Sunday, January 31, 2010

An Unexpected Benefit of Container Gardening

A little over a year ago, we switched from a stable existence in a house with a large back yard to one in transition, with no appreciable back yard. It'll still be a year or so before I can move back to a real house and start gardening in earnest again. The problem is, I just can't go that long without gardening. Last summer I set myself up with a container garden on the back of the apartment I am renting. Despite getting a really late start, it was a wonderfully productive garden that provided much produce. As is usually my habit, I grew a fall garden. I typically plant a little lettuce and a bunch of spinach. Combined with the swiss chard I usually grow all summer, I get fresh greens until things get really cold and shut everything down for the season.

One benefit of growing spinach as a late season crop is that it survives the winter. Even in my Zone 5 garden up in Colorado, it survived all winter one year, perhaps because it had a nice bed of snow almost the whole time. But here in my Zone 7 garden in Arizona, it consistently survives the winter. (FYI, I have also had cilantro and snapdragons survive all winter, perking up in the spring). The spinach just turns a little pathetic looking after Thanksgiving or so and shuts down for the season. After that, you don't really get any more produce. However, once things warm up in the spring, it is ready to explode into life. It already has a root system in place and will grow rapidly and produce huge amounts at the first hint of spring. In my garden in Colorado, I found myself trying to find a way to eat spinach at every single meal.

Since my garden is in a container this year, I found a new benefit. The soil is up out of the ground and sitting in full sun with a lovely southern exposure. It is next to the house so the heat from the house helps as well. This year my spinach never shut down. It isn't as if it hasn't been a cold winter. Morning temps have been mostly in the 20s for a month and a half or so. We have gotten a total of about 2 feet of snow. Of course, this being the high desert, daytime temps do get over freezing nearly every day. I am sure that helps. I have just been surprised that not only is it still big and healthy looking, but it is still growing. I still harvest a little spinach when I have tacos or a burger. What I take grows back in a week or so.

And it isn't just the spinach. Swiss chard is a biennial. It shuts down even more than the spinach. When it comes back the next year, it is putting energy towards the production of seeds, so the greens are of low quality, usually small and tough. So, typically, swiss chard isn't worth having after winter really sets in. Today (January 31) I decided to clean up my containers and get them ready for spring planting. That involved pulling out the rest of the swiss chard. Once I sorted it and washed what was still worth eating, I filled a gallon bag with beautiful, healthy swiss chard.

I think next year I'll have to plan my winter garden a little better.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Piggie Wars: The Saga Continues

Last summer I began container gardening in an unprotected area on the back of my house. I quickly found that the area is the nocturnal javelina (pronounced hav-e-LIN-a) highway. These native relatives of the pig are not terribly picky eaters and can be quite destructive and I quickly got into an arms race with them. As the summer went on and more attempts were made on my garden, I upgraded my defenses. I started out with a ring of chicken wire. Then they bent and crushed that, so I put rebar stakes in, each pounded a full foot into the ground. Then I added zip ties to keep the chicken wire in place on the stakes. I thought I had finally won.

This morning they proved me wrong. For the winter I turned one of my larger containers into a compost bin. While it will give me lots of valuable compost, it also proved a tempting target, surviving a number of attacks from both the javelinas and my dog. However, it seems I have underestimated the tenacity of an animal whose head is designed to push through some of the toughest bramble in the world. This morning, there was a giant hole in my chicken wire where, presumably, the javelinas just pushed right through.

Alas. Now I have to engineer a tougher barrier. Sounds like fun.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When the Disease Is More Valuable Than The Tree

I received an e-mail from a friend recently containing some pictures of rather shockingly large mushrooms that grew from the base of one of his stately oak trees following a large rainstorm. He wanted to know what kind of mushroom they were and, perhaps more importantly, if they are harmful to the tree. As you may imagine, the tree adds considerable value to his property. First off, let me tell everyone out there that when it comes to mushroom identification, I am no expert, and you should always seek the advice of an EXPERT before eating any mushroom that you are not sure of. The results of a poor choice in this area can range from gastric unrest to a horrible death. That said, I am can usually come up with a good guess. In this case, the mushroom bears an uncanny resemblance to a mushroom that is known to favor dead and diseased oak trees. It is a mushroom called Grifola frondosa, or Hen of the Woods. In Japanese (and many health food stores), it is called maitake.

