On the Fifth Anniversary of Our Garden

By Nam Nguyen, Food Forest Keeper

Nam provides yearly updates on her garden and how it ties in with everything else. Here is her latest update from the garden.

The wonga wonga is in bloom, reminding me with its bunches of cream trumpet blossoms that despite what our personal or communal pandemic worries are, spring is upon us. And that I had to take a moment to appreciate that the Food Forest that you all helped install is coming to its own. Why, it’s old enough to take off to Kindergarten. Or in its case, Gartengarten. And take off it has.

I joked the other day, as stories of toilet paper flying off the shelves and food goods disappearing left and right swirled around, that I had not even checked my toilet paper stores because have you seen how much lamb’s ear was growing in my garden? Likewise, walking through its ever-changing paths (The plants have their own mind as to where the annual beds should be and what shape they should take each year — this year a very forward third-generation artichoke has declared that I am apparently going to have a keyhole bed instead of two separate ones.)

This year a roommate moved in. She is a dear old friend needing port from a storm, and seeing the garden through her response is like re-living all five years anew. She is a gardener, and she is a trained chef — and from the moment she stepped into it, they loved each other. I saw how her tense shoulders relaxed as she inspected each little nook and cranny. How her daily attentions perked up the plants who were so used to the survival of the fittest ways of Greyhawk Grove. She naturally took to it, chopping and dropping like a pro, taking last years’ pruning to make a trellis for hoped for summer cucumbers, and understanding the energy of all who have come before. And even her laughing about me eating, not the watery-sweet jicama-like root of the yacon Nicole planted years ago, but the rather tasteless rhizome, made me cheerful. (If you were wondering, she spent a good afternoon gingerly digging out all the yacon roots, and then made a lovely crunchy salad out of it with sesame oil, lemon and herbs. I hadn’t seen her so satisfied in a long time.)

When I was sick, she stepped into the garden and came back with a wonderful witchy and delicious soup that she declared was made entirely from the food forest: arugula, onions, celery, parsely, potatoes, thyme, peas. I told her that having a food forest and a chef roommate was surely one of the best ways to ride out a pandemic.

Aside from food and nurturing though, gardens heal the soul. Five years ago I barely understood the concept, but now, when a curious listing for a garden educator in memory care facilities came across my path, it made perfect sense to me. This year I started working in residential facilities bringing the same elemental essence of joy and hope and community to two communities in Oakland and Lafayette.

The children (now three with our new roommates) are home for at least two weeks from school, probably more. But they are happy like the birds that flood the food forest, easily moving from the home to the garden — not the slightest bit stir crazy. Graham is already eyeing the flowers budding on the berry bushes in anticipation. He diligently collects eggs each day. As he was when just a toddler watching David’s Polish chickens, he is still the one that pays attention to and cuddles them the most. He hand-picks bugs for them (mama makes sure he washes his hands really well upon coming inside), hugs them, and pets all 10 of them.

Perry catalogues all the plants in his encyclopedic mind and is quite pleased that his cat garden visitations have increased by three new cats (and that he was gifted another catnip to handle the additional load by a cat-loving neighbor). He is already planning a shortbread stand for the garden tour this year, seeking to branch out from his lemonade of previous years. “Shortbread can sell for more,” he told me. “They keep for longer. And I can use more plants from the garden, like lavender shortbread, or cheese and rosemary, or thyme, or rose, or lemon, or maybe lemon verbena. Maybe some of the berries.” Last summer he went round and collected all the edible flowers (roses, calendula, nasturtium, batchelor buttons, violas) and made sparkling sugared flowers from them. It was only a matter of time before he moved on from lemonade. Perry and the garden inspire each other onward. (While I have moved on from envy to accepting his green thumb, and simply ask him to plant things that I really want to grow. Last year it was saffron crocuses.)

Eight-year-old Seffy, the newest chaos creature to the crew, loves to flip over logs and stones and is an ace as discovering all manners of worms, bugs, and interesting finds. I had to remain straight-faced as she brought over “this really large and amazing blue centipede!!” Five years ago, none of those would have been easily found in the soil.

To have a garden is to hope. And in these times, as in all the times past, your gift of time, energy, love, and life provides shelter and hope and energy to us (and an unknown number of other critters). I hope you know that this little 20’x20′ plot has grown into something much, much larger. There is a little bit of you in those memory care gardens, a little bit of you in every bit of food prepared or eaten from this garden. In the mischief, ideas, projects and caretaking by the children. A little bit of you that sparks through the hopes and dreams and joys and quiet tears and still moments of everyone and everything that takes from and gives to Greyhawk Grove.

