The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Long-Term Maintenance

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“The Garden Table” – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – This is my last project… Not so much a guerrilla garden as we have a ten-year lease on the property… But urban none the less… No budget… All recycled and salvaged materials…

Long Term Maintenance

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

Long-term maintenance is the killer of most guerrilla gardens. ALL GARDENS REQUIRE REGULAR MAINTENANCE! Whether organic or chemical, food or ornamental, water or soil, privately owned or guerrilla, no garden is completely sustainable without maintenance. Way too many people plug “no work” gardening into Google and find themselves reading my blog, there is no such thing as a completely work free garden… Actually… I take that back… If you are searching the internet for no work gardening… Then you need to pay someone to install and maintain your garden, because essentially, that is what you are asking for… And that is what myself, as well as many others like me do for a living…

With that said, a garden should not be all work. I find all too often that the general public sees gardening as nothing but work. There are some steps you can take to cut down on the amount of maintenance that will be required over the life of your garden. The solution can be as simple as digging a small canal from the downspout of a nearby vacant building, to as complex as soil nutrient alterations in an attempt to discourage a certain type of weed. I find all too often most problems can be solved with minimal work using nothing more than your brain… If you only learn one thing here I would want it to be “work smarter, not harder”…

Litter is a constant problem in my neighborhood, people throw their shit everywhere. When the wind blows that litter around, it will usually stick to anything in its path… Often it will be your garden… You can look at this one of two ways… Either you can get pissed off about all the litter, and subsequently give up gardening in disgust… Or you can be happy over the fact that your garden makes litter removal a little bit easier… I am saying this because I truly believe that if you are going to guerrilla garden on someone else’s land, you should maintain that plot of land as if it were your own… And that typically means cleaning up trash and litter that you had nothing to do with…

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“Daylily before Blight” – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Daylily make great guerrilla garden plants… Extremely hardy and tolerant of the harshest conditions… They require division every once in a while… You can see this as work or as a cheap source of plants…

Organic debris like leaves and grass clippings are very valuable in the guerrilla garden, they can provide a good percentage of the nutrient needs of a garden. Grass clippings are one of the most versatile materials available in urban environments, landscapers are often happy to part with them.

Many of the herbaceous perennials grown in formal gardens are cut back in the fall, most of these plants can be left through the winter. Winter weather breaks organic material down quickly, what is left of these plants in the spring quickly gets covered by new growth. A growing plant mines nutrients from the soil, nutrients that are stored in the leaves, these nutrients will have to be replaced if the organic material is removed so it is often best practice to leave the plants as they are.

Garden debris that is created can often be simply buried in the garden. Trench composting is a style of composting that involves digging a hole and filling it with whatever scrap organic material is available. In the case of a small guerrilla garden, any organic material you come in contact with can technically be buried. I do suggest sticking to smaller pieces in miniature gardens, digging through a layer of woven sticks and grass can prove to be impossible. Remember the bigger the material, the longer it will take to break down.

Guerrilla gardening is an opportunistic activity, sometimes soil, mulch or plants will suddenly become available… Successful guerrilla gardeners are always ready to take these items… Sometimes you will have to take some crap in order to get some good, beggars can’t be choosers… Vacant lots and guerrilla gardens provide unlimited opportunities, any free resource available to you should be considered. Oftentimes, the same things commonly thought of as only being found in high-end formal gardens can be available to the beggar who is willing to wait… Or willing to learn how to propagate plants… Which is the route I took… Now I can propagate just about anything…

An established guerrilla garden requires minimal maintenance. Occasional weeding and yearly mulch can keep a perennial guerrilla garden going for years. Guerrilla gardeners tend to be transient people, very few seem to stay in one location for very long and because of this vacant guerrilla gardens are becoming a normal occurrence. I find it funny that an activity that is commonly used as a protest against blight, could some day be considered a form of blight.