There is good news and bad news about maitake mushrooms. The bad news is that it is definitely a facultative parasite. That means that it won’t usually attack a healthy tree, but it will happily move in to a sick tree and help hasten it to the grave. It is probably better than some other parasites, though, because it isn’t in any rush to finish off the tree. You see, maitake mushrooms are really good at fending off competition. They have even been known to push an established mushroom out of wood that the maitake is growing in to. Once the tree dies, the mushroom will continue to fend off competition and produce mushrooms from the stump for decades.

The good news about maitake mushrooms is that they are a prized mushroom, both as an edible and as a medicinal. Their ability to fend off bacterial and mycological competition for so long means that they boast a wide array of anti-bacterial and anti-fungal compounds that could have value to medicine. I have seen these mushrooms at a specialty grocery store twice. Once it cost $20 a pound, and the other time it was going for $30 a pound. Now, I don’t know how much each cluster in the wheelbarrow above weighed, but I’ll take a stab in the dark at 10 pounds. My friend did say that they were heavier than they look. So 4 clusters at 10 pounds times $20/pound. I get $800 worth of mushrooms that went in the compost. That is, of course, assuming my guess as to the variety is correct. It might not be.

But here is the thing: a mushroom is capable of turning each pound of dry wood into approximately a pound of mushrooms. That includes the roots. While this was certainly a bumper crop, this tree will likely produce smaller clusters of this mushroom several times a year for several decades. At what point is the disease worth more than the tree?

*Photo: Scott Shepherd

Friday, January 22, 2010

Amazing Nature: Lobster Mushroom

I am going to start a new series on some of the amazing stuff in nature. Nature is founded on the evolutionary principle of “find something that works and exploit the hell out of it.” The thing is, beyond this simple principle, there really are no rules. Thus, every organism out there is looking for a niche, a hole to fill, an angle to play. With billions of different species exploring this concept every day (whether they realize it or not), nature comes up with some seriously amazing stuff. I’ll start off with the lobster mushroom.

Most of us think of mushrooms in two categories: poisonous and edible. However, there are a large number of mushrooms that are neither. While eating them won’t kill you, they are either too tough and fibrous to eat or taste simply awful. Some of those are even nice and big and meaty and would make a great meal if you could stomach them. That’s where the lobster mushroom comes in. You see, the lobster mushroom isn’t actually a mushroom at all. It is a mold. When spores from the lobster mushroom mold land on a mushroom, typically of the Russula or Lactarius genera, they quickly colonize the mushroom, covering the exterior in a reddish coating, which is about the same color as the shell of a cooked lobster. This renders the original mushroom unidentifiable, but more importantly, turns an inedible mushroom into a choice edible.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Benefits of Growing Mushrooms on a Log

Growing mushrooms on a log may very well be the oldest form of mushroom cultivation. After all, it wouldn’t take much for a stone age person to bring home a log that was producing tasty mushrooms. More recently, the Japanese have been growing shiitake mushrooms on logs for hundreds of years, longer than we have been growing button mushrooms on pasteurized, composted steer manure. Their method was actually quite simple. Put fresh logs next to fruiting logs. When the log produces mushrooms, if it makes the right kind, you keep it. If not, you don’t. When it comes time to coax it to produce mushrooms, you soak it for a day in a lake and then smack it with a wooden mallet. I am not sure what the mallet is supposed to do, though.

Many of the best gourmet and medicinal mushrooms are primary decomposers. This means that they prefer to grow on fresh wood. Many mushrooms growers today will chip the wood and grow the mycelium on wood chips. This increases permeability and surface area, thus increasing the speed that mycelium can colonize the wood, thus increasing the speed of mushroom production. However, for the home grower, growing on wood chips can mean more potential for problems and more maintenance. Obviously, a greater surface area also increases potential opportunities for contamination. Also, wood chip blocks must be fruited on a more regular basis and are used up more quickly. A mushroom log will last for several years and requires less maintenance than a house plant.

