Create and Enjoy Community Garden Tours

Written by Nan Sterman

I tend to divide the world into two kinds of people: those who walk or drive down a street, oblivious to their surroundings, and those who notice everything, especially cool gardens.  The latter group often dreams of strolling through gates and peaking over fences into the lush backyards and courtyards of others. If you notice everything (and of course you do), spring or summer is your lucky season for garden tours, private or public. And, if you lack garden tours in your community, consider creating your own!

Types of Garden Tours

The gardens included on tours are often private but can also be public and include speakers.

Garden tours are usually organized or offered by garden clubs, garden societies, and or public gardens. Some benefit causes like school gardens or educational scholarships or community beautification projects.  Other tours, such as native garden tours, have an educational goal.  Still, other tours are just for the fun of it. I went on a first garden tour more than 25 years ago. Since then, I’ve attended dozens, held my own garden on tour many times, and designed tours for the public.

Starting a Community Garden Tour

If you are innovative and know lots of other enthusiastic gardeners, you can start your own garden tour in your community. That’s just what I did. In 2005, I was first asked to head a tour for my community, the Encinitas Garden Festival & Tour.  Then in 2010 an annual self-guided walking tour of over 23 private gardens (a school garden, a butterfly vivarium, and even a fire station garden) was created where I live! Thousands now attend the event, which also features a marketplace of vendors selling plants, pots, tools, and garden soil (like Black Gold®), and close to a dozen talks on gardening topics.

Our tour is unusual in its size and scope, but if you develop and host a tour annually, it will surely grow.  Typically, a new garden tour features four, five, or maybe ten gardens on a driving and walking tour. For the price of admission, attendees generally get a map of the garden locations and a description of what makes each one special, in addition to garden access. Garden hosts are at the ready to help attendees better understand the plants, development, and overall design scheme of their gardens. Each tour will be as unique as its community. As it grows, so can its offerings.

The Dos and Don’ts of Garden Tours

Whichever tour you choose to attend or host, here are some dos and don’ts:


  • Buy tickets ahead of time, so you know where to go, and so organizers can anticipate how many people to host.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.  (I’m always amazed to see high heels teetering down a garden path.)
  • Wear sunscreen, a hat, and bring a bottle of water — common sense.
  • If you have trouble walking or negotiating rough surfaces, inquire about the garden accessibility ahead of time. This is especially essential for people in wheelchairs and parents with children in strollers. Many private gardens are not designed for public access or ADA compatibility.
  • Get an estimate of how long it might take to visit the gardens, so you can plan your day.
  • With tours where there are just a few gardens but lots of people, expect some lines. Be patient. While you wait, strike up a conversation with the person next to you.  You may learn an interesting gardening tip or, at least, make a new friend.
  • Leave the dog at home. Fido may adore the walk but garden owners won’t be appreciative.
  • Bring a camera! Bring a camera! Bring a camera!  And a notebook.


  • Pick flowers, collect seeds, or take cuttings. Taking anything from a garden without permission is, well, stealing. If you see a plant you like, take a photo or note its name. Take that information to your local nursery.
  • Go into areas marked as being off-limits.  There is a reason they are marked that way.
  • Try to visit a garden that is not on the tour, even if it looks absolutely fascinating.
  • Criticize a garden. Their owners work hard to prepare for your visit.

Then once you enter each garden, take a good attitude and have a good time! After you complete your garden tour, your next step should be to go home and implement some of your new garden ideas using Black Gold®!


Plant a Kaleidoscope of South African Bulbs

Sparaxis (Image by KENPEI)

Written by Nan Sterman

I always caution gardeners in California and other hot, dry summer areas not to plant in summer. Plants just don’t adapt very well when it is so hot. Instead, it is better to plan in summer and plant in winter.

That said, there are a few groups of plants are best planted now, one of which is the South African bulbs. These plants adapt to their hot, dry native habitats by dropping their leaves and sleeping through summer. That means, that summer is the best time for bulb growers to dig them and ship them, whether to the store or to your door. In fact, mid-July to September is the only time you’ll find South African bulbs for sale on a large scale.

Which bulbs am I referring to? Glad you asked. There are dozens of South African bulbs that are beautiful, fantastic, easy garden plants. In frost-free climates, they can stay in the ground year-round, as long as they don’t get too much water in summer.

Their colors, shapes and sizes are fantastic. Plant them now, and you’ll have a kaleidoscope come spring. Here are a few to start with. They all prefer full sun, fairly well draining soil, are drought tolerant, and best planted now, while bulbs are dormant:

Watsonia fulgens (Image by Stan Shebs)

Bugle lily

Bugle lilies (Watsonia spp.) make large clumps of sword-shaped leaves, two to four feet tall. Flowers form on long, stalks, and typically in shades of orange, salmon, coral, clear pink, raspberry, or white. They make excellent cut flowers. These are wonderful pass-around plants, too. After the foliage fades in summer, dig up too large clumps and share your spares.

