Permaculture Applied at Abby Farms

Regardless of age, income, or industry – many people across many platforms these days are using terms like: “sustainable” “renewable” and “green.”  While I am pretty sure that the intention behind the use of these words are basically the same – a world and its people that are friendlier to the environment, wiser in their use of natural resources and each ultimately being healthier – how do so many different types of business reach this same goal, how do they become sustainable, renewable and green?

Permaculture provides a design model for individuals regardless of age, income and industry that can help them attain this objective.  If you are not familiar, Permaculture – so named due to the blending of the root words permanent and agriculture – is a “science” that looks to the earth in designing and implementing practices for food/crop production, community design, people and animals, basically all aspects of life on earth, in a way that they can be utilized perpetually.  It’s twelve guiding principles can be adapted and applied to most any person, group or organization.

Like the rest of the environmentally conscious world, Abby Farms is working to decrease its “footprint” and increase its renewability.  Two permaculture design principles come to mind in our pursuit of this:  #6 Produce No Waste and #12 Creatively Use and Respond to Change.  In an effort to Produce No Waste, we take in wood chips waste from local haulers and store it on our nursery to allow it to decompose for about 1 year.  After it has sufficiently broken down, we spread it in our mulch beds to provide a stabilizing and protective medium for our B & B plants.  After about a year in those beds, these wood chips have now decomposed even further.  At this point they are removed from the B & B beds and applied in the growing beds as organic matter to feed the in-ground trees.  To Creatively Use and Respond to Change occurs daily at Abby Farms during the growing season.  We conduct a variety of leaf and soil test to determine the health of the plants and soil.  This allows us to address any issues through natural means with naturally occurring nutrients – rather than synthetic.

With so many of us seeking the same end result across so many industries and with the increasing relevance and easy-to-implement practice of Permaculture, our end goal is much closer to being realized.

Perfect Soil? Not a Chance

We know that balanced nutrition plays an integral role in producing healthy trees and shrubs. One could not afford to build the perfect soil on a 550-acre farm, so when we say “Pioneering Sustainable Horticulture”, we’re saying through research and experience we are identifying our deficiencies and addressing them one at a time through soil building. I believe no one knows for sure what the perfect soil is. I personally have talked to some of the leaders of the sustainable movement and they all have bits and pieces that connect some but not all of the dots. So you have to build your soil like a puzzle using the overall goal to work backwards to achieve what works on your property. We at Abby Farms are doing just that and our results are good enough for us to be insecticide and fungicide free for 7 continuous years.
I’m sure you’ve heard me say before that growth is limited by the nutrient in least supply, so excess of any nutrient just causes problems in other areas. Identify your weakness first. Start with the cations. The mid-Atlantic soils are usually deficient in calcium, so correctly amending this nutrient helps balance the other cations. You could proactively bring in line potassium or magnesium at the same time you’re addressing calcium. Plants’ needs are in this order according to some experts: calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and sulfur.
In the mid-Atlantic area, we have a difficult time getting phosphorous to the correct levels because of the way the nutrient management state laws were written. The composers of the law still believe toxic chemical rescue is the way to farm and until we can get younger talent into these positions, with new training we will have to do the best we can. Magnesium is an exergy molecule and probably the most difficult I found to balance, so foliar sprays come into play. Magnesium; get it close in the soil and the balance through the tissue.
Sulfur brings into play the plant’s immune system and is used to make proteins and amino acids. Sulfur is now the red-headed step child. Back when I was young, you rarely had to worry about adding sulfur because of industrial pollution. Today, with better air quality, everybody forgets to add sulfur. Balance phosphorous and sulfur in equal parts.
Manage what you measure from the soil. Get it as close as money allows, but remember, this is no guarantee of success. This is where tissue testing comes in to play. There are rules to follow, not difficult rules, but it can become costly if you’re using an outside lab. The advancement in this segment is moving rapidly. We can now use sap analysis to predict insect and disease attacks. Science is a powerful thing. Keep in mind that you have to earn the right before you tissue test, having healthy fungi and bacteria in the soil, with some type of balancing of the cations coupled with good levels of organic matter, all complete the puzzle.

