Practical Permaculture – The Urban Fire Pit

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

“Recycled Fire Pit” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – This fire pit is made entirely from locally found recycled bricks… The bricks pictured have been in place for three years now… As you can see… A few will need replaced this year… But other than that… The pit is in perfect condition…

A few years ago, I built a small fire pit in our backyard using recycled bricks found locally in my neighborhood. When we first built this fire pit, the legality of it was a big question mark, as time has passed, we have come to the understanding that it is perfectly legal as long as we are not burning trash. Before constructing a fire pit in your backyard, consult with your local government as to the legality of burning in your specific locality… I also recommend talking with your neighbors, smoke can bother some people… Remember, even if burning is perfectly legal in your area, a complaining neighbor can usually convince the fire department to make you stop burning…

Now I know what you are thinking… But Chris… What in the hell does a fire pit have to do with gardening or permaculture?.. My fire pit happens to be one of the secrets of my garden… I can make the equivalent of an entire garbage can full of garden refuse disappear in a single evening… A better estimate of time might be a six-pack of beer… The secret is to get your fire as hot as possible… Then slowly add material a handful at a time, only adding more when the existing debris has burned away completely… After a few fires… Clean the ash out of your fire pit and spread it around your garden… I think of this as not only feeding the garden nutrients… But feeding it good memories… I know… I’m a big dork… Get over it…

Deadfall branches are commonplace in my neighborhood, I can burn an entire evening, just with the wood I find on the ground within 500 feet of my backyard… And I live in a very urban environment… Much of that wood is not the best burning wood available… In my corner of Wilkinsburg… Mulberry and Sumac are commonplace… And believe me, they both are poor burners… The secret to getting rid of these types of wood is exactly the same as with weeds and leaves… Get a very hot fire going using other woods… Then sparingly add the junk wood… Taking care to wait for the previous pieces to completely burn… Junk woods not only emit more smoke… But that smoke often smells bad… Lilac is one of the worst smelling woods I have ever burned, comparable to plastic or rubber…

Food cooked over… Or inside a fire tastes better than the same food cooked on a gas range… Living in the city, cooking over a fire is a luxury… If that luxury is available to you… Use it… Cooking on a gas range is not doing the environment any favors… Not saying that I don’t use one… But it is important to remember where that gas comes from… In my area… It comes from the Marcellus Shale deposits and is fracked out of the earth… Any available opportunity to screw that industry out of an impending dollar should be embraced….

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

“Kindling” – © chriscondello 2013 – Highland Park – Pittsburgh, PA – My girlfriend pointed this shot out… If you are going to keep a pile of wood on your front porch… Might as well stack it creatively…

Almost all of the big box stores sell some type of ready to use fire pit, these are all perfectly fine… And surprisingly… I have nothing negative to say about them other than they are a bit expensive… And essentially all you are going to do is slowly destroy the thing with fire… If you have the money to buy one… And don’t care to build one… Then by all means just go and buy one… But if you are looking to build one yourself… Then this article is for you…

The basic purpose of a fire pit is to contain fire, a common practice is to find an old truck rim and simply set it on the ground… You can also bury the rim… I personally prefer my fire pits to be sunk into the ground, it makes the fire a little more difficult to detect from the road. My fire pit is nothing more than a brick lined hole in the ground, and it has lasted for three years with very little maintenance.

As far as specific dimensions are concerned, it will depend on the size of your yard. I like the hole to be the depth of a brick standing on end, or around 10″. My pit has a 36″ opening to allow me to burn wood that is a bit bigger than what would normally be burned on a small urban lot. Most commercial firewood is cut around 16-20″ long, the extra room allows oxygen to reach the fire, otherwise the fire would smothers and smoke…

Let me talk about bricks for a moment, after all I do collect them… A common question I am asked when people see my fire pit is whether or not the bricks explode… The short answer is no… They will not explode… Bricks are fired at high temperatures during manufacturing, they have already been exposed to temperatures higher than anything you can throw at them in one night of recreational burning.

