Archive for April, 2018

The Perennial Paddock: Mycelial Madness

Nothing made me more joyously certain that I had created a real, albeit tiny, ecosystem in my suburban yard than when the first mushrooms grew among perennial plants rather than in a grow-bag or other artificial arrangement. Last year two kinds of mushrooms spread from spawn I had introduced and appeared far from the original “planting.” I was ecstatic; the mycelial Internet was forming! And this spring I was even more gratified to find a big cluster of Stropharia rugosa-annulata pushing up through the mulch months before I had expected to see any mushrooms. By perfectionist standards they were  overly mature when I discovered them, as evidenced by size, lightened cap color, and the cracks in the cap. But I am no perfectionist and knew that they were still perfectly good to eat.

So a few notes on introducing mushrooms, in no particular order:

1. Stropharia rugosa-annulata is the easiest mushroom  to grow in your garden. Even here in the high desert, it thrives in a deep mulch of straw and oak sawdust. In my opinion the almond agaricus is the most delicious, but it is more finicky and less productive. I have grown oyster mushrooms in containers, but this year I’m experimenting with introducing them into more unlikely spots. I’ll report back.

2. Get good spawn. Mine came from Field and Forest Products, and it was ready to grow.

3. Know how to indentify the mushroom that you introduced. Know its field marks and identify it before you eat it. When you create a good outdoor environment for mushrooms, you are not in complete control of what grows, any more than you are immune to weeds in your garden beds.

4. Be aware of how many commercial mulch products are treated with fungicides to prevent fungus from moving in. If you want select funguses to move in and thrive, you need to avoid these products.

5. Cook and eat with a sense of reverence and awe for the complex and extraordinary interactions of nature. If you want to learn more about this, Mycelium Running, Mycelial Mayhem, and Radical Mycology are useful books.

I sautéed my mushrooms in olive oil with generous additions of green garlic and fresh thyme, then removed them from the skillet, set aside in a warm spot, and scrambled some eggs in additional olive oil with a little salt. When the eggs were cooked, the mushrooms were folded back in. Simple as that. Scrambling is an underestimated technique. In this case I cooked the eggs fairly firm, for texture contrast with the softer mushrooms.  I framed the fragrant heap with a couple of slices of bacon. It made a quick delicious dinner, mostly from my own property, and was a culinary salute to the mycelial web that underlies, well, damn near everything.

A Little Hen Science

Feeding my hens is expensive and sometimes I wonder how much it matters whether I gather the large heap of alfalfa and other greens that they eat every day during the growing season. Then I remind myself of one of my favorite nutritional sayings:

You are what you eat and you are what what you eat, eats.

I don’t mean to be dramatic about it, but it’s a core concept. I first read a serious article about nutritional changes in eggs according to the hens’ diet back in about 2008, and would like to bring that article up again. It details the difference in LDL oxidizability in people who eat eggs, depending on the diet of the hens producing the eggs. Here’s a Science Daily summary  with a link to the original article if you would like to read it. Note especially their paragraph exerpted below:

“There were vast differences in outcome among the treatments. Daily consumption of two industry-standard eggs, high in omega-6, caused a 40 percent increase in LDL oxidizability in participants. After eating two per day of the specially-composed eggs, with both high anti-oxidant and low omega-6 levels, however, LDL oxidation levels were similar to the control group eating only two to four eggs a week. Surprisingly, with the “healthier” eggs, we might be able to eat more than twice today’s generally recommended egg intake and still maintain a healthy level of LDL oxidation, Dr. Shapira concludes.”

So I will continue to feed my hens to produce the product that I want to eat. There is no substitute for greens and bugs in a chicken’s diet. It’s what she evolved to eat, and I too evolved to eat them but greatly prefer to eat the bugs indirectly. If you have chickens, devote some garden space to growing greens for them. An alfalfa patch is a good source of the most nutritious greens imaginable for the ladies. And any edible weed from a location that hasn’t been sprayed with anything noxious is a bonanza for the coop. Fresh grass clippings are welcomed as long as you don’t spray your lawn. And eat the resulting eggs with relish, knowing that they are as good as eggs can be.

The Perennial Paddock: Goji Berries

I planted Goji berries years ago when I was interested in eating the berries, and hadn’t yet discovered how invasive they were. I am told that they like slightly alkaline soil, and indeed mine revel in it and come up everywhere despite whatever obstacles I put in their way.  But as far as I’m concerned their invasiveness is a positive boon, since my favorite part of the plant is the young shoot.

Gojis want to ramp away into big lanky vines that sprawl everywhere and don’t bear much fruit,  but some trimming helps them settle down and stick to their work.

I tie mine to fences or stakes about 40 inches above the ground, and then in the spring I whack off everything above that point.  There is no artistry involved in this pruning; you can do it with a hedge trimmer.  Then they grow new branches which drape down artistically from the point where they are tied, and are covered with fruit in season. They are very ornamental and can be grown in the front yard.  They are also highly drought  tolerant once established. The fruit tastes rather like a tiny tomato with a hint of bitterness. I use it mostly for fermenting into hot sauce and making superfruit sauce.  You will find material online suggesting that the berries will prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s and make you live longer. I don’t get excited about that kind of talk, and I hope that you don’t either. They do have a good nutrient content, including doses of lutein and zeaxanthin that might be useful in helping to prevent macular degeneration, however be aware that the berries have not been researched for that purpose.

My favorite part of the plant is the young shoots that come up in places where I don’t want them, so I can pick them and eat them.  Please note that the shoots are only edible when they are young, tender, and snap cleanly off as soon as you try to bend them. If they will bend without snapping, they are not fit to eat.  I chop a bundle of shoots into fine cross section, about 1/4” lengths, and stirfry with some garlic, ginger, and soy, and find them very good. If the stems are getting wiry and bendable, you can still harvest the leaves and add them to mixed greens or cook them lightly in a Thai-style curry.

