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My transition from Conventional to Permaculture/Organic Practices in suburbia!

 
Posts: 21
Location: Northern Virginia (NOVA), Washington DC Suburb, Zone 7B
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Hi - relatively new guy on Permies.  I have been veg gardening on and off for years using conventional practices in various suburban locations.   Grew up doing the same thing with my dad.  We were an Army family and I also had an Army career so my ability to garden was on and off over the years.  Now settled in suburban Virginia outside of DC (Zone 7B) on a 3/4 acre lot. I live in a heavily wooded suburban community (.5 to 1 acre lots) .  I love the trees but removed about ~35 from my very wooded lot to install lawn for recreation etc. We installed about 8k feet of new sod giving us a total of about 10-12k of lawn.  I am now reducing this over time as I install new beds, trees, shrubs, etc.

I installed a conventional raised bed in ~2015 using 6x6 treated lumber and store bought soil and amendments and am also adding trees, shrubs, etc all over my yard - something I have always enjoyed.  I have been trending toward "organic" practices - but as I have recently learned - not really.

Then the pandemic hits and I start reading a lot more and permaculture catches my eye.  So I read tons and tons of stuff on the net, found this site last fall and have been crawling all over it learning stuff.  Also started reading a bunch of books.

Recent Books:
- Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture,  by Toby Hemenway
- Grow Your Soil!: Harness the Power of the Soil Food Web to Create Your Best Garden Ever by Diane Miessler, Elaine R. Ingham
- Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

Currently Reading:
-  Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets

Next in my reading queue - (cuz I got them from my wife for xmas!):
- Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist: How to Have Your Yard and Eat It Too
- Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition by Jeff Lowenfels

I have several other similar books saved on my amazon list - based on seeing them referenced, or user reviews.  I would appreciate any book references on this stuff.

I have also been scouring Netflix and Amazon Prime for related documentaries.  The most impactful I have watched so far is "The Biggest Little Farm" - what a great documentary!

My first permies post - which I hope I am correctly connecting to here --  https://permies.com/t/167602/clay-hugel-bed#1316134  -- was my jump into Permies last fall.

I kind of want to capture what I am doing so thought I would start a thread here that I will add to as I progress. So, I would not consider myself anything more than an "experienced novice" with conventional techniques at this point.  But not really - "new" to gardening.  I am however new to the permaculture and organic principles and  movement and I think this is a great place to capture my thoughts for future reference, hopefully generate some discussion and feedback that will be useful to me and others, and enjoy a sense of community in my pursuits.

I live in a typical suburban DC neighborhood.  Probably at least 50% of my neighbors have a lawn service, mosquito service etc - including me, until now.

My goals:
- Live Better
- Build Soil
- No chemicals/synthetics use for any of my landscaping, gardening, pest control etc. (or appropriate products I don't know about yet?)
- Build Soil
- Reduce lawn and use only actual real organic maintenance practices (focus is on soil)
- Build Soil
- Maximize what is readily available to me (Leaves &wood chips).
- Build Soil
- Increasing compost quality and volume
- Produce more healthy produce for my family.  Increase quantity to can/freeze and to share with neighbors.
- Build Soil -
- Introduce perennial edible landscaping as best I can all over my lot.

It might be apparent - I am super focused on building soil at the moment and am enjoying reading to increase my understanding, knowledge,  and implementing soil building practices.
Challenges:
- Very heavy clay soil
- Wooded area, lots of shade (but lots of leaves).
- Not a huge area - so plant selection and location needs to be done right(e.g. trees, berries, bushes etc)