On the other hand… Some bricks have a tendency to absorb water, it is not inconceivable to speculate that a water logged brick could shatter when heated… Or likewise… Shatter when a heated brick is rapidly cooled… But a brick will not explode with any type of force… I had originally put the red bricks on the inside of the pit, although they didn’t explode… They didn’t last for shit… They would fall apart after a few fires… The yellow bricks have lasted for three years now… They are noticeably heavier… And much harder than the red bricks…

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

“Red Passion” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Another view of my fire pit… Just with a Red Passionflower…

The ring of bricks around the outside of the fire pit serves a few purposes other than just looking nice. The ring of bricks serves as an extra buffer between the flames and my grass… Which as you can probably tell from the photo… I take pretty damn good care of… The bricks also serve as a place to put your feet when sitting around the fire, without the bricks, feet would wear the grass down to bald spots. I no longer have that issue… And finally, the bricks serve as a place to set the smores sticks when you are roasting the marshmallows… If you wanted to put a grilling surface down, the bricks would work for that also…

The most difficult aspect of having a fire in an urban environment, is figuring out how to keep the smoke to a minimum. The only way I have found to accomplish this, is to keep your fire burning as hot as possible. Do not burn wood that is still wet, and I’m not talking about rainwater wet, but still green wet. Don’t let your fire smolder either, keep it fueled and flaming. Simply paying attention to your fire will typically be enough to keep it burning… Oh yeah… Excessive fire poking is not only annoying… It creates more smoke… And often sends sparks flying in every direction… Keep the fire poking to a minimum…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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

I now have prints available to purchase online… You can find them here – www.society6.com/chriscondello – 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…

Paved Waves – Asphalt Creeping

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

“Asphalt Creeping” – © chriscondello 2013 – Vassar Way – Wilkinsburg, PA – So many textures and patterns… I could hardly contain myself… The wavy new asphalt interacting with hundred year old bricks… And a concrete gutter… An urban timeline…

Block after block… Outlined in black… Highlighted in gray… Urban sprawl… City night call… Orange tones and abandoned house bones… Sights… Sounds… And alley cat moans… Creeping through the darkness… Lit by the lightning bugs… Flying through my mind…

Jasmine blossoms bless the air… Scented lily’s… Citrus blooms… All combine in my backyard room… Raise the bar on my scarred soul… Enhances energy… Enlightens life… Brightens the darkness… Fuels the light… Currently all my energy… Comes from flowers of white… Scented dreams… Scented memories…

Streets lined in gardens… Hell strips converted to heavens… Scented herbs beneath my feet… Impossible to miss if you park on the street… Sunflowers hide the telephone poles… These should be everyone’s goals… Simply don’t ask permission… It’s a guaranteed no… It will probably mess with the traffic flow…

Even after all the rhymes and theory… People apparently don’t seem to hear me… Plant a garden… Or a tree… Do it without asking… Do it for free… Or get paid… Regardless… Just do something… Something for you… Something for me… Something for the land… Or something for the sea…

Promote life…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

I now have prints of some of my work available here – http://society6.com/chriscondello – If you would like a print of a photo not listed… Just ask…

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

Silent Misconception

Selfie

“Selfy” – Sculpture – © chriscondello 2013 – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – Created on 4/7/2013 and destroyed on 4/7/2013 – As soon as I saw this log… I knew I needed a big stone… My natural self-portrait…

Tonight… Silence… Well… Relative silence…
Silent enough to hear the footsteps…
Slowly creeping down the alley…
Gravel crunching… Moving towards me…
Cell phone blaring inaudible sounds…
Easing closer to my yards bounds…

And then the music stops…

I know in a moment… Shots will ring out…
This is probably some gangsters scout…
Then the phone rang… What did he do…
Answered it… Hello mom… How are you…
When the call ended… He said…

Yes ma’am… I know…
I love you…
Too…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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

Restless Friday Night

"Friday Morning" - © chriscondello 2013 - Whitney Avenue - Wilkinsburg, PA - Guerrilla Garden between two abandoned houses on my street...

“Morning” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Guerrilla Garden between two abandoned houses on my street…

Hot and muggy night… First of June…
Sirens wail… And gunshots boom…
All the while police cars loom…
Urban sounds… In an urban room…

Peace is relative in my neighbor hood…
Unity makes a community good…
The higher ground is where we stood…
Silence is a statement that’s misunderstood…

Memories play on my mental display…
Helps me see what you call gray…
Up all night… Sleep all day…
Heaven doesn’t care when you pray…

Or who you pray to… A state of mind…
Look in your heart and you will find…
It doesn’t matter if everyone is kind…
Always move forward… Learn from rewind…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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

Cherry Blossom Highway

CherryBlossomHighway

“Cherry Blossom Highway” – © chriscondello 2013 – Walnut Street – Wilkinsburg, PA – I remembered to get it… I had planned to do more… But the wind erased my canvas immediately following this photo…

