All posts by Tom Gibson

Garden Experiments: Sorghum-Sudan Grass and Nettles

by Tom Gibson

(This is the inaugural installment of what we at Gardenopolis Cleveland hope will become an ongoing series.  Have you read something in a gardening book or blog or article that made you want to try something new?  How did it work out for you? We’re looking for short, pithy articles not only from editors, but from you, the reader.)

Garden Experiment #1: Sorghum-Sudan Grass

One of the garden “stars” in Michael Phillips’ book Mycorrhizal Planet is Sorghum-Sudan grass (sorghum sudanese).  This annual grows up to 12 feet tall very rapidly, especially in hot weather, thus creating lots of compostable biomass. But it has two other special virtues: 1) Its roots can provide habitat for up to 50 species of mycorrhizal fungi.  And 2) when mowed, the plant responds by expanding its root mass, sometimes by a factor of two.  That means lots of carbon for microflora to feast on during the next growing season.

If ever soil needed more carbon, it was the garden plot I inherited at the Oxford Community Garden in Cleveland Heights.  Light tan in color, it was clearly more dirt than soil.  Weeds like thistle (that thrive in calcium-and phosphorous-deficient soil) loved it.  Although I reserved one strip of my plot for an attempt at tomatoes (aided by some calcium sulfate and worm castings), I seeded the rest in July with sorghum-sudan grass along with a multi-species, mycorrhizal-based fertilizer with the brand name of Dr. Earth. I bought the latter at Home Depot, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago before mycorrhizal additives started to go mainstream. 

The seed (5 lbs. that I bought online at for just $15) was easy to sow, though it required coverage from bird-proof netting. (Flocks of birds flew away as I approached the garden after my initial broadcast planting!)  The seed germinated right away and quickly dominated the plot. 

Then, in early October, I trimmed the grass with hedge clippers.  The cut grass should be no less than six inches high, Phillips says, for the best post-trimming root expansion.  Next spring is when I’ll take a mulching mower to the process. Then I plan to plant right into the plant-stubbled soil.  I’ll let you know what results.

Garden Experiment #2: Roasted Stinging Nettle Seeds

This idea comes from the far corners of the Web, where hairy counterculturists congregate.  (e.g.  and   These videos drew me in because stinging nettle has become one of my favorite garden vegetables.  It’s great with garlic and eggs for breakfast and in evening meal main courses such as stinging nettle lasagna.  And, as permaculturists know, stinging nettle offers twice the nutritional value of even vitamin-and-mineral-rich mainstream vegetables such as spinach.  (I tell my permaculture classes that nettles have developed a sting for the same reason that banks install alarms: to protect valuables stored inside!  Fortunately, deer don’t wear gloves or know how to steam the leaves to neutralize the formic acid sting, so stinging nettle offers the added benefit of being herbivore-free!)

Stinging nettle seed is just as rich in nutrients as the leaves.  This year, with regular rains extending into July, my stinging nettle seed crop was exceptionally robust.  How much effort, I asked myself, would it take to collect the seed and was it worth the effort?


I was feeling pressed for time, so, as a test, I just cut the six longest stalks and dumped them top first into a refuse bag.  There they sat drying (until I remembered them!) for almost two months.  Then I cut off the little bunches of seed pods and pressed them into a colander.  Voila!  Tiny black seeds emerged on the other side.  We then roasted them with a little salt and oil.  The result: nutty and crunchy.

Critically, the roasted nettle seeds pass the all-important “wife test.” They added a nice crunchy texture to the rice and veggie lunch we prepared.  We thought, however, they might stand out best on simpler dishes such as scrambled eggs or plain rice.

In terms of future garden productivity, the newly-discovered edibility of stinging nettle seed extends the harvest season of what has become, for us, a staple crop.  The leaves are at their best from May through June, but become less digestible when plants start to flower in July.  (One of the visual pleasures of a breezy July day is to watch wind-borne clouds of nettle pollen drift past their neighbors.) Now we can harvest seed in quantity, roast it, and enjoy it during the winter months.

