Monday, December 28, 2009

Organic Stump Removal

If you have ever had to have a stump removed, you know it is a long, difficult, often arduous or expensive process. There are many methods. You can use harsh chemicals, which slowly dissolve the stump over 4-6 weeks, while you try to keep the kids and pets at bay. Oh, and you will probably need to let the stump sit around for a year after you cut the tree down before this one will work. There are stump grinders, which are expensive and noisy, but produce a handy pile of wood shavings. Then there is the fun way: dynamite. It is kind of dangerous, though, and you had better have a hired expert and all kinds of permits.

If you aren’t in a big rush, though, you could just eat the stump. How’s that, you say? Well, it turns out that most trees have 1/3 to ½ of their total body mass under ground. Think about how much wood there is down there. It shouldn’t be too hard if you just cut up the top part of the tree. We are talking about hundreds or even thousands of pounds of wood. Now you and I can’t really get at all that wood, but there are other things that can. Many of the tastier gourmet mushrooms excel at stump removal. They will get in there and decompose that stump over several years, all while producing periodic clusters of tasty mushrooms. When they are done, any wood that is left over will be well decomposed and easy to dig out or bury. All that wood that is left over underground just gets turned into soil.

First, the cautions. There are two main difficulties with growing edible mushrooms on a stump. The first is contamination. You can put whatever edible mushroom on there that you want, but if some other mushroom beat you to it, you are just out of luck. Sometimes a wild mushroom will act like a mycorrhizal mushroom for the life of the tree. In doing so, it will grow its fibers throughout the wood of the tree. When the tree dies, it switches to saprophytic mode and begins decomposing the tree. When this is the case, it can be hard to supplant the original mushroom with the one you want growing there. Ditto with a parasitic mushroom that either killed the tree or was working on it when you cut it down. Also, tree roots have a LOT of surface area. That is their purpose. They contact the soil to get what they need out of it. That same soil can also have a lot of decomposers in it. When the tree dies and stops resisting the rot, it is just about guaranteed that something is waiting in the wings to move in, and there are lots of contact points for it do just that.

The second difficulty is related to the first. When you put an edible mushroom on your stump, you need to be able to identify it when it comes out of the ground. You need to know what it looks like and key features that distinguish it from other similar mushrooms. It is also an extremely good idea to be familiar with similar mushrooms and know which are poisonous. Joining a local mycological society is a good idea, or even finding a mycologist at your local university (assuming they are friendly and willing to help). Whatever you do, don't just eat whatever pops up on your stump. It is better to ignore the mushrooms and just have your stump removed than to get poisoned.

The first and most important step to stump removal with mushrooms is to pick the right mushroom for the job. The first thing to remember is that each species of mushroom has certain preferences for what types of wood it decomposes. If you put the wrong kind of mushroom on your stump, it will either fail to grow or not grow strong and be prone to competition from other kinds of mushrooms. The second thing to remember is that while certain types of mushrooms, such as shiitake and oyster, grow very well on logs, they may not be the best suited for growing on stumps. A stump is a unique and highly competitive environment. You are better off to pick a stump specialist. The third thing to consider is that, all else being equal, pick the mushroom that doesn't have any poisonous look-alikes. It will make identification easier.

Here are a few likely candidates:

Agrocybe aegerita (Black Poplar Mushroom or Pioppino Mushroom)
Flavor-wise, this is my personal favorite, being both mild and complex. It tends to prefer warmer, more humid environments and is native to the southeastern United States. It has a strong preference for members of the poplar family, so stumps of poplar, cottonwood, and aspen are good bets. It will also work nicely on willows and maples.

Hypholoma sublateritium (Brick Top Mushroom or Cinnamon Cap Mushroom)
This aggressive decomposer of wood can be pretty productive. I got a mushroom kit with this one on it several years ago and it has the distinction of having exceeded the theoretical maximum for mushroom production. The flavor is strong, but it made the best cream of mushroom soup I have ever had. Be careful, though, as there are look-alikes that are poisonous. It tends to prefer oak and chestnut stumps, but can probably be grown on many others.

Grifola frondosa (Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom or Maitake)
G. frondosa is a strange one. It seems to be particularly good at not only keeping competitors at bay, but actually pushing out previous inhabitants of stumps it desires. It then seems to take its time in decomposing the stump. There are stories of majestic oaks whose stumps will produce seasonal clumps of these mushrooms for decades. It is a wonderful edible mushroom as well as a powerful medicinal mushroom and I have seen it selling at specialty stores for as much as $30/pound when fresh. It prefers oaks, but can also be grown on elms, honey locust, maples, and beech.

Laetiporus sulphureus (Chicken-of-the-Woods Mushroom or Sulphur Tuft Mushroom)
This orange mushroom is called the Chicken of the Woods because it supposedly has a texture and flavor so similar to chicken that it can be substituted for chicken in recipes. This mushroom is a bit less picky than some of the others and can be grown on a wide variety of woods, though it tends to prefer oaks. There is a closely related sister species called L. conifericola that prefers conifer trees, particularly hemlocks.

Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail Mushroom)
This one isn't actually an edible mushroom, being too tough to chew. It is, however, a powerful medicinal mushroom, being the source of at least one of our common cancer fighting drugs. It makes a lovely and refreshing tea. I add this one to the list because it is the least picky of all of the types of mushrooms here. It can be grown on any type of hardwood and most kinds of conifers, including juniper, pine, fir, and spruce.

As far as method, it is actually pretty easy. The easiest way to inoculate a stump is with mushroom plug spawn. In essence, it is a small wooden dowel that has the particular mushroom you are looking for growing on it. You drill a hole in the log and pound it in, sealing the hole with wax when you are done. The more plugs you put in, the better, so one every few inches, especially in the outer rim of the wood, just inside the bark. A single stump can take over a hundred plugs. If you don't have access to plug spawn, you can also drill a larger hole and pack in some sawdust spawn. It becomes harder to protect, though, as many critters will get in and munch on your spawn. Earthworms and pillbugs particularly enjoy mushroom spawn. Another method is to cut off a round of the stump (assuming it is tall enough) and pack an inch or so of spawn on the open cut. Then nail the round back on top. A little burlap or wax around the edge should provide enough protection until the mushroom can become established.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Rational Method

Okay, let’s say that my method for calculating average monthly rainfall in my previous post just isn’t good enough for you. You are too detail-oriented for that little amount of information to be satisfying. You want to know how to calculate how much rain you are getting in a particular storm. Well, this post is for you. For the rest of you who came here looking for some interesting gardening information: may I show you to another lovely post? Just keep it in mind as a reference. At any rate, I’ll have another post up shortly. It is gonna get pretty math-y pretty quickly here.

The Rational Method is an old method that civil engineers use to determine how much water a particular storm even is going to deliver. So, if you are designing a culvert to carry the water from a 100 year storm, this one will do it. As technology and science have improved our accuracy for calculating runoff, the Rational Method hasn’t really gotten left behind. It is still considered pretty accurate up to about 600 acres or so and is often used as a check when more complex methods are used.

The beauty of the Rational Method is its simplicity. Here it is:


Q is the runoff in cubic feet per second (cfs)
C is the runoff coefficient
i is the rainfall intensity in inches/hour, and
A is the drainage basin area in acres

Starting with the easier ones, A is pretty easy to calculate. The only tricky part is measuring it. If you have a small area, you might be able to get it with a measuring tape or similar measuring device. If you have a larger drainage area, you might need to go to the USGS and find yourself a topo map of your area. Remember: water always flows perpendicular to the contour lines, so trace perpendicular to the contour lines until you can find the ridgeline. Then measure off and calculate your area. It is easiest for this sort of thing, unless you happen to have a planimeter, to just break it up into simple geometric shapes and calculate the areas individually. Then convert by the scale factor of the drawing and then convert to acres.

Your value for C is going to be based on observation. Take a look at the area that you are draining from. C gives you the percentage of water that is actually draining off. So impervious surfaces will give you a higher C value than a soft, fluffy forest floor. Here are some sample C values:

Paved areas, roof areas, impermeable areas: 0.95
Bare ground: 0.25
Lawn area: 0.20
Suburban areas: 0.35
Steep terrain: 0.70

The value for i is the tricky one. Basically, shorter storms tend to be more intense. However, when a drop of rain falls on the farthest reaches of your drainage basin, it takes a certain amount of time to reach your concentration point. If it takes 30 minutes for your raindrop to reach your concentration point and you calculate for the 10 minute storm, the storm will be over before the entire area is contributing to the runoff at the same time. However, for most areas that a homeowner would be dealing with, i.e. under a few acres, 10 minutes is a reasonable assumption, so use the 10 minute storm. To actually get the values for your area (in the United States), go to the NOAA site and get an intensity-duration-frequency chart for your area and use the column for a 10 minute storm. Just make sure that the final number you plug into the Rational Method is in inches/hour. If not, be sure to convert it beforehand.

Then you just plug the numbers in and calculate your flow. You can use that to tell you how quickly your basin will fill up in a particular storm, or multiply by the length of your storm to figure how much rain you will get.

