Organic Garden Club Speaker Topics


June 25, 2018: "Wild Gourmet Epicure of Local Flavors, Herbs, and Mushrooms" with speaker, Jess Starwood, of Sunraven Herbs, infusing wild plants into everyday cuisine for vibrant health.


July 30, 2018: "All About Fig Trees" with California Rare Fruit Grower, Paul Talley, who grows 34 fig trees at his home in Simi.



September 24, 2018: "Caring for California Native Plants" with speaker,  Antonio Sanchez, Nopalito Natives, who propagates plants for A Smart Garden in Ventura.


October, 2018: "Apple Extravaganza" with speaker Bill Brandt, past president of the Organic Garden Club and a California Rare Fruit Grower.

California Garden Clubs, Pacific Region, and District Meetings

  • October 26, 2018: Channel Island District Meeting at the Ventura Botanical Gardens, CA

  • March 19, 2019: Channel Island District Lunch hosted by Organic Garden Club of Ventura County, Malibu Lake Club, Malibu, CA 

  •  April 5 - 10, 2019: Pacific Region Garden Clubs Convention, Van Nuys, CA

  • June 3 - 7: California Garden Clubs Annual Convention, Van Nuys, CA 

  • July, 2019: Channel Island District Meeting

Guest Speakers

Laura Maher

Laura Maher, “Water Harvesting: Greywater and Rainwater”, July, 2017

Native plants used in a home’s landscape require the least amount of water and offer food and shelter for beneficial insects and wildlife. By using native plants rather than a lawn, contouring the landscape, making curb cuts from the street, and building swales, homeowners can harvest an abundance of rainwater on site.

Active Rainwater Harvesting = Rain Tanks, Cisterns or Barrels
“Rainwater, the cleanest and healthiest water for our gardens,” said Laura Maher, an organic seed saver and Ventura County water saving expert, “but this wonderful water is dispersed and lost into rivers, lakes, and oceans.” Homeowners can harvest water right where they live and use the water for their fruit and veggie gardens by attaching a rain barrel to the down spout from their roof. “In California,” said Laura Maher, “homeowners can harvest up to 5,000 gallons of rainwater in a container without a permit.” Rain barrels usually hold 60 gallons, but fill quickly in a rain storm. Gutters, downspouts, and pipes can be installed from the roof to various sizes of tanks and cisterns, even placed at some distance from the house, as long as the tank inlet is at least one foot lower than the bottom of the gutter. Tanks should use screens to keep out insects and be dark colored to discourage algae.

Passive Rainwater Harvesting  = Rain Gardens
Swales are recessions in the soil or low tracts of marsh land that hold water and keep organic matter on site. “By digging down six inches and using the dirt to make a berm on the downhill side,” explained Laura Maher,” we can create a swale to manage water runoff, filter pollutants, and increase rainwater infiltration.” By using mulch and cover crops, the flow of rainwater during a storm can be slowed and encouraged to percolate into the soil.

On-Site Water Reuse = Greywater
Homeowners can also divert gently used greywater from their shower, bathtub, bathroom sink, and laundry to water trees and shrubs. The Laundry-to-Landscape greywater irrigation system is the only greywater source that does not require a permit for single and dual-family homes. One caveat is greywater users must switch to plant friendly laundry soap. Salts and Boron are micro-toxins that can build up and kill their plants. One simple reuse option is using a bucket in the shower to catch the cold water before it heats up. This can often be the right amount to water patio plants and veggies or flush a toilet in an apartment.

“In conclusion,” said Laura Maher, “the cheapest way to harvest and store water is by creating swales and sculpting the landscape to keep the water on site. Active rainwater harvesting is the most expensive to install and maintain. Passive harvesting can be affordable, beautiful, and very low maintenance. Greywater reuse is the most handy when the rain isn’t falling. Greywater irrigation is especially economical in the summertime when our fruit and shade trees need the most potable water. Any way you harvest water is a good start. Keep Flowing!”


