Sustainable Solano Brings New Waterwise Food Forest Gardens to Benicia

Workshops, new workforce development programs create new opportunities

Sustainable Solano, a local nonprofit with work in sustainable landscaping, community gardens, building a local food system and bringing these skills to the public and students, is transforming a Benicia garden through a series of workshops that will teach participants how to capture rainwater, how to properly use greywater from the laundry machine in the garden and the importance of selecting plants that work together to create a healthy, fruitful, waterwise food forest garden.

Land and Water Caretakers Course

Sustainable Solano has offered similar workshops throughout the county through its Solano Sustainable Backyards program funded by the Solano County Water Agency. New to this Benicia project is inclusion of the Land and Water Caretakers course participants, who have been involved in the design of the project as part of their instruction on sustainable landscaping. This is the first year of the new Caretakers certification course offered by Sustainable Solano through Benicia Adult Education. Students will be part of the hands-on work of installing this demonstration food forest garden and then use their knowledge from class and skills from the hands-on work to inform creating a garden design for another Benicia home.

Liberty High School internship program

In addition to the adult education program, Sustainable Solano is leading an internship for interested students at Liberty High School to learn about a whole systems approach to problems, including designing for a sustainable landscape. These students will follow a similar program to the adult education class and will also work toward a Caretakers certificate. Local experts will talk to students about everything from water conservation to composting and healthy soil. Travis Credit Union will provide personal finance and small business finance instruction for both of the Caretakers courses.

Sustainable Solano is actively working to bring other leadership and workforce development programs to the county in the coming months. These programs are funded in Benicia through the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement. Republic Services also supports the Caretakers program, and the adult education Caretakers course public workshops are funded through the Solano County Water Agency.

Opportunities for Students and Property Owners

These programs create not only opportunities for those looking to learn more about sustainability and practical skills, but also for local property owners. Homeowners can fill out a Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form to see if their property might fit the needs of various programs. As the leadership and workforce development program grows, Sustainable Solano is particularly looking for sites in Benicia that would benefit from removing water-hungry lawns.


Media information:


Allison Nagel


(The attached photos are of the Land and Water Caretakers class (adult education) testing the soil and starting to prepare the garden. They can be used with credit to Sustainable Solano.)

Caldo Verde (Portuguese Potato-Kale Soup)


4 T. extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
10 oz. Spanish-style chorizo, cut into 1⁄2” pieces
1 large onion, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
1⁄4 t. red pepper flakes
2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 3⁄4” pieces
4 c. chicken broth
4 c. water
1 lb. collard greens, stemmed and cut into 1” pieces
2 t. white wine vinegar
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

Heat 1 T. oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add chorizo and cook, stirring occasionally until lightly browned, 4-5 minutes. Transfer chorizo to a bowl and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium. Add onion, red pepper flakes and a couple of pinches of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add potatoes, broth and water. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are just tender (8-10 minutes).

Transfer about 3⁄4 cup solids and 3⁄4 cup broth to a blender jar (or to another bowl temporarily until it cools a bit). Add collard greens to the soup pot and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until tender.

Meanwhile, put the reserved solids and broth in the blender jar. With blender running, slowly drizzle in the remaining 3 T. olive oil and process until very smooth and homogenous, about 1 minute. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in pureed soup mixture, sautéed chorizo and vinegar into soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Serves 6-8.

Chef’s Notes: If collard greens are not available, any variety of kale can be substituted.

Download a printable version of the recipe here.

On Garden Parties

By Nam Nguyen, Demonstration Food Forest Keeper

Kathleen Huffman’s going-away party at the Birds, Bees and Beyond garden in Benicia

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I might write something about what being involved with Sustainable Solano has meant for me and the first thing that came to mind was a farewell party that I had attended over the summer. Like many things in life, it was bittersweet; a goodbye to a lovely woman who had decades on me but who could probably kick my butt with one hand tied behind her back, eyes closed, and half drunk. She was moving back to her family farm in Oklahoma to do amazing things.

I first met Kathleen when she was a slightly bushier-tailed lovely woman who could kick my butt equally well then, but luckily she was focusing her energy on digging swales, learning about permaculture from the Yoda of permaculturists, David Mudge, and installing the food forest that has indelibly changed my life course for the last four years. I could write an essay on Kathleen in the short bursts of time I’ve gotten the pleasure to interact with her — how she always wore a wonderful hat of some sort, spoke with a delightful accent and owned “y’all” like no one else could, how she built a bench for the boys from an old railway station bench design she had tucked away for years, how she had endless energy (possibly granted to her in the form of super-sugar-saturated ice cream coffee beverages), how she had took Toby Hemenway’s last permaculture certificate class that he taught, even as he was dying of cancer, how she teared up at a symposium and told us that gardening, and Sustainable Solano in particular, had saved her life, how she tirelessly planned and installed handfuls of gardens across the county, touching a myriad of lives.