Actually making a mushroom log is relatively easy. There are many methods for making a log and I will highlight two of those in an upcoming post. However, the first step is pairing the right mushroom with the right kind of wood. Some mushrooms tend to be pretty specific about what kind of wood they prefer. Here are a few likely candidates and the woods they prefer:

Lentinula edodes (Shiitake Mushrooms)
Shiitake is probably the most common commercially available mushroom log out there. It is also one of the more commonly available gourmet mushrooms out there. It is easy to grow. As for logs, it actually prefers shii trees. In fact, that is what it is named after. Shii is the tree and take (pronounced tak-ay) means mushroom in Japanese. However, we don’t have many shii trees here, so oaks do nicely. It will, however, grow on a number of other hardwoods, such as poplar, willow, cottonwood, and birch, among others.

Pleurotus ostreatus (Pearl Oyster Mushrooms)
Oyster mushrooms are another ubiquitous favorite of the gourmet mushroom aisle at your specialty store. They also happen to be one of the most aggressive and easy to grow mushrooms. They will grow on most kinds of hardwoods and adept at turning the mass of the log into a serious mass of mushrooms. However, they also have a problem. Oyster mushrooms put out a LOT of spores. So if you are prone to mold spore allergies, this may not be the mushroom for you. It is perhaps worth noting that my wife is prone to these allergies and it doesn’t seem to bother her, though. Nonetheless, I tend to do my best to keep the fruiting bodies out of her way and pick the mushrooms as young as I reasonably can. Also, there is a closely related species called Pleurotus pulmonarius that favors conifers, especially fir and spruce.

Hypsizygus ulmarius (Elm Oyster or Garden Oyster Mushrooms)
This one is a good substitute for Pearl Oyster Mushrooms. It is very close in flavor and appearance to Pearl Oyster mushrooms, though some say the Elm Oyster is tastier. However, it is not as aggressive, and it produces far fewer spores. Elm Oyster Mushrooms prefer elms (of course), but also like cottonwoods, maples, oaks, and willows.

Hericium erinaceus (Lion’s Mane Mushroom or Pom Pom Mushroom)
All of the mushrooms above are very mild in flavor. I included Lion’s Mane Mushrooms on this list because they are not. They have a very strong flavor. Some say they taste like lobster. I disagree. They also have a very interesting form. They do not have a cap or a stem or gills. They are more like a fuzzy ball. Well, maybe not fuzzy, as the protrusions coming off the mushrooms are not like hairs at all, but more like teeth. Pom Pom is a good description. They like to grow on oak, maple and walnut. Hericium abietis (Conifer Coral Mushrooms) are a good substitute if you have spruce logs to grow on, though it forms more of a coral shape than a ball.

Ganoderma lucidium (Reishi Mushrooms)
Reishi Mushrooms are not edible mushrooms. It would be like chewing on wood. They, are, however, prized medicinal mushrooms. They are full of antioxidants and are renowned for boosting the immune system. Reishi mushrooms also have a beautiful dark red color on top and creamy color on bottom that bruises a darker color when fresh. I carved my daughter's name in one and she loves it as a name plate. Reishi mushrooms love to grow on most varieties of broad-leaf hardwoods.

Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail Mushrooms)
Turkey tails are another medicinal mushrooms. While they provide some of the same benefits as Reishi Mushrooms, they are particularly renowned for their cancer fighting properties. They are also lovely, growing in a shelf like shape with multi-colored stripes. The advantage of Turkey Tail Mushrooms is that they will grow on just about anything but cedar and redwood.

There is one last thing to remember about log selection: the size of the log. Your log should be between 4" and 12" in diameter. If you get too much bigger, it will take a really long time for the log to produce mushrooms. The fungus won't go about producing fruit until it has colonized the whole log. If the log is too small, it will produce relatively few mushrooms. Length is another consideration, and that has a lot to do with where you are storing the logs. If you live in a humid, relatively rainy area, you can store them on the north side of a building, out of direct sunlight and let nature do most of the work. For that, logs 4-5' long work well. If, like me, you live in a dry climate where the mushrooms will need additional help retaining moisture, keeping the mushroom in a pot is a good alternative. You can then fill the rest of the pot with sawdust (more food for the fungus) or just potting soil and water it like a plant. If you do that, a log that is 2-3' long would work best, depending on your pot and your space. If you try to make it much longer, it tends to get top heavy. Also, the pot only really retains moisture for the area it covers and maybe 6" higher. The tops of tall logs will still dry out. If you get much shorter than 12" or so, you start to reduce your potential harvest.

Coming up: How to make a mushroom log.