When Chard is Not the Only Gift

By Maggie Kolk, SuSol Board Secretary

Maggie Kolk is our board secretary, and she and her husband, Jack, oversee Avant Garden in Benicia. Maggie is currently working on her Master Gardener certification, and wrote this blog for the UCCE Master Gardeners’ Under the Solano Sun, where it was first published. We loved this story of connection at Avant Garden so much that we are republishing it here with Maggie’s permission. We join Maggie in inviting you to visit Avant Garden!

“I would love to have some of that beautiful chard” a small voice called out as I was locking the shed at Avant Garden, where I volunteer as the garden coordinator. The sun was setting over the Carquinez Strait, the infamous Benicia wind was picking up as the temperature was quickly dropping. I wanted to lock up and get home. When I looked up, I recognized a slight, elderly woman pushing her poodle in a dog stroller. I had seen her many times before and always smiled and said hello, but she never acknowledged my greeting. “I would be happy to gather some for you,” I called out as I walked toward the garden fence to talk with her. She shook her head and touched her right ear. As I got closer, she said, again pointing to her ear, “I can’t hear, I’m deaf.” Well, that explained why she never returned my greeting! Leaning over the fence, I was close enough for her to read my lips. I again offered to gather some of the garden’s chard for her. I explained that at Avant Community Garden, in addition to individually “owned” members’ raised beds, we also plant a “share plot” where we grow veggies for the Benicia community, and she was more than welcome to share in our bounty. She gladly accepted and I gathered a bunch of beautiful crisp red and yellow striped chard, bagged it, and handed it to her.

In a lovely British accent, she then proclaimed that what I had just done by giving her the chard was the highlight of her day. “You see, what is happening in Ukraine has brought back so many terrible memories.” With tears in her eyes, she went on to explain that as a child in London she lived through the Nazi bombing known as the Blitz and had spent days underground with her family trying to survive. She was about to celebrate her 89th birthday and she could not believe that she lived to see the horrors of war in Europe again. But the beautiful chard … she would go home and call her family in the UK and tell them what a wonderful gift she had just received. As she parted (yes, I had tears in my eyes now) with her little dog and bag of Swiss chard, I asked her name (Julia) and assured her that any time she saw me in the garden she was welcome to stop by for a chat, chard or any other goodie we might have growing at Avant Garden … and she does! That day, Julia herself was a gift to me. For the last five years that I have been volunteering as garden coordinator, I never know who or what gift will present itself, but I know I will be surprised and grateful.

The share plot soil has been prepared and amended, the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, and basil planted, the drip lines secured and the timer set. It won’t be long before the zucchini is ready for harvest and we can begin sharing the summer bounty with Julia and the others in our community. Avant, one of two Benicia Community Gardens, is located on First & D Streets in Benicia and welcomes visitors to stop by to enjoy our lovely garden, relax under the oak tree and chat with our neighbor’s very friendly chickens.

2022 Benicia & Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Garden Tour Slideshow

By Sustainable Solano

We were so excited to visit with those of you who attended this year’s Benicia & Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Garden Tour on April 23. It was uplifting seeing so many people able to return to the gardens, have meaningful conversations with the Food Forest Keepers and each other, reconnect with old friends and make new acquaintances. We appreciate all of you who attended and hope that you will join us for upcoming events (including the Fairfield & Vacaville Demonstration Food Forest Garden Tour on June 4), workshops, talks and more if you are inspired to bring some of these waterwise approaches to your gardens.

Learn about this year’s gardens here. And view the slideshow below to see each garden and some highlights from the day. Thank you to everyone who shared their photos!

Benicia & Vallejo Tour Slideshow

2022 Benicia & Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Tour

This program is made possible by the generous support from the Solano County Water Agency.

Growing Healthier Plants and Ecosystems Regeneratively With Biology

By Michael Wedgley, Permaculture Designer and Soil Food Web Lab Technician

We are excited to be working with Michael and Hampton Bay HOA on the designs for two pilot sites that will demonstrate how lawn in common areas can be replaced with low-water, low-maintenance sustainable landscaping that is healthy, beautiful and natural. Here, Michael shares about the importance of healthy soil biology as part of that equation.

