On the Fifth Anniversary of Our Garden

By Nam Nguyen, Food Forest Keeper

Nam provides yearly updates on her garden and how it ties in with everything else. Here is her latest update from the garden.

The wonga wonga is in bloom, reminding me with its bunches of cream trumpet blossoms that despite what our personal or communal pandemic worries are, spring is upon us. And that I had to take a moment to appreciate that the Food Forest that you all helped install is coming to its own. Why, it’s old enough to take off to Kindergarten. Or in its case, Gartengarten. And take off it has.

I joked the other day, as stories of toilet paper flying off the shelves and food goods disappearing left and right swirled around, that I had not even checked my toilet paper stores because have you seen how much lamb’s ear was growing in my garden? Likewise, walking through its ever-changing paths (The plants have their own mind as to where the annual beds should be and what shape they should take each year — this year a very forward third-generation artichoke has declared that I am apparently going to have a keyhole bed instead of two separate ones.)

This year a roommate moved in. She is a dear old friend needing port from a storm, and seeing the garden through her response is like re-living all five years anew. She is a gardener, and she is a trained chef — and from the moment she stepped into it, they loved each other. I saw how her tense shoulders relaxed as she inspected each little nook and cranny. How her daily attentions perked up the plants who were so used to the survival of the fittest ways of Greyhawk Grove. She naturally took to it, chopping and dropping like a pro, taking last years’ pruning to make a trellis for hoped for summer cucumbers, and understanding the energy of all who have come before. And even her laughing about me eating, not the watery-sweet jicama-like root of the yacon Nicole planted years ago, but the rather tasteless rhizome, made me cheerful. (If you were wondering, she spent a good afternoon gingerly digging out all the yacon roots, and then made a lovely crunchy salad out of it with sesame oil, lemon and herbs. I hadn’t seen her so satisfied in a long time.)

When I was sick, she stepped into the garden and came back with a wonderful witchy and delicious soup that she declared was made entirely from the food forest: arugula, onions, celery, parsely, potatoes, thyme, peas. I told her that having a food forest and a chef roommate was surely one of the best ways to ride out a pandemic.

Aside from food and nurturing though, gardens heal the soul. Five years ago I barely understood the concept, but now, when a curious listing for a garden educator in memory care facilities came across my path, it made perfect sense to me. This year I started working in residential facilities bringing the same elemental essence of joy and hope and community to two communities in Oakland and Lafayette.

The children (now three with our new roommates) are home for at least two weeks from school, probably more. But they are happy like the birds that flood the food forest, easily moving from the home to the garden — not the slightest bit stir crazy. Graham is already eyeing the flowers budding on the berry bushes in anticipation. He diligently collects eggs each day. As he was when just a toddler watching David’s Polish chickens, he is still the one that pays attention to and cuddles them the most. He hand-picks bugs for them (mama makes sure he washes his hands really well upon coming inside), hugs them, and pets all 10 of them.

Perry catalogues all the plants in his encyclopedic mind and is quite pleased that his cat garden visitations have increased by three new cats (and that he was gifted another catnip to handle the additional load by a cat-loving neighbor). He is already planning a shortbread stand for the garden tour this year, seeking to branch out from his lemonade of previous years. “Shortbread can sell for more,” he told me. “They keep for longer. And I can use more plants from the garden, like lavender shortbread, or cheese and rosemary, or thyme, or rose, or lemon, or maybe lemon verbena. Maybe some of the berries.” Last summer he went round and collected all the edible flowers (roses, calendula, nasturtium, batchelor buttons, violas) and made sparkling sugared flowers from them. It was only a matter of time before he moved on from lemonade. Perry and the garden inspire each other onward. (While I have moved on from envy to accepting his green thumb, and simply ask him to plant things that I really want to grow. Last year it was saffron crocuses.)

Eight-year-old Seffy, the newest chaos creature to the crew, loves to flip over logs and stones and is an ace as discovering all manners of worms, bugs, and interesting finds. I had to remain straight-faced as she brought over “this really large and amazing blue centipede!!” Five years ago, none of those would have been easily found in the soil.

To have a garden is to hope. And in these times, as in all the times past, your gift of time, energy, love, and life provides shelter and hope and energy to us (and an unknown number of other critters). I hope you know that this little 20’x20′ plot has grown into something much, much larger. There is a little bit of you in those memory care gardens, a little bit of you in every bit of food prepared or eaten from this garden. In the mischief, ideas, projects and caretaking by the children. A little bit of you that sparks through the hopes and dreams and joys and quiet tears and still moments of everyone and everything that takes from and gives to Greyhawk Grove.

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

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!