Practical Permaculture – Four-Legged Pests in the Urban Garden

Squirrel1

“Watching” – © chriscondello 2013 – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – How you view squirrels is often based on what you grow… I know people who love them… And I know people who call them “tree rats”… A simple solution is to get a pet… You would be surprised what a dog will keep out of your yard…

I’m doing so much gardening right now… All day… Every day… The last thing in the world I want to do right now is write about gardening… But I’m going to try… Sort of…

Now… If you have a garden of any type… You probably have a few four-legged pests… In my neck of the woods… The issues are cats, dogs, raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels and rats… Options range from fences to traps… Your preference most likely will be based on beliefs that are really none of my business… The following post is meant to look at the subject from both perspectives… This article deals with the trapping and disposal of rabies vector animals… Or… Just getting along with them… With a few tips on the domesticated relatives…

I’m going to start this post on the subject of cats and dogs. To be completely honest, there is very little you can do to domesticated animals to keep them out of your yard without raising a few eyebrows. I have actually written about cats before, you can check it out right here… All you can really do is defend your garden…

Dogs are not typically a problem unless you have a neighbor that lets theirs run free, which is typically illegal in any populated area… A simple call to the police can fix this, remember they are pretty limited in what they can do to said dog, or dog owner. Fencing will typically have to be installed in an attempt to exclude the dog, little else could legally be done without bordering on animal abuse… My best advice for dealing with a troublesome dog… Become friends with it… You would be surprised how the simple act of befriending the animal will change the way you look at its in-discretionary practices… in short… You wont mind cleaning up after the beast so much if you are friends with it… Just saying… Perspective…

Squirrels were at one time a problem for me, but the great cat population boom of 2011 has limited the squirrels in number.  We still have a few of them, but their presence is welcomed as they are really enjoyable to watch. The problem with squirrels for other people is the fact that they like to rob bird feeders, and bury nuts in gardens when they are storing them for winter. You can either trap the squirrels and relocate them… Account for the squirrels in your budget and simply feed the things… Or eliminate all food sources for a few years… If possible…

In nature… A nut-tree can only sustain so many nut eating animals… Occasionally… A tree will have a heavy bearing year… This is an evolutionary response done in attempt to allow seed germination… You see… Most years the squirrels will have no problem cleaning the nuts up under a tree or two… Because of this… Only so many squirrels will live in an area…  Because a tree aims to reproduce itself… It will compensate by dropping extra seed every once in a while… You want to do the opposite… Eliminate the original habitat by practicing meticulous cleanup for a few years… I can’t stress enough how many of these problems can be solved with regular maintenance… It’s almost laughable…

© chriscondello 2013

“Groundhog Food” – © chriscondello 2013 – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA – Instead of mowing the food to the ground… Let it grow… Groundhogs and bunnies love clover… The trick is to make more clover available than your garden plants…

Groundhogs are the bane of the vegetable garden, wherever food is grown, groundhogs are not far away. Groundhogs tend to be territorial creatures, this territory is based on food availability. I have seen people build fences that go a foot into the earth, and the groundhog still finds a way into the garden. Another common practice is trapping, in my experiences a new groundhog will typically move into the old groundhogs hole within a week… It’s worth a mention that while it is perfectly legal to trap and relocate pests in the state of Pennsylvania, it is illegal in other states… Not to mention ecologically unsound…

Trapped animals are very commonly relocated by the trapper, great care should be taken in the disposal of these animals. Although it may be legal, I am against the idea of rabies vector relocation. which a groundhog is. Often times these animals get relocated to the closest park, where they encroach on the native species and often end up fighting to the death over territory… I just don’t see how this is more humane than simply ending the animal’s life… On the same note… I have attempted to kill trapped animals before… And I just can’t do it… No matter how big of a problem it has been for me…

So I’m sitting in my backyard earlier this summer… Momma raccoon is on the neighbor’s roof with three babies… Momma groundhog is in the backyard eating clover with her baby… And momma squirrel is running through the trees with her babies… I’m sitting in a chair watching the future garden chaos grow before my very eyes… Did I freak out?.. Absolutely not… Why you ask… Because I know how to work with these types of animals… And the first step… Is to make your neighbors available food easier to acquire than your own…

Another option… Is to simply plant a trap crop… A trap crop is simply a plant that you grow to distract the groundhog away from the plants that you grow for your own consumption. This can be as simple as a bunch of clover, sunflowers, sweet peas, or any of the Brassica. Plant them far away from your own garden, but close to the animals home. Make it easier to get to your trap crop than your vegetable garden, this can be accomplished using a small fence or tall border.

