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Seven Acres on a Hill – Homestead, Permaculture, and Soil

 
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Background:
I never knew permaculture was a thing. I accidentally happened on this site while doing some research on improving soil quality. Since then I have been reading extensively due to the quality of the information here. Anyway, I have slowly and accidentally been developing a “homestead” on a piece of property over the past decade. The property is just over seven acres on one section of a hill. It is located in East Tennessee. This is a rural non-suburban setting. House was built on the top on a clearing where a thicket of dead pines (killed by pine beetles) were. Have cleared a few more areas of less desirable growth for specific needs, trying to avoid taking out healthy mature trees.

My wife and I work full time, we have young kids. As far as structures go, we slowly built a low energy house ourselves. Planning to build a detached garage/workshop in a year or two. Equipment wise I have used older but decent truck/trailer/tractor with a variety of tools and attachments. Basically enough to accomplish most anything I set my mind to.  More projects than time.

Most of the property is still wooded, probably an acre-ish clearing where the house is, clearings under/around the power lines, and clearings in a few scattered spots. One corner is the remnants of an overgrown field.  
 
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I'm also in e tn and have a field that got overgrown.  welcome theres lots of great people and resources here,  I did not have the means to keep this open field mowed down as previous property owner had and it has been 4 years and it is so thick with growth now it will take huge resources to clear it again. stuff grows wildly here very rapidly
 
John Young
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Permaculture Plans

The basic “permaculture” plans are to begin slowly growing a larger garden over time, to offset food expenses with an eye to one day becoming largely food independent. This is for both financial and resiliency reasons. I have cleared a quarter acre-ish garden spot for vegetables to replace the single 4x12 raised bed. I also plan to plant fruit trees (next few years) and nut trees (this year). I ordered and plan to plant sweet pecan trees from the TN forestry service (there are already hickories on the property) and I have a few roadside Chinese chestnut seeds chilling in the fridge. I do not yet have firm plans on the fruit trees, other than to have a variety. I would also like to plant some sugar maples with an eye to tapping them in the future. Not really planning on having large animals at this point, maybe some chickens someday (maybe) for eggs.

In terms of “permaculture zones”, the property is split by power lines with 1/3 below and 2/3 above. My current plan would be to deem the lower section the “wild animal” zone, and the upper section the “tame area”. Note I have had to move where I was planning to put things prior to finding this website to allow this layout.

There will remain some natural areas in the upper part, but from a fencing standpoint it would be more straightforward to fence the deer and other large animals out of the entire upper part versus fencing each garden/tree area individually. Not to mention deer resistant fencing should be good for excluding the random two-legged animals from the house and equipment.

I will be doing some limited intervention in the lower area, to include planting some trees where others have died, recovering logs from dead/dying trees, etcetera. May also create some intentional brush piles/ rock habitat areas. This probably doesn’t fall into the strict definitions of a zone #5 area, hopefully the animals will appreciate it for what it is.

The spot under the power lines I have considered planting rye or other grasses as a small source of hay/straw. Not much area in all, but I don’t use that much not having animals. The power company seems to do more trimming than spraying through here.
 
John Young
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Soil Health (actually Dirt Status)

Soil on the top of the hill is red clay, the “topsoil” is a thin layer of brownish clay. The soil survey calls this “Palio” and “Fullerton” soil. Second growth forest on most of the property. The property at the base of the hill is seasonally wet, soil survey calls this Tasso-Minvale. From a farming/gardening standpoint, we have done a raised bed and small garden plots for several years with mixed success. Raised beds do ok mixed with lots of amendments, slightly raised ground beds do next to nothing as plants stop growing once the roots hit the clay. Plant wise, we are in zone 7. Our dirt (not yet soil…) leaves much to be desired, and I have had to resort to tilling in organic materials in the lawn area just to get grass to grow (because I am not watering a lawn). That allowed me to get a passable stand of weeds to mow around the house.

My biggest concern with any sort of planting is the soil, or lack thereof. I have read many of the very good threads on this forum on the topic, and I am sold on the techniques therein to work towards having dirt that is actually soil.

