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Projects for permaculture newbie with limited space/time/money?  RSS feed

 
Frank Brentwood
Posts: 81
Location: Long Island, NY (Zone 7)
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In reading the Skills/Knowledge for permaculture thread, I found myself thinking (a sometimes dangerous occurrence ): "I'm in a situation that I'm sure more than a few other members have been in and I should ask for advice." Please, forgive the upcoming wall of text.

So here goes:

I live on a suburban lot on Long Island in New York in a typical neighborhood of single family houses. Lawns are well-manicured, frequently tended by hired landscapers, and uniformly boring-as-hell. Deviation from the expected norm gets you odd (sometimes downright nasty) looks from the neighbors and, in general, reduces the resale value of your home. If my wife and I were staying here forever, I'd deal with the occasional glances and do whatever I felt like doing until the Town Department of Making You Sad started issuing tickets.

But we aren't staying forever. Our timeline for leaving is November of 2018. Which leaves me just over 4 years to do whatever I am going to do. And that's where I want help from the members here

I have a 1/3 acre lot, divided into almost exact thirds between front lawn, back lawn, back "yard". The house/lot faces North.

The front lawn needs to remain grass to maximize resale value, but I have already started organic practices and mow high/water deep maintenance. I may add a tree or two since we've lost the only trees we had in the largest section and have only one Blue Spruce remaining in the smaller section. Possibly a bed or two for landscaping plants (probably pollinator-friendly native flowers & grasses). The fewer things in this section that are looked upon by my neighbors as "weeds", the better. Some stealth gardening recommendations would be nice, but visual appeal to the typical, non-permie suburbanite is key here in order to keep the resale potential as high as possible. Most of this area is full sun except for a strip along the front of the house that is shaded by the house itself.

The back lawn can be a bit more "native" and could incorporate more plants that would be considered "weeds" by the neighborhood standards. I will be adding some clover here this fall and probably to the front as well to help feed the N-hog grasses. I also like the idea of incorporating some small flowering things like Camomile and Crocus. (Can anyone tell me which type of Camomile is the one that smells like green apples when you mow it? Roman? German? English?) I still need to avoid the big "no-no's" of suburbia like dandelions and anything that the neighbors can complain about sending seeds onto their highly-prized mono-cultures. This area is shade/part-sun except for the late afternoon as the sun is blocked by large (>75') Maples on my and my neighbors lots for most of the day.

The back "yard" is where I've been spending most of my outdoor-work time. It was about 6,000 square feet over-run by English Ivy and Silver Maples. I pulled all the ivy by hand (after I learned the hard way that mowing doesn't kill it) and I've cut down over 100 of the smallest trees. (Don't freak out, there are still >30 left) Last fall, I seeded the entire area with Dutch White clover with poor results. What grew best was a lot of Garlic Mustard with a bit of Pokeweed, dandelions, prickly lettuce, and other unknown plants (even a couple of Mullein, yay!). I've considered covering the entire area with a 6"-12" layer of wood chips. I've thought about using my accumulated pile-o-trees for some small-scale hugels to plant with a pollinator-friendly mix of natives as a living fence. I've thought about calling in an air-strike and starting over This area is shade/dappled shade for most of the day with some spots getting part-sun in the late afternoon.

I have grown a traditional garden with limited success in the back. Lots of insect damage, lousy soil, not a lot of sun. I will be shifting to container gardening next year since the only spot that gets any real amount of sunlight is the patio off the back door. This spring will be my first attempts at growing from seed rather than from purchased starts.

In these circumstances, what would you do with each of these areas in the next 4 years if you knew that you would have to sell the property at the end of that time? (Most likely to someone who would look at a food forest and say "I'm gonna have to pay somebody to come rip that out.") How do you maximize your learning time so that you have knowledge to bring to your next/permanent home? Discuss
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 2284
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Moving in four years, I would stick with container gardening (these could be raised bed type containers) and make the lot "status quo". It is also probable that the neighborhood has covenants that would prevent most permaculture ideals, check your deed and accompanying paperwork.
 
