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How To Get The Most Out Of Your Summer Garden


What's the summer gardener to do now that July has arrived? We'll talk with garden expert Nan Sterman about getting the most out of your summer garden.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Well, we spotted sunshine over the weekend, and forecasters say we’re due for more this week but since the start of summer the weather has felt more like San Francisco than San Diego. It's been cool, moist and the sun, especially along the coast, has been hard to find. Some plants seem to be loving this unseasonable weather, but gardeners, who are so used to keeping flowers and vegetables away from too much sun and doling out the precious water as carefully as possible, are understandably somewhat confused. This morning, help has arrived. I’d like to welcome my guest, Nan Sterman. She’s a garden journalist and author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." Nan answers calls for the Water Conservation Garden's Water Smart Pipeline on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. Nan, welcome.

NAN STERMAN (Gardening Expert): Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we are going to invite our listeners to join the conversation, and please call on all your gardening questions. How has your garden reacted to these weeks of cool, gray weather? Has it made gardening easier for you? Join us with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, Nan, what impact is this kind of unseasonable weather having on people’s gardens?

STERMAN: Well, it’s great. It’s wonderful. It means we don’t have to water quite as much. It means the plants aren’t going through as much heat stress as usual. Our flowering season, I don’t know if you noticed this, but the flowers in this spring lasted so much longer than usual. There’s a little bit of downside. I’ve noticed this morning as I was leaving my house, I have a wonderful, beautiful Palo Verde in front of my house. It’s my favorite one. It’s called Palo Verde Desert Museum. I noticed a little bit of mildew on the leaves but beyond that, so far so good.

CAVANAUGH: How about people who were expecting their fruit trees to ripen, especially if they’re near the coast with no sun, is that affecting things?

STERMAN: Doesn’t seem to be an issue. I’ve already been through nectarines, apricots, and one round of pluots this year, so everything seems to be going along, at least from what I’m seeing, at a pretty normal pace. You know, there’s a natural variability. Every year there’s something that we don’t expect. Maybe it got hot in May, you know, sometimes we’ll have that, you know, wonderful long, hot turn – spell in May and we think, oh, summer’s here. And then June gloom. You know, every year’s a little bit different. So I’m not seeing anything hugely out of the ordinary.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, is there any way that gardeners can, in a sense, take advantage of these – the cooler temperatures…


CAVANAUGH: …that we’ve been having?

STERMAN: Yes, well, I’ve been planting and planting much later into the season than I normally would. And, in fact, what’s happening is that the plants that are going into the ground are adapting much more easily because it’s still humid, it’s still on the cool side, and I keep watching the weather. When is it going to get really hot? When is it really going to get hot? And when I see that our longterm projection, you know, ten day projection is normal, then I will absolutely stop. But I’m sort of tucking things here and there and I spent all day yesterday planting containers…


STERMAN: …which is fun. Which is fun.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Nan Sterman, garden journalist, and taking your calls about your garden at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. I’m wondering, with this – if this goes on – it’s gone on for several weeks now.


CAVANAUGH: I’m talking about the unseasonable weather, gray skies, humidity, a little bit moisture in the air, some sprinkles that we’ve had in the morning.

STERMAN: A little bit, yes. Yeah, in the, oh, in the morning, that’s right.


STERMAN: We had several mornings when it was very wet.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m wondering, are there any longterm effects that – from this? I mean, is there any way that the plants themselves will be a little bit different come August?

STERMAN: Probably not. Probably not. I’ll tell you one thing I noticed and actually I wrote a blog entry about this the other day, is that there’s a huge amount of biomass that’s been produced in my garden, in other words the plants have grown so much that I was, for example, clearing away the old nasturtiums. They’ve finally faded. Usually, they fade earlier. And they finally faded and to pull out all the dead nasturtiums and put them into my compost pile, I filled about five big trash cans. That’s a lot of material. That’s a lot of just green stuff. It makes great compost. But we have – it seems like everything got a little bigger, a little more lush, a little more prolific than I would’ve expected and now I’m doing my spring cleaning which is cleaning up from spring rather than preparing for spring.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing.

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: What has this weather done for water usage in the garden?

STERMAN: Well, I think this is a really interesting point because usually we have our water off, we should have our water off, from about November until about April. Now, in my garden, here we are July…

CAVANAUGH: Almost the middle of July.

STERMAN: Almost the middle of July and I really have not turned on the regular irrigation yet. I’m running it once in a while manually because I’m checking the soil and I’m seeing how – whether it’s damp or dry and I’m watering my pots but I’m – still haven’t really turned it on to a regular cycle yet. So, certainly, if you’re paying attention to that and you just don’t go into automatic mode, you’re going to be saving a lot of water. In fact, my April water bill was $39.00. Okay, I have two-thirds of an acre…


STERMAN: …four adults.


STERMAN: $39.00.

CAVANAUGH: That’s – that’s impressive.

STERMAN: Yeah, I thought so.

CAVANAUGH: Amazing what a little less sun will do, huh?

STERMAN: Oh, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call to join the conversation. Michael is calling us from Mission Hills. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to These Days.

MICHAEL (Caller, Mission Hills): Good morning. Thanks again for your great show. I have a question. It’s probably pretty obvious based upon what you’ve said. I have bromeliads out on a balcony and they usually are fully in bloom. They’re the ones with the big pink torch-like spikes of flowers. And nothing is coming this year. Is that because of the lack of sun?

