Practical Permaculture – Only the Oak Leaves Remain

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The snow is falling… Only the Oak leaves remain… Winter is calling…
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This post was born from the haiku above… I never intended to write a permaculture post…

Wait a second… Why do the Oak leaves remain…

Walking through the woods after a winter snow… Silence… Just the crunching of snow under your boots as you walk… In the wind you hear the sound of leaves rattling together… But all the leaves are covered in snow… A closer inspection of the sound will most likely reveal a tree that is covered in dead leaves… Leaves that are hanging on for dear life in the cold winter winds…

Long after all other trees lose their leaves in the winter, the dead leaves of an Oak Tree remain. This trait is extremely helpful in identification, often remaining until the buds break in the spring. This retention of dead plant matter is known as marcascence, and it is a genius evolutionary trait that I am going to try and explain.

In autumn, shortening day length tells the deciduous trees that it is time to stop growing. The tree then forms a layer of cells at the base of each leaf. This is called the abscission layer, it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. Once the sap stops flowing the leaves lose chlorophyll and all the reds, yellows, and oranges that the green chlorophyll was hiding becomes visible.

Oak trees tend to be variable in this leaf retention, young trees will remain covered… while older trees may shed the top leaves, but retain much of the bottom… I’m not sure if many people pay close enough attention to the trees around them, but these leaves last until early spring. This is because the abscission layer forms much later on Oaks than on other trees. Though the leaves may look like they are nothing more than a fluke, there are actually many theories as to why this occurs.

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“November 23rd – Hangin’ in There” – The last speck of color waiting for the snow… Underneath the fading suns pale winter glow…

One theory is the leaves act as a browsing shield from deer. In the deep winter when foraging is difficult and scarce, deer will target the young buds and branches of trees. The leaves that remain are very tough and prevent the deer from finding the tender oak buds. Another theory is that the tannin-rich dead oak leaves have a taste deer find unpleasant and therefore avoid the trees altogether.

Another is frost and wind protection. The new buds on a tree can be damaged by extreme cold and wind chills, leaves are retained to protect them. I don’t know if I am a fan of this theory, Oak trees have successfully flourished in extremely cold winters for a long time. This idea just seams like a stretch to me. Maybe possible on southerly oaks growing towards the northern end of their range… But still a stretch…

Lastly… And the theory I agree with… Spring nutrients and compost… In the early spring the forest floor is sprouting with life. Many spring plants are germinating through the partially composted leaves of last year. Around the same time the gardeners are putting down spring mulch, the oak tree drops its leaves. These leaves serve many purposes, but the obvious is to keep weeds to a minimum.

In nature, the leaves that fall to the forest floor in the autumn are slowly broken down. The freeze and thaw cycles of winter pulverize the leaves to a point where the previous years seed can germinate through them with ease. Normally these plants would finish the leaf decomposition as they grow, but the mighty oak has other plans with its leaves.

I find it interesting that many of those leaves remain right up to the spring weed push. These freshly fallen leaves help keep undergrowth to a minimum. As they break down over the summer they provide surface nutrients during a time when they would otherwise be scarce.

Regardless of the theory you choose, you have to admit marcascence is a cool trait. The idea that the leaves that stay on the tree through winter are their for a reason, is really something special. It is important to mention that you will not find this on every Oak tree, it is not uncommon to find one tree that has retained many of its leaves among twenty that did not. The variable nature of marcascence is what makes it such a mystery. A mystery that nature has yet to give up…

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 – Soil Conditions

© chriscondello 2013

“Sunset Clover” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Jeanette Street – Wilkinsburg, PA – Clover growing in the lawn of a local community garden… Clover is often one of the first plants to take root in a recently disturbed lot… If it is not… Then you should be planting it… A nitrogen accumulator that benefits the topsoil through decomposition…

Soil conditions

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

When guerrilla gardening in urban environments, all soil should be considered contaminated fill until you have a good reason to believe otherwise. Lead has been banned from household paint since 1978, all homes built before this time are possible sources of contamination. For this reason I always recommend testing your soil before breaking ground. Empty lots typically had structures on them at one time, the way the building came down can affect the level of contaminants left in the soil. For example… A wood frame house that burnt to the ground will have a greater effect than a brick building that was professionally demolished.

