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Queen of Compost Camila Guzman

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Green Thumbs: Family Gardening & Composting 101

If you’re a family looking for a fun summer activity, starting and tending a garden is a fun and educational way to share a bond.

“It gets you out every day because things change and you can pick your own vegetables,” says Merrill Berge, owner of Merrill’s Garden Party, an independent landscape management company. “Especially with younger kids, it entices them to explore new food options, hear the insects and explore what’s in the soil.”

Here are some tender loving care tips to help your garden grow.

Choosing the Right Garden

Berge says there are three types of gardens families can create depending on the yard’s perimeters: a raised bed, container and in-ground. There are pros and cons to all three.

“If money is not a problem, then a raised bed with a fence is wonderful and allows for easier irrigation and pest control,” says Berge. “If space is a problem, container gardens can be moved around where the tomato or leafy greens can get the most sun or shade. In-ground gardens use less soil and are easier to start but are more accessible by animals.”

For those who do not have a yard, Berge says container gardens are the way to go.

“Container gardens might not have a lot of space but can be kept closer to the house,” says Berge.

Another way to participate is through community gardening, a plot of land donated by a city, church or organization where residents have a small, fenced off section with a raised bed to plant their produce.

“It’s the best thing this time of year,” says Berge. “You go there at 9 a.m. when people get out in the garden and everyone pitches in. Either you have to take care of it (watering) or if you want an irrigation system, it makes it easier to do watering on a consistent basis with a timer.”

Planting & Care

With summertime in full force, Berge recommends planting cilantro, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, marigolds, nasturtiums, herbs, lettuce and arugula.

“You can eat nasturtiums—they’re spicy and grow back every year,” says Berge. “Herbs and lettuces will morph into flowers, that’s how they are in the wild. Arugula has great flowers and that’s how they regenerate.”

Berge also recommends starting on fall harvest plants that would take longer to grow, such as pumpkins. Other plants to grow in the fall include onions and garlic, broccoli and cauliflower in the wintertime, and squash and cucumbers in the springtime. There is also the three sisters way of planting, such as planting corn, squash and beans, with the beans wrapping up the corn and around the squash at the bottom.

“You want more substantial root vegetables in the rainy and colder months and tender vegetables in the spring,” says Berge.

When watering a garden, Berge says the general rule of thumb is the younger the seed, the more watering it will need.

“Once its established, you can water less,” says Berge. “Radishes and carrots are the perfect vegetable to plant from seeds. You water them once a day and they pop up within a week or two—it’s great for kids to see.”

A garden should also be watered during the morning or evening versus the afternoon, as water can evaporate faster.

“A garden is intuitive and you need to be in tune with the garden (when watering),” says Berge. “Think of it like a baby; how often do you feed a baby? A lot.”

Planting Seeds

Now that the garden type is chosen, it’s time to plant the seeds. Tovah Bevil, a local horticulturist, recommends starting with a small pot before transferring it to a larger, outdoor space.

“There’s a bigger chance they will get moved around with water, wind or certain insects or birds will come and snap it off if they are little seedlings,” says Bevil.

Small pots can also be labeled with the name of the plant and the start date. When watering, Bevil recommends using a water spray bottle to apply to the top of the seedlings.

“You don’t have roots at the beginning stages,” says Bevil. “Having it too wet will create a rot on the seedling.”

Bevil says a quarter strain of fertilizer can be added once the second set of true leaves (about three weeks) pops through. More water can also be added.

“If the soil lightens up, it needs to be watered,” says Bevil. “If the soil is dark and wet, it’s okay. You don’t want to drain it out, never let them sit on water.”  

After four to six weeks, the plant can be transferred to an outdoor garden.

“It’s easier to see them grow in a pot indoors and then go outside every day and check on it,” says Bevil. “There’s a different chance of success.”

Bevil recommended children do fun activities with the garden, such as making bouquets out of flowers and herbs, picking produce for a salad, collecting data and writing in an observation journal.

“Gardening is a fun experiment; there’s no judgment and things can always be better,” says Bevil.

Pest Control Management

The garden may be growing, but there are unwanted insects that will want to munch on the irresistible plants.

“Marigolds, onions and garlic will repel most pests because they are stinky,” said Kim Herren, certified master gardener since 2012 and educator at Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture (SEEAG) in Ventura County. “However, nothing is 100% (guaranteed).”

Herren says common garden pests include pincher bugs, cucumber beetles and aphids.

“Aphids hate high heat and attack any new growth,” says Herren. “They make leaves look ugly and they love artichokes. Pincher bugs love the damp and love to decompose something green.”

Options for controlling pests include cloches, water barrels, bird netting (be careful, snakes, lizards and birds and other creatures may get caught in them) and covers. Herren says one resource gardeners can use to identify pests and how to treat them is the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management website.

“Are the pests coming during the day or at night? Is it causing superficial damage or catastrophic? (These questions will) help you understand type of treatment,” says Herren.

For those considering chemical treatments, there may be insects that are not considered pests and in its lifecycle, such as the Swallowtail Butterfly.

“Do you want to lose a butterfly or parsley plant?” says Herren. “You need to be in a garden daily. Seeing how the plants grow, fruits ripen and the different kinds of pests will really help you to understand your garden.”


Gardeners wishing to collect their food scraps and turn waste into food for the soil can do so through a process called composting.

“When the roots uptake nutrients, it’ll make the plants healthier and create a better soil structure,” says Camila Guzman, owner of the Queen of Compost, Ventura's first community compost.

There are three types of composting: aerobic, where oxygen is needed for the microorganisms to remain active to breakdown materials and the most common form of composting; anaerobic, where no oxygen is required to breakdown organic matter and is done in a fermentation setting; and vermicomposting, where a worm bin is used to breakdown organic materials.

“Worms produce nutrient rich castings that can be used in soils,” says Guzman. “They can eat up to their weight in food scraps in just one day.”

Other typical microorganisms in a compost bin include bacteria, centipedes and rollie pollies.

“All digest food in different ways,” says Guzman. “It depends on what is being put in—your compost has a language.”

Guzman says after the food scraps are placed in a compost container, it can take about three to six months for them to turn into compost (about a third or a quarter).

“You want a compost container that fits your lifestyle,” says Guzman. “You can keep it in your kitchen or outside, depending on how much you generate on a weekly basis. With kids, I recommend a worm bin because it is super fun to see the critters changing the food into soil.”

Guzman says as compost materials break down, a texture is formed in the soil for the materials to burrow and create tunnels to increase aeriation and moisture.

“Greenhouse gases go back into the soil and plants will absorb it through photosynthesis,” says Guzman. “It then turns into sugars that can feed the microorganisms that need those nutrients to grow.”

Once the compost is matured, it can be added to the soil to make compost tea (liquid food) for the plants.

“Tea is a great way to spread out the biology,” says Guzman.

Guzman says that perennials, annuals, fruit trees and succulents are all beneficial for the root system to draw nutrients from.

“Composting is the only thing that makes sense when eating and growing food,” says Guzman. “You need to close the loop that gives you the best kind of nutrients so you can be healthy.”

Find more information on at-home gardening, pest control and composting at, or

  • Queen of Compost Camila Guzman
  • Queen of Compost Camila Guzman
  • Amiera planting seedlings in the garden..
  • Compost Pile