Raccoons are one of my neighborhoods biggest problems, I have had to super glue bricks to the bottom of my garbage cans before just to stop the damn things from knocking over the cans every night. If you live in an area with animal control, they should always be your first call. You never want to mess with a raccoon unless you absolutely have to, the danger involved can be life threatening.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

“Wand Flower” – © chriscondello 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – I love wandflowers… This has nothing to do with pests… Just a nice photo…

The neighborhood raccoon problem for me does not involve my garbage cans, it presents in small holes in my lawn where he was digging for grubs and worms. I actually caught him in my backyard one morning digging up my newly planted fig tree in search of grubs, I almost shit a brick… I had been staying up until 2 in the morning trying to catch this bastard in the act… And here he was coming in the first light of morning… Anyway I chased him up into a tree… And gave him a stern poking with a piece of bamboo… I did this three mornings in a row… And he still would come the morning after the garbage was picked up… I recently read somewhere that human urine can be a deterrent… Scientific fact or cruel prank?.. I’ll let you know soon…

On another… Cleaner note… I have personally had success using coffee grounds… I read about it on the internet a while back and being a daily coffee consumer… It fit the budget… I simply throw them out in the garden and yard after I am finished with my coffee… Of the three known raccoons living in my immediate neighborhood, I have had no recent damage… I thought the grubs had just all emerged and the food source was now gone… But after some digging… I have realized the grubs are still in my soil… It must be the coffee…

As far as garbage scavenger animals are concerned, it is important to remember that the animals can proliferate because of an availability of food. If you can eliminate a large portion of that available food, the animals will have to spread out over a larger territory, and the problem will solve itself. Remember that raccoons and rats serve an important purpose in urban environments… One that not many people are willing to do themselves… Cleanup… When someone throws their McDonald’s cheeseburger on the street, a human does not clean it up… So although they can be annoying… They are a requirement of the urban eco-system…

A wild animal will almost always take the easiest path to its food… If your garden has a fence around it… But your neighbors does not… The animal will eat your neighbor’s garden… If your garbage can has a lid on it… But your neighbors does not… It will be their garbage all over the street… Awareness and planning are often the key strategy… People always want a magic trick… I’ll give you a magic trick… Put the lid on your garbage can… If your cans are old and subsequently fall over… Spend $40 and get some new cans… Preferably ones with locking lids… And skip the wheels because they always fall off when the garbage men throw them back to the sidewalk… This makes them easily topple…

Now… I am not going to sit here and claim that I don’t have problems with animals in my gardens… I have not reached some kind of “hippy nirvana” as far as garden pests are concerned… What I have done is gotten to a point where I am able to isolate the problem… And in most cases eliminate the problem… And here’s the kicker… I have done it without killing anything… Mostly with persistence… But equally important is experimentation… Believe me… Some mornings I have wanted to kill something… But often it has been as simple as placing a few bricks over the soil in my garden where the animal likes to dig…

I would also like to add that 99% of the Raccoon related problems I am consulted on could be solved almost immediately by acquiring a new garbage can with a locking lid… Likewise… A groundhog really just wants food… You can either perpetually eliminate the things… Or account for his belly in your overall plan… Remember… Entering a yard or garden is often a risky move for a garden pest… At least it should be… If there is an easier source of food somewhere else… It will almost always go for it… The trick is often to make that easy source of food somewhere other than your personal garden…

This may be my last permaculture post for a while… I am gardening 10 hours a day… Five days a week… A guy has to eat… But because of this… I really don’t want to think about gardening when I get home… Sad… But true… We will just have to see what happens…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

https://chriscondello.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/practical-permaculture-keeping-cats-out-of-the-garden/

Practical Permaculture – The Vegetarian Compost Conundrum

Currant

“Inside The Currant Bush” – © chriscondello 2013 – Red Currant – Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery – Holland Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – I do not photograph piles of compost… I just don’t do it… I don’t want to look at photographs of steaming piles… So I don’t make you look at them… These red currants are available at Garden Dreams…

Most of you probably know that I am not a fan of urban compost, very few people know how to properly manage a compost pile… And even fewer are willing to take the time to actually flip the pile every once in a while… Hell… I know people who have spinning compost barrels that only require you to move your arm a little bit… And they still don’t do it… Unless that barrel has a timer hooked up to a motor… The barrel is not getting spun… And in turn… The entire neighborhood smells like someone left a Christmas ham in their trunk till August…

Compost, can simply be defined as the controlled decomposition of organic matter, that is really all there is to it. People try to complicate it for profit sake… But if you just put your organic scraps in a pile in your yard… Eventually they will break down…

Very few people realize this next little fact, but, compost and mulches should ideally be indigenous to the climate you are working in. Tropical plants will often not decompose in temperate climates. Furthermore, they can also often harbor bad bacteria or exotic invasive weed seeds. What I am saying is… If pests and diseases hitch-hike all around the country on plants… Imagine what could end up in your mulch… Keep your compost and mulches as local as possible…

