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

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.

Honeybees

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).

www.zerowastesonoma.gov

Bioneers Experience Both Personal and Profound

By Gabriela Estrada and Kassie Munro, Program Managers

Gabriela Estrada (left) and Kassie Munro (center) at Bioneers. Photo by Santa Cruz Permaculture

Though there are many conferences out there, few present a balance between seemingly opposing concepts: the old and the new, the indigenous and the futuristic, science and spirit, and even fewer invite us to look deep back to the past and far into the future. Bioneers does just that. While shifting one’s focus to all of these different directions can make one’s head spin, in the end it becomes clear that considering all of these viewpoints is necessary to create the world we want to live in tomorrow. After all, to be pioneers of a better future, we must also be historians of our planet’s storied past.

Bioneers is an innovative nonprofit organization that highlights breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet. Founded in 1990 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by social entrepreneurs Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, Bioneers acts as a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with practical and visionary solutions for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges.

This 30-year-old event showcases a variety of speakers including authors, artists, scientists, Native American leaders and activists, and youth activists all ready and inspired to create a new world that works for everyone. They aim to create a “revolution from the heart of mother nature.” The conference was a combination of music, youth leadership, art, activism, social justice, environmental education, women leadership, ecological medicine and environmental conservation.

The conference began early on Friday morning with a drumming set and a performance by Climbing PoeTree, which immediately marked the tone of the next three days — a celebration for mother earth. It was difficult to choose only one workshop for each of the allotted time periods. How does one possibly choose between a conversation with Stuart Muir Wilson about Permaculture & Ecological Social Justice, an earth connection herb walk, a panel titled The Ground Beneath Our Hearts, among so many others? As we had an opportunity to connect with other attendees, it became clear that we were not alone in this dilemma, battling the constant fear of missing out on something important in another workshop. To the best of our ability we very purposefully divided up the workshops that were of most interest to not only us, but to the organization and the work we do at Sustainable Solano.

Fortunately the Bioneers organizers had guiding themes for each day which helped us to focus in on key messages and walk away from each day with tangible insights.

Here are some reflections on our favorite speakers from each day:

Day 1: Grief, Love and Power of Independent Media

Kassie: Terry Tempest Williams gave an enlightening talk about erosion to start the morning, not only as a powerful force in nature but as an alarming reality in America today. She urged us not to turn away from the devastating erosion we are witnessing to our democracy, science, compassion and trust — but to think of it as a force of evolution and creation rather than destruction and undoing, as we see it happen in nature when the elements create some of our most treasured natural wonders through forces of erosion, like the Grand Canyon. She instilled a mood of hope for what the future could look like, which is so important to keep alive in challenging times.

Gabriela: My favorite speaker of the day was Jerry Tello, who reminded us that stories are powerful reminders of the things we forget about ourselves, and that the work we do is healing — as such we need to remember the sacredness of us and that when those who hurt us heal, we heal. After his talk, not one eye was left dry. His incredible ability as a storyteller reminded us that we need to be grounded in the work we do because it is so much bigger than ourselves.

Day 2: Climate Justice and Resilience

Kassie: Saturday had a number of standout speakers for me. As a fan of both Bill McKibben (co-founder of 350.org) and Paul Hawken (author of Drawdown), it was exciting to hear them speak in person and embody their action-oriented, revolutionary, yet practical, vision for the future of our country and how to get there. I was also surprisingly moved by Valarie Kaur and her Revolutionary Love approach to transformation, likening the revolution needed in our world to that of childbirth and urging us to view labor as a form of love. All of these speakers reminded me that there is a path forward to a world that works for everyone and to stay dedicated to working toward that vision.

Gabriela: On Saturday I was captivated by a panel talk on Building Resilience in a Climate Changing World. The panel spoke about projects and strategies that have been deployed in our coastal, rural and urban communities in an effort to increase resiliency in those communities. They invited us to think about reversing climate change, not stabilizing it, and to make the climate change crisis message reliable to create collaborative solutions.

Day 3: Regeneration

Kassie: On the last day of the conference, I was thrilled to see Demond Drummer as one of the final keynote speakers. Demond is the co-founder of New Consensus, a nonprofit that helped drive the creation of the Green New Deal by supplying research and policy proposals to the deal’s political advocates. After two days of discussion centered on all of the systems-level changes that are needed in our country, it was extremely inspiring to hear from someone who is driving this work at the highest level. It can be so daunting and overwhelming at times to dive deep into all the challenges we are facing as a nation and as a planet, so to learn about his work advancing these ideas and values toward national-level action was a wonderful message to end the conference on. While we may not be able to change everything we would like to, that should not deter us from driving forward the things we can.

