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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Practical Permaculture – Planting Under Fruit Trees – Part 2

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“Different” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA – Cherry trees are a tough plant in companion planting, the sticky sap commonly seen seeping from the trunk is a magnet for pests. Flowering plants that will attract predatory wasps can often be the only organic technique available. Alliums can also be effective as a general pest repellant.

This post and plant list is an extension of a past post that can be found right here – Planting Under Fruit Trees with more information and another list of companion plants… This post is meant to accompany it…

One of the most common mistakes made when making plant selections for under a fruit tree is thinking of the planting as the center of attention when in fact it is the tree. Permaculture plant guilds created under a fruit tree, though possibly created with selfish intentions, are actually incorporated to benefit the tree.. Not you…

The plants used underneath a fruit tree can serve a multitude of functions, it is not unfair to consider yourself as a beneficiary of your plants, but as far as permaculture is concerned, it is not the responsible primary function. We create a fruit tree guild for the purposes of pest prevention, beneficial attraction, scent masking, soil remediation and general beautification, but the common goal is generally the health and fruit production of the primary tree.

The dream of having a vegetable garden under a production fruit tree is more or less a pipe dream in all but the warmest climates. That’s not to say that some vegetables can’t be grown, but it is a very safe assumption on my part to say that a tomato or pepper plant will never reach the same production level as one growing in full sun. This is just one of the reasons I suggest putting your focus on the trees needs. Tending vegetables takes valuable time (and unnecessary nutrients) away from the tree, when in fact your efforts should be focused on the tree.

Perennial plants are typically the most beneficial as far as a tree is concerned, again I want to stress that the primary focus of these types of efforts needs to be on the tree, if you are stuck planting annuals every spring it will only take time away from your primary focus. A fruit tree can live for a hundred years, a properly planted guild under the canopy can last for a good chunk of this trees life. Armed with this knowledge the question now becomes what will not only grow under a fruit tree, but benefit it for the foreseeable future…

Dwarf fruit trees require a lot more maintenance than most people realize, I think many are led to believe that there tree will stay tiny forever. Dwarf fruit trees are very confused trees and therefore can take on a mind of their own, aggressive pruning is often required to keep them producing. Many dwarf trees will be nothing more than a single stem a few feet tall when planted, the tree will grow quickly if not pruned.

Dwarf trees will stay small for a few years, it is completely acceptable to plant annuals around them. It will be several years before this tree develops a canopy, therefore the space surrounding the tree will be considered full-sun for the foreseeable future. In sustainable agriculture “alley cropping” is a method where rows of fruit or nut trees are planted, and the spaces between are used for annual crops. This is done until the trees reach production size and shade out the alley, providing short-term income while the more valuable trees mature.

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“Blue Borage” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Growing under a Kousa Dogwood… Perfectly happy in the shade and will come back for years to come through self seeding.

– Herbaceous Plants – For my Herb specific post check out – Planting Herbs Under Fruit Trees

Lavender – A flowering plant in the mint family, many cultivars of which are extensively cultivated in temperate climates. The plant is technically a perennial, though it is a short-lived one often losing vigor as time passes by. Lavender is extremely useful around fruit trees due to its repellant qualities, many insects and animals find it repulsive and will therefore avoid it all costs. Besides benefiting the fruit tree, lavender will benefit many other types of plants and should therefore be incorporated into any garden plan.

Tansy – Is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant of the Aster family. Tansy is commonly cultivated and used for its insect repellent properties, it is used as a biological pest control in organic gardens and sustainable agriculture. In England, Tansy is placed on window sills to repel flies, sprigs are placed in bed linens to drive away pests, and it has been used as an ant repellent.

Southernwood – A flowering plant native to Europe in the genus Artemisia, named for the goddess Artemis. The growing plant tends to repel fruit tree moths when grown in an orchard, the fresh plant can also be rubbed on the skin to deter other insects. This plant is commonly dries and used in the house to repel ants and other indoor pests, when burned the scent can remove many foul odors from the house.

