From Exhausted Suburban LAWN to Supercharged Food System?

From Exhausted Suburban LAWN to Supercharged Food System?

My long term goal is to convert every inch of my sterile, depleted lawn into a productive food system.

A food system that requires as little work as possible to maintain for the maximum possible yield.

I’ve got my work cut out for me.

My soil is (mostly) dead.  It’s a thin layer of sod on top of a feast of rocks held together with clay.

Converting soil this dead into soil so rich that life literally pops out of it isn’t easy.

It takes planning, the right materials, hard work, and time (time for nature to take its course).

One of the best ways to improve a soil is to change it a structural level.

The most interesting long term structural amendment I’ve found is biochar.  Biochar is a form of charcoal (it’s not the same charcoal you use in your barbecue) that is created through  pyrolysis (an oxygen free burn that breaks down the organic matter).

Even modest additions of biochar can radically improve nearly any soil it is added to.

How?  By improving its ability to store nutrients, house micro-organisms, and sequester water.

Not only that, this soil amendment lasts a long time.  How long?  Recent testing indicates that it may remain beneficial for over a thousand years.

To get a feel for how it impacts soil productivity, take a look at this picture of  trial in Australia:

Pretty dramatic.

Same is true when biochar and compost are combined.

So, why isn’t everyone using biochar to improve their soil?  That’s simple.

Not that many people know about it yet.

As a result, biochar is still expensive.

Fortunately, you can work around that by making it yourself.   There are lots of great ways to do that.

More later.


Resiliently Yours,



PS:  Surrounding your home and community with high quality, organic soil is one of the smartest investments you can make in your future.

PPS:  For those of you still nostalgic for 20th Century’s sterile taker culture, these videos of a “Black Friday” scramble at Walmart might help you remember why it’s best forgotten.  ;->

This is just one aspect of self-reliance. You'll find more in our 100% free online Self-Reliance Catalog, a carefully curated collection of the best in self-reliance & resilience

The goal of The Self-Reliance Catalog is to help you know better what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting, whether that “thing” is a plant, a tool, a book, or even a design for a home or greenhouse.

Set up your free account here for instant access



Suggested Videos

Self-Reliance is Hard
We Make It Easier

Solutions for Smarter Self-Reliance:

You'll find them in The Self-Reliance Catalog; a carefully curated collection of the best plants, tools, shelters and systems for self-reliance and resilience.

Free Registration

  • David Jacobs

    Seems like we have the same lawn! I am also trying to improve my soil before expanding the garden, thanks for the tip on biochar. I have gotten some results with core aeration. Done it twice so far and can’t tell if things are less compacted, but the grass is somewhat greener and fuller without the use of any chemicals or fertilzers.

  • Stephen Clay McGehee

    Although the “glorified beach sand” that we have here in my area could be greatly improved with something like this, our big problem here is the “root knot” nematode population that builds up when crops are grown. These microscopic worms get into the roots and choke off the nutrients so they cannot reach the plant above. Even the most fertile soil wouldn’t negate the damage they can do. Reducing the percentage of sand is the only real long term solution since they travel by moving from grain to grain of sand. They apparently cannot move through organic material in the soil – just through the sand. I’m wondering if a high enough percentage of this biochar material might solve that problem.

    Adding organic matter here works, but it is a very temporary solution – as it decomposes, water trickling down through the sandy soil washes the nutrients down past the root zone. Since biochar apparently doesn’t decompose, wouldn’t that be a great solution if biochar could solve the nematode problem! It’s definitely something that I’m going to be looking into – thanks for the post, sir!!

    Are you aware of how biochar might compare with Vermiculite or Perlite? Both are processed mineral materials that increase the capacity of the soil to hold water. The advantage is that they are widely used already and relatively cheap.

  • Simon Rosenberg

    I have similar rocky clay soil with poor drainage under my lawn and I was able to accomplish remediation successfully this past summer 2012 using the following steps which I documented in a blog with pictures

    1) Remove old grass

    (I cut it into sod squares and placed it in a shady area of my yard that previously never took much grass; all I did was to sprinkle some garden lime, some organic compost/chicken manure commercial fertilizer and some fungi for lawn from over the existing grass area and place the sod right over the old sparse grass which decayed underneath I presume.)

    I recommend you check out the videos from Paul Stamets on his website as well as his presentations on soil remediation including toxic oil spill sites.

    2) I rotor-tilled the clay soil and screened it (loose chicken wire over a 50 gallon garbage can) to a depth of 6 ” to get out the rocks that were 20-25% of the volume of the soil I removed..

    3) Added sand, garden lime, organic fertilizer, lots of peat moss to add volume & promote drainage through the hard clay soil and fungi for garden soil to the screened soil and spread it out back in the six inch deep trough the tiller created.

    4) Placed 6″ high wooden frames for the 20′ by 3′ square foot garden area.

    5) Every 4′ around the periphery raised 1″ by 4″ vertical lumber to support the “Deer Mesh” that covered the garden from the ground level up the 4′ then over the top and down the other side. This keeps out Deer, Squirrels, Racoons, Woodchucks, and birds that ate large amounts of my 2011 first attempt at a garden.

    Here in Westchester County, just north of New York City, we got the best yield from a variety of heirloom and store-bought seeds and seedlings of basil, spearmint, tomatoes, cucumbers, as well as sweet and hot peppers. Broccoli, cabbage, carrots and strawberries did not do so well in my garden.

  • Stephen Clay McGehee

    I just made the connection. Last week, I visited a small olive field. Olives are strictly an experimental crop in this area, but he has several acres planted to see how they produce here. He pointed out a couple of trees that were about double the size of the others. He explained that they were growing where the burn pile was when an old house used to be located where olive trees are now growing. It has been many years, but that area is still far better for growing than the surrounding area. I suppose that’s a real life example of biochar in action.

  • Simon Rosenberg

    Photos from my Mid Summer July 22 2012 garden (with vegetables growing in the raised-square-foot 20’by 3′ garden, 3 flood and drain aquaponics grow beds, two vertical home-made grow towers, a “City-Picker” planter which did the best with lettuce and arugala, and number0us flower pots and half-whiskey barrels) can be seen in a Google+ album at

  • Michael
  • Scott James

    If your goal is food production, I’ve listed some favorite resources here that we’ve used over the last 10 years to convert our lawn to food production:

    We’ve had good success with sheet mulching with free burlap coffee bags + free local manure (many animal owners will even deliver to you free on their trailer!) + free wood chips from local arborists:

  • vera

    Yes, but don’t forget, folks, that to grow living soil, it must always be covered. The lawn can be a far more effective coolant than a garden (photosynthesis cools the earth). Adding a sheep to your lawn (in the right conditions) could be far better for the earth than converting every bit of it to garden. After all, the lawn photosynthesizes far longer than most gardens do, each year. But of course, we’d have to figure out how to grow lawns the permaculture way.

  • Dave, RN

    You need to look into the “Mittlieder Method” or gardening. I was doing square foot gardening and am switching to Mittlieder.

  • Jefferson

    Reading this over my breakfast. Have you anymore information or followup on the matter?

    • John Robb

      I’m working on it. JR

  • -->