Practical Permaculture – On Guerrilla Gardening


“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.


“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…


“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…


“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 – Or you can contact me directly at for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Plant Selection


“Heucherella” – I am including this photograph to illustrate a point… This was an empty pot when I got it… Tagless and destined for the dumpster… An inspection of the roots revealed life and a crown was clearly evident after some minor digging… I took a chance on it and several others…

Plant Selection

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

A tough subject to write about for the guerrilla gardener, often the deciding factors end up being cost and availability. Given the high likelihood that the garden will be destroyed faster than it was created, I recommend starting with the cheapest plants available. A garden that survives through the first or second year can then be considered for nicer plants, but only after passing the test of time. Trust me when I say that if someone really wants to mess with your garden, there is very little you can do other than use plants that can survive regular abuse.

Stick to the tried and true plants, do not choose the newest cultivars or craziest colors. Plants that are considered tough in their original “un bred” state, can become extremely finicky when you get into the special cultivars. An example of this is Echinacea, look through any catalog and you will find dozens of colors and bloom styles. Although the Native Echinacea purpurea is a “bomb proof” plant perfectly suited to the harshest conditions you can throw at it, almost all of the new cultivars are extremely finicky and have little resistance to all but the most controlled garden environments. These finicky cultivars should be avoided until you have a good idea of the space you are gardening, if some “old school” flowers survive and flourish in the location, then, and only then should you consider adding some flair.

Plant acquisition is a surprisingly straight forward task, step one is taking all of the plant magazines you receive in the mail and throw them straight in the garbage. Plant porn has no place here! Step two is being patient, greenhouses and box stores order much more stock than they could ever possibly get rid of. Given the recent surge in dumpster diving hipster trendiness, dumpsters are being padlocked or waste stored indoors until right before pick-up. My suggestion to you is to find a manager and ask if he would be willing to sell you any plants destined for the dumpster at a discounted rate. More often than not they will be happy to do this, and will typically let things go for pennies on the dollar. This method is typically most effective in the off-season, in the peak sales season discounts are much less due to demand.


“Single Red” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – With bulb planting season mistakenly thought of as being only the month of October… Discounts can be found anywhere that stocks them…

Guerrilla gardening often forces a gardener to perpetually study plants, in doing so we often learn tricks pertaining to specific plants and planting methods. Fruit trees for example can be bought for next to nothing anytime other than early spring, I am always asked if it is possible to plant a fruit tree in the middle of Summer… Of course you can… If the choice comes down to leaving a tree in a pot until spring or just planting it as soon as possible… The answer will always be plant it…

For my permaculture based article on rehabilitating discount plants click here

Seeds are another method of getting plants, about mid-summer the prices drop to next to nothing. Not many people realize it, but seed packets have expiration dates on them. A secret about that date is it is really only there to force the stores to buy new seeds each year, think of it as a sell by date. Although seeds lose viability with age, many are perfectly viable long after the expiration date.

The last source of plants I am going to quickly talk about is friends sharing. Gardeners are typically proud of what they have, many of us love our plants so much we won’t throw out our divisions. Those divisions often only cost the time it takes to tour a garden, an early lesson you will learn is people like to share plants. Trading can also be effective, always have a few divisions potted up just in case opportunity comes calling… A plant given away today often returns ten fold in the future…

The next few chapters will each deal with different types of plants and their uses in the guerrilla garden…

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 – Or you can contact me directly at for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Site Selection


“Comfrey Flower on Blight” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – I have removed enough Comfrey to know better than to plant it in my own yard… So I grow it in front of abandoned houses and just cut what I need…

Site Selection

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

Site selection is typically the easiest part of the whole process, in my experience, the site chooses me. My efforts are a direct protest to abandoned homes and lots sprinkled around my neighborhood, for this reason I tend to already have a good idea what my next target will be well in advance of actually beginning any work. Though the locations may be different, they all require the same few things – Water, soil, sunlight and access… Though access can often be worked around with a little ingenuity and a few seed bombs.

The very first thing you need to do is determine whether you intend to plant ornamental flowers, or vegetables for consumption. Ornamental gardens are meant to be seen, they are typically placed in public places where they can be enjoyed by the masses. Food crops on the other hand may be best suited away from the publics eye. This is not always the case of course… But if your garden is not directly visible from your house, it is typically the best practice.

