Monday, March 30, 2009

Growing Mushrooms, Part 1 - Why

Growing mushrooms is not just like growing a plant. If anything, it is more like a slow motion version of keeping a pet. But really, it is very different from either, with its own set of challenges and advantages. I am going to do a series of blog entries on growing mushrooms. To me, the logical place to start is to answer the question "why."

The single biggest reason a person would want to grow mushrooms is for food. Now I am not talking about the standard button mushrooms or portabellas you get from the grocery store. Those are actually a big pain in the butt to grow. They grow on well-composted cow manure, utilizing a process that is exact and convoluted and not really worth the trouble for something so readily available at the store. No, I am talking about gourmet mushrooms such as oyster, shiitake and enoki. These are mushrooms that are available at certain markets, but are always expensive and hard to find. Then there are stone mushrooms, black poplar mushrooms, and brick tops. These are just about impossible to find at all but the best markets and very expensive when you find them. Then there are shaggy manes. Those will never be available fresh at the store. By growing mushrooms at home, you can have the opportunity to try something you might not normally be able to find or afford. A single kit might be expensive, but if you can transfer the mycelium into another vessel, such as a log, you can get years of inexpensive, tasty mushrooms.

The second reason to grow mushrooms is to take advantage of the different uses they have in the garden, in the home, and in the environment. Mushrooms are the great restorers of the natural world. They take dead material and damaged terrain and turn it into healthy systems ready to support life. Pearl oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are the most widely studied and offer the most uses. They can decompose a wide variety of objects made from plants including, but not limited to, cotton waste, sugarcane waste, coffee grounds, straw, just about any hardwood (but no conifers) or anything made from hardwood. They will eliminate nematodes from your soil. They will filter runoff and remove a wide variety of impurities. They can be used to stop the spread of parasitic fungi by out-competing them. The list goes on. King stropharia mushrooms (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) break down wood chips or straw to enrich soils while also removing dangerous bacteria from the soil. Elm oyster mushrooms (Hypsizygus ulmarius) actively feed the wood chips or straw they are decomposing to the plants they grow with, creating faster growing plants. A number of mushrooms will help your compost decompose faster without your having to turn it or can be used to decompose large piles of plant debris.

The third reason to grow mushrooms is because it is fascinating. If you start from scratch, creating your own mushroom kit, you get to watch the mycelium leap into action. The cottony white mycelium covers the surface of the kit in a matter of days, advancing so quickly you can almost see it grow. Then it sinks down inside its food and disappears. For the next several weeks to a year or more, depending on what you are growing it on, nothing seems to happen. Then, like a magical form of instant gratification, you get mushrooms! It is fascinating to watch mushrooms grow. They go from primordia (tiny baby mushrooms) to full-grown mushrooms in 2-5 days in most cases. It is especially special to share the process with your children, if you have any. Children can be bored by how slowly plants grow. There is no such issue with mushrooms. You can check the growth every day as the mushroom forms and be amazed by how much bigger they are. Then you get to eat them!

The nice thing about growing mushrooms is that you can often take advantage of the restorative effects of mushrooms while still producing food and enjoying the wonder that mushrooms provide. The three are not mutually exclusive.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hero Worship

I have never been prone to hero worship. I guess I never found anyone interesting enough to obsess over. In 8th grade I had to write an essay on someone I admired and what I would ask them if I could have lunch with them. It was one of the hardest essays of my life. After what must have been hours of deliberation, I lamely decided on Jacques Cousteau. The problem is that while I considered him a great man, I really didn't have any questions for him or anything to talk to him about.

All that changed a few years ago when I learned about a man named Paul Stamets. He's a true bioneer, and I mean that in the original sense of the word: Biological Pioneer. He has almost single-handedly brought the science of mycology from the passive study of a little-understood kingdom of life to the forefront of bioneering. He has coined terms like mycoremediation, mycofiltration, and mycorestoration. He is a scientist, an inventor, an environmental crusader, a medical researcher and an entrepreneur. He's a man with crazy ideas, the kind so crazy they just might work. And work, they do. He knows. He tests them. His ideas have been beyond visionary. They are paradigm-changing. Here are a few examples of the projects he has taken on:

Mycological Cleanup of Diesel-Contaminated Soil
Stamets worked with the Washington Department of Transportation as a part of an experiment to clean soil contaminated with diesel fuel. Stamets used a special strain of oyster mushroom (yes, the kind you can buy at the grocery store) to get into the soil and seek out and digest the diesel fuel. Not only did it work, but the fruiting mushrooms attracted flies, which attracted birds. The birds deposited seeds on the pile, which germinated and grew, creating an oasis of life out on an old tarmac.

