve finished harvesting the little buds, the leaves suddenly start all dying. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Cut them down to the base and come fall, when the weather cools down, they’ll sprout again.
MYRLAND: So you could plant an artichoke or two, you know, is it called an artichoke bush?
MYRLAND: An artichoke – what’s it called?
STERMAN: Just a plant.
MYRLAND: Just an artichoke plant?
MYRLAND: And some years you could harvest the artichokes and other years you could just let them flower and that would be okay?
STERMAN: Or do both. Let – harvest some and let some flower. Once they start flowering, they stop producing new buds because it’s a survival strategy. Their goal, if you will, is to make babies. Babies are the seeds, come from the seeds, which come from the flowers, etcetera, etcetera. So the longer you keep the plant from actually maturing and making flowers, the longer they’re going to produce buds to a point. At some point they’ll say, season’s over, we’re done.
MYRLAND: Now are they like the fruit trees you talked about where it’s better to have a few of them so they pollinate each other? Or are they totally self-pollinating?
STERMAN: They’re – they don’t need that. But it’s still good to have a few of them because once you start growing them, you realize how wonderful they are to grow and some people like the big chokes and some people like baby chokes, and the difference is how early you cut them. I like the smaller ones, so I start cutting them when they’re fairly small, maybe three, four inches tall, and so I like lots of plants because then I get lots of buds.
MYRLAND: Let’s talk about something like berries, like blueberries.
MYRLAND: Strawberries. Is now the time of year to think about planting those?
STERMAN: Those are all around during bareroot season as well. And you’ll find them in the nursery later in the spring sometimes. What happens is, whatever doesn’t get sold this time of year, the nursery will pot up and they’ll sell them until they sell out generally. But bareroot season is the best time to get blueberries and strawberries as well. The thing to know about blueberries is that there’s different types of blueberries, not just different varieties but different types. And the ones that are best suited for our climate are the – is a group of blueberries called southern highbush blueberries. Okay? Those are specially bred not to need so much chill—we were talking about chill before—like the blueberries that grow in the Pacific northwest or in the east or whatever. And they’re more adapted – well, they don’t need the acidic soils that you find in those climates quite as much as the blueberries that are native to those areas. They still need more acid – acidic conditions than we generally have in our soils…
MYRLAND: So how do you take care of that? What do you add to make that…
STERMAN: Well, the best way to grow them is in a big pot, which is really cool because they’re beautiful plants. So you could get three big pots. If you’re going to do this, I suggest that when you go to buy the pots, buy the same pots so they all match, buy them at the same time. You could buy big pots. Put in a potting soil that’s designed for azaleas or camellias, which are both acid-loving plants, and then grow the blueberries in that medium. You can also add peat moss, which is more acidic. It’s, again, something that you find in the nursery in a bag and you add it to the potting soil. Just a couple of tips though. If you are a family of blueberry eaters, you want two bushes per family, okay, to have enough. And they do need fertilizer and they do need to be kept a little more moist. And like all other of these fruiting plants, there are some varieties that fruit early in the season and some that fruit later in the season, so you want…
MYRLAND: So you want to get one of each.
STERMAN: …choose – Or several of each.
MYRLAND: Okay. And then these are perennials, too, right?
STERMAN: Yes. Umm-hmm.
MYRLAND: So you can have this barrel or pot full of blueberries for year after year after year.
MYRLAND: There’s something about that that appeals to me rather than having to start all over again every year.
STERMAN: Yes. Yes. And I find in my garden, I have both, so my vegetable garden, I have the annuals that I plant every year, and I do – My artichokes actually grow in some big – the half wine barrels in my vegetable garden these days. I just find that’s the easiest way to do it. So I have some – And I also have asparagus growing in my vegetable garden in a big horse trough, big old horse trough.
MYRLAND: Is asparagus something that’s easy to grow?
STERMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You’ll find all kinds of different schemas for asparagus. You’re supposed to plant them and leave them for a couple of years and add more soil, etcetera, etcetera but you don’t want to harvest them the first year. You want the roots to really become well established, but after that, you know, when those spears come up in the spring or in the fall, yeah, you just cut them and eat them. It’s a real treat. It’s a real treat.
MYRLAND: So, so far we’ve talked about apples and other kinds of fruits, peaches, and what’s…
MYRLAND: …the one, the combination fruit that you mentioned?
STERMAN: Oh, they are so good.
MYRLAND: I’ll have to try one of those.
MYRLAND: And then artichokes, blueberries…
STERMAN: Yeah, you want some blueberry varieties that are good?
STERMAN: Okay. If you want…
MYRLAND: We’ve got about 30 seconds before the break, so just a couple.
STERMAN: Okay, so early – for the early season, you want to try O’Neal or Sharp Blue or South Moon, and then the next phase, the mid-summer to fall fruits are on Georgia Gem, Jubilee and Sunshine Blue.