Michael Wedgley meets with a client in a permaculture garden he designed with healthy soil biology in mind.
Photo courtesy of GMC Photography and Video

Growing with biology is a decision to strike symbiosis with the natural world and allow natural systems to support the life of your plants. We can create greener, more vibrant ecosystems that support wildlife and humans more effectively and abundantly. We eliminate the need for toxic and time-consuming applications to “feed” plants and keep disease and pests at bay. By introducing biology into systems that are lacking and nurturing their establishment we can achieve balance in a system that allows us to let go of the wheel and let nature take over. This blog is meant to give a brief introduction to the natural process in action that allow for this transition.

Learn more about the Hampton Bay HOA project and Permaculture Designer Michael Wedgley on our HOA Projects page.

Who Are the Players

Fungi – Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a group of organisms known as Fungus. There are Fungi that break down material like leaves and wood, Fungi that form beneficial relationships with plants, and Fungi that parasitize plants. Fungi is the dominant nutrient-cycler in an old growth forest.

Bacteria – There is aerobic (oxygen preferring) and anaerobic (lack of oxygen preferring) bacteria. Most beneficial soil bacteria is aerobic; most disease forming bacteria is anaerobic. Bacteria help to mine nutrients from parent material and create structure in soil.

Nematodes – Nematodes are like microscopic worms. There are 3 primary groups to be aware of; bacterial feeding, fungal feeding, and root feeding. Root feeding can cause plant disease.

Protozoa – Large single celled organisms that feed on bacteria.

Nutrient Cycling

By ensuring that soil has adequate numbers of each of our microbial populations we eliminate the need for fertilizers. All soils have the necessary nutrients for plants to thrive. The biology in the soil makes those nutrients plant available through the nutrient cycle. This semi-complex interaction starts primarily with bacteria and through predation by nematodes and protozoa, excess nutrients are released into the soil.

Diversification and Disease Prevention

By ensuring that we have high and diverse populations of beneficial microbes we ensure there is no room for disease organisms to dominate and thrive. In general, just as in the human body, disease organisms in the soil and on the surface of the foliage of plants need a weak ecosystem to establish and thrive. By creating a diverse and abundant ecosystem of microbes we create a system that is impenetrable by diseases and pests.

Fungal to Bacteria Ratio and Weed Suppression

By customizing the ratio of the amount of Fungi in the soil to the amount of Bacteria in the soil, we can actually select for which plants we want to grow and eliminate weed species. To understand this, consider an old growth forest. You’ll notice that there are ferns, there are large coniferous trees, but nowhere can you find your typical garden weeds. The reason for this is the form of nitrogen released by fungi. This form of nitrogen (ammonia) is a lower ph. This is why you hear people say “blueberries prefer acidic soil.” On the other end of the spectrum (bacterially dominated) you have early succession plants like grasses. This is because the exudates created by bacteria are more alkaline. You don’t see many trees in prairies. Applying different compost preparations that have higher fungal to bacterial ratios we can begin to affect the ratio in the soil and have healthier plants and select against weed species.

Thermophilic Compost

The process in which we create compost to ensure the highest diversification of beneficial organisms and that we are able to eliminate pest organisms is through Thermophilic Composting. Using a diverse source of material, in the right balance, while maintaining aerobic conditions we are able to raise the temperature of a pile to the point that disease and pest organisms are destroyed while beneficial ones are left to thrive given the rich and diverse foods provided. We monitor the pile’s biology by assessing it under a microscope. Once the biological numbers are at our desired numbers it is ready for a number of applications.


With a microbially dominant compost that has our desired ratio we can apply the microbes through 3 primary applications.

