Passion for gardening leads to livelihood for Encinitas woman


As a girl growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Nan Sterman learned to garden with her grandfather and mother.

“I just always loved the idea of putting seed in the ground and something coming up,” said the Encinitas resident.

In 2013, she planted a different kind of seed, launching a gardening show on KPBS, called “A Growing Passion,” which has been picked up for a third season, which begins next April.

The half-hour show, which she produces with her partner, Marianne Gerdes, also an Encinitas resident, airs on Thursday nights and repeats on Saturday mornings on KPBS. It covers a variety of topics, from chaparral and native plants, to food justice and water-wise landscaping. Future episodes will focus on such subjects as insects and growing citrus.

Sterman, who hosts the show, relies on both her passion for sustainable, water-wise gardening in Southern California’s Mediterranean climate, and her educational background, which includes graduate degrees in marine botany and instructional design.

Her target audience is anyone interested in gardening, even those who don’t regularly take to the dirt with a hand trowel or hoe.

“Lots of people are armchair gardeners,” she said.

Her goal is to educate and entertain, while providing access to places that most people wouldn’t ordinarily see. In one episode, she starts at the horse barns at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, where used straw is gathered up, taken to a mushroom farm in Escondido and turned into compost. Once the farm is finished with the compost, it is given away free to the public for use in home gardens.

“I want to empower (viewers) to understand the world around us and how to work with it and make it work for them,” she said.

One of the keys to being a successful gardener — whether planting ornamental landscaping or a vegetable garden — is to understand the climate where the garden is located, said Sterman.

San Diego is one of five regions of the world with a Mediterranean climate, characterized by rain in the fall, winter and spring, followed by hot, dry summers. Also, our soil is lean, without a lot of nutrients.

Therefore, gardeners need to pick plants native to Southern California or Mediterranean areas that can tolerate the hot, dry summers and don’t need a lot of watering, Sterman said.

Vegetable gardens will require soil additives and regular watering, she said.

Sterman has published two books, “California Gardener’s Guide, Vol. II,” and “Waterwise Plants for the Southwest,” and her third book will be out next year. She has also written articles for a variety of publications, including Sunset, Better Homes and Gardens, the Los Angeles Times and Organic Gardening, and she writes a monthly column for UT San Diego.

Sterman’s research as a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara focused on phytoplankton, a one-celled seaweed that is the food source for a variety of marine life, from whales to jellyfish.

“I was studying their photosynthesis, how they make food from sunshine. That’s the essential function that powers our world,” she said.

In a lab across the hall, she met Curt Wittenberg, who was studying molecular biology. Wittenberg, who became her husband, conducts basic cancer research at the Scripps Research Center.

Sterman decided that she preferred communicating and teaching over lab research. She completed a fellowship with CNN’s science reporting unit before going back to school to earn a master’s degree in instructional design, which she used to create educational programs for different clients, including companies, museums, zoos and aquariums.

Along with her books, articles and TV show, Sterman also designs gardens for clients, and one of her designs was recently published in a book, “Groundbreaking Food Gardens,” by Niki Jabbour.

For more about Sterman and her show, “A Growing Passion,” visit Full episodes of the show can also be viewed on the website.