MYRLAND: Okay. Well, we’ll talk more about good things to eat, good things to plant, and the way to do it. And I want to also talk a little bit about water use and irrigation systems when we come back. We’re speaking with Nan Sterman, and you’re listening to These Days in San Diego and we’ll be right back after this break.
MYRLAND: And you’re listening to These Days in San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland, in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and our guest is Nan Sterman, as we heard Angela talking about. And, Nan, you were mentioning during the break to me that there are kind of a mind-boggling number of varieties of these plants that we’ve been talking about so how do we know, how do I know as a total amateur when I go, I’m faced with 16 different kinds of blueberries and 16 different kinds of artichokes, what do I look for to sort of narrow those choices down?
STERMAN: Well, part of it’s what we talked about earlier, is that you want to make sure that the chill hours are right for your area and that the root stalk is going to give you a dwarf or a semi-dwarf or a full size, depending on how much room you have. But also, you can do things like look in my book because I do make recommendations for varieties or you can ask your friends. You know, when you go to a friend’s house and they have a peach tree or a plum tree or whatever that you really like, you can say to them, do you know what variety that is? Some people pay attention and some don’t. I have some suggestions here for the pluat. One of my favorites is Dapple Dandy, which is also called Dragon’s Egg or Dinosaur Egg. The fruit is not pretty. It’s sort of a green mottled red thing but you – I mean, thinking about it makes me drool.
MYRLAND: Well, and that’s something we wanted to talk about. I’m glad you mentioned that, about the difference in the way fruit looks growing in your garden and the way commercially produced fruit in the store that’s designed for looks looks…
MYRLAND: …and if you’re new to gardening, new to growing your own food, important to be open minded about how things turn out, right?
STERMAN: That’s one way to say it, yes, I think that’s absolutely true. I mean, look at the apples I brought you. Okay, here’s a selection of apples. They’re not uniform in size. They have a little bit of, you know, black marks on them and they’re not shiny and waxy looking. But to me, that tells me this is real fruit. This is grown in my backyard. My tree doesn’t grow all the same size apples. My tangerine tree doesn’t grow all the same size tangerines. My grapefruit tree, the grapefruits have different sizes and depending on who’s visited the tree that’s got four legs and there may be a little bit of teeth marks or something like that. But that doesn’t deter me. You know, you have to have the expectation that they aren’t perfect. They’re going to taste great. And even – I’ve been laughing about my apple trees. There’s so much fruit that I keep saying to my husband, look, they’re self-harvesting because now I’m picking them up off the ground. You know, just because they’re on the ground doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. They’ve touched dirt. So what? I’m picking them up, I’m washing them, I’m making the best apple sauce you have ever eaten. So you can’t have the same expectation of esthetic perfection but it doesn’t matter.
MYRLAND: Well and, in fact, sometimes the uglier fruit tastes better…
MYRLAND: Because the commercially produced ones are bred specifically not necessarily so much for taste…
MYRLAND: …but more for uniformity.
STERMAN: Yes, absolutely. And I’ll be honest with you. When I go to the market and I go to, you know, choose produce at the market, I go for the pretty stuff. It’s sort of – you know, it’s a different environment and so I think, oh, that’s the perfect lemon and that’s an ugly lemon. But at home, it doesn’t bother me at all.
MYRLAND: Now I want to talk a little more about water use because that’s what you’re all about in some ways and we’re, of course, all of us are thinking about it these days because we have some water restrictions in the City of San Diego and we’re thinking about how to save water. If you’re starting from scratch with a garden and you’re starting and you’re going to put some things in pots and you’re going to put some things in the ground, should you invest right away in a sophisticated watering system? Or are there simple ways to figure out how to save water?
STERMAN: If you’re starting out, you want to plan ahead and make sure that the infrastructure is in place before you put anything in the ground. So, yes, you want to think through your irrigation system, make sure that you have pipes going to where you’re going to be planting whether you’re going to plant there now or not. You want to make sure that you have – if you’re going to use drip irrigation, which I think is really the best way to go, you want to make sure you have filters on your lines, you want to make sure you have pressure reducers because they’re low pressure, they run at low pressure, and if you run them at standard house pressure you’re going to pop them, they’re going to blow. So, yes, you want to do all your homework and have everything in place before you get started.
MYRLAND: Or if you’re doing something less elaborate, if you’re just growing a few things in a few pots and maybe one or two trees, can you get away with just a hose?
STERMAN: Well, how busy is your life? If your life is busy, no. I mean, yeah, you can but what are you going to get out of them? Are they going to survive? Are they going to get enough water on a regular enough basis to become established and produce the way you want? I think it’s much better to invest ahead of time and be prepared so that it’s the easiest to manage as possible, too. It’s got to be good for you, it’s got to be good for the plants.
