Catching up to the Season

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I haven’t posted a gallery in quite some time… Here are a few of my favorite photographs from the past 3 weeks…   plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Snowflakes and Flower Petals

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“Squalls” – January 25, 2013 – Looking towards Hamnett Way – Wilkinsburg, PA
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I have big plans for this Blog tomorrow… See you in the morning…

Snowflakes fall from the sky…
Like petals from a flower…
In the autumn breeze…
The fallen fruit turns sour…
When one day is ending…
Another prepares to start…
Dig a hole in the earth…
You’ll find it has a heart…

You see…

Gardening is like surgery…
Incision with a spade…
Compost is the bandage…
That is proudly displayed…
A seed becomes a seedling…
A seedling is the seed…
Then we grow into a tree…
And provide for others needs…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – On Guerrilla Gardening

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“Guerrilla Begonias” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

The beautification of blighted land… Growing food in locations commonly thought of as waste land… Creating gardens of any kind on land that you do not own… That is what guerrilla gardeners do… Permaculture… Is a lifestyle in tune with the land… Responsible use of resources… Gardening for the earth as opposed to against it… Although the names of these two styles of gardening are different, they are essentially the same thing… An environment based form of civil disobedience…

Guerrilla gardeners often lack the resources that the larger initiatives have, budgets. Creativity, resource management and permaculture fit into the guerrilla gardening fold as a valuable resource for not just the guerrilla farmer, but the entire guerrilla gardening community at large. In a world where resources are limited, learning how to stretch them as far as possible is a valuable tool in any gardeners box.

Permaculture, is a sustainable based design method commonly broken into specific zones numbering zero to five. Zero being your home base, and five being the woods. Urban gardeners often do not have a yard and therefore your zones may be rooted in a guerrilla garden, in which case the garden would be your home base (zones 0 and 1), and you would build up from there. When one lot is easily sustainable, a close lot could then be converted into zones 2,3 and 4.

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“Guerrilla Tulips” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

A breakdown of the zones are as follows…

– Zone 0 is the center of activity, your home or apartment.

– Zone 1 is the most controlled and intensely used part of your garden. For an urban gardener this is typically the space right outside your front door, garden space you will walk by several times a day. This zone occasionally has to be away from the homestead, urban living does not always include a yard.

– Zone 2 is still intensely managed, but typically planted with crops and flowers that do not require daily maintenance. Urban gardeners may have a blueberry patch or a few dwarf fruit trees, typically still located on the home lot.

– Zone 3 is typically unmulched, un-pruned with water only available to select plants. I think of this zone as my guerrilla gardens, specifically the main garden.

– Zone 4 is semi-managed, semi-wild land. Typically non-existent to the urban gardener, depends on the amount of blight in your city.

– Zone 5 is an un-managed wild system used for observation as opposed to cultivation. Urban gardeners may have to travel to experience this zone, but I promise you it is always worth the trip…

Permaculture based guerrilla gardens may not incorporate all of the zones, this should not be a reason for despair. Apartment dwellers may not have any home garden space other than a few pots, my suggestion would be to find a vacant piece of land and create your zone 1 there. The zones in permaculture, as with all the ethics and principles are not meant to be thought of as rules but as suggestions… Permaculture interests me because of its ability to morph as the situation presents… As the earth changes… Gardens change… And as a result… We change…

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“Guerrilla Farm Stand – The Forgotten Farm Stand” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

Guerrilla gardeners often face problems with pests, soil conditions, water, and sunlight. Permaculture lends itself to these problems by answering questions in ways not promoting the use of chemicals, but in a way as to accomplish ones ultimate goal creatively while doing as little damage to the eco system as possible. Conventional agriculture methods rarely do the guerrilla gardener any good as they are based around money, permaculture incorporates naturally occurring elements like plants and animals as the solution to most problems. Got a bug problem? The solution is not pesticides… It is using plants that will attract the birds that will eat those pests. Got a weed problem? Alter the composition of the soil to discourage that weed from growing… Permaculture has a practical solution to most gardening problems, and that is the reason for the name of these posts.

What the guerrilla gardener needs for their garden must not only be purchased, but often carried to the garden site. If valuable nutrients in the form of garden debris is disposed of in a landfill, those nutrients and organic material will ultimately have to be replaced. Permaculture teaches us that those organic materials often sent to the landfill are perfectly acceptable to be left in the garden. Grass clippings and leaves contain valuable nutrients, often the reason a gardener has to apply supplemental nutrients is due to the fact they meticulously clean up the garden. If looks are an issue, bury the debris in an on-site pit.

