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Make Your Autumn Garden Bloom

Make Your Autumn Garden Bloom
Fall can be great time to start gardening in San Diego. But autumn gardening has its challenges: like Santa Ana winds and variable temperatures. Gardening expert Nan Sterman joins us with advice on how to make your Autumn garden bloom.

Maureen Cavanaugh (Host): In other areas of the country if you haven't done your fall planting yet, you're out of luck. But in San Diego's climate, autumn is one of the best times of the year to put in a cool weather vegetable garden or plant some of California's native shrubs.

That's not to say there aren't some challenges involved, like Santa Ana winds and the wild mix of hot and cool weather we usually get in the fall. Joining us to talk about what to take advantage of and what to watch out for during San Diego’s autumn gardening season is my guest, Nan Sterman. She is a garden journalist and author of “California Gardener’s Guide Vol. II” and you can see her in the Waterwise Gardening segment of “Growing a Greener World.” That’s online at Nan, good morning.

NAN STERMAN (Gardening Expert): Good morning. How are you?


CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I’m great.

STERMAN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Has all this talk about growing your own vegetables started you thinking and you need a little advice to get started? Or have you been planting and gardening for a while and have a persistent problem that, shall we say, crops up? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. That’s 1-888-895-5727. Even you wouldn’t say that, would you, Nan?

STERMAN: I’m sorry. I can’t stop laughing. That’s so bad, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. Well, first of all, before we get into all the issues surrounding fall planting and gardening, I want to talk a little bit about summer’s weather because it was much cooler and cloudier than usual.


STERMAN: Sure was.

CAVANAUGH: Especially along the coast.

STERMAN: Sure was.

CAVANAUGH: Now how did that affect growers?

STERMAN: You know, you’re talking about home gardeners, right?


STERMAN: Okay. Well, interestingly, if you – especially along the coast, if you live on the coast, everybody I’ve talked to, their tomatoes just sat there and sat there and sat there, green and happy but not turning red. Now they’ve started to turn in the last week or two and I’ve noticed that most of my tomatoes now are pretty much coloring up. But that cool weather really slows down the maturation of the fruit, so that’s one of the issues that we have but, you know, in a lot of ways having a cooler weather is nice for plants because the water’s more even. They don’t lose water as quickly to evaporation to the air from the soil, and it’s easier to keep your garden watered. But when it comes to that maturation, you know, making it ripe so we can eat it, it just takes a little longer.

CAVANAUGH: Besides tomatoes, were there any other plants that were really affected by this cool, cloudy weather we had?

STERMAN: Well, they’re all affected but, you know, everybody focuses on tomatoes in the summer.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

STERMAN: So that’s always the topic of conversation. Actually my peppers ripened fairly rapidly. Some of them did and some of them kind of sat around. The marigolds came and went, the zinnias are still blooming. They did fine. But those plants that have fruits that need to color up, that really mature, those are the ones that suffer.

CAVANAUGH: Now, even with the cooler summer, though, lots of people seem to be struggling keeping their lawns up with the continuing water restrictions that we have. This is probably a way of life for us now.

STERMAN: Oh, no question.

CAVANAUGH: Year in, year out.

STERMAN: No question.

CAVANAUGH: So what do you suggest? I mean, did you drive around and see people, even with the cooler, cloudier weather, little patches of dryness on their lawns.

STERMAN: Always. Always, because, you know what, I think so many people are losing interest in their lawn. I can’t tell you how many people in a week will say to me, I just turned the water off. I just turned the water off.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I have heard that as well, yeah. Yeah.

STERMAN: It’s just – it’s happening everywhere. And I just came back from the Garden Writers meeting in Dallas and that’s when all of my colleagues and I get together once a year, about this time of year, in some location around the country and, you know, people who live in areas where they get tons of water, the – One of the editors for Southern Living, which is like Sunset’s southern U.S. correspondent or sister magazine, was saying what’s the big deal? You know, so you have a patch of grass, you know, I don’t get it. Why is it such an evil? And, you know, when you realize he’s got three times as much water coming out of the sky regularly, right, and they get water when it’s warm in summer, then it’s no big deal. But because our water is so sparse and it all comes when it’s cool. In the heat of summer, you have to water the lawn, so why bother?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Yeah.

STERMAN: Why bother? I’d much rather water those vegetables.

CAVANAUGH: Lots of people are beginning to say that, you’re absolutely right. I want to let everyone know our number is 1-888-895-5727. So let’s move on to autumn because I know this is one of – really, one of the best times of the year for California gardeners.


CAVANAUGH: And I wonder why that is.

STERMAN: Because it’s the – And this is a great question. The soil is still warm, the air starts to cool down, the humidity starts to increase a little bit, so when you put a plant in the ground it’s much – it has a much easier time in the – adapting to the transplant process. There’s – all plants go through transplant shock when you first take them out of the can and put them in the ground, just like people go through transplant shock. But when our weather cools, when the atmospheric weather cools so the evaporation pressure is not so great but the soil is still warm and cozy, perfect time. The roots start growing. You don’t see a lot of above ground growth at first but the roots are starting to become established so that by springtime the top growth starts because the roots are doing really well and you’ve basically gained a whole year of gardening in those few months.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Let’s take a call. We are taking your calls with Nan Sterman, garden journalist, 1-888-895-5727. Mary is calling from Valley Center. Good morning, Mary. Welcome to These Days.