Plants and organic material need moisture to decompose… So take all of those black plastic compost barrels I see all over Pittsburgh, and throw them right in the garbage… They do not work… And you will not be happy… Compost is always better off in an open air situation, oxygen is required for decomposition… The more… The better… Those little black barrels become cess pools… Not compost… You will end up dumping the contents into a pile anyways… And even that is a pain in the ass…

Compost will also not break down until it has reached a temperature of 122° F, and it will not get any hotter than 158° F. Dry and hot climates will require shade and moisture. Cool and wet climates may require some cover. When working in the tropics you can compost much larger material than in the temperate zone due to the climate being hot and humid.

In the temperate zone, all high-carbon, slow to break down material should be shredded. The more surface area you can create on your material, the faster it will break down. Shredding is not just about creating surface area, it is about facilitating the handling and turning of the compost pile. Straw and large branches tend to get tangled around each other, this will make the turning of your pile damn near impossible… The smaller your material… The better… Ideally, a compost pile should be flipped every two days… But once in a while will work fine… It’s better than never…

As a last-minute side note… Or little golden nugget of information… Whichever you choose… When it comes to shredable materials available in the suburbs… Freshly fallen trees are gold… Specifically speaking… Branches under 3″… You see… The cambium layer is the part of the tree responsible for nutrient movement… The smaller the branch… The higher the ratio of cambium layer to hardwood… When shredded… Small branches should always be composted… Or at least used for mulch… Use the good stuff when you can get your hands on it…

Bocking14

“Bocking 14” – © chriscondello 2013 – Comfrey – Hamnett Way – Wilkinsburg, PA – When you have a pile of yard debris… Plant comfrey around it… As time goes on… Cut the comfrey and throw it on your pile… It will speed up decomposition considerably…

Compost activators can be used, but should be placed directly in the middle of the pile for maximum efficiency. Believe it or not… Recently deceased animals make a great activator… Fish, comfrey, yarrow, urine and nettles will also work… Many stores and catalogs now sell “compost activators”… My opinion is to steer clear of them and go with something directly out of your garden… Personally… I like yarrow or comfrey… Peeing on my compost pile would not go over well in my neighborhood… And the cats would find the fish no matter how I buried it…

Compost is typically a low-maintenance activity… Though many a teacher today likes to turn it into a two-hour… $100 class… I find that it is relatively easy to make… But judging by the search engine terms people are using to find my blog… More of you have problems with compost than I thought… In my experience… The issues associated with bad compost stems from a simple lack of nitrogen in the pile. Hence the nitrogen rich activator like Comfrey… Or fish… This problem is commonly observed as a white fungus inside of a pile that smells bad… In the city… Grass clippings are the easy to find source of nitrogen… Carbon is the tricky one…

Properly aged compost, will not resemble any of the material it started out as… Think dark black soil… It should have an earthy smell, with hints of vanilla and almonds… Just kidding… As long as it does not smell like ammonia… You are fine… A pile that starts off at 3′ tall, will shrink considerably as the pile ages. You will know you have the formula right when your pile loses very little volume as it ages.

Flies, though annoying, are actually a welcomed addition to your compost pile. In urban environments flies may be considered more of a pest than anything. A simple way to avoid flies around your compost heap is to place all fruits and veggies on the inside of the pile, if you surround them with carbon matter you basically hide them. Once your compost breaks down, you will not have as much of a smell, or fly problem.

Insects and animals will die in your compost, that is why there is no such thing as a vegetarian compost pile… Insects and rodents do not count as vegetables… Unless there is some new diet I haven’t heard about yet… Books will constantly say you can’t compost meat, or fish… This is BULLSHIT!.. Entire road kills can be composted as long as you put them in the middle… Besides… I have smelled compost piles that would make roadkill smell like posies… Now I’m not recommending composting the neighborhood cat… Or throwing meat scraps in your small urban compost pile… What I am saying is more that plant matter will decompose in your compost pile… Don’t be overly disturbed if you find a dead rodent in your pile… because it happens… And it does not hurt the compost… Or you…

Books will also warn about composting certain weeds, or weeds that have gone to seed… This is also bullshit… A compost pile that reaches the proper temperature will cook the seeds… If you are still worried… Cover the aged pile with a black tarp for a couple of days… The added heat will typically finish the job. Often times, seeds germinating in your compost pile are often indicators of germination conditions… Instead of taking it as a bad sign… Take it as a good one… Figure out what type of weed they are… And google them… You will probably end up back on my blog…Regardless… Look at it as a learning experience… If seeds are germinating… You got something right…