Phytoremediation: A green sustainable technology

Phytoremediation and/or phytotechnologies definition: Using living plants to help clean soil, water and air of pollutants. Abby Farms stocks many known remediation plants in its inventory. 

The demand for this type of work and plant material seems to be increasing in the mid-Atlantic area for state and federal contracts. While a lot of people don’t think of the small jobs as contamination sites like Chernobyl, almost all new commercial construction sites have a paved parking lot with an attached drainage area for the collection of water after rain events. These collection areas receive fuel or oil leaked from their customers’ cars, not to mention any object or item tossed out the window or dumped out- it could be anything from a Big Gulp to battery acid.

Look around the next time you go to Lowe’s or Wawa and you’ll see tiny “Chernobyls” all over Maryland. This is an excellent opportunity for the landscape contractor to up-sell his landscape installation or maintenance contracts. Abby Farms can help you as we have some knowledge on the subject of phytoremediation plant selection and size of material that will help you get the biggest bang for your buck. The small contractor or the “little guy” can really clean up (no pun intended.) Here is what I mean. These jobs usually require minimal equipment, in most cases, hand tools and a pickup truck. Smaller sized trees and shrubs are the best remediators because younger plants have a higher growth rate, tapering off as they mature, thus doing a better job of decontamination or mitigation depending on the existing site conditions. Understanding conditions and contaminants determines the level of clean up, as certain plants will do certain things. River birch would be a target plant for nickel contaminated sites. It’s a proven fact that river birch needs nickel to reduce the chance of having deformed leaves. Phytotechnologies can be also utilized as a preventive measure, rather than solely a post-remediation tool. Dura heat, heritage or seedling all will work just fine. Abby Farms can help rebuild your soil and supply plants to match some of your needs for a sustainable future.

Partial List of Abby Farms Plants with Phyto Remediation Capabilities

  • Norway Maple
  • Black Alder
  • Big Blue Stem
  • White Birch
  • Hackberry
  • Eastern Redbud
  • Honey Locust
  • Red Cedar
  • Mulberry
  • Switch Grass
  • Loblolly Pine
  • Virginia Pine
  • Bur Oak
  • Willow Oak
  • Black Locust
  • Weeping Willow
  • Chinese Elm
  • Day Lily
  • Dwarf Burford Holly
  • Crape Myrtle
  • Liriope
  • Nandina
  • Chinese Pistache
  • Sweetgum

Rose Rosette Disease


Rose Rosette disease is a virus transmitted by a mite, phyllocoptes fructiphilus.  It has been around for 70-80 years but has moved to the forefront due to over-planting of the Knockout Rose.  Many people, including nurserymen, believe this virus only affects the Knockout Rose which is untrue.  We are a sustainable grower at Abby Farms so we can’t use any chemicals to control this disease if we get it.

The universities are saying miticides are worthless anyway and we agree with them.  We know a miticides change the sap PH of the plant and disrupts the protein/carbohydrate balance and actually makes the plant more susceptible.

Abby Farms uses a two-pronged approach:

  1. Soil
    • Balance your cations in the soil.
    • Balance your nitrogen—equal parts nitrate to ammoniacal nitrogen.  Go with lower rates.  You do not want excessive growth!
    • Work your minor nutrients.  Zinc is a big factor but, remember, it retards copper.  Keep a 2-1 ratio ZN to CU .
    • Sulfur needs to be in adequate levels.
    • Use humates/humic acids to build your carbon.
    • Boron needs to be in the middle/high based on your cation exchange capacity.  Do not overdo it.  Get a soil test done.
  2. Foliar Sprays
    • Light foliar applications of fish fertilizer mixed with kelp—rotate with calcium, a little boron and carbon, spray to run off.
    • Get your brix level to 14%-19%.
    • Sanitize your pruners after every plant you trim.