STERMAN: Oh, it could be. It could be. It’s hard to tell. Bromeliads, sometimes they just run on their own cycle. But if you’re used to getting them every year at this time of year, then it may just have to do with not quite enough heat yet.


STERMAN: That’s what I would guess. Just – just hang in.

MICHAEL: Well, they usually come by June. Every year, there’s 10 or so, you know, and they’re wonderful they way they bloom. But there’s nothing. And there’ s more of them that have crowded up even though I took out the old plants, you know, from last year but there’s more in the pot. So I thought maybe that was it, too. But they’re just not as big either, so I thought maybe it was the lack of sun.

STERMAN: That could be. You could divide them. I always find that my bromeliads are – they bloom no matter what. You know, crowded, not crowded. I divide them because they start to spill out of the outsides of the pots and I like to share them. But you could divide them and see what happens. If you divide them, chances are you really won’t get any bloom this year. They’ll probably skip a year and wait until next year. But, you know, that’s – If you have more than one pot, I would play around with it and I would leave one intact and I would take the other one, divide it and see what happens.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Michael.

MICHAEL: Well, they thrive on anything including carbon monoxide.

STERMAN: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

MICHAEL: They really do.

STERMAN: Well, maybe you need to run your motor a little bit more.


MICHAEL: Well, I live above Washington Avenue so that’s where it all comes up.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks a lot, Michael. Thanks for the call. That makes me think, are there some effects, since it’s been so cool, that don’t necessarily have to do with lack of sunlight as much as it does with the cooler temperatures?

STERMAN: Sure, sure. Of course. There’s always, you know, heat triggers like, for example, especially in your vegetable garden, there are some plants that won’t – they won’t trigger flowering or the plants – the fruit won’t ripen. Like tomatoes, they won’t ripen until you get to a certain temperature. And that’s just part of the process and we kind of expect it’s going to be a certain temperature by July so you expect everything to start ripening in July. So it’s cooler in July, it may take longer until there’s enough accumulated heat, for example, for the tomatoes to start turning red.

CAVANAUGH: So people aren’t doing anything wrong.

STERMAN: No, no, no.


STERMAN: I mean, they may be, but that’s not it.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Shawn is calling us from Encinitas. Good morning, Shawn, and welcome to These Days.

SHAWN (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning. How are you today?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing great. Thank you for calling.

SHAWN: My question was, is are tomato plants – we’re having a large problem with the mildew, the leaves turning gray, a lot of mildew on the leaves because of this – Is this pretty much normal?

STERMAN: How close to the coast are you in Encinitas, Shawn?

SHAWN: We’re in Encinitas, just east of El Camino Real. So, not too close but close enough where we’re not getting the sunlight that we would normally get.

STERMAN: Yeah, you don’t live very far from me. As I mentioned, I noticed the mildew this morning on the Palo Verdes. It probably is related to what’s happening with the weather and if you want to treat it, you can always make a baking powder or baking soda, rather, solution and spray it on. My tack, my approach, to this kind of thing is to wait. Just wait. You might want to pull off the leaves that are really heavily mildewed and don’t compost them. Stick them in your green waste. But in terms of the plants overall, just be patient. Once the sun comes out and the overcast goes away, you should have no problem.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a good point. Don’t put it in your compost…


CAVANAUGH: …because of the mildew.

STERMAN: Right, and you never want to put anything with any kind of disease or illness into your compost. You want to put that in the green waste and you want to even sometimes put it in a plastic bag and seal it in the green waste. Certainly, make sure that the lid’s on your container.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Now let’s talk a little bit more about when it does inevitably heat up and water. How important is water conservation even now during this cooler weather?

STERMAN: Oh, it’s always important because in doesn’t change the amount of water we have available to us. And, in fact, you know, I go to – I’m on an advisory committee for the San Diego County Water Authority, have been for years. In fact, they’re meeting this morning and I’m here with you. But…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.

STERMAN: You’re welcome but – I’m happy to be here. Not that I’m happy – not happy to be there but I’m happy to be here. So one of the interesting things that they told us, we were told at one of the meetings recently is that even though there is more snow in the Sierras, more snow pack in the Sierras, there was – there isn’t as much runoff and the runoff, of course, replenishes our drinking water. And the reason is that the ground is so dry that as the snow’s melting, more of it is being absorbed into the soil, which is what happens first, than running off. So even though there’s more snow pack, we’re not necessarily going to see the benefits of that in our water availability.

CAVANAUGH: That is fascinating.

STERMAN: Isn’t it fascinating?

CAVANAUGH: So that’s what people mean when they keep saying, you know, well, after three, four years of drought, it’s just, you know, we just have to recuperate before we can say…


CAVANAUGH: …that we have a normal water supply.

STERMAN: Right. We have to replenish what’s been taken out of the ground first.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Mike is calling us from Bonsall. Good morning, Mike. Welcome to These Days.