When a building is built, or a road bed laid, the extent of the excavation extends well beyond the actual perimeter of the building or road. The excavation will be considerably larger to facilitate construction. The subsequent soil that is used to fill this hole back up is never black compost-gold, it is always the cheapest material available. Therefore all of the “no-till” concepts are pretty much thrown out the window. Soil structure less than 50 years old, in my mind, is exempt from the idea that tilling will disturb the existing layers of soil.

Much of the soil I find in my neighborhood is a mixture of yellow and red clay, shale, slag, coal and sand… Only occasionally do I find black topsoil deeper than a few inches, and the places I have found topsoil deeper can often be explained by a past homeowners love of gardening. Tilling is often necessary, and amendment required.

Oftentimes, the brown spaces near streets and sidewalks are only filled with stone and sand. Plants will often be seen growing in these desolate spaces, but they are only growing in a thin layer of garbage and debris that has broken down at the surface. Cut the weeds to the ground, cover them in newspaper, and fill it with as much rich, organic material as you can fit. Plantings go right in this layer, when putting this bed to rest do your best to mix your new layer with the existing one… The following year repeat…

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“Forget-Me-Not” – Lamar Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Growing in the decaying garage at the end of the alley behind my house… Freemasons began using the flower in the 1920’s as a symbol not to forget the poor and desperate… Perfect flower for Wilkinsburg…

If food is in your garden plans, get a soil test done regardless of cost. If you are reading this and thinking it is not really required, Google “lead poisoning” before reading any further. Plant roots often reach much deeper in the soil than you would think, a few inches of compost placed on top of 12 inches of heavy metal contaminated fill does nothing to protect you from the possibility of lead poisoning. If the space is relatively small, you could always excavate by hand and fill the hole with organic material. The issue of what to do with the soil is typically the bastard of the situation, there’s really no good answer… Phytoremediation would be my answer… Read my post about it here

The urban areas targeted by the average guerrilla gardener are commonly vacant lots that at one time contained a structure. Demolition contracts typically go to the lowest bidder, and corners often have to be cut. In my neighborhood, the second and third floors are typically ripped off and placed in a dumpster. The rest of the structure is then pushed into the basement, and covered over with a few inches of the cheapest fill available. Brick buildings are the worst, they can make the tines on even the best rototiller look like butter knives.  The only advice I can give you is get a shovel, mattock, and pry bar, and start digging… Remember to save the bricks for borders later!

The good news of the soil situation is, you can always build up. Raised beds with a barrier between the existing soil and the bottom of the bed are often the only choice. This will effectively stop the plant roots from accessing contaminated soils below, as well as keeping the edible leaves high enough off the ground to stop contaminated splash.

Soil should look, smell and feel alive, the living organisms are what work to eliminate contamination. The incorporation of organic material is often the starting point of remediation. If your soil is lifeless and dead, add organic material… It is the key ingredient to a healthy garden.

Organic material is available from all kinds of sources, I often just rake

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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Practical Permaculture – Leaf Raking Alternatives

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“Be Different” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA

Autumn, is steadily drifting towards us. The distant scent of leaves is now noticeable in the wind, signaling to me that the summer months are quickly coming to an end… A sign that my garden preparations for next year are just getting ready to begin…

During the winter months there is not enough light or water for photosynthesis to occur, trees rest and live off the food they stored in the summer months. The chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves as the bright green coloring fades, we begin to see yellow, orange, and even red colors. Small amounts of these colors have been present all along, we just can’t see them in the summer because they are covered by chlorophyll.

Leaves are just one example of nature’s food factories. Trees take water from the ground using roots, and carbon dioxide from the air using their leaves… When sunlight is added, the water and carbon dioxide are converted into glucose and oxygen… Plants use glucose as food for energy and as a building block for growth. The way plants turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar is called photosynthesis. Chlorophyll helps make photosynthesis happen, it is also what gives plants their green color.

So now we know what all is involved in the creation of a leaf, and we know why they change colors. As summer ends and autumn comes, the days will continue to get shorter… And soon the leaves will begin to fall from the trees…

Knowing everything that goes into that leaf… It would be such a waste to bag them all up and send them to the landfill…

Trees mine minerals from the earth, and in exchange return starches and sugars in the form of leaf fall. To eliminate this organic material from beneath your tree will not eliminate the needs of the tree, it will increase the supplemental nutrient needs of your tree… And the gardens/lawn surrounding it.