MARY (Caller, Valley Center): Good morning. I have a really beautiful pot of basil, sweet basil, and I’ve been enjoying it all summer but it’s starting to bloom. I pick off the blooms because I know if it once sets seed, it’s gone. But is there any way to preserve it and keep it going through this next season?

STERMAN: Well, Mary, basil’s an annual so it’s only going to have one year of life, if that, one season. Generally, annuals means one season. So as much as you may love that basil, it’s not going to last forever. There are some perennial basils. They aren’t quite as delicious. There’s the African blue basil, which has a basil kind of fragrance but it’s a little bit sharper. So you might want to try that. It is a perennial but you have to make sure that if the goal is to eat it, that you like – that you can stand the sharpness of the basil leaves. But other than that, you know, appreciate the basil you have and then wait until next spring and start more seeds and you’ll appreciate it again.

CAVANAUGH: Can she do anything with the plant as it blooms now? Or is it just going to die and she has to start with new seeds next spring?

STERMAN: Well, as – She’s doing the right thing by picking off those blooms because once it blooms and sets seeds, the plant thinks—plants don’t think but—the plant thinks…


STERMAN: …it’s accomplished its job.


STERMAN: Because the goal of every plant is to make babies. Right?


STERMAN: Excuse me for being anthropomorphic but the goal of every plant is to make babies, so once it makes seeds, once it flowers and seeds, it’s going to die. But even if it doesn’t, if she keeps picking back those, you know, pinching off those flowers, eventually it will still die. It just doesn’t have the kind of physiology that will keep it going for multiple years.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when people start to plant in autumn, are things like weeding and insects as much of a problem as they are earlier in the year?

STERMAN: Well, that’s an interesting question. Weeds always seem to be the biggest problem in the spring when the rains end and the soil starts to warm up and then all those dormant seeds in the soil that have been there for actually many years because we always have the seed bank in the soil. That’s when the weeds really explode. That’s when we notice them. There are different weeds that will germinate in fall but it doesn’t seem like there are as many. I mean, you don’t hear people complaining about, oh, my God, all the weeds in fall the way they do in spring. So that’s less of a problem. In terms of pests, you know, it just depends on the year, really. There are different – again, like weed seeds, there are different pests that are going to be present at different times of year, both critters and, you know, insects and things like that. So it’s just seasonal.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Linda is on the line from La Mesa. Good morning, Linda. Welcome to These Days.

LINDA (Caller, La Mesa): Good morning, and thank you for taking my call. I was hoping to get some guidance into my problem with ongoing large white grubs. I have a raised bed organic garden in La Mesa and I’m really adverse to putting, you know, big toxins on to kill these things and I kind of run out of steam trying to keep, you know, turning the soil and, you know, picking them out by hand and throwing them away. And I’m wondering if there’s something else I can do to not encourage or to get rid of, better yet.

STERMAN: You know, it really depends on what kind of grubs they are but there are beneficial nematodes that will control your grubs and if you go online and look them up – in fact, go to the UCIPM (sic) website. Have you ever been to that website, Linda?

LINDA: UC and what was the rest of it?

STERMAN: UC, dash, I think it is, IPM. It’s from UC Davis. It is the cooperative extension website, has a fantastic database of how to deal with different kinds of pests and different kinds of plant problems. And the thing to do is to try to identify your grub and figure out which one it is. Once you really know what it is, then you can figure out what the best way to deal with it is.

LINDA: Okay, excellent.

STERMAN: Okay, that’s a really good source to – it’s a little bit hard. The search engine is a little bit challenging so play with it a little bit, be patient and you’ll find it.

LINDA: All right. Excellent. Thank you so much for the help.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Linda. Joan is on the line with another pest problem. Joan from Clairemont. Good morning, Joan, and welcome to These Days.

JOAN (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning to you. Very hot day today.


STERMAN: Oh, my goodness, yes.

JOAN: I have a gopher that’s decided to come and live with my garden. And I’m just wondering if Nan has any good hints on how to get rid of him. Or her.

STERMAN: Him or her. Do you have a cat?

JOAN: No, I do not. I have no pets at this time.

STERMAN: The best way to get rid of it, I’m sorry to say, is to poison it if you don’t have a cat or a dog that’s a good, you know, gopher-getter dog. If you only have one, you might want to actually see if any of your neighbors have what they call a – I think it’s called a gopher probe. It’s a long stick and you bait it with some seeds that have poison on them and so you stick it deep in the ground and the poison seeds go way down into the tunnel and that way it’s not exposed to birds or dogs or cats or anything else. And you really have to keep after it. You have to find a fresh mound and when you take this probe and start pushing into the ground, you can – you begin to feel – When you hit a tunnel, you know it because it goes right down. And it takes a little bit of practice but I would say go after the gopher now because where there’s one now there will soon be multiple gophers. So you might even see if there’s somebody in your neighborhood who could help you with it.

CAVANAUGH: Joan, thanks for the call. That’s interesting because usually poisoning is the last thing…


CAVANAUGH: …that you recommend.

STERMAN: Well, that’s why I asked about the cats, right.


STERMAN: There – it’s really hard. She could trap it. There are nonpoisonous traps. They’re not so easy to use but some people are really good at it. There might be somebody in her neighborhood who knows how to use a Macabee trap or one of those kinds of traps but you have to have some practice at it. Those – Actually, I’d probably do that first and then go for the gopher probe. It’s not my favorite. I don’t like recommending those kinds of things at all but there’s sometimes when you just say I don’t – I’m not sure what else to do.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I began this segment by saying, you know, this is one of the best times to plant in San Diego but you’ve got to know what to put in.