I will offer one caution, though. A lot of what is involved in accurately determining the numbers to plug into the formula relies on expertise. If you don’t have the expertise, it is called guessing. If you really need this calculated accurately, which you will if you have flooding issues, or you are building it near your or anyone else’s building, or if you have a large drainage area near your house, to name a few, you should really have this calculation done professionally by a civil engineer.

To say it another way: The calculation above is for entertainment purposes only and should not be attempted by non-professionals for any purpose other than idle curiosity.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Collecting Rainwater Through Grading

Grading is the process of moving and shaping dirt. It is usually done for aesthetics, but it can certainly be used to catch rainwater. The concept is actually pretty simple: You shape the earth so that runoff is captured and held in place by a berm long enough that it will soak in. This method works particularly well on a hillside. You can create a system of berms in a sort of fish scale pattern down the hill. Each area collects a certain amount of water and then spills over to the next basin below.

The methodology is actually pretty simple. The first and most important step is to observe your particular situation. Walk around and look at the grades. If you are on the top of a hill, this won't work as there is nowhere for water to come from. If you are in the middle of a large drainageway, it probably won't work as well because the large volume of water will wash away your berms or flood your plantings. It is particularly helpful to walk around during a rain. Sometimes visually inspecting slopes can be tricky, but flowing water never lies. Look for places where water collects, how far it comes from, and what sort of surface is picking up water. If you have a large area draining to your basin, it may affect how big you make it. Also beware of picking up water off of parking lots or other possible sources of pollution.

The next step is to build a berm (which is a mound of earth) in a line on the downhill side of your basin. This will hold the water in. Remember that water will always find its level, so the top of the berm needs to be level all the way around. If you mound it up on the downhill side and leave it low on the sides, the water will just flow around your berm.

There are also a few construction methods to use when building your berm. First of all, be sure to leave a low spot in your berm where you want the excess water to overflow and make sure that you protect that with some rock. You might be surprised how fast moving water can remove dirt. Secondly, you will want some degree of compaction in your dirt. Walking on the berm as you build it up works pretty well. Mechanical compactors work better. The compaction does several things for your berm. It reduces pores and keeps the water from flowing through your berm, it protects your berm from erosion and failure, and it ensures that as your berm compacts naturally over time, it maintains the elevation you built it at.

Now for the big question: how do you determine how tall to build your berm? Well, first we'll state the obvious. Your berm can't be taller than the spot where water is entering your basin, or the water will never get in. Other than that, the trick is to balance two factors: how much water you are getting, and how fast it will soak in. If you provide too little storage, it won't soak in before it runs off. If you provide too much storage, it will drown your plants.

To determine how much water you are getting, you will need to do a quick calculation. The hard part will be determining how big of an area is draining to your bed. Again, this comes down to observation. Do your best to determine the square footage of the area (A) draining to your basin. Rough numbers will do as this is far from an exact calculation, though better numbers are, well, better. Measuring is better than eyeballing. Next, look up your local monthly rainfall averages (R). The weather channel is a good place to look for this information. You will probably going to want to do this for each month as it will help you fill out your water budget. The last number you need is the runoff coefficient (C). This number explains how much of the water that fell from the sky actually ran off as opposed to what soaked in. Here are a couple of sample numbers:

Paved areas, roof areas, impermeable areas: 0.95

Bare ground: 0.25

Lawn area: 0.20

Suburban areas: 0.35

Steep terrain: 0.70

Obviously there are a lot more numbers to this table, but I don't want to overwhelm you. For more information, look up C values for use in the Rational Method.

Next you will calculate how much water (W) you are getting. To determine how much water you are getting in an average month, multiply the amount of rain that falls in that month (R) with the area it is running off of (A) and the runoff coefficient (C), or


Now take this number and divide it by the area of your basin. This will give you how many inches of water you are collecting in your basin for that month. Compare that with the numbers from your water budget.

To determine how quickly your water absorbs into the soil, you need to know a little about your soil. The bigger the particle size, the quicker it will absorb. Water flows through sand very quickly, while it flows through clay very slowly. The best way to test this is to do a perc (short for percolation) test. A basic perc test can be done pretty easily. Dig a hole at least 1' deep and as big around as you care to dig. Fill it with water and let it drain. Then fill it again and time how long it takes to drain. If it drains within a few minutes, you can make your basin as big as you want. If it takes a few hours, the basin should probably be a foot or two deep. If it takes over 24 hours, make a shallow basin, say 6" to a foot deep, unless you live in an arid environment.

Now for the tricky part: adjusting your system. Unless you hire an engineer to really calculate this exactly, or you are particularly good at this sort of calculation yourself, it is going to be difficult to size it exactly just by doing the math. Let's just say that I left out a lot of details to simplify the calculation. The fine tuning can be done pretty easily in the field. As I mentioned previously, you will want an overflow in your berm. By adjusting this overflow up or down, you can adjust how much water your basin will collect. If it is too soggy, lower your overflow. If it is too dry and too much water is running off, raise the overflow and/or the entire berm.

Finally, a little disclaimer: Always check with your local municipality before doing something like this. Different areas have different laws regulating this sort of activity. Also remember never to change the direction that water flows across your property. The place where water enters your property and leaves your property must remain unchanged throughout this process, or you may open yourself up to liability. Good luck!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ask Mad Bioneer - November 2009

I have seen many of the search terms that have been used to get to my blog and I really think I can answer some of the questions that have that led people here. So here is your chance. Post your questions in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them. First, though, a few caveats: 1) Please keep them relevant to the types of topics I covered on my blog, 2) As much as I write about mushrooms, I am more into growing them than hunting them and I am not very good at identifying wild mushrooms, and 3) You experts out there, please weigh in if I get something wrong. While I do have a great passion for this subject, I don't know everything and I am here to learn as much as I am to teach. I look forward to your questions!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Making a Water Budget

Okay, so you have decided to take a good, hard look at how much water you are using on your garden or landscaping and see if there is a better way to do it. The first step is to figure out how much you are getting and how much you are going to need. If it is starting to sound like basic budgeting, you are right. It is time to make a water budget. My city, Prescott, Arizona, USA, has a really good worked example for the locals here (link downloads a .pdf file). The basics are actually very simple.

First, you need to separate your planted areas by water requirements. Are they xeriscape, garden, turf, or native landscape plants? Garden and lawn take the most water and are generally considered oasis areas. Non-native landscape plants and fruit trees typically take less water than an oasis area, but more than native vegetation. Native plants and xeriscape plants usually need additional water only in a drought. Then you need to figure how much water you are going to need for each area. Prescott's numbers are probably pretty good as a starting point. Prescott is above 5,000 feet in elevation in Arizona, so it doesn't get excessively hot here (typically 5 or so days a year over 100 degrees F), but it is very dry, typically in the 10-30% humidity range. We do also get normal winters, being in USDA Zone 7. So you may have to adjust water requirements just a little to fit your area: up for hotter, down for cooler, down for more humid. It may take some trial and error. For Prescott, oasis areas require 8" of water a month during the growing season and 1" per month during the dormant season. Trees require 45 gallons a month during the growing season and 4.5 gallons a month during the dormant season.

Secondly, you will want to look up your rainfall data. I get mine from the Weather Channel page, which has monthly averages. Given the nature of climates, much more accurate data than that isn't actually going to be more accurate.

Lastly, you just calculate how many inches of rain you are going to need for your landscape in a given month and subtract from that how many inches you are likely to get. The difference between the two is the amount you have to add to your garden or landscaping to keep it alive and allow it to thrive. That water can come from your tap, gray water, or from captured rainwater.

There really isn't much to say about tap water. You turn on the faucet and it comes out. It is super easy and reasonably cheap, but not necessarily the best solution. If you are in an area that is short on water, and most are these days, it drains the local supply and increases shortages. Also, while water doesn't cost too much, neither do vegetables. How much water does it take in your garden before you are paying more for the water to grow your veggies than it would have cost to get them at the store?

Gray water involves double using SOME of the water from your house. I will cover that in detail in a future post.

Capturing rainwater is another good way to get water and there are two basic ways to do it. The first is to shape your land so that it collects water and the second is to collect rainwater off of the roof of your house. I'll also cover those in upcoming posts.

Finally, remember that just because you get more water than you need in a given month, it doesn't mean that it will arrive when you need it. Tap water is a really great backup system.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The first freeze has hit with a vengence here in my area and it is finally time to harvest some of the fall veggies. There are certain vegetables, like kale (especially red russian), collards and jerusalem artichokes that really shouldn't be harvested before the first freeze. Freezing temperatures actually sweeten the vegetables, making them much tastier after the frost than before.

But why is this? Well, it usually happens with veggies that are capable of keeping green leaves going well past the first several light frosts. In the case of jerusalem artichokes, they are adapted to northern climates and keep their tubers above the frost depth, which can be several feet in parts of their habitat. In both cases, the plants need a natural antifreeze in their flesh that keeps the ice crystals from forming as long as possible.

Now, the antifreeze in your car is seriously dangerous stuff. It is loaded with different kinds of sugars that keep the water from freezing, but it also has pump lubricants that help all the machinery running. The sugars make it taste yummy to animals and children while the lubricants kill them.

