Waiting for… Finding a Home…

"Waiting for a Home" - Soergel Orchards - Wexford, PA

“Waiting for a Home” – Soergel Orchards – Wexford, PA

I haven’t posted in a while… A life consumed… A life confirmed… For me…

In the meantime… I was interviewed for Ignite… Check it out right here

Red sky mourning… Red sky and the mourning doves…
Yellow leaves grace trees rising above…
Spring is a whimper… Summer is a reply…
Autumn is the way the seasons try to say goodbye…

Summer is falling… Fruit is rotting on the frozen ground…
Mourning doves fly through the winds winter bound…
Frozen time lost in the name of sleep…
When we wake the spring clouds will thunder and weep…

Winter is of the night… Winter is a time of passing…
Winds send the naked trees suddenly crashing…
Darkness lasts longer than the winter sun…
I am of the daylight… Together we are one…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – My 15 Minutes of Fame

A couple of years ago, my garden and neighborhood were included in a documentary called “In Transition 2.0”. The purpose of this movie is to promote the transition movement around the world. Although I am not personally involved in the movement, I started my first blog on the transitionpgh website and they were more than welcoming of me and my poor grammar skills. Throughout my entire experience dealing with those involved in the movement, I have had nothing but stellar experiences and I hold them, and the movement in the highest of regards..

Interestingly, the movie (in its entirety) has recently become available on youtube. Obviously, you can watch the entire movie. Or, you can skip to my part which starts at exactly 16:00 minutes in. I was unsure of posting this link as this garden is now gone… But… What the hell… I’m considering it promotion for my new project…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – Hugelkultur Modified for Urban Gardens


This was originally a fire pit, it was filled with rusty nails. When I started working on this bed there was a mass of sumac trees growing out of it. As I dug out the trees I realized the soil was junk, I moved most of it to an out of the way location. I then filled the hole in with wood, garden waste and soil. This was before I knew what hugelkultur was, I called it creative disposal back then…

Hugelkultur is a german term that basically translates to “mound culture”, it has been practiced in Eastern Europe for centuries. Hugelkultur is a sheet composting method that involves burying wood debris and organic matter under a mound of earth, the wood adds nutrients as it decomposes and helps retain moisture.

Ok… Allow me to speak openly about something… This is nothing new… People have been doing this for a very long time… It is a great way to get rid of a pile of wood… But… And I know this is going to break hearts… Hugelkultur is not a maintenance free garden that will never need food or weeding… Many of the people who get into permaculture get into it because they falsely believe that permaculture is an excuse for not maintaining their yard… Or they believe that they will just fill their entire yard with trees and food and never have to pull a weed or touch a shovel again… This is simply not the case…


This is a perfect example of hugelkultur integrated into a slope, this would be perfect in an urban landscape. The framework was made with the larger logs, then backfilled with smaller materials and soil…

So… As I’m writing this I am picturing the neighborhood I grew up in… Nice houses… Green… Perfectly maintained lawns and shrubs… Now I am picturing one of those homeowners erecting a massive hugelkultur mound in their front yard… When the neighbors complain… The excuse will be “It’s hugelkultur – Food not lawns”. Guess what people… There are more people who don’t want to maintain a front yard food forest than there are people who do… I’m just saying… Perspective…

With that said… Hugelkultur does not have to be intrusive… And it does not have to be unsightly. Mulch volcanoes are a common sight in suburbia, essentially too much mulch piled up around the base of a tree. If we take that already accepted landscape look and tweak it a little bit, we could easily create a beautiful and functional permaculture guild smack dab in the middle os suburbia.


This is the same bed as pictured above after completion, 3 service berries on a perfectly mulched mound… Beneficial plants will be added this spring and summer.

Pick a suitable location in your yard to plant a fruit tree, proper sunlight and space to grow are essential. Once you have chosen your location, cover the ground with cardboard in whatever shape you want your final bed to be. Begin stacking wood and organic matter in a circle, leaving the center open to accept your tree when you are ready to plant . As you place your wood, add soil or compost intermittently throughout the pile. If your neighborhood has some existing mulch volcanoes, base your size and shape off of them. When you have a nice pile, plant the tree in the hole you left in the pile… Do not plant the tree at ground level, the tree should be planted in the top of the pile.

Info on planting fruit trees – https://chriscondello.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/practical-permaculture-planting-and-early-care-of-fruit-trees/

The idea of this method is to slowly integrate permaculture into your neighborhood without waging a “shock and awe” campaign on your neighbors, this is almost always met with resistance and ultimately makes us look bad. Once your tree has been growing for a few weeks, then add a few beneficial perennials or a blueberry bush, just do it in moderation.