When Stamets found that the runoff from the cattle on his farm was contaminating his neighbor's oyster farm with E. coli, he installed a woodchip and king stropharia mushroom filter on the drainage off of his farm. The filter worked so well that the water coming off his land exceeded the criteria needed to fix his neighbor's problem.

Mycological Pest Control
After losing a house to carpenter ants, Stamets started looking into different fungus that attack and kill insects. He is now in the process of getting a patent on an all-natural fungal based product that will repel and/or kill all types of insects that have a queen (ants, termites, etc.) for up to 20 years with one application.

Anyone who is interested in finding ways to make natural systems work better would do well to buy a copy of his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Not only does it cover a wide variety of things that you can do with mushrooms, but it also covers how to do it, which mushrooms to use, how to propagate them, growing requirements, preferred food sources and much, much more. It really is the definitive work to date on using mushrooms for bioneering.. If you want to know more than what I cover in my brief posts, I strongly recommend you buy this book.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


As I mentioned in my post on mycorrhizal fungus, there are three categories of mushrooms. I already covered mycorrhizal, and parasitic mushrooms do more harm than good. Saprophytic mushrooms, on the other hand, are one of the most versatile tools in the bioneer's toolbox. For clarity, it is worth mentioning that when I talk about "mushrooms," I am actually talking about the fungus that makes the mushrooms.

Saprophytic mushrooms break down dead material, usually of plant origin, to produce dirt (eventually, with a little more work) and mushrooms. There are several factors about the fungal lifestyle that make them of interest. The first is how they get their food. Plants make their own. Animals can move around to get their food. Mushrooms can do neither. Mushrooms have had to evolve some pretty amazing adaptations to make this lifestyle work for them. Being the last to the table and the slowest to eat, the mushrooms don't even get many leftovers and are usually stuck with eating the table itself. So they have adapted an impressive chemical arsenal for digesting whatever they can find. Fungus and bacteria are really the only things that can truly digest wood fibers. Mushrooms do it best. They grow into and through the wood and digest it with a series of extra-cellular enzymes.

Unlike plants and animals, mushrooms really can't enclose their bodies, which are composed of a substance called mycelium, a network of fine fibers, and create a defensible barrier to infection from bacteria and viruses. So they have to accomplish that with another set of chemicals. Remember: life creates the conditions necessary for life. Some of these chemicals can be very beneficial to both the environment they are in and for humans. I'll get into that in another post.

The next thing to know is how mushrooms grow. Because of the way they grow through their environment, an environment that is often disturbed, as a network of fine filaments, they are likely to get broken. Mushrooms have developed the ability to form something called "clamp connections." In other words, when mushroom mycelium encounter another filament that is genetically exact, or in some cases just similar, it will connect up with that filament. Not only does this allow them to create vast networks of interconnected mycelium, but it also allows them to connect back up when broken. I can't think of another multi-cellular organism that can be chopped up into a thousand pieces, grown separately for months and then be put back together and still reconnect back into one organism.

For the bioneer, the list of tasks that can be accomplished with saprophytic mushrooms is long. They can break down organic matter, especially wood, rapidly. Some kinds work well with plants. They can be used to heal disturbed or polluted environments and restore them to a natural state. They can be used to filter and purify runoff from a contaminated site. They can produce food and medicine for people. They can make good, healthy soil. The list goes on. Going into details about what mushrooms can produce what miracles and how to do it will be one of the major on-going topics of this blog. I don't have the space to go into a comprehensive list of what you can do with mushrooms, but here is a selection of interesting facts:

Oyster mushrooms are actually carnivorous. Scientists have observed them attracting, drugging, killing and consuming nematodes. Nematodes are a class of microscopic worms that are very harmful to cultivated plants and sometimes parasitic to humans and livestock.

Straw has little nutritional value to livestock. It is mostly used as a bulk feedstock when other sources are scarce. However, it has a great deal of nutritional value to mushrooms. For each pound of dry straw, you can produce, with the right variety of mushroom, up to one pound of mushrooms (keep in mind that mushrooms are about 80% water). When the spent straw is done producing mushrooms, you can then feed what is left to the cattle and it actually has MORE nutritional value than the original bale.