Now, I’m perfectly aware that most of us can’t let our leaves lay on our manicured suburban lawns. Modern ordinances and neighborhood associations often strictly prohibit “yard waste” of any kind, creative thinking is often the only way around this.

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“First Frost 2012” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

The supreme reign of the leaf rake as the autumn tool king is over… All hail the mulching lawn mower!

I cannot stress enough the importance… And versatility of owning a mulching/bagging lawn mower… As far as shredding leaves and garden waste is concerned, it will handle anything other than woody/shrubby material… That is where my urban hugelkutur link comes in handy…

The simplest method I use, is to simply run over the leaves with a mulching lawn mower set on its highest wheel height. Depending on the amount/depth of the leaves, this can be a very slow process. My suggestion is to mow on a regular basis while the leaves are still falling from your tree, this way your mower does not stress out under the extra load of the additional material. If the leaves do not entirely disappear during your first pass, simply continue to run them over until they do. I can typically reduce a yard full of leaves into barely noticeable, 1/2″ – 1″ pieces in a few quick passes when this is done on a regular basis.

Another option I have employed in the past, is to use the bagging option of the lawn mower to collect the leaves. Patience is often required using this method as you have to proceed very slowly, move forward a few feet, then drag the mower back over the same spot. As I fill the bags up with organic goodness, I simply dump them at the base of a tree… Or in a garden… When I am finished with the job, I carefully spread it around the base of the tree. By spring, this material will shrink considerably… Spread it out around your tree and mow as usual… Or use it to mulch/top dress your garden.

Yet another option is to place the material in a pile in an inconspicuous area of your yard. Regular flipping of this pile will speed decomposition, in the spring, you add it to your gardens before you begin to plant. I personally like to cover my gardens in this material immediately, and allow it to slowly break down in place. This serves several purposes including winter weed and erosion control, protection of tender perennials, and eventual nutrients… But most importantly for me. is that it discourages cats from crapping in my bare garden soil… Which in my neighborhood… Is priceless…

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“Community Aster” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA

The colors of fall are something we all see as eye candy… But once those leaves litter our yards, we typically only see them as work. I believe we should see them as a valuable garden resource that just falls from the sky. The leaves in our yards are essentially gifts from the heavens… Like manna in the Book of Numbers… Arriving with the dew of the night…

As far as many of our urban shade trees are concerned… The leaves are the only physical yield we can regularly harvest from them…

Why would we send that to the landfill? At the very least they should be piled up and composted, if done correctly a pile of leaves can be garden ready by spring. Even if you do absolutely nothing to the pile, letting it sit all winter… It will still be great garden material… And that… Is one of the physical benefits of a shade tree… Likewise, when those leaves are placed in a vegetable garden… The nutrients provided affect another physical yield… Vegetables…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within… Are provided free… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself…

I do however sell prints of some of my photography here – http://www.society6/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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Practical Permaculture – The Vegetarian Compost Conundrum

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“Inside The Currant Bush” – © chriscondello 2013 – Red Currant – Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery – Holland Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – I do not photograph piles of compost… I just don’t do it… I don’t want to look at photographs of steaming piles… So I don’t make you look at them… These red currants are available at Garden Dreams…

Most of you probably know that I am not a fan of urban compost, very few people know how to properly manage a compost pile… And even fewer are willing to take the time to actually flip the pile every once in a while… Hell… I know people who have spinning compost barrels that only require you to move your arm a little bit… And they still don’t do it… Unless that barrel has a timer hooked up to a motor… The barrel is not getting spun… And in turn… The entire neighborhood smells like someone left a Christmas ham in their trunk till August…

Compost, can simply be defined as the controlled decomposition of organic matter, that is really all there is to it. People try to complicate it for profit sake… But if you just put your organic scraps in a pile in your yard… Eventually they will break down…

Very few people realize this next little fact, but, compost and mulches should ideally be indigenous to the climate you are working in. Tropical plants will often not decompose in temperate climates. Furthermore, they can also often harbor bad bacteria or exotic invasive weed seeds. What I am saying is… If pests and diseases hitch-hike all around the country on plants… Imagine what could end up in your mulch… Keep your compost and mulches as local as possible…

Plants and organic material need moisture to decompose… So take all of those black plastic compost barrels I see all over Pittsburgh, and throw them right in the garbage… They do not work… And you will not be happy… Compost is always better off in an open air situation, oxygen is required for decomposition… The more… The better… Those little black barrels become cess pools… Not compost… You will end up dumping the contents into a pile anyways… And even that is a pain in the ass…

Compost will also not break down until it has reached a temperature of 122° F, and it will not get any hotter than 158° F. Dry and hot climates will require shade and moisture. Cool and wet climates may require some cover. When working in the tropics you can compost much larger material than in the temperate zone due to the climate being hot and humid.