Save The Butterflies and The Bees — Our Favorite Pollinators Are in Jeopardy

Sustainable Solano works to bring organic solutions that take a whole-systems approach to how we interact with the environment. That means encouraging the use of techniques that work with and support natural systems, which includes supporting those beneficial insects people love to attract to their gardens. These insects serve many roles, including pollinating plants and eating harmful insects. We wanted to share this blog post from Cristina Goulart of GHD, who works with us on the Urban Water Conservation Committee, to highlight the importance of protecting our beneficial insects through the choices we make — including making the conscious decision to handle weeds or pests in our gardens through methods other than chemicals that have systemic effects on pollinators. The UWCC is monthly meeting of Solano County Water Agency and city staff with the purpose of coordinating regional conservation programs throughout the county.

This article below was originally published by the Russian River Watershed Alliance. Some of the resources listed are for Sonoma County, but can serve as a helpful guide here in Solano.

The Monarch Butterfly

One morning last summer, as I watched a pair of butterflies flying from bloom to bloom on a butterfly bush, I realized I hadn’t seen a Monarch Butterfly in years.  I did some research and learned some distressing news.

In January of 2019, the Xerces Society’s yearly census of the western monarch revealed that the numbers of Western Monarchs were down a dramatic 86% from just one year before. Scientists studying the Western Monarch predict that if we don’t take drastic measures now, the species has a 72% chance of going extinct in less than 20 years.

Monarchs are migratory wonders of nature, migrating up to 3,000 miles to their wintering grounds. Their miraculous migration occurs over generations, one generation communicating to the next the route it must take.  Like all butterflies, they are pollinators, drinking nectar from one flower, and depositing its pollen on the next.


The honeybee pollinates about one-third of our food crops. Honeybees have also been in decline for years with the current population of honeybees estimated at less than half what it was in the 1940s. In 2006, scientists discovered what they call Colony Collapse Disorder. Colony Collapse Disorder occurs when a colony’s worker bee population suddenly disappears. Hives cannot survive without their worker bees, so eventually, the entire hive dies.

The Causes

For Monarch butterflies, loss of habitat is a key cause for its population decline. For both the Monarchs and honeybees, the use of pesticides is another key factor.

Pesticides in the neonicotinoid (a systemic agricultural insecticide resembling nicotine) category are thought to be a culprit in Colony Collapse Disorder. Studies have shown that in non-lethal doses, neonicotinoids cause navigation disruption and memory loss in bees, even in low concentrations. These pesticides are found in our food sources and in our home gardens. A demoralizing study conducted in 2014 found that 50% of nursery plants tested in the U.S. and Canada contained residue of neonicotinoids in concentrations as high as 748 parts per billion (ppb). A dose of 193 ppb can kill a honeybee. A dose of 30 ppb can cause impairments to a bee’s ability to forage and navigate. Plants and seeds purchased to attract butterflies and bees can harm these pollinators if they have been treated with neonicotinoids.

Although some nursery chains have since reduced the numbers of plants on their shelves treated with neonicotinoids, plants containing neonicotinoid residue are still sold in retail nurseries. Typically, they do not come with a warning label.

A Call to Action – Help save the Monarchs and the bees. 

Go Organic!

Don’t use pesticides in your gardens. Pesticides include herbicides to kill weeds, insecticides to kill insects and fungicides as well. Most pesticides are non-specific and kill a broad range of species in addition to the pest. Insecticides kill beneficial insects in addition to those that eat our crops. Beneficial insects include those that pollinate our crops, such as bees and butterflies, and predatory insects that eat the plant eating bugs, such as ladybugs and lacewings. Pesticides kill bees and butterflies as well as “bad” bugs.

Purchase neonicotinoid-free plants and seeds. In Sonoma County we have several nurseries that sell organic and neonicotinoid-free landscape plants and seeds. Please ask your nurseries if they can assure you that the plants and seeds they sell you are not treated with neonicotinoids. If they can’t, head over to a locally-owned, sustainability-minded nursery. Also, the RRWA program ‘Our Water, Our World’ (OWOW) helps residents manage their home and garden pests in a way that helps protect our watershed. More information on OWOW can be found at www.rrwatershed.org/project/our-water-our-world.

Build it and They Will Come

Create a Monarch Butterfly Waystation!

Monarch waystations must include the native milkweed plant because this is the only plant where Monarchs will lay their eggs and the only plant that Monarch caterpillars eat. In our region, the best time to plant milkweed seeds is from November to early spring.  A waystation must also include nectar plants on which the adult Monarchs can feed. Examples are the butterfly bush, salvias, and Ceonothus.

Monarch Waystations also attract bees! Bees feed on nectar-bearing plants, just as butterflies do.

