Avant Garden Scavenger Hunt Offers Fun Outside Activity Amid the Pandemic

By Maggie Kolk, Sustainable Solano board member and Avant Garden coordinator

The premier Kids in the Garden event was a scavenger hunt at Benicia’s Avant Garden, COVID-19 version. It proved to be a super successful, fun, educational and tasty event.

Bright orange ribbons rippled in the morning breeze identifying the ready garden plots as eager young hunters assembled to make their way through maze of Avant Garden. With yellow cards for ticking off their discoveries in one hand and bags to retrieve goodies in the other, 12 masked explorers between the ages of 5 and 11 gathered, in a COVID-19-compliant manner, on a sunny July day to escape the confines of pandemic restrictions and have some plain old outdoor fun. Raised garden beds chockful of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash and the larger Avant share plot scattered with Halloween-sized orange pumpkins and red peppers, were fair game for the young hunters.

As Avant Garden coordinator, I organized the scavenger hunt with the help of Raquelmarie Clark of WAHEO: We Always Help Each Other, who recruited the young hunters through her social media connections.

The group met at the big freshly painted picnic tables to collect their hunting tools: lists of garden veggies, pencils and paper collection sacks. With instructions to collect only from the orange ribbon areas, they set out to identify or collect their treasurers. Eleven-year-old Toni, with cell phone in hand, was assigned the role of chief Googler to help with mystery plant identification. Shouts of “I found a tomato!” and “There’s a zucchini!” or “Can I eat this?” could be heard as the girls and boys filled their bags with freshly picked veggies. Mid-scavenger hunt, a dad arrived with arms full of goodies to celebrate the fifth birthday of one the young collectors. The kids gathered around to enjoy juice, cookies and fruit and shower the birthday boy with good wishes.

When time was called, with overfilled bags in hand, the hunters huddled around to share their stories and bounties, which included large pumpkins, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and a few peppers. Zucchini muffins made with zucchini from the garden were enjoyed by everyone before the final project of the morning. Each child was given a pot filled with soil along with seeds for planting marigolds. While planting the seeds, a pop quiz on what plants needs to grow was enthusiastically answered with shouts of “water! … dirt! … sunlight! … and love!”

Everyone, parents and kids alike, left Avant Garden with contented smiles and shouts of appreciation, looking forward to the next Kids in the Garden event, which is planned for Oct. 3. Kids in the Garden events are for kids ages 8-12 (kids under 8 may attend but must be accompanied by an adult over 18).  Attendance is limited to 12. Registration is first come-first served. Register here!

Regrow Your Own Vegetables From Kitchen Scraps

By Mallory Traughber, Living Classroom

We had a large turnout for Mallory Traughber’s talk on how to regrow vegetables and save seeds from kitchen scraps, and there were plenty of questions beyond those she answered during the class. Mallory provided a variety of resources and even a tutorial on how to make your own newspaper seed pots. Mallory was kind enough to answer some additional questions in this blog. You can watch her talk in the video here and read her responses to your questions below.

Find the handouts from Mallory’s talk and more plant resources here.

Thank you all for tuning into the webinar last month. It was wonderful to chat with you and answer your questions about regrowing vegetables from kitchen scraps! More great questions came in through the chat box after the talk so we wanted to make sure we answer a few more here regarding transplanting your vegetables from a container of water to soil, more specifics on regrowing particular vegetables, and questions about starting seeds. 

Regarding Transplanting: Some folks were curious about leaving the vegetables they are regrowing in water or transplanting them to soil. I recommend transplanting the following vegetables to soil as a more permanent location — scallions, celery, bok choy, and all of the herbs we discussed (chives, cilantro, basil, mint, and parsley). This will save you from having to remember to change out the containers of water every other day and it gives the vegetables a chance to thrive in a lasting location. However I would keep the romaine lettuce in water since you are only going to get one “harvest” from it.

Getting specific on Regrowing: A question came in about regrowing a celery stalk that is starting to go limp. There is a trick to keeping your celery nice and crisp and that is keeping it hydrated! Wrap the stalk tightly in aluminum foil so moisture cannot escape. If it’s already going limp, you can revive it by soaking it in cool water for a few hours. Once you’ve revived the limp celery stalk, be sure to regrow the end! New shoots will appear after several days. It can be transplanted to your garden to grow a new stalk over the course of a few months.

Another question came through wondering if lemongrass could also be regrown using these methods. Lemongrass is a wonderfully fragrant herb and after you have used the top, you can regrow the leaves. Place the stem of the lemongrass into a clear glass with enough water to cover the roots. Place the glass in a sunny window and replace the water at least every other day. After the lemongrass re-shoots new leaves, you can plant it out in your garden.

More questions came in regarding regrowing lettuce. Romaine lettuce works best for this experiment but you can certainly try a head of lettuce. Once roots grow from the stump, new leaves will begin to form. You are going to get all you can out of it after 10-12 days — definitely not a new head of lettuce but enough to top a sandwich or two!

