Practical Permaculture – Breaking Ground on Another Urban Garden

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“Looking on from Rebecca Avenue” – The vacant lot from the street… Sidewalk in the foreground… The trees in the rear will be heavily trimmed this spring… There is a brick alley in the rear… And my very involved landlady owns the houses on either side of the lot…

So… I am excited to announce that after an entire year of observation and preparation, I will be breaking ground on a new guerrilla garden/farm here in Wilkinsburg, PA late this winter. Located roughly one block from my current garden (The Garden Table), this lot will focus on production as opposed to aesthetics. I intend to document every project I undertake, much of it will be shared through this blog.

As is my typical fashion, I intend to complete this project using very little money. That may not seem like a big deal, but given the fact that it typically takes $25,000 in grant money to get one of these things off the ground…  I think I’m doing pretty good so far… In fact, this will be the fourth vacant lot I have converted into a beautiful urban garden with a budget of basically nothing.

The lot itself is 60’W x 140’D, with a 4′ rise over the first 15′ of the lot. It was a relatively recent demolition, wood frame and sandstone foundation. As a result, the lot has not had a chance to become too overgrown. Myself, as well as the borough employees maintained the lot over the summer through regular mowing and litter removal. Although there are some invasive weeds growing throughout, I have managed to keep them to a minimum through regular removal.

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“The Garden Table” – This is where I went when I had to move Whitney Avenue Urban Farm… Now that it has filled up… I have found myself seeking a place to overflow… My new lot will be used for all of the food I want to grow… But can’t quite fit into one small lot…

As it sits today, the grass is mowed and the lot is clear. I have been dumping leaf and wood debris all summer, remediation will be performed throughout development. The front quarter of the property will be raised using salvaged foundation stones, the fill will be locally available compost created from the leaves collected from the streets of Wilkinsburg. Bricks are a constantly available resource in my neighborhood, so I intend to work with them as much as possible. It is always tough for me to speculate what materials I will find in the immediate area, for that reason my plans typically change throughout the course of construction.

Fruit producing trees will be planted throughout, underneath each of these trees will be appropriate guilds. Vegetables will be grown in both contained rows, and interspersed among other plants. The quarter of the lot closest to the street will be mainly ornamental, the purpose of which is to make people driving by turn and take notice. The top of the slope will be a line of dogwood and redbud trees, which will also help in privatizing the rear of the garden from the road.

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“Whitney Avenue Urban Farm” – You are looking at one year of work… This farm lasted two growing seasons before I moved it… But I did… Brick by brick… Roughly two blocks away to The Garden Table…

Just to give you an idea of some of the things I will be including… Fruit trees will be (but not limited to) plum, pear, peach, apple, cherry, serviceberry and figs… The figs will be surrounded by south-facing keyhole style gardens to protect during the coldest months… Blueberries, currants, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries will be sporadically placed… Rows will be cut and vegetables will be numerous… I’m hoping to get into bees… The gutters from the neighboring houses will be collected or diverted into the garden… The lot also has a run-off issue towards the street… I intend to fix this with a bioswale… Everything on site will be recycled and locally scavenged… All plants will be personally propagated or donations from friends…

The food grown will be made available to locals on a (as long as you don’t steal it all) basis… As always… Volunteers always get first dibs… As of right now… I am the only person signed on… Though I do have a friend who is interested in helping… Regardless… I will be planting fruit trees come the thaw…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Last Confession

Front entrance to The Garden Table

Its been a few days… Since my last confession… Past life lessons… Are my new obsession…

Just need to let it go… Gotta set the record straight… The gardens that I grow… Are never second-rate…

I’m gonna grow love… And I’m gonna grow friends… I’ll prove you wrong… I’ll break the trends…

Never go under a rainbow… Always go through… Why go alone… When I can bring you…

Don’t get caught in the dark… Without a bright candle… Make art on the street… And get labeled a vandal…

I miss my secret garden… Miss my special place… This year I build one for me… My hidden garden of grace…

Don’t ask where it’s at… Please don’t try to look… Remember that my queen… Always trumps your rook…

I’ll grow aromatic herbs… Directly where I walk… When I grow beans… I get a magic stalk…

We can climb to the top… Get high in a cloud… It’s been a long time… Since I’ve made someone proud…

