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Do’s And Don’ts For Your Summer Vegetable Garden

Garden expert Nan Sterman talks about summer vegetable gardening. What works in other parts of the country doesn't always work in San Diego gardens. Find out how to plant and nuture your favorite vegetables.

Garden expert Nan Sterman talks about summer vegetable gardening. What works in other parts of the country doesn't always work in San Diego gardens. Find out how to plant and nuture your favorite vegetables.


Nan Sterman, garden designer and author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II" and "Waterwise Plants for the Southwest." Her website is She also writes a Garden column for the San Diego Union-tribune.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Garden expert Nan Sterman is back every few months and takes time from writing articles and planting gardens to pay a visit and this time she will focus on planting a vegetable garden here in San Diego. Hi, Nan.

NAN STERMAN: Hi, Maureen. Thanks for having me today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's lovely to see you. I want to let everyone know that if anyone has a question about planting, the care and maintenance of a vegetable garden you can give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. So, Nan, what kinds of vegetables should people be planting now?

NAN STERMAN: All the vegetables that we love in summer. Anything that gives you fruit and fruit is anything that has seeds. Tomatoes are fruit even though it is not sweet and so tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, squash and melons, cucumbers, basil, tomatillo. You name it. The leafy stuff not so much but the stuff that we eat the fruits of, that's what we are going for.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: People plant corn in San Diego?

NAN STERMAN: Yeah but the thing about corn is that you have to plant a bunch of it because corn is planted pollinated by the wind sometimes you get and ear and there'll be a few kernels it's because each kernel has to be pollinated separately so not enough pollen got onto the ear to pollinate all of the kernels so if you are going to grow corn you have to grow a patch of corn, so you have to be dedicated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: (Inaudible) about some of the most popular vegetables that people plant. How long from planting to actually having on your dinner table or in your salad.

NAN STERMAN: Yes and this is a very good issue because a lot of people don't think of planting until they see the vegetables or fruits that they want to but they see them in the store generally it's probably little too late till you're seeing them as vine ripe tomatoes and we can still plant but now we are getting them now and we can plant them now but it will take easily two months, three months from the time you put into these annuals until they are ready to eat. So if you for example are going to start from seed you always want to start by looking at the seed packet and it will say how many days until maturity. So it is not uncommon to see 80 days, 60 days, 90 days. Anything that is 60 days as a pretty short season; tomatoes, cucumbers whatever and those are really pretty much bred for areas that don't have long growing seasons. We have a long growing season but it's not unusual for 80 or 90 days until you're ready to pick the first fruit.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly, so plan ahead.

NAN STERMAN: You want to think about it ahead of time and if you are a person who buys seeds out of catalogs all the catalog companies mostly now you can see them online the new offerings come out in January February March people are ordering the seeds and because that is when you get started. So if you started from seedlings you can buy the transplant seedlings now but if you want to start from seed you can still do it but you will not have as long until everything ripens it will take longer because you are starting out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Nan Sterman. Mark is on the line from Pacific Beach, hi, Mark.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi again. Thanks for taking my call. I live on Mount Soledad facing the ocean and it's an area that gets a lot of low clouds and coastal fog and June gloom and I want to plant tomatoes. Is there a certain variety I should look for that can handle less heat than the normal ones that we get?

NAN STERMAN: That's a great question and I would look for the short season tomatoes so I would look for the ones that have ripening 60 to 75 days. Doesn't mean you cannot grow the others but the thing is the fruit needs the heat to ripen, so how long into the fall will we have enough heat for the fruit to actually ripen? It's a little bit of a challenge when you're buying seedlings because not all, if you look at the labels on the seedlings on the white plastic things they don't all say how many days to maturity. Some of them do, some of them don't. You've got to, if it doesn't say you've got to do your homework look it up if you've got a smartphone or go ahead and look it up online you can find how many days of maturity for that particular variety

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you can't always trust a packet of seeds, you have to be proactive.