Ornamental guerrilla gardens are often created as a civil means of protest against blighted land, for this reason they are typically planted in high visibility areas. Sometimes the point of the garden is simply to inspire other people to consider gardening in places that one would not normally consider, abandoned houses, street berms, hell strips, vacant lots, even potholes can be gardened. In my mind, simply mowing the lawn of land that you do not own is considered guerrilla gardening.

Food gardens tend to invite more trouble than their counterparts, for this reason alone I feel they should be relatively difficult to see from the road. Now I’m not saying you should build a ten foot privacy fence, I am saying you should plant anything that can become a projectile away from the street. Tomatoes can become a big problem if the kids decide to throw them at cars, a single Sungold tomato plant produces so much fruit that the kids will be entertained for hours… And not in a good way.

I typically prefer to develop entire lots when it comes to food, who wants to grow just a few tomato plants when you can grow one hundred! I like to fill the first twenty feet of the lot with tall ornamental plants, this is an attempt to shield the food from people passing by. Not every community is like mine, some are much more receptive to street side gardening. The temperament of the kids can vary from street to street, and every location will have its own issues. If you are new to a neighborhood, a quick conversation with your neighbors can often give some clues as to how receptive a neighborhood may be.


“Salvaged Grape Arbor” – Whitney Avenue Urban Farm – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – The posts were very old grape vines that we cut out of the trees… The ladders were pulled from the trash… The crazy piece of wood I found on a job… Niagara Seedless and Concord Grapes…

Guerrilla food gardens are often created not with the intention of just feeding oneself, but sometimes to supplement the nutritional needs of an entire neighborhood. In this case, planting your crops in plain view can often be the best practice. Simply sharing your garden with all the inhabitants on the street increases the amount of eyes that will be watching the garden. You would be surprised how effective having a few older residents on your side can be, there is nothing scarier than a pissed off old lady moving full speed towards you. Security often costs just a few tomatoes or a bundle of greens, it can’t get any better than that.

Chances are pretty good that if you are reading this post, then you already have a site in mind. Long term guerrilla efforts require ease of access, gardens placed out-of-the-way tend to suffer. Food gardens require a lot more maintenance that flowers, for this reason a food garden will get much more attention if you regularly pass it and should therefore be planted as close to home as possible. Ornamental gardens on the other hand can go weeks without human intervention, for this reason they can often be maintained from a much further distance.

Some cities have organized groups that go out and garden, these can be great places to meet like-minded people. Other cities may have a few individuals fighting their own campaigns, slowly greening an urban lot at a time… I fall in to the second group… My efforts are typically solo, or with the help of a neighborhood kid or two. For that reason I choose my sites within a few block radius.

Street sides and public places add a level of excitement to the mix, nothing gets the heart pumping like the threat of a trespassing and vandalism charge. Choose a site with easy access, a carefully parked car can offer some protection from prying eyes and out of control vehicles. Make a plan before you get the shovels out, the last thing you want to do is stand there shuffling plants around. Sometimes, design gets thrown out the window in preference of speed, for this reason it is worth making a game plan before you get to your location. A guerrilla gardener should not be noticed by people, a guerrilla garden campaign lasts longest when the gardener is invisible.

To wrap this post up… Probably the single greatest variable will be the gardens neighbors… Sometimes they will be receptive, often they will not. You would be surprised how many urbanites like having an overgrown vacant lot next door, for many of them this is as close to living near nature as they can get. Be patient when dealing with these types of people, remember that although you think you are doing something good for your community, not everyone is going to see it that way.

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- Or you can contact me directly at for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Practical Permaculture – Native Gardening in Urban Settings


“Common Tansy” – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – Not exactly a native… But has existed in America for well over 200 years…

Permaculture, is far from being the work free style of gardening it is often mistaken to be. All too often, people plug “weed free” or “no weed” gardening into google, and up pops permaculture. So now, when the neighbor confronts said gardener about the newly created “wild area” next door to his house, the gardener claims permaculture, and in turn we all get a bad reputation.

Native, pollinator, butterfly and wildlife gardening can border on the obscene as well. Though many of these styles of gardening work with many of the native plants that we consider weeds, years of experience are often required to know the difference between a beneficial weed, and an exotic invasive when these plants are still seedlings.

