In 2015, Benicia residents, Rob and Nam, submitted an application to have their yard transformed into a demonstration food forest garden, fed by secondary water (laundry-to-landcape greywater system & roofwater). This edible ecosystem would serve as a sustainable food source for their family and an educational platform for the community to learn about sustainable landscape design and wise water practices as part of the Benicia Sustainable Backyard program. This March marked the third anniversary of the installation of “Greyhawk Grove” garden. Below is a beautiful account from the homeowner of the journey and recent reflections of her family’s interaction with their food forest garden.
The wonga wonga (Pandorea pandorana) is blooming again, which reminds me that it is about this time three years ago that strangers descended upon our home and gifted us the most wonderful gift–that of time. Their time. Our time. The recognition of time. Of change. Of seasons and impermanence. If there is anything that can encapsulate year three at Greyhawk Grove, I think it would be the birds. Rick and Chris came over last year to paint the garden and Chris mentioned that the first thing she noticed upon pulling up was a whole bunch of birds taking to flight. There were always birds, but year three is when they have claimed the garden as their own. It may have helped that we put in a bird feeder. It may have helped that we put in a small bird bath, but I think as the progression of things go, they just realized that this year, the garden is perfectly suited to them. Who knows what it will be suited for next year, or the year after that. What we’ve learned is that the garden is constantly changing and growing, as are we.
The birds have taken to hanging out in the almond tree, the grapevines, the plum tree, the wonga wonga…the bean tent…everywhere. They sing. They bathe. The hummingbirds (same ones as last year? their kids?) are so comfortable around the garden and its inhabitants that I’ve spotted them hovering to peer at what the boys are up to while they are puttering. Of course the little brown birds have also eaten almost every seedling that has sprouted up.
But as always, with a host of kids and cats tromping through the yard, it’s always been survival of the fittest around here–apparently the fittest seedlings are sweet peas–which the birds have left alone. They are twisting and curling from the ground, and our resident green thumb Perry is impatiently waiting for his corn to come so they can climb them. When told that it’s not corn season he ignores mama, because after all, he knows plants best (as he has proven over and over again).
Perry’s white and orange poppies are in their third generation, resisting birds, weeds, and anything else that gets in their way. The paperwhites gifted to us from a Vallejo garden last year are sprouting up again. His cat garden not only overwintered, but like everything Perry touches, is the most vibrant part of the garden. His cat mints (two types), cat thyme, echinacea, chamomile, and cat grass lures a steady supply of cats, who have somehow worked out a detente with the birds, who have in tern worked out a timeshare with the bird bath between them, cats, and, curiously enough, honeybees. It’s like a miniature watering hole And the water, of course, is studiously refilled daily by very enthusiastic young boys who water it, themselves, and others at the same time.
As much as Perry cares about his cats and his bees (“Mama, I will plant a cat and bee garden, and they will come.”), Graham cares about his stomach. The garlics he has dotted throughout the garden are growing well. He checks the berry vines daily, wonders when the grapes will come, picks kumquats, points out the growing avocado, the oranges, tangerines, and peers at the blooming blueberry flowers to see if any are becoming blueberries. He reports regularly on the status of the strawberries (there are flowers! there are little berries! they are bigger today! they are not red yet!), and grins when he sees the tiny stevia leaves sprouting from last year’s stems (“Stevia is the only vegetable I like. But mama, you can eat that chard over there.”)
As for Rob and I, the garden provided something else aside from birds, bees, cats, flowers, fruits and vegetables. It provided to both of us peace, an escape, a meditation garden, space in an often difficult environment. We’ve had a lot of turbulence this year and with it came hard earned wisdom. Looming change in the future. But we know that the garden will continue doing what it does. In the coming and going through our door, the garden is always present. A buffer. A transition space. A place to just be. Be present. In the here and now.
Thank you again, and continually, for this, the garden, your warmth and community. As always, our gate is always open. There’s always a ready chair and a pot of tea on the ready.
Much love and thanks,
Nam, Rob, Perry, Graham, Oliver (resident cat) & a flock of chickens (bawk, bawk)
Are you interested in learning more about our Sustainable Backyard program and seeing what a thriving food forest looks like? Join us on Saturday, April 28th and Sunday, April 29th for our 2nd Annual Benicia/Vallejo Food Forest Tours! Do not miss out on the chance to tour “Greyhawk Grove” and nine other demonstration edible gardens, all fed by secondary water (roofwater and/or laundry-to-landscape greywater system).
Come see how rainwater retention in the ground and drip irrigation can work with various plants selected for their high-yield, food- producing capacity to create a vibrant, varied, wise water garden! Ask our food forest keepers questions, enjoy the gardens, be inspired and get ideas on how you can work these design principles into your own yard!
Food, environment and human health, local economy and resilient communities
By Elena Karoulina
Executive Director of Sustainable Solano
Image from Pixabay
When was the last time you had Solano-grown produce on your dinner table? The most possible answer is ‘never’, unless you grow your own food in your garden or your backyard food forest. It’s a very unusual situation for a Bay Area county that is still largely agrarian, at least in the land use patterns.
Sustainable Solano is embarking on a new project to bring more local food to our communities and to connect our local farmers, chefs, and residents with the gifts of our land and with each other.
