Farm-to-School Program Brings Permaculture Campus to Markham Elementary

By Sustainable Solano

The Farm-to-School program will create a permaculture campus at Markham Elementary in Vacaville, turning areas of the school grounds such as this one into educational garden opportunities

Recognizing the importance of connecting children with food and the natural world, Sustainable Solano’s new Farm-to-School program will bring a permaculture campus to Markham Elementary School in Vacaville this spring.

This distributed permaculture garden of raised beds and fruit tree guilds will be installed by the school community with input from students, teachers and parents.

The Markham project is funded through a USDA Food and Nutrition Service Farm to School Turnkey Grant awarded in July 2021. For this school year, there were 176 grants awarded.

Patrick Murphy

While Sustainable Solano has established and supported school gardens through its Solano Gardens and Solano Sustainable Backyards programs, the new Farm-to-School program reflects the need to bring these approaches to more schools in a way that fits with educational curriculum and growing youth connection with urban agriculture. Farm-to-School Program Manager Patrick Murphy was hired to bring this project to fruition. Murphy is a lifelong Solano County resident and holds a degree in environmental science from Cal State East Bay.

“This project will not only provide seasonal fruits and vegetables to students, but will act as a living laboratory on the campus, allowing students to learn about the natural world and the science that drives our daily lives,” Murphy said. “I’m hopeful the project will grab the attention of students and spark a fascination with ecology and husbandry.”

The program will work closely with the Markham community to advance the permaculture campus project. The food produced on campus will be used by the school. The project also will create a toolkit for the process of establishing an educational school garden, that will include food safety, best practices from growing to harvesting, plant and soil resources, and relevant legal information. The hope is that similar programs can use this toolkit as a guide and resource.

The program is a partnership between Sustainable Solano, the Vacaville Unified School District, and the Vacaville Public Education Foundation, and will support a Wellness-Science-Agriculture Collaborative Program started by the district and the foundation that needs edible gardens to support science- and ag-based curriculum. The Markham permaculture campus fits into a larger farm-to-school plan in Solano County and will serve as a pilot site for growing the program within the Vacaville school district through the Wellness-Science-Agriculture Collaborative Program. The Solano County Office of Education is interested in developing curriculum that aligns with science standards to support the expansion of edible gardens at schools throughout the county.

We look forward to sharing more information about the project once it gets underway this spring. If you have questions about the Farm-to-School program, contact Patrick Murphy at patrick@sustainablesolano.org 

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.

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.

Winter in the Milkweed Garden

By Annina Puccio, co-founder and co-director of the Monarch Milkweed Project

Annina Puccio and Ann Whittemore started the Monarch Milkweed Project out of Benicia, CA, to increase the supply of milkweed available to Western Monarch butterflies as they make their way along their migratory path. We partnered with the Monarch Milkweed Project for an informative talk on Monarch butterflies, their population decline and how you can help! You can watch the video from the talk at the bottom of this blog post.

It has been a very successful spring and summer here in Solano County, spreading the word about how to support the Monarch butterfly population locally and spotting many of these iconic insects floating through our yards this year. Winter is the season to clean up the milkweed garden, as the last few caterpillars pupate in the fall and the final Monarch butterflies take flight for their over-wintering sites. It is also the time to begin preparing the garden bed for next year!

With shorter days, and chillier nights, native milkweed begins naturally to yellow and collapse. The roots continue to store energy for next year, so keep them watered and your plants should come back bigger and stronger than ever in the spring.

Native narrowleaf milkweed

However, if you have been growing tropical milkweed (asclepias curassavica), it is recommended that you remove it and replace it with native milkweed now. At the very least, cut the plants back almost to the ground.  This variety of milkweed remains evergreen and even may flower through the winter, which allows the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis Elektroscirrha (“OE”) to build up in the plant. This disease affects the Monarch butterflies’ overall fitness, reduces their ability to reproduce successfully, and can interfere with their migration. Instead, look for seeds of native milkweed. In our local area, showy milkweed (asclepias speciosa) and narrowleaf milkweed (asclepias fascicularis) are the recommended varieties to grow, so collect seeds to sow now or in the early spring.

When planting milkweed, the seeds need “stratification,” which is the process of breaking down the seed coating with moisture and cold temperatures. If you plant seeds directly outdoors now, the rains and winter cold will stratify the seeds naturally, and they will develop strong root systems by spring.

A very good resource for fall planting instructions can be found on the Monarch Butterfly Garden website, at https://monarchbutterflygarden.net/fall-planting-milkweed-10-steps/

Alternatively, you can store moistened seeds in the refrigerator for a few months throughout the winter (lay them out on moistened paper towels in layers in a large flat container), and then start them indoors in the spring in small pots or starter cells. Keep them warm and watered, and when they have 3-4 sets of leaves, plant them outdoors after the last frost has passed.

