Conversation Circles Program Creates New Opportunities and Environmental Resources

By Gabriela Estrada and Jonathan Erwin, Program Managers

While the Conversation Circles program in Central Solano (formerly the Listening Circles program) has come to the end of its grant term, our commitment to increase the understanding of environmental issues that affect Solano communities is ongoing. Using what we learned through the Conversation Circles program, we will continue to help residents access important environmental, health and other data that you can use to inform decision-making within your community.

Toward that end, we have created our Environmental Resources section of the website, where you can learn more about some of the environmental and health factors that affect our communities and see resources at the county and city level when it comes to addressing environmental concerns and preparing for disaster. The pages also list organizations that are working in our communities.

We have robust data for Fairfield, Suisun City and Vacaville out of the Conversation Circles program, and hope to build similar data for our other Solano County cities going forward.

As part of closing the Conversation Circles program, we created a Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report where we documented the project, challenges and opportunities. Here are some of the newly created opportunities and lessons learned through this project: 

Connecting with Other Community Groups

Connecting with other organizations in each of the cities we worked with is key. These partnerships have opened the door for future collaboration efforts and further community engagement at a neighborhood level. Equally important, it also created an opportunity for us to combine efforts towards a common goal.

Building Trust and Showing Up

While we have a lot of partnerships with other organizations, this project brought us to a few neighborhoods that we’ve never worked in before. By collaborating with other organizations serving these areas, we were able to begin building trust and a sense of community. Sustainable Solano will continue to show up and create opportunities for engagement and will continue to work with community members in creating a happy, healthy and thriving community.

Connecting with Government Officials

Connecting with government officials gave the project manager a clear idea of the “lay of the land” to learn about the neighborhoods, the opportunities, the history and some of the potential challenges (both environmental and social) that a project might face. Connecting with government officials also created room for future collaboration efforts, including urban forestry efforts, community gardens and resiliency efforts through our other programs.

Increasing Reach with Support from Other Programs

We will continue to seek creative ways we can connect with community members through our other programs about the environmental data that affects their neighborhoods. 

For more details, read the complete Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report

We plan on building on these lessons to inform the Environmental Resources pages and the rest of our programs, including the Resilient Neighborhoods program, now expanding to Suisun City, and the Youth Leadership program.

As we have continued to scale our Resilient Neighborhoods program and our research across Solano County, we realize that there is a disconnect in the information on environmental progress and the general public access to that information. City and county plans are often spread across many websites and buried with departments and commissions. Within this cacophony of public information, it can be difficult to find what is relevant and what is most up to date within the county and selected cities. As we found with last fire season, and potentially any upcoming disaster, knowledge is power and can mean the difference between safety and struggle. We will continue to find ways to make that information more easily accessible within Resilient Neighborhoods and beyond.

The Youth Environmental Leadership Fellowship now in development will encourage high school youth to examine CalEnviroScreen and other data, examine environmental justice issues within the county and their communities, participate in hands-on mitigation training, and present to city leaders and community members about the environmental information and possible solutions at the individual, community and policy level. This will continue to engage the wider community through the youth presentations and projects, and the data they collect will make our Environmental Resources pages more robust throughout the county. 

Through these pages, we seek to emphasize relevant local work and organizations that share our mission of nurturing initiatives for the good of the whole. See anything we missed? Let us know at info@sustainablesolano.org

 

The Conversation Circles program and Environmental Resources page development was generously funded through the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program.

Permaculture Design Course Graduates 12 in Benicia

By Allison Nagel, Program Manager

The 2021 Benicia PDC class participants, instructors and homeowners

Solano County’s first Permaculture Design Certificate course wrapped up on April 10, with 12 students presenting their capstone design projects and receiving their PDC certificates.

It was powerful to see how this group used what they had learned to shape plans for four very different projects: One on a gradual rewilding of an aging DMV site to create a city park space; one envisioning the transformation of bare soil and turf at a city park into a welcoming space for enjoyment and reflection; one creating a healing garden space at a veterans home; and one bringing regenerative farming practices to a homestead that could support the family that lives there and supply food for their restaurants.