In the temperate zone, all high-carbon, slow to break down material should be shredded. The more surface area you can create on your material, the faster it will break down. Shredding is not just about creating surface area, it is about facilitating the handling and turning of the compost pile. Straw and large branches tend to get tangled around each other, this will make the turning of your pile damn near impossible… The smaller your material… The better… Ideally, a compost pile should be flipped every two days… But once in a while will work fine… It’s better than never…

As a last-minute side note… Or little golden nugget of information… Whichever you choose… When it comes to shredable materials available in the suburbs… Freshly fallen trees are gold… Specifically speaking… Branches under 3″… You see… The cambium layer is the part of the tree responsible for nutrient movement… The smaller the branch… The higher the ratio of cambium layer to hardwood… When shredded… Small branches should always be composted… Or at least used for mulch… Use the good stuff when you can get your hands on it…

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“Bocking 14” – © chriscondello 2013 – Comfrey – Hamnett Way – Wilkinsburg, PA – When you have a pile of yard debris… Plant comfrey around it… As time goes on… Cut the comfrey and throw it on your pile… It will speed up decomposition considerably…

Compost activators can be used, but should be placed directly in the middle of the pile for maximum efficiency. Believe it or not… Recently deceased animals make a great activator… Fish, comfrey, yarrow, urine and nettles will also work… Many stores and catalogs now sell “compost activators”… My opinion is to steer clear of them and go with something directly out of your garden… Personally… I like yarrow or comfrey… Peeing on my compost pile would not go over well in my neighborhood… And the cats would find the fish no matter how I buried it…

Compost is typically a low-maintenance activity… Though many a teacher today likes to turn it into a two-hour… $100 class… I find that it is relatively easy to make… But judging by the search engine terms people are using to find my blog… More of you have problems with compost than I thought… In my experience… The issues associated with bad compost stems from a simple lack of nitrogen in the pile. Hence the nitrogen rich activator like Comfrey… Or fish… This problem is commonly observed as a white fungus inside of a pile that smells bad… In the city… Grass clippings are the easy to find source of nitrogen… Carbon is the tricky one…

Properly aged compost, will not resemble any of the material it started out as… Think dark black soil… It should have an earthy smell, with hints of vanilla and almonds… Just kidding… As long as it does not smell like ammonia… You are fine… A pile that starts off at 3′ tall, will shrink considerably as the pile ages. You will know you have the formula right when your pile loses very little volume as it ages.

Flies, though annoying, are actually a welcomed addition to your compost pile. In urban environments flies may be considered more of a pest than anything. A simple way to avoid flies around your compost heap is to place all fruits and veggies on the inside of the pile, if you surround them with carbon matter you basically hide them. Once your compost breaks down, you will not have as much of a smell, or fly problem.

Insects and animals will die in your compost, that is why there is no such thing as a vegetarian compost pile… Insects and rodents do not count as vegetables… Unless there is some new diet I haven’t heard about yet… Books will constantly say you can’t compost meat, or fish… This is BULLSHIT!.. Entire road kills can be composted as long as you put them in the middle… Besides… I have smelled compost piles that would make roadkill smell like posies… Now I’m not recommending composting the neighborhood cat… Or throwing meat scraps in your small urban compost pile… What I am saying is more that plant matter will decompose in your compost pile… Don’t be overly disturbed if you find a dead rodent in your pile… because it happens… And it does not hurt the compost… Or you…

Books will also warn about composting certain weeds, or weeds that have gone to seed… This is also bullshit… A compost pile that reaches the proper temperature will cook the seeds… If you are still worried… Cover the aged pile with a black tarp for a couple of days… The added heat will typically finish the job. Often times, seeds germinating in your compost pile are often indicators of germination conditions… Instead of taking it as a bad sign… Take it as a good one… Figure out what type of weed they are… And google them… You will probably end up back on my blog…Regardless… Look at it as a learning experience… If seeds are germinating… You got something right…