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: So what is it that really thrives, that really takes off if you plant during the autumn in San Diego?

STERMAN: Okay, well, let’s just make sure we’re talking about after this darn heat wave is over planting things.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, yes.

STERMAN: Because I don’t want people planting today. They will not be happy.


STERMAN: You know, any kind of what I always refer to as the Mediterranean climate plants. We can still plant the tropicals, which would be citrus. Mostly citrus and avocado, things like that, you can still plant them for a few more months. But we’re talking about the California native plants and all the plants that come from the Mediterranean or South Africa, Australia, all those wonderful low-water plants that I talk about on a regular basis in both my books. Grasses, temperate grasses, all those plants, woody plants, really do well if you plant them now. So perennials, shrubs, vines. There are a few things that you couldn’t plant at this point. You know, if they’re summer vegetables, you don’t want to plant them necessarily. But there’s few things that you wouldn’t want to plant right now.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Summer vegetables like beans, you wouldn’t want to plant now, right?

STERMAN: Actually, those aren’t summer vegetables.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

STERMAN: Those are fall vegetables so, yeah, you could. You could plant beans now…


STERMAN: …and peas now, and you could plant broccoli now and cabbage and cauliflower. Carrots you can pretty much grow most of the year. Start lettuce seeds, if you’re going to start them from seed, you could start them now because by the time they’re big enough to put in the garden, the air will have cooled. I wouldn’t plant lettuce today.

CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly.

STERMAN: It would become crispy lettuce.

CAVANAUGH: And what is your feeling as opposed to – seeds as opposed to transplants? Which do you like best?

STERMAN: Well, personally, I try to start from seed.


STERMAN: Because, first of all, I’m a control freak. But aside from that, there’s so many more varieties that you can choose from from seed. It’s almost limitless. You know, what kind of tomatoes you want to grow, what kind of beans you want to grow, what kind of lettuce. The options are just enormous. You do want to use good quality seed. You know, if you pay fifty cents, you’re going to get a fifty cent value seed. You want to – It’s going to cost a couple dollars for a packet but you’ll get more seed than you could possibly use in a season and you can save seeds. I really like the seeds that come from Renee’s Garden. I really like Territorial Seed. Johnny’s, Seeds of Change, there’s some really nice, high quality seed companies, and many of them organic, that you can buy seeds from and it’s fairly simple and you can find pretty good seeds in the nurseries, too. Don’t buy them in the dime store. Do they still have dime stores?

CAVANAUGH: I don’t know. I don’t think you can find them anymore.

STERMAN: But you know what I mean.


STERMAN: You know, don’t buy them in the supermarket. So the thing to know is starting from seeds is a skill and it takes some work and, in fact, I have a video online. If you go to my website, you can find my video for starting plants from seeds, and how to read a seed packet, which is really important. While you’re honing your seed-starting skills, though, you might want to start planting seedlings. And if you’re not the kind of person who’s patient enough to wait six weeks and lose half of those seedlings, because it’s just inevitable, then you might want to start with, you know, go with transplants. And, again, make sure you’re getting really good quality seedlings at a reputable nursery or even at the farmers market. I have some friends who sell at the farmers markets in Hillcrest and Vista. They have incredible varieties, really unusual, and the quality of their seedlings is fabulous.

CAVANAUGH: Where can people see that video?

STERMAN: On my website, which is and you look for the tab that says TV/Radio and you can see there’s a whole list of videos. Thank you for asking.

CAVANAUGH: That’s all right. I have to take a short break. When we return, we will talk more with Nan Sterman about autumn gardening in San Diego and take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guest is Nan Sterman. She is garden journalist, author of “California Gardener’s Guide, Vol. II” and “Waterwise Plants for the Southwest.” She also answers calls for the Water Conservation Gardens Water Smart Pipeline on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. That hotline is 866-962-7021. And I’ll wait a minute before I give out our phone number or else it’ll become completely – completely confusing. When you plant now, when do these plants harvest?

STERMAN: You’re talking about vegetable plants?


STERMAN: It all depends on the type of plant, and this is another reason it’s important to understand how to read a seed packet because when you look at a seed packet it will tell you days until harvest. Okay, now you should know that that’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s days until harvest wherever it was tested, which could have been in Missouri.


STERMAN: Okay, but if you’re looking at two different kinds of, let’s say, beans. One says 80 days until harvest and the other says 60 days until harvest. You know that the 60 day ones are going to ripen first, mature first, and the 80 later. So that would be a good combination because that’ll keep you in beans for a much longer period of time.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And why – when is a good time to actually put in those perennials you were talking about, the Mediterranean plants…

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …that people want to see year after year.

STERMAN: Okay, so that’s not edibles, those are the ornamentals.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Right.

STERMAN: Once – I always wait until we get – you know that day sometime in October where you wake up in the morning and you go, oh, it’s fall, though it seemed like that most of the summer, frankly. But, you know, there’s always that one day you go, oh, summer’s over, now it feels like fall. That’s the day after that.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.

STERMAN: After that. It’s when the air cools.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve been saying to people do not plant right now…


CAVANAUGH: …because it’s too hot and…

STERMAN: Too hot and dry.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what if you plant towards the end of the week and we get another hot spell next week. What do you do for your plants to survive a really hot, dry spell like this?

