Saturday, February 21, 2009

Organic Gardening - Definition

Okay, first of all, I have something very important to say about organic gardening. YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG, PEOPLE!!! Okay...breathe...use your words...

The term "organic gardening" has always been confusing to me. To most people, it means "gardening without using synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, etc." To me, the word "organic" generally means one of two things. The first definition I think of is "material that is or once was living." That means people, fruit, meat, mulch, compost, sticks, etc. The second definition I think of refers to organic chemistry, the branch of chemistry devoted to the study of carbon compounds. Carbon, of course, is the one element that is central to nearly every compound that makes up a living organism. However, organic chemistry has also produced many of the compounds that those in the organic movement decry so very much.

Some years ago I decided to take up gardening. Being the bioneer kind of guy I am, I felt I needed to learn as much about the system I am creating as possible. So I went out and found two gardening books that seemed to cover as much of the information I thought I needed as possible. One of the books I got, “How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method,” I got because it had a wealth of growing information on nearly every cultivated fruit or vegetable out there. But as I looked through the book, I realized that it contained a wealth of other information and I decided to read the whole thing, cover to cover (I can't remember if I succeeded, so no quizzes, please). What I read completely blew me away. “How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method” was a book on organic gardening that was written in 1961, early in the organic movement (or as near as I can tell). It describes a new method of cultivation involving the heavy use of compost. It was called "organic" gardening because the key is the heavy application of organic material to the garden. In so doing, you increase the health and beneficial biological activity of the soil, which in turn increases the health and vigor of the plants you are growing. Healthy plants require fewer treatments for pests and diseases. They also said that compost provides all of the major nutrients that plants need as well as lots of minor nutrients.

Then they went on to say something completely unexpected. They said that if you use compost you won't NEED any of these synthetic chemicals that so many farmers are dumping on their crops. They also theorized that maybe they aren't so good for the soil or the crops and that maybe we SHOULDN'T be using them. They generally didn't use words like "cannot," "shall not," or "do not." They simply said that we don't need them and maybe shouldn't use them.

Over time the suggestion has become the mandate, which has in turn become the definition. I would contend that just because you don't use any synthetic chemicals in the garden doesn't mean that you are organic gardening. If you aren't composting, or at least using heavy applications of mulch, you aren't organic gardening.

I know, harsh words. And maybe the definition is too far gone to be saved. Maybe we need a new term, like eco-gardening, or the bioneered garden. I don't know. I just know that it always makes be pause when someone asks me if I am practicing organic gardening or brags about their organic garden.

It kind of makes you wonder about that “organic” turkey you had for Thanksgiving dinner, doesn't it?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mycorrhizal Fungus

If I had to pick what is the most important thing to do for your plants to ensure their health and vigor (other than basic needs, like sunlight, water, etc.), it would be really hard to choose between compost and mycorrhizal fungus. In the end, though, I would probably choose mycorrhizal fungus, just because there are more plants that are adapted to rocky, nutrient poor soils than there are plants adapted to life without mycorrhizal fungus.

Mushroom-producing fungus (hereinafter abbreviated to "mushrooms") fall primarily into three categories: parasitic, saprophytic, and mycorrhizal. Parasitic mushrooms harm and/or kill other living organisms. Saprophytic mushrooms break down organic matter that is already dead. Mycorrhizal mushrooms are a bit more complicated to define and are the subject of this post.

The discovery of mycorrhizal mushrooms, exactly what they do and how amazingly important they are is a relatively recent one. Scientists have discovered that the root system of plants doesn't really do what we thought it does, at least for most plants. It turns out that roots aren't all that good at collecting water and nutrients from the soil. The roots' main purpose is to connect up to networks of fungus that live in the soil nearly everywhere called mycorrhizae. The plant then forms a symbiotic relationship with the fungus. The plant provides sugars to the fungus through its root system, in some cases sending as much as 80% of the sugar the plant produces. The fungus, in turn, does what it does best. It sends filaments far and wide to search out the nutrients that the plant needs, break them down, and deliver them right to the roots of the plant. Think of it like a living fertilizer, getting the most out of the soil. It also seeks out and concentrates water, delivering that to the plant as well, increasing the drought tolerance of plants. It turns out that approximately 90% of all plants on earth, including all or nearly all of our cultivated, food-producing plants, are evolved to take advantage of this relationship. Plants that have the appropriate mycorrhizal mushrooms in the soil with them will be healthier, grow faster, resist pests and diseases better, be more drought tolerant and have a much better chance of surviving stressful conditions.

