Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sequencing Projects

One of the problems with doing projects with living organisms is that they have a life cycle. At least most of them. Life keeps on living, and one constant of life is consumption. Nutrients get used up and need to be replaced. Living organisms need to be fed.

Such was the case with my favorite project to date. Originally, it was a mushroom log, home to a lovely colony of elm oyster mushrooms (Hypsizygus ulmarius). I picked the log especially for this project because it had many branches. The crook of each branch originally held an epiphytic plant. The base around the log was originally wood chips that the mushrooms consumed. Worms were added to help the process. When the soil was far enough along, I put plants in there. Watering the plants helped me remember to water the log. Spraying the epiphytes also sprayed the log. The decomposition of the log provided a constant supply of carbon dioxide to the plants. It was a big, happy system.

But that was about 5 years ago. In that time I have eaten many pounds of mushrooms. Some of the plants died. As the soil decomposed, I had to add more. I have recombined my plants to other places. Some of the epiphytes are back in soil elsewhere. In short, the project has lived its useful life.

However, the log is still there, with plenty of wood remaining. While it hasn't produced any mushrooms in 2 or 3 years, really only the center of the log was completely rotted out. The branches are still intact. I knew the center was hollow because if I added water to the cracks in the top of the log, it eventually came out the bottom. I was thinking that there was a possibility that the fungus was still alive in there and just needed moisture to the right portions to resume production. Or, possibly it is just time for the project to be sequenced to another mushroom.

The first step that was be needed was to find a way to get water to the interior of the log. Spraying the outside or watering the plants around the log was just not enough. I needed to find a way to apply water to the center of the log. My experience with previous spent mushroom logs told me that the top inch or two of wood on the top would be hard, barely decomposed wood. But underneath that, the wood would be soft, even pliable. So I decided to dig out the top of the log and make it into a pot for a plant.

The first trick was to find the right plant. First of all, I am pretty picky when it comes to plants. I don't like plants that everyone else has. I have a strong preference for unique, weird plants. So it had to be something unusual. The hollow center of the log meant that the pot will have excellent drainage, no matter how hard I try to keep it moist. But since the purpose of the project was to moisten the center of the log, I'll need to water frequently. I needed a plant that likes moist conditions, but prefers good drainage. Sounds perfect for a tropical epiphyte. As luck would have it, I happened across a staghorn fern (Platycerium sp.) at a garden center. My baby plant is only 6" wide and 6" tall or so. But this plant is a giant. It grows on the side of trees in tropical climates, sometimes growing to five feet across or more. It has two kinds of fronds. It covers its root ball with what are called shield fronds, which are round and tough. The main plant is composed of what are called fertile fronds that grow out from the plant and resemble the shape of a stag's antlers, which is where the name comes from. It is a dramatic plant that would look fantastic growing out of the top of a log.

The next step was to carve it out. As I suspected, the wood on top was still hard, but only about 2” deep. After that, it  broke off easily. Starting in the middle where it was softest, I used a chisel to carve it out, working my way outwards. I stopped carving about an inch from the edge of the log. I considered carving it down farther than what naturally broke off, but I figured 2” deep was enough. It gave me plenty of space for soil and what little root ball the plant had.

Interestingly enough, the interior of the log was hollow. Completely. There was a 2” or so diameter cylinder right down the center of the log that had nothing whatsoever in it. I went ahead and filled that with the wood I had removed from the log. The hole took almost all of it. Then I filled the new “pot” I had made with animal-sterilized home made compost and planted my new plant.

The next step was to put another mushroom on the log. As luck would have it, I had just harvested two Pioppino (Agrocybe aegerita) mushrooms from one of my other logs. As a white rot fungus that loves cottonwood, I thought it might be a good choice for a mushroom sequencing of the project. I cut the stem butts off of the mushrooms and planted them at the base of the compost. Then I made sure I watered the whole thing very well for the next several days.

Now it has been a few months since I planted the fern. It has obviously been happy in its new home. The fern had no shield fronds when I planted it. It now has several shield fronds that are about 3” in diameter and the fertile fronds have continued to grow and expand. All in all, I am enjoying my log’s new look. As for the mushrooms, well, we’ll just have to wait and see on that one. I have no idea if the mushrooms grew or the mycelium took hold. And I really won’t until it produces that first flush of mushrooms. But that uncertainty is a way of life when it comes to growing mushrooms. You just get used to it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


On the morning of March 6th, my wife and I decided to separate. That afternoon, I got a call that my nearly two-year long search for a job had finally paid off. I live in Prescott, Arizona, and the new job will be down in Phoenix, so I will be moving as well. Now, obviously, there are lots of major life changes that go along with all that. But for those of you who are gardeners, you know that “where am I going to garden,” while not the most important question, is certainly on the list.

