The History of Benicia Community Gardens

Our organization grew from its roots as Benicia Community Gardens into the countywide nonprofit we are today as Sustainable Solano. Here we share the history of the organization and how it began with that first community garden in 1999 and grew to become Sustainable Solano.

When the late Dr. Ed Swenson established Benicia’s first community garden in 1999 on property at East Second and Military owned by Heritage Presbyterian Church, he also envisioned creating a nonprofit organization, Benicia Community Gardens (BCG). From the early days of our existence, the primary mission of BCG was educational: to provide opportunities for people of all ages, skills and abilities to learn about and practice organic farming methods suitable for home yards and limited urban spaces. That very first garden, Swenson Garden, was named after Dr. Swenson in gratitude for his vision and his contribution to community sustainability at the time when this concept was not even widely understood.

BCG carried on Dr. Swenson’s vision that a community garden — a place of welcoming, invigorating activity and hands-on practice — can also produce a “second harvest” of important social, economic and ecological benefits. In learning to maintain nutrient-rich soils and to grow robust healthy food crops year-round, new gardeners became seasoned advocates for improved nutrition, public health, water conservation and better stewardship of our lands and waterways so that future generations might sustain themselves.

In 2010, a new Board of Directors established our second garden, Avant Garden, on a vacant lot for sale in the heart of Benicia – at First and East D streets. Avant Garden quickly became one of Benicia’s landmarks, a learning center for classes and workshops on many sustainable tools and techniques (gardening, urban farming, composting, chicken keeping and more) and a gathering place for our community.

Shortly after establishing Avant Garden, the Board went through a thorough soul-searching and strategic planning period. It became clear that our vision and mission were bigger than community gardening. We were ready to work with our expanded understanding of the community’s needs — a need for nourishment of bodies and souls (healthy local food), a need to protect the beauty and abundance of Mother Earth (thus “sustainable” food) and a need to engage in meaningful work.

In 2011 we ran a successful educational series where we showed films on the state of modern agriculture, deteriorating conditions of our soil, oceans and groundwater, and the relationships between human health and our environment. As a follow-up to this series, we introduced monthly educational community “What’s for Dinner?” potlucks, where we talk about local sustainable food, different food groups, their benefits for human health, the best way to prepare/cook, and local sources of this food. A physician, a health educator, and a professional chef lead these free, public monthly events on a volunteer basis. Our Community Conversations continue to engage the local community in sustainability discussions.

During our first year of educating our community on local sustainable food we realized how important it was to create structures in the community that provided the very food we were talking about! To talk was not enough; we had to bring local sustainable food closer. Our next logical step was to organize a Community Supported Agriculture center in Benicia. Our area is blessed with small farms, ranches and fisheries. Thanks to our efforts, the community now receives weekly deliveries of fresh produce, grass-fed beef, pork and chicken, sustainably caught fish and responsibly raised local seafood, local milk, cheese, honey, olive oil, eggs, and organic and fair-trade bulk products. Efforts to promote local CSAs continue today around the county, and our Local Food program seeks to strengthen the local food system in Solano County and educate the public about the importance of local food.

At the same time we began to transition our focus toward perennial agriculture. While everyone loves their annual food-producing plants (summer is not complete without tomato or corn!), as a society we will be more sustainable if we rely on perennial agriculture more than we rely on annual crops. Perennial agriculture requires fewer resources, can reduce topsoil losses and increases carbon sequestration both above and below the soil. Our first project in this direction was our Benicia Community Orchard. Planted on March 8, 2014, by a group of volunteers from “Common Vision” and BCG members, it consists of 25 fruit and nut trees. The Orchard is designed as an ecological orchard with a diverse understory of beneficial plants that support the fruit trees.

In July 2014, BCG was awarded a grant from the Benicia Sustainability Commission to bring the concept of permaculture to Benicia and to establish demonstration perennial food forests in our community. Perennial agriculture is considered more sustainable than our customary agriculture based on annual crops. Urban perennial forests are the most affordable and sustainable food source for an urban or suburban community, as crops are fed by laundry-to-landscape greywater and carefully designed systems of swales to collect and retain rainwater. This approach grew into Benicia Sustainable Backyards, which then grew into Solano Sustainable Backyards, a program which also set the foundation for our Resilient Neighborhoods program.

In 2015, we partnered with Small Business Administration of Solano County to establish “Land Caretakers” — a pilot training program in sustainable landscaping and urban farming. Together with our partners, we began training local people with some background in horticulture on sustainable urban agriculture methods — rainwater harvest and retention, sheet mulching, laundry-to-landscape greywater system installation, and edible perennial landscaping. This was our first step into professional development, which is now supported through our Youth Leadership & Workforce Development program.

While we made a significant improvement in access to local sustainable food in Benicia, we knew that some of our community members simply couldn’t afford any of these offerings. Throughout our existence, our gardeners donated excess produce to various local organizations helping people in difficult situations. In November 2014, we established the first “Community Share Plot” to grow and share the bounty of our gardens with the community members in need. The need for more community gardens around the county led to the creation of Solano Gardens, which brings community gardens to communities with limited access to fresh produce.

BCG began as a true community-based organization and continues that tradition as Sustainable Solano.