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.