My first attempt to use mycorrhizal fungus was a dramatic one. I have a tree aloe in a pot. When I got it, it was about 4 inches tall. Over the next 4 or so years, it grew to be about 8 inches tall. I finally decided it needed to be repotted. About this time, I bought my first treatment of mycorrhizal mushrooms. When I repotted the tree aloe, I inoculated them with the mycorrhizal mushrooms. Normally when you repot a plant, it sits there for about two weeks in transplant shock while it repairs its root system and adjusts to its new environment. My tree aloe showed obvious new growth the next day. Over the next 6 months it grew from 8" high to nearly 2' high.

The most dramatic example I have heard of regarding what these amazing mushrooms can do was from an experiment performed by mycologist Paul Stamets. He went out in the woods in the Pacific Northwest and found two trees growing side-by-side, one a deciduous tree, the other a conifer. They were able to confirm that the same individual mycorrhizal fungus was growing on the roots of the two trees, connecting them. They then tented both trees. One tree got a clear tent and a supply of carbon dioxide with a special, traceable isotope of carbon. The other tree was tented with black plastic to block all access to light. They allowed time to pass and then tested the tissues of the stressed tree. The tissues of the tree showed significant quantities of the carbon isotope they had provided to the other tree. The only way that is possible is if the mycorrhizal fungus in the soil had been accepting the sugars from the healthy tree and providing them to the stressed tree in an attempt to nurse it back to health.

Mycorrhizal fungus are present in the soil in nearly every natural environment in the world. However, human activities of moving and compacting soil from activities such as plowing and construction destroy native populations of mycorrhizal mushrooms. Fortunately, you can buy supplements to restore populations of mycorrhizal fungus. One such source is the website of the mycologist mentioned above, There, he sells a product called Mycogrow(TM), that restores the mycorrhizal mushrooms to the soil.

It is also worth mentioning that while some of our best culinary mushrooms, such as truffles and chanterelles, are mycorrhizal mushrooms, these have proven very hard to cultivate as they are evolved to pair with a particular tree in a particular ecosystem. The mycorrhizal mushrooms that you can buy spores for will produce mushrooms, but only tiny, inedible ones. They are more for helping the plants than for producing edible mushrooms.


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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Composting Methods

Being something of a geek, composting has always made me feel like a necromancer. You take something dead, perform a special kind of magic on it, and end up with something so very alive and so very black. Of course those fantasy stories tend to see life as a big conveyor belt moving us inexorably toward death. But nature doesn't see life that way. Nature, the ultimate recycler, sees life as a cycle, more like the phoenix rising reborn from its own ashes.

For those of you not familiar with the different methods of composting, there are three widely accepted methods of composting: hot composting, cold composting, and vermicomposting. There is enough information out there on the internet and in books that I won't go into heavy details here, but I will give a brief description. Hot composting is what most people think of when they think of composting. It uses a number of thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria and fungus to rapidly break down organic matter. As an added benefit, it gets hot enough to kill most weed seeds and pathogens. The disadvantage is that you need to get the right combination of materials and turn the pile frequently to get the pile hot enough and keep it so.

If you don't bother with specific pile composition or regular turning, you are cold composting. While cold composting is a lot less work than hot composting, it is also a lot slower.

Vermicomposting brings an new player to the party: worms. Specifically, red wigglers are used. These little guys consume their weight in compost every day, turning it into rich worm castings. They also do the aeration for you, so there is less turning involved. They just need a steady supply of food and a protected location.