Meryt Helmer
Posts: 395
Location: west marin, bay area california. sandy loam, well drained, acidic soil and lots of shade
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container gardening is a good idea. that way you can think about what plants you will want to have when you move, you could take the plants with you in their containers.


if you add a tree to the property that will stay when you move you can add a fruit tree or something that has edible features like a linden tree and even if you don't get any fruit from it you will be making the property be slightly better in a permaculture sense and potentially providing food for wildlife.
 
Scott Strough
Posts: 299
Location: Oklahoma
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I would start simple and easy. You said you might need a tree or two in the front yard. Try a cherry tree. They are considered an ornamental tree by most people. Think cherry blossom festival in Japan if anyone should ask. Plus you get cherries! Then think of other ornamental things you can do in the front yard that are BOTH ornamental AND produce food. First thing that comes to mind is a gazebo with a trellis. You know the kind with some wicker outside furniture, a table for tea, and a trellis holding a climbing rose or ivy for shade. But you don't have to use just any ol ivy or roses for the trellis. You could use a hops vine for your own home beer brewing. You could use a grape vine for fresh grapes or wine grapes. You could even stick with climbing roses, but a variety bred for rose hips and add that you make wonderful herbal tea. The trick in the front yard would be to look like you are "conforming", even adding to the value of the home, while stealthily you are actually adding permaculture principles.

Then there is the decorative waterfall rock pond. Who says the fish in the pond need to be Koi or fancy goldfish? You could park some rainbow trout in there just as easily. And a cute old fashioned windmill to pump the water for the pond. So beautiful the neighbors will all want one just to "keep up with the Jones's" And around the pond would be so many opportunities for herbal gardens and edible plants that are both decorative and useful. There is no reason at all that permaculture needs to be an eyesore. It should be as pleasing to the eye as the botanical gardens at the tourist attractions. Not just for the neighbors, but for you as well. Make a game out of how beautiful you can make your gardens. Hire a professional landscaper if you don't "have the artistic eye". Just guide him to use food type plants occasionally instead of the boring ornamentals most people use.
 
Zach Muller
gardener
Posts: 778
Location: NE Oklahoma zone 7a
36
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I am in a similar circumstance but I am renting and my time table for leaving is even shorter. I have taken a really standard approach with the front lawns to appease my land lady and keep curb appeal. Out of sight from the street I have a whole big weedy looking garden.
I have put in a lot of work installing in a forest garden even though I have a short time table, and most likely it will be a good amount of work restoring the property to more normal standards when I leave it. But for the time being it is pretty non intensive as far as labor, and even in just one year I feel that the garden has given more than the effort it took to create it.

My reasoning for spending the extra energy is that given a few seasons I can have a bunch of perennials established that can either be transplanted or propagated off of when i leave.
On top of that I can build up my seed bank. For example, in one growing season I can sow cilantro, get the seeds and sow it again. I have already made it so I have infinite cilantro/coriander. I just harvested seed from my parsley plants and sowed that all over the place. Other seeds I am multiplying are lettuces, arugula, sunflowers, red clover, white clover, chard, celery, different basils, purple hyacinth beans, etc. These are all plants I want to move on with and not have to ever buy seed for again.

One negative aspect of container gardening is the water. Potted plants dry out quicker than plants in the ground. In my climate I have to water stuff in pots manually, which means a lot more work. I could have a timer and drip irrigation yes, but it would cost money and energy. I can plant things around Swales and water significantly less, or not at all. Therefore I keep 1-5 potted plants that have to come inside in the winter, and the rest of my growing goes on in the ground.
 