Biodiversity is not an excuse for never maintaining your yard, all too many people move from sparsely populated rural areas into urban communities not understanding the difference in the landscape expectations of neighbors. As a general rule of thumb, your landscape should fit in with that of your neighbors to a certain degree… I am going to go out on a ledge and say it should compliment it… While still maintaining a certain level of originality…


“Aster Sunshine” – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – Commonly found growing in fields across America… A plant that can be mowed to the ground 3 or even 4 times a year and still profusely bloom come fall…

When you go out into the country and look at rarely maintained fields, the plants grow 5-6′ tall. I think this is what some people aim to create in their front yards, sadly, this is not acceptable in most urban and suburban communities, but that does not mean it is impossible. Many natives can be planted and used just like the commercial annuals and perennials commonly found in every neighborhood in America.

The idea here is to use informal native plants, in a formal way. Mix native plants with commercially available ornamental perennials, if you have gaps, fill them with a few annuals. Give everything a place, and maintain as you would any garden.

Plants that are typically thought of as being very tall, aster, ironweed, milkweed, and goldenrod can all be maintained to a specific height. Asters should actually be cut down to 10″ on July 4th to keep them in check. Goldenrod can be cut several times in a season, Every cut will create more branches and ultimately more flowers. As a general rule, all tall flowering perennials can be pruned throughout the year in order to create a more compact plant during flowering. Awareness of the specific flowering times is key, allow a minimum of 3 weeks between last pruning and actual time of flowering. This is in order to allow the plant to recover from the stresses of pruning.

Although a front yard wildlife habitat may sound like a swell idea to you, the sad fact of the matter is to most other people that sounds like your saying you are planning a “rodent haven”. Very few people understand the importance of wildlife in our urban environments, though as time goes on I believe people will pay more attention to it… Though I still believe people will not want to exactly live next door to one if they purchased a city home anyway.


“Black Eyed Explosion” – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – A voracious self seeder… Will populate an entire yard if left unchecked… Stunning when grown in combination with a dark blue Aster…

I contemplated creating a massive list of native plants and how to maintain them, but I have more readers in merry ol’ England than in my hometown of Pittsburgh, so I have decided against that. What I will say is this… The use of natives is not an excuse to not maintain, native plants have qualities unique to themselves that should be highlighted when appropriate.

Although many natives will self-seed, this is not always recommended in order to keep the plant from growing out of hand. Some natives, like milkweed, have seeds that are meant to blow away and grow somewhere else. Unless you are absolutely positive your neighbor wouldn’t mind it growing in their yard, it is probably in your best interest to dead-head the plant before it sets seed. Likewise, when the plant is done flowering and starting to die in place, it is also probably in your best interest to remove the dying plant… This war is going to be won by compromise, not shock-and-awe…

In the long run, I do not believe the “Food not Lawns” movement is going to work, the amount of work that goes into keeping a food-producing garden neat, tidy and presentable all the time is enormous. We have all driven through a meticulously maintained neighborhood and seen a single yard with 6′ tall weeds all the way out to the street. If you talk to the neighbors, it is a nuisance. That one yard has been the reasoning behind more than one neighborhood association start up, often ending the possibilities of front yard gardening for at least the immediate future.

This, by no means is the end of the movement… But I think it is a very unrealistic concept… Compared to mowing a lawn once every 2 weeks, maintaining a food garden/urban farm is a huge task. Likewise, not many people realize how many problems can arise from growing food on every square inch of your garden. Biodiversity, being the common goal, includes more than just food. Creating a diverse food garden involves a number of other types of plants including natives, annuals, and other ornamental trees and shrubs.