Two petri dishes of mushroom mycelium, if expanded properly under the right conditions, can produce a million pounds of mushrooms (actual mushrooms, not mycelium) in just 12 weeks.

King stropharia mushrooms cannot produce mushrooms in a sterile environment, requiring a healthy population of bacteria in the soils it inhabits. This mushroom has been used to filter E. coli laden water in farm runoff, removing nearly all of the harmful bacteria.

Recent studies have shown that mycelial networks of mushroom-producing fungus are the largest organisms on the planet, being measured in acres or even square miles. Of course, the ones they know about are honey mushrooms, a parasitic mushroom that kills trees, creating a large, easy-to-spot clearing.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Organic Pest Control

The chemistry of life is a funny thing. Different animals respond differently to the same chemical. Catnip is a perfect example. To humans, it makes a tasty tea, somewhat like mint. To cats, it is a mind-altering drug. To cockroaches, it is extremely noxious. Scientists have found that a catnip tea spray is 100 times more effective as a roach repellent than anything commercially available. The only problem is that you have to re-apply every day or every other day at the least.

Plants have no ability to move like animals do to defend themselves, but defend themselves they do. Plants have evolved a number of chemical defenses to protect themselves from being eaten. They have become experts in chemical warfare. Some defenses kill, some irritate, some cause pain, some are just unpleasant to be around. Marijuana makes its predator forget where they found food. We humans are kind of funny. We have developed this wonderful technology called culinary skills that allows us to dilute and combine the various chemicals that plants use to defend themselves to make our food more interesting. Now, I am not saying that all of our culinary herbs and spices are effective as pest repellents, but there is good reason to believe that many are. So here are a few known examples of foods that can be used as repellents:

Fruit is a bribe. The plant puts seeds that are capable of surviving the digestive system in a tasty coating so that animals will eat the fruit, seeds and all, and then deposit just the seeds in a new location with a handy lump of fertilizer. So why would a plant create a fruit that causes abject pain when eaten? Well, it turns out that capsaicin, the chemical that makes chilies spicy, is completely undetectable to birds. So they can't really tell the difference between a blueberry and a chiltepin (the wild form of chili peppers). Why would a plant create a berry that is only edible to birds? Maybe they don't like to be chewed. We don't really know, and it doesn't really matter. The point is that nature has provided us with a chemical that is extremely noxious to mammals, but undetectable to birds. Some bird food manufacturers are using this knowledge to make birdseed that is squirrel-proof. Just sprinkle on a little chili powder and the squirrels won't touch it.

The last place I lived had a robust wild population of cockroaches. While they never got an established indoor population (yay, cats!), they did tend to get in every now and then. So I planted catnip around the house, particularly by the doors, in an attempt to allow the living plant to repel the roaches. It worked really well. It was particularly noticeable when the large bush by the front door died and the number of cockroaches both in the front yard and coming my house tripled. Earwigs, on the other hand, just LOVE hanging out in catnip plants. I don't know why.

The distinctive garlic smell and spiciness is actually the result of a chemical reaction between two chemicals in the garlic clove that don't mix until the cell walls are broken. So it doesn't release the weapon until it is actually damaged. Garlic is a non-specific repellant. It will drive off insects, mammals, women and just about everything else. There are several commercially-available garlic sprays that you can use to spray around your garden to repel a wide variety of pests. It is one of the more effective repellents for use against deer and rodents. At my current abode we have a rather large population of javelinas, also called banded peccaries. They are sort of a native wild pig. They like to roam around at night and dig up all the stuff you just planted just in case there is something tasty in the ground. I have a large pot full of plants I brought from my last house that I don't want them digging around in, so I also planted a bunch of garlic in there. So far, they have dug around in just about everything else, but they have avoided that pot. Some people also use garlic for personal pest control against mosquitoes and other biting insects. The application is simple: you just eat a yummy meal loaded with garlic. The garlic smell will start coming out of your skin and provide protection for a day or two. But beware! It also repels people.

Okay, I don't know of any specific properties of lemon that make it a repellant, but you have to admit that the ubiquity with which it appears seems mighty suspicious. It is a flavor signature that appears in dozens of different plants, many of whom are unrelated. It appears in citrus, lemon grass, lemon balm, lemon basil, lemon thyme, purslane, and many others. Generally, when a chemical evolves separately in that many plants, it is because it serves a very specific purpose. One of these day's I'll work on testing that theory. There's got to be a good use for it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What to Compost

Ah, the age-old quandary: What can you put in the compost bin?