STERMAN: You talking about new plants or plants that are already in the ground?


STERMAN: Well, if they’re mature plants and you’ve watered adequately, they’re adequately hydrated in general, they should survive. The worst that’ll happen is they might drop some leaves but then they’ll come back. If they’re new plants—that’s why I always say wait until the weather changes because you run less of a risk of having that happen. Though, of course, we get Santa Anas through the fall. What you want to do then is you want – when you hear that that weather’s coming, you might want to go and soak the root ball an additional time or, for example, last night I – all my garden is drip. I ran the water last night in the cool hours. Don’t do it with overhead. But I did it at night with my drip, and that way I know that at least there’s enough water in the ground that as the water’s evaporating, being pulled up through the plants, they’re not going to just be so stressed that they’re all going to wilt. So it’s something that you learn as you have experience. Chances are you won’t lose a plant, unless it’s a brand new plant, to the heat, but if you do, you’ve still got plenty of time to put another one in.

CAVANAUGH: Right. That’s always…

STERMAN: And that’s always that, you know, it’s like, oh, I lost that. Oh, darn. Gee, I’ll try something different.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Yeah, because you have that time to work with.

STERMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Rick is calling from Miramar. Good morning, Rick. Welcome to These Days.

RICK (Caller, Miramar): Oh, yes, good morning. Thanks for taking my call. A few minutes ago you talked to a lady that had a gopher problem in her backyard, a gopher was eating up her plants. And I have a place out in Ramona and I’ve had gopher, ground squirrel problems for a while, you know, and the two solutions that I’ve found that work really well is, if you’re in the country or you live on a canyon, get yourself a barn owl and the barn owl will come and live in them and the barn owl will take out like 1,000 rodents a year, just one road owl – uh, barn owl, and that’ll keep the population down. The other solution is to put up a rodent barrier around your planting area. You have to dig down about a foot. You have to trench down like a foot and put some real heavy close-weave wire down, and you have to extend the barrier up about at least a foot or 18 inches. And I’ve found that – that that’s solves the problem.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate it. Thank you, Rick.

STERMAN: You know, those are really good suggestions, Rick, and I – they just didn’t occur to me. But you’re right. A barn owl is fabulous. And if anybody has – I’m sure lots of your listeners have found the owl cam? Do you know about this, Maureen?


STERMAN: The folks in San Marcos who’ve been broadcasting the whole process of having barn owls and the two different clutches of eggs they’ve laid and the seedlings, not seedlings, the birds…


STERMAN: The birds that they’ve raised. But that’s great and – but it isn’t an immediate kind of solution, so you put up an owl box. It has to be really high up in the air and on a pole or on a tree. And, hopefully – See, there’s no guarantee, that’s the thing. You know, you put up a box and you hope you get a barn owl in there. I put up a box a couple of years ago and we weren’t fortunate enough to have an owl but my husband and I were actually talking again about doing it because we’ve been watching that owl cam. And the barrier—it’s a really good idea—use hardware cloth. If you have a really big space, it’s not that easy to do but if you have just a small space or a, you know, reasonable sized space, yes, you can put up a barrier but it won’t – the only thing is, if she has the gopher in her yard already, what it will do is capture the gopher in the yard, so she still has to get rid of the gopher she has even if she puts in that barrier.


STERMAN: It’ll just keep others from coming in.

CAVANAUGH: Now we were lucky enough to speak with the owner of that barn owl cam…

STERMAN: Were you?

CAVANAUGH: Yes. On the show a little while ago, and that was really great. But that’s really – isn’t it more a solution for a very rural area?

STERMAN: No, actually it isn’t.


STERMAN: No. In fact, I guess – I’m trying to think of what you would call where I am. It’s sort of suburbs. And we have lots of trees. And barn owls want to be up high, and they’re – actually barn owls are in lots of areas of San Diego. And you just have to have the right conditions for them or create the right conditions for them and one of the ways to do that would be by putting up an owl box.

CAVANAUGH: And would they also sort of eat cats and dogs and things of that nature? Small?

STERMAN: Yeah, little ones.


STERMAN: They actually could carry one away. But, you know, like a kitten or something like that. But – Let’s just leave it at that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right, then. So plusses and minuses…


CAVANAUGH: …of the barn owl.


CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Victoria’s calling us from University Heights. Good morning, Victoria. Welcome to These Days.

VICTORIA (Caller, University Heights): Oh, thank you so much for taking my call. Yes, I was – and I just want to make a note. I’m really happy you’re having this show. My first reaction was since the U-T doesn’t have the home section anymore, which I really miss, I really appreciate you being on the air. And my question is, I was at a local nursery and I noticed that they had some avocado plants on sale. And then you mentioned avocadoes a little while ago and so I was just wondering, is it ever possible to grow an avocado in a container? Because I live in a little bungalow and I basically wouldn’t be able to put it in the ground.

STERMAN: This is a really good question. Before I answer that, let me just tell you that the garden reporting in the U-T, though reduced, is still there, it’s in the – just been moved to the Smart Living section. And there’s a good possibility that pretty soon I may be writing a regular column for them again, which I would love to do. So, anyway, the avocado in a pot. Generally, avocadoes have to be in the ground in order to fruit. They want – they have pretty extensive rooting – root systems and their surface roots, they need lots of water, they need a lot of fertilizer, and you can grow an avocado tree in a pot but the chances of it fruiting are pretty much slim to none.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right.