A diverse garden does not have to be a wall of weeds, study the plants you would like to plant, and use them properly. I also recommend identifying all of the weeds that grow in your yard, inventory, and act accordingly. Exotic invasive weeds should be pulled and discarded, natives should be moved into suitable locations. Certain plants, like milkweed, can grow 7′ tall and should be placed in the back of the garden. The same rules that apply to ornamental garden design and maintenance, also apply to the eco conscience gardener… If anything, we should be held to higher standards as we are at the forefront of a movement. How we handle our gardens now, will have an effect on how gardens in the future are accepted…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

I am not affiliated with anyone other than myself, all the information presented in this blog is provided by me… If you find this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print or two from my online shop…

http://www.society6/chriscondello… Or you can contact me directly at for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Practical Permaculture – Caring for Herbaceous Perennials


“My Walkway” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Heliopsis literally means sun “helios” appearance “opsis” in Greek…

July is the time of the year I switch out of planting mode… Although I will still do some planting as the summer progresses to fall… My main priority is now focusing on maintenance…

As with any plant… Perennials have their likes and dislikes… Some are more adaptive than others… However… For the best results… Provide a perennial with its preferred growing conditions, paying particular attention to the soil type and sun exposure. Water your perennial beds if rainfall is scarce… Mulch the soil well to retain moisture, slow down weeds, and keep the flowers and foliage free of dirt. Fertilization should also be considered, it should be done once or twice a year for best results.

Once you have provided the ideal growing conditions for your perennial plants, and annuals for that matter, there is little else you can do for your plants. Perennials are not difficult to grow, but they will be extremely rewarding for years to come if you just take a few simple steps to ensure that they look and perform their best.


“Brightening Blight” – © chriscondello 2013 – The Garden Table Urban Garden – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Daylily are not the fastest selling plant a nursery typically stocks… It is not uncommon to purchase a potted plants that is so root bound it appears as if the soil is gone… The secret to dividing this plant is to put the root ball on the ground… And with some pressure roll it back and forth… This will typically untangle the root mass in just a few moments…


Some perennials need to be staked so they grow straight and tall instead of flopping over on their neighbors. Staking also prevents plants from being broken by the wind and rain or weighted to the ground with heavy blossoms. The staking method should depend on the form of the plant. The best stakes are inconspicuous and easy to install… Green or brown material look best. Position the stakes early, before the plant needs them, so the foliage grows up and around the stake, making it inconspicuous.

Tall plants with slender, unbranched flower stalks, like foxglove and Delphinium, call for individual stakes to support each stem. Drive a bamboo or wooden stake into the ground besides the stem and loosely fasten the stem to the stake with a loop of twine. As the plant grows, add more ties at one foot intervals. The length of the stake should be three-quarters of the plants final height.

Clump-forming plants with many bushy, branched stems, such as aster, Shasta daisy, and chrysanthemum, can be supported with a ring of twine that’s attached to three to five steaks positioned around the clump. As the plant grows, add higher rings of twine in one foot intervals. The stems and flowers will bend outward and rest on the twine, covering it naturally. As another alternative, support the plants with small, twiggy branches cut from small trees or shrubs, a strategy called pea staking, or brush staking.

Staking your plants really isn’t an exact science, tons of products are available on the market including many “tomato-cage” style products. In all honesty, the tomato cages bought at the store are great for staking herbaceous perennials and annual flowers… But not tomatoes… My favorite tomato cage product is heavy-duty rebar mesh available at any construction supply store. This stuff is heavy-duty, will last five to ten years, and is tall enough to actually support a tomato plant throughout the entire year.


“Tomato Soup” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Once established… These plants are extremely drought-resistant thanks to the fact that this plant can send a rather beefy taproot deep into the soil… I have seen Echinacea grow upwards of four-feet tall when grown in more shade than sun…

Cutting Back and Pruning

You can help tall, lanky plants grow more compactly and possibly avoid the need for staking by pinching them back. In spring, when summer bloomers such as balloonflowers or milky bellflowers are about eight inches tall, break off the growing tip of each stem by snapping it between your fingers or cutting it with handheld shears.

Late-summer and fall-blooming plants, such as asters, can be cut back twice. To make them bushier and lower, cut them back by half… First when they are four inches tall and again at sixteen inches tall. Chrysanthemums need to be pinched at two-week intervals until midsummer for prolific blooming and to keep them compact… Simply use your fingers to break off the tips of the stems above the first or second set of leaves.

You may also want to prune back some perennials after they bloom to tidy up or simply reduce their height. If a plants foliage looks shabby from mildew or exhausted after blooming. Cut it back to the base as long as you see new growth. The new stems will produce healthy, fresh foliage. Use hedge shears to cut back masses of stems and foliage.

