Thursday, December 30, 2010

Propagating Mushrooms

Mushrooms are hardy organisms. The mycelium of a mushroom producing fungus is capable of living for hundreds of years, perhaps more. For example, there is a patch of Armillaria mushrooms in Oregon that is believed to be over 2,000 years old. However, most of these magnificent organisms rarely live more than a few years. This is because of fungus’s way of eating. It grows into its food source and lives there until the food is gone. Unless it has another nearby source of food to grow into, it will starve to death and die. The art of propagating mushrooms is primarily the art of transferring the mycelium from one food source to another to keep it going as long as possible.

There are several ways to propagate mushrooms. In commercial production, they work under sterile conditions and take a sample of mycelium, either from the center of a fresh mushroom or a stored mycelium, and grow it onto agar in a petri dish. Then they transfer it onto sterilized rye grains (sometimes more than once) and then transfer it to pasteurized straw or wood chips for the final production of mushrooms*. However, in most people’s homes, mine included, sterile conditions are a bit hard to come by. So I will talk a bit about methods you can use that don’t require sterile conditions.

What we are going to be making is called spawn. Spawn is a growing medium for mushrooms that is used to expand a sample taken from living mycelium in preparation for making something larger for producing mushrooms. There are many kinds of mushroom spawn, and selection of such depends on what you have on hand and what you are hoping to transfer mushrooms onto. For example, mushrooms that are going to be transferred onto a log might be cultivated in a different form than mushrooms that are going to be transferred to a wood chip bed. Below are some common kinds of mushroom spawn out there and a brief description. I will cover some of them in detail later in individual posts.

Plug spawn – Plug spawn is made from wooden dowels that are grown through with mushrooms and then hammered into logs.

Coffee ground spawn – Coffee ground spawn takes advantage of the fact that coffee grounds are small, easily colonized and pre-sterilized.

Cardboard spawn – Cardboard spawn makes a nice surface to sandwich between two layers and makes an ideal growth medium for mushrooms.

Bunker spawn – A large mass of myceliated material covered in a protective cloth coating is good for helping mushrooms leap off in less-than-ideal conditions.

Wood chip spawn – Wood chips give an easy medium on which to grow and expand mushrooms.

*Note that this is how most gourmet mushrooms, such as oyster and shiitake, are grown. Button mushrooms have different requirements and are grown on composted, pasteurized steer manure.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Strategy for Growing Mushrooms

Imagine, if you will, a huge table in the forest. On this table, Mother Nature has laid out every kind of food you can possibly imagine. Meats, fruits, and vegetables of all kinds are all laid out and waiting to be eaten. Plants make their own food, so they have no need to come to the table. Animals have the great advantage of mobility and are the first to arrive at the feast. The animals hit the easy to digest, high energy foods, like fruits and meats, first. But they also take most of the vegetables and just about everything that is readily digestible. By the time the animals have finished, all that is left is scraps. The bacteria and the molds come next. Actually, they were always there as they are always everywhere in nature. They have limited abilities of movement, but their real advantage is their ability to multiply rapidly. However, by the time they reach sufficient numbers, the table is all but clean. No matter, the bacteria move in and consume the scraps left by the animals.

The very last diner to the table is the fungi perfecti, the mushroom producing fungus. They come in blown by the wind or they grow to the table through the soil. Either way, it takes them a week or more to get to the table and amass any appreciable size where they can really take advantage of the food. By this time, though, even the scraps are gone. This doesn’t really bug the mushrooms, though. They just settle right in and eat the table.

This mental image is what drives my designs for mushroom habitats. When growing a plant, you want to create the optimum conditions for that plant to grow, thrive, and out-compete whatever competition it will have. The same thing goes for growing mushrooms, remembering that their principal competition will be bacteria and molds. To do that, you need to control some key environmental factors to give the mushrooms the competitive edge.


Bacteria typically grow best in warm conditions. That is why your refrigerator is cold. It inhibits the growth of bacteria. The same goes for molds. Tropical mushrooms, like pink oyster and paddy straw mushrooms need warm conditions to grow properly as well. However, most temperate mushrooms are well adapted for cooler temperatures. In nature, they live on the cool forest floor. Many, especially the enoki mushroom (Flamulina velutipes) are so well adapted to the cold that they will continue to grow in any temperature short of actually frozen. It is a strategy that serves them well. Mushrooms that can continue to grow in cooler temperatures can continue to grow and survive when their principal competition has gone dormant. Growing your mushrooms in cooler conditions (though not actually in the fridge) can help them out-compete bacteria and molds.


One of the advantages of being a multi-cellular organism is the ability to transport nutrients from where you have them to where you need them. Now fungus isn’t as good at this as us vascular animals, but it can transport water small distances. It can also survive through fairly dry conditions (though complete desiccation will probably kill it) and come back to life when water is again available. Keeping your mushroom just a little damp, but not overly wet, will allow the fungus to grow without giving the bacteria the upper hand.

Food Sources

This is the area where you can really stack the deck in favor of the mushrooms. Many of the best gourmet mushrooms are primary decomposers of wood. That means that they will move into a solid log and consume it. Raw, unprocessed wood is a complete food for mushrooms. Now you could probably get better and faster growth by adding all kinds of additives. Mushrooms like sugar as much as the next organism. However, the more other stuff you add to give it more energy, the more you open the door to other organisms to move in and compete. Keeping the meal as hard to digest as possible gives the mushroom the advantage.

Surface Area

Controlling the surface area of your food source is another way to cut down on contamination in your mushroom cultures. Consider a log vs. a pile of sawdust. The sawdust is much more accessible to the mycelium. The mycelium can grow through it in just a few days and then begin digestion in earnest. On the other hand, the bacteria and molds around can also do that. A fresh log, on the other hand, is a solid block of hard material. The mycelium uses a combination of digestion and hydrostatic pressure to push its way through, but doesn’t leave much room for others to slide in behind it. It may take 6 months for the mycelium to colonize the whole log, but provided it wasn’t contaminated to begin with, you have a good chance it won’t become so in that period of time.

So just consider the various factors that are within your control when you are setting up the growing conditions for your mushrooms. A little tweaking of the conditions could mean the difference between a successful culture and lots of yummy mushrooms and a contaminated failure that is only good for the compost bin.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Growing Mushrooms vs. Growing Plants

Someone once described war as “long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of terror.” Change “terror” in that sentence with “excitement” and you have a pretty good description of growing mushrooms. With a plant, the seed sprouts and then gets a little bigger every day until it reaches maturity. With a little careful observation and an eye for detail, you can see the daily difference. You get a little satisfaction every day.

Growing mushrooms is quite different. When you start a culture, say with a stem butt, it sits for a day or two. Then it gets a little fuzzy. After a few days of the fuzz getting a little longer, all of a sudden it starts growing rapidly. It covers the surface of the substrate in long strands at a rate of an inch or more a day under ideal conditions. Then, behind the leading edge, the webbing starts to fill out, claiming everything as its own. In just a few days, the surface is covered with a white blanket. Then it sinks in.

After the initial push, the white sort of goes away; it is like it dives down into the substrate to eat. At this point, nothing really happens for weeks to years at a time. If it is a log, it will take 6 months to a year or more before anything else happens. If it is something like sawdust spawn or coffee grounds, it will only take a month or so. During that period, it won’t change a bit. You can look at it all you want, but you won’t see any change.

Then, one day, something new appears. They are called primordia and they look like little pinheads on the surface. They show up overnight, sometimes by the dozens and start to grow. They expand in size and get taller. When they get about a quarter of an inch tall, they stop growing and dry up. I liken this step with testing the water. Maybe the first batch didn’t have the right mixture to survive in this environment, but in my experience, the first flush of primordia almost always abort. A day or maybe two later, a second batch will show up. This one has the right conditions. Pretty soon the primordia have grown into buttons and the buttons have grown into full grown mushrooms. The whole process, from primordia to full grown mushrooms usually takes about 5 days, sometimes less, occasionally more for large or woody mushrooms. It is very exciting. Sometimes you can come back and see noticeable growth after just a few hours. Talk about instant gratification! And when the process is done, you get to eat the results. You just can’t beat that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Compost Project

In addition to a trash dumpster and an oversized recycling bin, my neighborhood has a compost bin. It has two large bins that are big enough that one can be composting while the other handles waste from the entire neighborhood. It also has a central section with a roof that is used to store bales of straw that are to be mixed in with the kitchen waste to achieve the right mixture. It has slats on the front for easy extraction of finished compost and a sturdy wire mesh all the way around to keep the varmints out. All in all, it is a fantastic addition to the neighborhood. But it lacks one thing: maintenance. The neighbor who built it also takes care of it. The problem is that he lives elsewhere all summer, not arriving in town until mid-fall and leaving again mid-spring. That means that all summer, when the compost should be cooking like crazy, it never gets turned and rarely gets watered. In addition, the straw, which should get added when the compost gets smelly, gets added liberally with almost every addition of compost. So in addition to not getting enough oxygen or water, it has too much brown material. It seems to me that this is a problem I can fix. Since this is a blog about engineering with biology, we will tackle this as an engineering problem.