Horseradish – Believe it or not, Horseradish is in the Brassica family. Although this plant is typically harvested and used, when left in the ground it will spread via underground shoots and therefore can become mildly invasive in many permaculture gardens. Horseradish is a broad-leafed plant allowing it to harvest sunlight even when planted in shade, this makes it a perfect companion for trees. Horseradish is said to generally be good for the overall health of a tree, it is not uncommon for old timers to tell stories of trees that were never productive until horseradish was planted below… Though others will claim it affects the taste of the fruit afterwards…

Borage – Also known as Starflower, is an annual herb that tends to self seed allowing it to come back year after year. Although this plant is edible, the leaves often being described as cucumber-like, its primary purpose in permaculture is as a companion plant. Borage accumulates and adds trace minerals to the soil and is a key ingredient in a complete compost heap. Borage also is one of the best bee and wasp attracting plants available, therefore it will benefit everything planted around it… Given the stunning blue flowers… It will even benefit you…

Nasturtium – Tropaeolum, commonly known as Nasturtium literally means “nose twister” or “nose-tweaker”, a reference to the peppery scent and taste of the flowers. Nasturtium is used in herbal medicine for their antiseptic and expectorant qualities. When planted under apple trees it is a powerful deterrent of the notorious codling moth, not to mention a whole host of other insect species not only damaging to the tree, but to other plants surrounding.

Hyssop – A herbaceous plant of the genus Hyssopus. Due to its properties as an antiseptic, cough reliever, and expectorant, it is commonly used as an aromatic herb. Drought tolerance makes this an ideal plant for underneath the canopy of a fruit tree, flowers make it a beneficial insect attractor. Hyssop shares many of the same benefits as mint since they are from the same family, though it is not as invasive so it is typically more suited to inter planting than mint.

Wormwood – Artemesia absinthium is a herbaceous, perennial plant with a fibrous root system. A powerful animal repellant suitable for plantings at the edge of properties. Wormwood is also a powerful insect repellant, it can be made into a tea or applied as a sporadic mulch throughout the garden. Wormwood produces a powerful poison and therefore should never be used directly on food crops, applications should be indirect.

Dandelion – Are tap-rooted biennial or perennial herbaceous plants, native to temperate areas of the world. Dandelions are thought to have evolved about thirty million years ago in Eurasia, they have been used by humans as food and herb for much of recorded history. Dandelions are one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and therefore are a very important source of nectar and pollen early in the season. Its tap-root will bring up nutrients for shallower-rooting plants, and add minerals and nitrogen to the soil. Dandelions are even said to emit ethylene gas which helps fruit ripen.

– Food Producing Shrubs – Will never produce the same as when field grown, but will still produce.

Currant – The genus Ribes includes black currants, red currants, white currents, and gooseberries and several other hybrid varieties. Currants do very well in shade, though an interesting trait I have observed is if even part of the plant grows into full sunlight only the part in full sun will produce fruit… The rest of the plant seems to go into a vegetative state.

Nanking Cherry – Is a deciduous shrub native to Asia, an understory shrub that has evolved to survive under the canopy of a tree. Will produce more fruit if planted on the outskirts of the tree, can even be used as a windscreen for more tender plants. This tree-like shrub can grow to eight feet tall, vigorous pruning can be required to keep it under control.

Serviceberry – Native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, growing primarily in early succession habitats. Varieties differ so care must be paid during selection for under planting a fruit tree, the short multi-stemmed varieties are typically best. I personally prefer to plant the serviceberry in close quarters with fruit trees, the serviceberry attracts birds that after finishing your tasty berries will immediately turn their attention to the insects.

Raspberry – Named varieties are in the thousands, most are thorny… All are delicious.. The thorny varieties not only repel larger animals, they tend to repel thievery as well. After all, what’s a few lost raspberries when the apples are spared from the deer. Raspberries are very vigorous and when not kept in check can become a massive, and invasive headache. They will do a great job of keeping the neighborhood children from stealing the fruits of your labor. Likewise, they can also keep you away from your trees. I recommend the raspberries be planted outside of the drip line, being able to get a lawn mower between your patch and tree is paramount in keeping the patch in bounds.

– Vegetables – Though I stress, they typically do not thrive like they would in full sun, growing these vegetables is possible

Carrots – typically grown in full sun tolerate some shade. In order to avoid deformed carrots they are typically grown in loose soil, but for our purposes the uncultivated soil under a tree will work just fine. A carrot is like a stake in the ground, as it expands it will loosen the soil. Carrots left in the ground will eventually break down, adding nutrients it has harvested to the top layer of soil.