MIKE (Caller, Bonsall): Hi, great show. We have a small farm in Bonsall, you know, almost three acres. We try to grow as many of our vegetables and stuff that we consume as we can. And we can grow bananas. We even grew papayas until we had that bad frost a few years ago. But the easiest thing in the world to grow, potatoes and tomatoes, our crop this year has like almost totally failed. Almost every plant has turned brown within a period of three or four days. They’re all withering. Some of them – like we have, I think, five or six different kinds of potatoes. Two kinds have not been affected. Everything else is just like – it looks like what’re we going to eat? Is there going to be any tomatoes or potatoes?

STERMAN: You know, this is interesting. You’re the second or third person to mention this to me this year. And I believe there is some kind of actual blight happening. I’m not 100% certain of that so what I would suggest, Mike, is that you call the Master Gardener Hotline and you can either go online to UCIPM, which is the University of California Integrated Pest Management website, and look up tomatoes, potatoes. The reason that it’s both tomatoes and potatoes is that they’re both in the same family. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, did I miss anything? I think I’ve got it. They’re in the solanum family, so something that will affect tomatoes are likely to affect those other plants as well. So go on the UCIPM website, look that up, and if you don’t find anything there, it’s too difficult, call the Master Gardener Hotline. Their number is 858-694-2860. I would pull out those infected plants now, like we were talking about a few minutes ago, and seal them up, don’t put them into your compost, put them into green waste. Let them to go the facility where they’re going to get hot composted so that all the pathogens are killed and then, you know, see which ones are actually doing okay. And if you’re going to plant more, plant those varieties. You still have enough time to do that this year.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Mike, for the call. So what you think is this has nothing to do with the weather.


CAVANAUGH: This is an actual – some sort of pest or something?

STERMAN: Yes, probably some kind of disease that’s come into our area.


STERMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: We’ll probably be talking about that.

STERMAN: I don’t want to alarm anybody because I haven’t – this is – Now, having heard it now a third time, now I’ll start to research it because up until now – When you hear it once or twice, you think, oh, this is someone who grew their tomatoes in the same place several years in a row and it’s just – you know, there’s problems with that, which we can go into if you want, but now I’m hearing it from a couple of different sources. It’ll be on my top list – the top of my list to go figure out what’s going on.

CAVANAUGH: As I say, we’ll probably be talking about that…

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …in a later show. We have to take a short break and when we return, we will continue to talk about gardening with the very unseasonable weather that we’ve been having this summer. 1-888-895-5727 is the line to call, and Nan Sterman is my guest. And we will continue in just a few moments here on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guest is Nan Sterman. She is garden journalist and a garden expert. We’re talking about all things gardening, especially about the kind of cool, gray, moist weather we’ve been having and how odd that is for gardeners to have to deal with here in San Diego. Our number is 1-888-895-5727 if you’d like to join the conversation with your questions and comments. That’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Let me go back to watering because that’s such a huge subject. You already shared with us the fact that even though we’ve had more of a snow pack, it’s not necessarily going to result in more water available for use here in Southern California. So what do you recommend as the best way to water yards and gardens?

STERMAN: I’m a huge advocate of drip irrigation, and it just makes so much sense. If you think about our traditional overhead sprinklers, okay. We shoot water into the air. Well, where do plants need water? They need it in their roots. Their roots are in the ground. That’s how water gets into a plant, the roots pull it up out of the ground. So why are we shooting water into the air when where we need it is on the ground? And, in fact, for traditional irrigation, the overhead sprays, the ones that have been around forever, when a professional designs an irrigation system, they assume 50% efficiency.


STERMAN: Translation: 50% waste. Half of the water is going to be wasted. Why are we doing that? You spray water onto leaves and it’s supposed to somehow magically drip down and find its way to the right place? No, no, no, no, no.


STERMAN: Let’s put water where it needs to be. Let’s put it on the ground. The older drip technologies, people got really frustrated with because they have lots of parts and pieces that often pull apart, blow off, get nibbled on, stepped on, etcetera. But the technology that is gaining more and more popularity, it’s not all that new, it’s just now gaining in popularity, is this technology that’s sort of generically called dripper line. It’s a tubing, long tubing, like a half-inch long tubing where the emitters are actually embedded in the tubes so there’s not a million pieces to break apart. And it’s – it can be buried under mulch or even under the ground, so you don’t have to see it but it actually delivers water to exactly where it needs to be. And putting it together’s like playing with tinker toys.

CAVANAUGH: Now if perhaps you can’t afford or for one reason or another can’t install a drip irrigation system, would you recommend a simple hose as opposed to a regular irrigation system where you lose all that 50% of the water?

STERMAN: Well, a hose can be much more efficient, yes, absolutely. You know, it depends on the scale of your property. And if you have a small space and you can do that, that’s absolutely fine. You’re still throwing water into the air but you’re using bigger drops and you’re targeting it towards where you need the water to be. You know, excuse me, the other advantage to drip irrigation is that you’re not wetting bare soil and if you don’t wet bare soil, then you don’t have the issue of weeds nearly as much as you do when you have, you know, just standard spray irrigation.


STERMAN: You’re targeting where the water goes. Much more efficient.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Phil is calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Phil, and welcome to These Days.

PHIL (Caller, Carlsbad): Thank you for taking my call. I’ve noticed throughout Southern California developers plant a good deal of thyme. And I’m wondering if that is an edible version of the herb or if we should stay away from it?