Problem Definition

The first step is to clearly define your problem. In this case, we will define it thusly: The compost bin only gets watered in the winter, has too much brown material and never gets turned.


The next thing you look at are the parameters of your problem. Cost is nearly always one of the parameters. For example, those 14’ long giant worms from Australia might be just the thing for this problem (but probably not), but it wouldn’t be reasonable (or legal for that matter) to import a few of them. We need to spend little to no money and use local materials as much as possible. The second parameter has already been mentioned: we will be using biological organisms to solve this problem. The third parameter is a request from the person who built the bins: “I’d rather not modify them any more than I have to; I like them the way they are.” And I agree with him.


The next thing we want to consider is our options. The usual composting organisms sound like a good place to start.

Thermophilic bacteria are the biggest composters out there. They work quickly and could turn that entire pile into black gold in about two months. There is a big problem though, they need a steady supply of oxygen (usually supplied by turning the pile), lots of moisture (only available during the winter), and warm temperatures (not available during the winter).

Redworms are the second biggest composters out there. They also work quickly and would turn that pile into black gold in about 2 or 3 months, if added in sufficient quantities. If worms are added to a dry pile, they will seek moisture deeper in the soil, even if it means leaving a huge source of food behind. They are also slow to eat brown material and they tend to go dormant in the winter, retreating to the bottom of the pile and slowing down their metabolism. Now the pile is in a sunny location, so it will probably not freeze solid during the winter and it probably will thaw all the way out most days, but it will still be too cold to keep worms active.

Mushrooms are another organism that can be used in compost bins, but isn’t used frequently. The problem with mushrooms in compost is that they don’t like to be turned frequently, they prefer a mixture that is heavier on the brown material and lighter on the green material, and they are damaged by high heat. See where I am going with this? Mushrooms will work slower than bacteria or worms, but will do an excellent job of breaking down the brown material. They also have limited ability to transport things like oxygen and can continue to grow a little deeper in the pile than the aerobic bacteria. In addition, they are typically better adapted to cool conditions and can continue to grow in just about anything above freezing. In fact, many mushrooms use winter as an opportunity to get a leg up on the competition, expanding their range and collecting nutrients while the bacteria are dormant.

Choosing a Specific Material

Engineering is all about specifics. Saying mushrooms will work is not good enough. You need to select a mushroom. As I mentioned, cost is certainly an issue, so I will work with the mushrooms I already have access to and see if any of those will be acceptable.

It turns out that I have access to four different kinds of mushrooms: 3 that I am growing and one that I harvested wild from nearby recently.

The first candidate is the elm oyster mushroom (Hypsizygus ulmarius) which I am cultivating on a couple of logs. It might be a suitable mushroom, but neither log has fruited recently, so I have no access to stem butts to make spawn.

The second candidate is the black poplar mushroom (Agrocybe aegerita), which I am also growing on logs and fruited recently. I am attempting to propagate this mushroom currently. However, this mushroom has proven difficult for me to grow. It is a primary decomposer, so it prefers raw wood (not so available in the compost bin) and it has had some difficulty with my dry Arizona climate. I don’t think this is a suitable candidate.

The third candidate is the pearl oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus). I also have this growing on logs, and it also fruited recently. The pearl oyster mushroom is a primary decomposer, but it is also an aggressive decomposer of all things that used to be plants. It grows well on paper, straw, cloth, wood chips, and much more, including compost. It would rapidly decompose much of the compost, but wouldn’t break it down very far. It would also die out when it ran out of nutrients.

The fourth candidate is the shaggy mane mushroom (Coprinus comatus) I recently found a fresh wild fruiting of this mushroom and harvested both dried mushrooms (they dry quickly in our dry air) and stem butts, which I am currently trying to grow on cardboard. Shaggy manes are tertiary decomposers, meaning they live in dirt. They are also great restorers of disturbed land. They are adapted to decompose anything from sawdust and straw to manure and yes, they do well in compost. They will probably work more slowly on the compost than the oyster mushrooms, but they have the added benefit that they are native to this area. They are also a great addition to garden soil and would get added to the soil with the compost.

At this point, I am trying to decide between the oyster mushrooms and the shaggy mane mushrooms. I think that a sequencing of both mushrooms would probably be best in the long run, with oyster mushrooms added first, followed by shaggy manes a month or two later.. Also, adding worms in the spring would help the compost finish quickly, especially if the mushrooms have pre-digested much of the compost.

Over the next month, I will be propagating and expanding the mushrooms I have before putting them in the compost bin. I will be posting several articles on the different propagation methods I use for the mushrooms. I will also keep you all up to date on further details of my compost remediation project. Also, sometime in January I will be teaching an informal class on how to propagate mushrooms, using the mushrooms I have, so if you live in the Prescott, Arizona area and are interested, let me know.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Best Garden Blogs

For those of you who haven't heard of it, there is a site called Best Garden Blogs that collects and links to the Best Gardening Blogs on the internet. I highly recommend you check it out as they have found some really great blogs. I am also happy to announce that they consider my blog worth including in their list.

Monday, November 29, 2010


As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been a big fan of epiphytes for a long time. In my research, I found that there is an entire family of epiphytic cactuses native to the tropics of Central and South America. Naturally, I had to find one and add it to my growing collection of epiphytes. In particular there is one species that produces a large pink fruit with green scales called dragonfruit, or pitaya. Thus began a many-year search for either a plant to grow or a fruit to try. A few months ago, my wait paid off and I found a fruit at my local grocery store. It was a bit past its prime, but it was still quite tasty. The flavor was mild and sweet. I thought the closest flavor was pear. The texture was much more like kiwi, though, with firm flesh and crunchy seeds throughout.

The best part of finding a fresh fruit was that I was able to harvest over a hundred seeds from a quarter of the fruit. I promptly planted my first set of seeds in pots and they had a really good germination rate. I am not looking forward to thinning these precious darlings.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that cactus would count some epiphytes among its number. After all, if you put a dry-adapted plant in a wet environment, it probably would try to colonize the sunniest, driest environment available, which is what you get out on a tree branch.  As with many epiphytes, it starts its growth cycle in the ground and then grows up the tree, producing aerial roots that help it cling to the bark. While many epiphytes eventually lose their connection with the ground, I am not sure if dragonfruits do. In cultivation, they are kept in soil, which helps get them the nutrients they need to produce fruit. For directions on growing these plants, I recommend looking up the Texas Triffid Ranch’s dragonfruit care sheet.

As for my precious seedlings, I need two to produce fruit, and they won’t begin to do so until the weight of the plant is greater than ten pounds. So I will probably keep them in a pot and trim them to keep them small until I can get my greenhouse built and enclosed. Then the plan is to plant them at the base of a Meyer lemon tree or, if I can get one, a citrus fruit salad tree*. Then the dragonfruit can grow up the tree and I can get lots of interesting fruit from one cool clump of vegetation.

*A fruit salad tree is a tree that has branches from different kinds of trees from the same family grafted on. So you can do a peach tree that also has plums, pluots, almonds, and nectarines. You can also do one with many kinds of apples and pears. I am hoping for a citrus fruit salad tree, though, with branches containing Meyer lemon, kumquat, Key lime, blood orange, and pink grapefruit.

Picture of dragonfruit fruit courtesy of Brenden Gebhart.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


When I first started growing plants as a teenager, I quickly grew tired of the plain, old, boring plants that everyone else grew. I have never had a spider plant and never plan to grow one. As I learned more about different types of plants, certain types quickly rose to the top of my favorites list. The first was carnivorous plants. Succulents then became a favorite. But really, one of my longest running loves is with epiphytes.