STERMAN: All right?

CAVANAUGH: So that’s – you can – I don’t really understand that. What do you mean fruiting? As opposed to you…


CAVANAUGH: …can grow the avocado.

STERMAN: No, no, no, no. The tree itself will live in a pot.


STERMAN: Okay. It’ll live.

CAVANAUGH: But you’re not going to get any fruit.

STERMAN: Yes, you’re – it’s not going to flower and it’s not going to fruit.

CAVANAUGH: So, there – if you wanted to grow avocadoes to eat, there’s no point in doing it.

STERMAN: Exactly.


STERMAN: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Sometimes…


CAVANAUGH: …you have to spell it out for me, Nan.

STERMAN: I’m sorry. Yes, the tree will grow but, no, it will not make avocadoes in a pot.



CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s go to Sharon in Spring Valley. Hi, Sharon. Welcome to These Days.

SHARON (Caller, Spring Valley): Oh, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I wonder if you could deal with mealy bugs. I see them outside on my – in my garden, which is a succulent and cactus garden, occasionally and they’ve gotten inside and I’ve been fighting them for three years and I’m getting nowhere.

STERMAN: In the house, you mean?


STERMAN: What are they on?

SHARON: Oh, gosh, I have all kinds of plants. I have a ponytail palm and I have some – they’re on almost everything. They’re on the orchids, they’re on the money tree, they’re – you name it.

STERMAN: Yeah. Okay. See, this is what happens, once you get them, they spread from plant to plant.

SHARON: Right.

STERMAN: You know what I would do, is I would take your plants and put them outside in a sheltered area until the weather gets to the temperature where you feel like you really need to bring them back inside. But ponytail palm can live outside, some orchids can, too. But if they’re outside, then the natural predators have access to them. The problem is when you have them in the house, there’s no natural predators. You are the predator. And you – you know, what happens is that the babies are down in the crotches of the leaves and you really can’t see them unless you have, you know, a magnifying glass. So getting rid of them once they’re in the house is really, really challenging. I’d put them outside. And if you want to do like a insecticidal soap drench on them, that would be a good thing to do outside.


STERMAN: Yeah, and then leave them outside for as long as you can. Bring them inside only when you have to. I mean, I understand that they’re in the house to be decorative, too, but if they die they’re – you’re not going to have them anyway.

CAVANAUGH: And until this problem is solved…


CAVANAUGH: …you could leave them outside.

STERMAN: Yes. And I would bring them in one by one as you’re sure you’ve gotten rid of the mealy bugs. But not all at once because just because you might eliminate them on one plant doesn’t mean they’re eliminated on the others.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for the call, Sharon. I want to ask you, Nan, because there were a couple of people when I told them that you were coming in, had some questions for you. And one of them is about pruning.

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: When should you start cutting back your fruit trees?

STERMAN: Well, this is a great question, Maureen, because the tradition was that we pruned fruit trees when – you’re talking about dormant – fruit trees that go dormant like peaches and apples and nectarines and things like that.


STERMAN: Traditionally, we would prune them in the winter when the leaves have fallen but a number of years ago I started paying attention to a whole different method of summer pruning and summer pruning is really cool because if you summer prune trees, you can actually—fruit trees especially—you can make them pretty darn small. And what that does is it puts all the fruit where you can reach it.


STERMAN: Right? Why have a plum tree that produces, you know, a hundred pounds or whatever of plums when they’re 12 feet above your head? But if you do that summer pruning, what you’re doing is you’re cutting off some of the new growth and you’re also cutting off some, you know, leaves so that your plant isn’t going to make as much energy, it won’t be able to grow as large, which is fine for our backyard fruit trees. You know, growers don’t want that but they’re going for maximum fruit. So summer pruning is a great thing to do and you can find directions for doing that online. Dave Wilson Nursery, if you go online to Dave Wilson Nursery, I think it’s, there’s a section for home gardeners and look for a topic called Backyard Orchard Culture, which has all kinds of suggestions for planting fruit trees really close together so you get more in a small space. And that’s all part of the same – you don’t have to plant them close together but if you do plant them close together, then you do have to keep them small and so there’s directions there for summer pruning.

CAVANAUGH: Now even though the weather is warm, is it too late to do it now?

STERMAN: You can – No, no, no, you can prune – that’s prune – essentially what it does is it allows us to prune anytime of year, right.


STERMAN: So we’re – instead of just doing it when the trees are dormant. I don’t want you to prune fruit trees in the spring when they’re developing buds or when they’re in flower because then you’re going to lose the fruit. So wait until after they’ve fruited, anytime between after they’ve fruited and before they start putting out new leaves in the spring.

CAVANAUGH: How about grape vines?

STERMAN: Oh, those absolutely have to be pruned. I’ve made the mistake of not pruning them. Do you know grape vines can grow a foot in a week?

CAVANAUGH: No, I didn’t know that.

STERMAN: Yeah. I mean, they get – they grow really fast. They’re really vigorous, so you have to prune your grape vines and you prune them – you can start now and prune them while they’re dormant. If you wait until they put out new leaves, when you cut them it’s really interesting. They’re so full of sap that’s flowing, they will drip. So you want to prune them anytime between now and before they start putting out new leaves in the spring.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And perennials.

