Practical Permaculture – Breaking Ground on Another Urban Garden


“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.


“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.


“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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The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Water


“Urban Rain Garden” – The Garden Table Urban Garden – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Looking in the background you will notice a brick cutaway in the berm running along the abandoned house… I built that there because the gutters above leak profusely during rain events… The rain garden is my answer to the flooding that used to result because of this… Flooding that before this rain garden regularly covered 50% of the lot…


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

Whiskey is worth drinking, but water’s worth fighting for. Water is the great garden equalizer, any guerrilla gardener will tell you lugging water 4 gallons at a time in the middle of a heat wave sucks. Did you know you have to do this, like, every couple of days? Vegetables require regular water for the first month, then periodic water depending on the amount of rain that falls. Ornamental plants also require water during the first month of establishment, perennials that make it through the first year may never need supplemental irrigation. Annuals will need water throughout the entire course of their life, regular in establishment and periodic after.

There are options other than lugging water, observation during rainfall is often the key to success. Leaky gutters, when coupled with a rain collection barrel is just one example of collection without physical contact or alteration… A screen placed over the top will keep leaves and debris out. Where a roof does not exist, create one. One inch of rain, falling on a 1000 square foot roof will produce 600 gallons of water. One inch of rain on a small shed sized roof will fill a small rain barrel.

Even a rain barrel has its limits, with most commercial models topping out at 50 gallons. The important thing to remember is without a downspout, even a thousand rain barrels won’t do you any good. The answer to this problem is often as simple as meeting the neighbors, you would be surprised how receptive someone can be to a rain barrel when it does not involve any money or work on their part. If saving the local stream does not seal the deal, offer vegetables.

Storm water run-off is a huge problem in urban areas, pavement is quick to shed water and storm drains quickly drain that water to the local stream. In a pollution, litter and chemical free world this would be a perfect system, but we are not any of these things and therefore our watershed suffer the consequences. Urban lots consisting of compacted fill often do not soak up rainfall. Depending on the grade of the lot, much of that water is allowed to run right off it into the street. Every effort should be made to keep this water in the garden, or slow it down enough to allow it time to absorb into the earth.


“Grand Arrival” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – The sewers on our street our filled to ground level with litter and debris… This is the result of a Summer thunderstorm… As you can see by the photo not everyone thinks this is a problem…

Rain gardens and bioswales, when placed based on your observations of water flow, can effectively harness run-off for plant use. Water flowing down hill can be effectively stopped using a miniature bio-swale, excess water can then be routed to a central rain garden. Essentially this system is nothing more than small trenches dug perpendicular to the flow of water, the downhill side can be reinforced with a small dam made with the soil removed from the trench. This trench is then filled with loose organic materials, and covered in stones or wood mulch. This trench can then be routed to a central rain garden, with the garden beds radiating outwards from the collection garden in the center. My theory behind this is that the rain garden would distribute the collected water down the connected gardens, working essentially like a wick style irrigation system.

The plant-based answer I would give to the water problem is to use plants that don’t require supplemental water. Xeriscape plants like sedums, thyme and Echinacea often require no water beyond the time of planting. Any succulent will grow in the worst soil you can find, or the driest conditions you can throw at it. Some plants, like “Stella Dora” day lily are very common in parking lots, not only are they drought tolerant, they can be accidentally cut to the ground and still grow fast enough to continue blooming after a few short weeks. Native plants should be where your research begins, many of them have already adapted safety responses to the occasional drought or dry spell. Much more on plants later…

Properly amended soil holds more water than flat lifeless dirt, the amount of water your soil can hold has a direct relation to how much organic material it contains. Leaf mulch and grass clippings are often readily available in urban neighborhoods, these can be mixed into the soil, or layered on top to slowly decompose… You would be surprised how much organic material, when left on the surface of a garden, will be consumed and moved by the earthworms below… Learning about earthworms made me a lazy gardener… That’s right… I’m blaming it on the worms!..

Mulch is a material placed over the soil to reduce water loss through evaporation. Mulch is typically an organic material such as wood chips or hay, whatever is available locally is typically best. A mulch layer should be applied generously, keep in mind that water lost to evaporation only means you will have to replace that water later. When possible, a thick layer of mulch on top of your new topsoil layer will greatly increase the water holding capability of your garden.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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