“Epiphyte” is another word for “air plant.” They are a class of plants that grow up in trees, often with little to no contact to the soil below the tree. They are also not parasitic to the tree they live on, getting their nutrients from the air itself or what little else they can find on the branch, such as bird droppings. Epiphytes are common to tropical environments and somewhat less so in subtropical environments. While some kinds of epiphytes, such as tillandsias (which are a subgroup of bromeliads), are capable of surviving with literally no soil, most require a little. In the wild, plants firmly anchored to tree limbs attract debris and droppings, which break down into a sort of soil that collects on tree limbs. In fact, some of this soil has been found to be fertile enough that the trees grow roots out of their limbs to take advantage of the nutrients. However, the “soil” is always thin and light and drains well.

In cultivation, most epiphytes are grown wired or glued to a log or piece of bark with a little sphagnum moss packed around their roots. Some are grown in pots, but the soil is often loose and well-draining. Orchid bark is a good example of soil that is specifically designed for epiphytes, as most orchids are epiphytes. As for watering, a light mist two to four times a week will do for most species and nearly all prefer to dry out between waterings. Despite growing in wet climates, their soil is so thin that they are more adapted to dry conditions than many of their neighbors. Also many do not require any fertilizer at all. Many also prefer dappled light since they tend to have a canopy over their heads in the wild. All of these things make many epiphytes great houseplants and there are many varieties available. Below are some of the different types of epiphytes out there.


Most orchids (with the notable exception of Paphiopedilums) are epiphytes. I had a Phalaenopsis and an Encyclia that I grew epiphytically on a log in a dry climate for over a year. While both survived, neither flowered, probably due to the fact that I rarely fertilized them and watered them all too infrequently. Some orchids do better than others in that sort of situation, but most will die if planted in soil. Plus, the amazing blooms of these plants make them worth a try.


Bromeliads are probably the most famous of the air plants. While there are terrestrial bromeliads (pineapple is one), many are very epiphytic. I have three different Tillandsias that have been living without so much as a little sphagnum moss around their roots for over 4 years now. I suspect that if I was in a humid climate, I probably wouldn’t even have to spray them. If you look a little deeper than your local grocery store, you can find some bromeliads with really fascinating foliage. With proper care, they flower every 2 years or so, producing blooms that rival orchids. As a bonus, when the blooms fade, the parent plant produces pups, which are miniature plants. When those get to about half the size of the parent plant, they can be removed and planted elsewhere.


There are actually several varieties of vining, epiphytic cacti. Their adaptation to dry climates must have made this a natural move. I can only imagine that a dry-adapted plant moving into a moist environment would cause them to evolve to take advantage of the driest microclimate available. I am just starting to grow my first epiphytic cactus, but they are still just seedlings. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.


Nepenthes are commonly called “tropical pitcher plants.” They are a family of plants that start on the forest floor and then climb up the nearest tree. As with many tropical plants, they have a drip tip on the end of their leaves. Only in Nepenthes, the dip tip has become highly evolved. As the plant gets bigger and feels the lack of nutrients in its chosen home, the drip tip enlarges into a little pitcher that is used to capture and digest prey, thereby giving the plant the nutrients that growing on a tree lacks. The pitchers of nepenthes tend to be more elaborate than terrestrial pitcher plants and quite beautiful. In fact, some of the largest pitchers in the world belong to Nepenthes. Nepenthes rajah is reported to have pitchers big enough to capture a rat.


There are a couple of kinds of epiphytic ferns. The white rabbit foot fern has white, fuzzy aerial roots that sort of look like rabbits’ feet. However, by far the most fascinating of the epiphytic ferns are the staghorn ferns. A staghorn fern starts on the side of a tree and grows two kinds of fronds. The basal fronds grow short and round and cover the root ball, protecting and enlarging it over time. The fertile fronds are what the plant is named for. They grow long and wide and sort of resemble the antlers of a moose. Mature staghorn ferns can be several feet across and are absolutely majestic plants. Thus far my attempts to grow any epiphytic ferns have been unsuccessful as they don’t tolerate the lack of humidity in my climate.

Ant Plants

While I have never grown an ant plant, and probably never will, I still find them fascinating. In addition to the usual complement of leaves, ant plants grow an enlarged, bulbous base that is riddled with tunnels. In the wild, ants move in and inhabit the tunnels, allowing the plant to take advantage of their waste.

If you are interested in possibly growing any of these epiphytes, I strongly recommend giving Black Jungle Terrarium Supply a visit. They specialize in supplies for making terrariums for poison dart frogs and have an amazing variety of epiphytic plants.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Wood Pellet Fuel

A wood pellet stove is a kind of heater that burns small amounts of wood pellets at a time with excellent air flow to produce a lot of heat without nearly as much smoke and pollution as a wood burning fireplace. It is also one of the cheaper ways to heat your home in the winter. Every winter, I stock up on several bags of wood pellet fuel, even though I don’t own a wood pellet stove. I also hold on to it until summer. So, what do I do with it, you ask?

Well, first of all, it is worth noting that I am always careful to buy the bags that say 100% organic, which means that they are composed completely of sawdust. Wood pellet fuel is made of sawdust that is dried and pressed into little pellets. When you add water to them, they swell and fall apart into sawdust. It is also worth noting that a 40 pound bag of wood pellet fuel costs about $4.

Where else are you going to get such a wonderful garden supplement for so cheap? I use wood pellet fuel as a mulch, I mix it in to soil to build organic content, and I use it as a compost amendment. For mulch, you scatter a little on the ground and then water. Be careful about how much you put down. A solid layer one pellet thick will give you about 2 inches of mulch once it has been watered, so they do swell up quite a lot. I have smothered many seedlings because I mulched too heavily with wood pellet fuel. For mixing into soil, add a few handfuls here and there to the soil as you are working it. It will add to the organic content of the soil and give the organisms in the soil something to feed off of. Again, too much is bad as large concentrations of sawdust will rob nitrogen from your soil, which isn’t good for your plants. For a compost amendment, you just throw a couple of good handfuls in the compost as needed, usually when the compost starts getting smelly. I added a small bucket of wood pellet fuel to my tumble composter this summer and almost immediately, it started to heat up, finally achieving the mix it needed to really cook. Three weeks later, it cooled off and a week after that, the compost was done and ready to use.

Consider checking out your local supply of wood pellet fuel and maybe you can put some of that precious carbon in your soil instead of putting it in the air.

Oh, and it is worth mentioning that wood pellet fuel doesn't work very well as a medium for growing mushrooms. Most mushrooms are pretty specific about whether they prefer to grow on hardwoods or softwoods. I have yet to find any wood pellet fuel that tells you what its composition is. This means that it could be 100% hardwood, 100% softwood, or, more likely, some combination of the two.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This Year's Mistakes

A few months ago, my friend over at The Yarden did a blog post on her mistakes for the year. I think this is a fabulous idea. There is no such thing as a perfect garden or a perfect gardener. Every year you learn from your mistakes and the next year you hope to compensate and do better. Sometimes you succeed. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you overcompensate and make exactly the opposite mistake. Either way, gardening is as much about learning what to do as it is about doing it. So I am going to follow The Yarden’s example and help you guys learn from my mistakes. It is also worth noting that I currently garden exclusively in containers, so many of my mistakes are related to that.

1) The Succession Garden

I am a big fan of succession gardening. The concept is simple: your spring veggies make way for your summer veggies, which make way for your fall veggies. There is just one problem: I tried to do that in every single container. So I had to pull up my peas before they were completely finished just to plant my tomatoes late. Then I had to pull up the tomatoes before they were completely finished just to plant my fall greens late. It shortened the season of everything and reduced yields. Next year I plan on more carefully sequencing my succession crops, only trying the method in a couple of pots. More likely, I will have a couple of pots that have spring crops and then fall crops, with no summer crops at all.

2) Not Testing My Soil

I bought a soil test kit several years ago and have managed to lose it. I still have it, I just don’t know what box it is in. I am also reluctant to buy a new one since money is a little tight. So I don’t know how good my soil is. I added a fair amount of organic fertilizer last year, but this year’s compost didn’t come in until September. Container gardens are limited by the nutrients in them. I need to either find the test kit or buy a new one by spring so I know what my soil needs.

3) Not Enough Swiss Chard

Last year, I grew a good fall crop of Swiss chard. As usual, it over-wintered just fine. Swiss chard comes back pretty anemically the second year, so I pulled most of it out, leaving one to produce seed. However, I never planted more. I got some from the leftovers, but for some reason, it never occurred to me to plant more. So I went the summer without my favorite vegetable.