For the annual garden, I am planning on tilling in compost, organic matter, cover crops, soil amendments, bio-char, etcetera until the dirt is halfway decent, then would do no or minimal tilling/turning (only as needed). The area was cut earlier this year, and has been subsoiled to break up the concrete like compaction, and is currently seeded in crimson clover which has sprouted.

For the nut tree areas, I am planning on wood chips on the surface to build the soil as they break down and mulch. To that end, I recently purchased a PTO powered wood chipper. Yes I can get cheap/free wood chips, but I also need to deal with tree brush from some of my clearing, plus I have another section I need to clear and probably do some selective thinning. The fruit tree area may get some light soil amendments prior to the woodchips.

Water is another concern. We have a deep well on the top of the property for the house, but extended watering (or forgetting the hose is on…) will run it dry. To date we have only watered our raised bed and some annual rye grass seed used for stabilizing dirt against erosion. I have a tank suitable for temporarily rainwater catchment. I would like to do a nicer below ground setup in the future. I also daydream about putting in a shallow well in the lower part of the property just for garden watering, but have concerns it would only run in the winter.

The main strategy for water will be having the soil hold more and evaporate less and use watering in extended drought, which unfortunately is usually a yearly occurrence around here anymore. I have in the last few years lost some nice big chestnut oaks randomly across the property for seemingly no reason, probably residual drought stress from years back, several other trees are showing signs of stress. The areas vacated by these lost trees are the primary spots for planting new/different trees or placing structures.

Anyway, I am open to any and all ideas. I post on forums to get some feedback, and try to post updates that will hopefully help others. I know I just threw out a lot of information on a lot of subjects. All this stuff has been jumbling inside my head for a long time, and I just now found a suitable place to post it.

 
John Young
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bruce Fine wrote:I'm also in e tn and have a field that got overgrown.  welcome theres lots of great people and resources here,  I did not have the means to keep this open field mowed down as previous property owner had and it has been 4 years and it is so thick with growth now it will take huge resources to clear it again. stuff grows wildly here very rapidly



Bruce,

Thanks for the warm welcome. I know what you mean about the rapid reforestation and not always having the equipment or time to prevent it. The fields around here get overgrown so quickly, even with animals on them they end up a forest unless you bushog annually to keep the seedlings down. My acre-ish field was open to the neighbors cattle field years back, but the cattle barely came on it as the field renter just fed hay and didn't do anything that didn't turn profit, like bushog. I didn't own a bushog until recently, and previously didnt have time to figure out another way to keep it clear. I was able to re clear out some small pines from that part by pulling them up with the tractor front end loader, another year or two that wouldn't have been an option. Kept me from having a ton of tiny stumps around. That area is most likely where my pecan trees are going. I don't mind forest, just dont need so many pines jammed in there...
 
bruce Fine
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have you gotten any pecans yet? there is a pecan tree out front that previous owners brother told me is 20+ years old it isn't very big maybe 20' and it never produced pecans. I planted  25 native sweet pecans I got from the state 2 years ago and they got flooded real bad last year, this winter I'll get back in where they are and check em out. anyway I have a 20hp wood chipper if you are not too far and want to make some wood chips.
 
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John, welcome to Permies! I found it pretty much the same way you did. In fact, for every topic I researched, I found some of the best answers here at Permies forums.

Sounds like you're doing an excellent job of analyzing your property and your soil. I'm curious, have you sketched it out as a map yet? It would be interesting to see as you discuss your findings and plans.
 
John Young
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bruce Fine wrote:have you gotten any pecans yet? there is a pecan tree out front that previous owners brother told me is 20+ years old it isn't very big maybe 20' and it never produced pecans. I planted  25 native sweet pecans I got from the state 2 years ago and they got flooded real bad last year, this winter I'll get back in where they are and check em out. anyway I have a 20hp wood chipper if you are not too far and want to make some wood chips.