For more information about creating a Monarch Waystation, please go to:  www.monarchwatch.org/waystations

Proper Disposal of Pesticides

When you do go organic, remember to dispose of your unused pesticides through Sonoma County hazardous waste drop off locations. Please go to the following link for more information or call Eco-Desk 707-565-DESK (3375).


This Giving Tuesday, Support Sustainable Solano Through Give Local Solano

By Sustainable Solano

Sometimes the gifts we get at Sustainable Solano are the small moments that come out of the work we do. While our work is focused on effecting change within our communities to build resiliency and sustainable living, what happens on the human scale is much more personal:

  • A woman getting to know neighbors and new friends while planning a resilient neighborhood.
  • A man planting in a community garden recalling how his mother prepared certain vegetables during his childhood.
  • Students researching and connecting with the food they grow on campus to send home for families.
  • Farmers connecting in conversation to share practices and ideas.

During #GivingTuesday, Dec. 3, we invite you to become part of fostering that human connection in creating a world that works for everyone. Sustainable Solano is participating in this year’s Give Local Solano. The program gives you a chance to give to area nonprofits that are doing important work in the county. All donations go to the organizations selected, and 100% of the donation qualifies as a charitable gift. Here are more details on Give Local Solano.

While we have a Donate button at the top of our website for any time of year, Give Local Solano gives us a chance to highlight our programs with people who may not have heard of Sustainable Solano and the work we do. We hope those of you who know us, volunteer with us and have joined us for workshops will help spread the word — while every dollar will help bring more programs to the county, every new connection is someone who can help us grow and spread the important work we’re doing to create sustainable landscapes, shape resilient communities, provide education and support local food.

See Sustainable Solano’s profile and donate here on Dec. 3!

Sustainable Solano Celebrates Our Beginnings At ‘Our Benicia Roots & Soil’

By Sustainable Solano

It’s been 20 years since the organization that would become Sustainable Solano put down roots through the creation of the first community garden in Benicia, and on Saturday, we recognized the most important element in making that happen: the people.

More than 50 people gathered at Harvest Presbyterian Church, the place where so many seeds of Sustainable Solano’s growth have been planted, to celebrate their involvement with the organization.

Special guests Dr. Erik Swenson and his son, Kai, attended in honor of Dr. Ed Swenson, the force behind the creation of Benicia Community Gardens, starting with the garden at Heritage Presbyterian that now bears his name.

“Dad loved this town a lot. He loved all the people,” said Erik Swenson, Ed Swenson’s son. “I wish he were here. He truly would have enjoyed this.”

Marilyn Bardet, Erik Swenson and Kai Swenson at the celebration

Board Chairwoman Marilyn Bardet spoke about the years of work that led to the 1999 groundbreaking of the intergenerational community garden at the church led by Dr. Ed Swenson and the Healthy Benicia Task Force as a way to encourage healthy food and community sustainability. She talked about incorporating that vision into the Benicia General Plan, which created a public-private partnership around the endeavor.

An important part of the celebration was to recognize the many volunteers, community partners, past board members and advocates who have helped to shape Sustainable Solano and given it the strong foundation needed to grow and flourish over the past 20 years.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the kinds of help we’ve received and the types of responses we’ve gotten,” Marilyn said.

Bits of history adorned the walls as participants nibbled on breakfast items from local shops and farms and discussed their roles with Sustainable Solano over the years. A slideshow traced the progression from Benicia Community Gardens through the creation of the orchard, numerous sustainable backyard food forest gardens and more.

Kathleen Huffman and Elena Karoulina at the celebration

As Sustainable Solano grew, it maintained its vision around local food, extending that concept from intergenerational gardening to community food access. This manifested into new programs: the CSA program; the Benicia Community Orchard, also at Heritage Presbyterian; and, with new attention to the tenets of permaculture, Benicia Sustainable Backyard.

Through such programs, the seeds were planted for the growth of programs in Benicia and throughout the county, Executive Director Elena Karoulina said, once again focusing on the people who made such things possible, including those volunteers who helped launch the programs and later made their way onto the organization’s advisory boards and board. She also discussed designers who have helped grow the reach of permaculture, such as David Mudge, who launched Benicia Sustainable Backyard, and Kathleen Huffman, who went through permaculture design training and then became the designer and contractor for Solano Sustainable Backyard that brought the concept to other cities in the county. The program now has 19 gardens and counting, has 1.2 million gallons of annual positive water impact, and thousands of people have been educated through the hands-on installation workshops. Kathleen is leaving in July to return to Oklahoma, where she plans to foster similar permaculture programs.

“Our Benicia seeds are going nationwide,” Elena said.

