Practical Permaculture – End of an Era – Complementary Gardening

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“Climbing Higher” – Yellow Tulip against an abandoned house… Ivy climbing out of the litter covered ground… Reaching for the top… Looking for clear skies…

So after a year of consideration, I have decided to stop promoting permaculture. Although I will still study and reference it, my focus will no longer be centered on a movement that I see as not being a very accepting group of those looking to bend the rules. Now, it is not that I think permaculture is bad. In fact, I think just the opposite believing that the ethics and principles could do a lot of good in this world when applied properly.

I first heard about permaculture during a stay in the fabulous Western Psychiatric Bed and Breakfast circa 2007, a fellow patient was nice enough to let me borrow her yoga magazine. Tucked neatly in the middle of the magazine was a small article about permaculture, it just touched on the subject but was more than enough to spark my curiosity. The entire article was only a page long, but while reading the article I was blown away with the idea of gardening in harmony with nature. I still remember getting goose bumps while reading the article, it was such a mind opening experience that writing about it now is giving me chills.

Permaculture seemed perfect for me, it was essentially a low investment style of gardening that promised yields equivalent to, or greater than conventional methods. Even more interesting for me was the fact that many of the solutions to common problems were solved using nature. Although these methods are much slower, they accomplish the same goals using less harmful methods than conventional agriculture.

This journey through permaculture has sadly left me with a bad taste in my mouth. So much so that I have decided to drop the “Practical Permaculture” name in my blog posts. Permaculture does not sufficiently describe what I do, in fact… It does not describe what any of us do… Nothing we do in this day and age is permanent except the records our governments keep of us. It doesn’t matter if you plant a one-hundred acre food forest, if the right person decides they don’t want it… It will be demolished in less than a day…

None of us are creating permanent spaces, and there is absolutely no such thing as permanent-agriculture… Or permanent culture for that matter… There are trends… And I personally believe permaculture is just that… A trend… People are always looking for maximum output, using the minimum amount of input possible. This promise of permaculture is one of the aspects that seems to draw people in, the reality is what will ultimately chase them away.

Permaculture has become the go-to excuse of the lazy gardener. Now, I’m not saying all permaculturists are lazy people, in fact I think just the opposite, but I do see an alarmingly large number of people trying to use it as an excuse to not pull weeds. Permaculture propaganda is also often sold as a style of gardening that is virtually work free, the common misconception being that after the system is installed… It needs no further maintenance ever.

Sadly, this is so far from the truth that it often hurts unsuspecting gardeners when they realize the 25 dwarf fruit trees they just put in their yard actually do require an enormous amount of annual maintenance… Even worse is the fact that very few homeowners are willing to pay for an unorganized orchard… No matter how much you have invested…  I can’t even begin to convey how quickly a dwarf fruit trees production will decline when it is not pruned and maintained on a regular basis. I have seen dwarf fruit trees with so many branches and leaves that the tree barely has enough energy to produce even a single fruit… When I inquire as to the lack of maintenance… The answer is often “permaculture”…

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“Morning Light after an Evening Rain” – Spring 2013 – Simply because it is a beautiful shot…

Permaculture teaches that biodiversity solves all problems… And yes… It does help… But it is not the silver bullet it is made out to be… Problems will regularly pop up, it makes no difference whether you have one of every tree in the forest growing in your yard. Likewise, a healthy perennial guild, (though pretty) is not guaranteed to accomplish anything other than looking nice. We can speculate that specific plants will serve an intended purpose, but there is no guarantee. This stuff often gets sold as “fact”, when in reality… It is nothing more than theory…

So where do I go from here? Well, I have decided that the term permaculture is too limiting for me. After receiving countless emails and comments from snooty permaculturists around the world pointing out the fact that since I am an ornamental gardener… I have no business calling myself a permaculturist… Likewise, I receive an equally alarming amount of comments and emails telling me that since I do not have a permaculture design certificate… I have no business writing this blog…

I can safely say I have been a gardener my entire life or 32 years, I have always just had a way with plants. Even when I was deep in the depths of addiction, gardening was the only positive influence I made time for. Over the past three years, I have written about permaculture in a public forum (this blog) on a regular basis. My permaculture posts have reached tens of thousands of people around the world, which is more than many of the people bashing me online can say. Throw in the little fact that I do this for free, and I personally believe I have paid my dues in the permaculture (and gardening) world.