Folks were curious about regrowing garlic. A method I like to use is placing the cloves of garlic in a cup (in a sunny window) root side down, with a little water on the bottom. I change the water everyday. In about a week, the cloves will start to sprout at the top and grow roots on the bottom. Now I’m ready to transplant them into the soil. I plant them 6 inches apart in good potting soil with drainage. They should be watered every time the top inch of soil dries out. Growing garlic is a game of patience as they won’t be ready to harvest for 6-9 months, however the cloves will MULTIPLY in the ground, forming new bulbs!

Finally let’s address some of your questions on starting seeds you are collecting in your kitchen. One participant wanted to know if cucumber seeds should be saved using the same methods we demonstrated for tomatoes. You can certainly give this a try, however avoid using seeds from cucumbers labeled “hybrid” as they are often sterile. You would want to let the cucumber seeds ferment in warm water for a few days so the gel coat that surrounds the seed will be removed.

We talked about growing lemon seeds from organic lemons, and how the seeds should be rinsed of all sugars and then planted while moist. A participant wanted to know how long it would take to produce a lemon in this way. It truly depends on a variety of factors, it could take anywhere from 3-10 years, or it may never produce fruit as seeds are not always dependable. The health of the seedling depends on its location, the amount of sunlight it receives, the amount of  water it receives, if it’s growing indoors/outdoors, etc.

You can also grow an avocado at home from the pit. You will remove and clean the pit, and then identify the ‘top’ and ‘down’ ends (the top is where it will sprout and will be pointier and the bottom is where the roots will grow and will be flatter).  Pierce the pit with 3 toothpicks and place it half submerged in a cup of water, bottom side in the water. Change the water regularly to prevent fungal growth, and once the sprout has grown to about 6 inches long, you can transplant it to soil. This may take anywhere from 2-8 weeks. The more sun, the better for your avocado plant! This plant may never produce fruit, and if it does it may not be quality produce, however it is a lovely (and free!) houseplant to grow.

Thank you all again for your wonderful questions, for your beet recipes, and your courageousness to try new methods for making the most out of your produce. Always remember, “There are no mistakes in gardening, only experiments!”

Enjoy the talk? Take this survey to help us determine future sustainable landscaping classes.

The Solano Sustainable Backyards program and the talk are generously funded by the Solano County Water Agency.

Big Gardens in Small Spaces: Container Gardening Tips

By Lori Caldwell, CompostGal

Lori Caldwell’s talk “Big Gardens in Small Spaces: The Adventure of Container Gardening” was a big hit. We had a ton of interest in this class, with 216 people registered! Lori provided great resources and her presentation was perfect for new gardeners and also very informative for seasoned gardeners. There wasn’t enough time to answer the many great questions during her talk, so Lori was kind enough to answer the questions in this blog. You can watch Lori’s talk in the video here and read her responses to your questions below.

Find the handouts from Lori’s talk and more plant resources here.
Want to connect with Lori? Find her information on our Sustainable Landscaping Professionals List!

Hello gardeners!!!

Thanks so much for participating in the Container Gardening Talk! I really appreciate all the great questions! I know we ran out of Q&A time, so I thought I’d respond to them here.

What is a bumper crop?

A bumper crop is when you get A LOT of fruits and veggies in a given season. This windfall is above and beyond what you expected. I wish you all bumper crops this year!

Would the fish emulsion smell attract neighborhood cats?

I’ve been happily using fish emulsion for years and there’s been no indication that cats have messed with my plants or soil. If that’s a problem, there are other options to provide nitrogen for your plants: alfalfa meal, worm castings or fish meal.

How do you add castings when you’re feeding your plant?

I make a dilution of the castings: take a small handful of castings and put in a bucket. Add water until they are the color of weak tea. The color is important as worm castings are like a fertilizer. Too much could kill your plants so be careful! I start by adding castings right after planting and feed on a regular basis until the plant starts to flower.

When you chop plants down do you chop them in the soil or put into the compost?

For plants like fava beans, I wait until the plant has mostly flowered before I chop it at the soil level. It’s important to keep the roots in the soil, the nodules (see picture above right) hold the nitrogen. I compost the stalk and eat the flowers!

For container gardens I’ll completely remove other types of plants and roots to make room for the next crop.

How to control pests without killing them (snails, slugs, tomato horn worms)?

Slugs & snails: Without actually killing it will require you to setup a series of barrier method options:

  • Crushed eggshells: put a ring of finely crushed shells around the base of your plants. It’ll be like crawling over glass for them.
  • Cloche: fancy ones are beautiful and glass; DIY ones are recycled bottles (glass or plastic). Cut bottoms off bottles and remove caps. Cover the hole with something breathable (cheesecloth, old nylons, etc). Cover plants at night to keep those night feeders away. Take off during the day.

Tomato horn worm: So not killing these creepy guys is going to take some preventative measures. One of the reasons hornworms show up is because of not doing crop rotation. The moth responsible for the worm is gorgeous! However, she likes to lay her eggs at the base of existing tomato plants. Planting tomatoes in the same container every year allows those eggs to
hatch right next to their favorite foods. Now, I know with container gardening crop rotation might not be possible. What about rotating soil? The following season after a “hornworm incident,” remove the soil from the container and replacing it with fresh soil. Reuse the soil in other containers that won’t have tomatoes that year.


