KPBS gardening-show host Nan Sterman talks hot colors, dry gardens at La Jolla Community Center


Did you know that bottlebrush trees come in colors other than red? They also bloom in pink and green.

That was just one of the tidbits of plant knowledge provided by Nan Sterman, host of the long-running KPBS-TV gardening show, “A Growing Passion,” during her Aug. 3, 2019 presentation at La Jolla Community Center.

A crowd of about 75 gardeners gathered to hear Sterman talk about her latest book, “Hot Color, Dry Garden: Inspiring Designs and Vibrant Plants for the Waterwise Gardener,” and to buy drought-tolerant plants from local vendors. The book is a go-to guide for gardeners in the Southwest, where dry weather can pose a challenge when deciding what to grow.

Sterman began by pointing out that San Diego has a Mediterranean climate, not a desert climate as many people think.

“Our climate is a dry, subtropical climate,” she explained. “The pattern is: we have these beautiful long, dry summers where we get little rain. Our rainfall happens in fall, winter and early spring,” unlike the Midwest or the Northeast regions of the country, where it rains often during the summer. “We have really, really different gardening conditions than those other regions,” she said.

The author/TV host’s focus was how to create home gardens with lots of color in low-water conditions.

“Water-wise gardens don’t have to be drab,” she emphasized. “They can be lush and colorful. If we want to keep gardening, we must revolutionize our plant choices and garden practices.”

In her slide presentation, she highlighted inspiring and brilliant gardens filled with water-smart plants from all over the world, and she provided tips on how to incorporate color, structure and texture in gardens.

Sterman pointed out that no plants bloom year-round, but one can plant a garden where something is always blooming, if they plan carefully and do some homework first. The most prolific plants have well-drained soil and drip irrigation. Sterman cautioned against overwatering drought tolerant plants in summer, because warm wet soils are susceptible to a soil fungus that can kill the plants. Some South African and Australian plants are very sensitive to phosphorus so fertilizing those plants can kill them, too.

Sterman also said that despite the fact that San Diego got a good amount of rainfall this year, “we are still in a drought despite all the rain.

“And San Diego is only going to get dryer,” she warned, because of climate change, which she views as an opportunity to educate people on the whole concept of water-wise gardening. “I actually don’t see climate change as disheartening, because we’re really defining a whole new vernacular for our gardens and our landscapes. We want beautiful lush water-wise gardens that work for our region. And San Diego is, in many ways, leading the way.”

If local gardens are to flourish, Sterman said, people must change their planting habits.

Because San Diego boasts clear, bright skies, Sterman recommends planting bright-colored foliage. She also mentioned that the color of one’s house is a factor in planning their garden. She said she often asks her clients if they are willing to change their house color before the garden is planted. “That way, you can choose a garden color palette that goes with the house as a background. Earth tone house colors -- terra cotta, latte, sage green -- work very well as backdrops for all garden plants.”

She said she painted her own house a shade of terra cotta so the color of the plants in her garden would pop: “I walk the walk. And just a touch of contrasting color really brings things alive.”

Reds, yellows and blues work well in most San Diego gardens, she stated; however, a “chaotic” pot color selection can ruin a well-planted garden or plant setting. “I’m going to bet that the reason your pot collection is so chaotic has nothing to do with the plants. It has to do with the fact that they’re all different. Pots have to have a cohesion (to look appealing).”

She suggests either picking one color of pot in variations or picking the same-shaped pot in different sizes and colors.

Sterman stressed that contrasting colors stimulate the vision of the observer. And although hot colors can make a bold statement, cool colors in more muted tones can be a soothing combination. Her message was not to be afraid of using color in a home garden, and to add accessories that complement the overall image — think glass slabs or globes, fountains or ponds, and art pieces.

Nan Sterman is a garden designer, author, botanist and award-winning garden communicator dedicated to the transformation of planted landscapes from overly thirsty and resource intensive to climate appropriate and sustainable. She has worked towards this goal since the 1970s when she was involved in the first wave of the sustainability movement. Her initial training was at the Integral Urban House, a demonstration retrofit Victorian home in Berkeley. She went on to earn a botany degree from Duke University, a Masters in biology from UC Santa Barbara, and a Masters in instructional design from San Diego State University. Her book, “Hot Color, Dry Garden: Inspiring Designs and Vibrant Plants for the Waterwise Gardener,” is available in book shops and online. To learn more, visit