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Suburban Homesteading

 
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I met a fellow garden blogger who's interested in permaculture and local to me, and we discussed a wide range of topics over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. The result is a three-part Q&A series I wrote for Cat in the Flock that covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.



Most of the resources covering permaculture tend toward the assumption of a large plot of land to work with, and in fact, the entire SKIP project is focused on obtaining land, which is great... I am a backer and love the project... but I also think we need much more discussion about something I'm calling suburban homesteading. This 2nd part in my series on Claire and her husband Mike's project is a great example, as they're living the permaculture way on one acre of land in suburbia. I offer it as a basis for discussion. The original post is Suburban Homesteading - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser.

The benefits of a suburban homestead:

- Access to transportation, emergency services, and medical care
- Larger communities for spiritual and other connections
- The ability to go just supplementally or partially off-grid

Are others of you out there practicing "suburban homesteading"? My husband and I are on only 1/4-acre and have transformed it into a mix of natives that are both edible and/or support native pollinators and strict food gardens grown with some permaculture techniques and some traditional.

Speaking of permie vs. traditional techniques, also in this Q&A, Claire and I discuss some thorny permaculture issues such as... her assertion that most food plants are first-succession growies that need bare (at least surface-tilled) soil and sunny locations, so they don't lend themselves as readily to food foresting. To quote:

Permaculture was developed in the subtropical climate of Australia, where a wider variety of perennial vegetable crops can be planted in guilds according to their needs and habits. Annual and biennial vegetable plants, however, are not just more ecologically suited to bare soil; they have been bred and grown in weeded gardens and fields for hundreds or thousands of years. Providing them with the conditions to which they are adapted makes ecological and garden sense, and it’s easier on the gardener as well.





Thoughts, defenses, examples to the contrary, examples of support?



 
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I am gardening in an urban setting in Chicago,but have a relatively large backyard.  I do follow a "forest garden" model primarily, but with a couple patches of annual veg.

This year I want to actually track the calories produced in my garden.  

I can see her point about bare dirt beds for some of the common annual vegetables we are used to.  Like lettuce and carrots and leeks. However, from what I grow, I think the best calorie producers do lend themselves to the permaculture model. Potatoes, for example, are surprisingly good at sprouting up in spring from tubers left deep in the earth and they muscle out weeds.  Squash sprout most anywhere and smother weeds, and clamber over currant bushes once those are done cropping.

And then there's the fruit trees, bushes, and vines which produce a very large crop of high-value foods, often in spaces not well-suited to a traditional veg garden.
 
Lisa Brunette
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Mk Neal wrote:I am gardening in an urban setting in Chicago,but have a relatively large backyard.  I do follow a "forest garden" model primarily, but with a couple patches of annual veg.

This year I want to actually track the calories produced in my garden.  

I can see her point about bare dirt beds for some of the common annual vegetables we are used to.  Like lettuce and carrots and leeks. However, from what I grow, I think the best calorie producers do lend themselves to the permaculture model. Potatoes, for example, are surprisingly good at sprouting up in spring from tubers left deep in the earth and they muscle out weeds.  Squash sprout most anywhere and smother weeds, and clamber over currant bushes once those are done cropping.

And then there's the fruit trees, bushes, and vines which produce a very large crop of high-value foods, often in spaces not well-suited to a traditional veg garden.



Mk, I have observed the same about potatoes. We missed harvesting some last year, and they are coming up wherever we missed them. The ones we purposely sowed this year also not only survived that late-spring snow we had in April but seem to be thriving because of it! But I also doubled up on the amount of compost and amendments (coffee grounds and repurposed pine sawdust) this year after Claire told me she determined they need 50% more nitrogen than other veggies.

Claire also grows perennial leeks, by the way. I'm glad to hear that about squash, as I'm starting to run out of space... Which ones do you grow? I have red kuri, Waltham butternut, Seminole pumpkin, spaghetti, and Illinois white crookneck. All but the Waltham are new to me this year.
 
