Standing in her kitchen…

…Suzanne Briley looked out the window at the bustle in her garden. A group of people of various ages and backgrounds planted trees, leveled trenches to capture rainwater, spread cardboard and pushed wheelbarrows full of compost and mulch across her garden, shaping the space that would become a new food forest garden — a vibrant, edible, waterwise garden.

“Look at this,” she said. The sight touched her. As the group built the new garden, they were also building community.

This winter, two Benicia gardens have been transformed into demonstration sites of what can be accomplished with sustainable landscaping and permaculture practices to create gardens that rely on captured rainwater, greywater and drip irrigation. These are the first demonstration food forest gardens Sustainable Solano has built in Benicia since it created seven food forests at private homes around the city starting in 2014, launching what would become its Solano Sustainable Backyard program. Sustainable Solano is a nonprofit that started more than 20 years ago as Benicia Community Gardens and has since grown to include sustainable landscaping, building a local food system and bringing skills to the public and students.

The creation of these two gardens came out of a new leadership and workforce development program that is helping to transform Benicia yards in ways that save water and sequester carbon. In particular, Sustainable Solano is focusing on lawn conversions, greywater and rainwater — replacing standard lawns that can use up to 70,000 gallons of water a year with food forest gardens that when mature use about 20,000 gallons. In Benicia alone, the seven existing demonstration gardens save about 500,000 gallons of water a year with their lower water requirements and reliance on rainwater, greywater and low-water drip systems.

Sustainable Solano…

…started two Land and Water Caretakers courses in January. One is offered through Benicia Adult Education, while the other is a pilot internship program with Liberty High School students. Both are funded through the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, which focuses on bringing more water savings to Benicia, and have additional support from Republic Services.

Caretakers participants work with a designer through the process of meeting with homeowners, planning and creating a garden. They also learn about rainwater capture, laundry-to-landscape greywater systems that channel water from the washing machine out to trees in the yard, and installing drip irrigation. The lessons go beyond that hands-on work, with classes focusing on complex systems within a garden. Participants discuss healthy soil, conserving water, how plants work together within the system and beneficial insects. They also hear from experts, such as talks on personal and business finance from Travis Credit Union. Caretakers will take what they have learned from their hands-on garden projects and create garden designs for two other Benicia homes this spring.

Mayra Arce, a Vallejo resident, said she signed up for the Caretakers course to learn more about permaculture and how to create green spaces that serve a purpose.

“In my lifetime, I hope to one day be able to create a garden in my native El Salvador and bring this teaching to that community,” she said.

Suzanne’s yard was the demonstration site for the adult education Land and Water Caretakers program. Suzanne said her personal gardening philosophy aligns closely with permaculture, which in the garden promotes supporting natural systems and cycles — working with, rather than against, nature. She started her garden with an abundance of pollinator plants and wildlife habitat. When she heard about the new program, she applied to be an installation site.

“I wanted to have a beautiful permaculture garden that would inspire other people to do the same as well as making me happy,” she said.

She envisions making her garden an experiential education space where others, particularly children, can learn about nature. It’s a way of doing her part to make the world a better place.

“I’m extremely concerned about the future of the environment and saddened by people’s lack of connection to nature and lack of understanding of ecology,” she said. “I think education is a good way to turn that around.”

In addition to the adult education Caretakers students working with installation instructor Lauren Bennett and class instructor Shawn Carter on the design process at Suzanne’s home, there were three weekends of public workshops funded by the Solano County Water Agency. The workshops covered rainwater capture and sheet mulching to build healthy soil and sequester carbon, a laundry-to-landscape greywater system to reuse and conserve water and creating plant “guilds” that work together to create a healthy garden.

Kimyia Taylor with Challenge Academy in Fairfield brought six 16- and 17-year-olds to the first workshop.

Challenge Academy hopes to put in a fruit and vegetable garden that can provide food in the community. She wanted the young men to see what went into creating a garden and ways to do it that address waste and conserve water.

“We wanted them to see how much work it takes — it’s not an overnight process,” she said.

Other attendees were seeking inspiration for their own yards or wanted to learn more about permaculture.

The Land and Water Caretakers programs are only the beginning of Sustainable Solano’s leadership and workforce development work in Benicia. There are plans for additional educational programs, with all of the programs having a tangible impact through water savings and carbon sequestration that comes through hands-on projects that include lawn conversion, waterwise garden design and greywater systems. Sustainable Solano will be looking for more public and private demonstration sites in Benicia to support future instruction.

Converting lawns into waterwise, edible landscapes gives people a way to actively participate in solutions to many of society’s problems, said Shawn Carter, who is leading both the adult education Caretakers course and internship.

“When we build resiliency into our social and agriculture communities … we can proudly say we did our part on the micro level to regenerate the macro for future generations of plants, animal and human life,” he said. “We are the solution to all our problems.”




Ready to create a sustainable garden?

Check out for resources, classes and events. Benicia homeowners interested in being considered as a demonstration site for creating a sustainable yard can contact Allison Nagel at with program questions or to request a Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form.