MYRLAND: Even though we’re going to get rain during the winter? How do you kind of capture that and if you’ve got a drip irrigation system do you just ignore the natural rain or…
STERMAN: Oh, no, no, no. Oh, no, no, no. When it rains, oh, my irrigation’s off. It’s been off since, let me think, I turned it off before Thanksgiving. We had that great rain last week. I don’t expect to turn my irrigation system back on until sometime late March unless we have Santa Anas, which have – you know, make the air really hot and dry and the plants have a hard time pulling enough water out of the soil at a rate that they can replace the water they’re losing into the air. So if we get Santa Anas, I’ll water. But other than that, umm-umm, no. As long as the soil is damp which, you know, you just use your little finger, stick it in the ground, there’s no reason to water other than when you put plants in the ground and you water them at the time you plant them so that you get all the air pockets out and the dirt settles and all that, you really don’t have to water. But for new plants, you do have to pay attention and make sure that the soil is staying damp because if it’s not then you want to deep water them.
MYRLAND: And one other thing I want to talk about watering and during this time of year we get rains and people’s gardens get nice and wet, do you have to be pretty careful not to step and walk around in your garden when it’s muddy and wet?
STERMAN: Yes, yes.
MYRLAND: And what do you do about that? Put down boards or…?
STERMAN: See, you did learn something from your parents, didn’t you?
STERMAN: Oh, yeah. You do not want to walk on wet soil. Rule of thumb, you wait one or two days after the rain’s end before you go walking in the soil. If you absolutely have to walk in there, you do want to use some boards. What you’re going to do is disperse the weight of your body over a big area because when you walk in wet soil, it compacts the soil. That’s not good for the soil. Especially people who live where there’s clay, where it’s already really heavy, you do not want to compact the soil.
MYRLAND: And that kind of undoes any soil preparation that you’ve done, too, right?
STERMAN: Yeah but it also hurts the microflora and microfauna that are in the soil. And when you go to put a plant in the ground next, even if you haven’t fluffed things up, which you don’t necessarily have to, it’s going to be hard because the water won’t percolate through, the roots won’t get through as easily, they won’t – it won’t create a big network of roots, which is what we want. That’s what stabilizes and makes for healthy plants. So you do not want to compact your soil. You know, just like you don’t want to put a bulldozer into your garden. Same idea except we’re little mini-bulldozers.
MYRLAND: So in the couple of minutes that we have left, is there any other real good-tasting, good looking plant that we should think about here in the wintertime that we haven’t mentioned so far?
STERMAN: Well, let’s see, a lot of people are eating persimmons right now, and I have to admit it’s not my favorite fruit but a lot people love them and the plants are gorgeous. There are two kinds of persimmons. There’s the ones you eat soft and the ones you eat hard. The ones that you eat soft are ones like Hachiya, a variety called Hachiya. And the ones that you eat hard like – almost like an apple, is Jiro or Fuyu. And those you can plant bareroot. They’re gorgeous right now because the trees are bare but you have this big orange orbs that look like Christmas ornaments hanging off the branches.
MYRLAND: How big do they get?
STERMAN: Again, depends on the root stalk, okay. You can get those that’ll get to, umm, 10, 12 feet tall. And then you can get those that’ll get much bigger.
MYRLAND: So you could also, I suppose, grow a persimmon in a pot? In a big pot? Or not?
STERMAN: I have never seen a persimmon growing in a pot so I can’t tell you that I know they will grow in pots. I’ve seen everything else growing in pots but I can’t – I’ve never seen a persimmon.
MYRLAND: I keep asking you that because we seem to get a lot of listener inquiries about growing things in pots.
STERMAN: About pots, yeah.
MYRLAND: We must have people listening who live in small spaces.
STERMAN: Yeah, or apartments. And almost everything that is a dwarf on dwarfing root stalk is adaptable to growing in a pot as long as you know that you need to fertilize it regularly, you need to water it regularly, you need to make sure it gets full sun, and you don’t mind the fact that it’s bare part of the year.
MYRLAND: And make sure the pot’s big enough.
MYRLAND: That was your earlier advice.
STERMAN: That is key. If your plant’s – if your pot’s not big enough, forget it. You know, don’t even try.
MYRLAND: It’s kind of like the same advice people give about buying a brand new flat screen TV. Buy a nice…
MYRLAND: …big one because you’ll enjoy that big screen. So buy a big pot. Give that plant plenty of room, right?
STERMAN: Yeah, for the flat screen TV doesn’t feed you.
MYRLAND: And it doesn’t need to be watered either, though, Nan.
STERMAN: That’s true but it has a big energy consumption value.
MYRLAND: Okay. And we’re all about low energy consumption and lots of good food consumption, and with that we do need to wrap up. Our guest has been Nan Sterman. She’s not only a terrific person but a garden journalist and author of the "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." And if you want to talk to Nan, you can call her up at 866-962-7021 on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, and that’s when she answers calls for the Water Conservation Garden Water Smart Pipeline. You’re listening to These Days in San Diego.
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