These adjustments should keep you clean in the nursery.  The biggest failures in the landscape start with low calcium and boron levels in the soil along with no organic matter!

Boxwood Blight- Claonectria Pseudonauiculata


Row of infected boxwoods
Row of infected boxwoods in CT. Photo: Sharon Douglas, PhD, Plant Pathologist, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station


This is a very quick disease and hard to control because it can penetrate cuticle and stomata.  Start with sanitation.  Remove all old leaves from the container when weeding.  Space correctly so you can get air movement and sunshine to dry off the leaves quickly in the morning.  Sanitize your shears after pruning each plant if you suspect you have boxwood blight.

  1. Soil
    • Elevate your calcium 7 times higher than magnesium 70% to 10% soil balance.
    • Elevate your boron based on cation exchange capacity.
    • Good sulfur levels with a higher soil PH.
  2. Foliar Sprays
    • Fish fertilizer/carbon/rotated with a calcium silicate/boron mix.

Landscape’s biggest failures are low soil PH and poor drainage along with excessive irrigation.

Tree care and protection for shipping


With spring upon us the shipping season has begun. Here at Abby Farms we take pride not only in our tree quality but the package in which the trees are delivered. We want our customers to be very happy and comfortable knowing not only will they get superior quality trees but also trees that have been taken care of in transport. After all we have taken years to grow these trees and do not want them rejected due to issues in transport.  All trees that leave our nursery will come with both trunk and limb protection.  The trunk protection is to prevent scarring/rubbing from the other trees loaded on the trailer. We tie the heads to help prevent limbs being broken in transport. Also, when you tie the heads it gives a very clean appearance when the load arrives to your yard or jobsite.  There are also other steps that we take to help protect the trees during transport.

At Abby Farms we pre-dig a lot of our trees so that we have inventory to hold for the entire season. Unlike many other nurseries, at Abby Farms you will still be able to find the trees that you were looking for in early spring during the late summer and fall months. This holding area allows us to heel the trees in mulch creating a level of protection for the root ball. This holding area is watered daily to keep the quality of the tree. During this time there will be some rot of the burlap. When we do ship the trees out we will wrap the root ball in a new sleeve of burlap which will protect the roots that have grown while holding in the mulch. In the summer and early fall months we will water the material before its loaded so that it arrives to you moist but not overly wet. We pride ourselves on giving our customers the best and it’s evident in every load that is shipped from our nursery.

Roots: The Hidden Value of Trees

The landscaper or landscape architects whom our business caters to rarely think about one of our best kept secrets “ROOTS”.

The value of our products is judged from the ground up and tagged for their symmetrical form-like a holly tree. Crape myrtles and birch are selected by symmetrical cane sizes and balanced heads but if you look a little deeper, the roots are our best kept secret; often or in most cases never given a thought.

Abby Farm starts off aligning themselves with a liner company that is capable of producing a high quality tree, in most cases with an air root pruning container ensuring us of a vigorous tree with a quality root system. It is our philosophy that this is important with most families of trees, while being somewhat less important in other types.
We still use vendors with slick sided pots knowing that the tree has only been in the pot for 9-11 months and is not over grown. Optimal tree spades provide a shallower root ball when we dig so we capture the feeder roots. We sell trees not dirt so a big cone of soil at the bottom point of a root ball is not doing anyone any good because seldom is a root all the way to the bottom.
More trees per truck benefit the purchaser by lowering shipping cost, along with making it easier to get our trees in to a court yard or around a swimming pool at your job site. The hardened off root system ensures a higher level of survivability and less warranty work for you. Knowing that you purchased a sustainable tree grown by experts that know how to provide the nutrient balance in the soil that will ensure the tree reestablishes faster in the landscape is Abby Farms hidden secret.
Think about it, there is more to a tree than what is above the ground “buy the total package”.