So the big question for me has been where to go from here. Given my current and past dissatisfaction with the permaculture world, I no longer find it “personally beneficial” to support a movement that ultimately considers me a nuisance because I refuse to fully conform to their ideals… Reminds me of religion… Or a cult… This got me thinking, what is it that I actually do?.. What is it that I actually believe…

I garden because it makes me feel good… What I do in my garden affects everything around me… My ultimate goal is to compliment myself and my surroundings… Whether nature or human through the gardens I create… Because of this… I have decided from this point forward I will no longer write my articles under the heading of “Practical Permaculture”… But will now call them “Complimentary Gardening”, followed by the subject of my post…

I feel Complimentary Gardening is a much better term for what I do… I mean… The urban nature of my gardens alone makes the permanence of them somewhat of a mystery… Urban property tends to either be worthless… Or ridiculously valuable… Some day… The value of the land to a homeowner could very well be worth more than the tiny community garden that currently occupies this space… And if it comes down to the court system… The gardens will surely lose…

I now recognize that what we are doing is not permanent… It doesn’t matter how many trees… Or how many perennials you incorporate… Nothing is permanent… At the very least… The gardener moves on to another place… And unless someone with an equal appreciation of permaculture takes over… The system is ultimately doomed… For this reason… And many others… I am done promoting permaculture… I am now promoting myself… And the individuals I personally believe are on the right track… The style of gardening makes no difference to me… But the beliefs and intentions of the gardener do…

This new format I am exploring will allow me to write about any style of gardening without feeling the need to relate it to food or the movement. I am interested in all styles of gardening, not just the types that fall under the term permaculture… I want to be able to write about a flower just because it is pretty or I like it… I no longer want to have to figure out a way that you could use it productively… In my mind… If a plant makes me feel good in any way… Well then… That is all I need to personally believe a plant is beneficial… I want to explore beyond food… So I will…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This website and all of the information presented within is provided free by the author… Me… It is my sole opinion and is not representative of anyone other than myself… Although this website is free… I sell prints of my photography here – www.society6.com/chriscondello – or you can contact me directly with questions at – c.condello@hotmail.com – Although it isn’t a requirement… It helps…

I also accept Bitcoin donations… My digital wallet address is – 1JsKwa3vYgy4LZjNk4YmPEHFJNjPt2wDJj

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Practical Permaculture – Breaking Ground on Another Urban Garden

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“Looking on from Rebecca Avenue” – The vacant lot from the street… Sidewalk in the foreground… The trees in the rear will be heavily trimmed this spring… There is a brick alley in the rear… And my very involved landlady owns the houses on either side of the lot…

So… I am excited to announce that after an entire year of observation and preparation, I will be breaking ground on a new guerrilla garden/farm here in Wilkinsburg, PA late this winter. Located roughly one block from my current garden (The Garden Table), this lot will focus on production as opposed to aesthetics. I intend to document every project I undertake, much of it will be shared through this blog.

As is my typical fashion, I intend to complete this project using very little money. That may not seem like a big deal, but given the fact that it typically takes $25,000 in grant money to get one of these things off the ground…  I think I’m doing pretty good so far… In fact, this will be the fourth vacant lot I have converted into a beautiful urban garden with a budget of basically nothing.

The lot itself is 60’W x 140’D, with a 4′ rise over the first 15′ of the lot. It was a relatively recent demolition, wood frame and sandstone foundation. As a result, the lot has not had a chance to become too overgrown. Myself, as well as the borough employees maintained the lot over the summer through regular mowing and litter removal. Although there are some invasive weeds growing throughout, I have managed to keep them to a minimum through regular removal.