4) Growing Tomatoes

I took my two biggest pots and put sunberries in one and ground cherries in the other. For some stupid reason I thought I could also grow cherry tomatoes in those pots and get a good crop of both. I also planted a cherry tomato plant in another of my large pots. The tomatoes got huge quickly, stealing all the sun from the other plants in the pots with them, yet somehow producing little to no fruit. I got an average of about 3 cherry tomatoes a day off of 3 huge plants. That was way too much wasted space and resources for my small garden.

So for next year, I will be planting a single, solitary ground cherry (well, maybe two…) and the rest will be greens and herbs, preferably with lots of Swiss chard.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Reasons to Garden

Take a look at the picture to the left. Note that the packaging says that the enclosed cherry tomatoes were “vine ripened.” Now take a look at the enclosed tomatoes. Still pretty green, eh? Not only were these tomatoes picked so green that they weren’t red by the time they made it to my kitchen, but they were actually picked so green that they never really made it all the way to red. Most of the tomatoes never fully ripened.

So if you can’t trust the suppliers of your food to be truthful on the stuff they ARE telling you, how can you trust them to be honorable about the things they aren’t telling you? To be honest, I tend to think the best of people. I think that most people out there really are trying to do their best and produce something they can be proud of. But I am not naïve enough to think that there aren’t still plenty of people out there who just want to make the most money with the least effort and not care who they screw over in the process.

“You are what you eat.” Remember that one? My mother drilled it into my head as a child. Now that I am an adult, I pay attention to research, more and more of which is saying that this old saying is absolutely true. So, if your most precious and important possession, your body, is composed entirely of what you put into it, wouldn’t you want to put the best into it? After all, you want your body to last you as long as possible and function at optimum the whole time.

Here is another of my mother’s sayings: “You either spend the money at the grocery store, or you spend it at the doctor’s office.” While I agree with this, I would like to offer a third alternative: You spend the time in the garden. By growing your own food, you have ultimate control over what you put into it. You have control over what nutrients you add and what varieties you select. You can watch your plants and make sure they stay healthy. In the process you get exercise, which is also good for your body. And in the process, you can trust that you are putting the best food in your body.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ground Cherries and Sunberries

As I was planning out the summer version of my container garden this year, I asked myself the question “how can I have FRUIT?” I plant lots of greens in the spring and fall, and I always have plenty of aromatics, but my family is particularly fond of fruit, and summer is the season for lots of fruit. The problem for me, constrained to a container garden as I am, is that most fruit takes up lots of space. Make a list of all of the fruit you can possibly grow in a temperate climate, and you will find that a very large percentage grows on trees (apples, peaches,etc.), bushes (blueberries, raspberries, etc.), or vines (grapes, kiwi, etc.). All of these are perennials and take lots of space and time. Then you have the cucurbits (melon, cucumber, squash). Those are annuals that produce lots of fruit, but with the exception of a few cultivars specially bred for containers, most are sprawling vines that take lots and lots of space. At my house, anything that ventures beyond the safe confines of the actual container gets eaten by the local wildlife.

The problem comes from the energy expenditure required to make fruit. Sunlight is used to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar, and that is done in the leaves. The more fruit you have, the more sugar you need, the more leaf surface area you need. So fruit-producing plants tend to be large.

I decided this year to try something new and see if I could find a fruit that was an annual but didn’t take up too much space, and the deadly nightshade family seemed a good place to start. After all, the nightshades are known for medium-sized plants that produce an abundance of fruit. The only problem is that the majority of the plants in the nightshade family produce fruit that, botanically speaking, is fruit, but culinarily speaking is considered a vegetable. Tomatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, and peppers are all nightshades. Potatoes are also nightshades, but the little green berries are poisonous, so I am not going to try them and see if they are sweet or not.

A little research revealed two likely candidates: ground cherries and sunberries. Ground cherries are a close relative of tomatillos, but are eaten more like berries, They are described as being about the size of cherries, but with a papery husk like a tomatillo and a flavor that is sweet. Sunberries are small, dark blue berries somewhat resembling blueberries. The descriptions I was able to find ranked anywhere from “kind of bland raw, but delicious cooked” to “incredibly delicious and addicting.” I figured both would be worth a try and I ordered some from Seed Savers Exchange, which is a really good site for hard-to-find seeds. Unfortunately, I didn’t order them until late May, so planting in pots and transplanting after frost wasn’t really an option. No matter, I just wanted enough to try them, and I saved enough seeds to grow them next year.

Both plants started off well and needed to be thinned by the middle of July. Shortly thereafter, they started setting fruit, despite each sharing a pot with a particularly exuberant cherry tomato that got huge but produced little fruit. I did at least manage to prune the tomatoes somewhat so that my ground cherries and sunberries could get a little sun.

The final results were mixed. I have to say that both types of plants produced lots fruit for the size they got. The sunberries were rather bland. To me they tasted like a kind of bland, earthy tomato. They were low on tartness, sweetness, and flavor. I never got enough at once to try actually cooking them, but I wasn’t really looking for something that needed lots of flavor added to be good anyway. I am glad I tried them, but I won’t grow them again (anyone want the rest of my seeds?). The ground cherries, on the other hand, were an instant hit. I got Aunt Molly cultivar, which were described as having a citrus flavor. I’d say it was a pretty accurate description. When you bite in, you get a burst of sweetness and a little citrus flavor. As you chew, though, the sweetness gives way a little to something a little more savory. My friend Robert called it buttery, which I suppose is about as accurate a description as I can come up with. At any rate, it has a depth of flavor that I particularly enjoyed. I will definitely be growing ground cherries in the future. The nice thing is that supposedly, given and early start and plenty of sun, it is supposed to grow into a bush about 3’ tall and similarly wide. If the density of fruit on that plant is similar to my smaller bush, one bush should produce plenty for snacking.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Bioneer's Greenhouse Part 6 - Ideas

This is Part 6 in a series. Feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, or Part 5.

So once I get this greenhouse built, what would I do with it other than grow vegetables? Well, it will still be several years before I get it up and operational, so I have plenty of time to work out the details, but here are a few of my ideas:

Growing Mushroom Logs

In Arizona, the key to growing mushroom logs seems to be 3 things: 1) lots of moisture, 2) keeping them out of the sun, and 3) protecting them at least a little from earthworms. In the greenhouse, I am planning a living path to walk on, with plants growing on it. The water from the beds will drain straight into the soil here, so it should be almost constantly moist, but still have good drainage. It will also be at the base of a 3’ high wall, so it will not get much sun. I can line mushroom logs along the wall and it should be near perfect growing conditions. All I would have to do is bury them about halfway in the soil and leave them alone. It will give me an opportunity to replenish my supplies of a couple of kinds of medicinal mushrooms, grow some new kinds, and grow lots of my favorite edibles. I will also have a lot of great soil for growing some of the types of mushrooms that grow well in soils, such as shaggy manes. I might even be able to get king stropharia mushrooms to grow. That would be quite a coup.

Maintain a Small Ecosystem

My vision has always been to have a complete ecosystem in my greenhouse. Obviously I will have lots of plants and plenty of living bacteria in the soil. I will also put a lot of beneficial fungus in there, from saprophytic fungi making me mushrooms to eat and improving the soil, to mycorrhizal fungi that helps the plants to thrive. But I also want an animal component. I need insects to pollinate my flowers. Windows without screens should do that pretty well. I also need beneficial insects to eat the pest insects that find their way in. That isn’t too hard, though. There is an easy source of vast quantities of ladybugs nearby that I can collect every fall. There are plenty of praying mantis about that I can capture and release in the greenhouse as well.

I also want larger animals in there, though, but what to do? Lizards are easy. I could do anoles, a childhood favorite (but how do I keep them inside?), or I could go the easy way and go with the local whiptails and fence lizards. An iguana, basilisk, or water dragon would be cool as well. Turtles would be cool, but I think I will have too much vertical relief and they don’t really climb. There are also birds. A parrot (I favor macaws) or a small group of bobwhite quail as pets would be cool. Chickens produce eggs. The big problem with birds is that two of the windows to the greenhouse will be my bedroom windows, so noisy birds are pretty much out. There are also some neat mammals that would go well in a greenhouse. Rabbits would produce large amounts of fertilizer, but would have to be kept in a cage if I have any hope of growing anything. The cage could go over the compost pile, though, and add a constant stream of extra nutrients to the greywater headed out to the beds. A sugar glider or flying squirrel would be so cool in there. I just haven’t come to any decisions yet on that. I just want SOMETHING in there.