Bruce,
I also ordered 25 native sweet pecans from the state, mine haven't arrived yet, due in December. I do have several mature hicories on-site scattered around, those do produce nuts. (Hicories and Pecans are similar and can pollinate each other,  gives me hope the pecans will work here too.) I believe it takes two "types" of trees for Pecans to pollinate based on which part develops first, also i think they are wind pollinated so limited range which may be why your single tree isn't producing. The state trees i believe are from seed and should be a mix of the two types. Anyway that is what my book tells me about them, experience may vary.

Thanks for the offer of the wood chipper, very kind, but I actually just bought a used one yesterday that mounts on my tractor pto.
 
John Young
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Leigh Tate wrote:John, welcome to Permies! I found it pretty much the same way you did. In fact, for every topic I researched, I found some of the best answers here at Permies forums.

Sounds like you're doing an excellent job of analyzing your property and your soil. I'm curious, have you sketched it out as a map yet? It would be interesting to see as you discuss your findings and plans.



Leigh,

Thanks for the welcome, I will work on layout map and post it in the next day or so, it would certainly assist with communicating my plans.
 
John Young
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Attached is a rough sketch of the site, basically the driveways and buildings are pretty much fixed, almost anything else is movable. I noted where I am planning on putting items, open to feedback on the locations. Note up is north and down is south, the southernmost edges are along a road. None of the site is perfectly flat, but I tried to mark where it starts to get steep with "hill" or "gully".
Lot-Sketched-Map.jpg
Initial Sketch of Homestead Plans
Initial Sketch of Homestead Plans
 
Leigh Tate
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John, the map really gives a wonderful visual meaning to you plans and your layout. My husband and I refer to ours a lot when we're talking things over. Are you considering any kind of livestock in the future? Poultry? Cows? Goats?
 
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Welcome, John. Sounds like you have a good amount of information to start with, which is great!
Sounds like you have good ideas to start with in terms of enriching the soil to combat drought. Mulch is great, if you can get chips, if not wherever you can get mulch-type matter you do what works! having animals around will help improve the soil too.
I am on a very small urban homestead on a sharp slope with straight red clay. It`s fertile (before my house was built the neighbors used this plot as a garden), but I've spent the last 5 years or so actively adding organic matter, digging hugel beds (no space for real hugels) and mulching with whatever I could get my hands on. The clay just eats up the organic matter, but it is more more resistant in the dry spells that lately are longer and more extreme. I added rabbits about a year and a half ago and the difference was visible. It's great fun.  
 
John Young
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Leigh Tate wrote:John, the map really gives a wonderful visual meaning to you plans and your layout. My husband and I refer to ours a lot when we're talking things over. Are you considering any kind of livestock in the future? Poultry? Cows? Goats?



Leigh,
I agree on the utility of layouts for planning, I burn through graph paper when planning projects.

A few poultry (chickens/ducks) for eggs are the most likely animals in a few years. Maybe (maybe) raise a single bottle calf every so often for meat, but that may not pan out. Obviously raising a calf/cow would require more pasture area and additional infrastructure.  Not really interested in sheep or goats at this point.
 
John Young
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Tereza Okava wrote:Welcome, John. Sounds like you have a good amount of information to start with, which is great!
Sounds like you have good ideas to start with in terms of enriching the soil to combat drought. Mulch is great, if you can get chips, if not wherever you can get mulch-type matter you do what works! having animals around will help improve the soil too.
I am on a very small urban homestead on a sharp slope with straight red clay. It`s fertile (before my house was built the neighbors used this plot as a garden), but I've spent the last 5 years or so actively adding organic matter, digging hugel beds (no space for real hugels) and mulching with whatever I could get my hands on. The clay just eats up the organic matter, but it is more more resistant in the dry spells that lately are longer and more extreme. I added rabbits about a year and a half ago and the difference was visible. It's great fun.  



Tereza,
Slopes and clay I can relate to. Sounds like you are making good progress under similar conditions. Animals would be great, but for me they will have to wait a few years as I don't have the additional time to commit to caring for them right now. (Too many irons in the fire...) Glad to hear yours are making a noticeable difference.
 