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“The Garden Table” – This is where I went when I had to move Whitney Avenue Urban Farm… Now that it has filled up… I have found myself seeking a place to overflow… My new lot will be used for all of the food I want to grow… But can’t quite fit into one small lot…

As it sits today, the grass is mowed and the lot is clear. I have been dumping leaf and wood debris all summer, remediation will be performed throughout development. The front quarter of the property will be raised using salvaged foundation stones, the fill will be locally available compost created from the leaves collected from the streets of Wilkinsburg. Bricks are a constantly available resource in my neighborhood, so I intend to work with them as much as possible. It is always tough for me to speculate what materials I will find in the immediate area, for that reason my plans typically change throughout the course of construction.

Fruit producing trees will be planted throughout, underneath each of these trees will be appropriate guilds. Vegetables will be grown in both contained rows, and interspersed among other plants. The quarter of the lot closest to the street will be mainly ornamental, the purpose of which is to make people driving by turn and take notice. The top of the slope will be a line of dogwood and redbud trees, which will also help in privatizing the rear of the garden from the road.

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“Whitney Avenue Urban Farm” – You are looking at one year of work… This farm lasted two growing seasons before I moved it… But I did… Brick by brick… Roughly two blocks away to The Garden Table…

Just to give you an idea of some of the things I will be including… Fruit trees will be (but not limited to) plum, pear, peach, apple, cherry, serviceberry and figs… The figs will be surrounded by south-facing keyhole style gardens to protect during the coldest months… Blueberries, currants, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries will be sporadically placed… Rows will be cut and vegetables will be numerous… I’m hoping to get into bees… The gutters from the neighboring houses will be collected or diverted into the garden… The lot also has a run-off issue towards the street… I intend to fix this with a bioswale… Everything on site will be recycled and locally scavenged… All plants will be personally propagated or donations from friends…

The food grown will be made available to locals on a (as long as you don’t steal it all) basis… As always… Volunteers always get first dibs… As of right now… I am the only person signed on… Though I do have a friend who is interested in helping… Regardless… I will be planting fruit trees come the thaw…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – Planting Under Fruit Trees – Part 2

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“Different” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA – Cherry trees are a tough plant in companion planting, the sticky sap commonly seen seeping from the trunk is a magnet for pests. Flowering plants that will attract predatory wasps can often be the only organic technique available. Alliums can also be effective as a general pest repellant.

This post and plant list is an extension of a past post that can be found right here – Planting Under Fruit Trees with more information and another list of companion plants… This post is meant to accompany it…

One of the most common mistakes made when making plant selections for under a fruit tree is thinking of the planting as the center of attention when in fact it is the tree. Permaculture plant guilds created under a fruit tree, though possibly created with selfish intentions, are actually incorporated to benefit the tree.. Not you…

The plants used underneath a fruit tree can serve a multitude of functions, it is not unfair to consider yourself as a beneficiary of your plants, but as far as permaculture is concerned, it is not the responsible primary function. We create a fruit tree guild for the purposes of pest prevention, beneficial attraction, scent masking, soil remediation and general beautification, but the common goal is generally the health and fruit production of the primary tree.

The dream of having a vegetable garden under a production fruit tree is more or less a pipe dream in all but the warmest climates. That’s not to say that some vegetables can’t be grown, but it is a very safe assumption on my part to say that a tomato or pepper plant will never reach the same production level as one growing in full sun. This is just one of the reasons I suggest putting your focus on the trees needs. Tending vegetables takes valuable time (and unnecessary nutrients) away from the tree, when in fact your efforts should be focused on the tree.

Perennial plants are typically the most beneficial as far as a tree is concerned, again I want to stress that the primary focus of these types of efforts needs to be on the tree, if you are stuck planting annuals every spring it will only take time away from your primary focus. A fruit tree can live for a hundred years, a properly planted guild under the canopy can last for a good chunk of this trees life. Armed with this knowledge the question now becomes what will not only grow under a fruit tree, but benefit it for the foreseeable future…

Dwarf fruit trees require a lot more maintenance than most people realize, I think many are led to believe that there tree will stay tiny forever. Dwarf fruit trees are very confused trees and therefore can take on a mind of their own, aggressive pruning is often required to keep them producing. Many dwarf trees will be nothing more than a single stem a few feet tall when planted, the tree will grow quickly if not pruned.

