Monday, March 29, 2010

Myceliating the Compost

A month or so ago, I built myself a compost tumbler out of a 55 gallon plastic barrel. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you how in an upcoming post. The new composter gave me a place to put the bags of fall leaves that had not yet found a home. It took some doing, but I managed to get them all in there and there was just enough room to keep putting in kitchen scraps. However, spring has just barely sprung here and we are still in the grip of cold nights. So after a month of being full and being turned every few days, I have thoroughly moistened leaves that are a little more crumbled. No noticeable decomposition has occurred. Even the kitchen scraps are still green and mostly undecomposed. They actually look like they would if they were slowly going bad in the refrigerator.

I decided I didn’t want to wait that long for finished compost, so I decided something needed to be done. But how do you get it moving? A very high carbon content and negligible nitrogen content combined with low temperatures means that I have no chance of getting the thermophilic bacteria to start doing some serious cooking for me. I ended up with some worms in there due to transferring other compost in, but it is even too cold for them to do much work. However, there is another organism that can and will thrive in such conditions. Mushrooms make a living by competing in environments that other organisms cannot. They eat what few else can. Their main competitor is bacteria, so many of them evolved the ability to keep growing and digesting even when the temperatures are so low that the bacteria are all dormant. In doing so, they use the winter to gain a competitive edge. The enoki mushroom, also called the winter mushroom, is particularly good at this. You can grow them outdoors in the cold of winter and even fruit them (get them to produce mushrooms) in your refrigerator. I didn’t happen to have any enoki mushrooms growing, and even if I did, I am not sure they can survive on leaves in the compost bin. However, I did have oyster mushrooms growing on a roll of toilet paper as an experiment I did with the kids. Oyster mushrooms are relatively cold tolerant. More importantly, they will decompose just about anything with a high carbon content and do really well in compost bins.

So I decided to make a mycelial bomb for the compost bin. The most important consideration in this was protecting the mushrooms from the bacteria and earthworms already in the compost bin. Once disturbed, the mushrooms will take a few days to recover and begin growth. When they do begin growing, they will do so vigorously, but during that recovery period, they are vulnerable to bacterial competition and especially vulnerable to the worms. I have dumped mushroom spawn directly into soil or compost where worms are present only to have them disappear in a day or two because the worms ate them. So I decided to give the mushrooms a protective casing. I had saved an old worn out pair of 100% cotton pants for just such an occasion. I cut one of the legs off of the pants and tied one end of the leg shut with cotton string. Then I took some of the drier leaves from the compost and made sure there weren’t any worms in them and stuffed them in first. I followed that with the myceliated toilet paper roll, cut in half to increase surface area. Finally, I stuffed in more leaves and tied the other end shut. The fabric of the pants will keep the worms out long enough for the mushrooms to get a foothold inside the pant leg and then use it as a platform to leap off into the compost. The mycelium will have no trouble growing right through the fabric and out into the compost. In the process it will digest the pants and string, which will just become part of the compost.

Now I just have one little problem. Since last year, fruit flies and fungus gnats have been a major problem in my compost. They take up residence and swarm when I come by, making it unpleasant to work around the compost. They also get in the house and drive my wife nuts. I was going to get me some beneficial nematodes and let them take care of the fruit flies and gnats for me. The problem is, oyster mushrooms eat nematodes. So I guess I need to find some and get them and let them do their job before the mushrooms completely take over.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

An Abundance of Spinach

About 10 years ago I was living in Boulder, Colorado and had my first rental with a yard big enough to have a small garden and was eager to do so. However, I didn't get started until late summer. Normally that's when you end gardening, but I was eager to get started and knew a little about fall gardening. So I planted a 3' x 4' patch of spinach in late September. I did the math and figured I should get a crop of baby spinach around Thanksgiving, before the really brutal winter weather set in. Sure enough, I harvested enough the day after Thanksgiving to make something nice. After that, I just wrote the spinach off as lost. Winter hit and my thriving spinach became pathetic, sad, wilted spinach. It endured freezing temps nearly every night. It was covered with snow, thawed, and covered again, many times over, in fact. I never really noticed that it remained green. I just figured the cold was keeping it from rotting properly.