Pinch or rub off side flower buds or branches of perennials such as peony, chrysanthemum, and hibiscus to channel the plants energy into a few large blossoms rather than numerous small ones. Remove the extras while they are mere suggestions of buds. This debudding practice creates larger, showier blossoms.


“Anne Arett” – © chriscondello 2013 – Micro Hosta – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – So my girlfriend and I collect Hosta… But we especially love the mini and micro varieties… This particular flower is from the “Anne Arett” Variety… It is lime green… And the leaves are thin and frazzled like the famous “Electrocution” variety… Which we also grow…


After perennials bloom, cut off faded flowers or flower stalks unless they will produce decorative seed heads. Deadheading keeps the garden tidy and directs the plants energy into its roots and leaves than into seed formation. If you are trying to propagate your plants, let them go to seed and do nothing… Nature will take over… Cut leafy flower stems right above the foliage for a neat appearance… Cut off leafless stems at ground level.

Removing spent flowers encourages more flowers… For example, pinching off the blossoms of balloonflower and coreopsis as they fade encourages more flowers to appear on the same stems, lengthening the blooming period. Cutting off the entire spent flower head on garden phlox or delphinium encourages side branches with a flush of new flowers a month after the first. If you don’t know if a plant will rebloom after deadheading, try it for crying out loud… That’s how I’m learning… Oh yeah… Then send me an email…


“Green Jewel” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – An all green variety of Echinacea… Just one of the many colors of Echinacea that are being released every year…

Dividing Perennials

Most perennials, with a few exceptions, slowly decline in vigor unless they are divided every few years. Plant division rejuvenates the plant, and it provides more plants. Replant the divisions near one another so they make a dramatic drift. Or, plant them in a different location and establish a new bed.

As a general rule of thumb, divide spring-blooming plants immediately after they flower. Divide summer and fall bloomer in early spring when they have around three inches of fresh top growth. However, in the south, southwest, and Midwest, it’s advantageous to divide spring and summer bloomers in the fall so they can readjust in the cooler weather as opposed to the blistering heat associated with summer in these particular localities. Wherever you live, divide plants at least four weeks before stressful weather arrives, so their roots can have a chance to resume normal growth.

Some plants, such as Shasta daisy and chrysanthemum, have shallow, fibrous root systems. Once the clump is dug up, you can pull it apart into many sections with your hands. Other plants, such as astilbe, have tough, woody roots that grow in a tangled mass. Study the top growth to locate the individual crowns, then drive the tip of a spade between the crowns, cutting the clump into sections.

To minimize the damage to the root systems of fleshy-rooted plants such as daylily and hosta, use garden forks to divide them. Insert the forks back-to-back in the middle of the clump, then pull the forks outward, prying the clump into two pieces.

Fast growing plants will need to be divided more frequently than slow growers. A plant’s appearance tells you when it needs dividing. A clump resembling a doughnut, with active growth on the outer edges, but a dead center… Needs to be divided.

Before replanting the divisions, replenish the nutrients in the soil. Fork over the soil and add organic material if available… Basically, just don’t put the plant back in the same soil that caused the problem. Plant divisions as soon as possible to protect them from drying air and sun. If you can replant immediately, “heel in” the division in a temporary site or a pot… Covering the roots lightly with moist soil… Until you can plant… Water newly planted divisions and mulch the soil around them…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

I now have prints available to purchase online… You can find them here – – This site… And all the photographs and information presented within… Are provided free by the author… Me… At one time I had considered asking for donations… But that’s not me… So I have decided to sell prints of some of my photography… It is by no means a requirement… But it helps… If you have a few minutes to check them out… Then by all means… Please do…

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Practical Permaculture – Water In Your Garden


This is a screen shot from Google Earth… Forest County, PA… And all of those lines leading to the little dots… Well those are gas wells… Enough said… But wait… This is a State Park… And only a single county out of 67… Think about it for a minute… Then think about the impact this has on not only the water… But the entire ecosystem… This… To me… Is sacrilegious…

Water is probably the most valuable natural resource available on our planet, it is irreplaceable. Whiskey is worth drinking, but water is worth fighting for. It reminds me of a meme that was circulating around Facebook a while back… Basically a young shirtless boy standing in the desert with a completely disgusted look on his face… The caption was simply “You mean to tell me, you have so much clean water… That you shit in it!” My answer to this meme is simple… Yes… And not only do we shit in it… We mix it with noxious chemicals… Inject it into the ground under extreme pressure… And fracture equally noxious gasses out of the ground so we can burn them in order to heat our McMansions… We just have that much…