What Have I done since I got the "permies bug" in 2019?
- I now keep all fallen leaves on my lot.  I used to pay a guy to gather and remove every season (about ~$1k savings!)
 -- Shred with mower, creating leaf mold, adding to compost, and thick layer on all veg beds to over winter.
- Increase veg planting area via sheet mulching over existing lawn in area around my original 5' x 25' raised bed.
 -- Installing new hugel-beds - subject of my first permies post https://permies.com/t/167602/clay-hugel-bed#1316134
- Stopped all chemical lawn treatments.  Transitioned my goal of a "golf course looking, bare foot lawn" to a more natural lawn.  I mixed micro-clover into my lawn last year and will continue this practice.
- No more tilling.  I have permanently parked my mantis electric tiller that I have had for years.  No more turning soil.  Sheet mulching/lasgna method for new beds and I am using a broad fork to "break" my clay soil where I think I need to (new beds, lawn aeration, etc)

Current focus and efforts(foci?)
- Building soil (lawn and food growing)
- Establishing a ~70' long raspberry bed.  Installed in Spring 2020.  Not performing well - Yet.
- Removing ALL chemical applications from my management practices.
 -- Still have a tree/shrub service.  I invested a lot in conventional trees and shrubs in my 10 years in this home.  I will transition to feeding with my compost.
 -- Mosquito control.  My wife is a mosquito magnet - so we have used a service for years.  Oddly they don't seem to want to use their "organic" products.  They say it is not as effective - but I did transition from their conventional "natural product" to their organic product for the 2022 season.  I have asked for their chemical data sheets and am exploring more natural methods for mosquito control.  I see a couple of interesting things on the net and may cancel the service and invest in some traps.  Any recommendations out there?
- Going Solar - but I don't think I can afford it in this area.

Anyhow - I plan to update this thread with my projects, progress, observations, and questions - hoping to stimulate some sharing with folks in the community.

If this is not consistent with the purpose of the site, or if this thread should be under some other topic please let me know.

Great site - thanks.
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master gardener
Posts: 2626
Location: Isle of Skye, Scotland
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Hi Mark,
I've added your thread to a few extra forums - including "soil" since that seems to  be a theme for you!
Clay soil of course can be great - holds on to nutrients and water well, you might consider using fodder radish to do some of your digging for you like Alan: https://permies.com/t/170716/Daikon-Radish-Clay-Layer#1340409

More suggestions for you:

https://permies.com/t/163945

https://permies.com/t/147361/Hard-compacted-dried-soil-tools

Looking forwards to hearing your progress

 
gardener
Posts: 404
Location: Tennessee
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Yay, I'm always inspired to hear what urban/suburban permies are up to. Thank you for sharing your projects!

Oh boy, you put a book list online where I could see it--so, now I can't resist suggesting to you:
  • Permaculture for the Rest of Us: Abundant Living on Less than an Acre by Jenni Blackmore
  • The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People by Amy Stross
  • Easy Garden Projects for Make, Build, and Grow, ed. by Barbara Pleasant


  • The middle book might be the most relevant for you at the moment. "Permaculture for Suburbia," it could have been titled. You'll appreciate the author's advice on everything from soil and plants and harvesting to negotiating issues with neighbors. And--I was thinking that she lives in Virginia, so there would be similar climate perspective to yours, as well.

    Here in Tennessee, I have thick clay soil exactly like yours, and I had to put many bags of bought soil on top of it last year to get my mini-meadow patches going for my 2021 garden project. Lasagna gardening, hugelkultur, compost--anything you can do to encourage the earthworms to build your soil for you will pay you back a hundred times!  I grow food plants in containers on my urban lot, because of my concerns about contaminants in the itsy bitsy patch of soil that gets any the sun here. Learn to grow vertically if you are sun/space challenged like I am...

    I look forward to keeping an eye on all that goes on in your garden this year! I hope all grows well!

     
    pollinator
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    Sounds like some great plans! Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    I used to live in DC. I do not envy you that heavy clay, but the acidity is great for all the azaleas, hydrangeas, and tomatoes.

     
    gardener
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    Ooh I love hearing about people's permaculture gardening journeys! So inspiring! Post pictures of your progress too please!
     