Then, as it so often does in Colorado, spring hit with a bang. The weather warmed up, flowers started popping up, and the bugs came out. To my surprise, the spinach also revived, and it did so with a vengeance. Within a matter of a week or so I had 3' x 4' of spinach, about 6" deep. Since I had scattered the seeds rather than a neat sowing in rows, there was no space whatsoever between plants. I suddenly found myself trying to find ways to eat spinach for every meal.

Spinach is one of my favorite veggies. It can be cooked in many wonderful ways. It can be eaten raw as a lettuce substitute, either by itself or on burgers and tacos. It is also amazingly nutritious. It is rich in vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. So ever since that first garden, I try to have a little spinach in the ground come winter. So far it has never failed me and has always come back in spring.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hacking the Potato

Every now and then you can find an unexpected feature of an organism that gives you an opening, an opportunity, for doing something a little different. It is sort of like “hacking” into the biology of that organism in order to get it to do what you want. The potato has such a “back door” as they are often called in computer circles. You see, the potato plant can be almost completely buried while it is growing without killing it. In fact, the leaves that are buried will just die and the stems will sprout roots and the plant will send more growth upwards. Incredibly, this can be done many times over the course of the growing season. Even more incredibly, the potato plants grows potatoes off of an underground stem of sorts. So if you bury its above ground stem, it becomes an underground stem and thus a place to grow potatoes. I have heard of people getting as much as 100 pounds of potatoes off of just four square feet of potato bed (your mileage may vary). The best part is that it is pretty easy to do.

First of all, you pick a nice spot and plant your potatoes in the spring, just like you normally would do. But don’t dig them too deeply, maybe 4-6 inches. While they start growing, build yourself a frame. It really can be made out of just about anything, as long as it can be installed in sections. If you put something too tall around your potatoes, they won’t be able to get enough light to grow and will die. So you want to go up a foot or so at a time up to about 3 or 4 feet. Wooden frames work, compost bins, even old tires can be used. Also start stockpiling some dirt. Compost is ideal since it gives lots of nutrients to the growing potatoes. I have heard of people using spoiled straw as well. Just realize that you’ll have to go digging through this at some point, so don’t use fresh manure or heavy clay.

When the plant gets up to a reasonable sized bush, put on the first section and fill it with dirt, making sure not to bury more than two thirds of the plant. Then let it sit until it has a good sized bush and do it again. Make sure you are done adding sections by the middle of the growing season or so to let it have enough time to make lots of potatoes.

At the end of the season, pull off the frame and go digging for potatoes. With any luck, you will be eating potatoes all winter.

Friday, March 19, 2010

No-Till Gardening

Spring is here. The weather is warming up. It is time to dig the garden and get it ready for planting, right? Well, not necessarily. There is a school of thought out there, one that I increasingly adhere to, called no-dig gardening. The principle is basically this: soil is a living thing and, generally speaking, living things do their best if they are left alone. On the good side, turning the soil buries weed seeds and mixes fertilizer and organic matter deep into the soil. It also aerates the soil, providing more pores for better air flow to the roots and easier penetration of the roots through the soil. The only thing is that worms do most of that work themselves. They aerate the soil, they consume the organic matter on the surface of the soil, process and distribute it. As for the weed seeds, a good layer of mulch will suffocate most of them and judicious weeding (also called healthy exercise) will get the rest.