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I live in a city, and grow in my yard and also in a a yarden I bought for just that purpose.
When I think about moving, it is the acces to jobs and medical, as well as family that keeps me put.

Most of my annuals go in containers to avoid problems with soil and watering.
Most of the  rest go in high raised beds to facilitate care and ensure decent soil.
The perennials mostly go in the ground.
I find digging a hole in rocky soil one time to be a pain, but it pays ofendangered.
I do have two blueberry bushes in barrels full of peat.
Last year I plant tomatoes in the same barrels, you could hardly see the berry bushes!

Annuals being bred for zero competition doesn't need to mean annual tillage and bare soil.
I use mulch, plastic cover and cover crops, some times all three at once.


Competition between fruit trees and annuals is real.
Right now my trees are small and don't cast much shade.
The annuals next to them are in two foot tall raised beds, so no tree roots are endagered.
I feed the beds over winter with leaf mulch, urine,  etc.
The plan is to nurish the tree by nourishing the raised beds.
Annual plantings of sun loving annuals will give way to greens as the tree shades out the bed.

I favor self sowing varietals of everything and I've found radishes and mustard greens to be almost invasive, which I love.

My aim is not so much to grow my own food as it is to provide for myself from what I grow.
If I can sell pears and buy beans, I will have succeed.
 
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After living overseas for 5 years, I'm moving back home to my little suburban paradise next month!  We have 1/3 acre or so, with lots of shade and two septic fields.  So it will be a challenge, but I'm really excited to grow what I can there.  Plus I can bike to the farmers market.  I'm hoping to make my yard an example for others.  All I know is that I'm excited to put roots down (literally).  I love all the big projects being done with bigger permaculture farms, but I think the suburbs are underutilized and wish more people would use the land they have.  We chose our neighborhood because there were no restrictions, and I'm excited to see the chicken laws have gotten better in the last 5 years!  I've read a lot, but lack the practical skills right now.  When we lived there before I had tiny kids and used them as an excuse to not do much.  This time will be better!
 
Lisa Brunette
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teresa rosello wrote:After living overseas for 5 years, I'm moving back home to my little suburban paradise next month!  We have 1/3 acre or so, with lots of shade and two septic fields.  So it will be a challenge, but I'm really excited to grow what I can there.  Plus I can bike to the farmers market.  I'm hoping to make my yard an example for others.  All I know is that I'm excited to put roots down (literally).  I love all the big projects being done with bigger permaculture farms, but I think the suburbs are underutilized and wish more people would use the land they have.  We chose our neighborhood because there were no restrictions, and I'm excited to see the chicken laws have gotten better in the last 5 years!  I've read a lot, but lack the practical skills right now.  When we lived there before I had tiny kids and used them as an excuse to not do much.  This time will be better!



Yay, teresa! I'm so excited for you. Couldn't agree more that the suburbs are underutilized. I'm sure you'll pick up the practical skills in no time. You've come to the right place for a wealth of information here on Permies, and if our project over at www.catintheflock.com can help you in any way, check us out. We're about to head into our 5th year of a 1/4-acre permaculture/native plant total garden and lifestyle makeover.
 
Lisa Brunette
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William Bronson wrote:I live in a city, and grow in my yard and also in a a yarden I bought for just that purpose.
When I think about moving, it is the acces to jobs and medical, as well as family that keeps me put.



Exactly. We run a business from here and while everyone works from home, we meet once a week and have drawn on the local universities for talent.

Most of my annuals go in containers to avoid problems with soil and watering.
Most of the  rest go in high raised beds to facilitate care and ensure decent soil.
The perennials mostly go in the ground.
I find digging a hole in rocky soil one time to be a pain, but it pays ofendangered.
I do have two blueberry bushes in barrels full of peat.
Last year I plant tomatoes in the same barrels, you could hardly see the berry bushes!