    Mark Sanford
    Posts: 21
    Location: Northern Virginia (NOVA), Washington DC Suburb, Zone 7B
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    Nancy Reading wrote:Hi Mark,
    I've added your thread to a few extra forums - including "soil" since that seems to  be a theme for you!
    Clay soil of course can be great - holds on to nutrients and water well, you might consider using fodder radish to do some of your digging for you like Alan: https://permies.com/t/170716/Daikon-Radish-Clay-Layer#1340409

    More suggestions for you:

    https://permies.com/t/163945

    https://permies.com/t/147361/Hard-compacted-dried-soil-tools

    Looking forwards to hearing your progress



    Nancy,

    Thanks for your feedback and tips.  I did learn about daikon radishes and got a few started,  but too late in 2021 the season.  I ended up smothering them (intentionally) when I found a great local source for free composted manure and topped off my beds with manure and leaves.  I do have a few radish plants still going in our [so far] mild winter but they are not doing much.  I will definitely use daikon next season.  My thinking is that I will plant them kind of randomly in open spaces (between tomatoes etc)  in late summer so they can do their thing.  Also researching other similar type plants for this purpose in addition to cover crop options for my beds (thinking clover and micro greens at the moment).

    I will review the links you shared.

    I don't know how to link to to other posts - or to follow how this link might evolve in other threads but will get up to speed.

    Thank you.
     
    Nancy Reading
    master gardener
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    If you're struggling with using Permies, just start a new topic in tinkering with this site and there are lots of knowledgeable people happy to help out! This thread isn't split, it just appears in several places (like a cross reference in a filing system).

    Winter's a good time for planning for next growing season.
     
    gardener
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    You are entering a great adventure, Mark.
    I"ve been doing this for about 20 years.  I find that I get focused on one particular thing due to  what's going on in my garden, like compost tea, biochar, lasagna gardening, raised beds, hugulkultur, biodynamic approaches, permaculture, exotic fruit, etc,  then incorporate them into my quiver and add one more, but keep them.  Permies.com is a great place to share ideas with others. There are so many experienced and knowledgeable people here!

    It's good to hear from another person in the suburbs.  Most Americans live in the suburbs, and if we're going to turn our country (and our world) into a better direction, we need to be a part of it.  

    John S
    PDX OR
     
    Mark Sanford
    Posts: 21
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    John Suavecito wrote:You are entering a great adventure, Mark.
    I"ve been doing this for about 20 years.  I find that I get focused on one particular thing due to  what's going on in my garden, like compost tea, biochar, lasagna gardening, raised beds, hugulkultur, biodynamic approaches, permaculture, exotic fruit, etc,  then incorporate them into my quiver and add one more, but keep them.  Permies.com is a great place to share ideas with others. There are so many experienced and knowledgeable people here!

    It's good to hear from another person in the suburbs.  Most Americans live in the suburbs, and if we're going to turn our country (and our world) into a better direction, we need to be a part of it.  

    John S
    PDX OR



    John,

    Thanks for your feedback. I think I am taking a similar approach to yours.  I am 100% onboard philosophically and doing lots of reading to educate myself a bit.  I sometimes feel like I have reached the end of the internet in my efforts to find new(er) content that I have not come accross.   I’m enjoying digging thru permies.com.  So, I’m am trying to get some of the “best” books, which is of course very subjective.    I may add to this thread a post with my reading list and VERY short comments on the books value to me.  Not a book review.  I don’t have the time to do it justice, but I have read o couple of impactful (for me) books.

    My big thing right now is working with my clay soil.  sheet mulch/lasagna to establish new planting beds and TBD to sustain lawn where I want it.  Focusing on soil health in general to reestablish  a new soil health baseline following some years  of conventional chemical fertilizer application - especially on my lawn.  A very expensive new sod lawn installed in 2013 did not thrive despite sticking with an annual plan  garaunteed to produce golf-course-like results!  