So I’ll work on the old… And start the new… Whether or not… I have permission from you…

peace – chriscondello

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Practical Urban Permaculture – Part 5 – Keeping Things Tidy

Permaculture is starting to get a bad name in so many places, it is always associated with sky-high weeds, overgrown and un-pruned plants, bugs, and the most dangerous creature in the landscape… Hippies! But it doesn’t have to be like this, you can still do permaculture and keep things neat and tidy…

Certain neighborhood have rules that you probably agreed to prior to moving in, if you would have read those rules you probably would have noticed the part about what is appropriate and what is not in a front yard… usually someone has thought of the idea that someone, someday would attempt to put an urban farm on their lot… Sometimes beating them at their own game is a lot more fun than going to court…

  • A food forest does not have to exactly match the criteria of a forest, a few specially selected fruit or nut trees, when planted in a nicely prepared garden space, with a few beneficial perennials planted underneath of it… Well that my friends… That is essentially a “food forest”. You can keep the space directly underneath of the trees meticulously maintained and it is still essentially a food forest.
  • Many greens when creatively planted, look great and provide food. Kale and swiss chard, especially the “bright lights” variety are stunning plants. These could be integrated into any mixed species garden very few people would even notice, at least not without a close inspection. Many of these greens will produce for at least 8 months out of the year, providing healthy greens for all but the coldest months.
  • Many root crops not only benefit the soil, but the tops of the plants sometimes look great as well. Beets are one of my favorite, the leaves almost always look somewhat interesting. Kohlrabi is a very interesting plant, it can look great in the front of a garden. Be creative with what you plant, and instead of planting vegetables in a straight row… create an ornamental bed, then slowly integrate vegetables into the mix… Cabbage is another cool one…
  • Okra is an incredible plant that is in the same family as hibiscus, the plant grows up to five feet tall and has incredible flowers. When the plant is left standing the dried seed pods ass interest to the landscape throughout the winter, if you leave the plant it will self seed itself in the spring.
  • Leave the tomatoes in the backyard… Tomatoes are rarely a “nice” looking plant, they should probably always be planted somewhere out of sight… At least in my opinion that is… Tomatoes are that one vegetable plant that almost anyone can identify, the idea of what you are doing is to show people that what you are doing can “fit in” with their landscape… This is NOT a shock and awe campaign!
  • Many zucchini and squash can be planted in the same way you would plant elephant ears, use it in a place that could use a little vertical height… Stay away from pumpkins and winter squash that are the Vining variety, the last thing you will need is a 75′ pumpkin vine growing into your neighbors property… Stick to the tried and true bushing varieties, or zucchini… “Costata Romanesco” has incredibly giant leaves, and the fruit is the best zucchini I have ever tasted… Low water
  • Any and all herbs look great in the landscape, plant them by your walkway and rub your hands through them on your way in the door. Basil is by far my favorite “landscape” plant, I love planting multiple varieties with different color leaves and flowers. Chives are companions to almost every plant, when they are in flower they fit right into any location I have ever seen them planted.

The point of all of this is because I don’t want people to get discouraged when their neighborhood association, or nosy neighbor tells them they do not want a permaculture garden in their neighborhood… It is a lot more common than you may think… Instead of getting discouraged, I want you to get creative.

Permaculture interests me because it is not a list of “finite” rules, some people try to make it like that… I think for profit purposes… But it is important to remember that “rules” it is not, it is ethics and principles that are meant to be adapted to whatever situation is at hand… However you choose to execute the principles is completely up to you…

permaculture = adaptation and survival – chriscondello

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The Garden Table Urban Garden in Wilkinsburg, PA

The Garden Table urban farm and garden located in Wilkinsburg, PA is meant to be an example of urban blight rehabilitation, with an emphasis on recycling and food production. We aim to prove that community gardens do not require deep pockets, only a little bit of ingenuity and creative resource management.

We strive to emphasize diversity in plant selection, highlighting plants that would not normally be incorporated into a community garden including ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers. We want to display all types of plants working in harmony, we are not creating a garden… we are creating a miniature ecosystem with the human element full integrated.

Community gardens should do more than yield food… They should be beautiful gathering places that yield friendship, peace and love.

The Garden Table has three main goals

  • To feed anyone who is willing to ask.
  • To educate anyone who is willing to listen.
  • To inspire anyone who is willing to grow.