Any spot where concrete meets soil is a possible rain garden. Rain gardens are nothing more than collection pools designed with plants to not only slow the flow of water to our sewers, but to creatively use as much of it as we can. Concrete and asphalt are impermeable surfaces, what rain water lands on them is quickly routed to the sewer system and ultimately to our rivers. Rain gardens stand in the way of this persistent flow, giving it time to collect and be absorbed by the earth and plant roots. ANY garden can be thought of as a rain garden if it absorbs run-off, techniques of design and installation are really the only difference you will find from system to system. When gardening near concrete, run-off should be a constant consideration… If you can do something about it… By all means do it…

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“The Peace Garden – Guerrilla Garden” – Center Street – Wilkinsburg, PA

The sustainable guerrilla garden is kind of a dream of mine, I often find myself discouraged at the amount of trendiness I find in what I consider to be an art form. Flinging seed bombs into an abandoned lot, although dreamy, does nothing but waste money. Weeds grow fast, really fast, much faster than most garden plants can compete with. For this reason I have found seed bombs to be ridiculously ineffective, oftentimes germinating in a rainfall only to be killed by two or three days of relentless spring heat. Those same seeds would have survived had I just gone on site, cultivated the land and planted the damn seeds… There is nothing worse than spending $10 on a bag of seed bombs only to have them fail in the first week…

Observation is the key to all gardening, a recently disturbed lot is a suitable location for seed bombs or broadcasting loose seed. But a vacant lot that has sat for a few years often has an impenetrable surface that has been baking in the sunlight for years, weeds are only able to grow because of their evolutionary adaptation to growing in poor soil… An adaptation that few of our vegetables and flowers have developed. Once the soil has been disturbed in some way, a cover crop of nitrogen accumulating plants like clover should be planted, sunflowers can be intercropped into the lot to create a combination of soil remediation plants.

After some general remediation, till the earth and plant your crops. At the end of the season cut down your plants and let them lay, remember the smaller the pieces, the quicker they will break down. Any opportunity to acquire organic material should be taken, leaves, grass clippings, and wood chips are available for free if you keep your eyes open for them. Given the fact that most landscapers have to pay to get rid of this debris, you are usually doing them a big favor by taking it…

I personally believe anyone considering experimenting in guerrilla gardening should give permaculture a look. Although much of it is perennial/food based, it can relate to any style of gardening you can come up with, and has an answer to virtually every problem you may face in the urban jungle… Though it may take a little translation from time to time… But that is where I come in… Until next time…

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 – People… Beneficial or Pest?..

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“The Garden Table” – © chriscondello 2013 – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – To the person that stole all of our vegetables over the weekend… You pretty much stole our harvest party… Which is open to anyone in the community… Not Cool…

I am writing this post with a heavy heart, as the garden project I am involved in known as The Garden Table has been robbed of produce. My girlfriend and I stopped up on Friday before we went camping to grab a tomato for sandwiches, and all was well. I can only speculate what happened, and for this reason, and this reason alone, I will chalk it up to someone needing it more than us… Though they should have simply asked…

I have been urban gardening for 8 years now, and farming for 4 of them, and as long as I can remember I have had to deal with people steeling vegetables from my gardens. Occasionally, I have been able to isolate the problem and deal with it swiftly. Though not always pretty, I have had some success…

My first experience happened immediately after moving in to my current apartment. We had started a small vegetable garden at the end of our street a few months before we moved in. As a peace-offering, we told the immediate neighbors that we would share the produce with them. The thought behind this was that everyone would respect the garden enough to wait for us to harvest and share, this is not as universally understood of an ethic as I had originally thought.

Within a week of planting the zucchini plants, baby zucs started disappearing before the flower even had a chance to whither. At the same time I was finding MASSIVE piles of dog poo everywhere I looked in the garden… All signs pointed to the neighbors living next to the garden… These specific neighbors were pretty open about their drug problem, because of this, social skills were virtually non-existent. Any attempt at a civil conversation regarding their dog was met with very aggressive behavior, often times ending in threats of physical violence.

This went on for an entire summer, although I was able to get them to stop picking unripe produce… I was never able to solve the dog problem… The only certainty that I had to go on, was the fact that their problems were getting worse, and I knew from experience that it was only a matter of time before they screwed up their rent payments and would get evicted… Which is exactly what happened the following spring as I was preparing for my second gardening season.

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“The Forgotten Farm Stand” – © chriscondello 2011 – June 17, 2011 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – One of my favorite photographs I have ever taken… Brings back good memories… The boys in the neighborhood who were helping out in our garden asked if they would be paid… I said sure… But not by me… This was the result…

In a separate incident… One evening, my girlfriend and I were enjoying dinner when we were interrupted by a flurry of knocks on our front door. As is typical Wilkinsburg protocol, I did not answer the door. I instead went to peek out the window in order to assure it was not someone from the neighborhood, looking to bum a cigarette. To my surprise, my buddy Brandon from down the street was standing in my front yard waving his hands yelling for me to come outside.