STERMAN: Well, that’s a really interesting question. There are lots and lots of different kinds of thyme. So the first question is, is it even a thyme that would taste good? I don’t believe there’s any thymes that you cannot eat, though whether you choose to eat them or not is a different issue. So if you have thyme growing in your garden that somebody else planted, I would ask them what kind of thyme it is. Oh, that sounds really funny, doesn’t it? I would ask them which variety of thyme they happened to plant. And you could smush the leaves between your fingers, crush them, and, you know, smell and see if there’s any aroma to it. And if it smells good to you, hey, enjoy.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Ian’s calling us from Solana Beach. Good morning, Ian, and welcome to These Days.

IAN (Caller, Solana Beach): Good morning, Maureen. Your guest suggested drip irrigation, and I wanted to point out that there’s a wonderful new product that I’ve invested in and it’s fairly inexpensive and it replaces the sprinkler head with a drip head. It looks like a – sort of an eight-tentacle hydra with these tiny little quarter-inch tubes coming out and you can lead them all over the place and just increase the time a little bit and you have a drip irrigation system without having to put in any special timers or anything, just use the sprinkler heads, or at least where the sprinkler heads were.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Ian. Let me get your reaction.

STERMAN: Okay, so he’s brought up a really interesting point. What he’s talking about is an octobubbler. It’s been around for a long time. And so what you do is, you take a riser where the sprinkler would have been. You put this contraption on it and you have eight little pipes that come out and go to plants in the vicinity. That’s fine. That’s absolutely fine. You are limited then only to eight plants from that head. When you convert to drip irrigation, though, you still use the same risers that you used for your spray and you can use the same riser that he used for an octobubbler, it’s just that you use one riser for a very large space and you are able to cover a lot of your area with drip whereas he’s converting each head to eight outlets. So it’s one of the technologies. It’s more limiting but if it works for him, that’s absolutely fine. You can do it yourself. They’re not that hard to do. Really, none of it’s very hard to do.

CAVANAUGH: Chuck is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Chuck. Welcome to These Days.

CHUCK (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning. I was wondering if we could talk about the length of time you should have your drip irrigation on…

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CHUCK: …because I have heard two rules of thumb. One, that you should run it for maybe 30 minutes once a week or maybe just as long as perhaps 5 minutes 3 times a week. I’m not really sure which to do. It depends, I suppose, on the size of the plants but when you have a large garden with varying plant sizes, it’s a little bit harder to judge.

STERMAN: Okay, good question. First of all, let’s understand that when you have overhead spray irrigation that puts water out at a rate of gallons per minute. When you have drip irrigation, it puts water out on the scale of gallons per hour. Okay? So in five minutes, no matter what kind of drip you have, you’re not going to get anything except a couple of drops. What’s – There is no specific amount of time, and if somebody tells you three times a week, 30 minutes, just ignore that. What’s important is to know how long you need to run your system with your soil to get the water deep enough to wet the plants, the roots of the plants, that are in your garden. So rather than asking people, what you need to do is turn your system on and every 15 minutes or half an hour go out there and stick your finger into the soil next to the plants to see how deep the water’s gone. If you can get a soil probe, that’s even better. It’s a probe that goes down, oh, about 18 inches, pulls out a little piece of soil, then you can look at it and see where the soil is wet. So forget the rules of thumb. You got to figure out what’s going to work in your garden and the goal, again, is get the water deep and to keep it wet deep, not at the surface but deep. So the first thing to do is figure out how long you need to run it, then you need to figure out how often you need to run it. So do what I had described. Wait a couple of days, put your finger in there again. Is it still wet? Don’t run it again? Is it still wet? Don’t run it again. When it’s dry several inches down—and I’m talking, you know, like your index finger deep—that’s when you run it again.

CAVANAUGH: And I think it’s important to point out that most mandatory outdoor water conservation requirements don’t apply for drip irrigation.

STERMAN: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. And, in fact, if you follow that 10 minutes once or twice a week or whatever, your plants are going to die because they’re not going to get enough water. There’s no question about it.

CAVANAUGH: Drip irr…

STERMAN: It doesn’t apply to drip, it doesn’t apply to any sprinkler heads you put at the end of a hose, so it’s not handheld either. It doesn’t apply either to those new MP Rotators which are a way to adapt overhead sprinklers for watering grass that increases the efficiency some, you know, to some extent but not as much as drip.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls and speaking with garden expert Nan Sterman. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Jeff is calling us from Clairemont. Good morning, Jeff. Welcome to These Days.

JEFF (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I have a backyard garden and I have a second generation cucumber plant producing wonderful, big cucumbers but they’re yellow and I have no explanation for that. Is there anything – any light you can shed on that?

STERMAN: The fruit’s yellow or the leaves are yellow?

JEFF: The fruit.

STERMAN: How does it taste?

JEFF: A little bit sour.

STERMAN: What shape is it?

JEFF: The shape seems to be normal.

STERMAN: Did you have any lemon cucumbers growing in your garden last year?


STERMAN: Hmm. I would wait. If they’re a little sour then you may be picking them too early. The yel – I’m not worried about the color, okay? Color varies. But how they taste is what I’m concerned about. So you might want to wait a little while and taste them again. And if they don’t sweeten up, it could be that they got, you know, hybridized with something else because, remember, that cucumbers are in the cucurbit family so they’re in the same family as melons and squashes. They could have cross-pollinated with something that gave them a funny taste.