STERMAN: Well, perennials don’t have to be pruned necessarily. The only reason you would prune perennials, if they’re perennials where you want to cut the dead flower heads off, that’s fine. But you only prune then to – You always want to prune to a – just above a pair of leaves. You never want to leave a stub of stem. There’s nothing to feed that stub, right. The leaves make the food and they send it down, so you don’t want to leave a stub. So you prune to right just above a pair of leaves, so you can prune off the dead flowers or if you have a perennial that’s gotten rangy maybe, you can prune it back by about a third. Again, always prune to just above a pair of leaves. I encourage people not to plant perennials or anything else in a space that’s so small that you have to prune them so that they don’t overrun something next to it. If you’ve got that situation, you need to edit plants and get rid of some of the plants. That’s not a viable situation.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with gardening expert Nan Sterman, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Jung calling from Mission Valley. Good morning, Jung. Welcome to These Days.

JUNG (Caller, Mission Valley): Hello.


JUNG: My question is we have a small garden and – organic garden. Last year, we had plenty the kale and we lost twice everything to – rabbits came and ate them all. So this year he planted and he bought some plastic wire, three feet high, but we haven’t installed it yet. And I was saying maybe that’s just too short, maybe she can just jump over. So I’m just wondering if, you know, how high it should be or what else we should do to…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Got it. Thank you, Jung, thank you for the question.

STERMAN: Okay, well, you’re close to the solution but not quite. What you need to do is you need to get not plastic wire but real wire like hardware cloth that has maybe an inch square mesh so it’s dense so the rabbits can’t get through. Three feet’s probably high enough but it also has to go about a foot below the ground because rabbits will burrow underneath. Okay, so you want to trench around the area where your garden is and get, you know, wire that’s maybe four feet tall so that a foot of it can go beneath the ground and three feet above, and that will probably solve your problem. Also pay attention to the ends and how you connect the ends together if you’re going to do a gate or hook-and-eye or something like that. You want to make sure you overlap there so there’s no spaces for the rabbits to get through because especially baby rabbits or really tiny ones, they can squeeze through an amazingly small space.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue to take your calls and your gardening questions at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We are talking about San Diego’s autumn gardening. And Nan Sterman is my guest. She’s garden journalist, author of “Waterwise Plants for the Southwest” and “California Gardener’s Guide, Vol. II.” We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. There are a lot of people who want to get their questions answered, so let’s go to the phones immediately. Ken is calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Ken, and welcome to These Days.

KEN (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. I have a potted Japanese maple in my backyard and I think it’s getting a little crowded in the pot. Is this a good – can I – First of all, can I take it out and trim the roots back? And if I do, is this a good time of the year to do that?

STERMAN: That’s a great question. You can do that and I would wait until the Japanese maple loses its leaves, which should be in another month or two, and then do it when it’s dormant. And put it into a, you know, the next size up pot.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Ken. Thanks for the call. You know, we’re always talking, Nan, about planting low-water, climate appropriate plants for San Diego. So when people see those plants coming into flower, coming into bloom this time of year…

STERMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …what plants are they seeing?

STERMAN: Oh, they’re seeing…

CAVANAUGH: For those among us who are garden challenged.

STERMAN: Garden challenged.


STERMAN: It’s green deprived.


STERMAN: You are going to see a lot of the Australian and South African plants coming into bloom now. So the Grevilleas, which don’t have a common name but they have these clusters of kind of spidery flowers that hummingbirds absolutely adore. And they are all kinds of shrubs, tall shrubs, low shrubs…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, uh-huh?

STERMAN: Tall shrubs, low shrubs, ground cover shrubs. Then you’re also going to see, for example, the cone bushes, which don’t – they flower but their flowers are a cone and it’s mostly the foliage that’s really interesting colored.


STERMAN: There’s a number of things that are going to start flowering right along this time as we cool down.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, that – I just love – It’s so colorful and there’s so many things that do bloom around town and I just don’t know what they are. So I’m going to have to start identifying them. Let’s – We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Rick is calling from the College area. Good morning, Rick. Welcome to These Days.

RICK (Caller, San Diego College Area): Hi, how you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Great, thank you.

RICK: I have apple trees and they’ve already fruited and in August they started blooming again so now I have some golf-size – golf ball sized ones and then a couple of them are also blooming right now. And they did it once a long time ago but it is because of the weather? Or have I stressed them out so much that they’re just trying to make fruit before they die or something?

STERMAN: How do the leaves look?

RICK: They look great.

STERMAN: Okay, well, then you didn’t stress them out too much. But that – But plants do do that so, you know, that’s not an unreasonable question. You have a little – you have plants that have seasonal confusion.

RICK: Yeah.

STERMAN: So just baby them along and talk to them and reassure them that everything’s fine, it’s going to be fine. And if the fruit ripens and it tastes good, go ahead and eat it. And if the flowers don’t amount to anything, don’t worry about it. You’ll – It’ll do fine next year.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. Jennifer’s calling us from Encinitas. Good morning, Jennifer. Welcome to These Days.

JENNIFER (Caller, Encinitas): Hi. Thank you. Nan, I was wondering what are some of your favorite nurseries to visit for inspiration.