Upon reaching my front porch, Brandon informed me that someone had gone through the community garden that had recently been constructed behind my house, and thrown all of the produce into the alleyway. His annoyance of the situation was immediately apparent, and he insisted that I come check it out. I initially thought he was being a drama queen, but upon arrival I realized that, what seemed like all of the produce in the garden had been smashed in the alley, you name the heirloom variety, and it was crushed in the alley behind my house.

So while we were mourning the losses of our fallen vegetable soldiers, we hear a bunch of kids coming up the alley. To my surprise, Brandon insisted we hide in the garden in order to catch them in the act. A few moments later a group of really young kids entered the fenced in area, baseball bats in hand, and began setting up a game of vegetable baseball. Brandon and I confronted the kids, and they all started crying their eyes out and ran home.

I proceeded to send an email out to the gardeners, informing them of the slaughter that had just occurred. The overall consensus… Given the fact that we knew who the kids were, and their parents had not been cooperative in the past, the gardeners decided to call the police. A police officer arrived shortly thereafter, and after a short explanation, was off in his cruiser in search of the offenders. Twenty or so minutes later the police officer was back with the three boys in the back of his car, he asked if they were the ones, to which we replied they were… He opened the back door and said “then they are all yours”…

Those boys spent the next 2 hours cleaning up the alley… With the very same gardeners who they had taken the vegetables from… All the while the community gardeners taught the boys about composting… Still to this day that story gives me goose bumps… I am normally not a fan of the 5.0… But in this case… I’ll just make an exception…

Garden thievery is the biggest problem I face in my specific location, I have yet to plant a garden that was not robbed clean at some point… It is really sad… And often times disheartening… But in an urban environment… It is unavoidable…

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“Welcome Arbor” – © chriscondello 2013 – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Jeanette Street – Wilkinsburg, PA – Believe it or not… Community gardens with 25 gardeners are not immune to garden thievery… This garden has been experiencing some minor problems… Though in true gardener fashion… The gardeners chalked it up to the thief being needier then they were…

Earlier this summer, I received a call from one of the other gardeners informing me that the reverend of the neighboring church had witnessed someone stealing stuff from our garden. When I got on site, I was greeted by the reverend and my friend. They said the reverend had gotten the license plate and description of the woman who was taking stuff. It turns out that a woman had asked the reverend about the garden and he told her it was a private garden, and that it was a community oriented project. The woman apparently took that as free for all as she proceeded to walk in to the garden, and rip herb plants out by the roots in order to take them home for her garden.

Luckily, the reverend saw this happening and had the foresight to get her license number. My friend called the police to report the incident and the very same cop from the story above showed up, we gave him the license plate and he said he would call her up. The officer called a little later and said the woman was really sorry, and would be returning that evening to put the plants back… A few hours later… The plants were back in their respective holes… Though the trauma proved too much and the plants ended up dying anyway… Never the less… She won’t be taking plants from anyone’s garden again… Success…

Now I rarely endorse calling the police… And I would not personally call them for anything but the most serious of offenses… But in this case, I let it go… The reason being, plant and vegetable thievery are very common in my neighborhood, just a few days before this incident I had a very similar incident on my street.

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“Ditch Lily” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – This is the abandoned house garden that was targeted by a thief earlier this summer… You can see the hosta she targeted next to the steps… I don’t care who you are… This does not look like a neglected yard…

I was at home in my office writing, when I noticed an unfamiliar car park across the street from my house. The driver stepped out of the vehicle and was looking at the modest gardens we have planted in front of a few of the abandoned houses. She walked around for a few minutes looking at plants, making me think she was just admiring the gardens. Then, she walked back to her car, looked around quickly, and proceeded to unload a shovel and several 5 gallon buckets.

By the time I got to my front door, she already had a hosta most of the way out of the ground. At this point she realized I was coming. I asked her just what in the hell she thought she was doing. She angrily replied that it was an abandoned house and she could dig up whatever she wanted. I informed her that it was a community project that just happened to be in front of an abandoned house, but the garden was by no means abandoned and she had a better chance of winning the lottery then getting one of our hostas off the street. By this point she was yelling curse words at me as she walked back to her car… As she turned her vehicle around, she put down her window and told me she hopes I stay awake all night because she would be back… To which I replied that if she wanted to come to my neighborhood after dark… Well then… That’s on her… She has yet to come back…

The point is this… This problem is not isolated to my neighborhood. Wherever there is hunger, food will be stolen. The obvious solution is always a fence, and they do work, but I wanted to look beyond that… I want to change the behavior at the core of the problem.