Flickr: Amanda Hill
Flickr: Didier Descouens

Do you ever recommend neem oil?
I have never used neem oil actually!

I’ve heard recently about cloth pots. Have I had any experience with them?

I have used cloth pots in the past. I found that they dried out very quickly, even faster than terracotta! If I were to use them again I’d use drip irrigation to keep the moisture level up. They might be good for woody herbs that require decent drainage.

I wanted some tips to save my plants in winter. My basil does not survive the winter in my patio space.

Crops like basil need warmth in order to thrive. You may need to bring the plant indoors if you want it to overwinter.

Some tips for possible success:

  1. Place next to a window that gets afternoon light. Be careful that the light coming in isn’t too intense, it could burn the leaves.
  2. Clip back any brown or dying leaves.
  3. Go easy on the water. Test the soil first before watering. There won’t be as much heat like summer (unless you’ve got it near a heater vent).

How can I plant herbs from stem cuttings? Do I just stick it in the soil? How do I grow roots on mint that I bought at the farmers market?

Rooting them in water first works well!! I’d try to root them before/while you use the herb. They will take to transplanting to soil a bit easier. Just change the water every few days.

Where can I learn how big of a perimeter is required for different plants?

Most plant tags and seed envelopes give you a recommendation as to how far apart the spacing for mature plants should be.

I have some very large pots, way bigger than need be. What can I put in the bottom?

Well I guess my first question is what are you planning to put in these pots? If it’s a perennial plant, you might consider leaving the space. Having a fruit tree in the forever home has a lot of benefits: uninterrupted root development and allowed to grow larger much faster.

If it’s a shallow plant situation then you have some options:

  • Rocks or bricks – it will make it heavy so pick a permanent place for it.
  • Wood mulch or stumps – the wood helps hold onto moisture longer, so that’s great. However, sometimes new plantings die because the wood fiber in the soil is dragging nitrogen from the soil. New plantings rely mostly on nitrogen to get going. I’d suggest adding more nitrogen amendments to compensate.
    • Pros: inexpensive option
    • Con: nitrogen drag and the soil will start to sink into the pot as the wood material decomposes

Any recommendations for dealing with possums and raccoons?

I’ve never had to deal with either of those pests (knock on wood). All my research has pointed to creating barriers and getting rid of things that attract them. UC Davis has a wonderful website dedicated to helping you deal with those pest problems. I’ve included a couple of links to help:

What does Lori think about cucumbers in containers?

I think it’s great! I’m planting them in a container this year too. Try and plant on mounded soil or provide a trellis for them to climb.

Is liquid fertilizer better than powder?

I like both because some of my favorites come in either forms: Bone Meal (powder), fish emulsion (liquid), worm castings (dilute to make liquid). I like liquid because it’s easier to side dress (application during the growing period) my plants.

How do you prevent rosemary and thyme from getting too woody to cook with?

I haven’t noticed woody leaves on my older branches, guess I’ll have to check! I usually harvest and dry once a year from the new growth. That might be an option to prune back once a year. Sorry, I’ve never grown thyme … I’m not much of a fan.

Enjoy the talk? Take this survey to help us determine future sustainable landscaping classes.

The Solano Sustainable Backyards program and the talk are generously funded by the Solano County Water Agency.

Learn How to Plant Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables in New Video Tutorials

By Gabriela Estrada, Solano Gardens Program Manager

Scott Dodson of Scotty’s Organic Gardening covers spring garden basics from prepping to planting

This spring, interest in gardening has surged with so many people staying at home. We wanted to help with what to do to get the most out of your seasonal garden beds.

Sustainable Solano has re-envisioned a lot of our programs to fit the current stay-at-home guidelines under COVID-19. We wanted this new vision of our programs to be a resource for the community, and we wanted it to be as accessible as possible. With this in mind, all the program managers began to think about tools that we could offer to the greater Solano County community (and possibly beyond).

For Solano Gardens, a program that focuses on food production in urban areas, we’ve created a series of educational videos that could support individuals getting started on their very own vegetable garden either at home or in their nearest community garden! The video tutorials are from Scott Dodson of Scotty’s Organic Gardening. Scott is the designer behind our gardens at Solano County schools, churches and other community sites. These videos focus on supporting beginners who want to grow their own annual fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, peas, watermelons, etc.), but who don’t know how to get started.

The video series begins with spring gardening (the current growing season), but thanks to generous support from Solano County, Scott will continue this video series and offer seasonal tricks and tips for year-round growing.

You can watch the videos on this page, which includes links to other resources, or in the playlist below.


Future video tutorials will include summer, fall and winter gardening, pruning and plant propagation. If you have any topics you think should be included in this video series, be sure to send me an email at gabriela@sustainablesolano.org.

Want to start growing at Swenson Community Garden in Benicia (where these videos are filmed and garden beds are still available)? Learn more about joining Benicia Community Gardens here.

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).