Chard – Typically grown in full sun, it is important to remember that broad-leaved plants are equipped with enough surface area to tolerate some shade. Bright lights chard will not grow as brightly as if it were planted in full sun, but it will grow.

Kale – Another leaf crop commonly grown in full sun, most food plants that do not produce a fruit or vegetable can tolerate some shade, kale happens to be one of those plants. I actually like to grow some Brassicas under a tree as a trap crop, bugs tend to be more attracted to the weaker plants as opposed to the stronger more vigorous plants grown in full sun.

Asparagus – Opposite the fact that broad-leaved plants ability to absorb more light makes them more shade tolerant, thin leafed plants do not require as much light making them also tolerant of some shade. Asparagus is an ideal food plant for under fruit trees, the primary harvest season happens at a time when many fruit trees have yet to leaf out. Because of this asparagus is one of the few vegetables that are not affected negatively when grown under a tree.

Beets – Beets in general can handle some shade, in really hot weather they actually benefit from it. Beets in full shade will grow beautiful foliage, but the energy is rarely ever there to produce a sizeable root. Beets are nutrient accumulators and therefore there is absolutely no harm in leaving the plants in the ground to rot. The benefit of the beet is for the tree, not the gardener.

Beans – Beans are another vegetable that does not seem to be affected by some shade, in the hottest months the shade provided by a tree is actually preferred. Beans accumulate nitrogen, when the beans have been harvested the remaining plant should be left in place to decompose.

Peas – Another tasty biddle that is perfectly at home when grown in the shade of a tree, typically only grown in the cooler months, a tree can often provide a third late summer harvest. Peas are in the Legume family and therefore accumulate Nitrogen, after harvest the plant should be left in place.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within are provided free of charge by the author… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself… Writing this blog takes a ton of time… If you find any of this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print from my online store… It is obviously not a requirement… But it helps…

I sell prints of my photography here – http://www.society6.com/chriscondello Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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The Guerrilla Gardening Guidebook – Plant Selection

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“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.

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“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 – http://www.society6.com/chriscondello Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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Practical Permaculture – Native Gardening in Urban Settings

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“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…

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“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.

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“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 c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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Practical Permaculture – People… Beneficial or Pest?..

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“The Garden Table” – © chriscondello 2013 – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – To the person that stole all of our vegetables over the weekend… You pretty much stole our harvest party… Which is open to anyone in the community… Not Cool…

I am writing this post with a heavy heart, as the garden project I am involved in known as The Garden Table has been robbed of produce. My girlfriend and I stopped up on Friday before we went camping to grab a tomato for sandwiches, and all was well. I can only speculate what happened, and for this reason, and this reason alone, I will chalk it up to someone needing it more than us… Though they should have simply asked…

I have been urban gardening for 8 years now, and farming for 4 of them, and as long as I can remember I have had to deal with people steeling vegetables from my gardens. Occasionally, I have been able to isolate the problem and deal with it swiftly. Though not always pretty, I have had some success…

My first experience happened immediately after moving in to my current apartment. We had started a small vegetable garden at the end of our street a few months before we moved in. As a peace-offering, we told the immediate neighbors that we would share the produce with them. The thought behind this was that everyone would respect the garden enough to wait for us to harvest and share, this is not as universally understood of an ethic as I had originally thought.

Within a week of planting the zucchini plants, baby zucs started disappearing before the flower even had a chance to whither. At the same time I was finding MASSIVE piles of dog poo everywhere I looked in the garden… All signs pointed to the neighbors living next to the garden… These specific neighbors were pretty open about their drug problem, because of this, social skills were virtually non-existent. Any attempt at a civil conversation regarding their dog was met with very aggressive behavior, often times ending in threats of physical violence.

This went on for an entire summer, although I was able to get them to stop picking unripe produce… I was never able to solve the dog problem… The only certainty that I had to go on, was the fact that their problems were getting worse, and I knew from experience that it was only a matter of time before they screwed up their rent payments and would get evicted… Which is exactly what happened the following spring as I was preparing for my second gardening season.

