Bioneer Talk this weekend: Suburban Permaculture

This Saturday I am honored to be a part of a 3 person panel at Madison’s Bringing Bioneers to Wisconsin conference that will be focused on “Beyond Backyard Bioneering”.  My fellow panelists and I will be attempting to give some ideas to the attendees wishing to move beyond gardening, composting, and driving a hybrid.   I will have the suburban side, and the urban sustainablitlity will be covered by James Godsil of Sweet Water Organics, a new Urban Agriculture enterprise in Milwaukee that is attempting to take Will Allen’s aquaponic principles and scale them up to a commercial size using an abandonded warehouse.  Awesome!  Covering more rural solutions will be Chamomile Nusz of Artha Sustainable Living Center – an incredible diverse and interesting farm that houses gardens, a B&B, and is a training facility for the MREA for renewable energy technologies.  Heady company indeed!


HOA Desolation 2004

Our tabula rasa also came completely devoid of soil life.

I was asked to talk about the transformation that we are working on here in our little piece of HOA paradise.  We are heading into our 6th year here and I must say it has been rather fun to go back through the posts from the early years, reliving my first reading of Gaia’s Garden and my growing understanding on how to build soils and start permaculture, but most of all it is healthy to remind oneself on just how far we’ve come in so little time.  The picture at left was taken the week we moved in – almost exactly 5 years ago.  The “soil” was in a wretched state – no topsoil, and so little microbial life that barely even weeds could grow.  It is amazing looking back to think that within 3 yeas I was harvesting 500#’s of food from this desolation.  And it is that story that I will be telling and teaching on Saturday.



When we moved in, the guilt of literally being Urban Sprawl weighed very heavily on me, and over that first winter I read David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways.  In the introduction Holmgren said something that grew into a stark commitment for me: that the suburban landscape that we on the environmental left so often lament, is actually one of our greatest resources.  In no other time have so many people owned land – fertile, irrigated, arable land.  In true Permaculture style, Holmgren was challenging us to take the “problem” of Suburbia and turn it into the Solution.   Thus my quest to push our property’s productivity.

The project has had some simple guidelines.  First, it was to be “normal” – no rows of corn in the front yard.  In fact, due to our being in an HOA, the front yard was mostly off limits and even out back the edible landscape needed to conform somewhat to normal suburban aesthetics.  Secondly, as we had small children and rather large dogs we decided to leave more than a bit of lawn.  In fact over half the backyard was given over to the playground and grass for frolicking.  That left about 4500 sq ft for our little experiment.

First "fruits" 2005

24" corn.... guess we'd better start composting!

We started with 2 raised beds, about 80 sq ft each and discovered very quickly just how depelted our soils really were.  Even with 4″ of store bought soil amendments, our corn was a whopping 24″ tall the first season back in 2005.  This was when I really started to dig into fertility management and started to read books like Gaia’s Garden which taught me about the soil food web.  Up went our compost bin, but with no trees or landscaping, there wasn’t much to put in it so we talked to our local coffee shop and have been composting 100#s of their slop a week for the past 4.5 years– that’s about 12 tons of organic matter that dodged the dump and is now living a new life under our gardens.  With adding not only that organic matter, but more importantly the microbial life from the compost the stage was set for me to begin putting my growing knowledge of temperate permaculture into practice.  We planted a small 500 sq ft garden of prairie plants, and 80′ of fence line went into red clover.  I went to the local nurseries and paid attention to what flowering plants the pollinators were swarming, and then bought them by the dozen.  In went nitrogen fixing shrubs and mulch making plants like Russian Comfrey.


"Pop" goes the garden. In just 2 years we can now grow 7' corn without supplemental fertilizing.

By the end of our third year the garden was beginning to “pop”.  The soil was becoming richer and we could now actually find a worm or two when transplanting.   Our harvests were finally coming in – the raspberries and strawberries were producing and we were now up to 4 vegetable beds.  We had built 2 rain gardens and were considering putting in larger, more permanent plantings like a small permaculture orchard.  In 2007 our total harvest from those 4 beds with the 2 additional beds of small fruit netted us an impressive 500#’s of harvest – from about 500 sq ft– and even began to sell produce to the coffee shop that we got the slop from forming a nice resource circle.

