Share Your Inspired Gardens!

By Sustainable Solano

We know that many of you attend our demonstration garden tours, hands-on workshops, talks and classes with your own gardens in mind. Maybe you’re considering converting your lawn into something waterwise. Maybe it’s learning about groups of plants that work together to support each other. Maybe it’s the desire to grow food for your family and your community.

Often, we hear anecdotally about what inspired people to take action, from downspouts routed to swales to laying lots and lots of mulch. Now, we want to share your inspired gardens so your projects can inspire others! We’ve launched a new Inspired Gardens section on our Solano Sustainable Backyards page, starting with Colette and Daniel’s “Der Biergarten.” Sustainable Solano’s Land & Water Caretakers class worked with Colette and Daniel on their class design project, giving us a chance to get to know them and talk about their desires for the property. We wanted to share the beautiful transformation Colette and Daniel made to their garden that brings in various sustainable practices. You can find more on their garden here.

Do you have an Inspired Garden to share that reflects some of what you’ve learned? Tell us about it! Please submit:  Your first name, location, what inspired you, what action you took and 1-3 photos to info@sustainablesolano.org

Your inspired garden entry will be posted on our website to inspire others. If you live in Solano County or nearby counties, then you will be entered in an upcoming monthly drawing to receive a gift card from a local nursery of your choice:

  • Lemuria
  • Mid City
  • Morningsun Herb Farm
  • Grow a Pear

The winner will be announced each month during our online classes. Entries will remain in the monthly drawing and removed only once they win. Let us know how you’ve moved from inspiration to action!

More Sustainable Landscaping Education Programs Planned for Benicia

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Program Manager

Students in the 2020 Land & Water Caretakers certification course do a soil test at the project site

As we plan for an exciting slate of programs based in Benicia for 2021, we want your insight on what sort of workshops we should hold in the city — what is most interesting to potential participants as well as property owners. These workshops will help to strengthen and expand the programs we piloted in Benicia at the beginning of this year.

These Benicia programs support our goals of public education through class instruction and public workshops, targeted sustainable landscape professional education for adults and high school interns, and measurable improvements for the city of Benicia, including water savings, improved soil health through mulching and keeping organic matter on-site, and planting trees and understory plants for carbon sequestration, food production and heat island mitigation through shade and evapotranspiration, which moves water through the plant from the soil to the leaves where it can evaporate and cool the air.

Our Youth Leadership and Workforce Development programs in Benicia launched in January, bringing instruction and certification programs through adult education and high school internships. We offered our Land & Water Caretakers program in partnership with Benicia Adult Education to participants from around the county looking to build their sustainable landscaping design skills for use in their careers, seeking new work and at their own homes and in their communities. Working with Liberty High School’s award-winning Learning Through Interests program, we offered an internship that taught students about sustainable landscaping and systems thinking while building hands-on skills that they could put to use in further study or future careers.

Participants in both programs worked on creating demonstration food forest gardens in Benicia: Wild Cherry Way and Giardino su una Colina (Garden on a Hill). Shawn Carter and Maleik Dion of Resilient Solutionaries were the course instructors for both programs and designers for Giardino su una Colina, and Lauren Bennett was the designer for Wild Cherry Way.

At Wild Cherry Way, the Adult Education Caretakers worked alongside their class instructor and garden designer to create a backyard food forest complete with three fruit trees and a laundry-to-landscape greywater system. The Caretakers went through the design process and then joined in three public workshops to dig swales for roofwater capture, work on the greywater system and put in the plants and drip irrigation. It all added up to nearly 33,000 gallons of possible annual water savings for the property. The Caretakers then took what they had learned from that process and created a design for another Benicia property based on their knowledge and what the homeowners wanted for their backyard. Funding for the program and the public workshops came from the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, the Solano County Water Agency and student fees. Republic Services donated compost for the Wild Cherry Way project.

Liberty High School students in the Land & Water Caretakers internship work on their project site

At Giardino su una Colina, the Liberty High Caretakers went through a similar process with their instructor, learning about permaculture design, meeting with the homeowner, and, through a front-yard lawn conversion, creating a demonstration food forest that introduced the concept to neighbors and others. The students dug swales for roofwater capture, sheet mulched, constructed guilds of plants that work together and replaced the sprinkler system with drip irrigation, resulting in a possible annual water savings of more than 96,000 gallons for the site. Students then used what they learned to design their own guilds and create a sample design to earn the certification. Funding for the program came from the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, and Republic Services provided lunch from Benicia restaurants for the days the students worked on the installation.