Plants basically use the same system to keep themselves from freezing, without the toxic side effects. By upping the concentration of sugar in their flesh, they keep the damaging ice crystals at bay. In the process, they make themselves sweeter and thus tastier.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Raised Bed Garden or Sunken Bed Garden

When starting a garden, the goal is to maximize your advantages while minimizing your disadvantages. A raised bed garden is a good way to do this. By building a raised bed, you give your garden great drainage. You don't have to worry about poor native soil, either. You need to fill up the raised bed anyway, so you might as well fill it with the good stuff. A raised bed garden also helps bad backs by making it so that you don't have to bend over so far to get to your garden. In addition, there are other minor benefits, such as getting the garden up high enough that certain pests, like rabbits, can't get to it. If slugs are a problem in your area, a simple strip of copper ringing the raised bed will keep them out. Slugs and snails won't cross copper.

When I started my first garden at my first house here in Arizona, my goal was to create a raised bed. Materials were expensive and I didn't have a lot of money, so it was a long term goal. But after a few years, I discovered that a raised bed garden would not necessarily be a good thing here. In the arid southwest, good drainage is a bad thing. The more water you let drain away, the more you have to supply. All of our water here comes from the ground. The more you use, the more you pump out. The more you pump out, the less there is to go around. So conserving the water you have is a very good idea. In addition, we get close to enough rain to water everything. It just doesn't always come down when you need it. So the real way to make that work is to store as much water as you can when it does come and use it for the dry periods. A rain barrel makes for a good storage device, but it can become cost-prohibitive to buy enough to fully meet your needs. What you really need is a way to keep the water that hits your garden, a way to store the water in the ground.

A sunken bed garden does just that. It keeps the water from flowing away long enough that it can soak in. You then have the water stored in the soil itself, which will help the plants last longer between waterings, which means less water used overall. If your terrain allows, you can even shape the earth so that your sunken bed catches runoff from elsewhere. I will cover methods for doing that in a future post.

Another advantage for sunken bed gardening here lies in the soil itself. There isn't as much sand in Arizona as you might think. In fact, there is a lot of clay, and lots of that is expansive. Expansive clay works much like water-grabber crystals. When they are exposed to water, the microscopic particles expand and hold on to the water. In its natural state, this is a bad thing, and not just for your building foundations. During a rain event, the clay particles on the surface swell and seal off the pores in the soil. This means that the water can't really penetrate deep into the soil and just runs off, wasted. A sunken bed will help the water sit long enough for it to soak in. It still may just sink in a few inches, just enough to saturate the surface and cause troubles for the plants that don't like wet feet. To really take advantage of the water-holding properties of the soil, you need to amend the soil. When you first create the garden dig down a foot or more and amend with organic material, preferably composted wood chips. The wood will have some lasting power in the soil. Ideally you'll have as much as 50% of the volume of the soil as organic material. This will open up the pores of the clay and let the water soak in deep. The clay particles will still swell and hold the water, but now more of them can do the work, delivering it slower and holding it over a greater area. Also, if you treat the soil with a mycorrhizal fungus, the fungus will travel through the organic material, better surviving than in a soil that is poor in organic material. It will then send its filaments throughout the soil and grab the moisture that the plants can't reach and deliver it to the plants.

So, how do you design one of these? I'll cover that in a future post as well, so stay tuned. For now I'll just say that factors like local rainfall, soil and what you are planting all come into play. I will also say that this sort of design is ideally suited for landscaping and will give you a lower-maintenance landscape. It is a little trickier for vegetable gardening.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Mulch is amazing stuff, and probably my biggest area for improvement in the garden would be to be more judicious about using it. Mulch has so many uses in the garden and landscape. It cools the soil. It holds moisture long enough for more of it to penetrate than bare soil. It allows moisture to penetrate deeper into the soil and keeps it from evaporating as fast. It smothers weeds thus reducing weed problems in your landscape. Most importantly, it feeds the soil by providing a slow, constant source of organic matter to feed the micro- and macro-organisms in the soil.

It is worth noting that I am almost exclusively talking about organic mulches. There are also inorganic mulches, such as plastic liner, gravel, decomposed granite, river rock, and landscape fabric. Plastic barriers do a great job of keeping out weeds and keeping in warmth, but they smother the soil, preventing oxygen and moisture from reaching the soil. If you remember that soil is a living organism, you might see how smothering the soil is a bad thing. I also don't particularly like rock mulches since leaves and weeds have to be removed regularly or they look bad. It is a lot more work maintaining rock mulches in an attractive fashion than it is to maintain organic mulches. I will say, though, that mulches made of large rocks can create a useful micro-climate where needed. The rocks absorb heat to help heat-loving plants in cool climates and can act as a thermal mass, protecting tender plants from some of the harshness of cold nights.

As far as organic mulches go, there are a number of different kinds, each with their own benefits and disadvantages:

Yes, compost can be considered a mulch. It shades the soil and helps water penetrate. In addition, it provides a phenomenal benefit of nutrients and beneficial bacteria and fungus to the soil. As for disadvantages, it may not prevent weeds as well as other materials and it doesn't give that neat, clean, landscaped look that other mulches provide. It just looks like black dirt. Also, if you are making your own, it is really difficult to produce enough to provide enough that it actually counts as mulch.

This one is really nice for the veggie garden. You usually want to apply it a little thicker than other mulches to get the same weed protection. It does break down rapidly, though, and it makes a great soil amendment.

Wood Chips
This is one of the easier mulches to come by. Wood chips make your landscaping look nice and neat. They also take a long time to break down, giving them lasting power in your landscape. Conventional wisdom is that woodchips also bind nitrogen in the soil, holding on to it until they are broken down. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. On the bad side, they can rob your plants of nitrogen and stunt their growth. On the good side, they do the same thing to weeds.

Fallen Leaves
When the leaves fall off your trees in the autumn, they usually get thrown in the compost bin (or, heaven forbid, go out with the trash). But they can also be used as a mulch. One of the big advantages is that if you have enough moisture, the two dimensional nature of the leaves comes into play and they stick together to make a dense mat. It can be so dense that if left on a lawn, just a few inches can kill your lawn. The grass can't penetrate it, and neither will weed seedlings. It is also great food for the fungus and worms in your soil.

Cocoa Bean Hulls
I am still looking for this mythical mulch. A neighbor had some a few years ago and it made her whole garden smell like brownies. It also looked pretty nice. The only problem is that some dogs find it irresistible. The chemicals in chocolate, including the hulls, can kill a dog. So use this one with care.

Grass Clippings
Fresh grass clippings are very high in nitrogen and moisture. If you put a big pile of them on your landscaping, they will get smelly. However, if you spread them out to dry or just put a thin layer on your landscaping or garden, they will dry out pretty quickly and add a little nitrogen to your soil.

Wood Pellet Fuel
Wood pellets are made specifically for pellet stoves. They are sawdust that is dried and compressed to make pellets. The nice thing about them is that when you add water, they swell to several times their original size. Plus, a 40 pound bag sells for about $4.50 in my area. The resulting mulch is a bit finer than I usually like, but it really is pretty nice. I will offer a caution, though. I haven't found much information about what is in them, so I always look for one that says "100% Organic" or "100% Wood" or something of the sort on it. I don't think they put additives in it to help it burn, but it'd be good to know for sure. Also, it is generally only available in winter.

Cardboard and Newspaper
Cardboard and newspaper work in much the same way as landscape fabric or plastic sheeting with the added benefits that they are cheap or free and will biodegrade over time. Few organic mulches are better for weed control than a nice layer of cardboard or newspaper. In my experience, these usually work best with wood chips or some other material on top. You need something to hold them down or the wind will pick them up and put them somewhere else.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In-Situ Composting

I am nearing the end of my first season of gardening in my biologically active container garden and that means it is time to assess successes and failures. Successes are pretty simple. The swiss chard and turnip pot was wildly successful and still is. The varmint protection systems had to be upgraded a few times, but ultimately held against some pretty determined varmints. Finally, my multi-layered pot, with beets in front, dill and cilantro in the middle and okra in the back, fared very well and provided a solid wall of green all summer long.

Failures were pretty easy to assess as well. I tried to grow marigolds and nasturtium as companion plants and both grew quicker than the plants they were supposed to help and took over. So next year the flowers go in the ground, not the pots. Eggplants, beets, tomatoes, beans, chervil, onions and gourds all failed to reach their potential, though of those the beets fared the best.

The biggest issue, though, was the soil. My starter soil was the leftovers from a myco-vermicomposting experiment I had done several years before. The soil was black, fine and a little sticky. My plants absolutely loved it. The problem was, there wasn't enough to go around. So I spread it out and thinned it out with composted and partially composted remnants I had around. Then I bought some composted wood chips from the local nursery. A few pots had several inches of this stuff on top. To all of this I added blood meal, bone meal, and an organic mixed fertilizer containing rock phosphate and greensand, among other things. A few plants seemed to lack nitrogen, but otherwise nutrients seemed to be fine. The plants in the pots that were primarily my homemade soil did just fine. The store-bought compost, however, was problematic. It was too chunky and made for excellent drainage. So excellent, in fact, that the plants couldn't manage to collect the water before it drained away. Seedlings would sprout and then dry out, despite being watered twice a day. The plants that made it floundered and failed to grow much.