Nutrition News I

by Tom Gibson

It is common knowledge, both among scientists and educated consumers, that food is less nutritious than it used to be.  Here’s a chart that shows how great mineral loss was between 1950 and 1999:

Later studies confirm that the situation has only worsened. One familiar culprit is the need by our modern industrial food system to require “efficiencies:”synthetic fertilizers, plant breeds that withstand long distance shipping, feed-lot-fattened meat, etc.  Less familiar, is humanities’ fatal dietary flaw, its sweet tooth that can’t resist anything sugary.  As Jo Robinson relates in her great book, Eating on the Wild Side, even blueberries, those alleged carriers of anti-cancer, anti-everything-bad nutrition, have lost much of their natural potency through over-breeding to accommodate humanity’s too-sweet palates. The more sour the blueberries, the better they are for you.  (Robinson recommends the semi-wild “Rubel” variety. Sour, but good for you.

Two recent developments that shed new light on the nutrition issue, however, caught my eye.  First, the bad news:  Declining nutritive value may well also be a consequence of the general rise in CO₂ concentration in Earth’s atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide not only causes global warming, it also speeds photosynthesis and, with it, plant metabolism.  Multiple scientific studies now show that this process weakens uptake of vital mineral nutrients like zinc.  The most convincing evidence of causality is that even non-crops like goldenrod, samples of which have been collected and preserved since the 19th Century, have also lost nutritional content.  The only variable, apparently, affecting goldenrod has been rising CO₂ concentration. 

                           Please Don’t Eat the Goldenrod

This is especially depressing news since it identifies a variable that impossible for individuals to correct on their own. Even if you work to balance micro-nutrients in your own garden, global conditions will always be tugging in the opposite direction.

 (For a well-reported article accessible to lay readers, see

But don’t give up hope. The second item I noticed (the good news) gives us at least some chance to take better nutrition, quite literally, into our own hands.  It’s a prospective I-Phone app—a Bionutrient Meter– that will allow you to perform an instant spectroscopic analysis on fruits and vegetables in grocery bins.  Does that spinach at Whole Foods contain the iron you want it to?  Or does the farmer’s market offering outperform it? Just point and click. And the larger question: Will a small army of consumers demanding better nutrition put enough pressure on suppliers to change their standards?

An organization I greatly respect, the Bionutrient Farmers Association**, will unveil a prototype Bionutrient Meter this fall.  In this podcast, Dan Kittredge, gives more detail. (( )  His hope is that an affordable handheld device will be available to consumers a year-and-a-half from now.

*I’m ignoring here the far worse role played by manufacturers of highly processed food scientifically formulated to create junk food addictions among naïve populations.  For a truly depressing, but well-reported article that includes a quote from Cleveland’s (and Switzerland’s) own Nestle Corporation, see

** (  Note that “bionutrient” is not plural.  Adding an “s” will take you to the wrong website.)

Nutrient News (You Can Use) II

It may be news to you that many good elderberry recipes exist.  Although American use of these tiny, astringent black fruits is pretty much limited to elderberry jelly and elderberry wine, European cooks take them much more seriously.  This is a good thing, since elderberries are off the charts in their nutritional value—double, for example, the anti-oxidant power of even the most nutritious blueberry. (Sorry, Rubel blueberries! See above.)

                                                       Sambucus Nigra, a European variety, though                                                          we also use the North American Sambucus                                                              Canadensis*

The best sources for many of these recipes are online and often not in English. But don’t let that stop you! All you have to do is look up the foreign word for the fruit you contemplate cooking, enter that and the foreign word for recipe, and you’ll get an extraordinary variety of good ideas. Just right-click on any given recipe, and it will appear in English. It’s really that simple, with only a mental barrier to stop you.

In the case of elderberry, several years ago I looked up its German translation, “Holunder” and the German word for recipe, “Rezept.” The resulting search led to a fruit compote that has become a family favorite.  The genius of this particular dish is that it takes the “bass note” astringency of elderberries and lemon peel and matches them with the treble notes of sweeter pears and plums.    The result is an unusual symphony of fruit flavor that we like on ice cream and on cereal.

Here’s a free adaptation of the recipe:

8 firm pears

1 liter water

1 lemon, juice and zest

1.5 Kg of Italian prune plums, de-stoned

1 Kg of elderberries

400 g sugar  (yes, the best flavor requires some additional refined sugar sweetness!)