Mycologist Paul Stamets proposed a fourth kind of composting: mycocomposting. Mycocomposting uses any of a number of mushroom-producing fungi to break down organic matter, especially woody matter, rapidly. The advantage of this system is that you can use your compost to generate food. It also takes very little work once you get it going. The disadvantage of mycocomposting is that the materials can be pricey, especially over time. Also, the conditions (moisture, temperature, etc.) have to be right for the mushrooms to establish and grow. I'll get into more detail on mushrooms in general and mushroom composting specifically in later posts.

Over the last couple of years, I have been experimenting with myco-vermicomposting, with mixed success. My outdoor compost bin has had trouble getting mushrooms established. It probably has something to do with my lack of a watering schedule and the fact that I live in northern Arizona. It's not too hot here, but it's very dry. On the other hand, my indoor experiments with myco-vermicomposting have been a resounding success. I'll discuss that in detail in my next post.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Natural materials are inherently unpredictable. In engineering we find ways to improve them to make them more consistent. We call these engineered materials. Compost is the premier BIOneered material. Human-guided natural processes are used on natural materials to produce a product that is used to improve the health and vigor of natural systems. And what an improvement it is!

Compost may well be the most important tool in the bioneering toolbox. It improves soil structure. If the pH is too high, it lowers it. If the pH is too low, compost raises it. It adds nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as loads of trace elements. It increases water absorption of the soil and reduces water loss from evaporation. If your soil is too sandy, compost will add nutrients and help the soil retain moisture. If your soil is too clayey, compost will improve the drainage of the soil. It reduces disease and increases the health of plants. In other words, no matter what is wrong with your garden, compost is likely the cure.

Compost achieves all this and more primarily through the action of a wide variety of extremely beneficial bacteria, fungus and other micro-organisms that thrive on the rotting vegetation. All of these organisms form a number of mutually beneficial relationships, thereby improving the health of the soil. Healthy soil makes the plants growing in it healthy, increasing their vigor and disease resistance.

Civil engineers have even begun using compost for erosion control. A number of micro-organisms common in compost produce a sort of extra-cellular glue that helps hold the soil together, reducing erosion. In the meantime, the compost also helps seeds germinate and grow rapidly, providing long term erosion protection. Also, the organisms feeding off of the compost are in a mad rush to get the available nutrients. So if you flow polluted water through it (in civil engineering, "stormwater pollution" includes everything but the water itself, including silt, nutrients, oils, etc.), the porosity of the compost increases surface area for absorption of pollutants and acts like a filter for the larger particles, making for a very effective filter. There is a company in my area that uses locally produced wood chip compost for a variety of products. They have compost logs that are used to filter sediment-laden water before it exits the site. They also mix seeds with compost and blow them onto disturbed land to improve reseeding speed and erosion control during germination.

Another benefit of compost is that you can actually concentrate it and get it directly on plants, with dramatic effects, through the use of compost tea. By making an aerated brew of compost and room temperature water that is allowed to steep for 24 hours or so, you can create a liquid concentrate of nutrients and those magical beneficial microorganisms that you spray directly on plant leaves and on the soil. People who use it regularly claim that the plants get much bigger, have few to no diseases, and food produced has a higher sugar content, making for tastier veggies and fruit.

In my next post I will cover some different methods for making compost.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Born Engineer

When my father was 4, he asked for wood for his birthday and used it to build himself a boat. At 15, he built a working hovercraft. In college, my father chose electrical engineering as a profession, but has always maintained mechanical engineering as a hobby. When I was dating my future wife, I brought her over to my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner. As we were walking up the driveway, my father came out of the garage with a bicycle with a lawnmower engine attached above the front wheel, started it up, and drove off down the street. My future wife nearly fell over laughing so hard. Before that moment, it never occurred to me that what my father had done habitually, compulsively, his whole life was in any way out of the ordinary.