While you are planning your milkweed garden, do not forget about nectar plants to attract and nourish the butterflies. You can find a good list, tailored to California, by the Xerces Society at: https://xerces.org/publications/plant-lists/monarch-nectar-plants-california

While you are looking ahead to next year, a fun and educational winter activity is to visit a Monarch overwintering site. The most well-known and largest are at Natural Bridges, Pacific Grove (those are pictures of the Pacific Grove Butterfly House above), and near Pismo Beach, but they also have been spotted nearby on Mare Island and at Point Pinole. Use the map from Western Monarch Count here to find a site: https://www.westernmonarchcount.org/find-an-overwintering-site-near-you/

Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard in Benicia, Vallejo and all over Solano County to support the Monarch Butterfly. The overwintering population numbers are WAY up! A 3500% increase in Pismo Beach alone.

As the Monarchs move to their over-wintering sites, we are hopeful for other increases in population as well. Keep up the good work raising Monarchs and if you haven’t already, please consider joining our Monarch MilkWeed Project group on NextDoor: https://nextdoor.com/g/our9txeuo/

Learn more about the Monarch Milkweed Project here

Garden Champion Sylvia Herrera in the Spotlight

By Sierra Reinertson, Volunteer

This is a new feature highlighting the people who support Sustainable Solano’s work with their time, energy and commitment to shaping a better world while strengthening their communities.

Sylvia Herrera first became involved with Sustainable Solano three years ago, when the organization saw a banner she had placed in front of Armijo High School announcing to the public that there would be a community garden on campus. She didn’t realize how many people drove by and saw that sign. Several organizations and individuals reached out to her, saying they were interested in helping her make this happen. The power of a banner!

Sylvia Herrera

Since the very beginning, Sylvia has dedicated herself to the garden and has rallied her students and the whole school to participate in the garden and be closer to nature. As a Solano Gardens garden champion, she is constantly maintaining the garden (named Jardin de la Esperanza) to make sure her students and other Armijo staff have a beautiful place to enjoy. She is also constantly brainstorming ways to use the garden as a place of belonging and has hosted classes outside, Dia de Los Muertos and Martin Luther King Day events during lunch hour, and nutrition classes with her students — showing her commitment to her school community and nature.

Learn more about Sylvia and the work she does with us below!

What do you enjoy the most about the work you do with us?

While I enjoy technology, there is something to be said about being outdoors, hands-on learning, and the community working towards a goal together. There is something very empowering in that. Being in the open air is nice, it’s a nice change from being in a classroom; in fact that is why we have lots of seating in the garden, it can be used as an outdoor classroom.

What’s one experience or event that stands out for you?

An experience that stands out is when we actually installed the garden at Armijo. After all the talking, planning, getting things approved and what-not, the day finally came to start shoveling and making the garden a reality. The entire Armijo community turned out, over 500 students helped in one form or another. All my classes were out there shoveling, moving mulch, planting trees, you name it. Other classes helped out, as well as the football team, soccer team, the cheerleaders. I filmed everything, as did our multimedia department. It really brought the school together. Students I didn’t even know would come up to me and say, “Hey, Ms. Herrera, can I help?” The garden brought out the best in EVERYONE. … Group effort in every sense of the word.

What do you wish more people knew about Sustainable Solano or the program you volunteer with?

I’d like people to know that gardening/growing your own food is beneficial in so many ways. You are helping the environment, you are helping yourself by growing organic food that you can share with your family, and you are making the choice to eat healthier! Also, this program brings awareness to gardening, which connects to nutrition, and helping children make better choices with their food. One thing we do with our harvests is donate them to Armijo families in need, so it’s nice that the students see the garden going full circle. We are planting, nurturing, growing, harvesting and sharing our harvest with families who need it. This is very empowering and the students can literally see that the work in the garden is helping someone. The garden is a safe and positive space, and we need more of them at our schools and in our homes.

How do you envision a sustainable Solano County in the future?

I just see it growing and growing. Maybe bring back gardening/nutrition electives back to the schools. Having students learn how to prepare foods, that is always fun! Having students think about careers in the field of agriculture, the environment, sustainable gardens, nutrition, botany, etc.

Tell us something interesting that people may not know about you.

I like to knit scarves, especially during wintertime … they turn out pretty nice! I also like singing. I do a little karaoke here and there.

A special thank you to Sierra Reinertson for giving her time and talent to write these volunteer and champion profiles!

New Food Forest Garden Will Help Feed Vacaville Community

By Gabriela Estrada, Solano Gardens Program Manager

Participants install the Solano Gardens food forest garden for Vallejo Together in 2019

 

The latest Solano Gardens food forest installation will continue to grow Sustainable Solano’s projects in the city of Vacaville. We are excited to be teaming up with The Truth Outreach nonprofit organization in our efforts to keep working with community members and organizations interested in creating edible gardens based on principles of permaculture, to serve as a source of fresh produce and a source of inspiration in Solano County.

