Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Trees for the People

In Maryland it can be hard to see the trees for the forest, since the forests cover over 40% of the landscape. Forests offer cover, but trees offer comfort, whether from their fruits, nuts, shade or shape. A tree in a forest is just another occlusion, while a tree free to unfold can be a wonder to behold.
Photo by liliebloem CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
In case anyone in my area was planning to plant trees this Spring, the end of March is the free shipping deadline on trees from Izel Plants and Tree-Mendous Maryland. The latter is a government program for plantings on public property and the former is a clearinghouse for a few commercial nurseries specializing in native plants. Prices from either are about half of what you would pay at retail nurseries. Good deals on small numbers of trees are also to be had at Master Gardener and Garden Club plant sales.  Sotterly Plantation's is coming up at the end of April, as is the Calvert Master Gardener's on May 7. Trees planted in large quantities for conservation efforts can be ordered from the Maryland online nursery at just $1 each.

We get the urge sometimes to plant trees. We want to offset our own carbon emissions, leave a lasting token of our love of life, or maybe mark the years of our demise by a tree's increasing grandeur. We may own little land on which to plant, but who says you have to own the land?

A guerrilla tree planting methodology could involve meeting with authorities concerning the public lands nearest your usual haunts to see if they would want any more trees planted on those properties. If they are open to the idea, come back with suggestions of sites (unless they already have some in mind), species, and patterns. If they can budget for the work to be done or just for the trees, then it makes things easier the following year, but in the meantime keep a lookout in the vicinity for tree service companies working in the area and get a truckload or more of woodchips dumped on the site. If you can get 2 inches of compost (preferably with biochar) or manure and layers of newspaper and/or cardboard (weed blockers) in place before the woodchips, so much the better. The site will be ready to plant in after a year or so of this organic material decaying in situ.  Order trees between January and March for the best deals on shipping.  If the owner is unable to bear the expenses, other civic groups, like the Master Gardeners may have funds to contribute.  The steps outlined by the Tree-Mendous Maryland program capture other essentials and should be followed in conjunction with the guerrilla methodology.

So, next time you look at an open space in your community that seems barren, unattractive, and lacking purpose you now know a possible way to bring it to life. I'm not sure where I will apply it, but once our erosion control project is done at my church, I'd like to follow +Michael Judd's example "like Johnny Appleseed in spreading these patches everywhere. "

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Demystifying the Woods

Photo by Brett Whaley CC BY-NC 2.0
The University of Maryland Extension's Watershed Steward program imitates the Master Gardener and the Master Naturalist programs in acquiring volunteers to be "boots on the ground" promoting care of their respective commons. There is another similar program called the Maryland Woodland Stewards program that has been around for decades under the title "The Coverts Program." The name changed in 2007, probably so as not to let it get mixed up with so many other covert programs with obscure names in this deep state vortex surrounding our nation's Capital.

The Woodland Stewards program (not covert in the usual sense) is interested in people who have acreage of forest (coverts, if you will) that they own and/or manage. I don't think they would be too interested in me, since I am responsible for less than an acre and I'm planning on converting it to a food forest.

On the other hand, there are many links to biochar and mushrooms that would make Maryland Woodland Stewards of interest to me. Before proceeding with my plans to replace most of the trees on my property, I should avail myself of the booklet and workshop entitled, "The Woods in Your Backyard," and another, "Your Woodlot and Your Wallet," with relevance to raising mushrooms. There are also resources about wood energy, which could educate me about better using the heat from making biochar. The presentations from two years' worth of MWS classes are also downloadable, along with a great number of other resources for folks like me who need more than the average level of knowledge about trees of the forest.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Getting Cred to Help the Watershed

Rain barrels are one of many changes you can make to your property for stormwater management. BayWise certification process and reading +Michael Judd's book, Edible Landscaping, I hadn't realized how important erosion control is to gardening. The organic layer of a garden is the first to wash away, so getting control of how rainwater flows is a must in setting up any planting area. The main things are to reduce the velocity of runoff and to capture nutrients before they escape.
The University of Maryland Extension notes many other features which I have incorporated into my hilly property, such as rain gardens, conservation landscaping, swales, fertilizer reduction, a pet waste station, and tree planting. Before going through Maryland's

Stormwater management is not the most tantalizing task, even less so when it requires many hands. That is why, in setting up a curriculum for the Watershed Stewards Academy, the University included lessons on educating and motivating groups to take action. County ordinances, such as Calvert's offer a negative incentive to meeting minimum standards, i.e. do it, or we will do it for you (on your dime). Right now, my church faces a choice between taking the initiative or the risk of getting negatively incentivized to remediate the erosion that has occurred over the past several years into their detention pond.

