Practical Permaculture – Summer Reflections – Mint and Hugelkultur

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“The Brain on Gardening” – Hamnett Place Park and Ride – Wilkinsburg, PA – An onion flowering under a Serviceberry…

A permaculture garden should be thought of as a laboratory, we perform experiments with our plants and record the data for the future. Through careful observation, we determine what changes we need to make in our gardens and lives to better serve the land as a whole. Although permaculture is nothing new, many of the techniques are considered the cutting-edge of agricultural science. Given the new-nature of these techniques, there is still much to be learned.

Permaculture and science do not always get along, controlled experiments in laboratory settings regularly show no evidence of real benefits (of any kind) in even the most storied of companion plants. Sometimes, an individual must make a faith-based decision on what they think will work. Skeptics tend to only look for information that proves their skepticism, therefore they look past all of the opposing information. Optimists tend to do the exact same thing except in a positive direction, the difference is the optimist will only find evidence of the system working and typically… The system will therefore work…

Occasionally, something that seems like a good idea on paper… Fails miserably in the field… Here are a couple of tidbits I picked up this summer…

StreetHerbs

“Telephone Pole Garden” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Pineapple mint growing at the base of a local telephone pole garden I created a few years ago…

Mint and the Fruit Tree Guild

After a summer of observation, I have come to the conclusion that mint has no place in a dwarf fruit tree guild, it simply grows too fast to properly maintain to a height conducive to the health of the trees. The first course of branches on a dwarf fruit tree can be as low as one foot off the ground, and many mints will stretch to 4′ tall when in flower. One of the most important aspects to a trees health that is often forgotten in permaculture is air circulation, it is absolutely required for the health of the tree and production of fruit.

Many pests will search for the weakest target in their foraging territory, a tree trunk that is covered by competing weeds is a favorite of many boring insects. In nature, a fruit trees canopy hoards water and sunlight from the plants growing beneath it effectively keeping trunk contact to a minimum. This effect can be demonstrated by planting a sun loving perennial next to the trunk of a large shade tree, although it may survive, it will always seem like it is trying to migrate away from the trunk and into the sun.

The plants that you plant in a tree guild need to benefit the tree, anything that grows quickly or aggressively is most likely robbing the target of your guild from nutrients. A mint patch that is several years old becomes a tangled mess of rooted stems, this mat is impenetrable by all but the hardest rains. Mint can outcompete many weeds, it is safe to assume it will outcompete your tree, and garden as long as you leave it in the game.

Although mint can be a troublemaker in the garden, it is important to remember all plants have a place. Beginners often have no clue that the plants purchased in tiny nursery pots will one day grow into massive clonal colonies, no matter how many times they are told they still make this common mistake. Mint should be grown in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden, if you will not be harvesting it regularly it can be run over with a lawnmower a few times a year in an attempt to keep it regulated… plus it’s like a breath mint for your lawnmower…

BurntSienna

“Burnt Sienna” – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – What remains of a large log left to rot on the ground… A few short years ago this log was a formidable obstacle… Now it is nothing more than a smear of red on the forest floor…

Old Man Hugel and the Mystery of the Disappearing Mound

As the story goes, old man Hugel was a miner who liked to collect wood. He spent his days working in the mine, but his nights were spent searching for his prized native lumbers… He eventually collected so much wood that it filled the house to the point that he could fit no more, growing increasingly frustrated he began to pile it in his backyard, and then the front.

Old man Hugel died in an accident later that year, his piles of precious wood left to rot in the wind and rain. The community toiled over who was going to clean this mess up, given the nature of government, this took some time and as a result, the piles of wood were left out exposed to the elements for quite some time.

Two years passed before the community was ready to clean up the mess, the money had finally materialized and the red tape had been cut. Much to the surprise of the group the piles were now apparently gone, a result of the effects of nature and time. You see, nature has no red tape. Rain, snow and wind do not argue. The elements are very unforgiving of the things we create, and are constantly fighting them. Some things we create are intended to be destroyed, as is the case with the hugelkultur mound.

Sorry… Not quite sure where that came from…

hugelkultur is a style of gardening in which wood, organic material and soil are stacked into mounds, these mounds are planted in and left alone to slowly break down. There is a lot of confusion and misconceptions pertaining to the use of  these types of mounds. The confusion arises from the belief that a hugelkultur mound is a permanent landscape feature, when in fact it is nothing more than a glorified compost heap.

Huglekultur, when done correctly can effectively eliminate a large amount of wood. When built properly, the wood inside of the mound slowly breaks down providing nutrients for the plants growing above. Individuals intending to create a permanent feature in their yard using the hugelkultur technique will ultimately be disappointed, this disappointment is only further materialized with the realization that doing everything right is what caused the failure.

Wood is not an impervious material, it is intended to break down into soil over time. A large tree that has fallen in the forest will not exist indefinitely, as it is exposed to the elements and weather, it will eventually break down into a tiny fraction of its original size. For this reason the amount of wood put into a hugelkultur mound directly affects the long-term size of the pile. The wood contained within the mound is meant to break down, in ideal conditions it is safe to assume your mound will disappear in a few short years.

I receive an alarming amount of emails asking questions about previously installed hugelkultur mounds… I want to stress, that I sincerely believe this is a product of misinformation as opposed to deceit. Complaints of hugelkultur mounds disappearing over time are in fact, a testament to how effective they can be at the conversion of wood into organic material. This common misconception is the reason for this post, I am essentially tired of answering questions relating to the subject.

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 – The Vegetarian Compost Conundrum

Currant

“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…

Bocking14

“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…

PghPetunias

“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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