In an attempt to get some well-needed soil amendment, I am going to be trying something a little new. I have previously tried composting at my house, but without some draconian measures, it has proven difficult to keep the javelinas out of my compost. They break into my container, break the container, and either eat or make a mess of the contents. For the last several months I have been giving my compost to the neighborhood bins. However, this weekend I was able to fully put one of the pots to bed for the winter, harvesting what remained of the beets and pulling up everything else. Since this bin has already proven itself javelina-proof, I pulled the soil out from the middle and pushed it up the sides, giving me a good place to put all of my scraps and trimmings. I also encountered a number of worms while digging, which means that they are there and ready to do my composting for me. With any luck, some or even most of it will be composted and ready to use by spring. Then I can use it to boost my soil for better nutrients, better biological activity, more worms, and better water-holding capability.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Geeky Gardening

I have mentioned several times in this blog that I am a total biology geek and that gardening is my expression of those tendencies. But this definition bothers me. My wife and I are proud geeks, but is gardening really geeky? I mean, it is usually done outdoors. There's sun out there! Geeks aren't usually known for their deep tans.

However, there are certain aspects of gardening that are intensely geeky. As John Hodgman said, "We are geeks. We are defined by our passions and our enthusiasms." There are few pastimes that inspire passion and enthusiasm in so many people as gardening. Gardening can make normal people talk about, and even research, things like chemistry, botany, zoology, microbiology and even mycology. It can make a seemingly normal person keep a thousand red worms as pets, fussing over their enclosure, their health and the quality of their bowel movements. I typically observe the status of my gardens at least 4 times a day. And yes, I can tell the difference, thank you. If that doesn't qualify as passion and enthusiasm, I don't know what does. So if you think that the statement "Can't see the forest for the trees" should be revised to say "Can't see the forest for those yellow spots on the leaves. Dammit! What is that, blight? I am going to have check my gardening books and spray now..." then perhaps you should check your habits against the list below. It might just give you some ideas.

1) Garden Schedule
Gardener: Knows when first and last frost dates are and plants accordingly.
Geeky Gardener: Knows exact planting dates of all seeds relative to first and last frost and keeps records.
Über Geeky Gardener: Enters all of those dates into a calendar program with a "repeat yearly" option.

2) Soil Chemistry
Gardener: Understands that there are nutrients in the soil that are essential to the growth of plants and adds fertilizer to make sure there are enough of each.
Geeky Gardener: Owns a soil test kit and several electronic gadgets and knows the exact soil composition in any given location because he tests it regularly.
Über Geeky Gardener: Created a raised bed garden and made all of his own soil so he could have exact control.

3) Tools
Gardener: Has a set of tools that he keeps in good working order.
Geeky Gardener: Has all the best tools and they are kept razor sharp, well oiled, and hung on pegboard, complete with outlined shapes so the unkempt masses don't put the tools where they don't belong.
Über Geeky Gardener: “What, they don't make WiFi moisture meters and networked programmable automatic watering systems? I guess I'll have to make my own...”

4) Latin Names
Gardener: What's a Latin name?
Geeky Gardener: Knows Latin names and family groups for most of his plants.
Über Geeky Gardener: Knows exact Latin name, including genus and species, of every plant is his garden, including cultivar names and refuses to call them by anything else.

5) Weather
Gardener: Understands basics of seasons in his area.
Geeky Gardener: Has a weather station and records rainfall and temperature highs and lows.
Über Geeky Gardener: Maintains a weather station for NOAA.

6) Garden Planning
Gardener: Knows where they planted each plant.
Geeky Gardener: Will painstakingly plan out their garden, developing diagrams (probably in AutoCAD) of what was planted where and keep them for posterity to help with crop rotation.
Über Geeky Gardener: Will plan it all out, just like the geeky gardener, but will also take companion plants, beneficial insect habitats, sun angles, plant light requirements, soil that has been previously innoculated for legumes and light exposure into consideration. He will also specially plan out and design microclimates for his perennials and slow-growing annuals.

7) Garden Biology
Gardener: Understands that the different organisms in the garden interact and that those interactions are important.
Geeky Gardener: Seeks to understand as many organisms as possible and to control garden health through the use of careful applications of organic matter, organic fertilizer, companion plants, beneficial insects and more.
Über Geeky Gardener: Does all the same things as the geeky gardener and then blogs about it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Purslane: Noxious Weed or Superfood?

Some years ago I was flipping through my new book on gardening and found an odd vegetable that I had never heard of called purslane. Oddly enough, it looked just like the noxious weed that was completely taking over my parents' garden. So I grabbed a sprig and took it to the nearest garden center where they confirmed that yes, indeed, it was purslane.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a fleshy succulent, preferring to grow in hot, dry weather. It has a low growth habit and produces thousands of tiny seeds all summer long, giving it its reputation as a noxious weed. It can be hard to eradicate from your garden. However, it is also a prime edible, with a crunchy texture and wonderful flavor. While the flavor is sort of generically "green," some of them, usually the bigger leaves, have a distinct lemon flavor. In addition, they are one of the highest known vegetative sources of omega-3 fatty acids. It is also full of vitamins and minerals. Its dietary benefits are enough that some have gone so far as to call it a superfood.

So where can you get some seeds from this wonderful plant? I have yet to see any offered at seed catalogs, but it is pretty easy to score a little seed factory in many areas. Purslane uses its fleshy stems, which are also edible, as a water and nutrient storage device. After you have pulled the weed, it will continue to produce flowers and manufacture seeds as long as it can. I pulled one particularly healthy plant a few months ago. It was still producing flowers after a month of sitting in the sun. In Arizona. In July. So find the biggest plant you can find and pluck it. Then put it wherever you want the plants to take over. It will likely produce hundreds of seeds before it perishes. Unless the javelinas eat it first .

Now go eat your weeds.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Begun, The Piggie Wars Have

Back in December, I moved from a house to a rental unit. At the house, I had a full fence and no mammalian herbivores larger than a mouse. I was able to garden with nary a worry about keeping the varmints off of my produce. At the new place, this is very much not the case. I have seen rabbits, ground squirrels, deer, and javelinas, and who knows what else lurks at night. Ringtails, skunks and porcupine are certain to inhabit the area as well. Of all of those, javelinas are the worst threat. Javelina (pronounced hav-a-LEEN-a) is a local name for a collared peccary, which is sort of like a wild pig. Gangs of two to 15 or more roam my neighborhood at night, and occasionally during the day. Not only are they eaters of all things vegetable, but they are also known to be ornery and cantankerous, digging up plants they don't eat for just the heck of it and doing damage randomly for no reason. I have heard that if you do something that makes them mad, they will make a point to swing by and tear up your landscaping just to get even.

So when I decided to garden in containers at the new place, I knew some protection would be required. I encircled each container with a cylinder of chicken wire 3' tall. Some cylinders were better than others. The one around my greens was a bit loose and I suspected that they wouldn't have too much trouble getting under it. I was right, and round one went to the piggies. They also did some damage to my tomato plant, which had taken it upon itself to grow outside its protective barrier.

For round two, I raised the greens up, putting the shallow metal tub that they were in on cinderblocks. Javelinas are short and won't usually bother with things that are too tall. Plus, the extra height inside the chicken wire made it extremely difficult to get under the chicken wire and get anything useful. Well, it didn't work. They figured out how to push my chicken wire down, making an accordion out of it. They also finished off my greens, eating everything that was over 2" off the ground. In the same raid, they managed do much the same thing to my tomato plant, doing enough damage that the plant had to be removed. They also made a play for my beets. However, the chicken wire around that pot, a whiskey barrel, fit much tighter and while they were able to push it flat, they couldn't get any of my plants through it. Round two went to the piggies.

This past weekend I bought some 3/8" rebar, 4' long. Each of the central pots got 3 pieces of rebar, with each woven through the holes in the chicken wire on the way down and then pounded 1' into the ground. The ones on the edges got a 4th piece of rebar to protect the sides. This stiffens the chicken wire, making it a lot harder for the javelinas to flatten the cages. It also makes it harder to push the containers around because they are more firmly rooted to the ground.

As phase two of round three, I bought some garlic and hot chili powder. When I get a chance, I will crush two or three garlic cloves and mix them with a few cups of water. Then I'll add a tablespoon or two of the chili powder and a few tablespoons of vinegar. The vinegar will help the capsaicins from the chili dissolve in the water. Then I'll stir well and strain and spray on the pots and some of the plants. Yes, it is chemical warfare just the way Mother Nature intended.

In addition, when I planted the rest of my fall garden this week, I generously planted garlic in among the fall veggies. Not only will the garlic grow all winter, giving me a spring crop, but it will also provide an additional layer of living chemical protection from the critters.

While I was disappointed at the damage the javelinas caused to my garden, I must say I am enjoying the challenge they are giving me. We'll see how round three goes.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Compost Tea

Compost is wonderful stuff. It increases the health and vitality of your soil, thereby increasing the health of your plants. It does this primarily by feeding the beneficial microbes in the soil. When they become active, they make all kinds of good things. Add to this all of the major and minor nutrients that compost contains and it is practically the perfect supplement for your plants. There’s just one problem. Compost takes a long time to make. Okay, two problems. For every pound of raw material you put in, you only get a few ounces of finished compost. So you work hard all summer collecting table scraps, lawn clippings, and garden trimmings and you work hard all fall collecting all those fallen leaves. You fill the compost bin several times over, yet somehow by spring you only have enough to provide a sparse top dressing to your garden. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to make some sort of “compost concentrate” that you could apply or even get something that you can apply weekly? Well, it turns out that you can. It’s called compost tea.