TheForgottenFS

“The Forgotten Farm Stand” – © chriscondello 2011 – June 17, 2011 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – One of my favorite photographs I have ever taken… Brings back good memories… The boys in the neighborhood who were helping out in our garden asked if they would be paid… I said sure… But not by me… This was the result…

In a separate incident… One evening, my girlfriend and I were enjoying dinner when we were interrupted by a flurry of knocks on our front door. As is typical Wilkinsburg protocol, I did not answer the door. I instead went to peek out the window in order to assure it was not someone from the neighborhood, looking to bum a cigarette. To my surprise, my buddy Brandon from down the street was standing in my front yard waving his hands yelling for me to come outside.

Upon reaching my front porch, Brandon informed me that someone had gone through the community garden that had recently been constructed behind my house, and thrown all of the produce into the alleyway. His annoyance of the situation was immediately apparent, and he insisted that I come check it out. I initially thought he was being a drama queen, but upon arrival I realized that, what seemed like all of the produce in the garden had been smashed in the alley, you name the heirloom variety, and it was crushed in the alley behind my house.

So while we were mourning the losses of our fallen vegetable soldiers, we hear a bunch of kids coming up the alley. To my surprise, Brandon insisted we hide in the garden in order to catch them in the act. A few moments later a group of really young kids entered the fenced in area, baseball bats in hand, and began setting up a game of vegetable baseball. Brandon and I confronted the kids, and they all started crying their eyes out and ran home.

I proceeded to send an email out to the gardeners, informing them of the slaughter that had just occurred. The overall consensus… Given the fact that we knew who the kids were, and their parents had not been cooperative in the past, the gardeners decided to call the police. A police officer arrived shortly thereafter, and after a short explanation, was off in his cruiser in search of the offenders. Twenty or so minutes later the police officer was back with the three boys in the back of his car, he asked if they were the ones, to which we replied they were… He opened the back door and said “then they are all yours”…

Those boys spent the next 2 hours cleaning up the alley… With the very same gardeners who they had taken the vegetables from… All the while the community gardeners taught the boys about composting… Still to this day that story gives me goose bumps… I am normally not a fan of the 5.0… But in this case… I’ll just make an exception…

Garden thievery is the biggest problem I face in my specific location, I have yet to plant a garden that was not robbed clean at some point… It is really sad… And often times disheartening… But in an urban environment… It is unavoidable…

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“Welcome Arbor” – © chriscondello 2013 – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Jeanette Street – Wilkinsburg, PA – Believe it or not… Community gardens with 25 gardeners are not immune to garden thievery… This garden has been experiencing some minor problems… Though in true gardener fashion… The gardeners chalked it up to the thief being needier then they were…

Earlier this summer, I received a call from one of the other gardeners informing me that the reverend of the neighboring church had witnessed someone stealing stuff from our garden. When I got on site, I was greeted by the reverend and my friend. They said the reverend had gotten the license plate and description of the woman who was taking stuff. It turns out that a woman had asked the reverend about the garden and he told her it was a private garden, and that it was a community oriented project. The woman apparently took that as free for all as she proceeded to walk in to the garden, and rip herb plants out by the roots in order to take them home for her garden.

Luckily, the reverend saw this happening and had the foresight to get her license number. My friend called the police to report the incident and the very same cop from the story above showed up, we gave him the license plate and he said he would call her up. The officer called a little later and said the woman was really sorry, and would be returning that evening to put the plants back… A few hours later… The plants were back in their respective holes… Though the trauma proved too much and the plants ended up dying anyway… Never the less… She won’t be taking plants from anyone’s garden again… Success…

Now I rarely endorse calling the police… And I would not personally call them for anything but the most serious of offenses… But in this case, I let it go… The reason being, plant and vegetable thievery are very common in my neighborhood, just a few days before this incident I had a very similar incident on my street.

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“Ditch Lily” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – This is the abandoned house garden that was targeted by a thief earlier this summer… You can see the hosta she targeted next to the steps… I don’t care who you are… This does not look like a neglected yard…

I was at home in my office writing, when I noticed an unfamiliar car park across the street from my house. The driver stepped out of the vehicle and was looking at the modest gardens we have planted in front of a few of the abandoned houses. She walked around for a few minutes looking at plants, making me think she was just admiring the gardens. Then, she walked back to her car, looked around quickly, and proceeded to unload a shovel and several 5 gallon buckets.