At the very end of September we received great news from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): our proposal to further our vision by developing a business plan for Solano Community Food Centers was selected for funding! Annually, USDA funds about 14% of grant applications for local food projects, and we are honored to earn support on a federal level.
What is a Community Food Center? It is a hub for local food activities: CSAs deliveries, cooking classes, community education, and large kitchens where chefs and community members can cook wholesome nutritious meals. Larger Community Food Centers can include a food co-op.
Although Solano County produces close to $354 million worth of agricultural products and exports these products to more than 40 countries, only a fraction of that amount remains in the county due to weak distribution system, lack of sales outlets and somewhat low interest in local food. You can hardly find any Solano-grown products in our farmer markets, stores and restaurants. Small farmers struggle to hold on to their land and to connect with local customers.
Where do we buy local food? People who can afford it obtain their local ag products in the markets outside our county: Napa, Sonoma, Berkeley (thus spending local money outside our local communities). Some cities in Solano are blessed with Community Supported Agriculture, but not many people know about this option and take advantage of it. People with low means have to go without local fresh food at all. Solano is a county of commuters, and unfortunately, the only option available for families on a go is fast-food restaurants and convenience stores (you cannot find local food there!).
We pay dearly for this lack of access to local food with our health: Solano County is among the sickest counties in the nation. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease rates are above national average in our home county.
Food, human health, the environment and local economies are all interconnected; by creating a network of city-based Community Food Centers, there is potential to re-envision and re-construct Solano County’s food system so that it works for everyone in the local food supply chain.
Sustainable Solano has partnered with researchers at UC Davis, Solano County Department of Agriculture and Department of Public Health to conduct a feasibility study, develop an effective business plan, and outline implementation for local food businesses that aggregate, process and distribute locally-produced, healthy food products. Our big vision is the environmentally and economically sustainable, equitable local food systems in Solano County.
We are looking for urban and rural farmers, chefs and local food activists interested to implement this vision. We’d love to hear from you with your comments, suggestions, reflections, and offers to help. Please email directly to me at email@example.com
Let’s make it happen! I am looking forward to meet all of you at the official launch of the program on Wednesday, October 25, at 7 pm, at Benicia’s Heritage Presbyterian Church (doors open at 6 pm). Please join our Advisory Board members Dr. Feenstra and Dr. Campbell in the conversation about the future of food and why local resilient food system is so important. Come meet the project team and all of us interested to bring this vision to reality.
By Allison Nagel
Sometimes the hardest thing about finding something new is wrapping your brain around how to approach it. When it comes to permaculture and sustainable gardening, no online resource can replace seeing, walking through, discussing and getting down on hands and knees to install a food forest. That’s where my recent experience with Sustainable Solano has made such a difference.
Digging swales at Enchanted Garden, Day 3 of installations.
Before April, I had never dug a swale in my life. The thought of redirecting downspouts and digging swales was intimidating, as was the wonder and worry about what to plant where. Participating at the Enchanted Cottage Garden installation in Vallejo changed that, because it helped create the muscle knowledge of digging, filling and planting an actual food forest. With so many people involved, the work was fast and fun, and I picked up so many tips on creating a swale, laying sheet mulch, and planting trees, edibles and beneficial plants.
Food Forest Keeper Heather welcomes a tour group at the 7 Food Forest Tour on May 20th.
Seeing a garden at its very beginning was one experience, and the May 20 tour of seven gardens in Benicia showed what can happen in a year or two. Trees had flourished, producing fruit, and vines of raspberries threatened to take over their designated corners. In some cases, certain plants had not survived conditions that were too wet or too dry — and the forest keepers who owned and shared their gardens talked about relocating, replacing and replanting. Often the refrain came up that the gardens were “sink or swim” with plants best suited to the tops of hills, the sunny spots or the wetter spots given their chance to settle in and grow, but not coddled or forced.
One thing I’ve also learned that is just as valuable as any landscape or plant knowledge: There is a community of pretty amazing people doing this.
Sharing lunch and each other’s company on Installation Day 2 at The Ripple Effect.
During the time spent on the Enchanted Cottage Garden, I got to know the other volunteers, hear about what they were doing in their own homes and why they were volunteering on the project. We talked greywater and plants, but also about neighbors and community. I was sad to say goodbye on the last day and hope to reconnect at future events and projects.
In Benicia, each forest keeper who opened their gates to those of us on the tour was open and welcoming in discussing their gardens, offering up plants and offering advice. They shared how often they water their fruit trees, what struggled in one location and thrived in another, how they collected and let their gardens self-seed or how they were taking the ideas from their food forests and translating them into other parts of their yard. I spoke with some about how sharing the garden’s bounty with neighbors has fostered a stronger sense of community.
I left that tour with notes on each garden, a rough sketch of ideas for my own yard and a pivot in what I want to focus on first, moving my ambitions from the backyard to the front with what we might be able to start planting that could draw in neighbors (though, trust me, I certainly have plans for the backyard, too).
And, whether it’s finding a local source for wood chips, floating a question about plants or seeking out programs to further my own understanding, I know that there is Sustainable Solano and this community of keepers always there to help.