4th Annual Demonstration Food Forest Tour a Reimagined Success

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Permaculture expert John Valenzuela shows the roof water outlet at Living & Learning garden in Benicia during the video tour

Our 4th Annual Demonstration Food Forest garden tour was very different this year, but still brought people together in new ways around the concepts of permaculture and creating waterwise, edible gardens. Permaculture expert John Valenzuela gave a talk over Zoom to nearly 100 people that included a Q&A session and a pre-recorded video tour with John in one of our 27 demonstration food forest gardens.

What also made this year unique was it opened up the opportunity for people from all over the country to be able to attend, even people from the UK and Canada! It was comforting to see all of the familiar faces and exciting to see new people as we are all adjusting to this new way of interacting through video conferencing.

We had to rethink the annual tour this year due to the pandemic and social distancing. The big vision is a community day of local people gathering to tour the gardens, get to know each other and learn about permaculture concepts that can be applied to their landscapes. The original plan was to begin the tour at Avant Garden in Benicia with John’s talk and then 14 demonstration food forest gardens would be open in Benicia and Vallejo for a self-guided tour. These gardens are open annually to educate the community on how to create beautiful and productive gardens that build healthy soil and use water wisely.

Knowing we needed to bring the tour to life in a new way this year, our Sustainable Solano team got into solution mindset. We found David Avery, a videographer that made the video of John touring Living & Learning food forest in Benicia. Then on April 25, John gave his live talk over Zoom and answered many questions on plants and fruit trees. For those who couldn’t make the live event, you can view the talk and Q&A in the video below.


View the Living & Learning tour video below.


Stay tuned for more! In May, we will record Lydia Neilsen touring The Ripple Effect and The Enchanted Cottage garden in Vallejo. At a later date, Lydia will present her Rehydrate the Earth talk in a live Zoom call. We are also creating a series of short videos on the elements that go into creating your own food forest garden. To stay on top of the latest, subscribe to our newsletter here.

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!

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

By Allison Nagel


Sometimes the hardest thing about finding something new is wrapping your brain around how to approach it. When it comes to permaculture and sustainable gardening, no online resource can replace seeing, walking through, discussing and getting down on hands and knees to install a food forest. That’s where my recent experience with Sustainable Solano has made such a difference.

Digging swales at Enchanted Garden, Day 3 of installations.

Before April, I had never dug a swale in my life. The thought of redirecting downspouts and digging swales was intimidating, as was the wonder and worry about what to plant where. Participating at the Enchanted Cottage Garden installation in Vallejo changed that, because it helped create the muscle knowledge of digging, filling and planting an actual food forest. With so many people involved, the work was fast and fun, and I picked up so many tips on creating a swale, laying sheet mulch, and planting trees, edibles and beneficial plants.

Food Forest Keeper Heather welcomes a tour group at the 7 Food Forest Tour on May 20th.

Seeing a garden at its very beginning was one experience, and the May 20 tour of seven gardens in Benicia showed what can happen in a year or two. Trees had flourished, producing fruit, and vines of raspberries threatened to take over their designated corners. In some cases, certain plants had not survived conditions that were too wet or too dry — and the forest keepers who owned and shared their gardens talked about relocating, replacing and replanting. Often the refrain came up that the gardens were “sink or swim” with plants best suited to the tops of hills, the sunny spots or the wetter spots given their chance to settle in and grow, but not coddled or forced.

One thing I’ve also learned that is just as valuable as any landscape or plant knowledge: There is a community of pretty amazing people doing this.

Sharing lunch and each other’s company on Installation Day 2 at The Ripple Effect.

During the time spent on the Enchanted Cottage Garden, I got to know the other volunteers, hear about what they were doing in their own homes and why they were volunteering on the project. We talked greywater and plants, but also about neighbors and community. I was sad to say goodbye on the last day and hope to reconnect at future events and projects.
In Benicia, each forest keeper who opened their gates to those of us on the tour was open and welcoming in discussing their gardens, offering up plants and offering advice. They shared how often they water their fruit trees, what struggled in one location and thrived in another, how they collected and let their gardens self-seed or how they were taking the ideas from their food forests and translating them into other parts of their yard. I spoke with some about how sharing the garden’s bounty with neighbors has fostered a stronger sense of community.
I left that tour with notes on each garden, a rough sketch of ideas for my own yard and a pivot in what I want to focus on first, moving my ambitions from the backyard to the front with what we might be able to start planting that could draw in neighbors (though, trust me, I certainly have plans for the backyard, too).
And, whether it’s finding a local source for wood chips, floating a question about plants or seeking out programs to further my own understanding, I know that there is Sustainable Solano and this community of keepers always there to help.

Day 1: Vallejo Food Forest Educational Workshops

By Allison Nagel


On Saturday, about 15 volunteers arrived at the Enchanted Cottage Garden for the first day of transforming the Vallejo home’s front yard into a food forest.

Eight cubic yards of mulch, a stack of cardboard and a nondescript patch of grass in the front yard greeted volunteers as they arrived. Blue lines detailed where swales would go; orange outlined the edges of the planned garden. Shovels, pickaxes, wheelbarrows and trowels waited at the ready.

We moved to the backyard where we learned what to expect for the day. Sustainable Solano Executive Director Elena Karoulina talked about the food forests the organization had created in Benicia — gardens that will be featured in the 7 Food Forests tour on May 20. She talked about bringing the program to Vallejo, starting with this day’s work.

Then it was time for Kathleen Huffman, owner of The Repurposed Oakie, to go over her plans for the front-yard food forest, with several fruit trees surrounded by bushes, lower vegetation and vines. She walked the group through the plan for the day to create something that nurtured the soil, starting with laying the groundwork on Saturday.

We shifted to the front of the house, where the volunteers gathered in a circle, taking a mindful moment to appreciate the ground beneath our feet and the way we would combine our efforts to achieve something bigger than ourselves for the greater good.

We started digging the trenches for the swales, roughly a shovel-blade deep by a blade wide. Earth piled up next to the swales, ready to be shaped into berms for planting. At the side of the house where the rainspout ended, we dug out another trench for the pipe that would funnel rainwater from the roof into one of the swales where it could spread out and soak in. Pickaxes were used to create tiny trenches around the edge of areas that would be mulched, digging out dirt and pulling up grass.

Stakes around the yard showed where various trees would go, including apple trees, Bacon avocado trees and a fig tree that had sprouted in a neighbor’s yard. Ever the learning experience, those of us who knew little about planting fruit trees worked alongside volunteers with intimate knowledge of the depth of the hole, the value of mixing in amendments with the local soil, the need to create rough edges on the sides of the hole and even how to face the tree so it could best grow in the sun and wind in that yard.

Once the trees were in and the swales dug and filled with mulch, there was a natural pause — a perfect time to take a break, sit in the shade and continue conversations started during the digging and start new dialogues over lunch.

Rested and ready after lunch, the group started the next stage, laying out and staking in the cardboard and then mulching, mulching, mulching. Teams worked shoveling the mulch, pushing it over the cardboard in wheelbarrows and raking it out 3-inches deep. Before long, the day’s tasks were over. Many hands had made light work, and the yard was transformed.

It was a wonderful day of collaboration and conversation and left us with a satisfying feeling of accomplishment to see what had come of those hours of work.

Saturday’s efforts will be followed by another day of work May 13 at the Enchanted Cottage Garden to put in the other layers of plants that will truly create a food forest retreat. Before then, on May 6, installation of a greywater system will take place at The Ripple Effect.