By the time I got to my front door, she already had a hosta most of the way out of the ground. At this point she realized I was coming. I asked her just what in the hell she thought she was doing. She angrily replied that it was an abandoned house and she could dig up whatever she wanted. I informed her that it was a community project that just happened to be in front of an abandoned house, but the garden was by no means abandoned and she had a better chance of winning the lottery then getting one of our hostas off the street. By this point she was yelling curse words at me as she walked back to her car… As she turned her vehicle around, she put down her window and told me she hopes I stay awake all night because she would be back… To which I replied that if she wanted to come to my neighborhood after dark… Well then… That’s on her… She has yet to come back…

The point is this… This problem is not isolated to my neighborhood. Wherever there is hunger, food will be stolen. The obvious solution is always a fence, and they do work, but I wanted to look beyond that… I want to change the behavior at the core of the problem.

Another common solution that I see as effective is the community outreach theory… Basically, you throw a party or two, and invite the entire community to let them know what is going on. This serves two purposes… To allow the community an opportunity to see what is going on in their neighborhood, and to inform people that the food grown is not free for the taking… I don’t care who the gardener is… We are always willing to share the harvest… Even excited to share the bounty that is often produced in our gardens… And usually willing to do it unconditionally…

So you see that word “unconditional”… That is a perfect example of how I thought when I was first starting to urban farm. Then I realized something… When financially stressed people find an unconditional source of resources, they will exploit the fuck out of that resource… Think about it… If you found a way to eat without ever having to pay for it… Or work for it… It is human nature to use it… This becomes the case with a large food source in an urban community… There is very little that can be done about this other than exclusion measures…

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“Berries Galore” – © chriscondello 2013 – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Jeanette Street – Wilkinsburg, PA – A shot of the community garden from earlier this year… I can understand people tasting… I will often pick a single fruit from a variety I have never tried… But I never clean house as is so often the case…

One of the very first things I learned in permaculture is that if you provide a large food source targeted by a specific creature, then said creature will proliferate and destroy the food source. In the case of people, often times if they see a bunch of unattended vegetables in a garden… That happens to be in a supposed abandoned and unprotected garden… Well then it must be free… Again… The only thing one can do is adopt the paradigm that whoever stole your food must be worse off then you… It is the only frame of thought I have found to quench the rage burning in my stomach…

Another permaculture practice that I am attempting to integrate into my urban gardens is species bio-diversity. I have filled the front quarter of the garden with tall ornamental plants, the idea with this is to attempt to hide the bounty growing immediately behind them. As far as the vegetables are concerned… I have found that a neat vegetable garden often invites thievery, when the tomatoes are easily accessible from the paths they tend to get stolen. But when I let the plants grow all over themselves and out into the paths, it tends to be too much work for a quick-moving thief… This often leads to them targeting more accessible vegetables… In the future… The front of this garden will be filled with “sacrificial” vegetables that will be very easily accessible… Basically… If the untrained eye can’t spy your vegetable supply… Then they can’t take them either…

After losing the two lots on my street, I have had to spread out my gardening efforts. When my garden was next door, security was surprisingly simple. Now my garden is 3 blocks away, and keeping constant tabs on it is impossible. I have yet to build an urban garden where I have not considered building a 10 foot tall electric fence with machine gun turrets and razor wire.

At the end of the day though… I want people to be able to see into the non-guerrilla gardens that I create… I create the spaces to be enjoyed and help brighten a neighborhood… A massive fence would have the exact opposite effect…

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“A Brandon Photo Bomb” – © chriscondello 2013 – The Garden Table Urban Garden – Rebecca Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Taken at 7:30 in the morning last summer… I had no idea he was walking up to me as I was concentrating on the shot… Only after the camera processed the photograph and I had a chance to check it did I notice Brandon standing right in front of me… That happy accident turned into one of my favorite photographs of 2012…

On the complete opposite end of this spectrum is the fact that as far as most community urban gardens are concerned, they would not be possible without human volunteers. People really are one of the great yields of the urban garden, I am constantly surprised by the people who seem to pop out of the woodwork. Most adults appreciate a garden, some appreciate them a little too much and appreciate them in the wrong way. I have had some of the scariest guys in the neighborhood come to ask me for home-grown vegetables to impress their girlfriends, even gangsters appreciate a home-grown pepper.

