4th Annual Demonstration Food Forest Tour a Reimagined Success

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Permaculture expert John Valenzuela shows the roof water outlet at Living & Learning garden in Benicia during the video tour

Our 4th Annual Demonstration Food Forest garden tour was very different this year, but still brought people together in new ways around the concepts of permaculture and creating waterwise, edible gardens. Permaculture expert John Valenzuela gave a talk over Zoom to nearly 100 people that included a Q&A session and a pre-recorded video tour with John in one of our 27 demonstration food forest gardens.

What also made this year unique was it opened up the opportunity for people from all over the country to be able to attend, even people from the UK and Canada! It was comforting to see all of the familiar faces and exciting to see new people as we are all adjusting to this new way of interacting through video conferencing.

We had to rethink the annual tour this year due to the pandemic and social distancing. The big vision is a community day of local people gathering to tour the gardens, get to know each other and learn about permaculture concepts that can be applied to their landscapes. The original plan was to begin the tour at Avant Garden in Benicia with John’s talk and then 14 demonstration food forest gardens would be open in Benicia and Vallejo for a self-guided tour. These gardens are open annually to educate the community on how to create beautiful and productive gardens that build healthy soil and use water wisely.

Knowing we needed to bring the tour to life in a new way this year, our Sustainable Solano team got into solution mindset. We found David Avery, a videographer that made the video of John touring Living & Learning food forest in Benicia. Then on April 25, John gave his live talk over Zoom and answered many questions on plants and fruit trees. For those who couldn’t make the live event, you can view the talk and Q&A in the video below.

 

View the Living & Learning tour video below.

 

Stay tuned for more! In May, we will record Lydia Neilsen touring The Ripple Effect and The Enchanted Cottage garden in Vallejo. At a later date, Lydia will present her Rehydrate the Earth talk in a live Zoom call. We are also creating a series of short videos on the elements that go into creating your own food forest garden. To stay on top of the latest, subscribe to our newsletter here.

Design Workshop Guides Participants In Sustainable Garden Transformation

By Kassie Munro and Nicole Newell, Program Managers

Permaculture designer Ojan Mobedshahi leads the Sustainable Garden Design Workshop in Vallejo

We are continually striving to find the best way to provide as many people as possible with the tools they need to transform their outdoor space into a more regenerative landscape, but we don’t have the capacity to install gardens for every interested homeowner. We created the Sustainable Garden Design Workshop with the hope that this resource can help get more people started with one of the most challenging parts of a landscape project — the design. The workshop provided an opportunity for attendees to be guided by a professional designer through the whole systems thinking design process with a focus on wise water management, soil health and permaculture elements.

Mary and Ben were selected to be our first hosts. They opened their 120-year-old home in Vallejo for this workshop with the desire to have a front yard garden to showcase sustainability, share the bounty with their neighbors and create a place for their daughter to play. The class instantly received a ton of interest; it was full with a waiting list in a matter of days.

Permaculture designer Ojan Mobedshahi led the day’s workshop with the grace, insight and playfulness that we have come to expect from him. Ojan has partnered with us on designing the Resilient Neighborhood homes in Vallejo, and when this opportunity arose we jumped at the chance to work with him to develop a new offering for the community.

Ojan started the day’s discussion with an acknowledgement of place and asked attendees to honor the indigenous communities whose land we are residing on in Vallejo. He also spoke of the indigenous people whose land he lives on in Oakland, displaying respect and humility that set a mindful tone for the day. Lessons on fundamental permaculture and landscape design elements followed, which felt much more like a group discussion than a tutorial — Ojan has a way of making everyone feel at ease and open with each other. We discussed a range of topics from water cycles and management to the different use sectors around a home.

Participants in the workshop assessed the yards and worked on designs for their own properties

The learning continued outside where the group walked Ben and Mary’s front and back yards with Ojan’s guidance, completing a site assessment and beginning to identify real-world design challenges and opportunities for this space. Ben and Mary were incredibly candid with everyone about their challenges with the space, and there was a wonderful amount of wisdom offered by attendees who shared experiences in their own lives to add to the learning process. While this portion of the workshop focused specifically on one unique home and all its quirks, the teaching was deeply valuable and transferable to any space. The reality that most of us face with our yards is a complex web of existing features and nuanced obstacles (or a blank canvas, which can often be the most challenging of all!). Ojan taught us not what to think, but HOW to think and approach the design process the way he does in his role as a designer. After the site assessment, it was time to get all of the wonderful ideas down on paper. The remainder of the workshop focused on creating a design for Ben and Mary’s home and a working session for attendees to begin applying some of what they had learned to their own space. This time was a chance to brainstorm together, ask questions and collaborate.