NAN STERMAN: (Inaudible) on it depends on where the seeds were tested. If they were tested in the Midwest when it is hot it stays hot day and they will ripen more quickly whereas here our nights cool down but if you're going and buying transplants if you're buying the seedlings label on the seedling may or may not tell you how many days to maturity from the time that you transplant.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Joseph is on the line from South Park. Hi, Joseph.

NEW SPEAKER: I have a quick question about starting plants from seeds. I kind of have mixed results like half of them do well, then half of them don't. I'm suspecting it's because maybe I just don't keep it at a perfectly moist level that seeds really like.

NAN STERMAN: There's a number of tricks to successfully growing plants from seeds, in fact I was offering some workshops and I will do it again next spring. But what seeds are not coming up?

NEW SPEAKER: It's a mixture of things. I plant herbs and all sorts of eggplants and all sorts of stuff like that.

NAN STERMAN: If you can be more specific it will help me diagnose this for you.

NEW SPEAKER: I tried planting and those little transplant containers like summer savory, eggplant and I haven't seen them pop up at all.

NAN STERMAN: There's a number of things to do but start with the basics you want to start clean you want to start a brand-new seed starting mix, do not use potting soil or you start and you don't then you want a very clean containers whatever your starting and whatever you use you need to have three or 4 inches of depth for this because the roots will grow at least that long they have to be new or disinfected and what I use for disinfecting is if I have a plastic sixpack from last year I will soak it for a while in 10% bleach solution so that is nine parts water and one part bleach and then rinse it out and let it dry even the (inaudible) you need to use are cleaned and disinfected like I said you want to use either starting mix. You want to place the seeds on the surface and make sure the mixes went first, damp, place the seeds on the surface and cover them with tiny bit of seed starting mix because the rule of thumb is they need to be three times as deep as the seed is big. So does the rule of thumb that are right at the surface and you want to make sure you cover the surface with something that is like a sand or perlite, something that is inert with no nutritive values they don't get bacteria or anything growing on the surface and make sure that you keep them damp and the way you water seeds this is really critical, you can order them from above because you end up washing them away. Take the little container with the seedlings and stick it in a pan with a couple inches of water and let the water wick up. Those are the basics there is more to it than that but if you start with the basics like that you probably will have a lot more luck than you are having now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the things you see as crucial is the seeds (inaudible), these people seem to forget to feed their vegetables.

NAN STERMAN: Yes and the seedling until they have a bud you will see the first set of leaves that, and with corn there will be one leaf because that is like grass but almost everything else that will be two little leaves and when they get the second set of leaves which are the true leaves, that's when you started adding a little bit of dilute fertilizer to the water that you are setting the seed in when you water it, but just very dilute but they do need a little bit more.

NEW SPEAKER: Should I keep them in the water for the whole time or just a couple days?

NAN STERMAN: No, just an hour because otherwise you end up with water you need enough space in the soil for the oxygen as well as the water.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a call from Steve in Linda Vista. Hi, Steve. Steve is gone. Hillary is there. Hi, Hillary are you on the line? Hillary welcome to midday.

NEW SPEAKER: This is Harry.


NEW SPEAKER: I've got an artichoke growing and it's got ants and aphids all over it and some sort of black flies all over it---

NAN STERMAN: Those are aphids too.

NEW SPEAKER: Ants are crawling in and I've been taking super diluted detergent and mixing, spraying the foam and it seems to be working but now they are coming back and moving into all of my leftover chard and stuff from the winter and especially the ones where the leaves are curled up they are getting up in there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This sounds terrible.