It was also powerful to connect with a group of individuals that signed up for the PDC program for a variety of reasons, from professional advancement to personal goals, but who all brought their passion, knowledge and desire to shape a better world to the course and their projects.

2021 Benicia PDC Slideshow


2021 Benicia PDC

The program was offered in Benicia through a partnership between Sustainable Solano and Benicia Adult Education. The PDC, which is an internationally recognized certification program, has 72 hours of standard required curriculum, but instructors bring their own expertise and insight to each program. We were lucky to have Lydia Neilsen and Anne Freiwald of Vital Cycles lead the PDC class in Benicia, which had a hands-on component focused on putting permaculture principles to use in a suburban setting.

The PDC demonstration project sheet-mulched the grass on the front yard of a Benicia home, dug an in-ground swale to capture rainwater from the roof of the house, planted guilds of plants that work together and support one another for a healthy ecosystem in the front yard, and installed a laundry-to-landscape greywater system that will take the used wash water and run it into mulch basins on the side yard for the plants there.


Video courtesy of  PDC participant Sylvia Herrera

I had the unique opportunity to pursue my PDC along with the class, allowing me to reach a life goal I set back when I first started volunteering with Sustainable Solano and learning about permaculture. The program wasn’t without challenges. COVID-19 caused huge shifts in when we could offer the course, and then we had to make logistical adjustments to be able to offer the course safely under the state’s higher education guidelines. We were so fortunate that Anne and Lydia looked for creative ways to offer the class in a combination of online and in-person instruction; and that homeowners Chris and Megan, our newest Food Forest Keepers, generously made their backyard available for class instruction while the front and side yard were being transformed through the class’ hands-on projects. I appreciate the patience of my fellow students who pursued taking the course despite these challenges and worked to get the very most out of it. Along with the education that came from the program, I also feel we created a community among the class that comes from working so closely together.

The PDC course was offered as a part of our Workforce Development program, which has been a part of transforming three Benicia yards into food forest gardens that are edible, waterwise alternatives to lawns, while educating landscaping professionals, life-long learners and high school youth on permaculture principles and sustainable landscaping practices.

We are already starting to plan for our next PDC course! Interested? You can find details here in the coming months. And feel free to email me at allison@sustainablesolano.org to be added to the interest list.

Congratulations to our 2021 Permaculture Design Certificate recipients!

John Davenport*
Scott Dodson*
Jonathan Erwin
Clay Ford
Karen Lee Ford
Sylvia Herrera
Ron Kane
Jason Lingnau
Allison Nagel
Katie Rivera
Jaxon Shain
Susan Worden

*Learn more about these participants on our Sustainable Landscaping Professionals page

The Benicia PDC program and demonstration project were funded through student fees, Benicia Adult Education, the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, and the Solano County Water Agency.

Get Back in the Garden: 2021 Garden Tour Reimagined!

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Time in any garden is well spent, and we invite you to spend time in a local garden on April 24 for our Annual Demonstration Food Forest Garden tour in Benicia and Vallejo.

We have reimagined the tour this year to safely open for private in-person, self-guided tours. In the past, our demonstration food forest tours have been a festive community event where many gather to tour. Last year, COVID precautions moved the event entirely online, but it was important for us to find a way this year to get people into the gardens. To do that, we invite you to choose an individual garden to tour for a 30-minute interval per household/family bubble. All participants will be asked to follow COVID safety rules, including wearing masks and staying at least 6 feet apart. You can select a garden and register here.

These diverse demonstration food forest gardens are on private and public sites and were installed by the community through educational workshops. They demonstrate how capturing secondary water, such as rainwater and laundry-to-landscape greywater, combined with healthy soil and waterwise drip irrigation can yield lush, food-producing gardens!

These gardens are so much more than examples of ecological features; they are a place to heal after a difficult day, a spot to watch seeds emerge, a place to grow food and pass on the excess, a place to gather to celebrate and to grieve, and a place where strangers become new friends. Each of these gardens has a name and a story and beautiful Food Forest Keepers.

A Food Forest Keeper is a caretaker of a demonstration food forest. Each year they agree to tour their food forest and to be an example on how to use space to create habitat, grow food and to educate and inspire others to do the same.

