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.

1 comment:

  1. When you initially inoculated the log did you just plant mushroom tops in the chips/dust at the base? Or did you use sawdust or plugs?