Core the pears and chop into bite-sized chunks, add water and lemon zest, then cook until almost tender.  Add the plum halves, elderberries, sugar, and lemon juice and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.   We pour into jelly jars and freeze.

*The elderberry bush is an especially useful permaculture shrub since it allows easy “function stacking”—the permaculture term for getting multiple benefits out of the same piece of land.  In our case, we grow tasty king stropharia mushrooms in wood chips in the shaded soil beneath the elderberry bushes, which, in turn, benefit from the decomposed-wood-chip soil.  We also grow groundnuts, a frequently-found-in-nature companion plant to elderberries. The groundnuts vines curl up the elderberry bush branches, even as its roots fix nitrogen and feed the plants around them.  Three foods in one patch of ground, ever better soil, more nitrogen, plus a privacy hedge between us and our neighbors.  Now that’s function stacking! (Though it’s taken more time than I thought it would.)

Canadian Anemone: A Frenemy Becomes My Enemy

by Tom Gibson

The story begins with well-intentioned advice from an expert horticulturist friend who suggested Canadian anemone for my backyard Food Forest.  “Yes, it’s a little invasive, but it’s such a great plant for wildlife!” (As I remember her comment.)

And her assessment has proven at least partially true.  Not only do the white blossoms attract diverse insect pollinators, but the roots provide an unusually hospitable home to worms, millipedes, and, no doubt, trillions of other creatures (food to the aforementioned invertebrates) visible only via a microscope.

  ( Canadian anemone looking innocent)

I observed some of this soil life cornucopia as I tried to pull out proliferating Canadian anemone, which wants to pop up everywhere it’s moist.  When it can, it tries to squeeze out any competitors with a thick, fine matt of roots that covers every millimeter of soil surface; with a Cape Cod scraper it comes off like a soil-infused, hairy human scalp.  The moist root mass and regular root die-off probably explains the thriving microbe-to-worm food chain.  So, while I was aggravated by the plant’s aggressive spread, I was delighted by the rich soil it left behind.  Talk about tilth!

( What’s left after weeding Canadian anemone: beautiful soil)

Remembering the permaculture mantra “The Problem is the Solution”, I resolved to keep some Canadian anemone and use it as a nutrient factory for a deeper-rooted plant—the goji berry bush. The roots don’t compete and the anemone root nutrients would trickle down. And, in fact, the combination planting caused an explosion of goji berry production.  When lecturing our various permaculture classes, I liked to pull out this home-developed solution to illustrate permaculture principles in action.

Goji Berries with Canadian Anemone

Alas, even permaculture principles have their limits.  I never found enough time to keep my Canadian anemone under control.  My Food Forest floor was overrun.  It was either get rid of Canadian anemone once and for all or sacrifice too much space to a non-edible, aggressive invader.  (I’ll have to find some other productive ground cover for my goji berries.)

That’s what I’m doing this August. Elimination, of course, requires multiple passes as the Canadian anemone rhizomes refuse to die off.  But, by September, I think they’ll be gone or, at most, require occasional plucking.

( Canadian anemone returning for a second try.  They’ll be gone soon!)

One silver lining:  the beautiful soil they’ve left appears ideal for planting shade-loving salad greens.  Witness my happy new komatsuma sprouts.


Stinging Nettle: A Potential Frenemy Becomes a Generous Friend.

I’ve had better luck with stinging nettle.  It could have become annoyingly aggressive, but has pretty much stayed along the south edge of my raspberry patch.  There it accumulates calcium and magnesium, among other minerals, which become more easily available to other neighboring plants.  Thus, its frequent inclusion in lists of superior companion plants.

But stinging nettle is good for us, too. According to Martin Crawford, author of Creating an Edible Forest Garden, stinging nettle contains approximately double the nutrients of even our most nutritious annuals like spinach.  It is also tasty when cooked. (That’s when it also, conveniently, loses its chemical sting.) 

(Stinging nettle and mushroom omelet)

In growing it, I’ve discovered one other benefit: cutting the fresh young tip—the sweetest and most edible– causes the plant to respond with three more of the same! Production triples and, with further cuttings, sometimes even more.

(a second flush of stinging nettle leaves)

Unlike my Canadian anemone experiment: a clear winner!