Landscape Designer Kathleen Huffman

But this story isn’t about Kathleen. It is about Kathleen’s going-away garden party.

Kathleen’s going-away party was held in the backyard of another friend, Heather, whom I had met as part of the Sustainable Backyard project. Like me, she volunteered her yard as a guinea pig for the demonstration project, but unlike me, she was into all things green and growing. She tended to spout off the names of plants in Latin and talked mumble-jumbo about soil health, greywater use, and how to prune bushes into a bowl-shape with a reckless regard for whether her audience knew what she was speaking of or not (they would learn about permaculture whether they like it or not, damn it), like a sort of Hermione Granger of the gardening world, complete with glasses and amazingly untamable hair.

Greyhawk Garden after installation

Nam’s Greyhawk Grove garden 

We met when she and her family came to help with my food forest installation. We were a small group then — the pilot project — so we tried to go to everyone’s installation. We all volunteered for different reasons: one family had just moved in and were excited at a new prospect, I had told my then-husband that perhaps this garden project would help my depression, Heather had just lost her father a year earlier and needed a project, another young couple were preparing to expand their family from just a dog to having a daughter as well. We were all friendly with each other, but didn’t feel the need to force friendships — but Heather did have this one thing I needed to borrow, and I had this other thing that she was looking for, and between drop offs we talked about child-rearing, plants, and challenges. I discovered she was great company and had an acerbic sense of humor. We invited her and her family for dinner, they invited us to dinner, birthday parties, an afternoon game double-date (I was still married then), and before I knew it, her youngest was calling me, “Nam, Nam, the back-up mom.” I like to think that it was because of the convenient rhyming factor, but perhaps it was because her husband called me to watch the kids and tuck them into bed when their mom had to go to hospital. Of course I made it happen, because she had helped me out with babysitters and pinch hitting with my own family as life inevitably happened. Neither of us had family nearby, and finding a good friend was invaluable.

Heather’s backyard was lush and lovely. Nothing surprising, given that it was a demonstration yard, and one run by a green thumb at that. She was in great spirits, which is to be expected as she loved to host parties, but not counted on, because a couple years after we met, she fell quite ill with an auto-immune disease that often left her in pain and derailed her own life plans.

As life plans go, that summer I was grappling with my newly divorced life, and awkwardly navigating the weekend without my children, a novelty I was still getting used to. I found company and gave a hug to another woman who had also worked on my garden installation alongside her future husband — I watched from afar as they dated, married, seemed to be ready to take on the world together, and as life plans often do, fell apart. I sat briefly in a circle chatting with her and others about venturing into the world of online dating. It was light conversation made from heavy experiences.

Heather’s Birds, Bees and Beyond during the spring garden tour

Then Julie, someone else who’s garden Kathleen transformed, took out a guitar and led everyone in a rendition of Peter Paul and Mary’s “Garden Song.” The lady of the hour was in tears. Afterward, I sat with Julie, catching up on how her life and her garden was growing. She told me of how she was really enjoying Vallejo and trying to build a community like Berkeley where she left. Of looking forward to her adult daughter visiting since she didn’t get to see her that often and how her mother was in failing health. Her phone rang and she looked down. “I have to get this,” she apologized, “It’s my mom’s health worker.”

I gave her space and found someone else who was standing in his own space at the edge of the garden. I knew him also from the garden installation days — he was the tree whisperer who had saved my lemon tree. I had not seen him in a while and was happy that he had showed up to give Kathleen a proper send off. How are you? I asked. I haven’t seen you in such a long while. He fiddled with his cup, well, he said, this is the first time I’ve been out in a long while. Really? I asked, and as garden folks do, waited.

We learn to wait for seed to germinate, to sprout, to grow, to fruit, to seed. We learn to wait for sun, for rain, for weather. So much is out of our control, but we work with it, and often spring and summer makes it all worth it.

I haven’t been out much since my father died, he said. I am sorry to hear that, I replied. When did he die? Nearly a year ago, and I know that’s a while ago but I’ve just been busy closing up his affairs, selling the house … he petered out. A year isn’t so long ago, I say. You know, he continued, sometimes I spend entire days dreading leaving the house, and go to an event where I am wanted and that I want to go to. It sounds crazy.

It isn’t crazy at all, I said, thinking of how in the severest days of my depression, it was as if I was moving through molasses. It is hard. It is hard to just be and do things, and that’s okay.