Now… I’m not saying you have to donate all of your money to your local water conservation non-profit in order to be eco-conscious… In fact… I think just the opposite… I actually believe that is the exact opposite of eco-conscious… Maybe… Executively-conscious… But not ecologically conscious… I don’t give a rats ass what anyone says… That is just how I see it… With that said… I believe awareness is key… An awareness of the resources available to us on this earth… An awareness of the delicate connections we have to the earth… And the connections the earth has to each and every element it contains… To think that the removal of one of those elements does not drastically effect all of the other elements in the system is a failure of paramount proportions… Respect people…

With that said… Water is an essential element in gardening, it is what makes our plants grow. Even plants that do not require you to physically irrigate, are getting water somehow. The most common mistake I see people make in their gardens is not watering often enough, or even more common, not deeply enough. Another common mistake is thinking your plants will benefit from a little drink every once in a while…


“Swimmers” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Dyed puddle, bleeding hearts and reflection – I have shot bleeding hearts from every angle imaginable… This has been my favorite angle so far…

You know… I could go on and on about my peeves… Lets get to the good stuff…

A plant does not benefit from a little drink every once in a while, you should always water your plants thoroughly. A plant grows roots partly for the purpose of attaining water from the ground, the reason you should water your plants deeply is to promote deep root growth. If you only give your plants light sprays with the hose, your plant will only be looking for water at the surface of your soil. If water is regularly available in the top 4″ of soil, your plants will have no reason to send roots deep into the ground. The idea behind watering your garden is to establish your plants, once they are established they will only need watered in the driest of times. You water in the beginning, so you don’t have to water in the future.

The time of day that you water can have some differing effects, but as a general rule of thumb watering your garden during the hottest part of the day is probably the least efficient use of your water. Water at a time of the day that will allow the water to penetrate the soil before it has a chance to evaporate, as long as the sun is not baking the earth around your plant… you should be fine… Just remember your plants do not immediately absorb the water you apply, it takes time. Evening is also a good time to water, but you can run the risk of disease or mildew. I personally prefer early morning because it tends to give my plants that added energy they need to make it through the sunniest of days with as little stress as possible… But that is just my preference…

But Chris, how long do I water my garden for? I mean… Exactly how long?.. I was worried you would ask me that… Ok… As a basic guideline… Water your plants directly at the base of the plant, do not soak the plant as a whole as this will promote disease. Annuals should be watered every day for the first week after planting, count to 5 for each plant. After the first week, water 2 to 3 times a week for the next two weeks. If your annuals survive the first month in the ground, you will only have to water once a week if it doesn’t rain.

© chriscondello 2013

“Evening Storm” – © chriscondello 2013 – Conceptual Composition – My Backyard – Wilkinsburg, PA – Call this what you will… But to me… This photograph is like a painting… Blue Salvia as my canvas… And Golden Heuchera my medium… Taken in the evening light accompanying a storm…

Perennials, shrubs and trees do not need watered nearly as much, a week or two of regular watering is often enough to get the plant off to a good start… These types of plants typically have bigger roots stuffed into bigger pots, accordingly they require a bit more water, think along the lines of 10 to 20 seconds of direct watering per plant… Newly planted trees can often require a little more water, I will leave the water on them for up to a minute… Again, once a perennial or tree has resumed natural growth, you are not doing it any favors by watering it… You really want the plant to learn to take care of itself… We don’t breastfeed indefinitely… So don’t water indefinitely… You should be working to water your garden less… Not more…

Slope can greatly decrease water absorption, the faster the water moves down hill the less the soil can absorb. One solution is to slow the rate of speed at which your water flows downhill, think miniature swale. If slowing the rate at which your water flows downhill is not an option, water very slowly by applying water a little at a time directly above your target plant. You should be able to watch the water slowly absorb into the earth, any excess will be evident by the stream running away from your plants. This may seem like a lot of work, it is important to remember that once your plants are established and growing normally… You can quit watering…