I currently live in a house, and while I don’t have a yard to garden in, I do have enough room for a container garden. Down in Phoenix, I will most likely be getting a small apartment. Having a garden in the ground won’t really be an option. If I have a patio or porch, it will still be difficult to have a garden. The extreme heat in Phoenix in the summer means that container plants need to be watered up to three times a day to keep from drying out. So how does one who is driven to grow edibles do it in such an environment?

Obviously, it will depend on where I end up living. Ideally, my small apartment will hold my modest amount of furniture with a little extra room to spare. I am thinking of building what amounts to a small indoor greenhouse, though the glazing would be less for heat retention and more for moisture retention.  Vegetables typically require 6-8 hours of direct sun a day, a near impossibility indoors. So I am thinking of switching to something a little more apartment-friendly: mushrooms.

I could turn my greenhouse into a big, indoor mushroom grow room. It would have vertical racks for growing logs or sawdust blocks. At the top it would have a water tank (maybe even with a few fish in it) and a bubbler. The bubbles exiting the water would carry humidity with them, raising the humidity in the greenhouse. I would buy a number of air plants and attach them wherever I could to help cycle the oxygen a little more effectively. A few carnivorous plants would go a long way to keeping the gnat problem to a minimum as well.

Obviously, this idea is still in its infancy and will develop considerably before I have a chance to build it. As for my other greenhouse, we will be selling the lot I had planned to build it on. It isn’t off the table, though. Just stalled. I may end up building one down in Phoenix somewhere. Who knows? It is a whole new world out there!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pioppino Mushrooms

Pioppino buttons - notice the different colors at this stage.

I have been growing mushrooms at home for many years now and I have tried a lot of different mushrooms. Pearl oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are the easiest, aggressively growing on just about anything that is wood or was once made of wood (no conifers, though), and producing regular flushes. Elm oysters (Hypsizygus ulmarius) are my favorite for my experiments. They look and taste about the same as the pearl oysters, but get along much better with my plants than the pearl oysters. The pearl oysters have killed every plant I have ever tried to put in a pot with them. Cinnamon cap mushrooms, also known as brick tops (Hypholoma sublateritium) narrowly edge out pearl oysters as the most productive mushrooms. I quit growing them because I don’t really like the flavor, though they did make the best cream of mushroom soup I have ever had.

But my favorite, flavor wise, has got to be pioppino mushrooms, also known as black poplar mushrooms (Agrocybe aegerita). Ultimately, despite all their other great uses, I grow mushrooms as food, and there is something to be said for growing the best. After all, that’s the primary motivator for gardeners everywhere, right? The freshest lettuce. The perfect tomato. The hottest pepper. The tastiest mushroom.

Over the years, pioppino mushrooms have proven themselves to be a difficult mushroom to grow. The books I have recommend that it be grown horizontally on a log. That is sort of a tough sell inside as I grow most of my mushrooms vertically on logs in pots. Pioppino mushrooms are native to the southeastern United States, so I figured they would do well with the outside heat in my northern Arizona home. I tried growing them on a bed of logs in a shady spot on the north side of my house. They failed, though I suspect it was more a lack of humidity. I tried growing them on coffee grounds, which is a great method for both kinds of oyster mushrooms, and they never took hold. I have tried growing them on wood chips and they have proven to be finicky about leaping off into the wood chip matrix.

A few years ago, I got my hands on a couple of cottonwood logs. Pioppino mushrooms have a strong affinity for members of the poplar family, of which cottonwood is a member. So I got a pioppino block and got a couple of fruitings out of it (always a good step to maximize your harvest). Then I took a couple of 10 gallon aquariums and cut the logs to the right size to fit inside lengthwise. I filled them with sawdust, cut a few wedges out of the log to help the mycelium get to the interior of the log, and inoculated the whole batch.

After about six months or so, when I was reasonably sure the mycelium had moved into the logs, I added a handful of red worms to each pot and added a few plants, a clivia and an amaryllis to one and a calla lily to the other. The worms broke down the woodchips to make soil for the plants. The plants draw the water out of the bottom of the aquariums, which don’t have a drain. Instant ecosystem!

After a year or so, the log in the pot with the calla lily began to produce mushrooms. It has produced small flushes (usually one or two mushrooms) pretty consistently for the last year or more. But I never got any mushrooms from the other log, leaving me wondering if the inoculation was successful.

This morning, I got my first mushroom from the other log. It is still small, so I will have to watch it carefully to make sure it is the right kind of mushroom, but early indications are positive. If it has indeed taken off, that means I now have two logs that are growing pioppino mushrooms, an accomplishment that I am particularly proud of.

The interesting thing about it, though, is the location from which it is growing. As you can see from the picture, it is coming up from the base of the clivia. Now that could just be coincidence, or it could indicate some sort of close association there. The clivia is extremely healthy, so the mushroom is obviously not causing it any harm. It is definitely something I will be keeping an eye on.