Compost tea is a liquid version of compost that you spray on your plants as a foliar spray as well as pour on the soil around the plants. It is full of both beneficial nutrients and beneficial bacteria. Compost tea increases overall health of the plant and increases the thickness of the cuticle of the leaf, helping the plant better resist fungal and bacterial diseases. It also helps the plant better fend off insect predators. Best of all, it’s easier to make than you might think. There are many recipes out there, but after some research and experimentation, I have come up with my version that seems to work quite well for me.

First of all, you need materials:

5 Gallon Bucket
Aquarium air pump with hose and diffuser
Filter (I use knee-high nylons)

Water (Rainwater or filtered tap water. Chlorine=Bad)
Finished Compost
A few tablespoons of molasses

Fill the bucket with the water. Fill the nylon with compost. I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule about how much, but a cup of compost per gallon of water is probably a good rule of thumb. Put the compost filled sock in the bucket and add the molasses. Hook up your pump, put the diffuser in the bucket and turn it on. After a half hour or so, you will start getting some foam on the top. This is a good thing. Soil-borne bacteria produce all kinds of by-products that act as a glue to hold the soil together. My guess is that these compounds are what is causing the foam. At any rate, it is a sign that you have good microbial action going on. Let it sit and brew for about 24 hours. A little more or a little less is fine, but I would let it brew at least 12 hours and probably no more than 48 hours. When it is done, spray it on your happy plants. The used compost can go back in the compost bin or straight on the soil.

There is one very important thing to remember about compost tea, though. It’s alive! If you let it sit around more than about 24 hours, the good bacteria might die and the bad ones might take over, so use it quickly.

For the sufficiently advanced bioneer, compost tea seems like an ideal medium for applying other supplements, like maybe a little garlic to help fend off herbivores. I haven’t begun experimentation of this yet, but it is on the docket. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Try, Try Again

I recently moved from a home with a big back yard to an apartment with almost no yard at all. As a result, I went from having a third of an acre that was landscaped mostly with edible landscaping and a 2,000 square foot garden to a container garden. At the old house, which I am still trying to sell, I have a very healthy raspberry patch which keeps trying to claim the strawberry patch next to it. When I put together my container garden, I dug up a couple of those errant raspberry canes and planted them and the strawberry plants that came with them in my new container garden. My assumption was that a combination of excellent soil, mycorrhizal fungus and abundant water would be enough to protect my canes while they tried to grow a new set of roots. In full sun. In Arizona. In late June. I was wrong. It was apparently good enough for the strawberries, though, as about two-thirds lived. My raspberries, though, withered and died.

Humbled by my earlier failure, I decided to try again. I grabbed several more raspberry canes plus an errant blackberry vine that survived an earlier cull. Again, I have given them excellent soil, mycorrhizal fungus and abundant water, but this time I did a few extra things to help. For the plants that lost most of their roots, I treated what was left with rooting hormone. I also put them in temporary pots and placed them on my patio in a place that gets little to no direct sun and trimmed off all but a foot of the cane, thereby reducing leaf surface available for evapotranspiration. Only time will tell if my efforts were successful. If they aren't, I'll just try again, and again, for as long as I still own the house.

I often read comments by people who really want to start a garden but don't know where to start and are afraid they will fail. To those people I say this: Yep, you probably will fail. And you'll probably do it more than once. But you will also succeed. A garden is a big thing. There will be some failures and some successes. You learn more from the failures. But if you don't try, you'll never learn and you'll never succeed. So get out there and try!

Friday, August 14, 2009


Often in nature the line between saprophytic (decomposing) fungus and parasitic fungus is blurred, with some mushrooms being classified as "facultative parasites," which means that they will move in on a sickly tree and finish it off. They will kill the tree and then decompose it.

However, the line between saprophytic fungus and mycorrhizal fungus is also often blurred. Many species of mushroom are endophytic, which means that they actually live within the tissues of the tree, helping it survive. Some of those are also decomposing mushrooms. Elm oyster mushrooms (Hypsizygus ulmarius) have been shown to increase the growth of garden vegetables that they are growing with, even though they are primarily a decomposing mushroom.

Maybe that's just nature's way of calling dibs.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Making a Spore Print

Identification of wild mushrooms is tricky business. As mushrooms grow and mature they change in size, shape and often color. While some change color from brown to buff or dark yellow to light yellow, some turn from blue to brown or red to buff, changing completely and making accurate identification tricky.

So you are thumbing through the field guide and have narrowed the search to two or three mushrooms, but can’t really decide for sure which one it is. The only thing left is a spore print. According to the book, one mushroom has a white spore print, while the other has a green spore print. Sounds easy enough, right, but what is a spore print? A spore print is a mass of spores deposited on a surface, usually a piece of paper. Having millions to billions of spores in one place allows you to determine overall characteristics of the usually microscopic spores, such as color. As a bonus, making them is easy and fun to do with the kids.

First of all, select a mushroom, preferrably one that is mature enough to be producing spores. In other words, if you can’t see the gills yet, you won’t get any spores. If it is a polypore mushroom (little holes on the bottom instead of gills all lined up), the pores should be open. Lay the mushroom with the gills or pores down on a piece of glass or a piece of paper. If the field guide says the spore print is white, you won’t be able to see it on white paper, so pick a different color of paper. Then just cover it with a bowl to keep air flow out. Any moving air in the room will carry the spores off. Then just let it sit for somewhere between 2 and 24 hours. The longer you let it sit, the more spores you will get, and the darker it will be. You can pick it up and check it periodically if you want, but that will ruin the cool pattern you will get from the gills of the mushroom. That’s it. you have made a spore print.

If it turns out to be a mushroom you want to keep around, you can let the spore print fully dry and then fold it up and keep it. The spores will remain viable for 3 years or so.

Some mushroom hunters will make spore prints of choice edibles on tops and brims of their favorite hiking hats. That way the spores will be spread from their hat by the breeze as they hike, helping spread the tasty mushrooms.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Passing It On

As a child I always loved wandering around out in the wild with my father. It always impressed me that he could identify pretty much every tree in central Illinois by leaf, bark, or wood grain. There is something special about knowing something about the nature you pass through. It all takes on so much more meaning if you know what it is. If all that green stuff around you gets mentally categorized simply as “plants,” you are really missing a lot. You SEE so much more when you know what the plants are, and more importantly what they do. Some plants are edible, some produce berries at certain times of the year, some have thorns, some produce dazzling flowers, and some are poisonous.

But the natural world is so much more than plants. My father would help us catch grasshoppers so we could put them in spider webs and see the wonder that is a spider trussing up its prey. We would sneak up to trees and he would lift me up to see baby robins hatching from their beautiful blue eggs. We would catch stick insects, toads, snakes, moles, and much more, just to observe them and learn about what makes them work and how they live. My father helped me become the biology geek I am today.

Now that I have children of my own, I am passing along to them the wonder of the natural world around us. About eight months ago my family and I moved to a new apartment in a neighborhood that values open space. Now I have seven acres of virgin chaparral right out my back door to explore and learn about. The proximity to wilderness has also provided a wealth of wildlife to observe. Recently, a spider moved in to our back porch and it spins a large spiral web right by the light every night. Soon thereafter, we found a mortally wounded wasp and took it as an opportunity to feed the spider. So I gathered the kids around and tossed the dying wasp into the spider web. The spider pounced on it, securing it with a line of string, and then jumped back and waited a few seconds. When it didn’t get out, the spider jumped in again and quickly wrapped the head and then the wings with silk. Then it began turning the wasp and wrapping it fully. Once that was done, the spider bit the wasp and then retreated again. When the wasp stopped moving, the spider moved in to feed. The kids were fascinated and barely talked except to say “COOL!” during the whole process.

My community also has a community garden. While I have gardened with my kids before, I haven’t had my own garden for a few years now. My daughter particularly appreciates wandering the garden and has learned to identify many plants. She has picked up my habit of grazing on the plants as she walks through the garden, her favorites being purslane, mint, swiss chard, and basil. I took my daughter to the neighborhood’s community garden a few weeks ago and selected a plant that looked ready to harvest. I asked her what it was. She correctly guessed that it is related to cilantro, but couldn’t identify it. The surprised delight on her face when I pulled it out of the ground to reveal a carrot was an emotional jewel I will carry with me a long time. The fact that she got to eat it was an extra bonus.

Recent monsoon rains have brought the local flora to life. On my way home through the community garden I noticed some mushrooms. Then I noticed some different ones growing up in the community lawn area, so I collected a couple of each kind and brought them home. I explained to the kids how there are different kinds of mushrooms and suggested we try to identify them. So I pulled out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and we started comparing features. Once we were fairly certain that we had the right identifications, we took a spore print of each mushroom to verify our identification. In the end we were pretty sure that the yellow one was a deadly lawn galerina, a deadly toxic mushroom, and the large white mushroom was a spring agaricus, a choice edible. No, we didn’t eat it. I don’t trust my identification abilities that much, plus it was full of worms.