  1. Direct compost applications – This application is recommended if the organic matter is lacking in dirt we wish to grow in. We can either till in some compost or apply to the surface of dirt.
  2. Compost extract – In this application we actually extract the microbes out of the compost and they become suspended in water. We can then apply this as a root drench to put the biology right where the plants will use it, or at areas of compaction where the bacteria can begin to loosen it up and create aerobic conditions with improved soil structure.
  3. Compost teas – Once we have an extract, we can “brew” it by adding oxygen into the water with some foods for the microbes. We let the extract bubble with aeration for roughly 24 hours while monitoring the growth under a microscope. Given time, bacteria and other microbes are able to multiply and form glues that allow them to stick to surfaces. We then spray this compost tea on the leaves of plants giving them a protective barrier from disease-causing organisms as well as allowing for nutrient exchange on the foliage of plants.

The number of applications necessary to establish a resilient and sustainable colony of beneficial microbes in the soil varies given many variables. The best way to picture what it takes is to think of settlers settling America, according to Elaine Ingham, microbiologist and researcher who created the Soil Food Web approach. Sometimes the first to arrive didn’t survive or few survived. The next ship was better prepared, or there were some settlers previously that made conditions slightly more hospitable so more were able to survive. Every subsequent ship going forward led to increasingly successful population growths until they became sustainable and reproduced and growing. It is the same with the microbes, and varies depending how hospitable or inhospitable the soil is to begin with, and how well it is protected during colonization.

Fertilizers, Pesticides, Salts, and Chemicals in Water

In establishing and maintaining healthy plants and healthy soil in a biological method we need to ensure the health and safety of the organisms. We must become caretakers of the invisible life that populates the soil beneath our feet and the foliage up above. A critical piece of this care is to ensure that their environment is not compromised by salts or chemicals which can completely eradicate the microbial populations. Fertilizers are a form of salts. All salts will dehydrate the cells of the microbes and cause death. Pesticides are created to destroy life. Even “targeted” pesticides have unwanted casualties and can upset the balance. Lastly chlorine and chloramine in water are designed to ensure lack of microbial growth in the pipes and therefore can do the same in your soil and on your plants. It is extremely important that we understand how fragile ecosystems can be. In general, these natural systems are extremely resilient, but when humans come in with their toxic approaches we upset the balance. Nature will always find a way back towards its attempt at turning everything into an old growth forest, but that takes time. If we want to have healthy and natural environments we have to help the biology along and make sure we don’t destroy it with our products.

Avant Garden Scavenger Hunt Offers Fun Outside Activity Amid the Pandemic

By Maggie Kolk, Sustainable Solano board member and Avant Garden coordinator

These cousins take a break from the scavenger hunt to eat

The premier Kids in the Garden event was a scavenger hunt at Benicia’s Avant Garden, COVID-19 version. It proved to be a super successful, fun, educational and tasty event.

Bright orange ribbons rippled in the morning breeze identifying the ready garden plots as eager young hunters assembled to make their way through maze of Avant Garden. With yellow cards for ticking off their discoveries in one hand and bags to retrieve goodies in the other, 12 masked explorers between the ages of 5 and 11 gathered, in a COVID-19-compliant manner, on a sunny July day to escape the confines of pandemic restrictions and have some plain old outdoor fun. Raised garden beds chockful of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash and the larger Avant share plot scattered with Halloween-sized orange pumpkins and red peppers, were fair game for the young hunters.

As Avant Garden coordinator, I organized the scavenger hunt with the help of Raquelmarie Clark of WAHEO: We Always Help Each Other, who recruited the young hunters through her social media connections.

The group met at the big freshly painted picnic tables to collect their hunting tools: lists of garden veggies, pencils and paper collection sacks. With instructions to collect only from the orange ribbon areas, they set out to identify or collect their treasurers. Eleven-year-old Toni, with cell phone in hand, was assigned the role of chief Googler to help with mystery plant identification. Shouts of “I found a tomato!” and “There’s a zucchini!” or “Can I eat this?” could be heard as the girls and boys filled their bags with freshly picked veggies. Mid-scavenger hunt, a dad arrived with arms full of goodies to celebrate the fifth birthday of one the young collectors. The kids gathered around to enjoy juice, cookies and fruit and shower the birthday boy with good wishes.