A motivator of those who seek certification through the university extension as a Master Watershed Steward Volunteer, or Master Naturalist Volunteer, or (in my case) Master Gardener Volunteer is the scale at which you can hope to have an impact.  It's not just on your own property, but in many parts of the locale.

Water is every bit as critical to our future as food, and even more urgent. Expanding local applications of biochar and mycorestoration as well as the exigent need at my church could draw me into making the jump to the Watershed Steward program, ne: Master Gardener. There is only a little while to decide, since the application deadline for the next class is April 22. There are information sessions tonight (March 23) and next Thursday for anyone interested.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Eco-solution for E. Coli

When I became aware, a couple of years ago, that roof runoff may contain some heavy metals that could potentially find their way into your food garden, I took a bucket of biochar and dumped it into the bottom of my rain barrel. Problem solved. What I didn't realize is that I was solving another (bigger) problem of roof runoff - e. coli bacteria.

To be honest, my quick fix may not have solved the problems; (a) because I didn't really have a problem - my rain barrel feeds my ornamental rain garden, and (b) the biochar filter inside a rain barrel should probably be a little more meticulously constructed and maintained.

Now that I am about to set up a rain barrel that will be used to spray my mushroom logs and save money on my water bill, I definitely need to think about the contaminants in the water. The draft Certified Naturally Grown standards for mushroom growers does not address roof runoff specifically, but does cover surface water. Could a biochar filter be used to meet the CNG standard? Let's explore.

The water standards for mushrooms are the same as for irrigation water. A study done at Rutgers University found that the major concern for roof runoff is e. coli contamination, rather than heavy metals (though lead and zinc warrant measurement). This bacterial contamination could stem from dead animals and feces, particularly in gutters (but also in rain barrels and on the roof, itself). Occasionally, the study found e. coli in excess of the limit coming from a roof in their study.

It turns out that biochar captures and sequesters e. coli bacteria, as +Kathleen Draper points out, referring to research done at McGill University showing that biochar filters out e. coli. The excellent thesis by Shoieb Akaram Arief Ismail shows how large pore biochar with particle sizes up to 2 cm (such as the wood based product that I make with my pyramid kiln) is a significantly better e. coli filter (a couple orders of magnitude) than sandy soil alone.

Granted, the filtering action in this study took place over 24 hours, but some reduction of e. coli could be expected by less than a minute of residence time in a rain barrel partially filled with biochar. The practical limit is how badly the water flow would be reduced by the filter. This can be discovered empirically. The biochar should be rinsed thoroughly prior to adding to the rain barrel in order to prevent washout of fine particles which could clog the outlet. In addition, gutters should be cleaned regularly and the biochar filter changed annually when the rain barrel is scrubbed clean for the season.

The rain barrel volume you are sacrificing to the filter may require a larger barrel. I got a good deal on a 65 gallon barrel, which I think will do just fine. Even a 55 gallon barrel should be big enough. For my homeys, Baltimore is having a truckload sale of them and Calvert County has a half-price deal for residents that comes with a free workshop, both in April.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Avoiding Poison Mushrooms (at the Market)

Not all edible organic mushrooms are safe to eat.  As +Paul Stamets points out in Mycelium Running - How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, some mushrooms from China, for example, might have accumulated heavy metals from the high degree of ambient pollution where they were grown, yet still be considered organic. The draft standards for Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) mushrooms should mitigate this problem, as hyperaccumulation of heavy metals is built into its safeguards. To wit:
  • Substrate may not be directly placed on any surface contaminated with heavy metals or other synthetic pollutants. 

For growers, CNG offers a clearer path to producing wholesome mushrooms than the organic program followed by most other agricultural producers. The National Organic Program (NOP) requirements may take measures beyond what should reasonably be applied to an organic mushroom farm, since fungi are nourished and cared for differently than plants and animals. However, if a beginning grower could convince themselves that they comply with the CNG standard, and try to align that with the NOP requirements, as long as they are not grossing over $5,000 of organic product sales per year, then they should self-certify as "organic." 

Beyond $5K in sales, official certification is required. At that point, I would probably opt for the CNG certification, rather than organic. After an inspection by one of the incumbent experts (possibly +Tradd Cotter, himself), as the only CNG grower in my area (the closest is vegetable grower, Working Over Thyme Farm in Brandywine), I could then be an inspector of new mushroom farms seeking the CNG label.

As far as buying mushrooms, my advice is to try to buy organic mushrooms, and when the certified naturally grown label for mushrooms becomes available, opt for that. In either case, you'll be safeguarding yourself from pesticides and other poisons that you could get in mushrooms which seem to eat about anything fed to them.