Thank you for saying that, he said. We observed the garden for a bit. He pointed out a butterfly bush that had long dull leaves on top and amazing variegated coloring on the bottom. I’d love to bring that lovely coloring out, he said. Trim back the top branches a little. I chuckled and said that I was sure Heather wouldn’t mind if he whipped out his pruners and did a little arborist work right then and there.

He smiled, looked down and seemed to notice again that he was holding a cup and not his shears. He said, you know, it just seems like my friends are in such different places, he continued. They don’t know what to say or do. I mean, how many people have lost a parent?

I stood next to him and looked out at the party. I saw Julie still talking on the phone. Heather pointing out plants. Folks gathered in clusters and enjoying in each other’s company. How easy it was to just see their surfaces and not roots. I wanted to tell him, more people here would understand than you think. Instead I said, “I am glad that you are here. May I give you a hug?”

He said yes, and I held him tight. I didn’t let go until he did. Thank you, he said softly. I made sure to not respond when he blinked away tears. I didn’t want him to feel like he needed to apologize for being human.

For everyone present was human. In all their foibles, experiences, joys and losses, lonelinesses and connections. There, at the farewell garden party, was Sustainable Solano at its heart: new beginnings, bittersweet farewells, growth, discoveries, pain, loss, resilience, passions, yearnings and desires — the humans and the gardens that wove them all together. The belief that through earth care, human care, and fair share, we can sustain and fill each other up.


CSA Spotlight: Real Good Fish

By Sustainable Solano

This is an ongoing series profiling local businesses that have Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) available in Solano County. CSAs create a way for community members to buy directly from local producers. Such arrangements help producers, in this case fishermen, receive a greater share of the money paid, bring customers fresh, local food and promote health, community and the local economy.

Fisherman Khevin Mellegers is one of the local fishermen that works with Real Good Fish

Real Good Fish started as Local Catch Monterey in 2012 with the mission of bringing locally and sustainably sourced seafood to Central California. The company, which started working mostly out of a single van, now delivers to more than 1,600 individuals and families every week, according to Emily Hess of Member Services. The company supports local fishermen who use sustainable catch methods and created the Bay2Tray program to increase awareness and demand for sustainably caught seafood with public school districts, providing local fish for school lunches and fishermen in the classroom visits.

“[We] have grown our mission to not only support local fishermen, but teach the public about the importance of seafood transparency and healthy fishing stocks,” she said.

Below is a Q&A with Emily about Real Good Fish:

  • Real Good Fish
  • Moss Landing
  • Fish from the California Coast
  • Established 2012

When did you start offering a CSA? Why was it important to offer?

We started delivering fish in 2012. Making fresh seafood from local fishermen easily accessible is not only good for the community, but for the planet as a whole as we drive seafood demand away from international imports and combat the challenges of mislabeled seafood and mismanaged fisheries.

Are there special perks for CSA members? Why do people tend to subscribe?

Getting local seafood delivered to your neighborhood is a great perk! With each share that our members receive, they are also getting the fishermen info for exactly where their fish is coming from, as well as recipes and cooking suggestions for that day’s delivery. As a member, they also get to participate in our special sales where we offer not only a greater variety of seafood, but our house-made value-added products such as smoked salmon burgers, dungeness crab ravioli, and much more. People tend to subscribe for the convenience and the quality of fish they receive. Real Good Fish cuts out several middle men that are usually involved in the sea-to-table process with fish from a grocery store. We buy the fish directly off the boat, process it ourselves, and deliver it at peak freshness, giving our members access to the freshest fish around.

What’s something that makes your business stand out?

Along with sourcing from and supporting local fishermen, we also work with our local school districts to get sustainable local seafood onto school lunch menus. We utilize some of the species that are commonly discarded as bycatch, and teach cafeteria staff how to properly store and prepare it to make healthy lunch alternatives, like fish tacos, that are within the school’s budget. This Bay2Tray program also arranges classroom visits with the fishermen we work with to teach kids about the local fishing industry and why it is important to be in touch with your resources and know where your food comes from. We try to extend our local sustainability model to as many aspects of the community as we can!

Anything exciting on the horizon? What do you see happening and what do you want to see happen with interest in local food?

We are always looking for new ways to expand and incorporate other local food programs into our subscriptions! We have recently been working with local farms like Marin Sun Farm, Fogline Farm and Wayne’s Fine Swine to bring our members other sources of local protein, like beef, pork and chicken. All of these other farms are using pasture-raised and organic practices to raise healthy, happy animals to provide the finest meats to their local customer base. We are hoping to expand our range to bring more customers the amazingly high-quality fish and message we provide, and would love to incorporate some of these other proteins into our subscriptions on a more regular basis.

Real Good Fish has Solano County CSA drop sites in Benicia and Fairfield. Learn more about how to sign up here.

