'A Bona Fide Plant Fanatic'
Friday, May 22, 2009 | If you want a good tour guide for the Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, call Nan Sterman. She’s a self-described garden journalist, gardening expert, coach, designer and consultant. She’s everywhere. She teaches a class at the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College called Bye Bye Grass, spends two days a week offering low-water landscaping tips on a phone hotline and writes about sustainable gardening.
We strolled through the gardens in her town and talked about removing grass, San Diego’s irrigation habit, what’s wrong with the airport’s birds of paradise and what it would take for ice plant to look delicious enough to eat.
Do you have a favorite plant?
Ha! Not a chance. One? Oh god, that’s like what kind of ice cream do you like the best. I couldn’t tell you. It changes. See that thing right there, that red tree? It’s called flame tree. When that blooms, I think it’s just the most awesome thing in the world. When it stops blooming and the leaves come out, it’s nice, but it’s not like: ‘Wow! Look at that!’ Something else will catch my attention. That’s what I think is so cool about gardening. Things change in a predictable cycle. So my seasons are the gardening season because I know when a certain weed shows up that we’re in spring. I’m a bona fide plant fanatic.
How about a least favorite?
It’s a big group. Ivy is in there. Asparagus fern, pampas grass, bottlebrush. Then there are some things I decide I can’t stand, but they come around and I decide it’s not so bad. Bougainvillea I’m starting to like again, and I despised it for years. You get so saturated by something, it’s like: ‘I can’t stand it any more, get it out of my sight.’
It’s a big green mass. Rats love it. Snails love it. It’s very aggressive. Getting rid of it is really hard. Don’t like that.
Is sustainable garden an oxymoron here?
Not at all. It is something you have to figure out how to do, it’s not something we automatically know how to do. Most gardening is this (she points at her heart). Sustainable gardening is a little of this, too (she points at her head). We don’t get very much rain. The reason we have to water plants in spring and summer is because we bring in plants from other areas that can’t survive that period.
Which is why I’ve questioned CalTrans about why they’re planting any kind of plant here that necessitates roadside irrigation.
I’m with you. Any plant you plant isn’t going to be drought-tolerant for its first year or two. You have to water until they’re established. But our roadsides should be planted with authentic, California plants. Our roadsides need to reflect a place. Same with the airport. People who arrive in San Diego, the first thing they see is …
The birds of paradise.
Yeah. Tropical climate! But we’re not. Wouldn’t it be nice if the airport were landscaped to the sense of place of who we are?
And ice plant?
Ice plant is not native here. It’s from South Africa. The plants we call ice plant — it’s not a specific plant — I don’t have a problem with those except when you plant a whole hillside with them. It never looks good. This could be called ice plant (she points at a low-growing green plant). I don’t even know where that term came from. I could see that that would look like ice to somebody.
It looks like some kind of gummy candy. I kind of want to eat it.
You want to eat it?
It looks delicious.
That’s your generation. If it looked like Milk Duds, I’d agree with you.
How long have you been teaching classes about grass removal?
More than a year ago. Starting last spring, it was standing room only. The first year, it was free because the cost was subsidized by I think the county water authority. We had tons of people. Now it’s fee-based. We have a lot of people but not as many. If it was subsidized we could reach many, many, many more people than we’re reaching now.
Any trend in the way people are landscaping?
I answer this phone line. It’s a lot of questions about how to get rid of grass, what do I plant in its place, how do I deal with my HOA. I get that a lot. Tons. A woman was telling me this morning about how her HOA is a fiefdom. And if you don’t do everything right, you’re ostracized. She said: Can’t we have different opinions?
People want to know how much they should water. It’s an impossible question to answer. You can’t say five minutes three times a week.
Because it depends on where they live and what type of plants they have.
And what the soil is, how close they are to the coast, their irrigation system, how efficient it is. The point of irrigating is not to wet the soil. It’s to give roots enough water to replace the amount lost into the atmosphere by the plant. You need to figure out how long it takes to get the roots wet.
Give me good lessons for people who want to tear their lawn out.
Patience. Persistence. Know the type of grass you have, whether it has short roots or whether it’s Bermuda grass. That’s the hard one to get rid of. It’ll reproduce from a tiny root. It’s so successful that it’s a pest. If you have that, I don’t know of an organic way to get rid of it.
You’ve said to use Round-Up.
Yes. If you have those other grasses, with fine roots, you can dig it out, or spread mulch over it and smother it. You can cover it with plastic in summer and cook it to death. That’ll take six-to-eight weeks.
Depends on how big your lawn is. If you smother it with mulch, that could take maybe two months to kill the grass. But it’ll be gone. It’s not a fast process. Gardening is not fast. Patience and persistence are really important.