Dwarf trees will stay small for a few years, it is completely acceptable to plant annuals around them. It will be several years before this tree develops a canopy, therefore the space surrounding the tree will be considered full-sun for the foreseeable future. In sustainable agriculture “alley cropping” is a method where rows of fruit or nut trees are planted, and the spaces between are used for annual crops. This is done until the trees reach production size and shade out the alley, providing short-term income while the more valuable trees mature.

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“Blue Borage” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Growing under a Kousa Dogwood… Perfectly happy in the shade and will come back for years to come through self seeding.

– Herbaceous Plants – For my Herb specific post check out – Planting Herbs Under Fruit Trees

Lavender – A flowering plant in the mint family, many cultivars of which are extensively cultivated in temperate climates. The plant is technically a perennial, though it is a short-lived one often losing vigor as time passes by. Lavender is extremely useful around fruit trees due to its repellant qualities, many insects and animals find it repulsive and will therefore avoid it all costs. Besides benefiting the fruit tree, lavender will benefit many other types of plants and should therefore be incorporated into any garden plan.

Tansy – Is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant of the Aster family. Tansy is commonly cultivated and used for its insect repellent properties, it is used as a biological pest control in organic gardens and sustainable agriculture. In England, Tansy is placed on window sills to repel flies, sprigs are placed in bed linens to drive away pests, and it has been used as an ant repellent.

Southernwood – A flowering plant native to Europe in the genus Artemisia, named for the goddess Artemis. The growing plant tends to repel fruit tree moths when grown in an orchard, the fresh plant can also be rubbed on the skin to deter other insects. This plant is commonly dries and used in the house to repel ants and other indoor pests, when burned the scent can remove many foul odors from the house.

Horseradish – Believe it or not, Horseradish is in the Brassica family. Although this plant is typically harvested and used, when left in the ground it will spread via underground shoots and therefore can become mildly invasive in many permaculture gardens. Horseradish is a broad-leafed plant allowing it to harvest sunlight even when planted in shade, this makes it a perfect companion for trees. Horseradish is said to generally be good for the overall health of a tree, it is not uncommon for old timers to tell stories of trees that were never productive until horseradish was planted below… Though others will claim it affects the taste of the fruit afterwards…

Borage – Also known as Starflower, is an annual herb that tends to self seed allowing it to come back year after year. Although this plant is edible, the leaves often being described as cucumber-like, its primary purpose in permaculture is as a companion plant. Borage accumulates and adds trace minerals to the soil and is a key ingredient in a complete compost heap. Borage also is one of the best bee and wasp attracting plants available, therefore it will benefit everything planted around it… Given the stunning blue flowers… It will even benefit you…

Nasturtium – Tropaeolum, commonly known as Nasturtium literally means “nose twister” or “nose-tweaker”, a reference to the peppery scent and taste of the flowers. Nasturtium is used in herbal medicine for their antiseptic and expectorant qualities. When planted under apple trees it is a powerful deterrent of the notorious codling moth, not to mention a whole host of other insect species not only damaging to the tree, but to other plants surrounding.

Hyssop – A herbaceous plant of the genus Hyssopus. Due to its properties as an antiseptic, cough reliever, and expectorant, it is commonly used as an aromatic herb. Drought tolerance makes this an ideal plant for underneath the canopy of a fruit tree, flowers make it a beneficial insect attractor. Hyssop shares many of the same benefits as mint since they are from the same family, though it is not as invasive so it is typically more suited to inter planting than mint.

Wormwood – Artemesia absinthium is a herbaceous, perennial plant with a fibrous root system. A powerful animal repellant suitable for plantings at the edge of properties. Wormwood is also a powerful insect repellant, it can be made into a tea or applied as a sporadic mulch throughout the garden. Wormwood produces a powerful poison and therefore should never be used directly on food crops, applications should be indirect.