With support from the Solano Community Foundation, we will install our latest food forest garden through the Solano Gardens program. The Truthville Garden joins nine other food forest gardens installed through Solano Gardens since the program began in 2018. Solano Gardens aims to bring access to fresh produce, build community and teach sustainable landscape techniques to communities who might have limited access to fresh produce.

The future site of The Truthville Garden in Vacaville

About The Truth Outreach

The Truth Outreach is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing people with tools that enable social, economic, health and spiritual wholeness through media and community outreach. They offer support services in the community; including working with youth-mentoring organizations in juvenile halls, supporting local soccer coaches and kids and supporting Bay Area churches with events open to the public.

With support from the garden champions, Ebere and Deji Sonoiki, this garden will feed employees and contractors of their radio station, the families of the soccer coaches and kids, the local church congregants, proposed mental health training tutors and program participants, and neighboring families.

Installation details

The first installation day will take place Saturday, March 20, from 10 am-4 pm. Activities will include sheet mulching to build healthier soil, planting trees and an understory of beneficial plants, and creating two hügelkultur beds. Get tickets here.

The second day of installation will be April 17 from 10 am-4 pm. During this day, we will build gopher-safe raised beds from reclaimed barn wood and build a trellis from repurposed wire that will be used to increase vertical food production!
Get tickets here.

These workdays will follow the latest county and state guidelines for COVID safety as well as Sustainable Solano’s guidelines, outlined on the registration pages. Individuals or family bubbles can sign up for one-hour shifts at the site.

To learn more about Solano Gardens, click here.

Raised Bed Project Provides Food Access

By Gabriela Estrada, Solano Gardens Program Manager

People often say that it takes a village to perform really great things. As a program manager with Sustainable Solano, I can tell you that is true. After all, nothing is done in silos and often some of the best programing I’ve accomplished has been with the support of my team and partner organizations. The collaborative South Vallejo Raised Beds Project has been just that: a collaboration between Food is Free Solano, The Vallejo Project and Sustainable Solano. This partnership’s goal is increasing food access for those living in food deserts and who are interested in growing their own annual fruits and veggies.

Due to the collaboration between these three organizations and other community partners, we will be able to fill 12 raised beds ranging from 1 foot by 4 feet to 4 feet by 8 feet. To date, we’ve received 36 requests! We will need to go back to the drawing board to see how we can match all of our community needs with the very limited funding opportunities out there and ensure that we achieve the mission of increasing food access in South Vallejo. All in all, there have been some very exciting opportunities that have arisen from this collaboration, and I hope to see where this collaboration project will take us!

Learn more about the partners below.

The Team

Food is Free Solano

Food is Free Solano’s mission is to connect local neighborhoods in Solano County with easy-to-access free food from many food stands managed by community members. There are a number of Food is Free stands throughout the county, and the organization is currently located at the Vallejo Fairgrounds, providing food boxes through a USDA Farmers to Families Program. Due to their amazing work, they have a wide network of folks all over the county. While they do not specialize in gardening, a project like building raised beds to increase food access made a lot of sense. After all, in their food stands they often have community members donating starter plants. It was with this in mind that Food is Free Solano Executive Director Heather Pierini reached out to Sustainable Solano and The Vallejo Project for support.

The Vallejo Project   

The Vallejo Project’s mission is to empower youth to realize their fullest potential by connecting them to enrichment and development opportunities in the trades, art, wellness and culture. Because of their objectives, they have a wide network of professional carpenters who stepped forward to help when the Vallejo Project’s Executive Director Adjoa McDonald asked for support in building the raised beds for individuals who needed it. While they could have stopped at building the raised beds, they took another step and provided transportation so that we could deliver the raised beds to their new owners in South Vallejo.

Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano’s mission is Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole, so when Heather called to ask if we could team up, we saw a natural fit. While we had never done anything solely with raised beds before, Sustainable Solano does have a number of online videos and virtual gardening resources on our YouTube channel, as well as our website’s plant resources, soil resources and water resources. Given the emphasis of the Solano Gardens program, we have a Garden Care Plan that was adapted for growing produce in raised beds. And with funding from the Solano Community Foundation, which awarded us funds for the Solano Gardens program, we were able to purchase soil and seeds for the raised beds.

Other Collaborators

There were other people and organizations that made this project possible, including our newest addition to the Solano Gardens program in Vacaville. The homeowners donated wood panels from their barn that were repurposed into raised beds. We will be building a garden at their home on March 20 and April 17. If you would like to support the installation, click here.

We also count on nurseries like Mid City Nursery in American Canyon, who gave us a nonprofit discount and are always ready to answer any gardening-related questions.

Please be on the lookout for where this project might go and ways that you can support should you choose to!