Another common solution that I see as effective is the community outreach theory… Basically, you throw a party or two, and invite the entire community to let them know what is going on. This serves two purposes… To allow the community an opportunity to see what is going on in their neighborhood, and to inform people that the food grown is not free for the taking… I don’t care who the gardener is… We are always willing to share the harvest… Even excited to share the bounty that is often produced in our gardens… And usually willing to do it unconditionally…

So you see that word “unconditional”… That is a perfect example of how I thought when I was first starting to urban farm. Then I realized something… When financially stressed people find an unconditional source of resources, they will exploit the fuck out of that resource… Think about it… If you found a way to eat without ever having to pay for it… Or work for it… It is human nature to use it… This becomes the case with a large food source in an urban community… There is very little that can be done about this other than exclusion measures…

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“Berries Galore” – © chriscondello 2013 – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Jeanette Street – Wilkinsburg, PA – A shot of the community garden from earlier this year… I can understand people tasting… I will often pick a single fruit from a variety I have never tried… But I never clean house as is so often the case…

One of the very first things I learned in permaculture is that if you provide a large food source targeted by a specific creature, then said creature will proliferate and destroy the food source. In the case of people, often times if they see a bunch of unattended vegetables in a garden… That happens to be in a supposed abandoned and unprotected garden… Well then it must be free… Again… The only thing one can do is adopt the paradigm that whoever stole your food must be worse off then you… It is the only frame of thought I have found to quench the rage burning in my stomach…

Another permaculture practice that I am attempting to integrate into my urban gardens is species bio-diversity. I have filled the front quarter of the garden with tall ornamental plants, the idea with this is to attempt to hide the bounty growing immediately behind them. As far as the vegetables are concerned… I have found that a neat vegetable garden often invites thievery, when the tomatoes are easily accessible from the paths they tend to get stolen. But when I let the plants grow all over themselves and out into the paths, it tends to be too much work for a quick-moving thief… This often leads to them targeting more accessible vegetables… In the future… The front of this garden will be filled with “sacrificial” vegetables that will be very easily accessible… Basically… If the untrained eye can’t spy your vegetable supply… Then they can’t take them either…

After losing the two lots on my street, I have had to spread out my gardening efforts. When my garden was next door, security was surprisingly simple. Now my garden is 3 blocks away, and keeping constant tabs on it is impossible. I have yet to build an urban garden where I have not considered building a 10 foot tall electric fence with machine gun turrets and razor wire.

At the end of the day though… I want people to be able to see into the non-guerrilla gardens that I create… I create the spaces to be enjoyed and help brighten a neighborhood… A massive fence would have the exact opposite effect…

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“A Brandon Photo Bomb” – © chriscondello 2013 – The Garden Table Urban Garden – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Taken at 7:30 in the morning last summer… I had no idea he was walking up to me as I was concentrating on the shot… Only after the camera processed the photograph and I had a chance to check it did I notice Brandon standing right in front of me… That happy accident turned into one of my favorite photographs of 2012…

On the complete opposite end of this spectrum is the fact that as far as most community urban gardens are concerned, they would not be possible without human volunteers. People really are one of the great yields of the urban garden, I am constantly surprised by the people who seem to pop out of the woodwork. Most adults appreciate a garden, some appreciate them a little too much and appreciate them in the wrong way. I have had some of the scariest guys in the neighborhood come to ask me for home-grown vegetables to impress their girlfriends, even gangsters appreciate a home-grown pepper.

A simple harvest party once or twice a year is often all that is needed to eliminate much of the non-kid related garden damage. Kids are one of the great mysteries of the garden, in my experience, a kid can help you build a garden from the ground up… But the moment they are alone with their friends… Peer pressure will often take over with disastrous results… Having been a troublemaking kid… I actually get this and am a little more understanding of this type of behavior than most… A little compassion now… Will go a long way in the future…

Unless someone witnessed your garden being robbed, than there is little you can do. Some people get so disgusted that they give up, never to plant a vegetable garden again. I would recommend that you stick with it, in the city… Neighbors can change overnight… What is now a very hostile street, can change in a matter of a few weeks. Taking a summer off may be an option, or temporarily scaling down. But all things change… And this to shall pass…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within… Are provided free by the author… Me… I sell prints of some of my photography online – 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 – Pallet Garden Cautions

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“White Hearts Bleeding” – © chriscondello 2013 – Wilkinsburg, PA – Natural Composition – Red dye in a puddle with white bleeding heart floaters – Like I said… I hate pallets… So I have no photographs of them… Get over it…

I know you have all seen them on Pinterest, commercial pallets designed into 30′ tall vertical garden wonderland. Pallets layed out on the ground full of row after row of healthy greens. Even pallets on saw-horses turned into gardening tables for the handi-capable person. Some really incredible and creative ideas are out there for the gardener to explore, I recommend trying anything that interests you in the gardening world.