Water Feature

As I mentioned before, I am going to have some sort of water feature. It won’t be very big, though. Should I make it just a sterile tank, a holding place for rainwater, or should it be a living system? How much room do you need to grow tilapia for food? Maybe I could get native frogs and toads to come in and breed there. Maybe I just have turtles or catfish. There are so many options on this one.

A Wetland Water Filter

I have mentioned before that I plan on using compost to filter my greywater before it heads out to the plants. When I originally planned that one, it was to double as a compost bin for everything but the kitchen scraps. However, I now have a tumble composter that does a really good job of handling just about everything I can throw at it. I don’t necessarily need the extra compost space, so it will be extra effort to keep it full and functional. Wetlands have been used for years to filter water. They are excellent at filtering a large number of impurities from water. It also happens to be an ecosystem that I know next to nothing about but have been very curious about for some time, so it would give me an opportunity to learn and experiment. It also might take less space since the compost bin was supposed to be 2 bins. If I could make the water filtration area smaller, I would have more room to grow more plants.

Carnivorous Plants

I have been a big fan of carnivorous plants since I was a child. The problem is that Arizona is just too dry. Even sitting in a puddle of water, the plants dry out quicker than they can absorb water. A greenhouse might just keep the humidity high enough that they would survive. That would give me an opportunity to grow some of the larger American pitcher plants as well as a variety of sundews and maybe even a Venus flytrap or two. The trick is to keep the water level up. I think I can manage that by putting them in a floating bed on the water feature. I could put it on runners and situate the floats so that it floats at the right height to keep the water level just right. As the water in the tank drops, so does the bed. If I decide not to have any sort of aquatic life in there, this bed could be the entire top of the water feature.

Vertical Gardening

A 10’x20’ space is barely enough to grow everything I want to grow, and sprawling, vining plants, like melons, are just too much for the space. However, if I can create some trellises and arbors, I just might be able to get some of those plants to grow vertically. In addition to saving space, it must might help shade the walls of the house in the summer as well.

Epiphytic Plants

Epiphytes, or air plants, have been another of my loves over the years. Epiphytes grow on other plants, needing no soil. I currently have several epiphytic orchids and bromeliads and would love to expand the collection. In particular, I would love to grow a vanilla orchid, which I hear get very large, and I MUST HAVE a dragonfruit cactus. An epiphytic cactus that produces fruit is just too awesome. Actually, I would love to have a Meyer lemon tree and grow the dragonfruit up the lemon tree. I also really want a staghorn fern. Those are amazing, majestic epiphytic ferns.

Anyway, those are a few of my ideas. As you can see, this greenhouse won’t be so much a greenhouse for me as a bioneering laboratory.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Bioneer's Greenhouse Part 5 - Solar

This is Part 5 in a series. Feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4.

Sunlight is going to be an interesting concern in my greenhouse. Immediately to the east, I will have a screened porch. That means that I won’t get much sun first thing in the morning. Immediately to the west, I have a large juniper tree. That will steal a lot of my evening sun. Since I am facing 22 degrees west of due south, though, I think I should get some really good sun through the rest of the day.

Due to cost considerations, I will most likely have to forego installing the glazing for several years. When I do, though, I have a new set of concerns. I have specifically designed the house for passive solar design. In the summer, I am protecting the house from the sun as much as possible by providing as much overhang and shading as I can to the southern wall. In fact, if you notice, on the house itself, the second floor hangs 2’ over the lower floor. In addition to that, I have a set of wooden slats that give additional shading. During the winter, the sun comes in at a much lower angle, allowing the sun to come in the windows and warm the house. Once I get the glazing up for the greenhouse, I have another source of heat: the greenhouse itself. In the winter, the sun will warm up the greenhouse, producing heat. I will open the upper and lower windows from the house into the greenhouse. As the air heats up, I will rise and enter the upper windows. That will pull air in from the lower windows. This creates a convection current that heats the house. I will also have high and low windows on the glazing for the greenhouse so that I can use the same convection current to dissipate heat to the outside in the summer.

Thermal mass is another big consideration in my greenhouse. Thermal mass is a large, dense structure, such as a body of water or masonry that has the ability to absorb heat. As the day heats up, the thermal mass slowly absorbs the heat, tempering just how hot it can get. By the end of the day, the thermal mass is warm, but the outside temperature starts to cool down. The thermal mass will slowly release that warmth back out. In a house, a thermal mass is stored in the exterior walls, absorbing the heat from the outside and releasing it back to the outside in the summer. Sometimes thermal masses are used on the inside of houses in the form of concrete floors or walls, usually set back enough that they get little to no summer sun, but lots of winter sun.

I will be taking advantage of a high thermal mass in the greenhouse. My raised beds will be constructed of cinderblock. I am also considering using river rock and mortar to create a more aesthetically pleasing façade to the cinderblock. All of this creates a good thermal mass to help the greenhouse hold its heat on cold winter nights. I will also have the water feature in the corner that will provide a lot of thermal mass. I probably won’t want to let the greenhouse suck the heat out of the house on winter nights, so it will need to have a way to keep itself warm. A good thermal mass should do that, releasing the heat close to the plants. I must say, though, that I will be seeing how well this works before putting any temperature sensitive tropical plants in there. In the summertime, I need to find a way to keep the thermal mass from becoming a liability. I am hoping that I can use vines for this. The soil in the path will allow me to grow peas or pole beans or something similar and let it grow up the walls, thereby shading the walls from the sun. Cucurbits growing on top and cascading over the walls would also work. This should help limit the thermal gain in the summer. Also, the sun will be striking the walls at a more oblique angle, which should also help. I will probably use some sort of trellis to protect the side of the house as well.

All in all, I think that the greenhouse will use its sun efficiently and help keep my house warm in the winter. My only worry is that it will also help keep it warm in the summer. I need to prove to myself (and more importantly, my wife) that it will work as needed to keep things from getting too hot in the summer. I think I will probably end up installing an evaporative cooler on the side of the greenhouse as a backup plan. I have also considered having some sort of system that will allow me to have roll-up blinds that I can use to shade the inside of the greenhouse at certain times, or even partially shade it more often. If I get something that is cloth, it could be used as a shade to keep heat out during the summer days and a blanket to keep heat in on winter nights.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Bioneer's Greenhouse Part 4 - Soil

This is Part 4. Feel free to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well.

So now I have talked about how I am going to lay it out and how I am going to get water into and out of the greenhouse. Next I am going to have to have something to grow all that wonderful produce in, some sort of wonderful soil. Now, I could just buy a load of topsoil and hit the ground running. But that would be cheating. For someone who engineers with biology, the soil is by baseline, my starting point, my most important factor. Yes, I need good, fertile soil. But more importantly, I need living soil. For that, I want soil that is almost 100% compost.

I am fortunate to live in the neighborhood I live in. I have a nearly inexhaustible supply of organic material right out my back door. The ecology of my back yard is chaparral, a dry, scrubby landscape dominated by scrub oak. And yes, scrub oak really is oak. It stays small and twiggy and is easily chipped up in my little electric wood chipper. It also grows really densely. I could go out daily and maintain trails, reduce fire danger by removing brush that’s too close to houses, and take it from dense patches. Then I bring the trimmings back to the house and chip them up. Between the sheer amount of scrub oak and how fast it grows, I doubt anyone would ever notice that it was gone. And those that did would probably appreciate my maintenance work. I certainly wouldn’t be clear-cutting anything.

Once home, the chips would be pasteurized and inoculated with culinary mushrooms. Many of the best culinary mushrooms really grow well on oak. So I could grow some in pots or even in the beds themselves. If I can get several blocks completely inoculated with mushroom mycelium, I could create a bed with fresh chips and then break up the blocks and use them to inoculate the bed. With any luck, I would have many pounds of tasty mushrooms as the first crop from my garden. When the mushrooms have gotten what they want out of the wood chips, they get fed to the worms, who will finish them off to make high quality compost in just a month or two.