But there are many other processes at work in healthy soil. Plant roots push aside soil as they grow. When the plant dies, bacteria and fungus in the soil decompose the root, adding organic matter to the soil and leaving the space the root once occupied as pore space in the soil. Mycorrhizal fungus thrives in the soil, providing water and nutrients to the plants in exchange for sugars. The fungus will live from year to year, helping out this year’s new plant growth just as it did last year. It helps break down old roots as well as organic matter on the surface of the soil. Those nutrients, combined with the sugars it gets from the plants, make more organic, living material in the soil. Those in turn break down when they die. This is the cycle of life in nearly all healthy soil around the world. This is the environment plants evolved to grown and it helps them thrive. Healthy soil makes for healthy plants.

When you till the soil, you kill mycorrhizal fungus. You kill some worms by chopping them up and others by smothering them with soil. Overall, you disturb the web of life that has grown into your soil. Sure, it will recover, but that takes time. The new roots of your plants are coming soon and they do best if they have a thriving ecosystem to connect with.

So is there ever a time to till your garden? Certainly. Observe your soil. If you are creating a new garden bed, it might be a good time to till. Tilling does a very good job of doing what it was originally intended for. It loosens compacted soil and it buries the weed seeds too deep to sprout viably. But when you do till, do what you can to restore the life to the soil. Compost is very important in this process. Mycorrhizal fungus is also important, though, and tilling kills it completely. So you will want to add it back in. Just evaluate your soil again next year, and if you don’t have to till, don’t.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bioneered Air Filtration

Many people are bothered by the all the crap in the air. Industrial society throws up a lot of air pollution. There are particulates, soot, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and the list goes on. Unfortunately some people are really sensitive to all this and end up being sick all the time, spending a fortune on air cleaning products, or moving to the middle of nowhere. It is those products I want to focus on. HEPA filters remove particulate matter from the air, down to some seriously tiny stuff. However, it does nothing to remove harmful gasses. Some people use carbon filters, which will remove some of the gasses and especially smells from the air. There are all kinds of ionizing filters out there that use magnetic charges to remove the junk from the air. I have even seen devices that dump ozone into the air to help oxidize the chemicals in the air and change them into something inert. I really have an issue with those. There is a reason the EPA classifies ozone as a pollutant. It is really bad for your lungs. Keep it in the upper atmosphere where it belongs!

So what is a good way to get really clean air without having to buy all that expensive equipment? Well, let’s look at that third option up there: moving to the middle of nowhere. Ever wonder why the air in the middle of nowhere is so fresh and clean? Is it the lack of sources of pollution? Personally, I think that is only half of the issue. I think that the other half is the plants that are scrubbing all the gunk from the air and using it as food. Houseplants have also been shown to do a really good job of cleaning harmful gasses from the air. There are two problems with plants, though. First of all, they work pretty passively, only filtering the air that drifts past them, and secondly, they don’t really do much for particulates. Then I saw this device. I love this thing. According to the technical details, it uses a fan to draw air over the leaves of a living plant, allowing the plant to draw the chemicals out of the air. Then it draws the air down through the soil of the plant and then through the water reservoir in the bottom, thereby reducing the majority of the particulate matter. That is the kind of bioneering I like: including life in the technology to make the whole thing work better. So, how can we take this great product and make it better? Here are a few of my thoughts:

1) Glue a few air plants to the plastic shield. It means you’ll have to open it up and mist it every few days, but it’ll probably add to the efficiency. Air plants do not grow in soil, so they get everything they need from the air. That means that they are really good at filtering the air to get the nutrients they need.

2) Careful plant selection to pick the best plants for the job. The device says that you can use any house plant, but I suspect that certain plants do a better job of filtering the air than others. Anyone out there found any research to this effect?