Seven new designers will undergo training in the coming months to take on Kathleen’s role here at home.

“Ripples keep going out y’all,” Kathleen said, talking about the knowledge she will take with her to share with a new audience and how much her involvement in the movement has meant to her. “I am so moved and so full of gratitude and honored.”

The celebration ended with a look toward the future as Sustainable Solano continues in its mission of “Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole.” Elena talked about how the organization continues to grow and add new programs that expand that mission in Benicia and around the county, such as the Urban Forest and Solano Gardens programs, Resilient Neighborhoods and the Local Food System program. And how new generations will gain valuable skills through planned high-school and workforce training programs, including the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program planned for Benicia.

“We believe, as Dr. Ed Swenson did, that hands-on learning through actual practice opens awareness when hearts, minds and bodies are engaged in meaningful work,” Marilyn said after the event. “Food is central to survival. We have to work to grow it. Doing the work helps us see the necessary changes we must make in the way we do business and conduct all aspects of our lives as lived in community.”

Saturday’s celebration was the first of several we plan around the county this year. Following this recognition of our roots, we plan to celebrate in the coming months the stem of growth throughout the county, the flower and seeds that are spreading far and wide. We hope you can be a part of these upcoming events as we honor the importance of the people who have shaped Sustainable Solano through the years and are moving us forward.

View a gallery of photos from the celebration below

Our Benicia Roots & Soil

Recognizing Our Roots As We Grow: Sustainable Solano Marks 20 Years

By Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano is 20 years old! We hope you will celebrate with us this year as we recognize how we have grown and changed over the years even as we hold tightly to the core values that led to our creation and drive our interwoven initiatives for the future.

To mark 20 years of dedication to promoting ecologically sustainable, economically and socially just communities, we plan to host several celebrations this year recognizing the communities and volunteers that have helped shape and support the organization. We would not be who we are today without the countless volunteers, community partners and advocates who have embraced the vision of what is possible when many people work together for the good of the whole.

Sustainable Solano owes its strong roots to its start in Benicia, where the very seed of what we have grown into today started with Benicia Community Gardens.

On March 30, we will host “Our Benicia Roots & Soil,” a celebratory breakfast in Benicia to recognize the importance of our history as we look at how Sustainable Solano has grown and spread throughout the county and set goals for the future. We hope you can join us at this or future celebrations we will hold around Solano County this year.

Part of recognizing this anniversary is the introduction of a new logo. Central to the new logo is the sunflower, its roots reaching down into the soil and its leaves spread to catch the sunlight as its many-petaled face turns toward the sun. The sunflower has been a key motif for Sustainable Solano since Benicia Community Gardens started, drawing together those who recognized the need to build community around the key elements of food, environmental stewardship and conservation.

Over the years, Sustainable Solano has grown to encompass a diverse group of initiatives that all work together toward nurturing the whole — recognizing what we need as individuals to thrive both within our communities and in harmony with the environment. Today, we are involved in programs that promote sustainable landscaping, building a local food movement, driving new conversations about the world we live in and bringing together neighbors to create a more resilient way of living.

That sunflower reflects these things, and has been a symbol for what nurtures us as an organization, as seen in this early sketch of what it means to us.

An early version of the flower used for board strategic discussions in 2011-2014

Its roots are set within the local community and environment, reaching down to soak up nutrients and pull in the funding that comes from our donors, grants and partners.

The strong core, the stem of the program, is people — our staff, board and countless volunteers and supporters — who define the resilience and vitality of the flower! The leaves stretch out, reflecting the board and community members who draw upon the rays of indigenous wisdom that is an integral part of our learning and insight from conversations and dialogue about problems and solutions. All of those help to nurture the organization.

The head of the sunflower centers around the different ideas and programs upon which Sustainable Solano’s initiatives are based, with each petal emerging out of those to form the different interrelated parts of the organization.

As we move into 2019, we hope that you will join us for a conversation, a food forest installation or a cooking demonstration to help grow this sunflower to its full potential, powered by the people involved.

We invite our friends, partners and supporters who have formed the roots of the organization through their dedication to our programs that have grown out of Benicia to join us March 30 for the “Our Benicia Roots & Soil” celebration or at one of the other celebrations around the county this year that will celebrate our growing organization as we take on new people and programs and plant the seeds for new opportunities and programs in the future.


Attention Benicia Community Garden members!

Our website for Benicia Community Gardens has officially been retired and information has been transferred to our main Sustainabe Solano webpage. Click here to bookmark this page now.

If you have any garden or orchard related questions or inquiries, please use our new active email: gardens@sustainablesolano.org. Our old emails will remain active temporarily.

Stay tuned for details about our annual general garden meeting in February!