Dandelion – Are tap-rooted biennial or perennial herbaceous plants, native to temperate areas of the world. Dandelions are thought to have evolved about thirty million years ago in Eurasia, they have been used by humans as food and herb for much of recorded history. Dandelions are one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and therefore are a very important source of nectar and pollen early in the season. Its tap-root will bring up nutrients for shallower-rooting plants, and add minerals and nitrogen to the soil. Dandelions are even said to emit ethylene gas which helps fruit ripen.

– Food Producing Shrubs – Will never produce the same as when field grown, but will still produce.

Currant – The genus Ribes includes black currants, red currants, white currents, and gooseberries and several other hybrid varieties. Currants do very well in shade, though an interesting trait I have observed is if even part of the plant grows into full sunlight only the part in full sun will produce fruit… The rest of the plant seems to go into a vegetative state.

Nanking Cherry – Is a deciduous shrub native to Asia, an understory shrub that has evolved to survive under the canopy of a tree. Will produce more fruit if planted on the outskirts of the tree, can even be used as a windscreen for more tender plants. This tree-like shrub can grow to eight feet tall, vigorous pruning can be required to keep it under control.

Serviceberry – Native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, growing primarily in early succession habitats. Varieties differ so care must be paid during selection for under planting a fruit tree, the short multi-stemmed varieties are typically best. I personally prefer to plant the serviceberry in close quarters with fruit trees, the serviceberry attracts birds that after finishing your tasty berries will immediately turn their attention to the insects.

Raspberry – Named varieties are in the thousands, most are thorny… All are delicious.. The thorny varieties not only repel larger animals, they tend to repel thievery as well. After all, what’s a few lost raspberries when the apples are spared from the deer. Raspberries are very vigorous and when not kept in check can become a massive, and invasive headache. They will do a great job of keeping the neighborhood children from stealing the fruits of your labor. Likewise, they can also keep you away from your trees. I recommend the raspberries be planted outside of the drip line, being able to get a lawn mower between your patch and tree is paramount in keeping the patch in bounds.

– Vegetables – Though I stress, they typically do not thrive like they would in full sun, growing these vegetables is possible

Carrots – typically grown in full sun tolerate some shade. In order to avoid deformed carrots they are typically grown in loose soil, but for our purposes the uncultivated soil under a tree will work just fine. A carrot is like a stake in the ground, as it expands it will loosen the soil. Carrots left in the ground will eventually break down, adding nutrients it has harvested to the top layer of soil.

Chard – Typically grown in full sun, it is important to remember that broad-leaved plants are equipped with enough surface area to tolerate some shade. Bright lights chard will not grow as brightly as if it were planted in full sun, but it will grow.

Kale – Another leaf crop commonly grown in full sun, most food plants that do not produce a fruit or vegetable can tolerate some shade, kale happens to be one of those plants. I actually like to grow some Brassicas under a tree as a trap crop, bugs tend to be more attracted to the weaker plants as opposed to the stronger more vigorous plants grown in full sun.

Asparagus – Opposite the fact that broad-leaved plants ability to absorb more light makes them more shade tolerant, thin leafed plants do not require as much light making them also tolerant of some shade. Asparagus is an ideal food plant for under fruit trees, the primary harvest season happens at a time when many fruit trees have yet to leaf out. Because of this asparagus is one of the few vegetables that are not affected negatively when grown under a tree.

Beets – Beets in general can handle some shade, in really hot weather they actually benefit from it. Beets in full shade will grow beautiful foliage, but the energy is rarely ever there to produce a sizeable root. Beets are nutrient accumulators and therefore there is absolutely no harm in leaving the plants in the ground to rot. The benefit of the beet is for the tree, not the gardener.

Beans – Beans are another vegetable that does not seem to be affected by some shade, in the hottest months the shade provided by a tree is actually preferred. Beans accumulate nitrogen, when the beans have been harvested the remaining plant should be left in place to decompose.