Now, I have to say that the prospect of harvesting and chipping about 10 cubic yards of scrub oak is seriously daunting. Fortunately, I have a few cheats that allow me to get a quick start. First of all, there is straw. It is a little less dense than wood chips, but it is also readily consumed by a wide variety of culinary mushrooms. A bale is only about $4, so I can get them in bulk pretty easily. So that will probably be my starter method. For my second cheat, I have another readily available resource. During monsoon season, my neighbors and the neighborhood in general spend a considerable effort cutting and removing weeds, especially tumbleweeds. I can just walk around the neighborhood pulling weeds. The green matter will help with the composting as well as improve the nitrogen content of the soil. The best part is that I can use all weeds, regardless of whether they have gone to seed or not. As the raw materials compost, the level of the top of the beds will drop considerably, which means that I will have to keep adding more and more material until the decomposition has slowed down. Assuming I fill it with weeds fairly early in the process, any seeds in the mix will end up so far underground that they will have no chance of pushing to the surface once they sprout.

Once I have gotten the beds a little over half full, I need to start paying attention to the makeup of the soil. I will test it and start looking for amendments. Most of the best soil in the world has one thing in common: it contains large quantities of mechanically weathered rock. The fine rock particles have lots of minerals in them that are readily available to plants. They also have good staying power in the soil. So I will do a lot of looking around at this point and see if I can find a good source of greensand and rock phosphate to supply the potassium and phosphorus I need in my soil. I don’t know of a good rock-based source of nitrogen, so I will probably have to get some blood meal. I will certainly be using lots of compost, which should help. I have some friends with chickens, too, so chicken manure will be added. I will also have to start taking drainage into account around this time. If my soil doesn’t drain well, I will start adding sand or pea gravel to the mix. If it drains too well, I might just add a little unused clumping kitty litter, which will help plug some of the holes and retain water. Clumping kitty litter is made from expansive clay. Caution is recommended with this method, though, as a little goes a long way.

Once I have a fairly decent level of soil that has composted well enough to support plants, I can also plant green manures. Something like alfalfa or hairy vetch would add lots of nitrogen to the soil. I could also begin selectively planting food crops at this point. The greywater distribution system would probably not be fully buried in the soil yet, so any crops that grow food on the ground or in the ground, like zucchini or carrots would be out. However, crops like corn, sunflowers and pole beans that raise their crops well above ground would be a good choice. In addition, these crops produce lots of compost when they are done.

Eventually the final soil level will be reached and will be fairly stable. I fully expect this to take 2-3 years at least. It isn’t until this point that I can consider planting perennials. Any time before that the constant sinking soil level and constant addition of more mulch and compost would be death to anything that would be around a long time.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Bioneer's Greenhouse Part 3 - Drainage

This is Part 3 in a series. Feel free to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

In my last entry, I covered how to get water into my greenhouse, but not how to get it out. To be honest, I have put almost as much thought into draining the greenhouse as I have in watering it.

Obviously, the water hits the soil first, so soil is a significant consideration in drainage. I suspect that I will have to do some serious adjusting to my soil mixture for drainage purposes. If I make it drain too well, it will pass the water straight through before the plants have a chance to get any, and no amount of water will be enough. If I make it too dense, it won’t drain fast enough and will always be a puddle, which would kill the plants. They say that if you have clay soil and need better drainage, add organic matter. They also say that if you have sandy soil and need better water retention, add organic matter. It loosens stiff soil so water can penetrate it and it helps absorb water passing through sandy soil to improve retention. Based on this, I am intending on making my own soil almost entirely out of organic matter. I may adjust it a little this way or that with some pea gravel or clay kitty litter if it needs some help.

From there, the water drains down to the bottom of the beds. My plan is to make the floor of the greenhouse concrete. I just don’t want all that water draining right under my foundation. I also don’t want local trees to put some roots up in my greenhouse to steal all my water and possibly damage my beds. So concrete bottom it is. The beds, which will be about 3’ high, will be made of cinder block. On the bottom course of the interior walls, I will leave the mortar out of the vertical joints. This will allow the water to drain from the beds into the pathway. The pathway will also have soil on it, about 8” deep. There will be a perforated pipe inside a sleeve of landscape fabric running the length of the walkway. I will put a cinderblock block with chunks knocked out every 2’ or so along the length of the pipe, straddling the pipe. I will then mortar a stepping stone of some sort to the tops of the cinderblocks. The rest of the walkway will be filled with soil with some sort of shade and moisture tolerant creeping ground cover. Personally, I am hoping for Corsican mint, but to date my attempts to grow Corsican mint have been considerably less than successful. I am also hoping to put some mushroom logs in the pathway there as the shade and moisture will be perfect for them.

So the water trickles down through the soil and then drains to the center of the greenhouse, where it encounters more soil. From there, it drains into a pipe that will take the excess water off to the natural area behind my house. Depending on how much water I have there, and what I can convince the neighborhood of, I might just put in another distribution system and a little orchard of fruit trees. We’ll see.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Bioneer's Greenhouse Part 2 - Water

This is part 2 of my design for my greenhouse. Part 1 is here.

When I had a nice big garden at my last house, water was a serious source of contention between my wife and me. Though we never did the math, her contention (probably rightly so) was that we spent more money on water than we got in benefit from food. It is just too dry here in Arizona. So in my design for my greenhouse the design of water was crucial. Now it is not to say that I am going to have a low water greenhouse. If that were the case, I would only be growing cactus and such and I really don’t want to do that. No, in this case, the concepts we are going for are wise use of water and a distribution system that reuses water wherever possible. For this, I have a two-pronged approach to water. Yes, I will have a spigot in the greenhouse, but it is my sincere hope that I will almost never have to use it. The vast majority of my water will come from either greywater or rain water.

1) Greywater

Here in Arizona, we have a blanket permit for using greywater. That means that, as an individual homeowner, I have the right to use my greywater without getting an individual permit. I am expecting some friction from the local municipality since they like to use the treated water to recharge the aquifer, but I am a strong believer that it is better to not pull it out and treat it in the first place than it is to pull out twice as much as you need and then put half of it back. Most people I have talked to seem to think I can squeak it through.

There is one problem, though, that becomes a major design concern. The blanket permit has a few stipulations. The one that really affects my design is that you cannot surface irrigate food crops with greywater. Honestly, this just makes sense. Whatever dirt you just washed off your hands shouldn’t end up back on your food. So I am taking a two-pronged approach to this problem. The first prong is to filter the water to get as much out as possible before it waters my plants. That should get rid of the hair and dirt and a lot of the soap before it gets distributed to the plants. To do this, I am going to use compost to filter it. The exit of the greywater system will be right next to the back door. The line will run under the sidewalk and dump straight into the compost. The compost bins will be fairly shallow and despite not being shown this way in the drawing (one level of detail I didn’t feel like doing), will be a little above the rest of the beds.

There will be two compost bins with a filter cloth of some sort between them. The water will flow into the first bin, flooding it, and then trickle into the second bin. From there it will trickle into a filtered tub in the corner where it will enter the distribution system. Since I have a dog and don’t want the greenhouse to be smelly anyway, the compost used for filtration will be strictly a repository of wood chips and plant waste from the greenhouse, with no food waste in it. I’ll try to put living mushroom mycelium in there to help with filtration, but I anticipate difficulties keeping it alive for very long. This will mean a non-smelly compost that has lots of microorganisms in it to help grab the nutrients out of the water. It will also mean that the water leaving the compost bins will be a sort of weak compost tea that will be composed of very little leachate.

The distribution bin will have two outlets, one that goes to the central bed and one that goes to the outer beds. From there, the pipe will run along the inside of the wall of the bed that is next to the path, about 6” below the surface of the dirt. There will be an outlet with a valve every two feet or so along the edge. That should give me a fairly even distribution of the water. If I have an area that is not planted or getting too much water, I can turn off zones as I need to.

One of the problems I have struggled with is the even distribution of water. If each outlet was at the same elevation, the dirt at the beginning of the system would get most of the water and the end of the line would get almost none. I plan to remedy this problem by having an inch or two rise between the bottom of the distribution pipe and the outlet of each outlet pipe. That way the pipe fills up before it starts to distribute water, so it should distribute fairly evenly.

The distribution system for the central bed will be similar to the one for the outer bed.