Gabriela: Sunday’s workshops focused on cultivating a culture of regeneration, from hearing Casey Camp-Horinek (councilwoman of the Ponka Tribe of Oklahoma) about the story of interconnectedness to a panel about Bridging Divides: Co-creating a Culture of Belonging. What stood out to me about this workshop was the new model that the panel speakers proposed: To move forward we need to create a model that would bridge the many divisions and polarizations that divide us. We need to create a culture of belonging.

It’s difficult to express in writing how powerful and moving these speakers were, so luckily you can find some of the keynotes here if you would like to listen for yourself.

Attending Bioneers for the both us was a tiring and intense experience, yet a very interesting one. The conference offered a space to learn from each other — from seeing art inspired by the environmental movements we are a part of to connecting with like-minded individuals from all over the country and the world.

The enormity of the conference and diversity of the topics covered felt a bit overwhelming at first, but in retrospect underscores a unique element of the conference — no two people will have had the same experience. You can feel this energy everywhere at Bioneers: that we are all here together yet every individual is living their own personal experience and that is what makes this complex world so dynamic and beautiful.

Students Make Real-World Connections Through Sustainability Education

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Manager

Instructor Brennan Bird works with students during a lesson on permaculture and systems thinking as part of the curriculum pilot program

Saving the environment, creating a better life, preparing for future jobs.

Perhaps the most telling part of the four-day sustainability curriculum and hands-on demonstration food forest installation at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School in Vallejo was what students answered when asked why these lessons were important.

“It gives us a new method of keeping the earth more green,” one student answered.

“We can apply it in our real lives,” said another.

Those insights and connections were a welcome outcome of the pilot program, which focused on creating a curriculum that introduced students to sustainable, systems thinking through learning about permaculture and water harvesting in class and creating the demonstration food forest garden that now sits on the hill above the school’s new amphitheater.

“Permaculture is more than just about gardening. It’s a whole way of redesigning our lives,” said instructor Brennan Bird, who was called Mr. B by students.

Students participate in a soil erosion lab with instructor Brennan Bird

The tie-ins between the lectures, lab activities and hands-on experience were cemented as students in science teacher Dr. Summer Ragosta’s class linked something learned in one class with another. For example, students learned how to dig trenches, or swales, to capture water and covered the hillside with mulch. A soil erosion lab from class showed them what happened when water was poured into different boxes of soil — with students watching as the box with mulch absorbed a large portion of the water poured into it while the box with bare soil meant muddy runoff. They then used this knowledge to connect why adding both plants and mulch will help to both mitigate erosion and stabilize the hill. They also learned how mulch is an important component of greywater systems that capture and store used household water, such as from a laundry machine, in mulch basins around trees and other plants in the yard.

The lessons were a part of Sustainable Solano’s work to bring sustainability curriculum into local schools. In the pilot program, Mr. B worked with students to create a cob bench in May and then created and shaped the sustainability lessons in October through funding from the Solano Community Foundation. The lessons corresponded with the installation of the demonstration food forest funded by the Solano County Water Agency.

Students install the school’s demonstration food forest garden with designer Lauren Bennett

Students learned about the first principle of permaculture, which parallels the scientific method in its simplicity — starting with observation. They applied math skills, like determining based on local rainfall and the size of a roof how much rainwater could be captured, and the best ways of storing it, whether in the ground or in rainbarrels. And they discussed specific projects and people working in the field that use these skills on a daily basis.

Mr. B also tied the lessons to current events, talking about the importance of conserving and storing water even as the Kincade fire raged and the school had to close due to the smoke from the fire nearby in Glen Cove, and the city of Vallejo urged water use restriction.

We’re thrilled about what students have taken away from the classes with Mr. B and grateful to SPSV and Dr. Ragosta for working with us to plan for and bring these lessons into the classroom.

This pilot was the beginning of a very exciting time for Sustainable Solano as we step into more work aimed at growing sustainability education. In January, we will launch our Land and Water Caretakers internship program at Liberty High School in Benicia and will start our Land and Water Caretakers Certification course through Solano Adult Education for those who are interested in learning more sustainable landscaping practices. We’re looking forward to the work ahead!

This Giving Tuesday, Support Sustainable Solano Through Give Local Solano

By Sustainable Solano

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

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

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

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

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

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.