This is a rare opportunity to privately explore one garden within the safety of your family/friend bubble and to ask our Food Forest Keepers questions. Each garden is a unique experience: some are compact front yards, others are on a slope, some share space with animals and small children, some are allowed to grow without restriction, while others are more manicured. We hope you select a garden that interests you most and that you are inspired with ideas on how to work permaculture design principles into your own garden!

In 2022, we hope to go back to the tour being a community event where many can gather and we are looking for input from you. What would you like to see in the Demonstration Food Forest Tour in 2022? Please take this short survey.

The tour and Solano Sustainable Backyards program is made possible through the generous support of the Solano County Water Agency. The Resilient Neighborhoods program has been generously funded by the Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation Foundation.

Vital Cycles Brings Permaculture Instruction to Solano County

By Anne Freiwald & Lydia Neilsen, Vital Cycles

Vital Cycles is Anne Freiwald and Lydia Neilsen, permaculture educators based in Santa Cruz County. They bring together extensive backgrounds in community health and permaculture education and activism, and have taught classes to our local community through Sustainable Solano.

We are thrilled to be part of the diverse offerings Sustainable Solano provides the community! We have been consistently impressed and inspired by the commitment of Sustainable Solano and the larger community to regenerative practices and community resilience. Join us this January 2021 for Sustainable Solano’s first Permaculture Design Certificate Course (PDC), which we are kicking off with four free introductory classes so you can get to know us and get a taste of what permaculture is all about. See this link for more details.

Our first offering, Permaculture 101: Patterns and Principles, focused on three of our favorite patterns: the meander, dendritic branching and the keyhole bed design. Patterns provide tools for understanding the big picture as well as design ideas to integrate. Permaculture principles represent stories and ways of understanding that offer deeper perspective on how we interpret our landscapes and make design decisions. This shift in thinking is critical to our roles as members of and tenders within the ecosystems we inhabit. Missed this one? Check it out in the video above, or here.

This Saturday, Nov. 7, from 11 am-12:30 pm we will be taking a deep exploration of Soil, Water, and Plants. As gardeners, we are working with these three all the time, but do we really understand the nature of their interactions? How can we honor and enhance their interconnections and synergy on a backyard scale? How do they regulate carbon in our atmosphere and what is their role in maintaining local and global climate? Join us for an integrated perspective and practical examples for working with soil, water and plants, so that we can all move towards dynamic stability through ecological co-creation. Register here.

Our following talks will be on the parallels between our natural and internal worlds, particularly the cycles of sleep and water, and community and the permaculture concept of guilds (plants that work together to support one another). The sleep and water talk will be Dec. 12 and the guilds and community talk on Jan. 9 (registration will open soon). We hope you’ll join us for all of these informative talks and dive deeper into the study of permaculture with the PDC this January in Benicia!

Permaculture Design Certificate Course Coming to Benicia

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Program Manager

Permaculture education is a key part of Sustainable Solano’s mission, and that means not only educating the public through our hands-on workshops and online talks, but also offering ways for professionals to grow their knowledge and understanding.

That’s why we’re excited to bring our first Permaculture Design Certificate course to Benicia starting in January. The course offers an internationally recognized certification, though its appeal is widespread – from landscapers interested in enriching their design skills to individuals who want to create change in their communities. At its core, permaculture recognizes the strength of working with nature to encourage natural processes that result in healthy soil and abundant ecosystems. Permaculture can be used to design a landscape, neighborhood, community, organization or society.

Sustainable Solano’s 2021 PDC develops a broad understanding of permaculture and design that uses whole systems thinking, which looks at how everything works together as a part of a larger whole. This can apply to the environment, our internal state of being and our organizations and social systems. In this course, participants learn a standard 72-hour permaculture curriculum toward certification. Participants will also gain hands-on experience in designing and transforming a local landscape using design principles and incorporating the use of captured rainwater and greywater systems.