So I recently became a Penn State Master Gardener and for my final project I worked with a team of other new graduates to green a vacant lot in Wilkinsburg, PA. We had problems from the start and in May we were still looking for a suitable lot, we finally received the ok to begin in June and hit the ground running. This post is meant to be an introduction to our garden paradise, I hope to be able to show you in person some day but for the time being, this will have to do.

Initially we had issues with our soil samples containing high levels of lead, we checked 5 or 6 lots and got denied on all of them… One of the lots had a lead level of 1558 ppm. It wasn’t until June that we found a lot that we could both sign a lease for and not have to live in fear of lead poisoning.

When we received word that we could start we brought out the chainsaw and spent a day cutting down trees and clearing brush, we were able to time this a day before our borough had its Spring cleanup so all we had to do was drag the debris to the street. This lot was also infested with garbage, bricks and concrete, we bagged and removed a few bags of garbage and sorted and inventoried the bricks and foundation sandstones… I re-used everything that I could…

We finally had enough built to start planting around the end of June, since then we have created a diverse mix of vegetables, herbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. I will go into great details about this garden in the future, this post is just an intro.

The garden has really blossomed from idea to reality faster than I ever could have imagined, it seems like we have been working on it for years but in reality its only been 5 months. We have a garden chef who has cooked the volunteers dinner every Thursday night we have had a work night, these work nights have become a favorite of our master gardeners and volunteers.

This garden year culminated in an open house and harvest party that was attended by 50 people, our garden chef cooked a feast, and plenty of other dishes were provided by the attendees. The entire evening despite having the first hour interrupted by rain, went off without a hitch to the delight of all involved.

I feel our garden produced the greatest yield I could have ever dreamed of, a close and well-balanced group of friends that plan to stick together through another year at The Garden Table. I will forever be grateful to this small group of master gardeners, whatever possessed them to join the crazy guys group from the hood is beyond me… I just hope they are happy with the great things we all accomplished together.

plants grow from my earth – I pick them to share with friends – friends grow from my plants. ~ Tony Condello ~

Peace – chriscondello

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My Constantly Changing Neighborhood

The ever-changing population of an urban neighborhood blows my mind, every six months it seems to change. I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in a very stable neighborhood and the people I grew up with stayed the same, in my new neighborhood people come and go in intervals, we have a few homeowners who remain constant but they are outnumbered by the renters.

In my old neighborhood every yard was well kept and the borough was well maintained, I think a big part of this is the permanence of home ownership as opposed to rental. People that are only going to be spending a small amount of time in a neighborhood don’t want to invest time or energy in making it look nice because they don’t “own” any of it, these are “small picture” thinkers that need to be awaken to the bigger picture.

I personally really enjoy gardening… I would need a 1000 acre farm to satisfy my appetite… I don’t have that now, and probably never will. The next best option I have is gardening vacant lots, they are wasted land and I find as long as I am willing to maintain the thing like it is a freaking botanical garden very few people mess with me.

When I first started urban farming/gardening I had absolutely no intention of involving a bunch of kids, they came out of the woodwork and had young blood energy they needed to burn off… I just gave them an outlet to vent. When the kids were around me they knew they could be themselves and could speak freely, they didn’t have to hold anything back and they didn’t. I truly believe this was one of the reasons I had any success at all while building Whitney Avenue Urban Farm, they could be themselves.

Sometimes the group of boys that helped me on the urban farm would have better thing to do than hang out with me, I never took this the wrong way and i never gave them a hard time about this. Kids interests have the ability to change at a moments notice, this is just something you will have to learn to live with. Anytime a new friend got thrown into the mix I never knew what to expect, usually it made them to cool to hang out with me… but they always came back.

I have been writing a blog for a little over a year now and it is amazing how much has changed since I started, none of the kids in my neighborhood are the same… except Brandon…  I still see Brandon from time to time due to him having a permanent and stable home and family, but his friends live further away and he is off being a kid. When he wants to come around he knows that he is always welcome, we will unconditionally accept him no matter what.

This past Summer has been one of big change as we now have a few empty apartments on our street, I am honestly both terrified and excited to see what we might get. On the one hand we could get another great group of people who had our neighborhood looking like a “front porch” neighborhood, or we could get a bunch of people who need awakened to the positive change that is going on around them.

Peace – chriscondello