When time was called, with overfilled bags in hand, the hunters huddled around to share their stories and bounties, which included large pumpkins, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and a few peppers. Zucchini muffins made with zucchini from the garden were enjoyed by everyone before the final project of the morning. Each child was given a pot filled with soil along with seeds for planting marigolds. While planting the seeds, a pop quiz on what plants needs to grow was enthusiastically answered with shouts of “water! … dirt! … sunlight! … and love!”

Everyone, parents and kids alike, left Avant Garden with contented smiles and shouts of appreciation, looking forward to the next Kids in the Garden event, which is planned for Oct. 3. Kids in the Garden events are for kids ages 8-12 (kids under 8 may attend but must be accompanied by an adult over 18).  Attendance is limited to 12. Registration is first come-first served. Register here!

Benicia Community Gardens Annual Meeting 2017

Share Plot Harvest, July 2016

Benicia Community Gardens Annual Meeting on February 18, 2017

After a brief welcome by Marilyn Bardet, Board President, our executive director, Elena Karoulina, explained that the Benicia Community Gardens and Orchard are now part of Sustainable Solano.  In the past few years Elena and the Board have added many new initiatives, including 7 food forests in Benicia and consumer supported agriculture programs to supply residents with sustainably sourced vegetables, meat, fish, and other food products.  The food forests have saved an impressive amount of water. These accomplishments caught the attention of Solano County officials, who asked our group to bring some of these programs to other parts of Solano County.  So the name change reflects the new and broader mission of bringing sustainable food (in many forms) to Solano County.

The group then heard from the coordinators of Avant Garden, Swenson Garden and the Community Orchard.  Avant Garden is almost full, but many of the beds at Swenson are empty.  The Share plot at Avant Garden provided over 700 pounds, an impressive amount of food!  All 3 coordinators requested increased participation in work days.  As discussed last year, people who did not provide the minimum hours last year will be charged extra this year.   Annual agreements were signed and the annual fees were collected.  Agreements and fees for 2017 are due by March 21.  Contact your garden coordinator if you missed the Feb 18 meeting!

2017 Preview from Executive Director Elena Karoulina


Dear friends of Sustainable Solano,

As I am looking back at the eventful and transformative year of 2016, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all people who helped co-create Sustainable Solano: the Board, our volunteer leadership team, our funders and supporters, and all of you who made a personal commitment to make a difference, to participate in something bigger than ourselves, to nurture heart-based initiatives for the good of the whole.

In 2017 we will continue to refine and shape the vision for the organization, to deepen our understanding of our current situation and to develop strategies to help making Solano County more environmentally and economically sustainable, socially just and personally fulfilling place to live and work.

We will continue with meaningful conversations in the community, beginning with a seven-week “Game Changer Intensive” offered by Pachamama Alliance as a follow up to the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium. Everyone can participate in this program! Our goal is to provide opportunities for face-to-face meetings in Solano County allowing us to deepen the connections we felt so profoundly with each other at the Symposium and to engage with each other in new and existing initiatives that facilitate change at the local level and beyond. Learn more and to register.

Our sustainable landscaping efforts will continue with monthly tours of Benicia demonstration permaculture food forests, installation of demonstration gardens in Fairfield and Vallejo, and a series of talks and workshops in Benicia, Fairfield and Vallejo – watch for regular updates on our calendar.

We invited professional landscapers, both established and new, to explore our Land Caretakers Program. Sustainable Landscapers Association of Solano County is forming now – please email info@sustainablesolano.org if you are interested in learning more.

Calling all the players in Solano local food movement to get to know each other and to join our efforts to create a robust, healthy, inclusive local food system in the county. We are planning to have a Solano Local Food Summit in the spring of 2017. If you are interested to learn more, please email info@sustainablesolano.org.

For cooking classes and talks on healthy, local food throughout the county, please check our calendar regularly (and let us know if you would like to promote your efforts of brining wholesome local food to our communities through our website and newsletter).

I am looking forward to see you at these upcoming programs and events. Please let me know if you have suggestions, ideas or questions. I wish you a peaceful and restful holiday season!

In gratitude,
Elena Karoulina
Executive Director
Sustainable Solano