We are excited to bring Lydia Neilsen and Anne Freiwald of Vital Cycles to Benicia as the course instructors. Lydia, a longtime partner with Sustainable Solano, is a PINA certified permaculture educator, landscape and habitat designer, specializing in water cycle restoration and passionate polyculture. Anne is a passionate personal health and permaculture educator focusing on growing food in small spaces, working for over 25 years with individuals and communities on personal ecology and community resilience. They have an action-based perspective that highlights skills, practices and resources necessary for growth, creativity and vitality in person and place.

Curious to learn more? Lydia and Anne will be offering two free online introductory talks that will cover the foundations of permaculture. They will discuss Permaculture 101: Patterns & Principles from 11 am-12:30 pm Oct. 3, and Soil, Water & Plants from 11 am-12:30 pm Nov. 7. These are a great way to learn more about permaculture and to meet these wonderful instructors. The Patterns & Principles class will cover working with nature to create resilience – the very heart of permaculture design. The Soil, Water & Plants class will explore how these vast and interconnected systems work together to restore and maintain balance in local and global climates.

2021 PDC instructors Lydia Neilsen and Anne Freiwald

For those inspired by the talks or already wanting a deeper dive into permaculture, the PDC will offer a rich, varied experience with a small group of peers involved in online classes, hands-on experience and cooperating on a final design project. The program runs from January through April with all classroom instruction online and four hands-on weekends spent outdoors at a site in Benicia. The program is $1,200, with a 10% discount for verified Benicia residents.

Because of safety precautions due to COVID-19, we are limiting enrollment in the 2021 PDC. This will allow us to maintain physical distancing requirements, and we will take other precautions, such as sterilizing tools between uses, during the outdoor instruction. We will continue to work with Solano Public Health and monitor state and CDC guidelines to make sure the program meets the latest requirements.

For those with PDCs who want to brush up on certain topics or those interested in learning more about permaculture before signing up for a full PDC, there will be four online Friday Focus classes that will be open for public registration on a sliding scale. These classes are included as part of the PDC instruction, but are also being open to the public. We will have more details and registration open for these closer to January.

The PDC program will be partially funded by the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, which supports our goals of public and professional education, and measurable improvements for the city of Benicia. The free introductory permaculture classes are funded by the Solano County Water Agency.

Free Online Introductory Classes

Oct. 3 (11 am-12:30 pm): Permaculture 101: Patterns & Principles (Register here!)

Nov. 7 (11 am-12:30 pm): Permaculture 101: Soil, Water & Plants (Register here!)

Permaculture Design Certificate Course

PDC begins Jan. 29. Learn more and register here!

Questions? Contact Program Manager Allison Nagel at allison@sustainablesolano.org 

Share Your Inspired Gardens!

By Sustainable Solano

We know that many of you attend our demonstration garden tours, hands-on workshops, talks and classes with your own gardens in mind. Maybe you’re considering converting your lawn into something waterwise. Maybe it’s learning about groups of plants that work together to support each other. Maybe it’s the desire to grow food for your family and your community.

Often, we hear anecdotally about what inspired people to take action, from downspouts routed to swales to laying lots and lots of mulch. Now, we want to share your inspired gardens so your projects can inspire others! We’ve launched a new Inspired Gardens section on our Solano Sustainable Backyards page, starting with Colette and Daniel’s “Der Biergarten.” Sustainable Solano’s Land & Water Caretakers class worked with Colette and Daniel on their class design project, giving us a chance to get to know them and talk about their desires for the property. We wanted to share the beautiful transformation Colette and Daniel made to their garden that brings in various sustainable practices. You can find more on their garden here.

Do you have an Inspired Garden to share that reflects some of what you’ve learned? Tell us about it! Please submit:  Your first name, location, what inspired you, what action you took and 1-3 photos to info@sustainablesolano.org

Your inspired garden entry will be posted on our website to inspire others. If you live in Solano County or nearby counties, then you will be entered in an upcoming monthly drawing to receive a gift card from a local nursery of your choice:

  • Lemuria
  • Mid City
  • Morningsun Herb Farm
  • Grow a Pear

The winner will be announced each month during our online classes. Entries will remain in the monthly drawing and removed only once they win. Let us know how you’ve moved from inspiration to action!