Book Review: Mycorrhizal Planet

by Tom Gibson

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mycorrhizal Planet, a new book by Michael Phillips, is a true breakthrough book, one that will provide new, valuable information for every serious organic gardener.  The book describes how mycorrhizal fungi work with plant partners and gives detailed, practical information on how to maximize the power of fungi in all sorts of gardens—from backyard tomato patches to full-fledged agroforests.

The book combines a distillation of extensive scientific literature with decades of the author’s hands-on experience growing fruit and other crops. [As chance would have it, I just completed an Ohio State mycology course  last fall and wrote my class paper on Maxmizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest. So I know a little of the difficult scientific terrain Phillips had to traverse.]  You would expect such a book to be densely packed, and it is. But it is also logical, good-humored, and down-to-earth, which should be more than enough to lead the committed gardener down a productive path toward a new set of best practices.

We need them.

The 20th Century produced some of the most brutal wars in history, but none so little noticed or comprehended as its War on Soil.  Some background and at least a partial explanation of why the War on Soil was so unwitting:

Soil, understood as something orders of magnitude different than mere dirt, consists of minerals, dead organic matter, and multiple living organisms that are often measured, breathtakingly, in billions per teaspoon.  Of these organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form the connective tissue on binds most plants.     Their hyphae—microscopic filaments—exude chemicals that dissolve potential food—from minerals to wood to dead insects—and then capture it by forming the equivalent of a new stomach wall around it.  See the graphic below where the red represents all the fungus’s external chemical activity. As its “stomach wall” expands, the fungus burrows its way tens of meters from its point of origin, all in the search for more food. 

Much of the food it seeks, however, is not for itself, but for its plant partners.  In return for the phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements our fungus gathers, it trades them in for plant sugars.  These provide the fungus energy to expand and capture still more plant nutrients. Put simply, mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of plant roots by factors of 10 or more—costing the plant far less energy than if they had to expand their root system to cover the same territory.

Fungally-derived nutrients are so important to plants that they may devote one-third of all the sugars they produce to feeding fungi. It is no exaggeration to say that this trading system forms the core of life on earth.  It has been in place since both plants and fungi crawled their way out of prehistoric seas.   The relationship is so tight that mycorrhizae and plants have evolved to cooperate at the cellular level with the most prevalent mycorrhizal type—arbuscular mycorrhizae—actually penetrating the cell walls of a given plant root.   

But that’s only the beginning.  Individual fungi merge with other members of their own species to further increase their reach.  The resulting network forms microscopic highways for beneficial bacteria to travel the landscape. And fungi emit a soil protein called glomalin which binds soil minerals and organic matter loosely together in a way that allows the overall soil complex to both breathe and retain water.  We call the resulting aggregation soil “tilth” —-the exact opposite of that gardening curse: soil compaction. 

The modified dry litter waste management system uses dry available carbon materials such as chipped coconut husks and woods as bedding materials that reduces exposure of pollutants and pathogens from animal manure to ground and surface water resources.. It requires no water. Pigs are comfortable in their bedding. Pig activity turns and aerates the litter promoting decomposition of waste materials. The system allows farmers to safely manage animals while promoting a healthy and clean environment.

Surprisingly, much of this knowledge has only emerged recently.  Glomalin, for example, was identified by a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture scientist in 1996!

It is this tightly-woven mineral/fungal/plant interrelationship that 20th Century agriculture and horticulture ripped apart.  Tillage and plowing chopped up all those fungal hyphae.   Artificial fertilizers fooled plants into happily dropping their partnership with living food providers (sort of like satisfying children with a perpetual diet of macaroni and cheese!).  Disconnection from fungal partners, however, limited the availability of trace elements that fungi help scavenge.  These trace elements—molybdenum, boron, etc.–are essential to full plant health. Fungally-trapped soil carbon also disappeared.  All together, the negative cascade of disappearing nutrients left a void that growers filled with ever more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  The ultimate result: ever less nutrition for both plants and their human consumers.

Phillips explains our downward agricultural slide in nuanced detail. But his greater emphasis is not on what went wrong, but how to make one’s own garden right. The three chapters (“Provisioning the Mycorrhizosphere,” “Fungal Accrual,” and “Practical Nondisturbance Techniques”) that make up the bulk of the book tell how to energize and expand fungal networks.

