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.

 

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!

Garden Tools: A Resource for Building Community

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

One of the things we love to see in the neighborhoods where we have projects and programs are our community partners each contributing their own efforts to strengthen and grow these communities.

And when there are ways we can support other organizations with goals that complement ours toward building a just, equitable and sustainable environment, we are happy for the opportunity to do so. One such opportunity arose this summer.

Richard Fisher serves on the Vallejo Commission for the Future and Sustainable Solano’s Resilient Neighborhoods Advisory Board. He contacted us about a beautification project that he has spearheaded on the corner of Curtola Parkway and Solano Avenue. This corner has become a dumping ground for trash, furniture and other items, which gives a poor first impression of Vallejo.

Faith Food Fridays is located on this corner and provides an important service to the Vallejo community. The organization supplies food, clothes, household supplies and so much more to families in need. Beautifying this area would create a significant positive impact by giving a new face to Vallejo for people driving into the city and for the hundreds of families that visit Faith Food Fridays.

The vision of this project is to create an open-air art gallery and native plant garden to tell a positive story about the culture and love of the Vallejo community. The first part of the project was to clean up the corner and begin to rehab the soil by adding mulch. That’s where we were able to help.

Generous funding from the Solano County Water Agency and PG&E has allowed us to purchase garden tools used in various workshops and installations. When we are not using them for our own projects, rather than have those tools sit unused, we’re happy to offer them to community organizations as a resource.

Richard approached us about borrowing the tools for this beautification project so a large group of volunteers could get the work done in less time with more tools available. Angel’s Tree Care dropped off a load of free wood chips, and volunteers showed up with energy to clean up the corner and spread wood chips. The next step for the corner is still in the planning stages. Anyone from the community that has ideas or is willing to donate art, please contact Richard Fisher at: vallejocommissionforthefuture@gmail.com

As we enter into our busy season of landscaping projects and planting gardens, our tools will go back into regular use for our projects. But we still want to be a resource for community projects when those tools aren’t in use. If you are part of a community organization planning a project that needs garden tools, check with us for availability!

Dixon, Rio Vista Residents: Know the Perfect Spot for a Sustainable Garden?

By Sustainable Solano

Our Sustainable Backyards program has brought together communities around the county by creating waterwise, edible food forest gardens. These vibrant gardens have drawn in attendees from around the Bay Area for our annual tours as they seek out ideas for their own yards. Now, we want to hear from residents in Rio Vista and Dixon about your interest in bringing this program to your neighborhoods.

During the month of August, we will be assessing interest in food forest gardens at public and private sites where the creation of these gardens serves as hands-on educational workshops for local residents. Community members attend workshops that involve digging swales, spreading mulch, installing laundry-to-landscape greywater systems, and planting shade and fruit trees and surrounding guilds of plants that work together to create a healthy, vibrant garden. These workshops help participants gain the skills and knowledge needed to bring these ideas back to their own gardens and neighborhoods.

Do you know of a private or public site in Rio Vista or Dixon that would be perfect for sustainable landscaping and a food forest garden? Fill out our online Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form!


The Solano Sustainable Backyards program is made possible through the generous support of the Solano County Water Agency.

Learn How to Create a Food Forest Garden as Part of Vallejo’s First Resilient Neighborhood

By Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano and dozens of community members have been hard at work in the past few weeks creating the first Resilient Neighborhood in Vallejo through the new Resilient Neighborhoods pilot project.

Already, homeowners, neighbors and community members have come together to turn a water-hungry lawn into a water-wise front yard, dig water-grabbing swales to capture roof water and rainwater, and plant trees to offer shade and fruit and other beneficial plants. Projects have also included features such as a hugelkultur, which creates a raised garden bed using wood yard waste, and an herb spiral that creates microclimates for different herbs to grow.

Anyone interested in learning how to do these things hands-on will have another opportunity starting this weekend as volunteers take on the fourth home in this pilot project.

Come and see what it takes to transform a barren yard into a food forest garden oasis and bring these ideas back to your own home!

The free, educational workshops start at 9 a.m. and are scheduled until 4 p.m., though participants who can only give an hour or two are also encouraged to stop in. Lunch will be provided.

Here are the activities planned for the coming weekends (click the links for more details and to register for the free workshops):

There will also be a small celebration on June 29 to recognize all of the work that has been done to build this Resilient Neighborhood, ending the workday with a frozen treat for participants.

The workshops at this home are funded through the Solano County Water Agency. The Resilient Neighborhoods program is funded through the PG&E Corporation Foundation.

Celebrating Sustainable Landscape Designer Kathleen Huffman

By Sustainable Solano

Kathleen (center) watches the video tribute to her work

It was a bittersweet farewell for our sustainable landscape designer Kathleen Huffman last week as she finished her last food forest project for Sustainable Solano and prepared to move home to Oklahoma. Since first joining forces with Sustainable Solano four years ago, Kathleen has worked to shape and grow our sustainable landscaping efforts, building gardens and friendships along the way.

Videographer David Avery created this touching tribute video to Kathleen’s work and the mission that drives her.

Kathleen Huffman- The Repurposed Okie from David Avery on Vimeo.

Kathleen will be moving to take care of family, but also to bring her skills and knowledge to her 10-acre family farm, where she will showcase sustainability and permaculture. We look forward to seeing how she continues to share her insight with others and spread the seeds of more sustainable living.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share with you about the designers who are stepping in to help us with our future projects as we continue to grow our work on the strong foundation Kathleen leaves behind.