I wrote this two days ago… May 2nd… Didn’t think I would post it… But I am… I was sitting on my back porch observing and writing… When shots rang out… I attempted to write-through it… 

This is how many of my poems begin… It is observational notes I take to try to spark a poem… After reading this… I decided to post it as is… Hope you enjoy…

May 2, 2013

Warm spring in the moonlight… Evening pleasantries…
Breeze smells of lilac… One of the warmer spring scents…
Cherry blossoms float through the sky…
Dandelion floaters lift up high…
Then fall into my backyard…

Warm days don’t equal warm nights…
But that won’t stop me…
As the smoke flows in the street light glow…
I plan for my cherry blossom highway…

The ground beneath my feet begins to shake…
Preparing for a metaphysical earthquake…

Shots fired… 12:12 AM – 11 or 12 of them… Sounded like just a block or two away… Maybe Rebecca Avenue and Center Street…

Now my senses are wide awake…
As I wait for a reply…
Shouting and screaming…
Silenced with the sound…

Sirens scream through the night…
Orange glow is now just light…
The night no longer celebrates…
The silence makes me contemplate…

Where do the good spirits go?..
Why can I no longer find them?..

Man makes me question the presence of God…
But nature always answers…

I will find my peace tomorrow…
Goodnight…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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

Practical Permaculture – The Art Of Weeds

100_1451

I used to consider pulling weeds tedious work, this was before I learned how to properly manage them. The weeds that are growing in your garden have a story to tell, it’s up to us to figure out how to translate what they are saying. I have found countless websites that focus on identification, but when it comes to the basic stuff “like how to pull them”, I find the internet to be lacking. Not many people realize how much thought can go into weeding a garden bed, yet alone how to pull weeds out of an entire vacant lot. This post will focus on weeds, what they mean, and how to pull them.

Weeds can tell you massive amounts of information relating to the land you are planning on working, you just have to know how to read the data growing in front of you. What you and I consider weeds, play an important role in reclaiming disturbed lands. Whether having evolved as a legume, replacing nitrogen where none existed, or creating quick shade to aid in the establishment of bio-diversity… All weeds have their place…

Permaculture isn’t really so much about weed eradication, the weeds are going to grow one way or another. The simple act of composting the weeds you pull instead of throwing them away is a basic permaculture principle, learning which ones to leave in the ground, and for how long is an art. Many weeds are perfectly acceptable when left in the ground, and often play a major role in the overall eco-system of your garden. A little bit of experience will tell you which ones have seed heads that when ripe, explode, sending seeds 20′ into your garden! Sometimes all the weeds need, is some selective pruning, and diligent dead heading before the end of August to stop the spread of new weeds.

As a gardener who had no money to invest, I found myself learning ways around… well.. anything that costs money… I have never really been able to afford soil samples on my own so I had to learn the natural indicator plants in order to get a mental map of what I was working with. Every vacant urban lot you come in contact with is “disturbed” land and will almost always shows drastic signs of this. Bind weed, Thistles, knotweed and grasses are all commonplace, what interests me is many of these weeds tell a story about your soil.

Bindweed – One of the most common exotic invasive I find in Wilkinsburg and the Pittsburgh region, this plant absolutely thrives in hard-pan clay. Bindweed can take years to effectively eliminate from a lot, owing to its ability to rampantly sprout from the roots, and the extremely long viability of its seeds lasting up to 20 years. Pull it or mow it and stay on top of it until you have choked it out. Bindweed can take years to eliminate from your garden but it is by no means impossible.

Dandelion – When they flourish, you have acidic soil.

Russian and Canada Thistle – I hate thistles due to the difficulty of removing them when they get to the size of a christmas tree, I have seen Canadian thistles 10 feet tall. Thistles absolutely love acidic soil and will usually only thrive in disturbed acidic soil, I find if you can neutralize the acid in the soil the thistles will disappear on their own.

Clovers – All – Sign of low nitrogen in your soil, the solution is as simple as leaving the clovers, when clover is present don’t remove it unless it is in the middle of a planned bed. When you remove it, bury it on site or compost it.

Pennycress – Highly alkaline soil

Yarrow – If you have this growing on your vacant lot, good for you. Our native versions of this plant are white and yellow and absolutely stunning when growing in a massive clump. Yarrows are one of the best indicators of potassium levels in your soils absolutely thriving in potassium deficient areas. Although I wouldn’t remove yarrow unless absolutely needed, it still is one of those plants that could help indicate fertilizer requirements for other plants.

