Category Archives: Horticulture

It’s Not Magic: Mushrooms Can Change Our Experience

In case you ever thought a haiku was something I tossed off in a moment after looking at a picture — something I composed and posted in just a few minutes, consider this:

It took me two and a half hours to write today’s haiku. Do you want to know what I learned about mushrooms while writing this haiku? Because they’re fairly amazing.

(Image credit: Didier, a.k.a. didier.bier @ Flickr)

The mushrooms growing on this cone are simply fruit — the outgrowth of a significantly less apparent organism. Like the shadowy few that stand behind the play of world politics, this organism stands in the background and performs the unseen transactions, deals with the silent partners, hides all of the secrets . . .

and the potential of its power, boy, is really what impresses me.

See the little white hairs growing at the base of the mushroom? They call that mycelium. Sometimes it’s visible, and sometimes it’s too small to see; but this is the powerhouse behind the more apparent fungus that is sometimes eaten, sometimes toxic, and often the bane of picky horticulturalists. It turns out that getting rid of mushrooms is just like plucking an apple from a tree, though, because they’re growing from mycelium that suffuses the surrounding earth. And although some find them annoying, very few mushroom varieties are parasitic, in effect feeding from live organisms; most are saprophytic, which means they live on dead or decaying material. They are the forest’s recycling system, transforming old carbon-rich organic material into fresh soil.

And oh, they get extensive. In Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, author and mushroom expert Paul Stamets describes a 2,400-acre site in Oregon that

“had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees.”

There’s a case against deforestation, am I right? Point one, nature does it for us; point two, why not just grow natural plastic and take some of that wood out of the equation?

Oh wait, did you know about the plastic?

It’s no secret that plastic is made from oil and it takes a bajillion years to break down. Everyone knows that’s a problem. Enter bioplastics: technically not plastics, but similar in behavior and function, they are newer materials that could replace plastics across entire industries. They’re environmentally friendly; they’re grown, they’re biodegradable, they’re recyclable, and they’re made from mycelium, those mats of tendrils that transport nutrients from decaying organic matter to their fungal fruit. According to Marc Gunther’s article in The Guardian Can Mushrooms Replace Plastic?

“They can produce packaging, home insulation, fiberboard for furniture, even a surfboard.”

Mushroom surfboards? Sign me up, dude!

So here’s the simple list — the upshot of why making plastics from mushrooms is an awesome idea:

  • The base material is plentiful and inexpensive — crop waste, like corn stalks, are bought from American farmers, giving them additional revenue and saving buckets of ducats over the precious oil used to make traditional plastics. Could this bring down fuel prices as well?
  • Because it’s grown and not drilled, it’s renewable.
  • Because it’s organic it can break down naturally, in effect biodegradable.
  • Because it’s biodegradable, it can help alleviate waste issues — specifically, burgeoning landfills and the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.

In addition, mycelium can be used to:

  • break down soil contaminants, such as oil and chemical spills, in a process known as mycoremediation;
  • remove contaminants like chemicals, bacteria, and heavy metals from water in a process called mycofiltration;
  • prevent soil erosion due to water runoff, which is another application of mycofiltration;
  • enhance crop yields and forest sustainability — mycoforestry;  and
  • control insect populations — mycopesticides.

I get excited about stuff like this – essentially, we could use the Earth to restore, renew, and rescue the Earth. Everything we need is right here, homegrown. And the following videos also got me excited:

Yes, I’m excited to live in a magical world where every day we move toward improving our symbiotic relationship with it. This is stewardship;

and thus your adventure may continue. Go live it.

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Three Sisters – 24 JUL 2013

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This is my three sisters patch as of right now. Thanks to the Mandan Native American tribe for coming up with this scheme.

Squash flower

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Some things make you feel like you’ve done well. Some things feel like its worth waiting for results. My three sisters garden is becoming something like that. This morning I stepped out of the house on a very tight time remaining to punch into work and I had to snap a couple of photos because I was utterly surprised to see that one of my squash plants had flowered – first flower of the three sisters garden!