But… As far as pallets are concerned… I hate them with a passion… I have worked my fair share of retail jobs, and I promise you I have dragged more than enough pallets across a retail floor for the both of us. But I also understand why people like to use them. Having worked around them, I have a bit of an inside view into the travels pallets often take part in…

Commercial pallets come in treated, and untreated varieties. Although the untreated types are relatively safe, the chemically treated varieties are often treated with nastier chemicals than the treated lumber available at home depot. Chemical treatment is easily recognizable by how much heavier it will be than the other pallets. Chemically treated pallets tend to be darker in color as well, it will stick out in the pile. Treated lumber often looks wet in appearance, this rule applies to pallets as well…

I actually don’t consider chemical treatment to be the real danger associated with pallets… Next time you are looking at a pallet, ask yourself what was on that pallet. Organic food is not the only thing shipped on pallets… Chemicals like draino, Clorox, ammonia and even pool chemicals are all shipped to grocery stores on pallets… These shipments regularly break inside the truck… That pallet is not thrown away… It is sent back to the supply house and repacked… And shipped… With God knows what…

A pallet can travel all around the country, hell, it could even travel all around the world. Pallets are re-used, it is really only when one has broken beyond usefulness that it is taken out of circulation. So technically, using pallets in your garden is not really all that green as every good pallet taken out of the mix has to be replaced with a new one. I believe it is better to recycle them through the retail mix, than to have them cutting down pine trees to make new ones… Just my perspective…

I also would like to mention that while many pallets tend to stay in the retail stream, many of them end up in some pretty nasty places. Pallets are regularly used to ship hospital supplies, no big deal right… After the pallet has been unloaded there is a chance it could be reloaded by the hospital with say… Soiled linens… Or worse… Medical waste… Then that pallet is sent somewhere… They unload it… And maybe load it with something nastier…

It’s the circle… The circle of life… Or… The circle of waste…

Eventually… There is a pretty good chance this pallet could end up back at a grocery store… Pallets are meant to be used more than once… Most distributors would rather reuse pallets than purchase new ones… They do not do chemical tests on each pallet… Don’t be stupid… If you are the type of person that is worried about chemicals in any shape or form… Stay away from pallets… That would be my professional opinion at least…

I hope I am not breaking any pallet gardeners heart with this post… But I feel this is an issue of safety… An issue that not many people consider… Having worked retail… I have seen some of the nasty shit that soaks into those pallets you are growing your lettuce in… It’s just not for me…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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One Cloudy Week in April – My Garden

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The past week has not really been one of creation for me… Given the sudden loss of a very close friend it has been more of a week of observation and reflection… This post is simply a gallery of the places I stopped to reflect… I broke the week up into two posts… Natures creations […]

Practical Permaculture – How To Buy Plants

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Photo from September 2012 – A reminder to choose a variety of plants that bloom at different times of the year… There’s nothing worse than a beautiful spring garden that is colorless in the fall… Try to look at the big picture…

I thought this would be a good time of year to write a post on purchasing plants. With all of the attention I put on caring for them, I might as well write one on acquisition. You can buy plants locally or through the mail, both are typically good sources. When you buy plants locally, you get the added benefit of instant gratification. When you order through the mail, you get the thrill of waiting for a package full of plants.

Before you run out the door this spring with credit card in hand, consider a word of caution: All nurseries are not created equal. They vary greatly in the quality, selection, and price of the plants they sell. Further, and much more importantly, they vary in the amount of expertise their employees possess.

The first time I visit a nursery or garden center, I ask a question that I already know the answer to… I’m a shit head like that… Or, I will ask for a rare plant… Even if I already know they don’t have it… I personally feel that I should be able to ask any question I want, about any plant they stock, and get an answer within 5 minutes. Honestly, we all have smart phones with the google app… I could find the answer in under a minute.. But I still ask… If for no other reason… Than to watch the high school kids panic… I’m gonna be a mean old man…

In my experience, you get what you pay for. A reputable nursery guarantees its plants, stocks only plants adapted to our region, and takes good care of them. If you just want five trays of plain old petunias, consider going to a discount center that stocks the most popular plants and sells them at low prices. But if you want the whole experience, go to a specialty nursery and get pampered. Ask questions, take suggestions… But most importantly, support a local business.

Though the bargain plants might not exactly die upon planting, they are often more work than they are worth. When purchasing annuals that only flower for a few months before they die, it can often pay to spend a little more money on the stronger plants in order to get a longer flowering period. As far as perennials are concerned… The fact that they live from year to year gives you a longer growing time so you can buy smaller plants, but they will take longer to mature and will be a lot more work to establish. Inexperienced gardeners should spend the money to buy good plants, once you have some experience getting strong plants to grow, then consider buying cheaper plants.