John Saltveit
gardener
Posts: 2046
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I would buy some bare root fruit trees in the spring, plant them in the ground and move them with you when you go. They will be much closer to fruiting by then and not too large if they are semi-dwarf or smaller in rootstock. Building a raised bed could help you and would be seen as a plus by the new tenants.
Johns
PDX OR
 
Rob Browne
Posts: 65
Location: Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
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The container gardening suggestions are great. I would add a small aquaponics system in a sunny spot. It would be removable, sound like a water feature and give you food.
 
Leila Rich
steward
Posts: 3999
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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In my part of the world there's not the HOA-style aesthetic conformity that controls many Americans.
Praise be.
Though saying that, I try to have my front yard looking 'nice'-after all, I'm supposed to be turning people on, not off!
Since your good sun's out the front...
unless there's rules, you can make a really attractive garden combining edible, insect-friendly, pretty etc plants.
Red Russian kale, various lettuces, 'bright lights' chard mixed in with flowers...
I think the trick is to think about it as a Herbaceous border
If it was me, I'd probably try to create some nice-looking beds with tidy edges-you can do a lot with used bricks-
Add organic matter, mulch it attractively (tree chip mulch ages very nicely)
In my experience you can get away with a lot, as long as there's things people recognise-
'see, there's a nice gardeny edge, therefore it's officially a garden'

 
Michael Cox
Posts: 1621
Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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Guerilla Gardening? If you can't touch your own land why not look at permaculturing your neighbourhood? A few nice fruit trees on the verges might be a start. You can make them look "official" with some nice stakes and professional looking tree guards. If you want to plant a permanent tree avoid the dwarfing root stocks. They need staking for life and will look weedy and out of place.

What about a climbing fruit vine - grapes, hardy kiwi... these could be trained up an existing tree, or trained up a purpose built arbor. Done well they can look lovely.

In your front garden - if you want fruit trees you could look at rows of espalier. They can divide a space nicely, look pretty cool and shouldn't draw complaints. You could plant them just inside a fence row for example, and have bedding plants in front of them. "step-over" apples are trained like espaliers but only reach about 12" high.

For bedding plants, assuming you want to look at perennials: globe artichokes and cardoons make for impressive feature plants and should be familiar enough as ornamentals to not draw questions. Hedges of some herbs work very well - sage, rosemary etc and are well worth having within easy reach of the kitchen. Strawberries make a good ground cover and seem to do very well here, especially when spreading over a layer of wood chips. Good beneath fruit trees.

Permies like using comfrey around fruit trees as a chop and drop living mulch to prevent grass growing in, but vigorous hosta varieties can do the same job and are ornamental (albeit without the nutrient mining bonuses of the comfrey)
 
Peter Ellis
Posts: 1432
Location: Central New Jersey
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Familiar sounding situation. We are on a quarter acre in suburban NJ. Our time line for getting out is shorter than yours, but overall a really similar picture. I have pretty thoroughly ignored the question of what my permaculture leanings may do to the value of the property, which is probably not the best plan

Some thoughts - Permaculture is a design science - so apply the science of permaculture design to the challenge of producing a really optimized value suburban property - and I mean optimized for sale. Don't think of permaculture as forest gardens and perennial vegetables. Think of it as a problem solving toolkit.

You want to improve your permaculture knowledge and skills, which is great, laudable, all kinds of good. You are in a situation that places restrictions on exactly how you may go about exploring and practicing permaculture. That really is not a problem - it helps focus your application of permaculture!

I would look at things in the following sequence - Water, always a first priority- does it run off? where? Wet spots? Dry spots? In typical suburban settings there are two major water harvesting opportunities - the roof and the driveway. Look into rain barrel storage systems and setting up irrigation off of those for your landscaping (and think "landscaping" here, because what you want is the best curb appeal possible - your yield on this project is the sales price on your home in four years). Irrigation that you don't have to buy from the utility is money saved and value for the next owner. Look at your driveway - you can probably create some small water harvesting "berms" in asphalt or cement that will guide water from your driveway into your lawn, rather than just letting it run into the street and down the storm sewers. Does not take much, just a raised band 4 inches wide by 1 inch high should divert a major portion of water runoff into your lawn instead of the sewers. Depending on your contours, it may be worth doing some rain gardens or swales. Again, think "landscaping" with these and consider what you can plant that will enhance property value for your typical buyers.