The “three sisters” is a symbiotic combination of corn, squash, and beans that all work in tandem for sustainable, bountiful crop production. The Mandan Indians used it here; I learned that when I toured the mound village at Fort Lincoln, but it was an article in Popular Mechanics that made me realize I could do it in the small corner of my backyard. We have corn, zucchini and yellow squash, and sweet peas. So far it’s doing well, and I look forward to future epicness.

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The planting season finally begins!

Last night I finally got around to getting some seeds in the ground. After the last big snow melted away, we discovered that the strawberries had already started coming back, and now some raspberries and rhubarb are too. This is getting a start without even trying, but I couldn’t let that make me lazy. After work I got home and went for an hour run, took a shower, and went out to plant me some crops. Just the one side garden, and then this weekend we are going to build two new beds for some different stuff this year.

I planted a bed of carrots – the kaleidoscope blend, which comprises red, white, yellow, orange, and purple – two rows of green onions, and a single row of radishes. The radish packet says I should get seedlings in 4-7 days, which is about the quickest-sprouting crop I have ever planted. And when I was done, my hands were dirty.

You see, I went out there with a trowel and broke up the ground, but it felt clumsy and somehow not quite correct. I decided to toss the tiny spade and go at it by hand. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, but I figured that didn’t really matter. I stuck both hands into the ground and began to work the soil, just as my ancestors did hundreds and thousands of years ago, just as people still do in some parts of the world – and why not? This is a special kind of magic and the most wholesome activity that one can engage in: I’m not out getting in trouble, dragging the strip, getting into bar fights; eating, drinking and killing (thank you Aloha Screwdriver) – I’m hands-deep in the Earth, creating life.

See, I’m not a very religious man, but there is one thing that I feel absolutely confident in saying the church has right – humankind was made in God’s image – in the sense that we are creators all, with the potential to bring order out of chaos and breathe life into it, to turn the mundane into beauty and awe-inspiring wonder. Though we are hard-pressed against the forces of time and nature, we persist and progress; and no matter how long we are on this stage, each of us is absolutely vital to the overall story.

But I digress… This weekend my plans involve building those two new beds, and staking off the section of last year’s potato patch I plan to use for our “three sisters” bed, a scheme traditional to the Mandan Indians involving a triple-pronged symbiosis of corn, beans, and squash. High yields, it’s supposed to be.

What are you planting this year? Leave any comments below!

A possibility of fruit tree(s)

Last year I started gardening. I built a bed box on the side of the house, manually tilled a section for potatoes and broccoli, planted some raspberries, strawberries, onions, bell peppers, and carrots. My wife and I also bought two four-foot manchurian apricot saplings and planted them in the front yard on either side of our walkway. We thought it would be cool to have some fruit trees. They won’t bear fruit for the first few years, but we saw it as an investment in the future.

Then in late summer, I actually discovered that a nearby church/synagogue had mature apricot trees that were dropping fruit on the sidewalk, so I would go over there and harvest them, wash and eat the fruit, and save the pits.

A little research informed me as to the proper method of planting apricots. The pit has to be cracked open and the seed, which looks like an almond and is toxic to eat, has to be planted and sit in the ground through the winter – a process I believe they call “frost conditioning”. I planted about ten seeds in a large pot, in a ring around the inside with a seed planted in the middle. I figured if I got more than one I would have time to recognize them and thin them out into other pots, if they even grew at all. The pot is by the shed, where I can check on it every time I take out or put away my bike or garden tools.

The other day, I found this in the pot:

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I do believe that’s a baby apricot tree. Just the one so far, but so big and sudden! How appropriate, too because my wife and I discussed planting a tree for each member of our small family, and we have yet to plant one for our daughter, who will be a year old in less than a month. Like her, maybe we will be able to grow it from scratch; how wonderfully symbolic is that for the creation and life?