After a couple of unseasonably cold and gray days that warranted warm socks and a sweater, we’ve returned to hot (+90F) and sunny again. I return to monitoring my one barrel of rain water, which is about 1/5 full (empty). The couple of rain storms we’ve had and the one night of drizzle failed to fill the bin, let alone my array of four 275 gallon bins. One can have all the storage one wants, but one can’t make the rain fall.

DSCF8121The garden was getting on parched yesterday so I watered with the precious rain water, adding a half cup of fish emulsion and a cup and a half of compost and comfrey tea to each watering can. The tea I had started four days ago: dropping comfrey leaves into the bottom half of a five gallon bucket, adding about two gallons of rain water, then putting about ten cups of fresh compost into a cloth bag and submersing it. Put lid on, put in dark shed, let bubble away. It smelled sweat, going on yeasty, with the typical comfrey smell that I’ve not been able to describe – something like molten rubber? Anyway, it was ready. Though even hotter today, the plants, even the usually droopy tomatoes, look great. I hope the calcium rich comfrey will combat the blossom end rot I’ve spotted on some of the squashes.

Looking west of the garden, here’s an update of what’s going on with the front of our property.

DSCF7053_smallIn February we had a landscaper come with a track hoe to excavate the weeds, brambles and vines that we had combated year in year out – pulling, digging up, covering with cardboard and wood chips – losing the battle. In four hours he had dug them up with the big scoop and put them on one big pile. Then he churned up the massive leaf and wood chips piles that my neighbor had been depositing on our property for years. It looked like a lot of fun, like stirring a massive pot of soup with a massive ladle. This mix he deposited on the newly bared earth, at about a foot deep.

DSCF8032On the slope I sowed white clover, which took really well and is now feeding the rabbit population. I am not sure this is a good idea, but on the other hand, I haven’t had rabbit herbivory in my garden at all this season. Also, it is fixing nitrogen, out-competing most weeds and stopping erosion very well.

Down at the bottom, the hardiest weeds returned slowly, but our neighbor keeps dropping off wood chips and every other weekend or so DH and I go down and pull and cover, pull and cover. The excavation wasn’t a silver bullet that took care of it once and for all, and we never expected that, but our work now is much more manageable, and pleasant. It looks like this now:

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Notice the new pile of wood chips in the center.

The idea is that the micro-organisms need all the nitrogen available to burn up the carbon in the wood chips – leaving less or even no nitrogen for the weeds. That’s how woodsy mulch works. An extra weapon in our arsenal is the deployment of fungi. Most of the weeds we’re fighting are invasive greenies. I’m hoping that aggressively running mycelium in the wood chips mulch will suppress them even more. So I started wood chip fermenting. I learned about it from Paul Stametz in this short and informational video:

It’s an intriguing idea: you basically cultivate a herd of anaerobic bacteria, then you harvest them by killing them by exposing them to oxygen, then give them to the (aerobic) fungi as a meal. It’s like growing fodder for your livestock, only your fodder is bacteria and your livestock is fungi!

Here are my barrels, filled to the brim with a mix of soft and hard woods and tap water that sat out in open buckets in the sun for several days to dechlorinate. I’ll drain the barrels in a couple of weeks and we’ll spread the fermented chips and start a new batch. Hopefully, we’ll have great mycelium running soon!

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A quick update on Queen Bianca: alas, she is no more, but her daughter, whom I have named Laura, made her appearance and was laying eggs. She looked good enough to kiss!

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For now, a photo reportage of a find today in our front yard (“down there,” we call it), in a spot twenty feet from where the big King Stropharia resides.  I will be traveling for a week, so expect no posts during that time.

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And I am reading this tome, fascinating! Will write a review when I get back – hopefully I will have read all 600+ pages by then. Peter McCoy and his Radical Mycology, it’s the bee’s knees!

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Another oft-used (and used in quantity) cohort of living allies in Korean Natural Farming is  IMO: Indigenous Micro Organisms.  The IMO “input” is made in several steps, from IMO 1 through 4.  IMO 1 is the “catch” of said microorganisms, and in each subsequent  step you get to culture these, growing their quantity until you potentially end up with a big pile. The first step, where you trap the organisms, is proving tricky for me. My first attempt got eaten and soiled by a mouse or some such; it went to the chickens. My second attempt at IMO 2 looked like this:

Closer, but that too isn’t going to cut it; it went into the steaming, youngest compost pile.

The recipe for the “bait” is pretty simple.

  1. First soak a carbohydrate like rice for 24 hours.
  2. Hard-boil it with a ratio of 1:1.5 cups (rice:water). The rice should be dry and fluffy, not wet and soggy. Let cool.
  3. Put the cooked rice in a wicker basket like mine, or in  any container, wood, glass, plastic, porous like the basket, or not, as long as it is open up top and allows for half of its volume for head space. Place a cloth or old t-shirt or paper towel over it so no dirt can fall in, but it is not sealed, and optionally cover it with a metal  mesh to keep mice out.
  4. Bury this container in the leaf or compost pile, or under the duff in the forest, under an old tree.
  5. After 4 to 10 days, depending on the temperature (colder = less microbial activity), dig up the basket.