Sourcing water is another question I am commonly asked, usually along the lines of rain water vs. city water. Without going into science stuff… And based on common sense alone… What do you think?.. To me, the obvious answer is rain water is better. City water is filtered using chlorine among many other chemicals, rain water is filtered by nature… That’s a “no brainer” as far as I am concerned… But I’m also a realist, rain water is not always available. I can run my single rain barrel dry in a few days when the weather is dry, at that point I will switch over to city water… I mean… I drink the stuff… And bathe in it… If it’s good enough for me… Then it’s good enough for my plants…


“Nine Mile Run” – © chriscondello 2013 – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – Nine Mile Run in Frick Park… Basically a collection of storm water from 3 communities… Storm water does not get treated in any way… It is released into your favorite creek… And typically flows right back into our drinking water supply…

Rainwater collection is a massive topic that has warranted entire books to be written about the subject, I’m going to give it a paragraph or two. Rain barrels have recently come into style, they can be cheaply purchased at just about any big box store in the world. I see them all over my neighborhood thanks to a local non-profit working to restore Frick Park’s Nine Mile Run… Which happens to be a place I regularly work in, and is the location of many of the photographs contained within this website… Anyway… The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association made them very cheap and readily available through a program they offer… I consider this non-profit one of the good guys, I feel we play for the same team.

The point I want to make is that these rain barrels do nothing if you do not utilize the sweet rainwater that they collect, I can’t begin to tell you how many of these barrels become nothing more than an intermediate reservoir between your gutter, and the very drain the barrel was intended to bypass in the first place. Think about it like this… 1 inch of rainfall… Falling on an area of 1000 square feet… Will produce 600 gallons of water… Most commercial rain barrels are around 100 gallons, everything beyond that 100 gallons is expelled out of the overflow system. Rain barrels need to be used…

A good rain barrel tip I can offer from experience… Do not place a rain barrel directly on the ground, it needs to be elevated by as much as you safely can. The water level of your barrel needs to at least be higher than the height of the hose in your hand, while standing, just to give you enough pressure to get a trickle. Even if you placed your rain barrel on your roof, you would not get water pressure anywhere close to what you get out of your faucet or garden hose. I have no idea what the math for this one is, I just know someone much smarter than me explained it… And it sounded good… So… Just don’t expect to blast the bird crap off your car with your rain barrel, unless you get a pump…

So if you have replaced all of your down spouts with rain barrels… And you are watering your gardens as much as possible… After all… You just have a tiny urban garden… Well then you might as well dig a rain garden… Route all of your overflow valves to the garden… And let the rain garden do the rest of the work… I have written about rain gardens before… And will be writing more about them in the coming months… But for now… Check out this link…

To sum this article up… Water your plants thoroughly… And deeply… The idea of watering your plants is to stimulate deep root growth… If water is regularly available at the surface… It won’t stimulate deep root growth… Water from the base of your plants because unlike us… Plants do not require showers… Use rainwater as long as you have it… But don’t be afraid if your only other option is tap water… And experimentation with rain water collection and dispersal is a good thing… People should consider rain water one of the great yield possibilities of the garden…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – How To Buy Plants


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.


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 – Gardening In The Shade


Bleeding Hearts, formerly known as “Dicentra spectabilis”. But based on our recent ability to see plants on a molecular level, the name has been changed to “Lamprocapnos spectabilis”.

Let me start this off by saying I love shade gardens, and I love my ornamental plants. I believe that it is important for me to note that although permaculture is primarily focused on food production, a true permaculturist understands the importance of promoting all forms of gardening regardless of yield. As far as permaculture promotion is concerned, the last thing on earth we want to do is exclude all of the flower gardeners from the mix… They play an important role in pollinator promotion and I think as permaculturists we should promote ornamental gardeners as well…

All too often shady spaces are cursed by gardeners, it can seem like anything you try to grow fails. Grass fails to grow properly, and the common plants found at the big box stores grow poorly and discourage interest. This unfortunate, but common situation could have been avoided had proper shade loving plants been chosen. Many plants have evolved over time to prosper in low light by developing delicate, thin leaves that efficiently absorb whatever sun falls on them.

When filled with cool flowers and foliage spread out below an interesting tree canopy, a shade garden can be the most beautiful spot in your yard. It is important to remember when learning to garden in the shade, not all shade is created equal. Figure out exactly which type of shade you’re dealing with, because the type of shade will ultimately affect the variety of plants you can grow.