3) Design the soil. Smaller pore space would help ensure that more particles are captured. Living soil would also introduce microbes to the mix that might help snatch some of the crap out of the air. Also, fungal mycelium forms a network that looks suspiciously like a net and has been used quite successfully to filter water. It is quite possible that it would also filter air. The only problem is that you can’t really get saprophytic mushrooms to live in that pot for long enough to do any real good. It is just too small. But a mycorhyzzal fungus growing with the plant just might do the trick.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is another product that also uses plants to filter the air. However, the article is a bit low on details, so it is sort of hard to get excited about it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Nitrogen Fixers

In high school, a classmate asked my chemistry teacher if nitrogen gas was poisonous. She took a deep breath, held it a second, and let it out, only then saying simply “no.” Her point is well taken. We live our lives awash in a sea of nitrogen gas. It makes up 80% of every breath you take. Yet this vital element is largely unobtainable to most life. Plants need nitrogen to make green leaves. We need it as it is a vital part of many nutrients, most notably protein. So how does it get converted to a usable form? Well, lightning helps a bit. However, most of the real work is done by bacteria. Some of these bacteria live in the soil, producing tiny amounts of biologically available nitrogen as they need it. But the real workhorses get a little help. You see, legumes have formed a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The legumes form nodules on their roots that create an ideal habitat for the bacteria, which usually lives in the soil, to move in, multiply, and start fixing large amounts of nitrogen.

So, what are these mysterious legumes, how do you get them, and do you really need them? First of all, yes you need them. It really is one of the best ways to get lots of nitrogen in your soil without resorting to buying large bags of fertilizer. Many food crops, such as corn and squash are heavy feeders and steal large amounts of nitrogen from your soil. Legumes form a vital step in crop rotation, replenishing the nitrogen content of the soil.

So what are legumes? Legumes are a family of plants that include peas, beans, peanuts, clover, alfalfa, and hairy vetch, among many, many others. Clover and vetch make great green manures, alfalfa makes great feed for livestock and, of course, peas, peanuts and beans make food for us. I’ll cover green manure in a future post.

There is one important thing to remember, though. Each species of legume forms a symbiotic relationship with one specific species of bacteria. If you have ever grown that kind of legume in that soil, the bacteria is present in the soil. If not, you should spend a few dollars and inoculate the soil.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Stem Butts

Have you ever gotten a mushroom at the grocery store and noticed that it had fine filaments on the bottom, sort of like roots? Many people think that mushrooms can be compared to plants, with a similar stem and a cap instead of leaves. The problem is, this is not the case. A mushroom is a fruiting body, and is more analogous to an apple on an apple tree than the whole tree. Also, mushrooms are very temporary features while the mycelium, the body of the mushroom, can live in the soil on inside logs for years or even decades. So when you have those root-like things attached to the bottom of a mushroom, it is actually a piece of the body of the mushroom, called mycelium. That part, along with the bottom half-inch to an inch of the stem is called the “stem butt” and carries some pretty powerful life force with it.

You see, a growing individual mushroom has certain cycles to its life, just like you and I. First of all, it tries to find the limits of its food. It will grow for weeks or years without fruiting to grab as much of the food source it is growing on as possible for itself. As soon as it reaches the limit of its food, or the boundary between itself and a competitor, it will stop growing and make some mushrooms. During this time, it puts all its energy into mushroom production. As soon as the mushrooms are spent, it begins growing again. The mycelium will look for more sources of food and will further seek to grow into and digest what it has claimed as its own. When it has enough energy stored up and the conditions are right, it ill make more mushrooms. When that is complete, it will leap off again into vigorous growth, on and on until the food is spent and the mycelium dies.

Perhaps you can see where I am going with this. The most vigorous growth in the life cycle of mycelium is right after it has finished producing mushrooms. When you have a fresh stem butt, you have a little piece of that vigorous growth that is ready to go. If you put that stem butt on a suitable growing medium, it can burst into life and be used to further propagate your mushrooms. My personal favorite is coffee grounds. I have used stem butts to make coffee ground spawn with a half dozen or so different kinds of mushrooms. I currently have a toilet paper roll growing with oyster mushrooms and all I did is put a stem butt down in the center. They also grow well onto wood sawdust to make sawdust spawn or wooden dowels to make plug spawn.