This workshop, as with all of our events, served not only as a place to learn about sustainable landscaping practices but also as a time for people to connect with each other, sparking wonderful conversations. Mary’s dad, Larry, told us about spekbom, a succulent shrub that is being used to sequester carbon in South Africa. Ojan also talked about the other hat he wears: Not only is he a Regenerative Permaculture designer, but he also is the finance director for East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative. This organization works with the community to create a permanent affordable housing solution in the East Bay.

At the end of the day, Ojan was able to gift our host homeowners with a design for their property that they can use as a jumping-off point to begin their yard transformation, and we are so excited to see what they create! Our next design workshop will follow the redesign of an expanding demonstration food forest in Benicia. We hope to be able to offer more sustainable garden design workshops in the future. Keep an eye on our calendar for the latest workshops, and subscribe to our monthly newsletter for updates. Let us know if you want to bring a design workshop to your city or have ideas on other workshops that would help support your yard transformation by sending an email to mailto:nicole@sustainablesolano.org

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.

 

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.

Help Students Build Skills While Building Your Resilient Community

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Manager

Volunteers work on a lawn conversion in Vallejo’s first Resilient Neighborhood

Sustainable Solano is entering an exciting new phase this school year with our latest area of focus — workforce development — which is creating new opportunities for students and Benicia residents.

This year, our Land and Water Caretakers program for high school students will launch at Liberty High School in Benicia. Students at Liberty High will have a chance in the coming months to listen to engaging speakers and attend field trips to some of our Benicia Sustainable Backyards to learn about permaculture and food forests and build interest in sustainable landscaping.

Then, starting in January, students who join the Land and Water Caretakers internship training will have the opportunity to learn about what goes into creating and maintaining sustainable landscapes, building life and leadership skills with a strong hands-on component.

We are able to offer this program in Benicia thanks to a generous stream of funding. The program fits into our long-term vision of creating a sustainability curriculum for youth that helps them think about the effects their actions have upon the environment and society and how that perspective fits into work in landscaping, water conservation, the food system and energy.

As the new workforce development manager, I am excited about where we are headed with this vision and what the creation of this year’s program will bring to students and the community. We are already in conversation about growing the program.

Students who successfully complete the Land and Water Caretakers program this spring in Benicia will have increased insight into how systems work, better understanding of a range of green careers and have employable skills in sustainable landscaping. They will be eligible for a summer Permaculture Design Course (PDC) free of charge and the chance to earn a weekly stipend for assisting with that course, building financial literacy along with new skills. Those who finish the summer PDC will have an internationally recognized certification.

One of the benefits of the Land and Water Caretakers program is it not only gives students new knowledge, but can also help to make Benicia neighborhoods more sustainable. As part of their hands-on lessons, students will create edible permaculture food forest gardens at local homes that are fed by rainwater capture and greywater systems. We’re looking for those homes now.

The Living and Learning demonstration food forest in Benicia

We’re hoping to find Benicia residents who want to change to a sustainable yard, moving away from water-hungry lawns and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And we would like to find neighbors interested in creating something beyond a single sustainable yard — similar to our Resilient Neighborhoods communities in Vallejo that bring together several neighbors on the same street. Benicia properties will be selected for the Land and Water Caretakers program, which runs from January through April, and the PDC, which will be during the summer months. Property owners commit to the program as well as participating in future annual tours to let others see how sustainable landscaping techniques were incorporated into the garden.

If you’re a Benicia resident interested in this program, please fill out our Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form to find out if you might be a candidate. All forms should be submitted by Oct. 18 for consideration for this year’s program. Submissions after that date will be considered for future programs.

 

Mini Green New Deal for Benicia: Funding Will Make Education, Conservation Program a Reality

By Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano will launch a new program in Benicia that will bring sustainable landscaping training and skills to local landscape professionals and high school students while also helping Benicia residents turn their lawns into sustainable, waterwise food forest gardens in the coming years.