NAN STERMAN: This is what happens. Those are the first issues, artichokes are notorious for bringing in ants and aphids, they are both aphids. You are talking about diluted detergent you're talking dish detergent, the stuff in the sink? That's the only thing you're using that and a little bit of organic there is organic insecticide soaps. Those are the only things you want to be using and you're doing the right thing. Will it stop them? No. Will it wash them off, yes. It will kill the ones that are there. As my mother says it's just a little bit more protein. Sorry, I just cracked you up. So when you get that with the artichokes what you can do is get a little bit of soap and a little bit of vinegar and woosh them around in there. Most of the ants and the aphids will come out and then, you know, it is home-grown, my friend. That's just, you know, as my mother said it is part of the charm. In terms of the chard and stuff if you are not eating the chard anymore if you are not using it, it's basic garden hygiene to take it out so there is no place else for them to go.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call from Jill in North Claremont. Thank you for calling Midday Edition.

NEW SPEAKER: (Inaudible) I did baby bok choy however I don't plan to it, so tell me what is the market going to come through on them baby bok choy before it gets to be the big bok choy?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm not clear on that, Jill. How about starting your question again.

NEW SPEAKER: I don't dig it, because I'm trying to be funny, I don't dig it, but I love it---

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jill, we only have a few minutes here. Thank you for your call. What are some tips for baby bok choy?

NAN STERMAN: I'm not exactly sure what she was asking about but I believe that baby bok choy is regular bok choy so when you grow it and it gets to the size that you want, you harvest it as far as I know.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No particular tips on growing.

NAN STERMAN: I wouldn't grow it in summer, I would grow in the fall because the leafy green we usually grow when the weather is cooler. Granted when you live near the coast you have a problem but if you live inland I would either grow in shade or wait till the weather cools and grow them in the fall.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Speaking of fruits and these vegetables that we don't think of as fruits tomatoes, what about fruit trees and getting the most from your fruit trees?

NAN STERMAN: This is the time of year to plant citrus and banana, know that bananas are really thirsty and then the tropical fruits we plant now. The others we are harvesting now but we have planted in the winter and spring and one of the important things to know is when you plant fruit trees are talking stone fruit like apricots and peaches plums and even apples and things like that you have to be patient because they are not going to produce for a couple of years, just like people aren't born ready to reproduce, plants aren't born ready to reproduce either so it's not unusual to wait three, five, seven years before you are harvesting any number of fruits from any of those kinds of trees. But you have to water them at the right time. All of those ones that go deciduous lose their leaves, they don't really need water in the winter unless we have a really long hot dry period. They don't because they're sleeping, talk about when they start to come out in spring got to start watering them and fertilize them. All of those points are fruits that we just about all of them really need to be fed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a caller who couldn't stay on the line and wanted to know what is the best organic soil for dwarf citrus plants.

NAN STERMAN: The best organic soil? I wonder if they are talking about growing them in a pot. If they're looking to grow them in a pot there's lots of different organic soils out there. They are all probably fine. The thing to do is to check the texture of them because whenever you grow something in a container there is a very delicate balance between holding enough water and holding too much water. You want to keep enough water in the soil so that the roots have room and the plant has enough access to water but if you keep it too wet like we talked about before they are going to rot and they will not do very well and a lot of times people people mistake overwatering for underwatering because the leaves turn yellow and start to drop. So make sure it has the right texture a lot of times the potting soils have so much organic material that they end up holding too much water so you might want to end up adding coarse sand like construction sand or perlite and make sure you mix really well and make sure the pot is raised above the surface so that there is a space between the bottom of the pot and the concrete or whatever it's on my, pot feet, and take a little piece of fiberglass window screen and cover the hole at the bottom that way no soil goes out when you water, but you'll pretty much have a good situation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are finished. I will tell you it's been a great motivator just to get people thinking about what it is they need to do to make their vegetable garden. I've been speaking with Nan Terman, she has a garden column for the San Diego Union Tribune. She's a garden designer and the author of California gardeners Volume II and waterways plants for the Southwest. Her website is Thank you.

NAN STERMAN: Thank you, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Join us Tuesday as the budget battle in Sacramento gets down to the wire. That and more, tomorrow on KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, see you tomorrow.

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