A few evenings ago we spent nearly an hour observing a tarantula that came to our back patio to hunt. We initially caught him in our bug cage, which has a large magnifying glass for a lid, so we could look at him up close. Once we had looked at him enough, we let him go. To our delight, he didn’t run, but instead continued up the wall to hunt near our patio lights. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see him catch anything. Nonetheless, my daughter remarked the next day that that experience was “awesome.”

So take your kids out and show them, hands-on, about the world around them. Teach them what you know. Show them the wonder, beauty, joy, and flavor of the life around them. I hear so many people these days complaining that our children don’t know where food comes from. How can they, if we don’t teach them?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Green Insulation

There's a new green insulation product out there called Greensulate. It is designed to replace both styrofoam and fiberglass insulation and is cheap to make, easy to make locally just about wherever you are, light, strong, has a good R value and is very fire resistant. When you are done with it, it is biodegradable. It can be insulation in your walls, firewalls in your home, or packing material in your boxes. Here's the cool part: you don't make it, you grow it. They fill molds with a mixture of water, minerals, starch, and hydrogen peroxide and then introduce mushroom mycelium. When the mycelium have grown through the substrate, they are removed from the mold and dehydrated, killing the mycelium.

As an engineer, I'd love to see specifications on strength, durability, longevity, and R-value of this stuff. As a bioneer, I'd love to know what kind of mushrooms they are using. I'd also love to know what they are using as a food source for the mycelium to grow on. There are so many agricultural waste products that would be great for this.

I'm totally geeking out over here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Living Soil

Most gardeners see their job as one of taking care of the plants. You water them when they get dry, fertilize them as needed and deal with pests and diseases. But how does this process work in nature? Nature takes care of the plants. So why doesn't it take care of the plants in our garden? Nobody fertilizes that beautiful meadow you hike through on your weekend hike, so how does it look so lush? Nobody sprays it for fungal diseases and pests, so why do the plants there only have minimal damage despite a lack of intervention?

Despite what we like to tell ourselves, a garden is a very un-natural place. Nature is subverted at every turn. A fully natural garden would look like a meadow and the Home Owners' Association would show up and cite us for not removing weeds.

So what is it about those natural environments that nurtures the plants and keeps them healthy so effortlessly, and more importantly, how can we mimic that environment without invoking the ire of the neighbors? The key is living soil. Soil is not just some foundation beneath our feet, a stable medium for plants and a source of important minerals. It is very much alive, or at least it should be. Soil is it own ecosystem, it just exists on a microscopic scale. It is filled with bacteria, fungus, insects, worms and much more, all living in harmony. Each player has a niche to fill, a job to do, and is an important part of the whole. Nearly half of each plant exists immersed in this ecosystem and has evolved specifically to live in that environment.

Healthy soil nourishes the plant and increases its health. Healthy plants don't need outside intervention to prevent pests and diseases. They have an immune system, just like you and I. Plants grown in healthy soil are healthy and have the ability to fight disease. They also grow faster, get bigger and are able to produce more sugars.

So how do you make healthy, alive soil? As always, we take our cues from nature. What soil amendments does nature add? Dead plants and insects are returned to the soil to decompose and occasional doses of manure are added. That's pretty much it. It needs regular doses of organic material.

But dead plants laying all over the ground is unsightly. How do we fix that? Well, that’s where bioneering comes in. Compost is bioneered soil. By composting our organic material, we create the ideal soil ammendment, the perfect food for our living soil. Also, regular applications of organic mulch, such as wood chips and straw help a great deal. Those ammendments feed the soil, which in turn cares for our plants.

So remember to feed your soil!

Oh, and synthetic fertilizers are like junk food for your soil. It doesn’t create lasting health, especially if you don’t also give it the healthy food.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Tip on Using Compost in Containers

It occurred to me that in my previous post I suggested using living, active soil in containers. I failed to mention that those containers are outside.

If finished compost is the most wonderful soil there is, why not use it to fill the pots for your houseplants, or at least amend the soil in the pots? Well, one simple reason: bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. Big ones, little ones, benign ones and biting ones. Compost is home to lots and lots of bugs, which is only natural. After all, they do a lot of the breaking down of the material. They even become part of the material after they die. But you don't want them in your house. So if you are going to use the compost, you need to process it.

Now, you can bake, steam or boil it, but that kills ALL the life in the compost, not just the bugs. Part of the reason compost is so great is that it is so very alive. Plants thrive in a living soil. So how do you kill the bugs without harming all the beneficial fungus and bacteria? Use the metabolic rate of animals against them. Bacteria and fungus can survive in extremely low oxygen environments for extended periods of time without any serious detrimental side-effects. Bugs cannot. So put your compost in a ziploc-type (sorry, don't know the non-name brand term for those bags) bag or some other container that you know will be ABSOLUTELY air-tight and put it in a warm, dark place and make sure it is moist, but not soggy. Let it sit for a minimum of 3 days. A full week without air would be better. The active compost in the container will quickly use up the little oxygen that is there and kill off almost all of the bugs.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Bioneered Container Garden

Two years ago I decided that an outdoor mushroom log just wasn't going to work in Arizona without serious irrigation, so I decided to try to grow them in pots indoors. I filled the pots around the logs with wood chips, which gave more nutrients for the mushrooms to consume. I put plants in the pots to pull the water out of the bottom of those pots before it stagnated. The plants also utilized the carbon dioxide the logs gave off as they decomposed. I put worms in the pot to help the mushrooms break the wood chips down into a rich compost for the plants. The experiment worked beautifully. I got many mushrooms off of the logs, one or two of which have completed their life cycles. The wood chips have long since been turned into black soil and the worms continue to thrive. The plants were a mixed bag. One died, but that was more the cat’s fault. The rest thrived, one so much that it got way too big for the space and had to be thrown out.

Recently my family and I moved to an apartment that doesn't have room outside for a garden. What's a bioneer to do? Improvise, of course. In addition to the four pots with logs in them, I also had a large metal tub that I had filled with the plants I intended to take with me from the old house and a whiskey barrel that I bought to be a rain barrel before we decided to sell the house and move. Cut in half, it made two big pots for planting. The metal tub was completely overgrown with irises, who apparently love the rich compost created from yet another batch of decomposed wood chips, and needed to be transplanted.

It seemed to me that I had a perfect opportunity. Not only did I have work that needed to be done, but I also had the necessary components needed for a container and a perfect chance to take my living soil to the next stage in its life cycle.

Wood decomposing mushrooms are called primary decomposers. Those that decompose partially decomposed wood and compost are called secondary decomposers. Mushrooms that live in the soil, finishing off the decomposition process are called tertiary decomposers. Shaggy mane mushrooms lie somewhere between secondary and tertiary decomposers, preferring to live in rich soils. They are a favorite of mushroom hunters, being easy to recognize and quite tasty. They are also relatively easy to grow, but will never be found in your grocery store due to a shelf life of only about 24 hours. They seemed a good choice for my container garden.

The first task was to move the irises into the ground (I do have a little land behind the current apartment, but not enough for a real garden) and all of the plants that were in the four pots into one pot. The largest pot with the largest log was the obvious recipient. It was a tight fit, but they all fit nicely. Then I had to re-mix the soil. The black, sticky compost was great for plants, but wouldn't offer long term nutrition for the mushrooms. I also didn't have anywhere enough to fill all my pots. So I added some fresh wood chips, some compost from the hardware store, and, begrudgingly, some potting soil. Then I built a varmint screen for each pot to try to keep the critters out.

Finally, I seeded the pots. I actually seeded them very heavily because my seeds were old. As seeds age, they lose viability, so a larger percentage of them will fail to sprout. So with seeds over three years old or so, you seed heavily and then thin as needed.

So now the wait is on. Will the seeds sprout? Will the shaggy manes take hold and find enough nutrition to produce mushrooms? Will the mushrooms also eat my wooden pots? Did I start too late in the season? Will the varmint screens work, or will my plants pay the ultimate price?

Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Decision Making Process

I want to delve just a little into philosophy. This may seem out of place, but this particular concept very much drives how I see nature and especially the relationships between organisms.

We as humans put great stock in our conscious mind. Some animals have been shown to have a sense of self. Others do not. But thus far no animal has been shown definitively to be conscious. We know that we are. So that sets us above the animals, right? Certainly the conscious decision is the highest form of decision and the most powerful of all the possible decision making processes, right? Let's look at a few of your daily decisions.

What did you decide to wear when you got dressed today? Well, it depended on your plan, what you were going to do today, so I'd say that one was definitely conscious.

How did you decide what route to take to work today? Well, if you have been at the job more than a few months, it was probably based on habit. But habit is really a shortcut, right? You made the same conscious decision so many times that you don't really need to make it again. It becomes habit. So that one qualifies as a conscious decision.