Michael Wittman, of Blue Sky Biochar, “Biochar for Soil Sustainability”, June, 2017

“Biochar's high carbon content and porous composition helps soil to retain water, nutrients, protect soil microbes, and ultimately increase crop yields while growing healthier, more productive, disease-resistant plants. All the while helping combat global climate change by sequestering and stabilizing rich organic carbon in your soil,” explained Michael Wittman.

Biochar is a charcoal soil amendment that has been made in Asia, often from bamboo, for thousands of years to increase plant productivity. Charcoal been used for years as an air and water filter. “A natural amendment,” said Michael Wittman, “biochar is a microscopic honeycomb that holds beneficial soil bacteria, moisture, and nutrients.” It can improve soil structure, reduce erosion, and do its job in the soil for hundreds of years. Like a fire in the forest leaves charred wood to enrich the forest floor, biochar enriches the soil by retaining moisture and nutrients. Bamboo biochar has ten times more surface area, a fixed nutrient ratio, more water retention, and absorbs more soluble nutrients than other biochar derived from wood, straw, or manure.  Delicate beneficial fungi are difficult to keep in the soil, but biochar can build fungal qualities in all types of soil.

Touring Michael Wittman’s Thousand Oaks garden, club members learned how to make biochar from wood burning in a small kiln. To keep gophers, squirrels, birds, and bunnies out of the veggies, Michael built a wire house under and around his raised bed garden and hung his tomatoes from the roof. He grows strawberries and herbs in satellite dishes for easy reach with a fire pit cover to keep out the critters. To harvest the rain water, he has two large 350 gallon tanks connected to the drain gutters from his roof with a hose at the side of the tanks to water the garden. He keeps his compost in a wire house, where he mixes it with biochar to provide a home for the growing bacteria and fungi.

The process of making biochar pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and returns it to enrich the soil and grow plants that breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.  With biochar you can as Michael said, “Leave your carbon footprint in the garden...”

Nature by Design 2

Lisa Burton, of Nature by Design, “The Right Plant in the Right Place”, May, 2017

“There is no better place for being responsible stewards of the earth, than our own backyards”, said Lisa Burton, a Southern Californian garden designer who specializes in ocean friendly, drought tolerant, wildlife habitat gardens. Our climate is one of five on earth with a Mediterranean climate with mild winters, hot dry summers, and seasonal changes due to ocean currents and water temperatures: Southern California, Southern Australia, Central Chile, Western Cape of South Africa, and areas around the Mediterranean ocean. In Ventura County we have coastal Mediterranean and inland Mediterranean climates with micro climates in the hills and valleys.

Creating a sustainable garden with low water usage and low maintenance is an attainable goal. “Front lawns in Southern California will be obsolete in ten years,” predicts Lisa Burton, “Instead, aesthetically beautiful, climate appropriate Mediterranean and native plants that support local wildlife will be the norm.” Ninety percent of insects are beneficial and are best supported by a garden that contains a diversity of plants and healthy soil making it possible to eliminate the use of pesticides. To make a landscape sustainable the plants should be climate appropriate, planted with enough space to accommodate their mature size, and grouped with plants with the same water and light needs. To encourage wildlife, she creates a balanced garden ecosystem that provides the right food and shelter needed by our local birds, butterflies, bees, and beneficial insects. Native plants are especially important.

When designing a garden, Lisa Burton starts with a client interview and complete site analysis, including mapping the sun exposure, soil types, topography, and established plant communities with attention to her client’s vision and style. One of her specialties is creating ocean-friendly gardens that prevent water run-off to the street by retaining it on the property with bioswales or “dry” stream beds. Using landscape design considerations and the client’s vision, she maps out a proposed plan that includes: intention, style, dimension, color, form, and texture. Her clients discover that the sound of running water, the fragrance of sages, and the cheerful colors of the flowers have turned their yard into a tranquil garden retreat.