Well, for starters, let's throw out the stuff that should never be put in your compost bin. Remember what your compost bin is for. It is a place to dispose of organic matter (things that were once living) where it will decompose rapidly via natural processes to produce a soil amendment that you can then add to your garden or other plantings to increase the health and nutrient content of the soil. So that sentence should give you some pretty good clues as to what you can't put in the compost bin. Here are some basic criteria:

1) Don't put anything in the compost bin that won't decompose. For example, don't put metal, plastic, ceramic, small cars, etc. into the compost because it will still be there when you try to use the compost.

2) Don't put any chemical contaminants in the compost. One problem is that they may disturb the natural processes that you are relying on for decomposition. Things like gasoline, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, motor oil, wet concrete, etc. are not good for compost. Also remember that if you are trying to garden organically, it means compost and not using pesticides and herbicides and such. So contaminating your compost with that stuff, is kind of shooting yourself in the foot.

3) Don't put any natural contaminants in the compost. There are other, biological contaminants that you also want to avoid putting in your compost. Examples include weeds that have gone to seed and contain seed heads, plants that died of a disease, and plants that were killed by herbicides, and pet waste. Generally waste from carnivorous pets, like cats and dogs, can carry a number of parasites that can also be infectious to people. Waste from herbivorous pets, such as rabbits, is pretty safe and can usually be added to compost.

Okay, so what SHOULD you put in the compost bin? Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Yard debris, lawn clippings, fallen leaves and kitchen scraps are what compost bins were made for. But don't forget that if it has plant origins, it just might be compostable. That includes paper towels, tissues, 100% cotton clothing, cardboard, newspaper, paper plates, and many more things. Just look at what made it. If it is 100% plant-based, there is a good chance it is safe. I personally shy away from glossy printed materials, be they cardboard, paper plates, or newspaper. I have heard that kaolinite, which is a kind of clay, which is a kind of dirt, is used to make things glossy, but I don't know enough about the process to trust that there isn't something else in there I don't want in my compost. I also compost some clothing, but stay away from zippers, iron-on decals, and the like. Every now and then I pull a strip of elastic out of my compost.

That leaves us with the controversial items. I'll list them here along with my opinions on the matter:

1) Wood - I tend to throw it in. It can take years to break down, but eventually it does. Especially if there is good fungus involved and lots of moisture. Smaller pieces break down faster.

2) Meat - One of the cardinal rules of composting is don't put meat in the compost. I have yet to read a compelling reason for this. All they say is "it attracts pests." It has been my experience that COMPOST attracts pests, whether or not there is meat in it. Meat is obviously organic material. Also, two of the most common organic fertilizers are blood meal and bone meal, both of which are by-products of the meat packing industry. So I do actually put meat in my compost, with a few guidelines. I only put small amounts in. I prefer scraps from cooked meat. I steer clear of raw chicken because of salmonella issues. I also avoid bones because they take longer than wood to fully decompose.

3) Dairy - The same reasons are given for not putting dairy in the compost as for meat. I think they apply even less to dairy than meat and compost it freely.

4) Vegetable Oil - Large quantities of this are produced as a by-product of deep frying, and are often difficult to dispose of. The popularity of vehicles run on biofuels have made this process easier, it is still not terribly convenient. So, can you just dump the oil in the compost bin? Well, first of all, it is VEGETABLE oil, so I would say you can. In fact, I have done just that more times than I can mention without any ill effects to my precious compost. The trick is to do it with care. The main factor to be aware of is what percentage of your compost has become pure oil. Too much oil will smother the very life that you are trying to culture. I have always had a large compost bin and have dumped in less than a gallon less than once a month. If you fry a lot and generate huge amounts of fry oil or have a tiny, kitchen compost bin, you might want to find another disposal method for your fry oil.

Just remember, compost is like your own personal recycling operation. It takes items out of the trash stream and converts them into the best soil amendment you can get.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hydroponics vs. Organic Gardening

I have had a number of people ask me why I don't practice or experiment with hydroponics. Considering my love of plants, gardening, and new ways of doing things, it seems a logical extension. Several years ago I went to Disney World with my family and my wife surprised me with a behind-the-scenes tour of EPCOT's greenhouses, including their hydroponics lab. I really learned a lot about hydroponics there. Most importantly, I learned how much I am NOT interested in trying it out.