The next year, 2008, we decided to try our hands at Market Gardening, growing potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and peppers at a permaculture designed farm 10 miles north of our home.   This was fantastically successful at not only allowing us to grow 1500#s of potatoes, but also at completely burning me out.  I found it very hard to divert my attention between the two projects and our home gardens suffered.  Still, the addition of 5 fruit tree guilds to the 2 in front and 3 more vegetable beds at home meant that our harvest was still increasing – this time to about 750#.

Current readers will be fairly abreast of our current situation.  In 2009 we continued to expand our Market Garden – this year harvesting about 2500#’s of potatoes and another several hundred pounds of tomatoes despite the blight.   The home gardens were mostly on hold with no significant plantings other than a massive expansion in our compost crops (60 comfrey plants) and the addition of several black locust trees.


Garden "Pops" in Year 4

From desolation to this in 4 years. The power of partnering with Nature!

After 5 years we now have 7 annual vegetable beds with more than a foot of rich topsoil, 7 fruit tree guilds deeply mulched with vibrant soil food webs, and with the exception of quack grass weeding, very little maintenance needs.  This year we took our first harvests from the orchard – with both our peach trees producing, and two of our pears as well.  All told we now have 11 kinds of fruit from the exotic hardy kiwis and paw-paw to the typical strawberries and raspberries.  We have harvests from mid March’s spinach through to the last green sorrel of fall, and the potatoes and garlic last until late February.  By the time the last pint of jam is eaten we are within weeks of the first strawberries – late May in warm years.   Our children are growing up to know that its the rare plant they can’t eat in the backyard, and those they can’t they understand play a vital role in our mini ecosystem – fixing nitrogen, attracting “good” bugs, or providing food for the worms.


We are likely within only a year or two of obtaining our goal of growing 2000#’s of food in a suburban backyard with very few, if any, sacrifices from a “normal” yard.   We live in a small town of about 1200 and have about 500 homes in/near our borders.   In about 5 years, or less, we could be producing 1,000,000#’s of food within our borders – from protein crops like sunflower seeds and hazelnuts to calorie crops like potatoes and corn in addition to the nutritional vegetables and herbs.  If every 3 blocks were producing 50 tons of food we would be a long way towards re-localizing our society and a lot closer to transitioning to a less energy dependent tomorrow.  The problems of our age are daunting when viewed from afar, but as Bill Mollison is fond of saying:

all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.

We can do this.

Be the Change.

12 Responses

  1. Rob, have you posted previously in any detail about your fruit tree guilds? I’d love to read what you’ve done with that concept. It’s one I’d like to move on next year with our venerable apple tree and a new pear tree not all that far away. More lawn eradication on the list for next year!

    • Kate,
      They are pretty tame – take the apple tree guild from Gaia’s Garden and modify to taste. I use comfrey, New Jersey Tea, daffodils, day lillies, chives, gooseberry, false indigo, lead plant, echinacea, and sorrel, plus some flowering ornamentals that the bees like. As the shrubs are still small I am filling the niches with vining plants like winter squash for now to build some soil organic matter with their roots, and pull some productivity off them in the mean time. I had 6# crooknecks –with no weeding or irrigation. AWESOME!

      • Rob, thanks for the description. I hadn’t considered the NJ tea or the lead plant, but after a little research, I can see the utility of these plants. Wow! there’s a lot to recommend both. Can I ask your source for these two plants? Richter’s does not carry them.

        I would like to incorporate a blackcurrant bush or two within a guild which will stretch between an apple and pear tree. I’m also going to try to find American ginseng to plant on the shady sides of the guild. That may take some tracking down as well. I don’t know how much the ginseng will contribute to the other guild members, but it’s a plant worth propagating, and it needs the help. Plus, it loves shade, so it fills a niche that would otherwise be hard to use.

