Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shrooming in the Shade

I love trees. My husband loves trees. My daughters love trees. So in many ways the property where we are now living is perfect for us. There are lots of trees here. But those trees are also making it challenging to farm. They limit the space we have for growing hay in our pasture. And they limit how much gardening I can feasibly do. This was the biggest compromise I had to make as we made the decision to buy this place last summer. And I continue to struggle with it. Before leaving Ohio, I had envisioned having a HUGE Southern garden: rows and rows of tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuces, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and onions; a spectacularly wild array of flowers; and enough herbs to last throughout the year. But here I am, standing in front of the only little corner of our property that is even remotely capable of getting enough sun for blooming plants (it was a corner of the yard before we got here), wondering if I will be able to pull off even a small patch of veggies.

Determined not to keep longing for the landscape of my dreams, I've decided instead to get creative in working with the landscape we have. I hope to plant a variety of native perennials around the house; scatter trillium, wild ginger, bloodroot, and spring beauties in our little plot of woods; and use the mountains of sticks and leaves we have to generate extra-rich mulch. And I'm going to grow mushrooms. Perhaps I'd better say I'm going to try to grow mushrooms. Once again, I really don't have any idea what I'm doing.

Mushrooms are wonderful little beings. The fleshy edible fruit bodies of fungi, they are surprisingly nutritious. Low in fat, carbohydrates, and calories, they are a great source of B vitamins and essential minerals such as selenium, copper, and potassium. When exposed to ultraviolet light, they are also high in Vitamin D, something many of us North Americans are needing more of these days as we spend more and more time indoors. And if that's not enough, as my children have reminded me, they also attract fairies and elves! It's not surprising, then, that mushrooms have been harvested in the wild and cultivated by humans for at least a few thousand years. (Edible mushrooms have been found in 13,000 year old ruins in Chile, though the first solid evidence of mushroom consumption dates back to several hundred years BC in China.)

Not that long ago, many rural Americans could take a walk through a forest and gather several types of edible mushrooms to bring back for the supper table. (The same was true where my husband grew up in Nigeria, he says.). These days, though, mushrooms are among those foods that most of us--even most gardeners--assume we need to buy at the store. In fact, gathering them wild can be dangerous without a good deal of knowledge and training. But a few weeks ago, I started wondering if it's really true that I have to pick up a plastic-covered styrofoam box every time I need some fungi in my stir-fry. After all, these quirky little creatures do grow all over the woods, often popping up in what seem like the most unlikely places. So how hard could it possibly be to cultivate them? I have to admit that researching mushroom cultivation left me feeling pretty intimidated at first: lots of talk about sterilization, mycelium formation, moisture gauges, temperature sensitivities, etc., etc. But after some digging, I discovered that there are a few types of tasty mushrooms that gardeners like me seem to be able to grow with relative ease.

The one I chose to try is Stropharia rugosoannulata, commonly known as Wine Cap or King Stropharia. It grows wild in forests throughout the United States and has a lovely red, brown or tan cap that can sometimes reach the size of a dinner plate (!) but more commonly grows to around 2-5 inches across. It is evidently delicious when sauteed, broiled, or baked and is exceptionally good for you. Attractive as all these traits are, the deciding factor in my choice to cultivate wine caps was that they love wood chips. And we have lots of wood chips lying around these days. In fact, I had two large piles of sweet gum chips sitting right beside the little garden plot I mentioned earlier--under some trees at the edge of the woods (and thus in what seemed like a perfect spot for a mushroom bed). So I got online and found the website of Mushroom Mountain, a mushroom farm in Liberty, South Carolina. The nice folks there confirmed that wine caps would be a good variety for me to try, so I sent off for a bag of spawn. It arrived on our doorstep two days later.

To prepare the beds, I spread a layer of cardboard and newspaper on the ground between the two wood chip piles. Then I added a good amount of chips, leveling them out with a rake. Next, I scattered about half of the spawn I'd received over those chips and gently mixed them in. I then added another layer of newspaper, another layer of chips, and the rest of the spawn. Finally, I covered the finished bed with a layer of rotting leaves (to protect the chips from drying out and keep the mushrooms from freezing when the weather turns cold). Jeepers; that wasn't so hard.

Of course, I won't know for quite a while if this new venture into the world of mushroom gardening has been successful. It will be several months--maybe more--before the mushrooms can be harvested. In the meantime, all I have to do is keep shooing away the chickens (it took all of about 7 minutes for them to discover this new dining venue); remember to water occasionally; and dream quiet, delicious dreams of nibbling fresh, homegrown mushrooms.

--Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Love the poem!
Have you tried growing in holes drilled in logs? I have a friend who does that successfully ...