Garden Tour: Join Us For a Demonstration Food Forest Tour and Talk!

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Interested in learning how to turn your home into a sustainable, bountiful oasis? Curious about water, climate and practical solutions you can apply in your own backyard?

Join us Saturday, April 27, for talks and tours of 10 demonstration food forest gardens in Benicia and Vallejo.

These private back and front yards are open once a year for a self-guided tour. Each garden is a unique experience: some are compact front yards, others are on a slope, some share space with animals and small children, some are allowed to grow without restriction, while others are more manicured. They all are lush, food–producing gardens that are fed by secondary water sources (laundry-to-landscape greywater and rainwater). The food forest keepers (homeowners) will be available to share their experience and to answer questions about their custom gardens.

The day will start at 9 am with a presentation by permaculture expert Lydia Neilsen at Avant Garden in Benicia. This empowering talk provides an understanding of permaculture and practical solutions for how each of us can contribute to the restoration of the global water cycle and climate stability. From there, you will get to tour the food forest gardens and see how these practical solutions can be applied to your landscapes through simple designs.

The demonstration food forest gardens will be open 9 am-2 pm. Stop by Avant Garden between 9-11 am to pick up the list of gardens to tour. You can also sign up that morning to join Lydia on a guided tour of one of the demonstration food forests.   

At 2:30 pm, Dog Island Farm in Vallejo will host a guided tour of their working urban farm and the new Grow a Pear Nursery. Vallejo-grown plants will be available for purchase that day at both Loma Vista Farm and Dog Island Farm to add to or begin your own food forest garden!

Register here.

This program is made possible by the generous support from the Solano County Water Agency.

“Greyhawk Grove” Demonstration Food Forest: Third Year Anniversary Reflections


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!

Register here.


Our vision for Solano Community Food Centers is funded by USDA

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

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. 

Wise Water: An Informative Video from Sustainable Solano

For the past two years we’ve been working on our Demonstration Food Forests, with a major component of it being Wise Water use. Now, with the help of Constance Beutel, videographer extraordinaire, we wanted to share with everyone how very simple and replicable it is. Greywater workshops and installation workshops are always being offered. Please check our Events or contact Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Manager, for more information.

Swale Tales: An experience of the Vallejo Installations and 7 Food Forest Tour

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.

Curious about our Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Sites?

Learn about the plots, the schedules for the days, the families involved, and dive in to our community installation event!

The future Vallejo Demonstration Food Forests

The Enchanted Cottage Garden

The Enchanted Cottage Garden is a water-sucking, plain lawn that wants to become so much more for its family and its neighborhood! Join us in sheet mulching the lawn (the quickest way to replace a lawn–and provides great nutrients for the garden too!), and learning about the permaculture design we have to install a food forest here, incorporating the needs of a family with children, and their love of canning.


The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect is a work in process, already sheet-mulched to remove a lawn, with creative materials re-use, fruit trees, people space and many edibles and pollinators. Join us in adding in the extra laundry-to-landscape element and planting a fruit tree guild to showcase and add the 7-layer permaculture food forest aspect to this space to help it, and its owner, realize its full potential.


Installation Day Schedules

Enchanted Cottage Garden – Day 1

  • 9:00AM Registration with coffee and snacks
  • 9:30AM-10:30AM Presentation of designs and concepts
  • 10:30AM-12:00PM Creating groundwater retention and storage with swales
  • 12:00PM-1:00PM Lunch, provided by the hosts
  • 1:00PM-3:00PM Planting of fruit trees
  • 3:00PM-4:00PM Sheet mulching the lawn

The Ripple Effect – Day 2

  • 9:00AM Registration with coffee and snacks
  • 9:30AM-11:00AM Presentation of designs and greywater concepts
  • 11:00AM-1PM Split into two groups: Group 1 hands on pipe installation at laundry, Group 2  preparation of mulch basins and running lines to target plants in yard.
  • 1:00PM-2:00PM Lunch, provided by the host
  • 2:00PM-4:00PM Switch Group locations to finish inside/outside greywater so that everyone can have experience with the whole process

Enchanted Cottage Garden – Day 3

  • 9:00AM Registration with coffee and snacks
  • 9:30AM-10:30AM Presentation of designs and concepts
  • 10:30AM-12:00PM Planting
  • 12:00PM-1:00PM Lunch, provided by the hosts
  • 1:00PM-4:00PM Drip Irrigation basics: learning about and testing water-efficient drip irrigation to plants

This is a rough schedule, which may change due to weather, location, and volunteer interests/questions!


April 29  Register here. 

May 6    Register here.

May 13  Register here.


About the Food Forest Keepers


Introducing Julie

Julie is the keeper at The Ripple Effect, with hopes that health and happiness will ripple out from her garden. When she bought her house 2.5 years ago, she had three goals: build the soil, plant a diverse plant community for a thriving ecosystem, and get rid of the grass! She’s got a ton of projects going on, such as perhaps converting a shed into a chicken coop, improving the vacant lot next door, a mushroom farm…and re-using water with a greywater system!

She dreams of a green, caring, diverse world. Inclusive, Thriving. A little bit more unplugged. Homemade music. Poetry. Block parties. Clean water. Clean Air. Oil-free lifestyles. Walkable welcoming farmed urban areas. Aesthetic beauty in downtown areas. GREAT affordable public transportation. Lots more ferries on the SF Bay: Vallejo to the East Bay as well as San Francisco. Front porch checker games. Kids playing in the streets and cars slowing down. Perhaps a labyrinth or two in every town…


Introducing Melissa and Steve & Family

Melissa, Steve and  Maya (9) and Jacob (15)–shown in the picture–are the food forest keepers at Enchanted Cottage Garden. They have a small plot in the backyard with chickens, and have been wanting to grow more food for some time. They enjoy cooking and canning so would love a place for more herbs and veggies. They envision taking out the front lawn and putting in food plants and pollinators for insects.

They hope their yard will be a source of inspiration for others as well as a comfortable place for neighbors to gather. They live near a high school and kids often come by their house. They would like their own children to be more connected to nature. Melissa and Steve are lifelong Vallejoans and find it rewarding to give back to the community–through scouting, Participatory Budgeting, lemonade stands for pediatric cancer, and more. They are looking forward to welcoming the community to their come and combining the spirit of giving with their personal hobbies of cooking, canning, and chickens.