“Tricyrtis formosana” or Toad Lilies prefer shade or part shade and grow naturally at the edge of forests.

Deep shade is all day shade where no direct sunlight hits the ground; this often occurs under heavily foliated trees. Deep shade may be dry or moist depending on whether the trees are surface-rooted or deep-rooted. Fewer plants thrive in this type of shade, especially if dry, than in brighter conditions.

Part shade means shade for part of the day with direct sunlight during the other part. Many sun-loving plants bloom well in part shade because they receive from four to six hours of direct sun each day, though they may not perform as well as in all day sun. Morning shade followed by afternoon sun may be too hot for many shade plants, causing them to wilt in the heat. But the cooler morning sun with afternoon shade is good for many shade loving plants.

Light shade occurs under an open branched tree canopy where spots of sunshine filter to the ground in a constantly shifting play of shadows, a wide selection of plants prosper in filtered shade.

Open shade occurs on the north side of a building where no direct sunlight falls, but where light may be reflected to the ground from surrounding walls. Open shade often remains damp, unless the building creates a rain shadow and blocks rainfall from reaching the ground. This is a very common urban garden problem, usually requires one to get creative.

"Arisaema triphyllum" - Jack-in-the-pulpit

“Arisaema triphyllum” – Jack-in-the-pulpit

Many shaded locations are cool and damp, but some are actually dry. Upon close examination you may discover that certain shady spots in your yard have poor, dry soil because your trees have surface roots that suck up all the available surface moisture and nutrients. A thick canopy of tree leaves may worsen the problem, acting like an umbrella and deflecting rain from the ground beneath. Lack of moisture, not lack of light, often proves to be the culprit when shade loving plants fail to grow in their prefered habitat.

Dry, root-clogged soil feels and looks hard and compacted; when you try to dig a hole with a shovel, it can’t easily penetrate the ground. If you discover that the soil in your potential shade garden is hard and compacted, try digging in lots of organic matter, like rotted manure or compost, as long as you don’t mess with the major tree roots the tree will not suffer.

Where digging will tamper with tree roots, spread a layer of topsoil no more than 4 inches deep over the ground. Cover this layer with a 2 inch mulch of chopped-up leaves, which will decompose into a rich humus. Anything deeper than this could smother the roots. Earthworms will eventually move into the decomposing leaves, further speeding the decomposition, and also burrow into the harder subsoil beneath the topsoil, making it easier to garden. Where shallow-rooted trees pose a problem, you will be waging a continuous battle and will need to replenish your mulch every once in a while.

When gardening in dry shade under a tree, water regularly and deeply during the summer months. Where you might normally apply an inch of water a week to satisfy your garden needs,  you may need to apply 2 or even 3 inches of water to compensate for the water absorbed by the tree. Many plants will adapt to the dry shade after a year of stabilization, if you can water regularly for a year you can usually garden under a tree.

Shade loving plants do not usually bloom as abundantly as sun lovers, perhaps as an energy-conserving measure, but you can enjoy a variety of flowers in the shade by choosing the right kinds. however, your shade garden will rely upon an assortment of beautiful foliage plants for much of its allure. You can brighten up the shadows of your garden using a few simple tricks.

"Trillium erectum var. album" - The white flowered form of Red Trillium...

“Trillium erectum var. album” – The white-flowered form of Red Trillium…

– Grow lots of plants with white-variegated leaves or white or pastel flowers, brighter colors tend to glow in the shade.

– Dark red and purple flowers tend to recede into the dimness, they should be used sparingly.

– Brighten open shade along buildings by painting walls in bright reflective colors.

– Use golden-leaved plants and those with yellow flowers to create the impression of a beam of sunshine scattered across the garden floor.

– Contrast plants with finely divided, fern-like leaves with those featuring big, tropical-looking leaves to add excitement and drama.

I am a man who really enjoys ornamental flowers and understands the importance of a diverse eco-system. As a master gardener, I know many people who have beautiful and beneficial ornamental only gardens, but have no interest whatsoever in growing food; to exclude them from the mix would be a kick in the nuts to the principles of permaculture. To expect the world to conform to us will ultimately lead to the failure of the movement… Ornamental plants need loving too!..

peace – chriscondello

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