Harlequin flower

Harlequin flowers (Sparaxis  spp.) are smaller stand about a foot tall. Flower stalks are topped in single, star-shaped, almost cupped flowers in yellow, orange, or deep cherry, with a contrasting “flare” at the base of each petal. Once established, harlequin flower spread by seed as well as by making new bulbs. So, a few bulbs soon naturalize. They are easy to thin, but don’t throw away the spares. Share with a friend or plant elsewhere in the garden. Harlequin flowers bloom earlier than bugle lilies.

Gladiolus tristis (Image by Andrew Massyn)

Yellow Marsh Afrikaner

The yellow marsh Afrikaner (Gladiolus tristis) has narrow, almost grass-like leaves that stand about eighteen inches tall. Its yellow-ivory blooms are subtle but beautiful. They bloom as early as January in my San Diego area garden. In the late afternoon, they release a sweet scent lovelier than any perfume.

Sword lily 

Sword lily (Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus) has a larger stature than its cousin the Afrikaner. Its broad, green blades stand nearly two feet tall. Blooms are larger and hot pink. Not so hot to send you running for sunglasses, but hot enough to be the star attraction during their bloom. Sword lily bloom begins just as yellow marsh Afrikaner fades.

Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus (Image by Meneerke Bloem)

How to grow

Growing these bulbs could not be easier. Plant in 3’s, 5’s, or other odd number clusters. Dig a wide hole, deep enough for the bulb to sit a few inches below soil level. Allow several inches between bulbs, more for larger bulbs. Mix a small amount of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, a sprinkling of bone meal, and a handful of Black Gold Earthworm Castings into the hole. Place each bulb root side down. The flat end is the root end, the pointed end is the shoot end. Cover with soil and water to settle the dirt around the bulb.

As the days grow shorter in October you’ll notice bright green spears poking up through the ground. Those are your new bulbs reaching for the sky. They’ll keep growing until, one by one, each patch of bulbs bursts open in its amazing, colorful glory.

Once flowers fade, cut the stalks to the ground but not the foliage. While leaves are green, they make energy to store in the bulb in preparation for next year’s bloom. If you cut the leaves off before that process is done, your bulbs will likely die.

On-line Bulb Sources:

Raised Bed Gardening

raised bed garden black goldWritten by Nan Sterman

Raised bed gardening is productive. Imagine this: a vegetable garden that produces a huge amount of food in a small space, takes a minimum amount of water, requires very little maintenance, and brings the plants to you, rather than you having to bed down all the way to the ground.

Sound impossible?  Not at all if you garden in raised beds.

Raised beds are like giant, bottomless planter boxes filled with your favorite soil mixture.  The best beds are four feet wide – about right for an adult to reach the middle.  If you garden with children, 3 ½ feet better suits their shorter arms.

Bed length makes no difference, though the longer a bed, the more efficient use of space.

When my now teenage children were small, they each had their own four by four raised bed separated by a three-foot wide walkway.  Three feet accommodates most wheelbarrows (and wheelchairs).  Through childhood, they grew whatever they wanted in those boxes.  One year, my son planted everything purple – eggplants, asters, purple sugar cane, purple leaf lettuce.

The plants didn’t matter, as long as they were purple.

Eventually, their interest in the garden waned, so we replaced the two little beds with one big bed, the length of the two beds plus the walkway.  My new bed was eleven feet long and a more efficient use of the space.

Bed height is important.  I’ve seen four inches tall beds, but I prefer them 18 to 24 inches tall with a 2” x 4” wood cap to sit on and set my tools on as I work.  If you garden from a wheelchair, you might want something even taller.

While my beds are made of long-lasting redwood, in the school garden I manage, our beds are composite lumber made from recycled soda bottles and ground wooden palettes.  They look just like wood but they will last absolutely forever.  And we really liked the idea of using a recycled material.

Raised beds can be made of other materials as well; stone, rock, bricks, blocks, logs, broken concrete.  If your budget is small, make temporary beds from 25-foot long straw-filled mesh wattle. Irrigation and landscape supply stores sell them for less than $30 each.

Coil the wattle into a circle or, if the circle is too large, coil it into a two-tiered circle. Fill with soil and start planting.  The wattle will last for about a year, depending on your climate.

If you garden in gopher-ville or battle other root-loving critters, line the bottom of your beds with galvanized hardware cloth.  The tiny mesh protects delicate root crowns from gnawing teeth, but doesn’t prevent fine roots from growing deep into the soil.

Have your irrigation in place before you set raised beds in the ground.  Use drip irrigation to target water directly onto plants.  Drip is far thriftier than overhead spray. It also keeps water off plant leaves where it can cause fungal diseases like powdery mildew.