JEFF: I had a large bottleneck squash plant right next to them.

STERMAN: Ehh, I don’t – I don’t know. I don’t know. But it could be that something in your neighbor’s garden pollinated them.


JEFF: Gotcha.

STERMAN: Yeah, so squashes usually cross-pollinate with squashes and melons with melons and cucumbers with cucumbers but they are all in the same family so there’s a possibility they could’ve done a little bit of hybridizing. But it’s more likely that a cucumber would’ve pollinated, you know, cross-pollinated with another cucumber. Give it a little more time. It may just be this cool weather. They’re not getting enough heat, they haven’t sweetened up yet.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. We’re going to Dan in San Diego. Good morning, Dan. Welcome to These Days.

DAN (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I have a container garden that I’m growing in the back of herbs, and I’ve got thyme and sage and basil. And all is doing well but something seems to be eating my basil. And I’m wondering if you can recommend something for me to keep whatever it is off of them. And wondering why they’re eating the basil and not the other herbs.

STERMAN: Oh, because basil tastes better. Basil has a softer leaf and it’s a little more succulent so I’m not surprised that something’s eating that but not eating the others, which are a little more resinous. What does the damage look like?

DAN: It starts out as like little holes and then pretty soon the whole leaf is just gone.

STERMAN: And have you turned the leaves over to see if there’s anything underneath them?

DAN: There is nothing underneath them.

STERMAN: Have you used a magnifying glass?

DAN: I have not.

STERMAN: Okay, go out there and take a magnifying glass and see what’s underneath them. You might see little eggs. You might see some – there’s a number of critters that could potentially do that. You might see slugs. Go out at night with a flashlight. It’s another opt – another thing to do. And figure out what it is before you treat it with anything and, frankly, what I would do is probably not treat it with much of anything since you’re going to be eating it, hopefully. So you might just be able to rub off whatever it is that’s chewing on your basil, rub off meaning, you know, you’re going to kill it by rubbing it…

DAN: Right.

STERMAN: …or somehow manually getting rid of it rather than spraying it or treating it with something.

DAN: Okay.

STERMAN: All right?

DAN: Fantastic.


STERMAN: But figure out what it is first.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Dan. I’m wondering, with the cooler weather that we’ve been having, are pests less of a problem? I know they’re less of a problem in my neighborhood but I mean do you – are there fewer bugs in the gardens?

STERMAN: Umm, probably not. Probably not. But I know there’s lots of rats around.


STERMAN: Yeah. And that probably has nothing to do with the weather other than there’s been a lot of – you know, this is the season when all the fruits are starting to ripen and all that. A lot of people have been talking about rats.

CAVANAUGH: Are there any fruits or vegetables that particularly attract rats?

STERMAN: Oh, all. Anything that’s sweet, you know, plums, apricots, all that. You know, this is – that can be a real issue.

CAVANAUGH: Not so much the lemons.

STERMAN: Nnn… Well, you know what, oranges. A lot of people have said to me it’s the strangest thing, my oranges grow beautifully and then they’re hollow. Yeah, because you’ve got fruit rats that are going and eating your oranges.

CAVANAUGH: Fruit rats.



STERMAN: They’re everywhere. You just don’t know it.

CAVANAUGH: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Michael is calling us from Oceanside Harbor. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to These Days.

MICHAEL (Caller, Oceanside Harbor): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I’m not the gardener myself basically because it’s hard to grow stuff on the ocean. But I have a dear friend who grows the vegetables for meals to go with the fish that I get. And I have a – My question is, what’s the latest, greatest method of preventing scrub jays etcetera from stealing berries.

STERMAN: Okay, well, let’s back up for a second. And I’ll tell you that I once did a story about a sea captain who fishes in the Arctic, I think it was, Arctic Ocean and he grew tomatoes, peppers and basils hydroponically in his cabin. So you could do it. But, anyway, net them, use nets. That’s the best way to keep them away is exclusion. So to net the berries and that’ll keep the birds out, hopefully. Though, occasionally, if you don’t do it carefully, you’re going to bear a bird stuck under the netting.


STERMAN: That doesn’t help. But that’s the way to do it.

MICHAEL: Okay, that’s what I figured. I just wondered if there was any new, high tech way or something but…

STERMAN: You know, you always…



MICHAEL: …you answered my question. Thank you.

STERMAN: You always see those devices with the sonic sounds and all that. I have yet to hear anybody say that works, and I’ve tried it, didn’t work for me.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Michael. Robyn is on the line from Encinitas. Good morning, Robyn. Welcome to These Days.

ROBYN (Caller, Encinitas): How are you?


ROBYN: Great. My tomatoes are not great either.


ROBYN: Oh, I want Nan to know that they are—and this is a lot of plants—it’s definitely some kind of blight. I mean, the mildew – there’s some mildew, too, but that’s minor but there’s some kind of blight that’s, you know, killing all the foliage unless it was the copper spray that I used that helped do them off. But there’s definitely a lot of blight spreading around.

STERMAN: You sprayed them with copper spray?

ROBYN: Yeah.

STERMAN: Because?

ROBYN: Somebody told me it was good for blight.