“Seed: The Untold Story”, April, 2017

“Seed: The Untold Story” is an awarding winning documentary on the miracle of seeds and the fight for a sustainable future as three major companies now own two thirds of the global seed market and have reduced our abundant seed diversity into a handful of mass produced genetically modified varieties. There is pending collapse of world’s supply of bananas, oranges, and coconuts, because these companies relied on only one fragile variety. Passionate young farmers have awakened to the vital importance of seeds and have been saving heirloom varieties in small seed banks, seed libraries, and community gardens.  Watch it here:


Bob Sussman, of  Matilija Nursery in Moorpark, “Native Butterfly Gardens Made Simple,” March, 2017

“Create a butterfly garden with beautiful native flowers that are the specific plants for food and shelter for butterflies and caterpillars in your backyard,” said Bob Sussman. Organic Garden Club Members enjoyed a lovely tour at his nursery in Moorpark, where he specializes in California native plants and double blooming irises. The main food of adult butterflies is nectar from red, orange, yellow, blue, or purple flowers, such as verbena, lemon sage, milkweed, golden bush, and desert mallows. The female butterfly lays her eggs on very specific larval food plants. Larval food plants are native plants that haven’t been sprayed with weed or insect killers. The Monarch butterfly only eats one species of plant, milkweed.

Homeowners and developers have changed the landscape from native plants and trees that butterflies and other insects used for food and homes to large lawns trimmed with exotic plants that originated in different climates. The exotic plants tend to escape the gardens and become invasive in the native landscape.  Commercial agriculture has also removed the native habitat and added toxic chemicals to the land. Many native plants have been thought of as weeds to be removed but to many species of butterflies these plants are food, such as clovers, mallows, lantana, and butterfly weed. This loss of native habitat has reduced the biodiversity of the North American landscape significantly with less food for insects, birds, and wildlife. The double blooming irises are pictured below with Jan and Mary with the beautiful ceanothus that bees love in the background.

We can create a good butterfly garden with beautiful native flowers, culinary herbs, and fruits, and watch as the female butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of leaves or flower buds of the native plant. The caterpillar will eat its host plant as it grows and forms a chrysalis. Protect the chrysalis by providing wind protection and shelter from migrating birds. From the chrysalis the adult butterfly emerges to dry its wings in the sun. Provide the butterflies with a shallow source of water and a sunny zone of bright colored native flowers for fragrance, nectar, and food.


Scott Klittich of Otto and Sons Nursery in Fillmore, Growing Roses and Blueberries – February, 2017

Otto and Sons Nursery in Fillmore has specialized in growing roses, fruit trees, and berries since 1976. Scott Klittich donated three rose bushes and a Sunshine Blue dwarf blueberry bush that four lucky club members took home.  They grow over 120,000 rose plants in 800 varieties on a 22 acre property. The age of modern roses that flower several times a year started in 1867 when the first hybrid tea rose was introduced. Hybrid tea roses should be pruned after their spring bloom as they bloom on old wood. Old garden roses or heritage roses are wonderfully fragrant, blooming once a year but often producing more roses than repeat bloomers do throughout the year. Climbing roses grow beautifully on trellises and should not be pruned in the first three years and then cut away the gray canes. Drift roses are good ground cover blooming almost continuously without scent. All roses need to be fertilized from Valentine’s Day through Halloween.  For getting rid of bugs on roses, use a gallon of water, 2 tablespoons of baking soda, 2 tablespoons of canola oil, and 2 tablespoons of dish soap, weekly if needed  allowing time to dry before nightfall.

Otto and Sons carry eight varieties of blueberries specially bred for the warm Southern Californian climate. Blueberries are usually grown in cool moist forest areas. Sunshine Blue is a semi dwarf variety growing to 3 feet in warmer climates with sweet medium sized berries that produces well in patio and deck containers, with  1/3 shade planting mix, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 bark. Plant at least two varieties for better pollination and a higher yield in consistently moist acidic soil with acidic fertilizer and afternoon shade.  Local favorite varieties are Southmoon, Emerald, and Star. Blueberries fruit on last year’s wood, so lightly prune in July cutting only dead wood and cross branches. There is a narrow window for fruit bearing and the season runs from mid April to mid July. Birds love blueberries, so cover the plants with netting before the berries start to ripen using PVC pipe to build a canopy as the blueberry branches can be brittle. Allow the berries to ripen on the bush for at least a week after they turn blue until the blue skins are covered in a thin waxy coating, called a bloom, and are at their peak.