        We have daffodils and to spare, so those are an obvious choice.

        Very sobering indeed, your takeaway observations from the conference. I am grateful to have examples such as yours to follow, even if at a distance. Thanks for inspiring us to be part of the change.

  2. A very inspiring transformation. There are a lot of folks out there who write about the doom/gloom topics (peak oil, currency collapse, etc. – all legitimate and valid concerns in my mind) and trash suburbia in the process. They seem to favor more efficient, urbanized settings. However, those places can’t feed themselves. Rob, you’re starting to demonstrate that suburbia probably could which is a fantastic thing. Now, just imagine the next level if a block or neighborhood worked together. You could incorporate rotational grazing on a small scale, crop rotations, the possibilites are limitless.

    • Tim,


      Chickens would certainly add to the system immensely, but they are strictly forbidden by our HOA. The sh/t will be hitting the fan within 20 years, and we will not have time to redo our built environment. Carter tried to start us down the road to sustainability, but Reagan sold our soul to the corporations… that is all water under the bridge. Our built environment is here to stay, I say we make lemonade from our suburban lemons. Despite the shock value, 2000#’s is super conservative from a lot the size of mine (21000 sq ft) 1 pound a sq ft is a good “baseline” figure for bio-intensive agriculture. Most of the 3rd world could feed 20 people on my land with my resources. We need to think that way. And soon.


  3. this is a great transformation.

  4. Rob – I think we’ll have to start thinking about transforming yards to bio-intensive agricultural sites much sooner than later. Whether it’s due to the the massive inflation that we’re likely to see, the mass failure of corporate-style agriculture (it’s just not sustainable nor sensible to continue down the path that Monsanto would like farmers to), or ramifications from a spike in oil prices (that salad from across the country will cost an order of magnitude more) doesn’t matter. Heck, maybe it will be a combination of factors, who knows. Doesn’t matter – the more examples we have of using whatever resources are available to grow food sustainably the better – especially with some data!!! As an engineer, I love data … that’s why I really appreciate your in-depth analysis of various things you’ve tried that include yield numbers, etc. Most helpful. Now, off to continue Fall garden cleanup and maybe see if I can score a truckload of free horse poop!!!

  5. Tim – thanks for your comments. With the converging crisises of the coming decades workable, simple, off the shelf models for decentralized food, fuel, and resource production and the community to ensure that they are distributed equitably and peacefully are the most vital things we need to spend our time on.

    Just got back from the Bioneers conference. It was supposed to be hopeful, and with all the myriad things gaining momentum it often was. But listening to some of the greatest minds of our age say again and again that we have less than a decade to fix things, and that the next 3 years are the most critical, was very sobering.

    Keep fighting. Be the Change.

  6. Do you have a more-recent photo from the same perspective as the tabula rasa and 24″ corn photos?

  7. Interestingly enough, no. We lost hundreds of photos from years 2-3 with a hard drive crash. Of course I should, I will try to take one this May or June when everything is popping.


  8. I think the transformation of your yard is amazing, and it’s obvious you’ve done a lot of research as well as putting the time in to implement the ideas and learn from what you are doing. I am interested to hear your take on black locust, which I have come to view as a troublesome aggressor. Honey locust might be a tamer nitrogen-fixing option. With black locust, even small trees will start to turn into dense patches of thorny brush, as new shoots start to emerge from the roots; many more shoots are ready to pop up as soon as one is cut off. Is there a management strategy for dealing with this? I have always wondered if mythological tales of many-headed beasts or enemies that redouble in number every time they are killed come from the first farmers’ and horticulturalists’ struggles with plants like black locust.

  9. Rob, I like your blog so I added it to my link list at
    It’s great to see your yard come to life and vitality. I’ve got a four year old project unfolding in Bloomington, IN that will be a food forest in a couple more years. About 80 fruit trees so far on 2/3 acre and 100 of other woody perennials.

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