How much space do you have?

Annuals being bred for zero competition doesn't need to mean annual tillage and bare soil.
I use mulch, plastic cover and cover crops, some times all three at once.



I do the same - I'm less traditional than Claire, the subject of my interview. For example, I tarp over arugula to create a living mulch once it's gone to seed, and once the tarp is removed, the seeds sprout.


Competition between fruit trees and annuals is real.
Right now my trees are small and don't cast much shade.
The annuals next to them are in two foot tall raised beds, so no tree roots are endagered.
I feed the beds over winter with leaf mulch, urine,  etc.
The plan is to nurish the tree by nourishing the raised beds.
Annual plantings of sun loving annuals will give way to greens as the tree shades out the bed.



I'm wondering how much shade my fruit trees will eventually cast for this very reason.

I favor self sowing varietals of everything and I've found radishes and mustard greens to be almost invasive, which I love.



Cool! I will keep that in mind.

My aim is not so much to grow my own food as it is to provide for myself from what I grow.
If I can sell pears and buy beans, I will have succeed.



Where will you sell? Does being in the suburbs help with this endeavor?
 
Mk Neal
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Lisa Brunette wrote:quote=Mk Neal] I'm glad to hear that about squash, as I'm starting to run out of space... Which ones do you grow? I have red kuri, Waltham butternut, Seminole pumpkin, spaghetti, and Illinois white crookneck. All but the Waltham are new to me this year.



Lisa— I have the best luck with acorn variety b/c they have the shortest growing season, and my yard is partly shaded by condo building next door.  My favorite now is an acorn called “Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato” I like it because it is very productive, like 5-6 largish squash per vine, but has rather small vines that just creep along the ground under the tomatoes.  I also have a green Navaho squash (c. Maxima, like a Kuri).  It is a real climber, does not like to stay on the ground.  I got just one squash from it last year, but it was large. This year I put it out earlier under cloche to try and extend growing season.

Last year I had bad luck with some volunteer squash I let grow to see what they would produce, and I got loads of huge spiny leaves and just a couple small zucchini things.  Other years I’ve had good volunteer acorn squashes.
 
William Bronson
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Lisa Brunette wrote:
How much space do you have?


I have two lots both about 120 x 30 feet, one with a 800 square foot print house on it, the other bare.



I do the same - I'm less traditional than Claire, the subject of my interview. For example, I tarp over arugula to create a living mulch once it's gone to seed, and once the tarp is removed, the seeds sprout.
I need to get some arugula, its clearly my kind of plant!



Lisa Brunette wrote:I'm wondering how much shade my fruit trees will eventually cast for this very reason.


This is  a reason to diversify into nut and "salad" trees(moringa, Toon, linden).
Fruit is good for for selling, creating value added goods and offsetting the cost of buying , but it is not much of a staple for most people.
I planted pears because I love a fresh pear strait off the tree, and I wanted cider without the fuss of apple trees,  but going forward, its all about the nut trees.
The proteins and fats from nuts are important, plus they store with less fuss(worms can be an issue)


Lisa Brunette wrote:Where will you sell? Does being in the suburbs help with this endeavor?


I am targeting the Whole Foods crowd, because, well, money.
Cincinnati's main farmers market is the Historic Findley market, but it costs a lot to get a space there.
Most of the more well to do neighborhoods and some of the less well to do seem to have weekly markets during the summers.
We already  sell baked goods  at a neighborhood farmer market.
Not our neighborhood, mind you, a more upscale 1st ring suburb called called Sailor Park.
My hope  is to have my own fruits for fresh sale with excess turned into bottled beverages and fruit leather.
Ugly/ sour/ bitter produce can be made into value added products like teas, ciders, tonics and other beverages.
For example, my youngest wants to make Creeping Charlie(Alefoot) soda, turning our favorite ground cover into tasty profit.