A simple harvest party once or twice a year is often all that is needed to eliminate much of the non-kid related garden damage. Kids are one of the great mysteries of the garden, in my experience, a kid can help you build a garden from the ground up… But the moment they are alone with their friends… Peer pressure will often take over with disastrous results… Having been a troublemaking kid… I actually get this and am a little more understanding of this type of behavior than most… A little compassion now… Will go a long way in the future…

Unless someone witnessed your garden being robbed, than there is little you can do. Some people get so disgusted that they give up, never to plant a vegetable garden again. I would recommend that you stick with it, in the city… Neighbors can change overnight… What is now a very hostile street, can change in a matter of a few weeks. Taking a summer off may be an option, or temporarily scaling down. But all things change… And this to shall pass…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within… Are provided free by the author… Me… I sell prints of some of my photography online – www.society6.com/chriscondello… Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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Practical Permaculture – Pallet Garden Cautions

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“White Hearts Bleeding” – © chriscondello 2013 – Wilkinsburg, PA – Natural Composition – Red dye in a puddle with white bleeding heart floaters – Like I said… I hate pallets… So I have no photographs of them… Get over it…

I know you have all seen them on Pinterest, commercial pallets designed into 30′ tall vertical garden wonderland. Pallets layed out on the ground full of row after row of healthy greens. Even pallets on saw-horses turned into gardening tables for the handi-capable person. Some really incredible and creative ideas are out there for the gardener to explore, I recommend trying anything that interests you in the gardening world.

But… As far as pallets are concerned… I hate them with a passion… I have worked my fair share of retail jobs, and I promise you I have dragged more than enough pallets across a retail floor for the both of us. But I also understand why people like to use them. Having worked around them, I have a bit of an inside view into the travels pallets often take part in…

Commercial pallets come in treated, and untreated varieties. Although the untreated types are relatively safe, the chemically treated varieties are often treated with nastier chemicals than the treated lumber available at home depot. Chemical treatment is easily recognizable by how much heavier it will be than the other pallets. Chemically treated pallets tend to be darker in color as well, it will stick out in the pile. Treated lumber often looks wet in appearance, this rule applies to pallets as well…

I actually don’t consider chemical treatment to be the real danger associated with pallets… Next time you are looking at a pallet, ask yourself what was on that pallet. Organic food is not the only thing shipped on pallets… Chemicals like draino, Clorox, ammonia and even pool chemicals are all shipped to grocery stores on pallets… These shipments regularly break inside the truck… That pallet is not thrown away… It is sent back to the supply house and repacked… And shipped… With God knows what…

A pallet can travel all around the country, hell, it could even travel all around the world. Pallets are re-used, it is really only when one has broken beyond usefulness that it is taken out of circulation. So technically, using pallets in your garden is not really all that green as every good pallet taken out of the mix has to be replaced with a new one. I believe it is better to recycle them through the retail mix, than to have them cutting down pine trees to make new ones… Just my perspective…

I also would like to mention that while many pallets tend to stay in the retail stream, many of them end up in some pretty nasty places. Pallets are regularly used to ship hospital supplies, no big deal right… After the pallet has been unloaded there is a chance it could be reloaded by the hospital with say… Soiled linens… Or worse… Medical waste… Then that pallet is sent somewhere… They unload it… And maybe load it with something nastier…

It’s the circle… The circle of life… Or… The circle of waste…

Eventually… There is a pretty good chance this pallet could end up back at a grocery store… Pallets are meant to be used more than once… Most distributors would rather reuse pallets than purchase new ones… They do not do chemical tests on each pallet… Don’t be stupid… If you are the type of person that is worried about chemicals in any shape or form… Stay away from pallets… That would be my professional opinion at least…

I hope I am not breaking any pallet gardeners heart with this post… But I feel this is an issue of safety… An issue that not many people consider… Having worked retail… I have seen some of the nasty shit that soaks into those pallets you are growing your lettuce in… It’s just not for me…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Permaculture – Hugelkultur Modified for Urban Gardens

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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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