CAVANAUGH: What is copper spray? Explain…

STERMAN: Well, it’s a spray you usually use on dormant fruit trees to prevent different kinds of diseases, fungi and things like that. I – I’ve never heard of anybody spraying it on an actual producing plant when it’s actively growing and I wouldn’t have sprayed it on tomatoes. So…

ROBYN: So I just kind of am hastening their demise. I stopped using the copper spray because, you know, the plants had a very obvious reaction to it but on the label it was…

STERMAN: Did they scream?

CAVANAUGH: I’m so sorry, Robyn, go ahead.


ROBYN: That’s all. I just – it’s just – But it is a lot of blight, so I’m using this Serenade now which I hope will – will do that and not kill the plants.

STERMAN: You know, I’m thinking, Robyn, you should probably just pull them out and start again. And I would start them in a different location in your garden if you have enough room to do so.

ROBYN: What should I do to treat the soil where they’ve been if I’m worried about eradicating the…

STERMAN: It isn’t necessarily in the soil. Until I know exactly what it is, I wouldn’t worry so much about the soil. Are you growing them in the ground or are you growing them in pots?

ROBYN: They’re not in pots. It’s a kind of a terraced, you know, yeah, pretty much ground.

STERMAN: Okay, so don’t worry about the soil yet. Do me a favor, send me an e-mail at, that’s and let me do some research into this and I will send – if anybody else is interested, I’ll send you the results of what I find out and how to deal with that.

CAVANAUGH: And because of our weather, what you’re – Robyn does have a small window to plant, is what you’ve been saying, right?

STERMAN: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Yeah. And we have enough time. You know, we can have tomatoes producing until November or December. So, yeah, she has enough time to plant another crop, definitely.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue taking your garden questions with Nan Sterman. Our number 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, and my guest is Nan Sterman. We’re talking about your garden questions. 1-888-895-5727. There are a lot of people on the line who want to call – who want to talk to us, Nan. But I wanted to ask you first, you mentioned when you were talking with a caller about rotating your vegetables from year to year, basically rotating your crops in your home garden.


CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit more about that. How often do you have to do that and why is it important?

STERMAN: Well, it’s really the plants in that solanum family, the tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes. And tomatillos—I always have to remember those; we’re in San Diego—that you need to move around. There are pathogens in the soil that build up, that like the roots of those plants and, of course when their favorite food is there then their population explodes because there’s lots of food for them to eat. So they tend to build up in the soil and if you plant again the next year, they’re sitting there waiting for their favorite food to arrive. So what you want to do is, you want to move them to a different location the next year and what’ll happen is the populations will die out because their favorite food isn’t there. There’ll still be some dormant in the soil but it’ll die out. And so you move them back and forth, if you don’t have a big space. If you have more space, you can move them anywhere you want. But I tend to alternate them so I’ll have all of my—and I have a very large vegetable bed—so I’ll have all of my tomatoes and peppers in one bed, and eggplants, in one bed one year and the next – I always keep track of where I have my plants. The next year I’ll move them to another – to the other bed. And then the following year, I’ll move them back. Or sometimes I may move them to a third. I grow potatoes in a whiskey barrel and I have several of those. So one year the potatoes are in barrel A and the next year they’re in barrel B and the next year they’re in barrel C. Those are the plants that you want to make sure you move. The other ones don’t matter so much but those are the ones you want to move.

CAVANAUGH: Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And if you have a comment, you can go online at David is calling us from Normal Heights. Good morning, David. Welcome to These Days.

DAVID (Caller, Normal Heights): Hi. Thank you. I’m chairperson of the Vera House garden in Normal Heights. And I’ve found – You were talking about watering earlier?


DAVID: And we just got a brand new tiller and so I tilled – I just tilled my plot really well and amended it and retilled it. And I use a dripper hose. And the water just gets absorbed, one, two, three. I don’t lose too much water out of my garden because the soil is really loose and broken up, and I’m getting some great plants this year.

STERMAN: Do you mean a soaker hose?

DAVID: Yeah.

STERMAN: Okay. So…

DAVID: I run the soaker hose…


DAVID: …for about 20 minutes every other day while I’m doing maintenance in the garden and stuff like that and my plants are doing really well.

STERMAN: This is something – I’m glad you brought this up. This is something that’s a really great way, especially in a small space, to adapt your system. A soaker hose is a long hose—I believe they’re made from recycled tires—and they’re porous, so you attach it to your regular hose and you lay it out in your garden. It’s temporary. And when you turn the water on, the water just oozes out. Now it’s not controlled so you can’t – you don’t know how much water – like for the dripper line I was talking about, the emitters put out, you know, .5 gallons per hour, or .9 or whatever. The soaker line, soaker hose, isn’t controlled. And what’ll happen is after a couple of years, because we have such hard water, the solids will build up in the hose and the hose will stop oozing.


STERMAN: But that might take three years and they’re pretty inexpensive. They’re easy to move around. So it’s a good technology. If it works for you, it’s great.

CAVANAUGH: It’s a great option. Thank you for the call. Velma is calling us from Imperial Valley. Good morning, Velma. Welcome to These Days.

VELMA (Caller, Imperial Valley): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

VELMA: I have a question regarding sunflowers. I planted sunflowers in the winter and here just before summer in March, and some of them do follow the sun from the east to the west. But I have several, even my niece has several, that face the north. Why?

STERMAN: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Maybe they’ve lost their sense of direction. Maybe they’re just hybrid…

VELMA: I think – I don’t know, is it because I’m placing the seeds differently or…?