Significant funding provided for the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program is the result of three-party negotiations initiated by the Good Neighbor Steering Committee with Valero and the City of Benicia. The negotiations ended with adoption of a second amendment to the 2008 Settlement Agreement, which had been originally contracted between the GNSC and Valero over challenges the GNSC had posed to Valero’s submission of an addendum to the officially adopted environmental review of the Valero Improvement Project. The current amendment reallocated funds that had been previously distributed to other projects under the original agreement but were determined to be “nonperforming” as they had not been put to use as intended.

Alternatively, the GNSC proposed redistributing those funds to four worthy projects, which Valero and the city reviewed and finally approved. The chosen projects reflect water and energy saving aims that were terms of the settlement: $460,000 for an independent, Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program to be administered by a new nonprofit; $100,000 for Air Watch Bay Area, a public website capturing air monitoring data collected throughout the region; $450,000 for the city to create an Integrated Water Management Plan; and $440,000 for Sustainable Solano’s Community Land & Water Caretaker Program.

In late February, the Benicia City Council after long deliberation voted unanimously to approve the agreement as put forth by the GNSC and Valero — an agreement that will allow us to continue to grow the important work we do in the city where we first started with Benicia Community Gardens 20 years ago.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program is how it will incorporate education with conservation, helping to teach the next generation of leaders and landscape professionals through a hands-on education and certification program — a training room without walls.

Here are some main benefits of the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program as proposed:

  • Create a new program for Benicia residents to convert their lawns through sheet mulching into environmentally friendly food forest gardens and incorporate greywater systems and rainwater harvesting. These could be done free of charge or for a small fee for the property owner and would help residents reduce their water bills, create more sustainable communities and create more edible landscapes.
  • Offer training for local landscapers and horticulture graduates on rainwater retention, laundry-to-landscape greywater systems and edible landscaping. Those who receive the training would then be hired as contractors for the program. The program not only provides the training and pays for the installations, but gives these landscapers increased exposure to potential customers.
  • Offer internships for high school students to gain experience in sustainable landscaping, including calculating water re-use for the home and creating landscape plans.

The idea builds on the important work Sustainable Solano has done to create food forests within communities, which started with the Benicia Sustainable Backyard Program funded by the Benicia Community Sustainability Commission. That program was able to grow with funding from the Solano County Water Agency — using demonstration food forests in Benicia to inspire gardens in cities throughout the county.

It also draws from what we learned with the Land Caretakers program, funded by the Solano Small Business Development Center in 2016. That program gave us insight into the need for sustainable practices training among landscape professionals and inspired the idea to teach high school students those skills as a means of workforce development.

Based on what we learned from the Benicia Sustainable Backyard Program, a single house that is converted from a lawn to a food forest with laundry-to-landscape and rainwater harvesting systems can save 70,000 gallons of municipal water, divert more than 50,000 gallons of rainwater from the storm management system and make more than 30,000 gallons of that rainwater available for groundwater recharge.

Preliminary estimates show that if 300 Benicia homeowners participate in the new program, converting 300 lawns could result in water savings of 2 million gallons a year; 300 laundry-to-landscape systems would save 7.5 million gallons a year; and rainwater retention would save 14.4 million gallons a year — a total of 22 million gallons of water saved annually.

We are delighted to have a chance to once again plant the seeds of a new program in Benicia that could serve as a model for other communities.

We hope to share more with you about the program as we move forward!

Good Neighbor Steering Committee’s Commitment Pays Off

Our hats off to the five local Benicia women of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee for their tireless work over many years as “refinery watchdogs” to protect our air quality, community health and safety.

The GNSC first formed in 2000 to address the refinery’s change in ownership when Valero made the purchase from Exxon.

For their determination to negotiate with Valero and the City of Benicia to reallocate settlement funds, we thank GNSC members Marilyn Bardet, Mary Frances Kelly-Poh, Kathy Kerridge, Constance Buetel and Nancy Lund, and GNSC attorney Dana Dean. We also thank them for recognizing Sustainable Solano’s contributions to water and energy savings that will be realizable through our new Community Land & Water Caretaker Program.