There were challenges, perhaps most noticeably how the shutdown from COVID-19 affected the conclusion of both the adult education and internship programs, with final presentations moving online and the cancellation of planned field trips. We are already planning for our next Land & Water Caretakers course through Benicia Adult Education and high school fellowships for this coming January. We are also planning to offer Sustainable Solano’s first Permaculture Design Certificate course in Benicia starting in January! You can find more information here and we will provide exciting updates in the coming months.

For all of these programs, we are figuring out what we can offer online and how to best hold outdoor workshops that are safe and adhere to the guidelines from Solano Public Health, the state and the CDC. We also want your insight on what to offer. While this year’s Caretakers courses focused heavily on permaculture design, for the coming year we are trying to offer a variety of workshops in Benicia that would be open to the public as well as those enrolled in the Caretakers certification programs. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to convert a sprinkler system to drip irrigation, or you want to create a guild of supporting plants around an existing fruit tree, or capture all of that rainwater off the roof during the rainy season.

If there are workshops you would like to see in the year ahead, please let us know by taking this quick Benicia Workshop survey. And if you are a Benicia resident interested in hosting a workshop either on your own property or a community site, such as a church or school, please fill out our Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form.

Questions? Contact Program Manager Allison Nagel at allison@sustainablesolano.org 

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!

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.

 

From Bleary-Eyed to Eye-Opening: Experiencing Cob Construction and Curriculum

By Maxfield Shain, Volunteer

Maxfield Shain incorporates a math lesson into the cob-bench construction at St. Patrick-St. Vincent school.

I woke up, bleary-eyed, to a mother (Sustainable Solano’s Nicole Newell) that seemed clear, coherent and insistent that I wear flip-flops to the cob site. This was at 5 in the morning, mind you. She claimed that she was just as exhausted as me, but I was dubious, and not particularly looking forward to the rest of the day. Little did I know it was going to be a heartwarming gathering of teachers and students who collaborated to make a cob conglomerate of a bench (I mean that in a good way, I promise.). But this was before I had become cob enlightened, or “coblightened.”

So all of you Sustainable Solano readers may be asking: What is cob? Well, cob is a combination of sand, soil, clay and straw that, when mixed correctly, forms a substance that is initially like mud. But after a couple of days of drying, it hardens to the point where you can touch it without dirtying your hands. Think of it like sustainable concrete, a concrete that responds to the ebbs and flows of the environment.

Brennan Bird talks with students about the properties and tensile strength of the cob material.

So we get to St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School, 7:30 in the morning at this point, and I meet Brennan Bird, or Mr. B, as he insists his students call him. We walk up to the cob site, and he has already got a foundation with bamboo set up for the cob bench. When we started filling up foundation bags for the project, I take note of the mud and rocks everywhere, and reflect on how dear mother wanted me to wear flip-flops. Whilst shoveling clay and molding the bench, I was glad I didn’t take her advice, but instead wore boots.  At this point the students came for their environmental science class, and I had to pretend I knew what I was doing for the first several hours or so while working with the kids. After several more classes, with the help of Mr. B’s presentations, I felt like a master of the trade.

Some of the steps in making the cob and building the cob bench

While we were making the bottle bricks (plastic bottles filled with plastic film garbage to stabilize the bench), many of the students were hesitant to get their hands dirty. Prom had just ended, and all the girls still had their nails done. But with gentle encouragement, most of the students joined in on the cob-making. The next day, I even got to teach a class of freshman and sophomores a little bit of algebra from my engineering academy days. All in all, it was a great experience for everyone involved, and I’m looking forward to the day I can make my next cob masterpiece.

The cob bench project Maxfield writes about is a part of the exciting new partnership between Sustainable Solano and St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School that combines projects such as the cob bench and a demonstration food forest garden with the development of a sustainability curriculum. The curriculum pilot is made possible through funding from the Solano Community Foundation’s ED Plus grant and the demonstration food forest installation is funded by the Solano County Water Agency. Learn more about the program in the press release here and in this Vallejo Times-Herald article.

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.