If I live rurally, I would probably drive into a city to buy, sell, trade and scavenge.
I just went shopping this past weekend, got 30 plus pounds of bananas  and a bunch of building material , for the cost of gas.
I left more food behind , I just didn't have any good way to use it up.
The hat trick is to take societies garbage and sell it back to them.
I'm still working on that, but meanwhile I glean what I can use for myself and leave the rest.
 
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Are others of you out there practicing "suburban homesteading"?



My wife and I built and timber frame/straw light clay off grid cabin on 1/2 acre lot in the middle of suburb outside of Austin. We planted the first stage of our food forest this past winter.

We've found that a half acre is plenty to work with especially with a small house. I actually fenced of ~1/3 of the lot (~.18 acres) and have just been focusing on that area and that keeps us pretty busy.
 
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I was in the suburbs, 1/10 acre lot in the SF Bay Area. Honestly, gardening was easier there. My battles with wildlife where I live now are frustrating. Cats and hardware cloth are my friends.

Unfortunately, my suburban home had an HOA from hell, wasn't that bad when we moved in but things were awful by the time we left.

Even though where we live now is rural, we have good access to medical care, jobs etc. I would say lack of public transportation would be a problem for some people. The area is growing rapidly much to the locals chagrin. If you look around and have some money, you can find areas that feel isolated but really aren't.
 
Lisa Brunette
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Mk Neal wrote:

Lisa Brunette wrote:quote=Mk Neal] I'm glad to hear that about squash, as I'm starting to run out of space... Which ones do you grow? I have red kuri, Waltham butternut, Seminole pumpkin, spaghetti, and Illinois white crookneck. All but the Waltham are new to me this year.



Lisa— I have the best luck with acorn variety b/c they have the shortest growing season, and my yard is partly shaded by condo building next door.  My favorite now is an acorn called “Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato” I like it because it is very productive, like 5-6 largish squash per vine, but has rather small vines that just creep along the ground under the tomatoes.  I also have a green Navaho squash (c. Maxima, like a Kuri).  It is a real climber, does not like to stay on the ground.  I got just one squash from it last year, but it was large. This year I put it out earlier under cloche to try and extend growing season.

Last year I had bad luck with some volunteer squash I let grow to see what they would produce, and I got loads of huge spiny leaves and just a couple small zucchini things.  Other years I’ve had good volunteer acorn squashes.



Thanks, Mk! I see Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells seeds for that Thelma Sanders. Making a note for next year!
 
Lisa Brunette
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Aaron Yarbrough wrote:

Are others of you out there practicing "suburban homesteading"?



My wife and I built and timber frame/straw light clay off grid cabin on 1/2 acre lot in the middle of suburb outside of Austin. We planted the first stage of our food forest this past winter.

We've found that a half acre is plenty to work with especially with a small house. I actually fenced of ~1/3 of the lot (~.18 acres) and have just been focusing on that area and that keeps us pretty busy.



Such a cool project! I love Austin.
 
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I am on my way to suburban homesteading. I am working on progressing towards a more permaculture friendly approach. I try to get as many garden inputs for free as possible. I will frequently grab peoples yard trash bags off the curb to use for mulch. I have all the arborists' numbers saved, and they all know me. I have access to local manure and spoiled hay. I also will take my push mower and bagger into overgrown fields to fill the back of my truck for making Korean organic farming inputs. I make my own pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides using the Korean methods, but try to limit their use.

Here is a rough sketch of what all I currently have going on.





Here are my grapes.


The next ones show my annual bed.










Finally, my recent blueberry project.



 
Lisa Brunette
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Hamilton Betchman wrote:I am on my way to suburban homesteading. I am working on progressing towards a more permaculture friendly approach. I try to get as many garden inputs for free as possible. I will frequently grab peoples yard trash bags off the curb to use for mulch. I have all the arborists' numbers saved, and they all know me. I have access to local manure and spoiled hay. I also will take my push mower and bagger into overgrown fields to fill the back of my truck for making Korean organic farming inputs. I make my own pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides using the Korean methods, but try to limit their use.