The committed gardener will find numerous possibilities for fungal enhancement of soil, ones that will require rereading and also rethinking of one’s approach to gardening.  Out of dozens and dozens ideas the book offers, here are a few that I’m either implementing now or plan to in the near future.

  1. Ramial wood chips.  These are wood chips made from fresh twigs and branches, the ones where a tree’s most recent growth has occurred. As one might expect, such high growth portions of the tree carry the highest concentration of nutrients—calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.  Fortunately, these young branches are often the ones professional arborists insert into their chipping machines and which they often have to pay to dispose of as landfill.  So it’s easy to persuade neighborhood tree cutters to dump a truck load.  I’ve done that and the chips have made my soil darker and richer and my plants happier. 

  2. Direct feeding of mycorrhizae by air-knifing holes in the soil under a tree’s drip line, then injecting (often proprietary) fungal food.  I had this done last fall to reinvigorate what my arborist diagnosed as oxygen-deprived oak trees.   The result: more vigorous-appearing oaks, but also a tripling (!) of fruit production of my pawpaw and peach trees planted under the oak’s drip line.
  3. Planting of what Phillips calls “bridge trees.”  These are trees planted specifically to connect more of the separate fungal pathways of a given orchard or food forest and thus, as fungal networks tend to do, share nutrients to those plants which need them most.  Fruit trees typically work with arbuscular mycorrhizal partners, while oaks, maple and hickory work with ectomycorrhizal partners. Typically those two groups of fungi don’t “talk.” But a few tree species—willows, poplars, alders—partner happily bridge with both fungal communication gap. Within a broader landscape, they and their fungal partners open the possibility of tapping a much wider nutrient pool.  So I’ve begun to encourage alders—already self-seeding to some extent in my food forest—by planting more in strategic locations.

As readers can now gather, Phillips goes into considerable detail.  Yet what makes the appearance of this book especially exciting is how readable  the author is able to make it.

A typical passage will begin close to the “duh” level of simplicity; e.g. “Mycorrhizal fungi are the principal means plants have for obtaining phosphorus…the middle letter in NPK as represented by those three omnipresent numbers on a bag of fertilizer.”  But then Phillips escalates quickly into a discussion of slow- vs. fast-release phosphorus and the relative “cost” to the plant of exuding organic acids to feed phosphorous-gathering fungi.  Similarly, when Phillips must dip into scientific language—like “anastomosis,” the merging of separate fungi—he always defines it in understandable terms.

So, readable, yes, but also dense and complex.

Did I mention that this book is for gardening nerds?

My Wife No Longer Sneers at Fuki

By Tom Gibson 

My wife no longer sneers at fuki.  Fuki, also known as giant butterbur, is a vegetable, much prized by Japanese cooks in spring for its tender celery-like stalks.
The simplest way to cook them is to steam, lightly peel, and then stir fry them with sesame oil. For me a passable side dish; for my wife not at all!

That’s unfortunate since I like giving space to fuki in my permaculture garden: a) it grows in damp, dark shade—a rarity among edible perennials and b) its broad leaves are striking and attractive and add an equally rare aesthetic dimension to permaculture.

The lack of household interest in fuki had me contemplating possible replacements. But the gift of a new cookbook (from my wife, who hasn’t given up yet on me and my experiments) has changed my mind.  It’s Food From Your Forest Garden: How to Harvest, Cook, and Preserve Produce From Your Forest Garden, by the English Food Forest guru Martin Crawford and Caroline Aitken, who describes herself as an “eco-cook.” (

We’ve tried three recipes from the book for several perennial vegetables so far; all are uncomplicated and tasty to make. They are also often exceptionally creative.  Who, for example, would have thought of combining fuki, carrots and the juice and zest of an orange?  Cooked together until the mixture carmelizes, the combination leads to a subtle result that my wife states “is good enough to serve to company.”

We also liked Crawford and Aitken’s approach to fiddlehead ostrich ferns.

They fry them in a simple batter and dip them in a yogurt sauce with parsley (we substituted lovage), capers and lemon juice. Very satisfying.  The sweetness of the young fiddleheads comes through even set against the tangy sauce.

Finally, we tried Crawford and Aitken’s approach to ground nuts (apios americana, not to be confused with peanuts). 