Peas – Another tasty biddle that is perfectly at home when grown in the shade of a tree, typically only grown in the cooler months, a tree can often provide a third late summer harvest. Peas are in the Legume family and therefore accumulate Nitrogen, after harvest the plant should be left in place.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within are provided free of charge by the author… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself… Writing this blog takes a ton of time… If you find any of this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print from my online store… It is obviously not a requirement… But it helps…

I sell prints of my photography here – http://www.society6.com/chriscondello Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Plant Selection

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“Heucherella” – I am including this photograph to illustrate a point… This was an empty pot when I got it… Tagless and destined for the dumpster… An inspection of the roots revealed life and a crown was clearly evident after some minor digging… I took a chance on it and several others…

Plant Selection

This post is part of a larger body of work titled ”The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook”. For the introduction and table of contents please click here

A tough subject to write about for the guerrilla gardener, often the deciding factors end up being cost and availability. Given the high likelihood that the garden will be destroyed faster than it was created, I recommend starting with the cheapest plants available. A garden that survives through the first or second year can then be considered for nicer plants, but only after passing the test of time. Trust me when I say that if someone really wants to mess with your garden, there is very little you can do other than use plants that can survive regular abuse.

Stick to the tried and true plants, do not choose the newest cultivars or craziest colors. Plants that are considered tough in their original “un bred” state, can become extremely finicky when you get into the special cultivars. An example of this is Echinacea, look through any catalog and you will find dozens of colors and bloom styles. Although the Native Echinacea purpurea is a “bomb proof” plant perfectly suited to the harshest conditions you can throw at it, almost all of the new cultivars are extremely finicky and have little resistance to all but the most controlled garden environments. These finicky cultivars should be avoided until you have a good idea of the space you are gardening, if some “old school” flowers survive and flourish in the location, then, and only then should you consider adding some flair.

Plant acquisition is a surprisingly straight forward task, step one is taking all of the plant magazines you receive in the mail and throw them straight in the garbage. Plant porn has no place here! Step two is being patient, greenhouses and box stores order much more stock than they could ever possibly get rid of. Given the recent surge in dumpster diving hipster trendiness, dumpsters are being padlocked or waste stored indoors until right before pick-up. My suggestion to you is to find a manager and ask if he would be willing to sell you any plants destined for the dumpster at a discounted rate. More often than not they will be happy to do this, and will typically let things go for pennies on the dollar. This method is typically most effective in the off-season, in the peak sales season discounts are much less due to demand.

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“Single Red” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – With bulb planting season mistakenly thought of as being only the month of October… Discounts can be found anywhere that stocks them…

Guerrilla gardening often forces a gardener to perpetually study plants, in doing so we often learn tricks pertaining to specific plants and planting methods. Fruit trees for example can be bought for next to nothing anytime other than early spring, I am always asked if it is possible to plant a fruit tree in the middle of Summer… Of course you can… If the choice comes down to leaving a tree in a pot until spring or just planting it as soon as possible… The answer will always be plant it…

For my permaculture based article on rehabilitating discount plants click here

Seeds are another method of getting plants, about mid-summer the prices drop to next to nothing. Not many people realize it, but seed packets have expiration dates on them. A secret about that date is it is really only there to force the stores to buy new seeds each year, think of it as a sell by date. Although seeds lose viability with age, many are perfectly viable long after the expiration date.

The last source of plants I am going to quickly talk about is friends sharing. Gardeners are typically proud of what they have, many of us love our plants so much we won’t throw out our divisions. Those divisions often only cost the time it takes to tour a garden, an early lesson you will learn is people like to share plants. Trading can also be effective, always have a few divisions potted up just in case opportunity comes calling… A plant given away today often returns ten fold in the future…

The next few chapters will each deal with different types of plants and their uses in the guerrilla garden…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within are provided free of charge by the author… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself… Writing this blog takes a ton of time… If you find any of this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print from my online store… It is obviously not a requirement… But it helps…

I sell prints of my photography here – http://www.society6.com/chriscondello Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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