STERMAN: Ooh… That’s a great question. How long do we have? I go to nurseries and I go to botanic gardens. Balboa Park is great inspiration. The Water Conservation Garden down at Cuyamaca College is great inspiration. Quail – I’m sorry. San Diego Botannical Garden, which is Quail, is great inspiration. And then I love to go to the independent nurseries so I’ll go to Walter Andersen, I’ll – down by Old Town. I’ll go to Mission Hills up in Mission Hills. Barrels and Branches in Encinitas, Cedros Gardens in Solana Beach. Anderson La Costa up in Leucadia area. Inland, there’s a whole bunch of nurseries inland. There’s Kniffing’s down in the south county. I look for the little, odd nurseries. You know, they’re – that used to be the standard. And now what I’m heartened by is that more and more people are shopping those nurseries because they realize that, A, they have more variety and interesting plants, and B, the people who work there actually know what they’re talking about.

CAVANAUGH: And when you talk about inspiration going to these places, what kind of inspiration? In the types of plants that you might want to experiment with or with the combinations, the way the garden looks?

STERMAN: A lot of these nurseries have starter planting gardens so, for example, Buena Creek out in San Marcos has several acres of demonstration gardens so if you really want to see what a plant’s going to look like, not just how it looks in the pot, because that’s deceiving. You know, all plants in pots are about eight inches tall and, you know, eight inches wide. But when you put them in the ground and they start growing and taking on their natural shapes, that’s when you begin to understand how to put them together, which are going to get tall, which are going to stay small, which are wide, which are narrow, which ones have interesting leaves, which have interesting flowers. Because we do – we design for much more than flowers. Flowers are kind of the icing on the cake. So there’s some great places to go see interesting garden displays and they’re places where you can also buy the plants.

CAVANAUGH: Larry is calling us from Poway. Good morning, Larry, and welcome to These Days.

LARRY (Caller, Poway): Hello. I had four problems but you get one first. My Bacon avocados are losing all of their fruit and its weighing two to four ounces when it falls. Two trees, 98% fruit fall it seems for the last month.

STERMAN: What’s your watering regimen?

LARRY: I’m watering with drip fairly heavily, about 25, 30 gallons a day.

STERMAN: Is this how you’ve watered in the past? And have you has success with this with…

LARRY: Yes, I have.

STERMAN: And this year something’s different.

LARRY: This year, the trees are very, very healthy, and they just all pop – the stems all pop loose. Basically, they neck down either halfway down the stem of the fruit or right at the fruit itself, it just necks down and falls off.

STERMAN: But the tree looks okay and the leaves are okay.

LARRY: The tree looks really good, yes.

STERMAN: Did you fertilize?

LARRY: Yes, with urea and some Triple 15 mixed together. Following instructions from Grangetto's.

STERMAN: Okay, I’m thinking. I think what I’m going to do is I’m going to refer you to the Master Gardener Hotline and have you – or call the – Let me think for a second. Who is the Cooperative Extension agent for citrus and avocado? I don’t recall. But call the Master Gardener Hotline and ask to be – ask them to talk with the Cooperative Extension agent that deals with avocados. Their number is 858-694-2860. That’s a really specific kind of question and I don’t have the resources with me to be able to answer it. Or you can e-mail me at info@plantsoup and I will do the research necessary to find out what the problem is.

CAVANAUGH: Hey, Larry, thank you so much for the call. He stumped us with the one question he had for us.

STERMAN: Yeah. Darn, I wanted to redeem myself. You didn’t let him do the ‘nother one – the next one.

CAVANAUGH: Sharon is calling from Lakeside. Good morning, Sharon. Welcome to These Days.

SHARON: Good morning. It’s a hot one out here. It’s 106 out on my back porch right now.



SHARON: Anyways, my question is I have some agaves in pots and some barrel cactus and some other kinds of cactus and I would like to know if this is a good time of year to plant them…


SHARON: …in the ground from the pots.

STERMAN: Sure, sure. Not when it’s 106. Only because it won’t be pleasant.

SHARON: No, I’m not even going outside, are you kidding?

STERMAN: Yeah, yeah. I was going to say only because it won’t be pleasant for you. But, yeah, absolutely this is a good time of year to plant them and make sure that you’re going to put them into soil that’s pretty well draining, it’s not too heavy clay because that’s the only thing that really would be a problem is if they stay too wet then they may rot. But, yeah, go ahead and do it. Have a good time. Wear long sleeves and gloves, if they’re cactus.

SHARON: Oh, absolutely. And the agaves now, I have been keeping them in the shade. Is it okay to take them out now and put them, you know, like on a hillside in the sun?

STERMAN: It’s okay, but you have to acclimate them so I would start moving them. Do you have a place that’s less shady.

SHARON: No, I – Well…

STERMAN: Okay, so here’s the other way to do it, is you start putting them in the sun an hour a day, two hours a day, three hours a day, four hours a day, you know, gradually doing it.

SHARON: Uh-huh.

STERMAN: Not too slow but…

SHARON: Uh-huh.

STERMAN: …slowly acclimating them. Start doing it in the morning because the sun’s less intense in the morning.

SHARON: Right.

STERMAN: Or you could leave them out half the morning. And give them, you know, maybe a month to acclimate to full sun. Not that they’ll die, it’s just that they’ll probably get bleached out otherwise…

SHARON: Right.

STERMAN: …because they’ll just get blasted by that much light.


STERMAN: And so they’ll have leaves that won’t look so good for a couple of years until they grow enough to replace those blasted leaves.

SHARON: I see. And all agaves can be in the sun?

