If there's one thing that most permaculture and organic gardening enthusiasts agree on, it's the beauty of polycultures. Mechanized farming operations have to—almost by necessity—reduce the variety of crops they are harvesting from any one area in order to stay efficient. By keeping things on a human scale, however, it is possible to grow many different crops in the same space, making more efficient use of resources and encouraging a broader range of biodiversity in the garden or farm.
One of my favorite examples of this is mushrooms, which can grow in the shade of other crops and by breaking down organic matter can help provide valuable nutrients back to the rest of the garden. I'm particularly excited about this right now because last week, I got my first crop of mushrooms grown directly in the path that runs between by raised bed gardens.
They were. however, a long time coming.I had experimented before with shiitake mushroom logs behind the garden shed, not to mention growing oyster mushrooms in buckets of coffee grounds. But when I interviewed Mushroom Mountain's Tradd Cotter about the power of fungi, he was kind enough to send me some spawn and get me hooked on another experiment: inoculating wood chip tree waste and using it to mulch my garden paths.
The process was actually remarkably simple. First, I got a big bag of king stropharia mushroom spawn (aka wine caps, aka garden giant). Then I talked my kind neighbor with a truck into picking up some wood chips with me. We mixed the two together. We watered it copiously. And then we piled the wood chips onto one of my two garden paths. (The left one of the two below, if it makes any difference.)
Then, to be honest, I pretty much forgot about them. I occasionally watered the path for the first few months. I occasionally poured cooking fats on it (because I didn't know what else to do with cooking fat, and fungi break down oils fairly effectively). And I waited. And waited. And waited.
While I saw plenty of mycelium (the white fibrous substance that is the main body of a mushroom) I had pretty much assumed that the wine caps had been out competed by other fungi, until last week. Following a heavy rainfall, there was a sudden crop of rather yummy looking deep red mushrooms poking out of the ground. Following a quick ID session with some friends on Facebook (seriously, you probably shouldn't ID mushrooms via Facebook - but I was fairly confident anyway), I cooked up some mushrooms on toast and dug in.
And I am still here.
The mushrooms have still been cropping up during this past week, and with more showers forecast for the next few days, I am hoping for at least one more feast before it gets too hot. (King stropharia fruit in spring and fall.) The next plan is to be nice to my neighbor again, pick up some more wood chips, and both replenish the existing bed and transfer some spawn to the neighboring path too—from there, if we can get a healthy bed going, I'll be gradually moving some wood chips to other garden beds, as well as those of neighbors and friends.
I'm also talking to the fabulous Rob Jones of Understory Farm about mixing spent oyster substrate with the king stropharia spawn. The theory—says Rob—is that
oyster mushrooms are secondary decomposers, while king stropharia are primary decomposers. (I may have that the wrong way round!) (I did have that the wrong way round, says Rob—oysters eat first.) If this goes to plan, we might be able to get multiple crops of mushrooms out of a space that was once reserved for walking on—and we'll be creating compost for the garden in the process.
If you'd like to know more or try this at home, check out this blog post about how to grow king stropharia mushrooms, back from before I knew what I was talking about.