After Water, I would think about Use and the Permaculture Zones - what areas of the property see what kinds of use, and how frequently? Is the front yard anything but eye candy for the neighbors (and the resident looking out a window or walking back and forth to the car, the mailbox...? Is there part of the backyard that gets used for outdoor dining, entertainment, etc. ? If there is not, is there a part where that would make sense to develop? A nice patio for grilling and hanging out with friends on a Saturday afternoon can be a real value added sort of feature. Practice some more "permie" skills by building a nice wood fired cob oven as a feature of the patio. How cool is it to bake pizza on your backyard patio with a few friends?

With water management organized and a sense of your zones and uses of areas in mind, I would next look toward what kinds of plantings and where. Remember that your "yield" is the highest sales price, not so much the food or other production that you might achieve. So I would say to think in terms of low maintenance, attractive, beneficial plantings and groups of plantings. That shaded back area might like hostas and rhododendrons, for example. You might want some low herbaceous borders in the front yard along the walkway, and those could contain various perennial or self-seeding cooking and/or medicinal herbs that also happen to be attractive to the eye and to pollinators. Your guilds might run less toward permaculture standards and more toward aesthetic groupings that can work together.

For example, a nice ornamental cherry tree, with crocus and daffodil surrounding it within the dripline, for early spring color, but also with poppies and echinacea for summer and late summer flowers. As suggested before, put a nice border to define this as a "garden bed" and perhaps some wood chip mulch to minimize weeds. This could make for a nice accent grouping in the front yard. How could anyone object to that in a nice suburban setting? Remember to run an irrigation line from your rain barrel collection system to the cherry guild.

Amaranth comes in some striking "ornamental" versions, and grows quite tall. I could imagine an intermixed planting of large sunflowers and amaranth as something that could be both decorative and a terrific attractant of songbirds. Again, a stacking function situation - you could get some food, they attract pollinators and insect predators, they're visually appealing and a bit of a bold statement. I might put this sort of bed someplace where I wanted a bit of visual screening, to obstruct my view of the neighbor's shed, or to reduce people looking right into my living room. This would be a tall - 8 feet, even in poor soil -installation.

But the details are for you to work out My point is to think about this project in a very permaculture way - what is your desired yield? How do you best achieve that, within the parameters of permaculture? In this case, yield is selling price on the house, so plan in that direction. It will give you tons of permaculture practice.
 
Frank Brentwood
Posts: 81
Location: Long Island, NY (Zone 7)
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Peter Ellis wrote:Some thoughts - Permaculture is a design science - so apply the science of permaculture design to the challenge of producing a really optimized value suburban property - and I mean optimized for sale. Don't think of permaculture as forest gardens and perennial vegetables. Think of it as a problem solving toolkit.

You want to improve your permaculture knowledge and skills, which is great, laudable, all kinds of good. You are in a situation that places restrictions on exactly how you may go about exploring and practicing permaculture. That really is not a problem - it helps focus your application of permaculture!

But the details are for you to work out My point is to think about this project in a very permaculture way - what is your desired yield? How do you best achieve that, within the parameters of permaculture? In this case, yield is selling price on the house, so plan in that direction. It will give you tons of permaculture practice.


Peter - Thank you!

This was exactly the advice I needed. Wishing I could do what I want to do right NOW is just dragging me down and killing my enthusiasm for doing anything. Changing my view of the situation to one of "opportunity" rather than "problem" is exactly the thing that I needed to do.

Thanks to everyone else for the practical project advice as well. I have a long winter of planning ahead.
 
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