My father is what I have come to call a "born engineer." I have come to believe that engineering is much more than a profession. It is a calling, a vocation, a compulsion. Some people really can't be anything else. And there is recent evidence that it may be genetic. Silicon Valley is one of several places that have abnormally high autism rates. The original assumption was that there was something in the water that was causing it. But a recent study looked at it a little further and found that the vast majority of autistic children had either a father or a grandfather who was an engineer.

Having grown up in an engineering family, I noticed certain traits that define the born engineer. The first is a way of thinking. The general assumption is that engineers are hard-core left-brained thinkers. After all, scientists discover principles and engineers apply them. An engineer must understand the scientific principles that guide their design. But engineers also solve problems, often difficult ones, and that takes creativity. So an engineer must be both very left-brained and very right-brained.

The second thing I noticed about engineers could almost be described as their hallmark. It is called tinkering. Born engineers tinker. It is a compulsion, really. You get an idea and you HAVE to go build it. You combine disparate parts into a new configuration to see if it will work, and how. The important part is that the tinkering is not about building cool stuff. That's just a side benefit. Tinkering is about learning. It is about testing hypotheses. Through tinkering the engineer learns how natural materials behave. They learn what works and what doesn't. Tinkering leads to understanding. Understanding leads to better design. So is it the compulsive tinkering that leads to becoming an engineer, or that the individual was a born engineer and tinkering is just one of the traits? We may never know.

At the end of high school, I wanted to major in biology in college. But I couldn't really figure out what to do with it or how to make a good living at it. Then I discovered that I could make a good living as a civil engineer and do work I enjoy. But it always bothered me that I am not a born engineer. After all, I don't tinker. It wasn't until I was in my mid-thirties that I realized that I do tinker and have done so all my life. I just don't tinker with mechanics or wood. I tinker with systems of life. It felt odd to find out I was in fact a born engineer, but not for any kind of engineering that had yet been defined. Then I found that magical word, bioneer, and I had a word for it. I guess I am a lot like my father. Professionally, I am a civil engineer, but my hobby is bioneering. Maybe someday I will figure out how to combine the two.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


When I first saw the word "bioneer," I was amazed at how wonderfully a portmanteau of "biological" and "engineer" fit my lifelong hobby. Then I read on and discovered that it is actually a combination of "biological" and "PIOneer." Bummer. But I kept reading and found that it still described what I do.

The word "bioneer" was defined by Kenny Ausubel and, according to Wikipedia (by way of Utne Reader) means "a biological pioneer, an ecological inventor who's got an elegant and often simple set of solutions for environmental conundrums." While I would never be arrogant enough to describe my work as "pioneering," (I seek to fully understand what others already understand), the word also works as a portmanteau of "biological engineering" and engineering is, after all, the application of science.

First, a little about me. I had a fascination with life from an early age. I got my first pet at 5. By 3rd grade I had read every book my school library had on animals at least once. By my early teenage years, I had discovered that if I got pets that needed terrariums, I could work on matching habitats to animals and the experimentation began. My work with plants in the terrariums led to a love of plants and furthered my experiments. In my late twenties, I discovered the work of Paul Stamets, which led to my working with fungus and opened up a whole new dimension to my experiments.

To be clear here, my experiments with life are never cruel and never unethical. I experiment with interactions. I test how different combinations of plants, animals and fungus work together to improve each other, help each other, and accomplish work together. After all, that is what nature is all about, interactions. One organism doesn't make nature. Nature is composed of interacting ecosystems which are composed of interacting organisms. And those interactions are still more complicated than we fully understand.

My hobby has always been to try to understand how those interactions work, or more importantly, how they DON'T work. Nature has devised a system, field-tested and refined over millions of years. To fight against this system is to fight an uphill battle...forever. To use the system to your advantage is elegance defined.

So this blog will be thoughts, ideas, and hopefully discussion (via the comments) about bioneering, biomimicry, organic gardening and other such ways we can use the elegant operation of the natural world around us to solve our problems, both global and local.

And no, I don't promise to stay on topic. I also plan to use this blog as a repository for my other hair-brained ideas, thoughts and opinions. So just bear with me. Hopefully you'll get something useful out of all this.