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 – Daffodils and Hosta

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One of my favorite places to plant daffodils is at the bottom of signs, the metal post creates a barrier preventing people from trampling them – Whitney Avenue – Spring 2012

My girlfriend and I were asked to clerk the Hosta show in the Summer of 2012 for the Daffodil and Hosta Society of Western PA, basically we were assistants to the judges. This was such an eye-opening experience, we joined immediately following our commitment.  My first daffodil show clerking experience was supposed to happen on April 6th, thanks to our late winter the show had to be cancelled… That is why I decided to write this article…

The reference book of cultivars used by the judges resembles a three ringed phone book, including specifics like cultivar name, color, pattern and mature size… In this world… Pin holes matter…

Many of the plant societies in America are experiencing membership issues, all to often they are plagued with misconceptions that the people involved are stuck up plant snobs, a misconception which honestly couldn’t be further from the truth… They are plant lovers like us… They come together to discuss a specific plant… And most importantly they share that information… And in most cases… Share the plant…

I think I should start this off by explaining why in the hell daffodils and Hostas are teamed up in a society together, that was my first question, why in the hell wouldn’t it be yours…The answer is actually brilliantly simple… Daffodils come up early in spring and bloom through late spring, the Hosta begin to grow in late spring and cover the spent daffodils. One of the requirements of growing healthy bulbs from year to year is letting the plants whither away on their own, the energy it absorbs after flowering is directly related to the bulbs ability to over winter and flower the following year.

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Miss Lorna loves her daffodils as well, Whitney Avenue – April 2011

Narcissus – Daffodil

Narcissus is a genus of mainly hardy, mostly spring-flowering perennial bulbs in the Amaryllis family. Common names include daffodil, narcissus, and jonquil are used to describe the genus.

The name Narcissus is frequently linked to the Greek myth of Narcissus, who became so obsessed with his own reflection that he knelt and gazed into a pool of water, he eventually fell into that water and drowned. In some variations, he died of starvation and thirst. In both versions, the narcissus plant grew from where he died.

Daffodils are one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, this is important in attracting pollinators to the early season garden. Daffodils and fruit trees tend to coincide with blooming times, with daffodil commonly blooming a little before the fruit trees… This early blooming tends to put the area on the map for the beneficials… If they found pollen around your fruit tree once before than they are much more likely to return for more only to find a fruit tree in full bloom…

All Narcissus species contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, mostly in the bulb but also in the leaves. May 1st, 2009 a number of schoolchildren fell ill at a primary school in England, after a daffodil bulb was added to soup during a cooking class. The bulbs can apparently be confused with onions, thereby leading to incidents of accidental poisoning. One of the most common dermatitis problems for florists is daffodil itch, some cultivars are known to be a little more irritating than others… Gloves should typically be worn, especially if you have sensitive skin.

"Paradigm" Hosta

“Paradigm” Hosta

Hosta

Hosta is a genus of 23 – 45 species of plants commonly known as hostas, plantain lilies and occasionally by the Japanese name giboshi. Hostas are cultivated as shade-tolerant foliage plants. The genus is currently placed in the asparagus family. Like many monocots, the genus was once classified as a lily.Depending on who you ask there are between 4,000 and 40,000 cultivars of Hosta, with the actual number falling somewhere in the middle.

Hostas are edible by humans, the part eaten and the manner of preparation differ depending on species… In some cases it is the shoots… Others the leaf petiole… And others the entire leaf… Younger parts are generally prefered as being more tender than older parts… The flowers are also edible…

Hosta can survive in heavy shade and are also rather drought tolerant plants, I commonly recommend them under pine trees… As long as you water a hosta through the first year of establishment, it will survive just about anything nature can throw at it… Hosta also tend to have pretty strong root systems, because of this they can be handy plants for use as erosion control. 

A potexvirus called Hosta Virus X has become common recently, and plants that are infected must be destroyed as the disease can be transmitted from plant to plant by contaminated sap. Symptoms include dark green “ink bleed” marks in the veins of yellow-colored leaves, and/or tissue collapse between veins. It can take years for symptoms to show, so symptom free plants in infected batches should also be considered infected.

I think it is important to stress that as permaculturists our horizons need to spread much further than food… All plants work in harmony… Your tomato may rely on the bee from my petunia… A fruit tree benefits from the water retention provided from a ground covering hosta, the hosta benefits from the shade provided by the fruit tree… Harmony people…

peace – chriscondello

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