John Young
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My first task is starting to turn my current brush piles into wood chips in an effort to get ready for my pecan trees. Used my pto powered wood chipper, it worked great! The Vermeer unit will chip anything the tractor has the power to. It is amazing what a large pile of brush turns into a small pile of wood chips.
Wood-Chipping-1.jpg
[Thumbnail for Wood-Chipping-1.jpg]
 
John Young
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After getting in many hours feeding the PTO chipper, I thought I would do a review of this chipper and wood chipping in general.

I started making the brush piles I am now chipping with the intentions of letting them rot in place. As such I piled everything as high as I could, compacted it with the tractor, and piled some more. A mix of big stuff, little stuff, limbs, etcetera all packed together. Now that I own a chipper and want to chip the piles, I could not have made this harder on myself if I tried. I had to use the little tractor to try to break up the pile so that I could pull limbs out to feed it. In the future if at all possible I will chip as I go, no "piling" of material.

The vermeer 906 is a monster. As I anticipated my tractor (Older M5030 Kubota) which is at the lower end of the recommended HP range is the limiting factor. It will chip up to 9", but the larger pieces you have to babysit to turn the feed off once it starts to bog down, to let it spin back up. The stored energy in the flywheel helps bridge the gap between the tractor HP and the chipper size. Also my blades aren't perfectly sharp so that may be inhibiting some.

I now understand why everyone states to get a chipper twice the size of what you want to chip, it is because most of the time you will have stubs from limbs, root balls, curved pieces, etcetera. This machine is very happy to eat a 4" limb with smaller branches still attached. No need to fuss and trim every little thing.

The hydraulic feed is very nice. Just get something started and take two steps back as it pulls it in. Huge time saver. Bends over the small branches and just keeps eating. You can feed this thing small trees whole. I don't have variable speed on the feed, would be nice for slowing down the feed for larger pieces.

The crash bar on the chute entrance that reverses the feed is a welcome safety feature. Occasionally a nuisance trip from a limb, but nevertheless I am glad it is there. Also the feed table is so long, you couldn't reach your hand into the feed while standing on the ground if you tried. Somebody knew what they were doing. The instinct to reach your hand in and push that short piece on into the feed is strong and constant. After initially poking pieces on in with a stick, I eventually realized just to ignore them. With a machine this size, if you just keep feeding limbs, they will drag the other pieces on into the feed.

I can now see why there are so many small chippers for sale secondhand. I can see that the time spent prepping wood and performing the chipping would go up exponentially as the capacity went down, and then double if you lost auto feed. I likely would not have the patience to use a smaller machine. I definitely could not afford the time investment to use a smaller machine to process my existing debris.

A wood chipper turns huge piles of brush into small piles of wood chips. If you only want wood chips, a chipper is not a good investment. You have to value the displacement of the brush, e.g. if you have extra land just pile and ignore the brush and get wood chips delivered. Using a chipper will make you appreciate the value of a truck load of wood chips.

After at first chipping most everything that would fit, I am now tossing to the side the larger chunks of hardwood for future processing into biochar. I could chip them, but I would have to babysit the feed of the machine.

The Vermeer 906 weighs 2200lbs. It also seems top heavy. Although well within the capacity range of the 3ph, it changes how the tractor "feels" when you drive it. Probably need to put weight in the front end loader next time. Also the pins are close to the top, so you can't lift it far off the ground by design. It is not the sort of attachment you just leave on the back when you are done. You also would not just take off and drive into the woods or get on a side slope with this thing on there. I am glad it is tractor powered, to not have another engine to maintain and worry over.

I could probably use this thing for a year and sell it for about what I paid. For someone with a large tractor and the capital to float, it wouldn't be a bad strategy versus renting.
 
John Young
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I went today and checked on a swale I made at the bottom of the property a few months back. I forgot to get a recent picture, but attached are some from when I first made it, just imagine it covered in a layer of green annual rye grass. The swale is working well, an area between two ditches usually had standing water on it after any rain event because the neighbors property was altered many many years ago and dumps almost all its water on this section between the ditches. The swale directs this water into the original ditch. After building the swale I haven't seen standing water down there.
Swale-A.jpg
[Thumbnail for Swale-A.jpg]
Swale-B.jpg
[Thumbnail for Swale-B.jpg]
 
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