VELMA: Could that be it?

STERMAN: No, no. Plants find their place. I mean, that’s definitely not the issue. These are some of the hybrids, right? The Fancy Sunflower…


STERMAN: Okay. It could just be that in the hybridization process that particular trait was lost.


STERMAN: So don’t worry about it. You’re not doing anything wrong. I – You’re doing everything right. It’s just that they’re sort of directionless sunflowers. Are you…

VELMA: We just get – we get a kick out of them.

STERMAN: Yeah, they’re great. Do you harvest the seeds or do you leave them for the birds?

VELMA: I – No, I leave them for the birds like Mother Nature suggests that we do that. And I do harvest them and I give them away. I had a 15 and 8 and three-quarter inch one last year.

STERMAN: Oh, my gosh.


VELMA: And that was in Indio, though. Then I moved here to the Imperial Valley. I think the soil in Indio’s a lot better than here.

STERMAN: Well, you got to work on your soil. You got to add some compost and, you know, amend it and amend it. Are you getting heat?

VELMA: Are we getting heat? Oh, my gosh, yes, we are. My sunflowers are just thriving on it.


CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Velma. Thank you for the call. I want to ask you, Nan, is there a difference in the type of seed that you buy? Should you look for a particular type of seed? Organic seed? That will make a difference in the quality of either your vegetables or your flowers?

STERMAN: There’s definitely a difference in the quality of seed. It’s not necessarily organic or not organic, that’s a matter of personal choice. But it has to do with the quality of the seed that the seed company purchased. So if you want – And it’ll affect two things. One, the germination rate, so, in other words, if you put out ten seeds and all ten of them sprout then you’ve got excellent germination. But some of the real low quality seeds, you put out ten seeds and maybe you get one.


STERMAN: Okay, so that – And then it affects the vigor of the plants themselves. You want strong, healthy plants. So you definitely want to go with the higher end seed companies. Can I tell you my favorite one?

CAVANAUGH: Sure. Yeah.

STERMAN: I love Renee’s Garden seeds. Renee Shepherd is just so fastidious about the quality of the seed that she buys and also the way she packages it has – Her packages have wonderful information, and she’ll do a mixed package so, you know, whenever you get a package of seed there’s always more seed than you can ever use, so you might get a package of, say, greens and it’ll have six different kinds of baby greens in it. So you get everything you need in the package. Or it might have three types of peppers. So instead of buying three different envelopes, you buy one, you get three peppers and they’re color-coded so you know what you’ve got. There are lots of very good seed companies. Go with the name brands. Go with Territorial, go with Seeds of Change, go with some of the higher end seed companies in – that you find in the nurseries. It’s like anything else, you get what you pay for.

CAVANAUGH: It doesn’t pay to scrimp on seeds.

STERMAN: Don’t. Don’t.


STERMAN: And if it has no brand and it’s fifty cents, it’s not worth it.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Matt is calling us from Golden Hill. Good morning, Matt. Welcome to These Days.

MATT (Caller, Golden Hill): Hi. Good morning. Thanks for having me on.


MATT: I’m calling because I have an apricot tree that I purchased as a start from a farm out in Ramona and I seem to get fruit for the last couple of years that’s sort of half-developed. And then they sort of stay that and then eventually they just fall off and they never ripen. Is there something in the soil? I have a really clay-type soil. And is there something I can put in the soil to amend it?

STERMAN: Matt, where are you again?

MATT: In Golden Hill area.

STERMAN: And the tree that you bought, do you know what its ripening requirement is? The number of chill hours and etcetera? Do you know what variety it is?

MATT: I have no idea, no.

STERMAN: Well, there’s a number of things that could be going on, okay. First of all, apricots are pretty unpredictable in our area.

MATT: Umm-hmm.

STERMAN: Some years they produce, some years they don’t. And younger trees tend not to produce so well until they’re pretty well established. Apricots could be five, six, seven years before they start really kicking in.

MATT: Umm-hmm.

STERMAN: I’m assuming it hasn’t been in the ground that long.

MATT: It’s been in the ground probably four years now. And I get a lot of fruit on it but they just never ripen.

STERMAN: Well, the other thing is, again, if you look back at the variety of the fruit – Do you fertilize?

MATT: I do. I fertilize with just sort of, you know, a Home Depot variety, you know, general fruit…

STERMAN: I would go with an organic fruit tree fertilizer and follow the directions on the label.

MATT: Okay.

STERMAN: A granular organic, and definitely follow the directions on the label. That could be making a difference. The other thing is different – Fruit trees are bred for different what they call chill hours. Where you are, you get very, very little chill. You may get 300 hours. It has to do with the number of nighttime hours below 40 degrees. You may have a variety that is rated for more chill hours than you get or you may have a variety that just doesn’t do well along the coast. You – Never just sort of impulsively buy fruit trees. Do your homework. Check out the varieties, make sure that it’s one that’s going to do well where you are, and that it’s on a root stock that’s rated for – that’s specifically for, in your case, clay soil. You may just have the wrong tree. Try the fertilizer regimen with a good fertilizer for about two years and see what happens. If you still aren’t getting your fruit ripening, start again.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for the call, Matt. John is calling us from Cardiff. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days.