That is amazing, Hamilton! Thanks for sharing all the pictures, too! I would love to feature your project at Cat in the Flock , if you'd like to be a guest blogger. What do you think?
 
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Permanent Agriculture was from America. Forest Farming was from Japan. Forest Gardens from Wales. Indigenous people were doing some form of this all over the world and had their own names for it, or didn't have names for it because it just was how it was. The word permaculture might be an export from Australia, but a lot of the stuff that we think of as permaculture has a long history in the temperate world. Look at Eric Toensmeier. Like 300+ species on... I think a tenth of an acre? Zone 5, IIRC? That's more than enough for most people.

But yes, you probably won't go heavy on the annuals. Maybe for the first few years, but most people pack the trees in pretty tight in small spaces, and that doesn't really bode well for success of most annuals. Maybe some greens. If you prune very open so you get light to the ground, then other stuff can do well, but you've gotta stay on top of the pruning to keep the annuals productive. And you probably have to import fertility, like wood chips, so you can maximize productive species, otherwise you're giving up space to support species, or just growing less in general.

I'm playing with an achira, runner bean, and Florida betony polyculture this year. If I don't lose productivity due to overcrowding I'm expecting to produce at least 10-15% of my annual caloric needs from this single 270 to 340-ish square foot planting. Might be worth trying for people with a sunny edge. That's a lot of food for a first year yield. Could be a great way to supplement trees in the early years.

But who knows. I'm definitely not growing on a suburban scale. Might not translate very well once you're dealing with tall houses, tiny yards, fences, etc.
 
Hamilton Betchman
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I'd be honored to be a guest on your blog. I have a few pictures from before and during the process that I haven't shared. Just let me know what you need.
 
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William Bronson wrote:I live in a city, and grow in my yard and also in a a yarden I bought for just that purpose.
When I think about moving, it is the acces to jobs and medical, as well as family that keeps me put.

Most of my annuals go in containers to avoid problems with soil and watering.
Most of the  rest go in high raised beds to facilitate care and ensure decent soil.
The perennials mostly go in the ground.
I find digging a hole in rocky soil one time to be a pain, but it pays off.
I do have two blueberry bushes in barrels full of peat.
Last year I plant tomatoes in the same barrels, you could hardly see the berry bushes!



I'm urban as well. My lot is a bit less than a quarter acre. Once I take out two structures, concrete, sidewalks, etc. it's considerably less. I'm very close to hospitals that I thankfully haven't had to test yet. But that was a major concern because at some point, our luck will run out. We're within striking distance for entertainment but it will be a while before we're not so consumed with repairs and enhancements that we have a much time for the entertainment side.

We were also concerned about the soil but started removing it by digging down to clay, then another 6 inches or so (total roughly about 2.5 feet) and then building soil from the hole up. Down the road, we think we'll be able to make the beds into raised beds. What happened to our soil? It went under several structures and concrete pads. I made sure I was careful to tell people who wanted garden soil that this would not be appropriate. We still have more of that on tap though. We just keep chipping away at the pile.

I'm always looking for more brick to salvage and old brick pavers to make a couple of small patio areas. If I ever hit the paver motherload, I want to get rid of the concrete sidewalk that runs from the front to the back of the property and make the pathway from the pavers. Dream big!

I am limited in digging, having trees, etc due to all the buried utilities running from the street through the yard to the structure at the alley. These lines run about every 6-8 feet for the length of the lot. So, there isn't anywhere I could have trees that won't impact foundations, hardened walkways and/or utilities. It hurts not to have tree nuts and fruits.

Everything planted has to feed people or critters...sometimes both or more than one critter. We only have about 30% of the original "lawn" left. That's a guess though. Still...we keep whittling that down. I'm trying to get agreement to take out the ninebarks and replace them, with honeyberries!