So next time you harvest fresh mushrooms, think about what you can do with the stem butts instead of tossing them in the compost. Or maybe the compost is a place they can really grow well!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Starting a Mushroom Log

Starting a mushroom log is a pretty simple process. All you do is introduce the mycelium to the wood and give it the right conditions to grow. The process can be done with spores, but it is extremely unreliable. Therefore, it is much better to use living mycelium. There are many different methods for doing this, and I will cover two here, the first for using plug spawn and the second for using sawdust spawn. But before you try this make sure you have read my post on matching type of wood to type of mushroom.

Plug Spawn

Plug spawn is mycelium grown onto small wooden dowels that is then pounded into a hole drilled in a log. They are available online or can be made yourself, which I will cover in a future blog post. The advantage to plug spawn is that they are relatively inexpensive ($15 or so for enough to inoculate about 3 logs last time I checked) and really easy. You just drill a hole in the log, making sure to go deep enough that the plug can be fully inserted in the log and preferably sunk deep enough to be inside the bark. Once the plugs are inserted in the log, the fungus leaps off from the plugs and quickly colonizes the log.

For this method, all you do is drill a hole that is just a tiny bit bigger than the plug and hammer in a plug. Too little space and the plug won’t go in, while too much space doesn’t give enough contact or protection for the mycelium. A snug fit ensures that nothing can get between the plug and the log to disturb your mycelium. Plugs should be spaced every 3”-6” and placed in a diamond pattern around the log. The closer together you put the plugs and the more plugs you put in a log, the faster the mycelium will colonize the log.

Living in a dry climate, keeping my logs moist is a major consideration. I like to get a large pot, the kind you would put a plant in, and put the log upright in the pot, making sure one half to one third of the log is down in the pot. Then I fill the pot with pasteurized wood chips or sawdust. A few plugs scattered into the sawdust helps the mushrooms colonize the sawdust. Once it has, it just moves into the log faster. Personally, I don’t like the look of all the holes drilled in the log, so I only plug the log below the sawdust line. It hasn’t been a problem yet. I probably wait a little longer for my mushrooms, though.

There are also several steps that are not necessary but are helpful. Beeswax is a great help to the process. If you pour melted beeswax on the cut faces of the log, it helps retain moisture and prevent spores from competing mushrooms get a foothold. Also, you can fill the holes with beeswax after you have inserted the plug. This also helps retain moisture and thwarts bugs and worms that like to get in there and eat the mycelium. Another step I like to do just to be safe is to spray the outside of the log with hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is toxic to fungal spores that may have landed on the bark and are sitting there waiting for conditions to be right (just like you are about to do to your log). Adding the plugs instead of sprouting from spores gives your mushrooms a clear advantage, but I prefer to be safe anyway.

Sawdust Spawn

Sawdust spawn is mushroom mycelium growing on sawdust. It can be purchased as sawdust spawn or it can actually be a spent mushroom kit. It is a little trickier than plug spawn. It can’t exactly be hammered into a hole. Plus, it is kind of messy. One common method of making mushroom logs with sawdust spawn is called the wedge technique. You use a chainsaw to cut wedges out of the log, alternating sides up the log. Then you pack the cut with sawdust spawn and nail the wedges back in. I have two problems with this method: 1) I don’t own a chainsaw (I know, bad Mad Bioneer), and 2) the aforementioned dryness problem. So I modify the method a bit for my situation. I still cut the wedges, but I use an axe instead. Also, just like with plug spawn, I put the log upright in a pot and fill it with pasteurized wood chips and sawdust. I take the wood chips that I cut out of the log in the first place and mix them with some more wood chips and pasteurize them. Then I mix the sawdust with it and pack it around the log in the pot. The mycelium will rapidly colonize the sawdust and then use the surface area of the wedge to colonize the log.

Coming soon: Care and Feeding of Your Mushroom Log