Wherever you shop, pay attention to the quality of the plants. When purchasing annuals or vegetables, choose compact plants with deeply colored leaves. Avoid any plants that are spindly, pale, have splotches on the leaves, or show signs of insect damage or disease. Flower buds, if present, should be closed or barely open. I realize that this is not always what the plants you may be looking for will look like, you are looking for short plants that do not show signs of stretching. Sometimes the big box stores will pack their plants so tightly together that the only way they can grow is straight up, as they fight for light they will just stretch out… Avoid these plants…

Nursery bought plants often contain weeds, if you are paying full retail price for your plants, pull the weeds on site. Many an invasive species has hitch-hiked around this country in container grown plants, you do not want to deal with a weed invasion in your garden. I have a client that bought a few flats of annuals from a big box store and had me plug them into their perennial bed. A month later I noticed an odd grass growing in the bed, I pulled it and didn’t think about it again. Another month passed and I could not believe my eyes, the grass had grown feet, not inches, feet. I’m still battling this stuff today… I can’t find it growing anywhere else in Pittsburgh… It had to come in with the annuals…

If you are in the market for a tree or shrub, look for symmetry and deeply colored leaves and no evidence of insects or disease. Avoid plants with roots growing out the drainage holes and those with tops that seem out of proportion to the root ball or container. If you have to purchase root bound plants, break the soil and rootball up with your hands before planting them… Again, cheap or sick plants are not impossible to grow, they are just a lot more work.

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Columbine are one of my favorite flowers… They self seed heavily, so if you don’t have much space I recommend dead heading before they go to seed.

Shopping for plants by mail will provide a much larger selection of plants than any garden center could ever dream of. However, the plants you receive by mail are generally younger and smaller than those from a retail center. When a garden center has 200 plants to sell, they want to sell the worst specimens first… Mail-order plants are usually only shipped in the spring or the fall, targeted to the proper planting time in your area. Remember you will not be inspecting these plants before you receive them, so choose a reputable dealer.

Ask friends for recommendations of mail order nurseries. Check gardening magazines, which are usually filled with advertising from mail sources. Most nurseries now have websites, a quick google search will reveal a whole world of plant porn that will blow your mind.

Old established nurseries are the best starting point; their website will have color photos, which are crucial when choosing color. Remember that printing and computer monitors affect color, do not expect your flowers to be identically colored to the photo. Do not overlook the small nurseries, they are the places to find rare and hard to find plants and are often owned and operated by fellow plant lovers.

While browsing mail order catalogs, look for the catalogs that include a substantial amount of information on each plant; details like growing conditions, how much sun, drought tolerance, the soil preference, recommended hardiness zones, and the regional climate to which the plant has adapted. Read the shipping information and make sure the package will come with planting instructions… Most importantly, ask questions if you have them… That is why they are paid.

I personally do not like getting plants by mail, I find it to be a very lacking experience. I have rarely been happy with the quality of the plants I receive. I prefer the personal experience I get from a local nursery, and I’m picky as hell when it comes to my plants… I have been known to pop a plant right out its pot in front of the owner of the nursery… Sometimes you have to check… Softer pots can be squeezed to determine density… The soil should be loose… Not a hard ball of roots…

peace – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – Urban Herb Benefits

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My front yard herb garden, I like to fill all the bare spots with flowering annuals to add interest.

Whether you live in the city or the suburbs… Regardless of your space at hand or garden experience level… You can probably grow herbs…

A common misconception is that herbs are simply spices for your food, Your herbal harvest can serve many purposes depending on what your specific need is. Herbal teas blended from the dry leaves and flowers are easy to prepare, served hot or cold they can be a beneficial and relaxing beverage depending on the contents. You may also wish to research herbal remedies, of which as the name implies herbs are a mainstay.

Your home, too, can benefit from herbs. Follow traditions by fashioning wreaths from herbs that were at one time thought to ward off evil spirits. In the Victorian era people would create what was known as a tussie-mussie, in which each leaf and flower held a special meaning. potpourri is also commonly made from aromatic herbs, they make surprisingly friendly gifts.

Getting started with herbs is not only a fun activity, but an immediately gratifying one as well. Herb gardening can fill many aspects of your life with beauty and pleasure. The rewards can be summarized by an old saying among herbarians: “Herbs leave their fragrance on the hand that gathers them.”

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Another photo of my front yard herb garden. I get frustrated when I see the herbs hidden in the vegetable garden, herbs are beautiful plants and deserve to be featured in the landscape.