Monday, March 14, 2016

I Wannabe the Fungi Guy

Mark Jones of Sharondale Farm in Virginia talks about his vision for the relationship of towns and communities to fungi. This whimsical vision includes the idea that every place will one day have its own mushroom cultivator, just as today every place has its own McDonald's. In the appropriate tech future that we are about to enter, this should be one of its finer elements. Since I may be the most advanced cultivator in my neighborhood, I might well look to be the Papa Smurf of Calvert Shores (aka Chesapeake Ranch Estates).

Before venturing into a business, knowing your market is key. One of my favorite things about Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, by +Tradd Cotter, is the back matter regarding the various species worth cultivating. I particularly appreciate the information on marketing each type of mushroom. +Paul Stamets has a similar section in Mycelium Running - How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which also contains information that can be used to connect with customers. Together, they give prospective growers many good choices beyond the usual shiitake, oyster, garden giant trio.

Depending on how many of my new logs fruit this year, we may start selling shiitakes next year at the farmer's market. Oysters shouldn't be difficult, either. I hope to see the golden oyster mushroom logs begin to fruit this year, and Sharondale Farms has supplied useful tips for ways to grow oysters indoors on agricultural waste. My two beds of garden giants are also primed for the season and could proliferate this year with a little help from Papa Smurf. And there are sundry small batches of other species we hope to harvest for our own consumption. Almond portobellos are one of the more exotic species we will be trying soon.

That should be plenty to get us into the mushroom business around here. The question is, what would be a big seller? Almond portobellos and garden giants will be a new sight to many shoppers here. What should we consider adding to the line of exotic species that we offer in the future?  The following table summarizes some of the information from Cotter's book that could help in this decision.

Genus Ease of Cultivation Market Connection
Agaricus Intermediate Have some cooking to entice buyers
Agrocybe Easy Bundle in paper, exposing only caps
Auricularia Easy Demonstrate rehydration method
Calocybe Intermediate Tropical
Chlorophyllum Intermediate Fruits in the fall
Clitocybe Intermediate Good in soups and gumbos
Coprinus Easy Extremely short shelf-life
Fistulina Intermediate A summer favorite; meat substitute
Flammulina Intermediate Ice/water bath; salad/soup topper
Fomes Advanced Powder or water extract - medicinal
Ganoderma Easy Medicinal orientation of display
Grifola Intermediate Sold locally; Cook for aroma; Medicinal delicacy
Hericium Intermediate Sold locally; Novelty for some; Seafood substitute
Hypholoma Easy Wrap in bundles/clusters
Hypsizygus Easy Help customers appreciate differences between species
Laetiporus Advanced Chicken substitute
Lentinula Easy Sold locally; the superstars; sell caps (mix stems in dog food)
Lepiota Intermediate Sell caps (eat stems or put in dog food)
Macrocybe Intermediate Tropical
Macrolepiota Intermediate Sell caps (eat stems or put in dog food)
Pholiota Easy Sell to Asian markets or restaurants, esp. Japanese
Piptoporus Advanced Powder or water extract - medicinal
Pleurotus Easy Sold locally; Explain differences in flavors of strains sold
Sparassis Advanced Crunchy, even when sauteed
Stropharia Easy Pre-sell to restaurants - does not store well
Trametes Easy Powder or water extract - medicinal
Volvariella Intermediate Tastes better than button; Sell to Asian markets; Sell primordia

Friday, March 11, 2016

Oyster Gardening

I was sold on the garden plot that we began renting last year after spotting a bouquet of oyster mushrooms growing out of an old stump at ground level directly adjacent the gate. Since then, in addition to the tremendous amount of vegetables we've reaped from the garden, oyster mushrooms have been a frequent enhancement to our meals.

My garden there consists of several raised beds, separated with sunken paths that are filled with wood chips. These wood chips eventually break down and provide nutritious mulch for the following year's plantings. I was very happy to see one particularly deep path of wood chips thick with mycelium when I dug it up early this year. It's possible that the oyster mushroom mycelium had run over to the path, as it was only about 10 feet away from the stump. If oyster mushrooms come up in that vicinity later this year, that will be the most likely cause.

In any case, I aim to get oyster mushrooms from this garden path, even if I have to inoculate the wood chips myself. According to +Tradd Cotter, oyster mushrooms will grow on wood chips, though they are traditionally cultivated on logs. They are not rhizomorphic, so their rate of growth through the shady path won't be as fast as, say, garden giants. Myceliated logs buried in a bed of wood chips would be ideal. In his book, Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, Cotter shows how to use cardboard spawn to inoculate logs. If my bunker spawn from oyster inoculated coffee grounds produces mushrooms, that could be another route to getting oysters into my paths.

