Friday, February 20, 2009

Myco-vermicomposting

I have been growing mushrooms for years, trying out different configurations, trying to see what works. One of the difficulties of mushrooms is that the body of the mushroom, the mycelium, is a network of fine, almost microscopic filaments that live inside the substance that they are consuming (the mushroom itself is actually the fruiting body of the mycelium). When you first inoculate the substrate (growing medium) with the mycelium, it gets all cottony on the surface and you can see visible, rapid growth. But then it sinks down into the substrate and you see no more visible signs of growth, health, or vigor until it produces mushrooms. With plants you can at least look a them and see how fast they are growing, how green they are, and whether or not they are wilted. Mushrooms have no leaves for evapotranspiration, so they don't lose water as fast as plants and thus don't need as much. Also, unlike plants, they aren't very good at pulling water out of the bottom of a closed pot and getting it to the top where the moisture is needed and lost, so water in the bottom of a mushroom pot tends to stagnate and get smelly.

It seemed to me that the best way to solve all of these problems was to put plants and mushrooms in the same pot. After all, this is how it works in nature, right? The fungus lives in the soil, breaking down organic material and the plant lives above, using nutrients, providing more organic material for breaking down, and shading the soil to protect the fungus. The two are also extremely complimentary in terms of exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The plants provide the oxygen the fungus needs, while the fungus provides a slow release of carbon dioxide where the plant needs it. But, if you are going to grow the two together, what do you do about growing medium? If you put soil in there, especially potting soil, the mushrooms don't have much to grow on. If you put wood chips, most mushrooms' preferred growing medium, in there, the plants don't have the nutrients they need to grow. The mushrooms will break down the wood chips, but not fast enough to give the plants what they need to grow. The picture below is of a pot that is growing just mushrooms, with no worms and no plants. This particular mushroom, oyster mushrooms (pleurotus ostreatus), has killed every plant I have tried to put in with it, so I quit trying. The mushroom has been in the pot and producing mushrooms for almost two years. As you can see, the wood chips on the surface are still quite visible and there is really no actual soil in the pot.



To solve the conundrum, I came up with myco-vermicomposting. I chose a large pot and put a log, inoculated with mushroom mycelium, in the pot. I surrounded that with wood chips and also inoculated that with the mycelium. Then I planted a plant down in the wood chips. In the case of the pot you see in the picture below, I planted a calla lily. Over the first year, the calla lily was weak, slow growing, pathetic looking, and prone to pests, particularly spider mites. During that time, the mushroom was processing both the log and the wood chips. The worms were working hard on the mushroom mycelium and, to a lesser extent, on the wood chips. At about one year, the plant just exploded with growth. It turned bright green, tripled in size and no longer had any problems with spider mites. By that point, the wood chips had been turned into a deep black soil composed almost entirely of compost.



I eventually dug the calla lily out of the pot because it was overtaking my entire plant area and using a full gallon of water a week but never flowering. The small leafy plants you see in the picture are a resurgence of the plant from the roots I left in the pot to decompose. The grassy plant in the picture is a lemon grass. It isn't very happy, but I haven't figured out if that is because of a need of fertilizer, a lack of full sun, or the fact that the cat keeps eating all its new growth.

So, here are a list of things I learned about myco-vermicomposting, things to keep in mind if you try it yourself.

1) The worms will reduce the number of mushrooms you get from the wood chips by at least half. I don't think they can really get into the log to steal from there. They eat the mycelium, weakening the mycelium and reducing its ability to produce mushrooms. So if you are doing it for mushroom production, have more of a two-bin system. Let the mushrooms grow alone on the wood chips first, then let the worms have a crack at it to finish it off. If you try the worms first and then the mycelium, the worms get a lovely snack and you get no mushrooms at all. I tried inoculating a worm bin with some mushroom spawn that I didn't really have plans for. I came back a few days later to see if it had taken off and it was completely gone. The worms had eaten it.

2) As the raw material decomposes, the soil level drops considerably, so you will have to add more organic matter. Depending on the size of your pot, this could cause the plants to sink down with the soil, causing problems when you add more organic material.

3) The mycelium pretty much goes through its whole life cycle in the soil early on, so they won't really get into further applications of wood chips, unless you get mushrooms off the logs and the spores get into the wood chips. But you can't really count on this, and you certainly can't count on only your mushrooms getting in there. There may be contamination. So it might be best for future applications of organic material to be geared towards the worms. They'll keep going.

4) Lately some of my plants in the compost have been kind of pathetic looking. I think it might be due to the nutrient content of the soil. After all, it was made from pure wood chips. I haven't had a chance to test the soil, but my guess is that it is a little low in nitrogen at least and possibly potassium and phosphorus. I would recommend the addition of a good organic rock-based fertilizer regularly with the various layers of organic matter that you add. The rock-based fertilizer, such as greensand for potassium and rock phosphate for phosphorus, will have more staying power in the soil than the quick-fix type fertilizers. I don't know of a rock-based source of nitrogen, so I use blood meal. They will also be good for the mushrooms that you get in there, as they are used to breaking down rock for minerals. A little sand or pea gravel in the layers might also be good to help out the soil structure. Of course, ignore this if you are composting in one place and using the compost elsewhere.

5) As the soil breaks down and your primary mushroom-producing fungus moves out of the soil and into the log, an addition of mycorrhizal fungus to the plants will introduce another player to the party, one that will help break down more organic matter, help the plant, and is more adapted to living in soil. I'll cover mycorrhizal fungus in a later post.

So, what's next? The mushrooms that break down wood chips are primary decomposers. There are also secondary and tertiary decomposers. I'd love to try a tertiary decomposer in the pot and see if they produce anything. The big thing on the horizon, though, is my bioneering laboratory. Unfortunately, it is still a year to two years off before I can begin construction . When I get that built, I will be able to try myco-vermicomposting on a large scale, outdoors, with a steady supply of water. I'll post more about that in future posts.

10 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Check out the Geek Dad's Guide for the Aspiring Mad Scientist. He's got a pretty decent plan for myco-vermicomposting in there.

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  3. Thanks! I wrote that one, too. I do need to check it out, still, though. I haven't yet because I am dreading how it survived the final edits.

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  4. I'm new to vermicology and mycocology but very interested in both! It seems like a no brainier that these should go together like peas and carrots?! I've got my worms in one bin and my button mushrooms in another right next to it.... But after reading your blog I think I will hold off on the introductions. I've got an idea though for you to try. Maybe a worm that burrows deeper like the Canadian night crawler would leave your substrate alone? I think you'd need a deeper bin for them though?

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  5. Why not adding kitchen scrap when the soil level lowers, the plant in a basket and the log is itself a protection, so everybody can live together extinct..
    And maybe trying to maximise the diversity of soil critters..
    Its always difficult to try to reproduce nature out of context without forgetting any element of the balance !

    i have seen this kind of experiments in the Sepp holzer permaculture book, this with the log doing the water connection between the aquaponic system and te compost/ planter.. or something similar
    I guess it would be simpler to divide the processes (but kept in intimate connection with meshes or so..

    Its very interesting to look about the whole process in 'normal' composting, nearing to the te complexity of life; "not to fight against but to go with" :)

    Nice blog very interesting

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  6. Great article with excellent idea! I appreciate your post.
    Samadhan Agrotech &amp

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  7. Super cool! Maybe it could be a good idea to mix wood chips with dead leaves to get some bacterias!

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