You can find anything in your trap. What you want to find are certain aerobic microbes – hence the need for a fluffy rice with air pockets and head space for them to colonize. When you collect in a forest, among the leaf litter, you will catch mostly fungal hyphae. Among grasses, you will trap a more bacterial crowd. If you want to grow grass or grains, go for the latter. For growing veggies and perennials, the fungal stuff is the thing, because fungi are great companions for plants.

The fungal hyphae with which your rice is now “contaminated” should be white and fluffy and have a sweet smell. The stuff in my basket was predominantly red, yellow and black, and it smelled moldy, because I had caught mainly molds – which are also fungi, but not the kind you want (FYI, check out this amazing video on mold growth). I think this was because the rice was too wet.

The next steps, which I’ll write about as I get to perform them once I’ve managed to trap the IMO, are basically to feed  this handful of organisms so they multiply to greater and greater quantities. To summarize, the IMO first colonizes 1 cup of rice (IMO 1), then rice and as much brown sugar (IMO 2), then 150 lbs of wheat bran (IMO 3), then all of the above plus as much garden soil, totaling over 300 lbs (IMO 4), at which point it is ready to be brought, with much fanfare, into the garden. (Go here for a nice reportage, with photos, of a workshop by Aaron Englander, similar to the one I took. It covers IMO 1- through 4.)

The whole point of IMO is to trap indigenous organisms, because of the ecological and economic advantages of closing the loops by not using imports, and because these indigenous micro organisms are already acclimated to the general environment where you want to put them to use – though of course it would be more accurate to say that they made and make that environment. So if you can, it’s best to look for them in the duff in undisturbed areas under the trees, at the bottom of an old leaf pile, or in a mature compost pile on your own property, or in the vicinity. The farthest distance the IMO travel is, in my case, about ten feet.

Notice the words old, mature and undisturbed. If your garden is a place of disturbance by digging, tilling, and applications of antibiotic chemicals, then the soil there will be “young” or “poor” at best, dead at worst. You want to bring in the robust, mature, complex life that has evolved to the most it can be in nature, away from modern man’s interference. And once you’ve brought in this life, you want to keep welcoming it by minimizing disturbance by going no-till, chemical free.

Ideally, as you let the IMO colonize more and more substrates, the garden itself becomes the IMO 5, as it were. But even the least disturbing farmers, treading the most gently on their soil, still have to dig for those potatoes, tuck in a seed or  seedling, pull the occasional weed. Therefore IMO 4 is applied regularly on farms and in gardens. The poorer your soil, the more disturbing your gardening practices, and/or the further away your IMO was collected, the more it will need to be applied.

I made three more batches of rice and buried them in different places:

  • IMO 1 a. The same place as the failed one, just to try again with drier rice. It’s in a decomposing wood chip garden path where the King  Stropharia likes to show itself, the duff there is shot through with mycelium.
  • IMO 1 b. In the oldest leaf pile on the property: the leaves at the bottom are about four years old, with successive layers for each year.
  • IMO 1 c. Under one of our biggest trees, in a shady spot where no one but the chipmunks go, where the soil is dark and springy.

This way I’m hedging my bets and, in the spirit of diversity, it makes sense that combining microbes collected from multiple sites will make for a more robust culture. Stay tuned.

Back in winter, my friend Alex and I were planning on starting a mushroom farm on the property. Unfortunately our calls for logs (oak, birch, beech, etc.) didn’t produce any, and so the inoculation season passed us by. But all was not lost. In  2010 I bought and planted mycelium of King Stropharia.  Stropharia rugosoannulata, also known as the wine cap stropharia, “garden giant” or burgundy mushroom, never materialized in the bed where I planted it, but a couple of years ago he started making regular appearances, all over the place, also in my vegetable garden. He did so again on April 5 after it had rained for a couple of days, and I was ready!

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King Stropharia is easy to identify by the wrinkled, almost gilled ring around its stem – hence “rugosoannulata,” meaning “wrinkled-ringed”.

Alex and I had planned to buy spawn, but this was better. This was not some sterile, mamby-pamby lab-grown weakling but a rugged, over-wintered, tried and tested Stropharia who was already at home in my garden! I plucked some of the mushrooms (left some in the ground too) and collected the spores from several of them. Others I fried up with some onions, salt and pepper, but not before I cut off their stem butts and planted those in between two sheets of wet cardboard.

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Gorgeous mycelium!
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Several stages of maturity.

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Spore prints. I scraped these off the paper with a sharp knife, into a tiny box that now contains millions of spores. They will keep for years. I plan to make a spore slurry with them.

I put the butts in plastic boxes which I kept in my “cool closet,” where I keep all the medicinals. The mycelium grew steadily and today they are as ready as I’ll ever know they’ll be. Paul Stamets says something like: the mycelium runs and if you don’t let it, it will die. It is also overcast and threatening to rain, so the weather too said, let’s run with it!

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DSCF7390 I chose a spot underneath a small oak and my largest hazel (mushrooms and hazel nuts, can you think of a better combination?), carefully scraped off and set aside the top inch of duff/soil, then lay the cardboard mycelium down. Then I replaced the soil and added a healthy cover of decomposed leaves, then watered, with rain water, of course. Let’s see what happens!

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If you want to know why he’s called the “Garden Giant,” check out this mushroom, which popped up in wood chip heaven, that is, our front yard.

And this wasn’t even the largest one of the clutch. Am I concerned about fungi all over my vegetable garden? No, on the contrary, Paul Stamets has shown that  many fungi, among them King Stropharia, are great companions to plants!