JOHN (Caller, Cardiff-By-the-Sea): Thank you. Well, we’re having two garden-related problems. The first is with squirrels in a vegetable garden. And the second is with rabbits on our lawn. And both are wreaking real havoc and I’m wondering if you have any recommendations.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve seen a lot of rabbits this year. Lots of rabbits.

STERMAN: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm. Rabbit stew.


JOHN: Yeah.

STERMAN: You know, it’s you and everybody else, my friend. I’m really sorry. For the rabbits, you can – you probably have a pretty small lot. You’re in Cardiff, right?

JOHN: Well, the garden is actually in Oceanside. But it’s, you know, the vegetable garden is about ten by fifteen, and the yard is about 3,000 square feet of lawn.

STERMAN: Get rid of most of your lawn, for one thing. But if you’re going to keep your lawn, can you put a rabbit fence around your property as a whole?

JOHN: Well, it doesn’t have a fence now and it does – to make it ever worse, it borders on a canyon. But I didn’t know – I mean, would a fence actually keep rabbits out?

STERMAN: Well, a fence that is a rabbit fence, which is buried about 12 inches where the fencing is buried around about 12 inches and circling the whole space and if you can get the rabbits out before you do that, yeah, you can keep the rabbits out, absolutely. Beyond that, it’s really hard. You can get a cat. When I had a cat, I had no rabbits. When my cat died, within about two years, I had rabbits everywhere.

JOHN: I did have that thought. I thought a cat might help, actually.

STERMAN: Yeah, a cat definitely helps. And if it’s on a canyon, you might want two cats. Just make sure that you bring them in at night because you probably have coyotes around there, too.

JOHN: Definitely.

CAVANAUGH: What about the squirrels in his vegetable garden?

STERMAN: Oh, you know, that is just a real challenge. And, again, exclusion is – I mean, if you’re not going to trap the squirrels, and my guess is you probably have more squirrels than you could trap, you know, and move, then I would say if your vegetable garden isn’t too big, you could actually build a structure around your vegetable garden and cage it. Put a door in and you can walk in and out. I’ve seen a number of gardens done like that and if I were dealing with squirrels with that bad of a problem, that’s what I would do. I will tell you that if you have like a woodpile or something like that, that’s a place where squirrels like to nest. So you might want to go around the property and look for likely nesting places and get rid of the squirrel nesting spots. But, again, on a canyon, you’re always going to have some issues.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, John. Thanks for the call. Let’s take another call. Louise is calling us from Tierrasanta. Good morning, Louise. Welcome to These Days.

LOUISE (Caller, Tierrasanta): Good morning. My question refers to something that was said earlier about rotating one’s plants. I’m using two raised planter beds in which I’m growing just the vegetables you mentioned about rotating, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants. And so I’m wondering, since my options are limited as far as rotation—they’re growing in both planter beds now—when I’m through harvesting or I’m ready to plant some more, should I just dump the current soil and put in fresh soil?

STERMAN: Well, that would be an option. How big are your beds?

LOUISE: They’re both four by four, four feet by four feet.

STERMAN: And are they – is that all you’re growing? The tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, that group?

LOUISE: Eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and, well, I have basil in there and that’s it.

STERMAN: Well, yeah. You could do that. Hopefully, you’ll have someplace to put the soil you’re taking out. And if you had someplace to stock pile it, so I mean, every year you’d ro – you’d take the soil out and replace it.

LOUISE: Umm-hmm. Hmm…

STERMAN: It would be labor but you could do it.

LOUISE: Yeah, I see. Okay.

STERMAN: If you could – You know, you’d be better off if you could build yourself some more raised beds, if you have enough space.

LOUISE: Umm-hmm.

STERMAN: And, honestly, I’ve done all different sizes. Four by four is a pretty inefficient size. Four by eight’s a much more efficient size.

LOUISE: Umm-hmm.

STERMAN: So you can just grow that much more in a four by eight than you can in two four by fours.

LOUISE: Oh, really?


LOUISE: Oh, okay.

STERMAN: So if you could do, you know, add a four by eight bed then next year you could put the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants, the same amount, into those – into that. And then the next year, you could put them back into the four by four beds.

LOUISE: Ah, okay. All right. Well, that’s a good thought.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for the call.

LOUISE: Thank you very much.

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: We are out of time, Nan.

STERMAN: Oh, no.

CAVANAUGH: But I want to ask you a really quick question at the end. You said that you were still kind of planting a little bit, putting things in because of the weather.


CAVANAUGH: When are you going to stop? What are the signs when you’re not – you’re just not going to do that anymore?

STERMAN: I’m probably about there now.


STERMAN: I’m doing containers now and they’re in a little bit of shade. And I’m planting succulents still. But in terms of the woody stuff, I’m not planting any woody plants, so no shrubs, no trees. The perennials, the soft-stemmed perennials, it depends, tapering off on that. Mostly, it’s the containers and succulents I’m still comfortable putting in the ground now.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you. We have no time left.

STERMAN: It’s my pleasure. I love doing this.

CAVANAUGH: For more gardening tips, you can call the Water Conservation Garden's Water Smart Pipeline. Nan is there Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. That number is 866-962-7021. And if you’d like to continue the conversation and post your comments, you can go online, And thank you for listening to These Days. This is Maureen Cavanaugh with Nan Sterman. Thanks so much.

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