Suburban Permaculture 20 miles from Washington DC

Small Plot Intensive Gardening

I turned the lawn in my side yard into productive abundance!   First I removed all the grass by hand with a shovel (that was no joke).  The ground underneath was all crazy think clay with no top soil and no biological life.  I brought in some compost and formed the rows and woodchip walking paths.  I broadforked (14 inch meadow creature – the rows but the ground was so compacted that I could barely scratch the surface (Frustrating). I decided to plant anyway and put down about 2-3 x 5 gal buckets of compost for each row (20 feet long by 3 feet wide). The walking paths are anywhere from 6 inches to 18 inches wide (the idea being that you can straddle the garden rows without having to step in the beds and everything is so tight that you can actually plant more than if you had a tractor doing this). I had an incredible first season growing a ton of food on some really crappy soil.

Fall.    So I pulled everything out of the beds and put down another 2 x 5 gal buckets of compost per row and then I planted a cover crop mix (  The idea with cover crops is that they keep the soil covered so the soil biology can still thrive over the winter and when you mow in the spring, all that biomass gets fed to the soil biology / microbes.

Early spring.  Mow the cover crops. Don’t remove the clippings, leave them right there in the rows. Then put a huge thick tarp over everything.  A tarp? what? that doesn’t sound or look very natural!  Well let me explain.  The tarp keeps the soil covered, moist, and dark. Perfect for a bunch of microbes to feast on the cover crop clippings.

a month later.   Remove the tarp and now see what happens.   I got out the broadfork and previously it had been so compacted and hard that I could only scratch the soil surface but now.  Wow.   I could sink the broadfork all the way in 14 inches. Amazing!  In just one year I had some really nice soil! That translated to some amazing crops that tasted awesome!

I decided to cover most of the area in about 30 yards of woodchips.  Took about 3 days for me to spread it around with a wheel barrow after work.  Now I have a huge garden, mini orchard(apple, pear, plum), mini vineyard(concord, muscadine), and a bunch of goji berry, blackberry, blueberry,

***  This transformation story was also featured on the Daily-ish email of (

Here is the transformation:

roughed out a 20×30 area for the garden beds. Added some woodchips on top to keep the soil covered.

I live on a 1/4 acre about 20 miles from Washington DC.  After getting into permaculture and listening to Paul Wheaton podcasts I decided to turn my entire side yard into permacultureawesome.  With 6 garden rows (each 3 feet by 20 feet), a mini vineyard and orchard along with quite a few berry bushes and medicinal plants.  

First season crops

1st season had quite a productive garden.  I added some good compost on top and broadforked it all.  This was really compacted clay, the broadfork (meadow creature 14 inch all steel) would only go in about 4-5 inches.

After harvesting everything, I mowed it and planted cover crops for winter to build organic matter and keep the soil covered.
Cover crops growing
close up of cover crops
early spring – time to mow cover crops
After mowing the cover crops, all that crop residue sits on top of the garden beds and the whole area gets covered with a tarp.

I big ugly tarp doesn’t seem very permacultury or nature friendly but it’s actually very appropriate technology.  The tarp keeps out the light and keeps the soil nice and moist.  The soil microbes feast on the crop residue and any weed seeds that germinate die due to lack of sunlight.  

2nd season.  Wow what a difference!  I pulled the tarp off and all the mowed cover crops were eaten by the soil life.  I broadforked everything and holy cow in just one season the soil was dramatically different.  No more compacted clay, broadfork went in the whole 14 inches! I also saw a truck driving around my neighborhood with woodchips and they were more than happy to dump 30 yards in my driveway for free.  I covered the whole side yard in wood chips.  no more grass. 

Covered my whole side lawn in woodchips so the whole area would become a sponge when it rains and build amazing soil. No cardboard needed! just woodchips 6-8 inches deep.
Sunchokes and woodchips.
Sunchoke screen. From the street nobody can see my little permaculture paradise.
row crops
Sweet Potato patch
Mini Vineyard growing on the fence. Pretty soon that fence is going to be covered in muscadine and concord grapes.
Kale and Cabbage
Purple Mustard and Swiss Chard
Carrots going crazy!
Orange and Purple Carrots
Check out the colors of this carrot!
Mizuna, Japanese greens
Swiss Chard
Juicing my greens – so much diversity!
Apache Thornless Blackberry
Sweet Potatoes – two varieties – I had over 100 pounds of these.
Sunchokes! You can keep these in the ground all winter and they get sweeter. They keep fine in the ground so you will never starve if you got sunchokes growing, just dig them up when you are hungry.


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