If you are new to growing herbs, you will be happy to learn that most are very easy to grow. Many will absolutely flourish with just regular watering, require very little special care, and not only suffer from few pests and diseases; but repels many pests and diseases. Gray-leaved herbs and those filled with aromatic oils come from the Mediterranean area, so they thrive in well-drained soil and hot sun. In fact, most herbs grow best in full sun, but some also tolerate shade. Although many herbs grow reasonably well in poor soil, most prefer average fertility and a neutral to slightly alkaline pH.

A few herbs for shady places – Angelica, chervil, chives, costmary, lemon balm, lovage, mint, parsley, sweet cicely, sweet woodruff and tarragon…

When selecting a site for a herb garden, consider how you intend to use the harvest. If you wish to use the herbs for cooking, choose a location close to your kitchen so it will be convenient for snipping a few leaves or sprigs to add to your favorite dishes.

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Herbs can even be grown in close quarters with vegetables.

Herbs, like most other flowering plants, may be divided into three categories: annuals, perennials and biennials. Some herbs are woody shrubs; some are tender perennials that are treated as annuals in colder climates and grown year around in warmer climates. Tender perennials can be potted and overwinter in a cold frame, greenhouse, or cold sunny window. Some gardeners keep herbs in pots all year, growing them outdoors in the summer and bringing them indoors in the winter.

Position the herbs in your garden according to their size and growth habits. Creeping thyme, for example, never achieves any height, but spreads in a dense mat that can cover a large area. Lemon balm, reseeds profusely; mints spread via underground runners.

There are ways to contain spreading herbs to prevent them from taking over the garden. Corral herbs that spread by underground stems or runners, such as mint, bee balm, lemon balm, tansy, and tarragon, by growing them in pots. Or, plant the spreaders inside a container buried in the garden, leave the sides of the pot well above ground level to prevent the runners from simply jumping your pot.

To control herbs that self seed prolifically, such as chives, dill, catnip, and fennel, simply deadhead the flowers before they go to seed.

Mulch is invaluable in herb gardens. It slows weed growth, keeps the soil moist, and prevents soil from splashing onto edible plants. Wood chips tend to not only work well in a herb garden, they also look good. Tender herbs will often benefit from a light pea-gravel mulching when wood chips are inappropriate.

Every herb garden I have ever visited has had a special charm unique to the site. As you create your herb garden, combine plants into attractive plots or mounds as you see fit… If you read the label on your plants… And do a little research… You will know which plants are tall… And which ones are small… Now get this… Plant the small ones in front of the tall ones… That’s it people… There are no design mistakes in a herb garden… There are flaws… But as gardeners… We rearrange the damn garden every 2 years anyway… Chalk it up as a lesson learned… And fix it the next time… Easy Peezy…

It doesn’t matter where you plant them… Just plant them…

peace – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – Plants and Phytoremediation

epiPlant identification is an art in itself and honestly has to be taught by physically seeing the plant, I have been to a million lectures with someone flipping through slides and talking about different plants, and I can say without a doubt that I learn very little. I prefer my plant introductions to be in person, I like to be able to touch, smell and when applicable taste the plant. Just as with humans plants have a first and a last name, the first part of the name is the genus and the second part the species. Common names I feel are just as important due to the fact that I find when I am asked questions, they usually go something like “Ever hear of cheeseweed, if yer chickens eat it it’ll make er eggs taste like cheese” really… Learn as much as you can about each plant you come in contact with, if nothing else Wikipedia the hell out of your garden, know what makes each plant tick.

Plant selection for permaculturists is really an art form that not only encompasses, but embraces biodiversity. Plants are the multi-tool in the permaculture world completing tasks such as attracting beneficials, repelling pests, soil remediation, soil stabilization, tillage, moisture control, living trellis, and as companions to one another often just simply enhancing flavor or improving one another’s health. An entire family of plants noted for their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil are the Legumes which include beans, peas, alfalfa and lupines as well as trees like locusts and redbuds.

I find that one of the most commonly mis-understood tools is the role of the legumes. Most legumes are sort of nitrogen hoarders in a way, fixing nitrogen for themselves and storing it for use inside the plant. Legumes don’t really “fix nitrogen in the soil” as much as they “fix nitrogen in the plant”, the green part of the plant is the key to nitrogen fixation. In order for the nitrogen to be fully utilized, the entire biomass of the plant needs to de-compose in place replacing the nitrogen into the soil. Another one of the commonly mis-understood ideas is that legumes fix nitrogen through out the entire life of the plant, this is simply just not true. Plants have changing nutrient needs as they progress through their life, plants use the most nitrogen during vegetative growth before flowering. Once a plant starts flowering, potassium requirements spike followed by phosphorus during fruiting. In order to maximize the nitrogen potential of legumes cut them before they go to seed and let the entire biomass of the plant break down in place.