Hydroponics is a soil-less method of growing plants. Plants are grown in a series of tubes or in a soil-less medium with a constantly-flowing water/nutrient broth solution washing over their bare roots. The result is plants that grow faster, reach maturity quicker, and have fewer problems with pests and diseases than traditionally grown plants. The disadvantage is that it has to be done in a greenhouse under specific and constantly-monitored conditions. The water also has to be moving and aerated, which requires a pump, which requires electricity. Material costs are also high to get started since you can't just dig a hole in the ground and go.

Hydroponics and organic gardening seek solutions to the same problems posed by traditional agriculture, but seek to solve them with diametrically opposed methods. Where organic gardening seeks to improve the health and biological activity of the soil, hydroponics removes the soil altogether. One seeks to understand nature and use it to its advantage, while the other seeks to remove nature from the equation completely.

The thing that I like about bioneering in general and organic gardening specifically is that nature is a self-regulating and self-correcting system. I'm lazy and often too busy to do optional tasks in a timely manner. By having the right organisms in place and giving them the materials they need to thrive, the natural processes can guide the life in the system and help everything help itself, with minimal effort from me. That's not to say that there is no work involved. I still need to collect organic material (really no harder than recycling), compost it (the worms really do all the work there), mulch, plant, weed, water and harvest (but that part's not really work, now is it?). But organic gardening gives me elbow room on when I have to do all that. That is what draws me to bioneering and organic gardening. It is all about the flexibility in the system and letting nature do the work for me.

All that is missing from hydroponics. Nature is removed from the system. The beneficial organisms are removed with the harmful ones. The only beneficial organism left in the system is the human, and that leaves a lot of slack to be picked up. I'm too lazy for that.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Organic Gardening as Bioneering

Ever since I was little, I have had a number of hobbies, things like animals, plants, bicycling, rollerblading, growing mushrooms, martial arts. It wasn’t until I took up gardening in my early thirties that I first had a hobby that was widely practiced by others around me. It was a really weird feeling to be able to freely talk to co-workers about my hobby and have a lively and interesting conversation rather than blank stares.

Gardening is a widely practiced hobby. ranks it as the 7th most popular hobby. Of course, they ranked sleeping as #17, so I am not sure how much I trust them. According to American Demographics, up to 25% of people practice gardening as a hobby. Also, gardening tends to be more widely practiced in difficult times and is also more widely practiced by older people, both factors which could drive up the number of people who garden in coming years. Many gardeners aspire to have an organic garden, with varying success. It is this very mass participation that makes a true organic garden the most common, as well as the most advanced, form of bioneering.

Organic gardening is, at its heart, a form of biomimicry, or emulating nature to solve problems. In a healthy ecosystem, such as a natural grassland or a forest, the living plants, be they perennials (like the trees) or annuals (like the grasses), drop litter to the soil surface as part of their annual cycle. The soil organisms work on this litter and decompose it. Earthworms pull the organic material down under the soil. Bacteria and fungus work on the decomposing organic material. Life creates conditions necessary for, and beneficial to, life. Healthy plants mean vigorous growth during the growing season, which means more litter to feed the soil-borne organisms at the end of the year. So it is in the best interests for the different players in this system to benefit one another. It is only during times of stress that the disease organisms, those that benefit from disharmony in the system, can invade and destroy. But even those play a part, destroying the weak and thus strengthening the whole. This is a system that has been refined and perfected by eons of natural selection, evolution, and cooperation. To mimic this system in the organic garden is to take advantage of the system already in place.

But organic gardening isn’t just about the soil. It is about biomimicry on a grand scale. Compost is the greatest tool in the organic gardener’s toolbox, but by no means the only tool. There are other beneficial organisms out there that aren’t created or directly fostered by compost. Ladybugs do massive damage to populations of small, soft-bodied insects. Nesting birds often have hungry mouths waiting to stuff full of garden pests. Marigolds attract beneficial insects while driving away nematodes. The list is long, and will be a major topic for this blog. The point is that organic gardening isn't about what you SHOULD NOT do, but very much about what you SHOULD do. So get out there, enjoy the weather, get some exercise, and try your hand at back yard bioneering.