Life Webs


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Adventures with mushrooms

myceliumLiving in a wet climate as we do, we grow a lot of mushrooms, both indoors and out. There’s a nice crop coming along right now on the windowsill of the mud room. (Those will come out soon, I promise.) Our woods are full of mushrooms, of course. Mushrooms cover the stumps and logs of the trees we  chopped down near the house and all the branches that the storms knock down. They even pop up in the raised garden beds, which we made from Amish “mushroom dirt” (used-up substrate).

There are dozens of species, most of them beautiful and some of which I can almost identify. Identification is a tricky business, though (is this a turkey tail or a false turkey tail?), which is why – even though an acquaintance who is a locally famous mushroom forager and chef walked the property with us  and pointed out several edible varieties – I’ve never tried eating any of them.

Even without eating them, we’ve felt we were benefiting from their presence. Mushrooms are good – vital, in fact – for the land, because they recycle nutrients and make them available for new growth. They break down and detoxify all kinds of pollutants. Some types of mushrooms even transmit nutrients from one tree to another, delivering them where they’re most needed. Paul Stamets, in Mycelium Running, which is full of fascinating mushroom lore, calls them “Nature’s Internet.”

Hen of the Woods

Last fall, we bought some maitake mushrooms – aka “hen of the woods” – at a nearby farm stand. They were extremely delicious and extremely expensive. Apparently, they grow under oak trees.  I said to my partner, “We have hundreds of oak trees! Why are we paying twenty-five dollars a pound for maitakes?” I was suddenly seized with a desire to cultivate mushrooms.

Maitakes are best started in spring, but I was impatient and wanted to get a head start. I bought an indoor maitake kit by mail order, set it up in the mud room, and faithfully followed the directions about covering, uncovering, spraying and misting. If mushrooms can grow in the mud room by themselves, I thought, shouldn’t they grow even better with tender, loving care? The maitake emerged from the substrate and for a couple of weeks, they looked like they might turn into something edible. Then – well, I have pictures, but they’re too ugly to show here. I took the mess outside and buried it next to an oak tree stump.

I consulted with our neighbor Gary, who grows shiitakes and oyster mushrooms commercially in a barn. He brought us four maitake kits from his supplier, and I put them in the bathtub in the guest bathroom. Following Gary’s advice, I tried giving each one a different amount of moisture, ranging from fairly dry to fairly wet. This way, he said, I could find out exactly how damp an environment they really needed. I succeeded in growing only green mold. I was starting to see why maitakes are so expensive.

But spring is just around the corner, and with it, a more scientific attempt to get maitakes to grow in the woods – which, I’ve decided, is a more appropriate place for them than the bathtub. Drilling inoculated plugs into logs is the recommended approach to getting them started. Hopefully by next fall, I’ll have maitakes to eat, and beautiful photographs to post here.

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Saving the rainforest

Inga trees in Central America

Inga trees in Central America

The experiments of the Inga Foundation in Central America offer a realistic hope of sustainable agriculture in a rainforest environment.

Mike Hands, a Cambridge University-based ecologist (and farmer), has developed an alley cropping system based on the inga tree, a leguminous tree native to Central America, and is now working to get local farmers to use his system.

The problem: To feed their families, Central American farmers haven’t had much choice other than slash-and-burn agriculture. They clear rainforest trees, plant corn, quickly wear out the land and move on. Slash-and-burn can be sustainable, even positive, when there’s a lot of land and very few people – it mimics natural cycles of disturbance. With heavy population pressure, and especially with the thin rainforest soils, nutrients are quickly lost and the land can’t be restored before the farmer needs to plant there again. The result is ecological catastrophe. Huge carbon reserves are lost into the atmosphere as the rainforest is burned, and agricultural productivity declines – farmers say their yields are only 10 percent of what they used to be. Often invasive grasses take over the fields and prevent any productive use or restoration of the land. That sets up a downward spiral, as ever more rainforest trees must be cut down.

By planting their corn between rows of inga trees and using inga leaves and branches as mulch, the farmers can maintain permanent fertility in the same cornfield and prevent the growth of invasive grasses. The inga, which grows quickly and re-grows quickly after cutting, also provides edible fruit and wood for cooking. Rainforest trees can be replanted in ruined areas, and farmers may be able to plant other areas with fruit trees.

The foundation is supported by several funding organizations, but accepts donations from individuals as well.


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What to do with spicebush

A spicebush in winter

A spicebush in winter

[Written February 2 but for some reason not published till February 10. It’s been too cold and snowy for the last week to continue my census.]

Inspired by the first warm day of the year (a balmy 39 degrees!) and by the amazing book Tending the Wild by the ethnobotanist Kat Anderson, I began my plant census this morning.

After all, permaculture, and gardening in general, shouldn’t only be about planting. The flip side is learning to care for, manage and use the plants already in place – at least those that are usable. If you’re starting with a suburban lawn and a couple of foundation shrubs, that may be an insurmountable challenge. In our case, though, we have a very rich (though neglected) environment, and there should be plenty to work with.

Between the first European settlement in the late seventeenth century and our initial gardening efforts in 2010, I doubt that anyone deliberately planted anything on this land. As far as I know, the land was used only for logging, gravel mining and deer hunting. So every plant that we did not introduce – whether native, naturalized or invasive – is a “volunteer” whose seeds were carried here by wind, water, birds, pollinating insects or truck tires.

We haven’t ignored what we found growing here. Every spring, we’ve happily foraged on dandelions, wild cress, wood sorrel, fiddlehead ferns and daylily shoots, and every summer on wild grape leaves, black raspberries and blackberries (and this year, we ate autumn olives in the fall). We’ve tried a few other edible weeds and learned the difference between “edible” and “good to eat.” We’ve picked wildflowers for bouquets. We’ve flagged the sugar maples, though we haven’t tried tapping them yet, and we’ve made tea from red clover blossoms. We’ve even discovered the favorite foods of the chickens and rabbits.

But what we haven’t done is taken a census of what’s here and tried to understand how the plant communities work – and how they could be made to work better.

So this morning I began in the southwestern corner of the property, at the edge of the creek and the border of our neighbor’s hay field, and immediately realized that early February is not the ideal time to be taking a plant census. Without leaves, flowers or fruit, most plants are unidentifiable to an amateur, if not invisible altogether.

I did, however, establish that the southwest corner is full of spicebush plants.

The spicebush, native to the Eastern U.S.,  is an attractive shrub (attractive even in winter, because it has a graceful form) that grows in the understory of the woods. It can supposedly reach 20 feet, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one taller than 8 feet. Even in shade, it has deep-green leaves and abundant yellowish-green flowers. In the fall, the female plants bear hard red berries that have an allspice-y scent.

Here’s what I’ve learned about spicebush:

– The berries can be crushed and used to flavor meats and baked goods. You can’t dry them, because they’ll go rancid, but you can freeze them for storage over the winter.

– The berries, leaves and twigs can be used for tea. I tried making some tea today from the twigs and buds; it smelled lovely but didn’t taste very good. The tea has medicinal qualities (like all natural remedies, it cures whatever ails you).

– Berries make good sachets for closets and clothing drawers.

– The plant reproduces clonally for the most part, putting up suckers in the spring that can be cut and transplanted.

– It is a favorite of butterfly larvae and birds; deer browse it too, but apparently not very much.

– It is not nitrogen-fixing.

– It isn’t noxious to other plants or to animals.

Still to be determined:

– Are the branches suitable for anything? Basket-weaving? Barbecuing?

– Does pruning help or hurt it?

– Most important, what other plants does it want to be near? It’s a mid-level plant; what’s appropriate for the upper layer and the lower layers?