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“Pittsburgh Petunias” – © chriscondello 2013 – My Garden – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Plant petunias and question everything…

I’m going to add another last-minute nugget of information… A heavy black tarp is a very effective garden bed making tool… Mark off the area you want your garden… Cover it with the black tarp… And let it sit in the sun for a few weeks… The lack of light coupled with the heat created will typically kill all weeds… Including turf grass… And cook any seeds that happen to be in the soil… This is the slow cousin of sheet mulching… Use it where a mound of compost would not be appropriate…

Given the high nutrient content of compost, often the only seeds that will germinate in your pile are climax species, and mineral accumulators. Weeds are actually one of the best things you can compost, if the weeds in your garden are absorbing all of your hard-earned nutrients, it would be silly to just throw them away… Compost everything…

To end this post… I really just want to say… Compost is really just a pile of decomposing organic waste in your backyard… It will smell… And it will attract bugs… So don’t put it next to your neighbors kitchen window…Compost should be in contact with the soil… And exposed to the elements… Man will try to sell you fancy containers… And expensive additives… When in reality … These are nothing more than leaky garbage cans…

Air exposure… In my experience… Is all you need to solve most problems… If you suspect something is awry… Put a fork in it…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – Hugelkultur Modified for Urban Gardens

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This was originally a fire pit, it was filled with rusty nails. When I started working on this bed there was a mass of sumac trees growing out of it. As I dug out the trees I realized the soil was junk, I moved most of it to an out of the way location. I then filled the hole in with wood, garden waste and soil. This was before I knew what hugelkultur was, I called it creative disposal back then…

Hugelkultur is a german term that basically translates to “mound culture”, it has been practiced in Eastern Europe for centuries. Hugelkultur is a sheet composting method that involves burying wood debris and organic matter under a mound of earth, the wood adds nutrients as it decomposes and helps retain moisture.

Ok… Allow me to speak openly about something… This is nothing new… People have been doing this for a very long time… It is a great way to get rid of a pile of wood… But… And I know this is going to break hearts… Hugelkultur is not a maintenance free garden that will never need food or weeding… Many of the people who get into permaculture get into it because they falsely believe that permaculture is an excuse for not maintaining their yard… Or they believe that they will just fill their entire yard with trees and food and never have to pull a weed or touch a shovel again… This is simply not the case…

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This is a perfect example of hugelkultur integrated into a slope, this would be perfect in an urban landscape. The framework was made with the larger logs, then backfilled with smaller materials and soil…

So… As I’m writing this I am picturing the neighborhood I grew up in… Nice houses… Green… Perfectly maintained lawns and shrubs… Now I am picturing one of those homeowners erecting a massive hugelkultur mound in their front yard… When the neighbors complain… The excuse will be “It’s hugelkultur – Food not lawns”. Guess what people… There are more people who don’t want to maintain a front yard food forest than there are people who do… I’m just saying… Perspective…

With that said… Hugelkultur does not have to be intrusive… And it does not have to be unsightly. Mulch volcanoes are a common sight in suburbia, essentially too much mulch piled up around the base of a tree. If we take that already accepted landscape look and tweak it a little bit, we could easily create a beautiful and functional permaculture guild smack dab in the middle os suburbia.

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This is the same bed as pictured above after completion, 3 service berries on a perfectly mulched mound… Beneficial plants will be added this spring and summer.

Pick a suitable location in your yard to plant a fruit tree, proper sunlight and space to grow are essential. Once you have chosen your location, cover the ground with cardboard in whatever shape you want your final bed to be. Begin stacking wood and organic matter in a circle, leaving the center open to accept your tree when you are ready to plant . As you place your wood, add soil or compost intermittently throughout the pile. If your neighborhood has some existing mulch volcanoes, base your size and shape off of them. When you have a nice pile, plant the tree in the hole you left in the pile… Do not plant the tree at ground level, the tree should be planted in the top of the pile.

Info on planting fruit trees – https://chriscondello.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/practical-permaculture-planting-and-early-care-of-fruit-trees/

The idea of this method is to slowly integrate permaculture into your neighborhood without waging a “shock and awe” campaign on your neighbors, this is almost always met with resistance and ultimately makes us look bad. Once your tree has been growing for a few weeks, then add a few beneficial perennials or a blueberry bush, just do it in moderation.

