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My wife and I just bought our house in West Virginia in Apr '10 and took the rest of the year to get the most important projects finished, so we skipped gardening last year.  I'm ready to start a garden this year and about two months ago discovered Permaculture while doing online research on gardening.  We have 2.5 acres with probably 2 acres of untouched mixed hardwood forest.  The house sits on a hill and the only level section is the 1/2 acre they built the house.  We are striving to becoming more and more self-reliant and added a sheep pasture and chicken house in the backyard area.

Our front yard is where I want to build a food forest; however the yard only has about 4-5" of topsoil before we hit shale rock.  My wife doesn't think we can garden this area, but through what I've learned already about permaculture, we have plenty to work with.  Our front yard is kind of a triangle area with only a small maple tree. 

Right now I'm about 1/3 of the way through Will Hookers Online Class on Itunes and I just finished the 1st part to Gaia's Garden, so please forgive me for being a bit premature in my questioning.

Do I need to rip up the grass in the front yard to build the soil or can I just dump compost and soil on top of the lawn?  I know that I want to build an herb spiral and one or more keyhole gardens and remove the small maple tree and replace with a couple of fruit trees (apple, pear).  We have wild blackberry and black raspberries growing along the forest edge, and want to add some blueberry bushes as well to the food forest.  These are my initial plans as of right now, with potentially adding a rainwater collection system. 

If you guys can help me out with the best way to build up the soil in the front yard, I would be greatly appreciative.  Thanks.
Posts: 1948
Location: PNW Oregon
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Yes, you can do everything right on top of the current grass.  There are several different ways to achieve your goals, but here is what I would do -

Using lasagna style gardening I would build up the areas you want to plant in.  Because of this style you will have lower areas, and maybe lower paths which you don't want (see path construction in link below). 

So first take note of how the water moves over your front yard.  From adjoining lands, from the house, from higher ground.  Also how the sun will shine on this area.  Then map out how you will capture and hold this water, or at the very least, safely channel it.  Here is a neat permaculture rain garden constructed in a front-yard, which may give you some inspired ideas for your garden -

Next, map out your growing areas & paths, and incorporate this into your water movement map.

Now your ready to do some yard work.... using lasagna style gardening build up the areas you want to plant in.  Maybe even put some med. branches or large wood chips down on the grass first and cover it lasagna style making Hugelkulturs to plant into.  Decide on the material for your paths and lay it down following your map.  If you are going to capture/channel water now is the time to dig out your swales, ponds and/or channels.

Planning for sun, water, paths and raised beds (of some type) is what I recommend.  The raised bed, lasagna/hugelkultur is how I would deal with shallow soil with uncertain fertility.  But to me the water is the most important element to consider first when designing a garden, but then I live in Oregon 
Posts: 715
Location: PA-Zone 6
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Darn, she beat me to it!!! What she said

Posts: 308
Location: long island, ny Z-7a
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yep good advice!. need to implement this as well

Jami McBride wrote:
Here is a neat permaculture rain garden constructed in a front-yard, which may give you some inspired ideas for your garden -

they also have a great video of this design on youtube,
actually about 7 on their rain garden alone,!
search under uploads for "rain garden"
Posts: 4437
Location: North Central Michigan
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i have seen where people have built raised beds on concrete sure you can build up the soil over top of your shale...and as you age the raised beds will be a lot easier on your back. You will want to consider some hugelkulture type formation of your raised beds to add a lot of organics that will last a longer time..also..remember to continue to add nutrients with organic materials regularly in following years to keep up the fertility..also if you have a dry area you might need to put in some type of irrigation system..being in your FRONT might be able to arrange a catchment system for water off of your roof or for greywater, and use that to water your plants..if you raise up the catchment system then you can run water tubing and use gravity to feed it to your raised beds ..soaker hoses are great..

I'm not sure if you'll be able to grow any fruit or nut trees in these beds, as they might not be deep enough but some of the super dwarfs probably would do well..I would give them a try if you can afford them..even some dwarfts might survive and bear if property fed and cared for.

you could use some cattle panels between two beds to make an arch, and grow things like grapes up over them for some eay to pick fruit too
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Posts: 10811
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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My new vegetable garden is in an area of shallow soil.  In my hot dry climate I found I couldn't get away with only 6" or so of soil on top of rock, so I have been digging out any loose rock down to the "bedrock" limestone slab about 18" down and replacing the rocks with logs for hugelkultur.  The small area I had done by summer last year showed me hugelkultur is a good way to mitigate hot dry conditions.  In the cooler wetter climate of WV, you should probably do fine with building raised hugel beds on top of your slate as suggested by others. 

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