What about when you said yes when that oh-so-attractive person asked you out? That was a conscious decision, right? Well, first of all, we should look at why you would go out with ANYONE. Relationships can be complicated, right? You have to let them in, trust them, risk rejection and pain and, worst of all, share your stuff. So the CONSCIOUS decision seems to be pointing to not having a relationship at all. What's that? Loneliness, you say? Good point. So there is something inside of you telling you that you won't be happy unless you have that special someone in your life. It won't LET you be happy. It is making the decision for you. That would be the hormones. They make the decision for you that you want to be with another person, and enforce the decision through emotions like desire and unhappiness. But why would the hormones make this decision for you? Well, that comes down to evolution. There is a need to make more people and a push is necessary. So evolution is capable of making decisions as well, too, and the decisions that evolution makes drive our hormones, which drive our emotions, which drive our decisions.

Okay, so we've answered why we decided to date at all, but why did we say yes to THAT person. Well, because he's interesting, intelligent and shares many of the same views that you have, leading you to believe that intellectual compatibility is a very real possibility, right? Well, given those qualities in a short, dumpy, shapeless person whose nose happens to be on the side of his head for some odd reason and NONE of those qualities in a person who is smoking hot and dreamy, nearly everyone out there would pick the latter. But why? A misplaced nose would make kissing easier, right? This is where instinct comes in. Instinct tells us what is attractive. It lays down the guidelines of symmetry and proportions. It also tells us which traits, like confidence, are important to success in life. Take the ubiquitous example of the "bad boy," the guy preferred by most women. This preference is so strong, in fact, that calling a man who considers you a love interest "nice" is about the worst thing you can call him. So you look at a man and it is obvious that he will make your life very interesting, probably by cheating on you, walking out on you, and hurting you emotionally and maybe physically. The conscious mind is screaming "NO", right along with your parents and all of your friends. Yet those calls go completely unheeded in the hormonal rush that says "YES, for the love of God, YES." In this case, instinct has used hormones to make the decision for you. Consciousness didn't stand a chance. Sure, your conscious mind could manage to speak up and override the decision, but instinct has its thugs and will enforce the decision through a few things called "misery" and "regret." So why does instinct want us to seek out this type of person? Again, it comes down to evolution. Evolution has determined that this type of person is most likely to make us successful. But will they make us happy? Evolution doesn't care about happy. It uses happy as a tool. It cares about success. Success is defined by continued existence of your species.

Yes, I know, I am anthropomorphizing evolution. Just go with it, okay?

Let's move on to another decision you might think you make. What did you decide to have for dinner last night? First of all, let's go back to why you decided to have dinner last night. That could come down to habit (because it's dinnerTIME, duh), which is a conscious decision, or hunger, which is a hormonal impulse. But why is it dinnertime? Well, that habit is born of necessity. "Because that's when I get hungry." Again, back to hormones.

So what are our options? How about a lovely plate of hay? Maybe a yummy dead animal that has been sitting out in the sun for three days? How about if we chew on some branches? These are all things that other animals, mammals even, look for when they are hungry. Why don't they make our list? Have you ever given your dog a plate of hay, or your pet rabbit a nice, juicy steak? They don't recognize what is offered as food. That all comes down to taste. We eat what tastes good. Do we get to decide what tastes good? Not really. That one is pre-programmed. We evolved to exploit a certain food source, just like every other animal out there. Vegetables taste good. Fruit tastes better. Meat tastes better yet. Why would this be? Just a guess here, but I'd guess that when our tastes in what constitutes acceptable food evolved, vegetables were our primary food source. Occasionally some meat or fruit became available. These food sources have a higher energy density, so we need to exploit them. So evolution made those taste better. Once upon a time, success was determined by your ability to locate and digest high energy food. Those who found the good stuff good tasting succeeded and passed on their genes. Those same genes that guided that pre-historic person in his quest for food drove your choices for dinner last night.

So, in my viewpoint, the hierarchy of decision making power looks something like this:

consciousness < hormones < instinct < evolution

Evolution makes decisions about what is good for a species over hundreds or thousands of generations. The decision to exploit a new food source requires modifications that only evolution can provide. The decision to fill a new niche requires an evolutionary decision. Mere individuals cannot make those decisions ourselves. It would be great to have a third arm or be able to eat and enjoy wood or be immune to all kinds of disease. But that isn't up to me. That's up to evolution.

In future posts, I'll explain just how this colors my vision of the natural world and some of the implications it has on natural relationships. In the meantime, I'd like to say that this is a concept that I am still working out the details on and would love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


A few months ago I decided to move my mushroom logs to the next step. The wood chips I put in the pot to surround the logs had completely decomposed to a rich compost some time ago. Some of the logs appeared to be done with their task of making mushrooms, or at least in need of a push to get a final flush of mushrooms out of them. Several of the plants I had put in the pots had died or been moved elsewhere, so I figured I could move all the houseplants into one pot and put the other three to good use.

One of the logs had turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) on it and had produced only one flush of its medicinal mushrooms. They made a lovely mushroom tea with a light, almost sweet and very pleasant flavor, so I was mildly distraught when the pound or so of mushrooms I got from the log got moldy before I had a chance to chop them finely and dry them. I was holding out hope that a change of conditions (like a move outside) would induce the log to produce one more flush.

The pot had calla lilies in it. Considering the plant is a total space and water hog but had only produced flowers once about five years ago, I didn't feel too bad about pulling it out and composting it. As I was doing so, I noticed a big hole in the base of the log. I stuck my finger in the hole and found it to be deeper than my finger was long. I tried to pull the log out of the dirt so I could examine it. The top of the log came right off to reveal a completely hollow log on the inside. The picture above is a picture of the log and the plants in it before I messed with it. The picture below is a picture of what the inside of the log looks like.

The other thing that was striking about the remnants of the log was the weight, or rather, lack thereof. Once upon a time the whole log weighed 40 pounds or so. Now the top 2/3 of the log only weighs a few pounds. The wood is really spongy as well. The two pictures at the bottom of the article are of the same piece of wood. In the first picture I am just holding it while in the second picture I am lightly squeezing. Note the deflection. It is also worth noting that the whole process, from cutting down the tree to the current state only took a little over two years.

It looks like the log is ready to be broken up into little pieces and mixed with soil to finish decomposition. I guess I won't get any more mushrooms off the log.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Throwing in the Towel

No, I am not throwing in the towel on the whole blog. At the end of the last entry, I said that for my next entry I would have an article on how to turn a mushroom kit into a mushroom log. That post has turned into a bit of an albatross. So far it is 11 pages long (including pictures) and still needs significant re-writes and lots more detail. It is kind of not a blog entry any more. So I need to finish it up and figure out how to break it into sections or something. I'll get it up here sooner or later. In the meantime, I want to get back to the fun stuff. I should have another post up here shortly.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Growing Mushrooms Part 4 - How

So, you’ve decided that you’d like to try to grow a new kind of delicious mushroom and maybe even integrate it into your garden or other project. Where do you start? Well, unless you are a trained mycologist, well versed in the identification and propagation of mushrooms, I strongly recommend you start with a mushroom kit. There are a number of online purveyors who sell them, and they are easy to do. You just follow the provided directions, which basically involves putting a plastic tent (provided) over them and spraying 2-3 times a day until you harvest your mushrooms.

A typical five pound mushroom kit will cost about $25-$30 and yield about 2 pounds of mushrooms. So now you feel adventurous for trying something new, but are feeling a little cheated because you just paid $25 plus shipping for 2 pounds of mushrooms. What can you do? Well, it turns out that that spent mushroom kit is still very much alive. In fact, mushroom mycelium is at its most vigorous right after you harvest the mushrooms. That’s the best time to expand your kit onto some new growing material. For your basic wood-loving mushroom (and most of the mushrooms that are easy to grow in the home grow on wood), there are two basic methods: the tortoise and the hare.

The tortoise method is to grow the mushrooms on a log. The disadvantage of this method is that it can take up to a year for your log to produce its first flush of mushrooms. The advantage is that it really takes very little care and you can typically get 3-4 flushes of mushrooms a year for up to 5 years. I had a log of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) that produced a flush of mushrooms every 2-3 weeks all winter long one year. My daughter actually got tired of mushrooms. With a log, the mushroom has more mass to work with, which means more mushrooms for you for your effort. Also, propagating mushrooms is a tricky process. By using a log, it extends the time between propagation efforts, which means less work.

The hare method is to grow the mushrooms on sawdust or straw. This method will produce a flush of mushrooms in as little as a month or so, with succeeding flushes every couple of weeks. Also, the flushes are typically larger than what you get from the log. The disadvantage of this method is that you only get 3-4 flushes out of your block and you have to create another block. This method isn’t infinitely expandable. If you get contamination in your system, which is easy to do, it gets expanded with the mushroom mycelium and will spoil your block.

My preferred method is actually both. I put a log in a pot, bucket or terrarium and surround it with wood chips and sawdust with the remnants of my mushroom kit mixed in. The mycelium quickly colonizes the wood chips and then moves into the log.

I’ll share specific techniques for making this transfer as successful as possible in a future post.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Growing Mushrooms Part 3 - Available Cultivated Mushrooms

The following is a list of commonly available mushrooms that you can grow at home along with some relevant information about them. I am sure there are others not listed here. Note that I am not including the various incarnations of Agaricus bisporus (button, crimini, portobello, etc.) because they are commonly known, commonly available, and difficult to grow.