I recently got my hands on a really nice sized pile of dimensional, untreated black locust lumber. This wood had been stored on an organic farm for a long time and was well into the decomposition process. I will be using some for hugelkultur beds in a guerilla orchard I am building this summer, but I have been breaking it up and adding it to the soil all throughout my gardens as a beneficial mulch.

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Apple and blueberry guild, this garden eats wood. I recently put these old semi-rotted boards down, the Sedum will grow over it in a month. I have been doing this for three years, I toss a lot of garden waste in this bed and it just disappears.

So this got me thinking, living in a very urban environment all of the soil around me is lifeless clay fill. To simply dig a hole in the earth and fill it with scrap wood and dead fall timber, Organic yard waste and compostable material… Add some dirt… And plant in the top… Well that my friends is essentially hugelkultur.

A common sight in the abandoned yards around my neighborhood are large piles of dead fall branches, simply pile leaves and dirt on top of one of these piles and plant something in them… The pile will usually disappear within a year or two… They also make great opportunities to guerilla garden pumpkin and squash, which seem to thrive in the nutrient rich piles. This is a technique I commonly use in abandoned yards where clean up time is not important, even fresh-cut piles of limbs can be stacked and planted in relatively short time.

Many of the suburban houses that are built today are built on some type of fill, to think that digging in your soil will disrupt the layers that took thousands of years to create is simply a joke. Instead of doing mound culture, dig a big hole and fill it with organic material. Think of it as reverse hugelkultur adapted for the city, this way no one knows you are practicing hippy gardening techniques…

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This log will feed the surrounding plants for years, the hard part is fitting it in your urban garden.

I cringe when I go on facespace or twinterest and see these magnificent photos of meticulously maintained front yard farms, typically with a headline of “urban farmer grows 6 tons of food in his 1/16 acre front yard with absolutely no work or prior experience”. I’m calling voodoo… I hate to be the one to break it to you, but, this stuff is a lot of work. When you see a photo or video of one of these urban farms, you are only seeing it at one point… And that one point is always early in the season before the garden itch has worn off… That is when reality sets in…

Permaculture is really about resource management, collecting and storing energy for future use. Urban permaculture interests me because it adds a level of difficulty that typical gardening does not have, but it does not make it impossible. Permaculture requires creativity, this article is only intended to spark that creativity…

I would love to hear examples people have of creatively disposing of waste on your small urban lot… If you have any please share them in the comments section below…

peace – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – The Art of Weeds – Reprise

Weeds require nutrients to grow just like any plant, some of them require a massive amount of nutrients to grow as large as they do. When you remove a weed you are removing a capsule containing all of the nutrients that weed has absorbed from the soil. If you remove that biomass from your garden than you are throwing those nutrients out, eventually you will have to restore those nutrients somehow. The problem becomes chronic if the habit persists, requiring constant fertilizer applications to sustain healthy growth. Permaculturists either create, restore or sustain the natural systems at hand, while removal is sometimes necessary, it should be a last resort.

Once a weed has gone to seed there is very little you can do to kill those seeds, this is one of the times where it may be best to carefully remove them from your site. Weeds that have not gone to seed or gotten to big should be left near the garden, I like to leave them in the grass and run them over with a mulching lawnmower till they disappear. Larger weeds can take years to break down if left intact, either shred them or break them up as small as possible and compost them. One of my favorite techniques is to simply bury the weeds in your garden, I like a cleaner garden and don’t like to see piles. I once had to remove an old dead pear tree from a front yard, I dug out the root ball and dropped the tree, then burned the entire thing in the hole it came from. I was lucky to be able to burn on site in this community, most urbanites don’t have that ability.

If you don’t mind the look of the weed mulch in your garden then I would absolutely use them, it wouldn’t hurt anything. If you have a large area of concrete then I would use it to dry them out in the sun first, it only takes a day to dry them out enough to kill the roots. While on the subject if you save grass clippings, they should be dried first before applying them to your garden. Your blueberries thrive in highly acidic soil with a pH between 4 and 5, woodchips would actually be the prefered mulch in order to lower the pH.