2) Rain Water

I am going to do my best to capture as much rain water as I can for the greenhouse. I am hoping to bury some sort of tank on the northwest side of the house that captures rain from at least half of the roof of the house. 300 to 400 gallons would be good, though I am going to try for as much as I can. I am also planning on putting some sort of water feature on the northwest corner of the greenhouse, though I haven’t decided what form that will take yet (just a big tank or a living system?). The overflow of the large house tank will go to the greenhouse tank to make sure it is full. From there, the overflow of the greenhouse tank will dump into a terracotta channel mounted along the edge of the outer raised bed wall. This terracotta channel will be grouted to the wall and tilted towards the soil. Assuming I can get it all level, it will fill up and then spill over into the dirt, acting sort of like a trench irrigation system without using any of my precious growing space.

A rainwater source and distribution system will be crucial to this working. Since I can’t surface irrigate with greywater, I need a way to water seedlings and other plants whose roots don’t go deep enough to take advantage of the greywater. The water feature will also have a spigot on the side for filling a watering tank. Then I can just top off the greenhouse tank with water from the house tank.

Ideally the combination of the two systems will serve to keep the greenhouse watered without too much effort from me and almost no use of additional city water. In fact, I did some research on how much the average household produces a day, and they say about 35 gallons of greywater per day per adult. Now we are pretty water conscious, so I’d say we are under that. However, with two adults and two kids, we’ll probably still generate about 50 gallons of greywater a day. That is probably more than I need. I might just have to turn the valve off half of the time and give the City its recharge water back.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Bioneer's Greenhouse Part 1 - Overview

As a teenager, I discovered the joys of making terrariums. I started out trying to make a comfortable habitat for my pets, but it quickly became more about the habitat and less about the pets. That was the beginning of my love of engineering biological systems. As an adult, I realized that a greenhouse would be a terrarium for me and it became a goal to have one of my very own. But I didn’t want just any greenhouse. I wanted something intricately designed, efficient, self-sufficient wherever possible, and above all else, customizable. It would be a place where I could try out new ideas, tinker, and change things to make them work better.

A few years ago my wife and I bought a lot with the intent of building a house on it. Now that we are living in a rental unit on the lot next to our house and finally have our old house rented out, it is time to work towards building the new house. Naturally, the new house will include a greenhouse, though I suspect that the actual glazing will probably come along later. In the meantime, it will be a raised bed garden.

In the interest of making this a blog post and not a book, I’ll break up my design and intention for the greenhouse into parts. For starters, though, I’ll talk about the site layout.

The lot is kind of what we in Prescott call a “billygoat lot.” It is on a fairly steep hill and only covers 0.06 acres. Yes, I have the decimal point in the right place. The neighborhood is laid out with lots of open space and very small lots. That suits me just fine. As luck would have it, the lot slopes down to the south and the road is on the north side. I have about 15’ of fall from the front of the lot to the back. That means that when you walk in the front door off the street you are in the upper floor of the lot. Going down a floor and walking out the back still leaves you three to four feet above ground, just enough that I can put in a raised bed garden and still water it with greywater from the house. It also puts it in a good place to collect rainwater from the roof.

The greenhouse will be located on the southwest corner of my house and will be 10’ deep and 20’ wide. There will be a door into the house on the northeast corner of the greenhouse and the path into the greenhouse will start there with steps. There will be a 3’ wide bed all the way around the outside of the greenhouse, with a 2.5’ path next to it. On the inside will be a wider, deeper bed. There will be room for a bench as well.

Over the next several posts, I will cover the features of my future greenhouse, starting with water and drainage, then covering soil production and solar features, and finally ending with a discussion of some of the living systems I am hoping to build into the greenhouse once I get it fully built, glazed, and operational.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fall Gardening

It is September now, time to plant the fall garden in my area. The question is, what to plant. In order to determine that, first you need to realize how a fall garden is different from a spring or summer garden.

1) You plant when it is still hot, but the plant matures and is ready for harvest when it is cold. That means that plants that like to sprout in cold soil, like peas, are ill suited to a fall garden. It also means that plants that are frost intolerant, like tomatoes, are also out.

2) A fall garden is best suited to plants that mature quickly. When you consider “growing season” for your crops, it refers to the time between last freeze and first freeze. Many crops can take almost that entire time to grow, set fruit, and then ripen fruit. So crops that mature in just a few months are better suited to a fall garden. This often means vegetables instead of fruit (realize I am talking botanically speaking, which means if it has seeds, it is fruit).

3) If you have mild winters in your area (as I have in my Zone 7 garden), it works well to consider plants that may survive the winter. In some cases they will produce all winter long. In other cases, they will produce until winter throws too much at them. In still other cases, they will go dormant when it gets too cold, only to revive when the first warm weather of spring hits, giving you an early crop. Just remember that winter weather can be unpredictable, so you can’t necessarily count on that winter garden. But then again, summers can deliver hail and locusts as well…

Here are a few examples of crops to try in your fall garden:

Spinach – Spinach has been the star of my fall garden for many years. So far every time I tried it, it went dormant when the weather got too cold and then exploded into growth in the spring. It handles the cold like a champion. Most importantly, it stores whatever energy it can and grows explosively when spring hits. I often find myself trying to find a way to work spinach into every meal around the time everyone else is considering planting their garden.

Kale – All members of the cabbage family are known for their use of sugar as an antifreeze. Once the first freeze hits, they get a lot sweeter. I am particularly fond of Red Russian kale. It is a thinner, more tender kale that can be eaten in salads. However, during hot weather, it is bitter. It isn’t until the first frost that it becomes delicious. For me, this is ONLY a fall crop. Collards also fall into this category.

Broccoli – I once had a broccoli plant that had a rough summer and didn’t start producing until fall. When winter hit, it was undeterred by the cold and kept producing a head of broccoli once or twice a week until a particularly nasty cold snap around January finished it off.

Swiss Chard – This is another tough plant. It matures quickly, is very frost tolerant, and usually lives through the winter. The downfall of this one is that it comes back pretty anemically in the spring. After the winter, it is gearing up to produce seed. So come spring, pull out all but one of your Swiss chard plants, leaving the one so you have more seed.

Garlic – I have had great luck planting garlic in the fall and letting it grow through the winter. It will be ready for harvest around May or June.

Lettuce – Here is another plant that matures rapidly and is frost tolerant.

Cilantro – Cilantro bolts quickly in the heat, but it matures quickly, making it well suited to a spring or fall garden. Cilantro was another plant that surprisingly made it through the winter, only to resume growth in the spring.

Bok Choy – This is another member of the cabbage family that should be good for a fall garden, being both cold tolerant and fast to mature. I tried it for the first time last year and for some reason the plants got about 5” tall and went straight to seed. Not sure why. I plan to try it again this fall, though.

I have also had some failures in the fall garden. You may notice that a sizeable portion of the list above are greens. Anything that needs time to form fruit, big roots, a head, or some other part that isn’t just leaves may not have time to do so before winter sets in. I tried peas last year. They refused to sprout in warm summer soil, so the seeds took a full month to sprout. When they finally did, there wasn’t enough time to flower and grow pods before winter set in. The same thing happened with carrots and beets. I suspect it would be the case with cabbage as well.

Despite my suggestions, I would strongly recommend you experiment. It really is the best way to find out what works best for you and in your area. Even with mixed results you will extend your harvest through the fall and get to garden that much longer.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ambush Bug

I have a spearmint plant that is currently flowering. The massive profusion of flowers attract a wide variety of pollinators including wasps, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, beetles, and even hummingbirds. I stepped out of the house the other day and was delighted to see a painted lady butterfly flapping in the wind as she fed from the flowers. As I got closer, though, I noticed that not only were her feet not touching the flower, they weren’t even moving. The butterfly seemed to have gotten her head stuck in the flower and died. Naturally, I took a closer look. What I saw was a small insect holding on to the head of the butterfly and feeding on it. The insect looked so much like the flower it sat on that it was difficult to see, even though I knew where to look and what to look for. What particularly impressed me was the size of the insect. Its body length was less than a third the body length of the butterfly and overall mass was probably a fifth or less that of the butterfly. Despite the saddening loss of a butterfly, I still found the whole spectacle fascinating.

The next step was to identify the predator. My first thought was that it was an assassin bug. Assassin bugs are very effective predators that I would be proud to have in my garden. They lie in wait, often with excellent camouflage. Lacking jaws, they stab their prey with sucking mouthparts, quickly killing them and then sucking out the innards. They are nearly as voracious as the more famous ladybugs and praying mantis, but smaller (usually) and harder to spot. Nonetheless, they are exceptionally beneficial for the garden. However, upon doing a little research, I found that the blocky head and praying-mantis-like grasping forelegs of my little guy didn’t fit the description of an assassin bug. A little more research showed it to be a close relative of assassin bugs, an ambush bug. Just like their cousins, ambush bugs are voracious predators that lie in wait, often on flowers, to grab passing prey. The article I found said that they can routinely handle prey ten times their own size. That’s about like a house cat taking down and killing a small wild pig.