Common Name: Oyster, Pearl Oyster
Scientific Name: Pleurotus ostreatus
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood chips or logs, straw, agriculture waste from the growing of sugarcane and cotton, coffee grounds, human hair, and much more
Ease of Growing: very easy
Bioneering Potential: A favorite mushroom of mycologist Paul Stamets, the potential of this mushroom has been widely explored. It has been used for cleaning up oil spills, reclaiming logging roads to forest, healing damaged ecosystems, filtering contaminated water and much more.
Notes: This is a very good mushroom for beginners as it is easy to grow and easy to propagate. It is also very productive and quite tasty. Just beware if you have sensitivity to fungal spores. Oyster mushrooms put out a huge volume of spores.

Common Name: Shiitake
Scientific Name: Lentinula edodes
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood chips or logs, prefers oak
Ease of Growing: easy
Bioneering Potential: none known to the author
Notes: This is one of the oldest cultivated mushrooms, as the Japanese have been growing it for centuries or longer. I don't mention this one much because I don't grow it. I don't like the texture. It is too spongy/chewy.

Common Name: Elm Oyster, Garden Oyster
Scientific Name: Hypsizygus ulmarius
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood chips or logs, straw in the garden. Prefers elm, but will grow on a wide variety of hardwoods
Ease of Growing: easy
Bioneering Potential: Good.
Notes: This mushroom is usually considered to be similar to the Pearl Oyster mushroom, but better tasting and produces fewer spores. This is a good mushroom to use in conjunction with plants as it seems to help plants it grows with. While it is primarily a saprophyte, it may also function to a lesser extent as a mycorrhizal fungus.

Common Name: Shaggy Mane
Scientific Name: Coprinus comatus
Flavor Signature: unknown to the author
Preferred Growing Medium: soil
Ease of Growing: medium
Bioneering Potential: good
Notes: This mushroom is difficult to grow indoors, requiring a well-composted substrate and a casing layer (a surface layer of low-nutrient soil that encourages the growth of mushrooms). Outdoors, it prefers fertile soil with a good organic content and will travel to find it. This is a good mushroom to naturalize in your yard or garden. Note that this mushroom will never be available in stores as the shelf life is 1-2 days. After that it turns into a black, inky mess.

Common Name: Enoki, Enokitake
Scientific Name: Flamulina velutipes
Flavor Signature: strong
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood chips and logs
Ease of Growing: unknown to author, though I suspect it is easy
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This mushroom is one of the few readily available at many stores. It is usually long, thin and white and comes in a shrink-wrap package. The form you get at the store is induced by low light and high carbon dioxide, so if you grow them, they will look a little different. This mushroom will produce hundreds to thousands of little mushrooms.

Common Name: Lion’s Mane, Pom Pom
Scientific Name: Hericium erinaceus
Flavor Signature: strong
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood chips or logs
Ease of Growing: easy
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This one supposedly tastes like lobster, though I don’t see it. It tasted like a strong-flavored mushroom to me. They are pretty and decidedly different looking than most mushrooms. They are white and roundish with white icicle-like spines coming off of them. Very pretty.

Common Name: Black Poplar, Pioppino
Scientific Name: Agrocybe aegerita
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: Hardwood chips or logs, prefers members of the poplar family such as poplar, cottonwood and aspen
Ease of Growing: medium
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This mushroom is by far my favorite so far, flavor-wise. Thus far my attempts to expand it onto another medium have all failed. I just tried again, though, so we’ll see.

Common Name: Brick Top, Cinnamon Cap
Scientific Name: Hypholoma sublateritium
Flavor Signature: strong
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood stumps, logs and chips.
Ease of Growing: easy
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This is a good species for decomposing stumps. I have not personally tried to propagate it beyond the kit I got, but it seemed very hearty and aggressive. My particular kit somehow exceeded the theoretical maximum. A 5-pound kit should give a maximum of 2.5 pounds of mushrooms. Mine gave a full 3 pounds over 3 or 4 flushes. I didn’t like them sautéed in butter, but it made an amazing cream of mushroom soup.

Common Name: Nameko
Scientific Name: Pholiota nameko
Flavor Signature: unknown to author
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood logs or chips
Ease of Growing: medium
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: I tried this one from a can I got at an Asian grocery store and they were amazing. I can only imagine what the fresh mushrooms would taste like. They are supposedly quite slimy, but the slime cooks off. Mushrooms require a very high humidity to form properly.

Common Name: Pink Oyster
Scientific Name: Pleurotus djamor
Flavor Signature: unknown
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood logs and chips
Ease of Growing: unknown
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: I have read that these mushrooms are of marginal texture (tough) and flavor and are usually grown for their stunning pink color. This mushroom prefers hot conditions.

Common Name: Maitake, Hen of the Woods
Scientific Name: Grifola frondosa
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: oak stumps, can be grown on wood chips
Ease of Growing: difficult
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This is reportedly both a powerful medicinal mushroom and a very tasty gourmet mushroom. I have seen it at specialty grocery stores for as much as $30 a pound. This mushroom prefers to grow on stumps of dead or dying oak trees. A large tree can produce a cluster weighing up to 5 pounds or more 3 or 4 times a year for a century or so. I once saw a gardening show where the host showed what appeared to be a Hen of the Woods mushroom fruiting off of one his stately oak trees and bemoaned the fact that it would eventually kill the tree. I wanted to reach through the TV and smack him. The mushroom was probably worth 10 times what the tree was worth. Unfortunately, this mushroom is very difficult to grow and propagate if you don’t have a big oak stump to work with.

Common Name: Stone Mushroom
Scientific Name: Polyporus tuberaster
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: wood chips, possibly logs
Ease of Growing: unknown
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This is the only mushroom on the list that I don’t have some sort of growing guide for. I attempted once to propagate this onto a log, but it didn’t take. Someday I’ll try again. It is a mushroom that is well worth keeping around.

Common Name: Morel
Scientific Name: Morchella angusticeps
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: soil, preferably burned then flooded
Ease of Growing: very difficult
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This mushroom is a bit of an enigma. It seems to fruit best after a forest fire or flood or both, but attempts to recreate preferred conditions have met with mixed to no success. Only a few have succeeded in growing this mushroom commercially. It remains a favorite of mushroom hunters.

Common Name: King Stropharia
Scientific Name: Stropharia rugoso-annulata
Flavor Signature: unknown to author
Preferred Growing Medium: wood chip beds, soil
Ease of Growing: unknown
Bioneering Potential: good
Notes: I have tried to grow this mushroom outdoors twice now with no success. I suspect that it doesn’t like the heat here in northern Arizona. This mushroom is an active consumer of a wide variety of bacteria and actually won’t produce mushrooms when grown on sterile medium. It has been used to filter bacteria from runoff. Mushrooms produced are massive, reaching a foot or more tall and a foot or more across. Of course, they must be picked and eaten in the button stage, when they are much smaller.

Common Name: Chicken of the Woods
Scientific Name: Laetiporus sulphureus
Flavor Signature: unknown to author - supposedly tastes just like chicken
Preferred Growing Medium: hardwood or softwood stumps or partially buried logs
Ease of Growing: medium
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: Supposedly this bright yellow-orange mushroom tastes just like chicken. My attempt to grow this mushroom outdoors on logs failed.

Common Name: Conifer Coral
Scientific Name: Hericium abietis
Flavor Signature: unknown to author – probably has a strong flavor like its close relative the Lion’s Mane.
Preferred Growing Medium: pine or spruce logs or chips
Ease of Growing: unknown to author
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This is one of the few mushrooms that grows well on conifers. It is similar to Lion’s Mane in appearance except that instead of a tight ball with white cascading spines, it has a tightly branched structure with white cascading spines.

Common Name: Phoenix Fir
Scientific Name: Pleurotus pulmonarius
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: pine or spruce logs or wood chips
Ease of Growing: easy
Bioneering Potential: unknown, but probably good
Notes: This mushroom is a close relative to the Pearl Oyster mushroom, but prefers to grow on conifers. It is possible that a lot of the Oyster mushrooms available in the store are actually this variety.

Common Name: Reishi, Ling Chi
Scientific Name: Ganoderma lucidium
Flavor Signature: strong
Preferred Growing Medium: Hardwood logs or chips
Ease of Growing: easy
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This is not an edible mushroom, being too woody to chew. It is a strong medicinal mushroom and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It reportedly improves overall health and particularly strengthens the immune system. The mushroom is ground and then boiled to make a tea. The flavor is strong, but I have gotten used to it and rather enjoy it.

Common Name: Turkey Tail
Scientific Name: Trametes versicolor
Flavor Signature: mild
Preferred Growing Medium: wood logs – doesn’t seem to matter what kind
Ease of Growing: very easy
Bioneering Potential: unknown
Notes: This is another woody medicinal mushroom. It also reportedly strengthens the immune system and is supposedly particularly effective against cancer, being the source of a common anti-cancer drug. When boiled to make a tea, it has a light, almost sweet, mushroom flavor that is quite tasty. This mushroom will grow on just about any kind of wood and grows on at least 6 of the 7 continents (not sure if there is any wood on Antarctica to grow on).