Sub Acre Ag- Suburban Addition

All the action on the Sub Acre Farms have been hogging alot of space here at Onestraw, so I wanted to double back and show some of the work that has happened on the Suburban home front. The bed pictured at right was created last year when I made my permaculture beds. I had taken the sod I cut off with my uber cool hand sod cutter and turned it face down to make a 24″x20′ bed that I then planted with Rye Vetch last September. The winter was fierce here in Wisconsin (second worst on record) and the entire bed top killed to form a 4″ thick mat of straw, only to regrow to this 3′ tall stand by May.

I had decided to mow it down for a few reasons. I am still working on when to cut and when not to. Hairy Vetch is notorious for regrowing if mown before it flowers, but more importantly: the Rye was going to seed and I want to plant this bed to tomatoes in 2 weeks.

One of the biggest struggles with gardening in a brand new subdivision is the complete lack of organic matter. The soils are dead, and you have no trees for leaves. So last year I began growing my own green manures, primarily Russian Comfrey and Red Clover. Having seen how long it takes the ecologically challenged soils on my property to break down raw materials, I opted to mow off the green growth with a hand sickle. The scrub that is left (at left) I then rototilled under with the Grillo. In the future, I would like to trial the practicality of using a stationary chicken tractor at this point to scratch this layer in over the course of a week or so, but the HOA says “Hell No!”   Anyone able to answer why it is ok for me to use a stunningly loud and smelly air cooled diesel tractor in my backyard but not house 6 quietly clucking hens would do a great service to this country. The soil when done bore no resemblance to the dead caked black clay that the sod roots had attempted to pierce last year. Light, rich, and full of organic matter, it was a stark transformation, and the vetch should provide much of the nitrogen to get the tomatoes going.

The mown grass netted over 10 cu feet of material some of which I used to supercharge my compost bin (went from 90 to 136 degrees in 1 day!) and the rest to mulch a third of one of the permaculture beds.

To review: for $1.50 in seed I prevented erosion, grew my own mulch, accelerated my compost, re birthed my soil, mulched a garden and fertilized my tomatoes. Not bad for watching plants grow for 3 months!

Covercrops and green manures are not just for farming, they play a critical role in ALL soils-even if all you grow each year are tomatoes and zucchini, cover the soil the rest of the year with a simple mix of Rye and Hairy Vetch which can be bought from most seed sellers or Johnny’s or Fedco seeds. Small outlay, little work, and HUGE gains.


7 Responses

  1. Try going to your local city cousel and make the proposal to get that chicken law changed. I’ve been working with mine since January and it still hasn’t completely passed but itis half way there.
    Good luck, the garden looks like it’s coming along.

  2. Re: HOA

    2 things come to mind.

    First, a half dozen hens (skip the rooster) would probably not even be noticed by your 2 neighbors (assuming you are giving them fresh produce! My neighbor was calling me the tomato fairy because bag of slicing tomatoes showed up on the porch two time a week😉

    Second, Permaculture teaches you there are many solutions for the same problem – nature uses an abundance of counter measures. You could do a ‘rabbit tractor’ just as easily. And the turds are even better, and immediate, for the soil.

  3. Thanks for the ideas. The issue is less with the village than with my HOA. I am president, which one would think would give me some leverage, but you need a super majority to change the by laws which strictly state NO POULTRY. Also, since I am president I am under a microscope to some degree and flying under the radar, as thousands do, is unlikley to last -our HOA is not very lovey dovey. Also, we live backed up to a freeway, so 5,000 people see my backyard daily -hens would be more visible than usual.

    Second, a strike against rabbit tractors, which I have strongly considered, is that we have two large greyhounds that we adopted. While a strong cage may be an option, the “prey drive” of greyhounds is unreal – I have seen them run into fences at 35mph when they see a rabbit or cat. They are smart dogs, they just go more than a little crazy when they see a small animal.

    Again, thank you much for the comments they are sure to help hundreds of others!


  4. What are your thoughts about vetch and rye for people without any sort of tilling device or beast?

  5. I’ve used it in the past before I got the Grillo and it works fine by hand -there is simply no easier way to get that much organic matter in the soil with so little effort.

    Let it over winter, and cut the top growth in mid May with a hand sickle -it is dense enough that a weed whip would be pointless. The I mow it as close as I can with my electric mower, then turn it well with a spade, rather than a fork, to start to break up the root mass. It greatly helps to top dress the bed with a 1″ layer of compost if you intend to plant seeds, but I usually try to only preceded my transplants (‘maters) with rye/vetch, as it is tough to plant in. The top dressing also gets the soil ecology into decomposer mode Big Time and helps break down the massive organic matter influx from the rye roots-which are legion!


  6. The comfrey you grew is a great cover crop as you know.
    Its called a dynamic accumulator. I would set aside a small area in the corner of your yard to grow a permanent patch of it. That way you can hack it down several times a year as it grows back and just throw the tops around the base of other plants as a mulch.
    The comfrey roots can go deep down into the subsoil and mine it for minerals so the leaves are a great resource of minerals when mulched or composted or tilled into your planting beds.
    Good luck and keep up the good work.
    Thanks Mike🙂

  7. Thanks Michael! I spent 18 months looking for transplants, but once I found them, I have been dividing them (not hard with Comfrey!) and now have several dozen plants in a “green manure” bed and another dozen spread our through my fruit tree guilds. This week was first cutting. One thing I have learned is to cut BEFORE they flower as I have 4 “volunteer” plants near my compost bin from composting last years fronds post flowering.

    I use them as a top mulch to feed the soil as nature intended, in my perrenial food beds. The annuals get more traditional covers like rye or red clover.

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