Finally, fill beds with a soil mixture that is at least 30% organic matter.  Skip the potting soil, it is great for pots but not for raised beds.

Add soil to within about four inches of the lip, then top with a two-inch thick layer of Black Gold Earthworm Castings and a healthy sprinkle of Black Gold Tomato and Vegetable Fertilizer. Use a hand trowel or small spade to turn the amendments into the soil.

After you plant, continue to apply a quality fertilizer throughout the growing season.  Annual vegetables, fruits, edible flowers, and herbs are all hungry feeders.

So, for the biggest most beautiful plants and produce, don’t forget the fertilizer. Organic fertilizers and amendments are always better for your plants and your soil than synthetic products.

Mulch your raised beds with old straw and you’ll soon have a wonderful harvest.
Every year, refresh the soil in your raised beds by adding a thick layer of an organic compost such as Black Gold Soil Conditioner or Black Gold Garden Compost Blend.


So Easy Seed Starting

Each spring of my childhood, I’d pester my mom for radish seeds to plant in the narrow, no-man’s land between our side yard fence and the wall outside my bedroom.  I’d rough up the hardened soil, sprinkle on the seeds, and splash with water.  Every day after school I’d check for green sprouts, and then for tiny, spicy red orbs.  With the level of care I gave them, I got maybe a radish or two from each packet.  I was thrilled.

Since then, I‘ve improved my springtime seed starting process  – and my success – significantly.    Rather than sprinkle a whole package of seed onto the soil, I start individual seeds in containers, then plant seedlings into the garden.  Here are my basics.

Containers:  Recycle six packs, four packs, yogurt containers, take out containers, etc.  Use larger containers for larger seeds.   Add drainage holes into the bottom if there aren’t any (always poke from the inside to outside). Disinfect containers by soaking for 30 minutes or more in a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach.

Labels:  Recycle plastic labels by disinfecting them with the containers. Or, use clean popsicle sticks. Before you plant, prepare labels with the plant type, variety, and planting date.  Use pencil.  It doesn’t fade or wash off. Put a label into each empty container.

Soil:  Seedlings are extremely susceptible to fungus so use fresh seed starting mix.  Seed starting mixes, such as Black Gold Seedling Mix are finely milled so even the tiniest seeds germinate easily.  Wet the seed mix to mud pie consistency, then fill each container to within ½ to 1/4″ inch of its top.

Seeds:  Your plants will be only as good as your quality of seeds, so don’t scrimp.  Read package labels to select the best size and variety and the best time of year to start the seeds.  You wouldn’t start tomatoes, for example, in November (unless maybe you live at the equator).

With smallish seeds like tomatoes, set three seeds onto the damp soil in each container or cell.  Space seeds as far from each other as possible in that area.  Poke larger seeds like cucumbers or squash down into the potting mix just a bit.

Add a layer of damp seed mix to fill the container.  Press it in firmly.

Top with a ¼” layer of dry perlite or construction sand (not playground sand).  This critical step staves off a common fungus that develops on the surface of damp soil and kills seedlings just after they sprout.

Place containers in a shallow pan filled with several inches of water. Once the water wicks up to the surface of the perlite or sand, remove the containers and let the excess water drain away.

Set containers in a bright spot away from direct sunlight, and where nighttime temperatures stay in the mid 50s F or warmer.  That’s the temperature range at which tomatoes, basil, zinnias and other summer treasures germinate.  To start summer seedlings earlier in the year, you’ll need a heat mat.  I’ll write about that in the future.

The trick now, is keeping the seed mix moist but not too wet.  I tent containers individually with lightweight plastic bags from the vegetable bins at the supermarket, or all together with a big plastic bag from the dry cleaners   A chopstick in the corners of each container keeps plastic from touching the soil.  Once all the seeds sprout, remove the plastic.

The hard part:  When seedlings have two sets of leaves, it is time to thin. Thinning may hurt, but you have to do it.  Your goal is one healthy pant per cell in a six-pack or a four-pack; one or two plants in the larger containers. Rather than pull out the weak seedlings, cut them off at the base with a baby’s fingernail scissors that has a rounded tip.

As your seedlings grow, keep the soil damp.  When it dries a bit, water by setting containers into a dishpan of water.  Don’t water from the top.  After the seedlings have two sets of leaves, add some dilute fish emulsion or other organic liquid fertilizer to the water.
If you live in a cool climate, your seedlings will need to adjust to the sunny outdoors bit by bit.  This hardening off is a process that takes a few weeks.   In warmer winter areas, seedlings adjust to garden conditions much more quickly.  Either way, after six to eight weeks, seedlings are usually large enough to transplant into the garden.

Within a few months, you’ll be enjoying the fruits of your labor – literally!