I recently got my hands on a really nice sized pile of dimensional, untreated black locust lumber. This wood had been stored on an organic farm for a long time and was well into the decomposition process. I will be using some for hugelkultur beds in a guerilla orchard I am building this summer, but I have been breaking it up and adding it to the soil all throughout my gardens as a beneficial mulch.


Apple and blueberry guild, this garden eats wood. I recently put these old semi-rotted boards down, the Sedum will grow over it in a month. I have been doing this for three years, I toss a lot of garden waste in this bed and it just disappears.

So this got me thinking, living in a very urban environment all of the soil around me is lifeless clay fill. To simply dig a hole in the earth and fill it with scrap wood and dead fall timber, Organic yard waste and compostable material… Add some dirt… And plant in the top… Well that my friends is essentially hugelkultur.

A common sight in the abandoned yards around my neighborhood are large piles of dead fall branches, simply pile leaves and dirt on top of one of these piles and plant something in them… The pile will usually disappear within a year or two… They also make great opportunities to guerilla garden pumpkin and squash, which seem to thrive in the nutrient rich piles. This is a technique I commonly use in abandoned yards where clean up time is not important, even fresh-cut piles of limbs can be stacked and planted in relatively short time.

Many of the suburban houses that are built today are built on some type of fill, to think that digging in your soil will disrupt the layers that took thousands of years to create is simply a joke. Instead of doing mound culture, dig a big hole and fill it with organic material. Think of it as reverse hugelkultur adapted for the city, this way no one knows you are practicing hippy gardening techniques…


This log will feed the surrounding plants for years, the hard part is fitting it in your urban garden.

I cringe when I go on facespace or twinterest and see these magnificent photos of meticulously maintained front yard farms, typically with a headline of “urban farmer grows 6 tons of food in his 1/16 acre front yard with absolutely no work or prior experience”. I’m calling voodoo… I hate to be the one to break it to you, but, this stuff is a lot of work. When you see a photo or video of one of these urban farms, you are only seeing it at one point… And that one point is always early in the season before the garden itch has worn off… That is when reality sets in…

Permaculture is really about resource management, collecting and storing energy for future use. Urban permaculture interests me because it adds a level of difficulty that typical gardening does not have, but it does not make it impossible. Permaculture requires creativity, this article is only intended to spark that creativity…

I would love to hear examples people have of creatively disposing of waste on your small urban lot… If you have any please share them in the comments section below…

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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Guerilla Gardening Ethics

Originally Posted – www.transitionpgh.org – August 11, 2011 @ 5:00 PM

Almost all of the gardening that I do would be considered guerilla gardening/farming. Wikipedia defines guerrilla gardening as gardening on another persons land without permission. When it comes to removing blight from a neighborhood, I see this as one of the more viable options, whether you are just an enthusiatic gardener who spills over their legal boundaries, or a highly political gardener who seeks to create change through direct action. Guerrilla gardening is usually done on abandoned or vacant land that has been neglected by its legal owners. Guerrilla gardening is usually considered a form of squatting and does have legal implications in some cases including tresspassing, vandalism and possibly burglary if you removed anything durring the clean-up. Guerrilla gardening to me is a form of proactive activism or pro-activism.

In my neighborhood in Wilkinsburg most of the vacant property is owned by banks or corporations that don’t seem to exist anymore. Tracking down the owners of the property we garden would be next to impossible. Our only option was to guerrilla garden even though there is risk involved. Even though this could be considered illegal activity to some, I still believe that there needs to be rules, guidelines and ethics associated with this form of gardening. Basically my intentions are to write a guide of ethics and principles to practice while creating guerrilla gardens.

I think the first thing that I should mention is when you take over a lot that you plan on gardening, you are basically taking on the responsibility of maintaining the lot as long as you are using it, this includes every square inch of the lot. If there’s grass on the lot then it should be regularly mowed and edged. Guerrilla gardening is not just about personal gain from fruits and vegetables that you may be growing but also about turning a vacant un-kept lot into something of beauty that a neighborhood can be proud of. Anyone can come along and clear a vacant lot out one time, but the people who can clear, garden and most importantly maintain a lot are the truly special gardeners. Clearing out a lot takes a ton of time and once it has been cleared out then mowing and maintenance is a breeze but once you let it go for even a short amount of time the work required snowballs and soon it is a full days project again. Rule number one is maintain your guerrilla garden space and do not stop at the garden but take care of the surrounding area.