Oysters are supposed to be the easiest mushrooms to grow. I have had minimal success, so far. However, since my shiitakes are all doing great, I think it's just a matter of time before I master cultivating this species.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Fight Fungus with Fungus

The rise in global temperature is alarming. The IPCC has told us what will happen if temperatures climb 5 C.
The COP-21 agreement aims to keep it to 1.5 C (already baked into the cake), but 2 C at the high end. The effects of that will be bad enough, but don't expect that this limit will be maintained unless we do two things in the very near term: (1) stop expanding fossil fuel extraction (and put an immediate moratorium on fracking while the truth about methane leakage is investigated) , and (2) reforest, (especially in the tropics). A new study points out that we can sequester carbon much faster by regrowing forests in devastated tropical areas than by simply maintaining the remaining old growth forests.

Tropical rain forests are not the only ones at risk from climate change. The U.S. Forest Service just put out their futures projection of the northern forests, which extends all the way down here to Maryland. The outlook is grievous with myriad environmental insults being thrown at the forest ecosystems faster than they can respond. Our intervention is needed to preserve these forests and to restore their health. Perhaps the best way to do this is through improving soil health.

While mycorrhizal fungi is conducive to healthy trees, running saprophytic fungi is even more fundamental, as it builds healthy soil. At the same time, some strains can dominate fungal parasites that capitalize on the stresses imposed on forest ecosystems by climate change and population growth.

Some of the edible species +Paul Stamets recommends for this, I already grow (oyster mushroom, garden giant, and turkey tail). Other recommended species include clustered woodlover and psilocybes. Mycelium can be cultivated very rapidly and then moved into damaged or threatened woodlands. One indicator for the best places to run mycelium is the presence or absence of dominant saprophytic species. These mushrooms fit well in forest garden patches, since the gardener is more likely to be there when they are ready to pick. In either case, eating these mushrooms requires a more rigorous identity verification since they are growing among other, non-edible types.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

How to Make Forests Renewable

A number of Maryland counties give out awards to people and businesses for excellence in recycling. This year, Calvert County has followed suit. I am deeply involved in recycling for the purpose of building better soil and would like to apply for one of the awards in order to bring more publicity to the potential for recycling woody waste in the form of biochar.

My recycling bona fides could also include acceleration of carbon cycling, which is a major element of what +Paul Stamets describes as mycoforestry. When forests are logged unsustainably (as they have been repeatedly in the U.S. since the settlers arrived), then many of the extant fungi have nothing to feed on after a few years and they die away. This interrupts the carbon cycle, reducing the quality of soil with every new tree harvest. The remedy Stamets prescribes is to insure that logging residues are left in close contact with the forest floor. This gives saprophytic fungi the opportunity to thrive on the dead wood, enriching the soil, leading to more rapid regrowth, giving the endophytes and mycorrhizae an opportunity to bridge the gap.

As a forest gardener, I like to get wood chips dumped on my property to use for food forest patches. The chips could well end up as mulch elsewhere, but when my place is closer, the tree guys would just as soon leave them with me. Either way, it's recycling, but I get it down to the soil fungi right away by keeping the chips no more than 1 foot deep. After 6 months, I add horse manure and biochar to accelerate the composting process, engaging a host of other microbes to break down the dead wood into food for plants.

In addition to encouraging persistence of native mycelia subsequent to logging, Stamets suggests dusting new tree roots with edible mycorrhizal mushroom spores before planting. Some of the recommended species are chanterelles on oaks and sweet tooth on conifers. That means going back to harvest the mushrooms in subsequent years. If these edible mushroom spores are used, then it isn't a good idea to also include spores for other non-mushroom-producing mycorrhizae, because they tend to outcompete the edibles. Sweet tooth also can be found under other deciduous trees, so I might try out this suggestion when I begin planting my forest garden.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Morel Dilemma

+Paul Stamets, in Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, gives tentative support to using wood ash as an ingredient for the growing medium on an outdoor morel mushroom patch. +Tradd Cotter, author of Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, says that Eastern U.S. morels found in the wild don't seem to have a preference for burnt areas. Tradd's research points to use of nonnutritive media for morel sclerotia to form and an underlying nutritive zone for hyphae to grow into. I am thinking that uncharged biochar (as opposed to wood ash) could act as the nonnutritive medium instead of the peat or coir Cotter recommends. After all, biochar would be a lot more native than peat from Canada or coir from the tropics.

I have a tulip poplar in my backyard, conveniently near my log spawn run area where I could make a morel rain garden by berming around the dripline and directing overflow from my rain barrel into the depression. There I could set up two plots, one with coir and one with biochar.  Then, using a slurry from a single morel species, I could inoculate the beds and see what grows. This, of course, means that I have to find time in the coming weeks to hunt for morels.

I wish it were as easy as this video makes homegrowing morels out to be, but you can get a general idea of how slurries are used to inoculate and how much fun it would be to harvest the mushrooms. Stamets and Cotter both cover spore mass slurries in their books.

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