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.

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