The types of plants that you plant can also play a part in the sustainability of the lot. Beware of invasive species and hardy self seeding plants. Morning glories are a perfect example of plants that may be beautiful now but in a few years could turn the lot into a tangled mess that would require a team of gardeners to remove. I am an advocate of planting perenials in vacant lots due to the fact that they will provide beauty for years to come and in most cases will survive drought conditions and general abuse. The key point here is that you want these lots to look good long after you are gone. Proper plant and ornamental decisions are key here, sustainable gardening is the key element.

I would like to mention that although some guerrilla gardeners may want help with their garden not all of them do. In the case of carly and myself, we feed ourselves and our neighbors with our gardens. We already have 4 neighborhood kids who help out on a regular basis and, to be completely honest, this system works for us. We do not need any outside help and surely do not want to have to ask anybody else if we can do something on our farm. People regularly come onto our street for a tour and almost always end up asking if we need any help. My answer is always no and the reason being is the amount of vacant lots available in my area. The purpose of what I am doing is to spread awareness of what can be done on these vacant lots and would like to see it done in all of the vacant lots in the neighborhood. If everyone just wants to help me out, then that does nothing in the way of achieving my goal. In short unless you are invited to help, plan on finding your own lot and make it beautiful!

If you are growing vegetables on a vacant lot then you should share them. Vacant land is public land in my eyes, if you have a guerrilla vegetable garden, then by all means share them with your neighbors. We put a basket on our front porch and everyone in our neighborhood knows that the vegetables in the basket are free for anyone to take. When you share your bounty the neighbors are more likely to look out for the garden and notify you if they see any funny business. I tell all of my neighbors that the farm located on the street is all of ours and even though we do all of the work I want the neighbors to be proud of our neighborhood and take ownership in the work that is done. Even if they don’t support the farm work-wise they still help just by showing verbal support.

There’s always one or two people in a neighborhood that will have some sort of a problem with what you are doing. And given the fact that guerrilla gardening is not exactly legal, you have to tread lightly when dealing with these folks. Just because you want to lose your mind and freak out, this is never the best answer to the situation. I would recomend giving them flowers or vegetables on a regular basis. I also think the best option is probably to say nothing more then “hello” and “goodbye” and refrain from anything that requires an answer. The hardest part of this is to stay positive and never under any circumstance put the controls in the other individuals hands. It is so tough for me to turn the other cheek but it is the only option. I know everyone who is reading this is saying how could someone have a problem with gardening of any kind. Let me be the first to tell you that although I think it is ridiculous, there is always one person that will have a problem. Usually it is because of selfish reasons but someone always tries to bust up the party.

When guerrilla gardening, remember to look at the whole picture. If you are going to put a garden in a neighborhood to beautify the lot then clean up the litter on the ENTIRE STREET! This is a pet peave of mine, why would you clean up one vacant lot and put a garden on it but leave the rest of the street trashed. I don’t care how big the street is or how much garbage is on the street, pick it up. I rarely end up stopping at the end of my street when picking up trash, I can’t help it… if I had the time I would pick up all of the litter in all of Wilkinsburg. All I am saying is “Don’t be half assed about it”. Guerrilla gardening is part of a grander scheme and should not stop at gardening.

Dealing with theft and vandalism in a guerrilla garden is tricky business. I try to take the “If someone is hungry enough to steal then let them eat” approach. You obviously can not call the police because you do not own the land. This is why complete cooperation with most of the neighbors on the street is a requirement. The one thing about my neighborhood is whether they tell you or not, someone knows something about every incident in the area. Whether or not they tell you is usually based on how good of a friend they consider you. In the hood friends are everything and if you lack friends then you lack safety. I look out for my neighbors (even the ones I don’t really care for) and they look out for me. I have said it before and I will say it again, without the complete support of my neighbors what has been done on Whitney Avenue would not be possible. I love my neighbors and when talking about the street I always try and say “WE” because this project is a collage of neighborhood love put on display in the form of gardening and artwork.

I am not trying to create a list of rules, I would like these to be thought of as ethics involved in guerrilla gardening and will add new ones as they become apparent. I would also like to hear your thoughts and ideas on the subject. I am not the only person guerrilla gardening and am not claiming that I am the best or the smartest. I want to hear from people who also have experience.

Peace – Chris Condello


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