Wild Strawberry – Fragaria sp. – I am not talking about the large, delicious strawberries we grow in our gardens but the little red strawberries growing in vacant lots that have little to no taste at all. Food wise the only use for these berries is survival but as an indicator for the acidity of your soil these guys are top-notch surviving in HIGHLY acidic soil. Neutralize the acid in your soil with a little lime and the strawberries will go away when they’re ready.

dandelion

This list could go on, but many other people have already done that… Go to Google… Type in “weeds as indicators” followed by your state… You will have so many lists it will make your head spin.

I do want to stress the importance of identifying weeds, and learning the deeper meaning of why they grow where they do, or why they thrive. Removal is the part of gardening most people hate, and to be honest with you as a gardener I would bet 75% of my job is removal. Pulling weeds is an art in its own right, relying more on finesse and technique than sheer force and strength. When working on an entire lot, break the whole thing into manageable squares on an imaginary grid, start by pulling or cutting the big stuff, then move on to the smaller things. I find if I remove as much material as possible during my initial clean-up then the smaller stuff is easier to focus on.

Pulling weeds is an art in its own right, if a weed is hard to pull your soil sucks, you need to add organic material to your existing soil structure and future weeds will pop right out of the ground. You see, weeds are not hard to pull when they are growing in healthy, alive, loose soil, it’s when they are growing in hard-pan clay that they break off at the ground, leaving the roots. When you grab a weed, grab it as close to the soil as you possibly can, you want to remove the entire root structure, not break it off at the surface of the soil. Pull the weed straight up and away from you to loosen it, then finish by pulling towards yourself, apply steady pressure and do not jerk or rip it from the ground, you want to steadily apply pressure freeing the weed from the ground. Some weeds require a little more work, don’t be afraid to break out a shovel and dig out a huge weed, just remember to remove as much of the soil from the roots as you possibly can to aid in disposal.

bckyrd

Sometimes trees need to be removed, im not stupid, I love them but sometimes they are in the way. Everyone wants to chainsaw the thing off at the ground and either forget about it or dig it out. I had an old-timer tell me the right way to drop a tree, without ever touching an axe or chainsaw till after the tree was on the ground. The only tool he used was a shovel, and could drop any tree under 20 feet in under an hour. The secret is to use the weight of the top of the tree as your muscle, and dig the roots out while the tree is in tact. As you free the roots of the tree, it will eventually fall under its own weight, this way you drop the tree and remove the root ball all in one controlled drop.

Trees are a great source of nutrients and biomass, if you have access to a shredder than they should be utilized. Most of the nutrients that are readily available in a tree are focused in the top half of the tree, branches under a 1 1/2″ specifically. Branches of this size have the most cambium layer for the amount of overall biomass and should be shredded and applied fresh and allowed to de-compose in place, larger wood is either firewood or mulch. Certain trees and plants will tend to inhibit growth like artemisia and the common black walnut tree, these trees should be avoided in mulch at all costs.

One of the absolutely fastest ways to clear a bunch of weeds and create a bed, and my personal favorite method is sheet mulching. This method starts in a dumpster hunting newspaper or cardboard, the amount you need will vary but my rule of thumb is 12 layers of newspaper, or 1 layer of cardboard. Mow the area where you intend to put your bed, I like to line the outside of my beds in bricks so I place them around the newspaper. Now you want to bring in a whole bunch of compost, topsoil or whatever you have on hand. Depending on what you use you can most likely plant in it immediately, plan on building up your layers at the end of every year. Newspaper and cardboard are utilized because of their ability to decompose in place lasting long enough to smother out the weeds underneath.

by any means necessary – chriscondello

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

Free Range Man

20130225-140611.jpg

Free Range – Acrylic on Canvas – 16″ x 20″

Darkness apparently eludes me…
For all my windows are bright…
Is it really too much to ask…
People respect the night…

Light penetrates the window pane…
Can’t even sleep in a chair…
Construction lights are super bright…
But no one seems to care…

Consideration of habitual relocation…
Lay mans, it’s time to move…
Pack a bag and hit the road…
My tattered soul approves…

Always been a free range man…
I need more room to grow…
Looking for my promised land…
Where milk and honey flow…

Make my gardens as far as wide…
As diverse as they can be…
Put them in a massive yard…
For all of you to see…

So I’ll just sit here in the light…
Though our lamps are dark…
Dream about the future…
My endless question mark…

peace – chriscondello

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