Once I knew what I was looking for, I looked around for more and quickly found 6 or 7 more hiding among the flowers. I also found some eggs laid on the branches that I can only hope are ambush bug eggs. I must say that I will keep an eye out for these guys in the future. Maybe it is their fault that I have had little to no pest problems this summer. Or maybe it is the fault of the one praying mantis I have seen lurking about. It is probably a combination. Either way, they are a treasure.

Photos courtesy Jenny Williams

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Swiss Chard

Personally, I am a big fan of spinach. I could eat a few pounds of it a week. As a gardener, though, it is kind of a pain. I can get it to grow all winter long. I can get it to grow in the fall and I can make an abundance in the spring. But it just won’t grow in the summer. At the first sign of heat, it goes straight to seed and dies. So for my greens, I have another favorite, Swiss chard. Flavor-wise, it is very similar to spinach, though I find it to be a little tastier. Texture-wise, it is a little tougher. Raw leaves are not as palatable as spinach unless they are picked very young, though I still enjoy them on burgers and tacos. They just don’t make a very good salad. Make no doubt, though, Swiss chard packs the same nutritional punch as spinach.

The best part, though, is that chard is a biennial, meaning that it grows one year, storing energy all summer, and then goes to seed the next year. You just have to let one plant go to seed and you will have enough seeds to keep you and your friends stocked in Swiss chard seeds for years to come. It is also very cold tolerant. In my area (Zone 7 in Arizona), I can sometimes coax it to stay active all winter long. It is also a big plant, with leaves on mature plants sometimes reaching a foot long. Leaves can be harvested individually and the plant will keep putting up more. I also like growing it myself because a bunch at the grocery store often sells for $3 or so, which seems quite high considering how easy it is to grow. If you pick the right cultivar, like ‘Rhubarb’ or ‘Bright Lights,’ you can even plant them in the landscape beds for a bit of edible landscaping.

No that it is late August, it is time to consider what to plant for the fall garden. Might I suggest a little Swiss chard?

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Little Compost Math

I have been noticing lately that my homemade tumble composter has been getting harder and harder to turn, even though it has remained about the same level of full since I made it. One of the constants of compost is reduction. Assuming you do it right, it will continue to shrink in volume. Part of this is because the raw materials have so much space in them and they pack down as they decompose. However, a bigger part is that a very large amount of the mass, around 50% is converted to carbon dioxide or other gasses as a part of the decomposition process. As the carbon is lost, the minerals and nutrients get distilled down to a concentrated, nutritious form.

It occurred to me that I have been constantly filling this single 55 gallon drum since January. I started it with enough dry leaves to fill it one and a half times. I actually had to fill it and then wait to cram the rest in. I have added at least three baskets full of weeds, each a third to a half the volume of the compost bin. I added the remains of a previous compost pile that weren’t quite done cooking. Then there is the constant supply of kitchen waste. So I decided to do a little math to see just how much kitchen waste I have generated.

First of all, there is my kitchen compost bin. It is 11”x6.5”x10”, which gives me a total volume of about 0.41 cubic feet. I assume it was an average of about ¾ full when I took it out, so three trips would be a cubic foot. I figure I took it out about three times a week on average, so I generated about one cubic foot of compost a week. My compost bin is 55 gallons, which converts to about 7.5 cubic feet. That means I generated enough kitchen waste to fill it completely every 2 months or so, and have done so since January, so the kitchen waste alone has been enough to fill it about 3.5 times. Add to that the one and a half full worth of dry leaves and another filling or so for weeds and other materials, and I have filled it with enough material to fill it completely about 6 times. Yet it remains only about three quarters full, just as it has almost constantly since I put the first load of leaves in and wetted them down.

My compost is now getting heavy, which means it is getting dense. Perhaps it is time to stop filling it and let it finish cooking so my garden can have an infusion of nutrients and biological activity. I know I am itching to make some compost tea for sure.

And yes, I do this for fun. Did I mention I am a garden geek?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Spring Fats vs. Fall Fats

I read an article recently that has me thinking. The article contends that our bodies evolved in a natural cycle with the seasons. Omega 3 fatty acids are prevalent in green, leafy vegetables. Omega 6 fatty acids are prevalent in seeds and grains. In spring, greens are prevalent and make up the bulk of a hunter-gatherer’s diet. In fall, seeds dominate the diet. As a survival mechanism, the Omega 6 fatty acids trigger our metabolisms to prepare for lean months ahead and they make us fat, causing heart disease and other such problems in the process. But when spring comes around, the Omega 3 fatty acids trigger our metabolism to revert to a more active state, repairing the damage done over the winter. We in modern society have a problem. We live off of an industrialized food system , which means that our diet is grain based all year long. Worse, those leafy greens that we should be eating lots of are largely absent from our diets. The average American gets about a tenth of a serving of green leafy vegetables a week.

I typically grow a lot of greens in the garden, particularly purslane, which is really loaded with Omega 3s. Looks like I need to keep up the trend.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Herbivores vs. Vegetarians

Okay, here's today's random thought: Are vegetarians the largest true herbivore ever to walk the earth? Sure, we have had lots and lots of really large herbivores that have walked the earth, but how many of the big ones really have a 100% vegetable diet? Let me put it to you this way: have you ever gotten a bug on your vegetables? Now think about how meticulously we wash them and look them over before eating them. Cows barely look before taking a mouthful. There is even a parasite whose life cycle depends on the fact that large herbivores don't look before eating. It invades an ant's body and takes over its mind, causing it to climb as high as it can on grass to hopefully be eaten by whatever is eating the grass.

So, what nutritional benefit do large herbivores get from the bugs they inevitably eat and, more importantly, is it a source of protein they rely on, or is it just incidental to their diet?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wasps: Friend or Foe?

A few years ago I had a thriving crop of broccoli in my garden. Then the leaves started getting holes. The holes got bigger. I looked for the culprit and found little green caterpillars, probably cabbage loopers. I picked off as many as I could find. I continued to do so for 2 or 3 weeks and didn’t really seem to make any headway. They reproduced faster than I could remove them and removed foliage as fast as it grew. Then one day I noticed that I had finally gotten ahead of the caterpillars. The damage seemed to be abating and I couldn’t find a single one. As I looked over my plants, trying to find any of the little green caterpillars I may have missed, I noticed I was not the only one. A wasp came to the plant and flew over each leaf in what was obviously a search pattern. It occurred to me right then that I probably had nothing to do with the lack of pests while the wasp had everything to do with it.

Wasps are voracious predators of a wide variety of garden pests. While the adults eat a varied diet, consisting mostly of pollen, nectar, and insects, the young are a bit more specialized. They eat insects. Many wasp larvae are actually parasitic, meaning that they live inside the bodies of larger insects, eventually killing them when the wasp matures. This means the adult wasps, many of which are good parents, go out and find large insects to feed to their young, often choosing ones that damage our gardens. An active wasp nest can seriously deplete your pest population in a hurry.

So what is a gardener to do? Well, first of all, if you are allergic to wasp stings, I strongly recommend not taking the chance. I am not allergic, so I let them be, mostly. Most wasps spend a little time on the plants, do their stuff, and then move on. I let those be. I do swat the ones that take a special interest in me, my children, or my food, though.

Let me leave you with one last wasp story. When I was about 15 years old, I got my first pitcher plant, a carnivore that needed a steady supply of insects. It was small, with only 3 or 4 traps and only an inch and a half tall or so. So I put the whole terrarium outside for the summer. I wanted to attract insects, so I put a little piece of peach in the terrarium with it, thinking it would attract fruit flies. I got a few fruit flies, but the fruit was dominated by wasps, which mostly scared the fruit flies away. I was pretty upset about it, but didn’t know what to do. I thought about it for a few days and then looked again. One of my tiny traps had a wasp abdomen sticking out of it. I was sure the wasp would rot and kill the trap, but it didn’t. I soon stopped providing fruit and the pitcher plant did just fine attracting the wasps itself, catching 2 or 3 a week all summer. By the end of the summer my pitcher plant was 3 or 4 inches tall and had 15 to 20 traps on it.