Find out more about local CSAs here.

Food is Free Benicia Shares Bounty with Foodstand

By Heather Pierini, Food Forest Keeper and Food is Free Benicia

I grew up gardening. My grandparents grew a vast (to me) backyard garden with rows of peppers and tomatoes and onions and every other vegetable that I ignored because I didn’t like those as much. I would sit in the shade of the plants during the hot Central Valley summer and eat tomatoes fresh from the vine or peppers straight from the plant. The smell of hot soil, tomato leaves and humus; the sharp, sweet taste of warm vine-ripe tomatoes; the humidity of the garden are some of my most treasured memories.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They were incapable of seeing anything go to waste. We made sauces and canned them. We made preserves and jams and jellies. We brined olives and ate them year round. My grandmother washed every container to come through her kitchen to reuse. Every plastic bag was washed and hung to dry on clips over the sink. To do any less was wasteful. But even with the help of grandchildren, there was inevitably too much for one family. This is where my favorite part of the summer came in.

Whenever someone walked by, my grandfather would chat with them over the fence. By the end of the conversation they would be loaded down with zucchini and tomatoes. If they were particularly nice, maybe even a jar of olives. I was graced to grow up seeing that a garden can be a gathering spot for a chat, a connection point for the neighborhood and a bounteous source of food for those who choose to share.

Now I am in the privileged position of having a large, south-facing, sun-drenched backyard with plenty of room to indulge in nostalgia and add my own twist. Several years ago I read about a garden stand with the slogan #foodisfree. I dug a little deeper and found the Food is Free Project based in Austin, Texas. From the website: “The Food is Free Project is a worldwide movement of people growing and sharing food freely. We encourage connecting with your neighbors by planting a front yard garden or sharing your harvest with a #foodisfree table.” This was the first time I had heard of people organizing how to share excess homegrown food but in a very organic, low-key way.

Heather’s Birds, Bees & Beyond garden

About five years ago, I started putting extra food on a toddler’s table at my sidewalk with a paper sign taped on that said #foodisfree. Fairly often someone would grab the food, but I was rarely there to chat or connect. Two years ago, I found a wonderful wooden display stand and decided to repurpose that as my “foodstand.” I added a chalkboard with a larger #foodisfree sign. More people came, and I got to chat with some of them.

This year has been different. I am struggling with health issues that keep me from my garden. In June I still put the garden stand up, hoping to fill it with produce that grows even without my help. Not much got put into the stand. In July I fell in the garden and ended up with a fracture in my leg. I was banished from the uneven ground of the garden and ended up sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself. Then someone dropped off some squash and cucumbers. I was delighted. It was the most fun I’d had in days. There’s not much to be entertained by in the summer with a broken leg. I decided I would start a Facebook page for my food stand.

Food is Free Benicia was officially created! It turns out that a lovely woman, Barbara, who had enjoyed the food I shared in previous years, decided to drop off the produce. I put up some pictures and shared the link to several local groups and the page has taken off. Now the stand is fairly self-sustaining with dropoffs and pickups happening several times a day. I post what food is available, usage ideas and garden-related information. The Food is Free Benicia Facebook page now has over 200 followers. It has expanded from just produce to spices, herbs and canned goods. I met a lovely young woman interested in starting a #foodisfree stand at her apartment building. We got together and I shared some of the things I have learned and offered to help in any way. Food is Free Benicia Waterview is now open!

My leg is almost healed now and I am back in the garden with renewed energy due to the influx of visitors. My daughter helped me paint an old bench from the backyard and we moved it up by the stand. Now, when someone stops to grab an apple they can sit in the shade and enjoy the garden. I have had the chance to meet many of the garden visitors lately. One older gentleman, David, bikes past every day. I often see him stop, grab a few apples or pears, eat them and drop the cores in the compost bucket. Today I was heading out on an errand and guess who was resting on the bench? Yep, David. It turns out he bikes daily for exercise but often gets tired midway. Our stand offered a quick blood sugar boost and now a lovely spot to sit as well.

I am excited to share the foodstand with our community. It has given me much joy and happiness during a very difficult time. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store.

Food is Free Benicia Holds

Swapluck Garden Party

Food is Free Benicia will host its first Swapluck from 11 am-2 pm Sunday, Sept. 22.

Join others who are interested in sharing abundance for swapping and sharing seeds, plants, cuttings, food and whatever else you would like. No gathering is complete without food, so bring a dish to share. (You do not have to bring anything to participate.)

More details here

Heather Pierini is a food forest keeper through Sustainable Solano’s Benicia Sustainable Backyards program. Her garden, ‘Birds, Bees & Beyond,’ is on our annual tour of permaculture food forest gardens, and now home to Food is Free Benicia.