PghPetunias

“Pittsburgh Petunias” – © chriscondello 2013 – My Garden – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Plant petunias and question everything…

I’m going to add another last-minute nugget of information… A heavy black tarp is a very effective garden bed making tool… Mark off the area you want your garden… Cover it with the black tarp… And let it sit in the sun for a few weeks… The lack of light coupled with the heat created will typically kill all weeds… Including turf grass… And cook any seeds that happen to be in the soil… This is the slow cousin of sheet mulching… Use it where a mound of compost would not be appropriate…

Given the high nutrient content of compost, often the only seeds that will germinate in your pile are climax species, and mineral accumulators. Weeds are actually one of the best things you can compost, if the weeds in your garden are absorbing all of your hard-earned nutrients, it would be silly to just throw them away… Compost everything…

To end this post… I really just want to say… Compost is really just a pile of decomposing organic waste in your backyard… It will smell… And it will attract bugs… So don’t put it next to your neighbors kitchen window…Compost should be in contact with the soil… And exposed to the elements… Man will try to sell you fancy containers… And expensive additives… When in reality … These are nothing more than leaky garbage cans…

Air exposure… In my experience… Is all you need to solve most problems… If you suspect something is awry… Put a fork in it…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Urban Permaculture – Part 6 – What to do with weeds

Weeds require nutrients to grow just like any plant, some of them require a massive amount of nutrients to grow as large as they do. When you remove a weed you are removing a capsule containing all of the nutrients that weed has absorbed from the soil. If you remove that biomass from your garden than you are throwing those nutrients out, eventually you will have to restore those nutrients somehow. The problem becomes chronic if the habit persists, requiring constant fertilizer applications to sustain healthy growth. Permaculturists either create, restore or sustain the natural systems at hand, while removal is sometimes necessary, it should be a last resort.

Once a weed has gone to seed there is very little you can do to kill those seeds, this is one of the times where it may be best to carefully remove them from your site. Weeds that have not gone to seed or gotten to big should be left near the garden, I like to leave them in the grass and run them over with a mulching lawnmower till they disappear. Larger weeds can take years to break down if left intact, either shred them or break them up as small as possible and compost them. One of my favorite techniques is to simply bury the weeds in your garden, I like a cleaner garden and don’t like to see piles. I once had to remove an old dead pear tree from a front yard, I dug out the root ball and dropped the tree, then burned the entire thing in the hole it came from. I was lucky to be able to burn on site in this community, most urbanites don’t have that ability.

If you don’t mind the look of the weed mulch in your garden then I would absolutely use them, it wouldn’t hurt anything. If you have a large area of concrete then I would use it to dry them out in the sun first, it only takes a day to dry them out enough to kill the roots. While on the subject if you save grass clippings, they should be dried first before applying them to your garden. Your blueberries thrive in highly acidic soil with a pH between 4 and 5, woodchips would actually be the prefered mulch in order to lower the pH.

Compost barrels bug the hell out of me, rarely do they work as intended I find them irritating and ineffective. Environmental aspects determine the rate at which an organic biomass breaks down into compost, temperature, moisture and air all play a major role. Compost barrels tend to be sealed environments, air holes are incorporated but never in the quantity required. Moisture is required for compost as well, with rain being one of the main factors in the decomposition of a pile, the lid on the compost barrel impedes this. Compost can reach internal temperatures of 160 degrees on its own, the black color of the barrel increases the internal temperature of the compost. Temperatures exceeding 185 degrees can slow the decomposition of your compost and damage bacteria and insects, compost barrels should be placed in full shade.

With that said I prefer piles when it comes to compost, three of them to be more specific. I like to build three bays out of concrete blocks, each bay should have three walls and a removable front. You start by filling the first bay for 6 months to a year, then do the same to the next bin. One compost pile is never enough, you constantly put new stuff in it and in turn it never gets a chance to fully break down. If you have three then you can fill a new one while you wait for the old ones to fully break down into a useable product.

Compost is one of the great yields we as gardeners could be harvesting, but it does require a little space and devotion of time to get it right. I am not saying urban gardeners are left out of the compost world, but consideration should be taken as most compost piles can smell pretty foul during the hot days of summer. Compost that has been fully decomposed will not have a foul smell, it will smell organic and pleasant. An ammonia smell is almost always a sign your compost pile is not ready, flip it, water it, and check on it in a week. Compost piles should be turned at a minimum of once a month, but once a week is preferred.

Sustainability Requires Resourcefulness – chriscondello

Three bay compost bin built for the Hamnett Place Community Garden in Wilkinsburg, PA. This one is made out of recycled pallets and was finished with hardware cloth, assembly was simple and the entire project was completed in just one day. I believe they recently harvested the first load of compost from the bins this year

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