    I was strongly contemplating implementing compost tea production/use this coming spring but my research shows mixed or limited ROI.   Lots of people that swear by it, and others pointing to no scientifically based evidence to support it.  My going in goal with tea would be to increase and support soil biology.  So far I have noticed a significant increase in worm activity in the areas I have sheet mulched (leaves, some greens, and wood chips) which indicates improved biology.  I have limited time to commit so decided keep adding organic material and skip the tea for now.  I am seeking less work so not sure I want to add a tea chore to my list of to-do’s.

     
    John Suavecito
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    I think you're using the right approach, Mark  Compost tea is great, but it is for specific uses. I think you would get more out of it after some time adding organic material.  The research on it is very mixed, because it is just too complex of a process.  Even Elaine Ingham has changed how she makes it over the years.  If they had followed some of her early attempts, they should have been convinced that it doesn't work.  

    We had the same soil situation: thick clay, soaked in pesticides and fertilizers, with sod on top.  It's taken a few years, but we have good soil now, and it was almost all just due to adding wood chips over time. Now that I have a food forest, the diverse leaves add organic material.  The soil now drains enough that complex webs of life can grow and breathe.  The tree roots have been giving off their exudates for years, setting up complex and resilient mycorrhizal relationships in the soil.  

    Every year will be a fun, surprising adventure. You will notice all kinds of cool experiences all the way to a sustainable bounty of harvests.  And you're inspiring other people to join in as well.

    John S
    PDX OR
     
    Mark Sanford
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    John Suavecito wrote:I think you're using the right approach, Mark  Compost tea is great, but it is for specific uses. I think you would get more out of it after some time adding organic material.  The research on it is very mixed, because it is just too complex of a process.  Even Elaine Ingham has changed how she makes it over the years.  If they had followed some of her early attempts, they should have been convinced that it doesn't work.  

    We had the same soil situation: thick clay, soaked in pesticides and fertilizers, with sod on top.  It's taken a few years, but we have good soil now, and it was almost all just due to adding wood chips over time. Now that I have a food forest, the diverse leaves add organic material.  The soil now drains enough that complex webs of life can grow and breathe.  The tree roots have been giving off their exudates for years, setting up complex and resilient mycorrhizal relationships in the soil.  

    Every year will be a fun, surprising adventure. You will notice all kinds of cool experiences all the way to a sustainable bounty of harvests.  And you're inspiring other people to join in as well.

    John S
    PDX OR



    I do wonder if my thick clay will actually change to a better soil over time, or am I just building good soil on top of a clay layer?  I would hope to be able to see this clay layer transfer to something better over time.   Is this realistic?   Do the worms really pull the organic material deep into the clay?  I have given them plenty to work with in the areas I intend for edible planting.  I also need to find a way to improve clay/soil structure and depth where I want to maintain lawn.  For the lawn I have stopped all synthetic applications, mulch fallen leaves where they fall on the lawn, and added micro clover (Just one full season so far).
     
    John Suavecito
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    Wood chips are definitely tougher than leaves. They are longer lasting and will have a bigger effect on changing the soil from clay to loam.  They will also move your soil more into a fungal balance that woody bushes, shrubs and trees will prefer.  Only putting leaves might leave it too bacterially oriented.  I had horrific clay, good enough for making clay pots and cups.  It's pretty good soil now.  In extreme cases, you could add gravel as well, which will definitely help with drainage and encourage more microbiology in poorly draining soils.  Fungi will be able to work on it and add some minerals to your soil as well.   You still need the organic matter and I would recommend wood chips. I can get wood chips for free from arborists in my neighborhood and I can get gravel free from Craig's list all over town.  It's mostly from people who had projects, ordered gravel, and had some left over when the project is done.  Leaves are good as part of the solution, but wood chips and gravel in addition will really make a much bigger impact in a tough heavy clay situation.

    John S
    PDX OR
     
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