Darcey Lober, Growing Herbs for Health and Flavor - November 2016 

“Herbs are Nature’s Medicine Cabinet,” said past president of our club, Darcey Lober, who grows numerous herbs and brought many of them to share with us. Organic Gardeners can grow herbs in window boxes outdoors or pots indoors, filled with organic potting soil and organic herb starter plants or seeds.  Favorite culinary herbs like basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, chives, and thyme are hardy perennials and will grow year after year in small pots. Fresh herbs elevate every dish, adding nutrients and flavor. Snip a small sprig of the herb and mince it finely into the dish, using French, Italian, or Asian herb pairing. The more you harvest the tops of the plants, the longer they will be at their best before they flower. Herbs help keep aphids and other harmful bugs out of the garden, while pollinators and beneficial insects love their flowers, making herbs the best companion plants for a vegetable garden.

Some herbs have antibiotic properties, while others are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, or antiviral. Herbs can be preserved by picking them early in the morning, then drying, freezing, or mixing in oil, vinegar, or liquor. Healing herbs can provide an alternative to synthetic drug use. When herbs are used often in seasoning food or as herbal tea, they become a preventive medicine therapy. Some of the herbs that were passed around the room were:

  • Artemisia, Coastal sagebrush, can be used in lotion for arthritis pain.
  • Ashwaganda makes a good tonic for boosting energy.
  • Black Sage makes a good footbath for muscular aches.
  • Dandelion roots make a good blood, liver, and kidney cleanser.
  • Echinacea is good for flu and colds, but only take it 10 days at a time.
  • Fennel and Mint are good for digestion and relieving gas.
  • Foxglove is used to make digitalis for heart medicine.
  • Lemon Grass is filled with antioxidants and flavonoids.

Phil McGrath, Organic Farming in Ventura County - October, 2016

Organic Garden Club members were touched and delighted hearing the history of Organic Farming in Ventura County from Phil McGrath, legendary Oxnard Organic Farmer and owner of McGrath Family Farms, who is seeking to be sustainable with diversity, co-op farming, Food Hubs, and robotics.

“If you can do the work yourself, it’s a garden.  If you need help, it’s a farm,” said Phil McGrath. Phil’s grandfather came from Ireland and started farming in Ventura County in 1876. They started as sheep and cattle farmers with 10 children and 700 acres at the end of Gonzales Road.  The family transitioned to dairy farming around 1920 and at one time had the 3rd largest dairy in California.  After WWII, they started row cropping.  In the late 40s and 1950s, they grew sugar beets and lima beans.  In the 1960s they added broccoli, celery and other row crops such as lettuce and tomatoes. Strawberries became a big crop in the 1970s. Our Mediterranean climate is one of only five places in the world with this climate.  It is especially good for growing strawberries. In the 1980s, the Sunkist Cooperative, the 45th biggest company in the world, moved in from Salinas!

In 1992, the McGraths turned to organic farming.  By the time Phil’s Dad died in 1995, the farm had become Certified Organic. Only property in Napa is more expensive than farmland in Ventura County. Farms here have to lower their water usage by 20%.  They are incurring higher costs and will question the crops they grow and determine what to plant based on what’s sustainable. Organic farming demands diversification and rotating the crops with peas and beans to improve the soil.

Phil McGrath advised, "Eat local, eat organic, and eat what’s in season." In the USA we spend less on food and more on healthcare than other nations. Organic is good for the environment with more diversification and fewer chemicals and pests.  Eating organic means getting sick less often and health costs go down. McGrath Family Farm is working to get an organic food hub where there would be a retail section, a processing plant and a school distribution center.  In the future Phil is planning for high tunnel growing, substrate (bag) growing, more hydroponics and robotics.