Compost barrels bug the hell out of me, rarely do they work as intended I find them irritating and ineffective. Environmental aspects determine the rate at which an organic biomass breaks down into compost, temperature, moisture and air all play a major role. Compost barrels tend to be sealed environments, air holes are incorporated but never in the quantity required. Moisture is required for compost as well, with rain being one of the main factors in the decomposition of a pile, the lid on the compost barrel impedes this. Compost can reach internal temperatures of 160 degrees on its own, the black color of the barrel increases the internal temperature of the compost. Temperatures exceeding 185 degrees can slow the decomposition of your compost and damage bacteria and insects, compost barrels should be placed in full shade.

With that said I prefer piles when it comes to compost, three of them to be more specific. I like to build three bays out of concrete blocks, each bay should have three walls and a removable front. You start by filling the first bay for 6 months to a year, then do the same to the next bin. One compost pile is never enough, you constantly put new stuff in it and in turn it never gets a chance to fully break down. If you have three then you can fill a new one while you wait for the old ones to fully break down into a useable product.

Compost is one of the great yields we as gardeners could be harvesting, but it does require a little space and devotion of time to get it right. I am not saying urban gardeners are left out of the compost world, but consideration should be taken as most compost piles can smell pretty foul during the hot days of summer. Compost that has been fully decomposed will not have a foul smell, it will smell organic and pleasant. An ammonia smell is almost always a sign your compost pile is not ready, flip it, water it, and check on it in a week. Compost piles should be turned at a minimum of once a month, but once a week is preferred.

peace – chriscondello

Three bay compost bin built for the Hamnett Place Community Garden in Wilkinsburg, PA. This one is made out of recycled pallets and was finished with hardware cloth, assembly was simple and the entire project was completed in just one day. I believe they recently harvested the first load of compost from the bins this year

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Practical Permaculture – The Art Of Weeds

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I used to consider pulling weeds tedious work, this was before I learned how to properly manage them. The weeds that are growing in your garden have a story to tell, it’s up to us to figure out how to translate what they are saying. I have found countless websites that focus on identification, but when it comes to the basic stuff “like how to pull them”, I find the internet to be lacking. Not many people realize how much thought can go into weeding a garden bed, yet alone how to pull weeds out of an entire vacant lot. This post will focus on weeds, what they mean, and how to pull them.

Weeds can tell you massive amounts of information relating to the land you are planning on working, you just have to know how to read the data growing in front of you. What you and I consider weeds, play an important role in reclaiming disturbed lands. Whether having evolved as a legume, replacing nitrogen where none existed, or creating quick shade to aid in the establishment of bio-diversity… All weeds have their place…

Permaculture isn’t really so much about weed eradication, the weeds are going to grow one way or another. The simple act of composting the weeds you pull instead of throwing them away is a basic permaculture principle, learning which ones to leave in the ground, and for how long is an art. Many weeds are perfectly acceptable when left in the ground, and often play a major role in the overall eco-system of your garden. A little bit of experience will tell you which ones have seed heads that when ripe, explode, sending seeds 20′ into your garden! Sometimes all the weeds need, is some selective pruning, and diligent dead heading before the end of August to stop the spread of new weeds.

As a gardener who had no money to invest, I found myself learning ways around… well.. anything that costs money… I have never really been able to afford soil samples on my own so I had to learn the natural indicator plants in order to get a mental map of what I was working with. Every vacant urban lot you come in contact with is “disturbed” land and will almost always shows drastic signs of this. Bind weed, Thistles, knotweed and grasses are all commonplace, what interests me is many of these weeds tell a story about your soil.

Bindweed – One of the most common exotic invasive I find in Wilkinsburg and the Pittsburgh region, this plant absolutely thrives in hard-pan clay. Bindweed can take years to effectively eliminate from a lot, owing to its ability to rampantly sprout from the roots, and the extremely long viability of its seeds lasting up to 20 years. Pull it or mow it and stay on top of it until you have choked it out. Bindweed can take years to eliminate from your garden but it is by no means impossible.

Dandelion – When they flourish, you have acidic soil.

Russian and Canada Thistle – I hate thistles due to the difficulty of removing them when they get to the size of a christmas tree, I have seen Canadian thistles 10 feet tall. Thistles absolutely love acidic soil and will usually only thrive in disturbed acidic soil, I find if you can neutralize the acid in the soil the thistles will disappear on their own.