Green manure is a cover crop grown to add organic matter and nutrients into the soil. Green manure is almost essential in a sustainable annual cropping system often being grown during the fallow period in winter and then tilled into the soil in the spring before flowering. Heres a quick list of plants used in green manure cover crops – clover, vetch, fava beans, mustard, buckwheat, lupin and alfalfa. Time energy and resources are required to grow and use these cover crops effectively, timing is everything and the window for planting is easily missed. Make sure that your planting dates allow enough time for your cover crop to get well enough established to over-winter.

Just in case you weren’t familiar with this next term I would like to introduce you to a guilty pleasure of mine called “fruit porn”. Oh you know you are into it, in fact, i’d be willing to bet your mailbox is filled with it during winter… Mine is! I sort of have a little problem with fruit porn, hoarding it, often finding old issues hidden in boxes for no good reason. All that I am going to say is be carefull, it is super easy to get “the bug” and order one of everything. I have seen this happen more than once and the end result is usually one or two absolutely perfect plants and a whole bunch of dead stuff. Instead pick one or two types of plants and get a bunch of one variety of each, this will allow you to familiarize yourself with that variety.

Urban lots are tricky in that they offer little space compared to a food forest or permaculture farm. When growing for more than just personal consumption you won’t be able to fill every square inch with every type of fruit tree, berry bush and vegetable you can get your hands on, instead pick a cultivar of apple and buy a few of them, and do the same with say blueberries and raspberries. This doesn’t mean you can’t plant a few specimen plants here and there and have a little fun with design. I am just trying to stress how nice it is to grow enough of one type of berry to be able to share or sell it.

I want to stress the importance of planting things other than food bearing plants and trees… I’m talking about bio-diversity here people, permaculturists work with EVERY facet of nature. Large trees create bird habitat and shade for the plants and people underneath them as well as something for the vines to climb on. The list of herbs that benefit other plants is absolutely enormous, common sage Salvia officinallis is one of my all time favorite herbs to use in the garden and landscape, when it blooms in early summer you can not get close to it because of the bees and is considered a companion to rosemary, cabbage, beans and carrots.

The idea of soil remediation or “phytoremediation” is nothing new, mankind has been using plants to repair soil for thousands of years. I always get a kick out of people referring to permaculture as “new” when in reality it is the cutting edge of a 10,000 year old idea… What we call organic, natural or sustainable was at one time simply called “FOOD”, it wasn’t until recent decades that we started having to specify the manner in which it was farmed. I have problems with the fact that foods are labeled organic as I feel the term is getting watered down as farmers test the limits of the rules, makes you wonder whats next… Morganic – Our veggies are morganic than the competition. Plants have been used to remove heavy metals and toxins from soil for years and a lot of research is currently being done on the subject.

Phytoremediation of leaded soils is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, out of 10 lots soil tested last year here in Wilkinsburg I found only two that were within reasonable lead levels. Under 99 ppm is acceptable for lead levels in gardens growing veggies, we had samples test as high as 1558 ppm. Lead is commonly used in water and sewer pipes, roofing, cable coverings, paints, gasoline, insecticides, gold production, hair dyes, stained glass and photography to name a few. Lead is a moderately active metal that dissolves slowly in water and most cold acids, it does not react with oxygen in the air, and does not burn. Lead causes both immediate and long-term health effects and should be avoided at all costs. Lead is commonly remediated using indian mustard, ragweed, hemp dogbane and poplar trees which sequester the lead within its own biomass. Phytoremediation works as a multi-year tool for toxin extraction requiring a little planning, every effort helps though.

Here is just a small example of hyperaccumulators…

Arsenic – Sunflower or Chinese Brake ferns both store arsenic in their leaves.

Cadmium – Willow which is also an accumulator of zinc and copper, willow has a high transport capacity of heavy metals from root to shoot coupled with a huge amount of biomass production.

Cadmium and Zinc – Alpine Pennycress is a hyperaccumulator of these metals at levels that would be toxic to other plants, although the presence of copper will often inhibit growth.

Salts/salt tolerant – Barley and Sugar Beets are used for the extraction of sodium chloride to reclaim fields flooded with sea water.

Caesium 137 and Strontium 90 – Sunflowers were and still are being successfully used in the phytoremediation of the land around Chernobyl to absorb the radiation in the soil…

It is important to mention that phytoremediation is not an overnight solution to your soil woes but with some carefull planning and consideration of time constraints, soil can almost always be remediated using plants… I could ramble on and on about plants so this may have to turn into a multi-part section of this series, we will see…

peace – chriscondello

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