 
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William Bronson wrote, "Fruit is good for for selling, creating value added goods and offsetting the cost of buying , but it is not much of a staple for most people. "

Hi William,
I am mostly a fruit grower/orchardist.  If you grow storage varieties, fruit is one of the best things that you can grow in your yard.  Organic, permaculture quality fruitin a store is expensive and dramatically worse quality than what you can grow.  Storage fruit would be mostly apples, but there is a huge amount of fruit that can be grown for eating fresh as well.  Worldwide, lack of fruit is the #1 problem in the diet.  Most Americans eat fruit "colored" processed sweets and think they're eating fruit.  It is simply astonishing how much food you can grow in an orchard and feed yourself with high quality, good tasting real food.  Grains and dried beans are astonishingly cheap to buy, and if you grow green leafy weeds as part of your greens, they are amazingly easy to grow, and basically free. One difference is that fruit is easier to grow in Portland, and vegetables in Cincinnati.   Anyway, I think you know that I dig your posts and I've learned a lot from you here on permies, but it feels like I may be disagreeing with you on this one.
John S
PDX OR
 
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Hamilton Betchman wrote:I'd be honored to be a guest on your blog. I have a few pictures from before and during the process that I haven't shared. Just let me know what you need.



Hi, Hamilton! My apologies for the long delay in replying. It's been a crazy fall and winter in which I've had to focus more on my main livelihood business, and then I contracted COVID late in the year. I also managed to rebrand the blog: Brunette Gardens.

I'd love to have you on as a guest author. Best way to start the process is for you to email me using the spam-proof link here: Brunette Gardens Contact. Thanks so much for your interest!
 
Lisa Brunette
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echo minarosa wrote:

Everything planted has to feed people or critters...sometimes both or more than one critter. We only have about 30% of the original "lawn" left. That's a guess though. Still...we keep whittling that down. I'm trying to get agreement to take out the ninebarks and replace them, with honeyberries!



Congratulations on getting rid of most of the lawn!
 
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William Bronson wrote:

This is  a reason to diversify into nut and "salad" trees(moringa, Toon, linden).
Fruit is good for for selling, creating value added goods and offsetting the cost of buying , but it is not much of a staple for most people.



This is such a great point! When I was first planning my food forest, I was planning so many fruit trees, then had an "aha" moment when I realized that I don't eat all that much fruit! I reframed my planning around what my family would actually eat. So the fruits I'm planting are ones we really love. But I've tried to emphasize nuts (we're vegetarian, so that's a major protein source for us). I've planted pecans, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and have an almond tree coming this fall.  I've planted mulberry, which can be eaten as a cooked green. I also have Hawthorn on the way and hope I can get it to grow here (edible leaves).   We make use of native perennials like prickly pear and cholla blossoms as a veg, too. Additionally, I have an olive tree and a caper bush on order. I'm slowly working on adding in more perennial veggies.

I practice suburban permaculture on a small lot, no bigger than average. We're in the high desert, so permaculture has been a game changer.  I'm only 2 years into my permaculture journey, and having so much better luck than before.  Having been an experienced gardener back east, I struggled to get ANYTHING to grow in my yard here. Our sun is killer.  Our winds are killer. My "soil" is mostly rock, with our lot carved out of a mountainside. We're (obviously) on a slope, and all the water and topsoil have been washing downhill for years. Raised beds bake and swelter.  As a gardener, I was ready to give up growing anything.  Permaculture saved me.

No soil? Make your own. Swales are magical. My back yard is full of earthworms. Things are growing.  It's the beginning of a food forest, and here it will only help the annuals that wither in the sun. You need shade to grow "sun-loving" annuals here.  I can't wait to see what it will be like in a few years. Already, the whole feel of the place has changed from something harsh and barren to something thriving with life.  It's a space I want to be in. To linger in. For me, food forest definitely wins.
 
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