Clovers – All – Sign of low nitrogen in your soil, the solution is as simple as leaving the clovers, when clover is present don’t remove it unless it is in the middle of a planned bed. When you remove it, bury it on site or compost it.

Pennycress – Highly alkaline soil

Yarrow – If you have this growing on your vacant lot, good for you. Our native versions of this plant are white and yellow and absolutely stunning when growing in a massive clump. Yarrows are one of the best indicators of potassium levels in your soils absolutely thriving in potassium deficient areas. Although I wouldn’t remove yarrow unless absolutely needed, it still is one of those plants that could help indicate fertilizer requirements for other plants.

Wild Strawberry – Fragaria sp. – I am not talking about the large, delicious strawberries we grow in our gardens but the little red strawberries growing in vacant lots that have little to no taste at all. Food wise the only use for these berries is survival but as an indicator for the acidity of your soil these guys are top-notch surviving in HIGHLY acidic soil. Neutralize the acid in your soil with a little lime and the strawberries will go away when they’re ready.

dandelion

This list could go on, but many other people have already done that… Go to Google… Type in “weeds as indicators” followed by your state… You will have so many lists it will make your head spin.

I do want to stress the importance of identifying weeds, and learning the deeper meaning of why they grow where they do, or why they thrive. Removal is the part of gardening most people hate, and to be honest with you as a gardener I would bet 75% of my job is removal. Pulling weeds is an art in its own right, relying more on finesse and technique than sheer force and strength. When working on an entire lot, break the whole thing into manageable squares on an imaginary grid, start by pulling or cutting the big stuff, then move on to the smaller things. I find if I remove as much material as possible during my initial clean-up then the smaller stuff is easier to focus on.

Pulling weeds is an art in its own right, if a weed is hard to pull your soil sucks, you need to add organic material to your existing soil structure and future weeds will pop right out of the ground. You see, weeds are not hard to pull when they are growing in healthy, alive, loose soil, it’s when they are growing in hard-pan clay that they break off at the ground, leaving the roots. When you grab a weed, grab it as close to the soil as you possibly can, you want to remove the entire root structure, not break it off at the surface of the soil. Pull the weed straight up and away from you to loosen it, then finish by pulling towards yourself, apply steady pressure and do not jerk or rip it from the ground, you want to steadily apply pressure freeing the weed from the ground. Some weeds require a little more work, don’t be afraid to break out a shovel and dig out a huge weed, just remember to remove as much of the soil from the roots as you possibly can to aid in disposal.

bckyrd

Sometimes trees need to be removed, im not stupid, I love them but sometimes they are in the way. Everyone wants to chainsaw the thing off at the ground and either forget about it or dig it out. I had an old-timer tell me the right way to drop a tree, without ever touching an axe or chainsaw till after the tree was on the ground. The only tool he used was a shovel, and could drop any tree under 20 feet in under an hour. The secret is to use the weight of the top of the tree as your muscle, and dig the roots out while the tree is in tact. As you free the roots of the tree, it will eventually fall under its own weight, this way you drop the tree and remove the root ball all in one controlled drop.

Trees are a great source of nutrients and biomass, if you have access to a shredder than they should be utilized. Most of the nutrients that are readily available in a tree are focused in the top half of the tree, branches under a 1 1/2″ specifically. Branches of this size have the most cambium layer for the amount of overall biomass and should be shredded and applied fresh and allowed to de-compose in place, larger wood is either firewood or mulch. Certain trees and plants will tend to inhibit growth like artemisia and the common black walnut tree, these trees should be avoided in mulch at all costs.

One of the absolutely fastest ways to clear a bunch of weeds and create a bed, and my personal favorite method is sheet mulching. This method starts in a dumpster hunting newspaper or cardboard, the amount you need will vary but my rule of thumb is 12 layers of newspaper, or 1 layer of cardboard. Mow the area where you intend to put your bed, I like to line the outside of my beds in bricks so I place them around the newspaper. Now you want to bring in a whole bunch of compost, topsoil or whatever you have on hand. Depending on what you use you can most likely plant in it immediately, plan on building up your layers at the end of every year. Newspaper and cardboard are utilized because of their ability to decompose in place lasting long enough to smother out the weeds underneath.

by any means necessary – chriscondello

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