Now, about those health claims: I find two opposite sets of claims being made about Goji berries and leaves (the leaves are widely used for tea in Asia and are used in traditional Chinese medicine.) One is that the components of both leaves and berries include multiple antioxidants and compounds that act as anti-inflammatories in vitro and in vivo. This view is based both on their traditional uses and on the fact that multiple flavonoid antioxidants have been identified in both leaves and berries.

Below is a link to a simple analysis of components of the leaves.

Below is an analysis of anti-inflammatory activity in extracts of three berry species, including Goji berries, in vivo in mice.

The other point of view is that, as a distant member of the nightshade family, this plant should be avoided in its entirety. I have not found any credible research suggesting that the vast majority of us have any reason to avoid nightshades. I also don’t find it credible that a plant which contains numerous compounds that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity both in vitro and in vivo (beta-sitosterol, betaine, and hydroxycinnamic acid amides, to name only a few) would suddenly become inflammatory when eaten. If you feel that eating gojis makes your stomach burn or your joints hurt, by all means avoid them.  You are the author of the owner’s manual for your own body.  But to go from there to saying that nobody should eat them is quite a leap, and ignores demographic evidence.

This is a picture of goji berries being grown commercially in China, apparently staked up in more or less the same way that I do it but more neatly and artistically.  When covered with their fruit in summer, they are as radiant as Christmas trees.



The Perennial Paddock: Sea Kale

There is an area of my yard that is referred to as “the paddock“ because it was once intended to be an animal paddock. Over time, it has become the area where I move toward permaculture, with more and more perennial edibles accumulating there.  The whole area is kept in a deep mulch, and tends to stay moist enough for growth even in our desert summers.

One of the most decorative plants growing there is seakale, a maritime perennial that tolerates our alkaline soil.  It is very hard to start from seed, and the four plants that have prospered over years for me are those that I paid a small fortune for as plants from a specialty nursery.  If you want seakale, make the investment in getting good plants. Once settled, I am told that they can live 20 or 30 years or more.  They are very pretty in a quiet way, with nothing dramatic or show about them but pleasant to the eyes  in most seasons, except in the fall when mine get very bug-eaten. They are not recognizable at sight as a vegetable, and would pass muster with the strictest homeowner’s association.

There was a time when I thought it would take me 20 years to learn how to use them. The leaves  have a crisp succulent texture and mild flavor, and would be okay in salads, but each plant makes only six or seven leaves and if you take more than one the plant is likely  to die.  If you have 20 plants this might not be an issue, but if you have four, it is.

I read that the buds could be harvested as a broccoli like vegetable, and when I first tried this, they were tasty enough but very tiny indeed. From my four plants, I got enough for one small tasting dish, and no more. But this year I figured out that the bloom stalk is also tender and tasty.  Harvest the whole stalk as close to the base of the plant as you can get without damaging any leaves. Do this before the flowers open, and it will just snap right off. The leaves on the stalk are fine to eat. The lower part of the stem has a tough fibrous outer layer, but it peels off very easily. Everything you have left, stems, leaves, and buds, is good to eat.  Cut in half inch cross sections, cook in very little water until crisp tender, add salt and butter, and eat.  Treated this way, each plant provides a nice vegetable side dish for two people.

In British gardening books I have read references to seakale having a very strong and unpleasant flavor, but I have not experienced this at all with my own plants. The taste is mild, slightly herbal, and inoffensive. The texture is excellent.

One question to consider is whether perennial vegetables are really worth growing, when annual vegetables are so good. Broccoli fresh from the garden is one of my favorite vegetables in the world, and it would be pretty hard for anything to surpass it.   But suppose that you couldn’t plant the broccoli. Suppose that age and infirmity made it impossible for you to garden the way you used to, or that an accident of fate left you unable to garden in the usual way, either temporarily or permanently.  This has happened to me. Because of an orthopedic problem I was unable to do any annual gardening for two years, and even though I have been back at it full tilt for a few years now, I  remember that time and remain aware that a slip, a fall, or a careless driver can put quite a crimp in your gardening career for a while.  Fortunately, even at that time, I had a fair stock of perennial edibles and we still had things to eat from the yard.  Of course, perennials also help prevent soil erosion,  and undug  soil can sequester carbon in a big way.  The microbes and fungi that are so important in building and maintaining healthy soil will flourish in a perennial garden under mulch. But it’s also your insurance that, if fate deals you a blow that you weren’t expecting, your garden will go on producing.

Eating Up the Ground Elder

Ground elder is a famous invasive, and most sensible people would never dream of growing it on purpose. But I live in the high desert and tend to be fairly fearless about moisture-loving invasives, on grounds that if I get tired of them I can withhold water and watch them disappear. Therefore, I let some variegated ground elder grow under a plum tree and harvest it aggressively for salads.
It needs to be harvested young, before the leaves unfurl, and at this stage it has a strong celery-parsley flavor that I find appealing, and a lovely crisp texture. The furled young leaf at the top is pretty, but the stem is the real vegetable, so pick it as close to the ground as possible. Toss in a mixed salad, or arrange artistically on top.

When the leaf opens out it becomes tough and is no longer desirable eating. I have read that it also produces nausea in some people at this stage, so it’s definitely to be avoided.

If you live in a wetter climate, you may want to confine ground elder to a large pot, because it can get out of hand in a hurry.

Because each individual leaflet is small, I never get enough to cook, but I imagine that it would be good in stir-fries.

Be cautious with invasives, but don’t rule them out completely if your natural conditions will prevent them from spreading. And if you live in an area where it would be irresponsible to introduce ground elder, help solve the problem. Find a naturalized patch and start foraging.