Craig Underwood, Fall Vegetable Planting Timetable - September, 2016

Living in Ventura County most of us have visited and tasted or even picked Underwood Family Farms delicious farm grown vegetables.   At our September monthly meeting, we had a real treat in meeting the owner, Craig Underwood.  His family has been farming in Ventura and Kern County since 1867. Craig shared with us gardening timetables, best farming practices, and answered lots of questions from our audience.  Here are some tips from Craig Underwood:

  • Celery is planted early February with a 10 day to 2 wk. span of successive plantings.
  • Artichoke is planted June- July and Nov. Dec. The crop has had a big problem in past few years and hasn’t done well.
  • In the fall, carrots, beets, greens, radishes and corn are directly seeded.
  • Cool season plants that are planted from greenhouse transplants include: broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, and chard.  There are trade secrets to grow Brussels sprouts which he could not reveal!
  • Last year, due to warm temperatures, corn was planted very early - mid February. This was the “first time I could remember” in his many years of farming (since 1967).  Corn was ready at the end of May!
  • Summer crops include tomatoes, peppers, squash, watermelons, and other melons. Tomatoes being planted four times!
  • Unfortunately DDT is still left in our streams and the non-point pollution is monitored as well as sediment, water quality/usage and fertilizer. It was very encouraging to hear a revolution is going on with biological antagonist to kill harmful insects instead of using synthetic chemicals of the past.  This is especially helpful for peppers and corn which are loved by pests and cause big challenges for farmers.
  • Best farming practices include: drought tolerant watering, conservation cover cropping, soil testing for nutrient balance, and crop rotation every third year.

Bill Brandt, Fruit Tree Pruning - July 2016

Bill Brandt, Rare Fruit Grower and Past President of Organic Garden Club, says that fruit trees can be pruned in the winter or after the harvest in the summer. Backyard gardeners with organic dwarf fruit trees can prune their trees with guidance and care. Organic dwarf fruit trees are small enough to do well in container and to only require a step ladder to reach the top. Often these small fruit trees do not need much pruning. A pole pruner can extend the gardener’s reach up to 12 feet in the air when pruning standard organic fruit trees. Before pruning, gardeners need to sterilize their pruning shears and saws with boiling water or a solution of 10% chlorine, 90% water. First prune dead and dying twigs and branches. Next look for damaged and broken branches and remove them. Gardeners must be sure to prune diseased branches or stem tissues infested by insects. Finally, check for odd branches that cross into the middle of the tree.

Always prune just above a node, the place where a leaf joins a stem and where buds are located, to avoid a stub that can become infected and rot. Gardeners want to prune above outward facing buds, where the new branch will grow in the direction the bud is pointing. New growth will develop away from the center of the tree, leaving the center open to air and light to keep away disease and pests. Gardeners should not prune a branch flush with the trunk, but leave the collar or slightly swollen spot where they meet. This collar can quickly grow over and the seal the wound when the branch is pruned. Because dwarf fruit trees are grafted to a different root stock for propagation, gardeners want to remove shoots growing below the graft union. Organic gardeners can open the center of their fruit tree with responsible pruning to allow better air circulation and healthier fruit.


Andy Lopez, The Invisible Gardener - June 2016

“It’s not a bug problem. It’s a soil problem,” said Andy Lopez, who kept us all laughing while speaking about pest control and non-toxic bug spray. For short term solutions for a few bugs, organic gardeners can (1) make a solution of water, garlic oil, and clove oil to spray on the effected plant to repel pests and (2) make a solution of winter green or canola oil to spray on the bugs. However, the long term solution is in the mineral balance of the soil. Weed presence indicates a trace mineral deficiency in the soil and infestation of bugs is imbalance in the soil. For an infestation of bugs, gardeners can spray the bugs with a cold brew coffee or coffee with cream and Granny Smith molasses. Coffee grounds are pest repellents and help balance the soil. They can be worked into the garden topsoil. Gardeners can use a beer tester to check plant leaves and produce to discover the level of beneficial bacteria in the garden.  For pesky birds soak raw chickpeas in whiskey and scatter near the plant. Birds don’t like to fly drunk!

Because the city water effects the mineral balance, Andy Lopez suggested a water filter on the hose or drip watering system for the garden. The soil can be amended with rock dust, beneficial bacteria, earthworm castings, and compost tea. When the minerals are balanced properly, the soil is alive with microorganisms. A compost tea spray is very effective to achieve the proper mineral balance as well as keeping the bugs away. Earthworms make the best compost and compost tea.