STERMAN: Pretty – I’ve never seen an agave that couldn’t handle sun.

SHARON: Okay, that’s good to know.


CAVANAUGH: Stay cool, Sharon. Thanks for the call. Do you situate – Do you recommend situating your garden a little different in the fall because the days are shorter?

STERMAN: What do you mean by situate it?

CAVANAUGH: You know, because certain plants are going to get less sunlight because…


CAVANAUGH: …the days are shorter. No?

STERMAN: No, no. No, plants – The thing is, if you’re going to think ahead of time, if you’re going to put a plant in the ground, you need to know that that spot is going to get – some places like next to a building, a spot that’ll get full sun in the summer and full shade in the winter or the other way around. So you choose a different plant for those kinds of conditions.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. I understand. Valerie’s calling from El Cajon. Good morning, Valerie, and welcome to These Days.

VALERIE: Good morning. I wonder if anybody has any solutions for grasshoppers in their garden? I’ve had two years now the grasshoppers have just decimated my basil down to the stalk and they eat my roses. And between me and my cats, we do a good job on them but I’m not having any luck.

STERMAN: Hmm, I haven’t heard anybody talking about grasshopper problems yet this year. You know what my favorite thing to do is, I go out with my pruning shears and cut them in half.

VALERIE: Yeah, and the cats tear them apart but…


VALERIE: …they’re more – I mean, they hide.

STERMAN: I have them but I don’t have them that bad. There is some – I don’t remember the name of it, there is some stuff that you can sprinkle onto your plants that is supposed to deter them. But I don’t know if there’s anything that really, you know, keeps them away. You know, that’s – Again, why don’t you send me an e-mail.


STERMAN: Info@plantsoup. Let me do a little research on that and see what I can come up with for you. But you’re – what you really want to do is keep them away from the garden, not kill them once they’re there, right?

VALERIE: I will kill them if they’re here.

STERMAN: Yeah, okay. Okay. Okay. But…

CAVANAUGH: Valerie’s fierce.

STERMAN: Yeah, it’s good, Valerie. You might have a friend come over and, you know, you can all go at it at once.

VALERIE: It’s a little disgusting.

STERMAN: Well, the cats like it, though. You just have to buy cat food for awhile.

VALERIE: Yes, they do. Yeah. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Valerie. Mercy is calling from Coronado. Good morning, Mercy. Welcome to These Days.

MERCY (Caller, Coronado): Hi. I have a question about my grass. My – Can you hear me?


CAVANAUGH: Yes, certainly.

MERCY: My grass was just fine for years and this year I am getting huge patches of grass that’s just dying out. It looks like it – I thought at first it wasn’t getting enough water but it is being watered. So I can’t figure out what is the matter with this.

STERMAN: Do you know what kind of grass you have?

MERCY: Oh, gosh, it’s kind of a mixture.


MERCY: I really don’t know.

STERMAN: You know what happens sometimes is that grasses develop fungus. It’s in the neighborhood and it lands in your lawn and it starts to, you know, gives you a brown patch and you think that it means there’s not enough water so you water more which, of course, exacerbates the problem.

CAVANAUGH: Increases the fungus.

STERMAN: Exactly. So that could be what’s going on with your garden. I would actually cut back on the watering a little bit and see what happens with that, and if it persists, go to the nursery and tell them you want something to treat the fungus in your – in your lawn.

MERCY: Are there grass spongicides? Or…?

STERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

MERCY: There are?


MERCY: All rightie. But first just do – cut back on the watering and see how that does.

STERMAN: I would – Yes, cut back on the water a little bit, see if that helps. And you might do both at the same time.

MERCY: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: Mercy, thanks for the call. I want to ask you finally, Nan, what do you look forward to in your garden in the fall?

STERMAN: Oh, gosh, Maureen, I look forward to when the rains start and all the colors just get totally enhanced because I get bloom all through those cool months. The aloes bloom in January and December, and I get the big coral flowers. It’s – What really excites me is the cycle. You know, people say we don’t have seasons here. We do have seasons here, they’re just much more subtle and you have to pay attention to them. And I love watching the progression and, you know, feeling that change in the air and knowing that fall is coming and I can start planting different things or other plants are going to bloom. And I always – this – When that temperature change comes is when my spring bulbs start to poke out of the ground and I always know that’s going to happen and it’s like clockwork. It’s the security of it but also the pattern of it and that repetition and the cycle of life, that really – that excites me. Ooh…

CAVANAUGH: That’s wonderful. And just because it’s such a hot, dry day today, just briefly again, people should just really monitor from day-to-day when it’s like this, when the…


CAVANAUGH: …temperatures get so high…


CAVANAUGH: …when it comes to watering, right?

STERMAN: Yeah. And you want to increase the frequency of your watering, okay, but you don’t – you want to make sure you don’t do it in the heat of the day. Especially if you have overhead sprinklers, do not water in the heat of the day.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.

STERMAN: My pleasure. I love to do this.

CAVANAUGH: It’s been so much fun. Nan Sterman is garden journalist, author of “California Gardener’s Guide, Vol. II,” “Waterwise Plants for the Southwest,” and she’s featured in the Waterwise Gardening segment of “Growing a Greener World,” which you can see online at She also answers the Water Conservation Garden’s Water Smart Pipeline on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. The hotline number is 866-962-7021. And she does a whole lot more, too. Thank you, Nan.

STERMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: If you have another comment, you can go online, Thank you for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.