On their own, ground nuts have an engaging potato-legume-like taste. But the tubers’ high density diminishes their appeal. Cooked plain groundnut slices have a hard time absorbing even the most basic complementary flavors (even salt!). And chewing on the slices can seem a little cardboard-y.  Crawford  and Aitken solve the problem by grating their groundnuts and combining them with sweet Bermuda onion, egg, and flour. The result is a juicy, crunchy groundnut “burger.” Very, very good.

The book covers a wide range of perennial vegetables and fruit—nettles, skirret, quince, Turkish rocket, goji berries, etc. It thereby overcomes one of the key barriers to growing sustainable, earth-friendly edibles: their often total unfamiliarity. Why risk growing something when you may have to wait two to three years for harvestable crop without knowing if you’ll even like to eat what you grow?

The creative dishes presented by Crawford and Aitken still manage to fall within the taste-range of the normal Western diet.  Nothing strange! Food cowards need not be afraid!  The book is a worthy investment for any potential food forest gardener.

New Approaches to Creating Natural Fertility


Jonathan Hull, Scroll and Spade, on foliar spraying

“Performed correctly, foliar spraying can become the tipping point for improved soil health and plant productivity.”

John Wright, Red Beet Row, on feeding the soil

“Natural fertilizers are as accessible as the weeds in your yard. Combined with early cover-cropping your garden yields will improve significantly.”


8th Annual Permaculture Potluck (bring food and meet your fellow N.E. Ohio permies.)


Sunday April 2, 5 to 8 P.M.


First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, 21600 Shaker Blvd., Shaker Heights, Oh.

Childcare provided, free-will offering to cover childcare, speaker and custodial costs.

Co-sponsors: First Unitarian Ministry for Earth and Green Triangle.First Call for the Permaculture Potluck

Addendum: by Elsa Johnson

  •  Whether you already know all about permaculture, or you are curious about permaculture (so much of permaculture is applicable in all or parts to almost any kind of gardening/agriculture), or maybe you just like smorgasbords of mostly vegetarian food? — this is the place to be that particular Sunday afternoon. You can schmooze, sample interesting foods, and then hang back to listen to the two speakers.

    Jonathan Hull, a former student of renowned soil biologist Elaine Ingham (your clue to know — yes…he definitely knows what he is talking about), will be familiar to Gardenopolis Cleveland readers from a series of articles posted in GC in March, a year ago, about foliar spraying: The Winds of Change. Foliar spraying (or more accurately, misting) is a technique Jonathan uses to apply nutrients directly to the above-ground structures of plants, preferably in the morning when their stomata are most open. This, he says, allows for the efficient uptake of nutrients with minimal expenditure of the plant’s energy, and stimulates the plant’s below the soil relationships, especially those with the mycorrhizal fungi that exist in symbiosis with the plant’s roots. This symbiosis is an important part of the plant’s natural pattern for health, and the less one disturbs it the better. The result? Healthier plants. More resilient soil. Fewer pests and diseases. Bigger yields. 

    The other speaker is John Wright, who is innovating directly with the soil via a fresh approach to the old technique of cover crops. John is both a permaculturist and an OSU trained horticulturist. He and his wife Stephanie Blessing run the educational farm Red Beet Row in Ashtabula. John has been experimenting with timing and unusual cover crop combinations to build a full soil nutritional palette. John offers fresh insights on matching companion plants with traditional annual vegetables, like tomatoes.   

    The Potluck will be held April 2nd from 5 to 8 PM at the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, 21600 Shaker Boulevard, which is just east of Warrensville Center Road. The church is a large New England style steepled church, and is very hard to miss. Parking is in the rear by the Permaculture Garden.

    What to bring: Food – always a good idea to label ingredients in food brought to share. Children are welcome. There will be a free will offering to cover the cost of speakers, childcare, and custodial support.   


Overcoming Mushroom Timidity

by Tom Gibson

Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that our personal Cleveland Heights home landscape can be fairly characterized as “bold:” Native plants with no grass in front and permaculture Food Forest plantings in back.  Some of the latter are pretty exotic—skirret , goji berries, even the oft- discussed native pawpaws .  But in one respect, we have kept the homestead “timid:” no mushroom cultivation.

We’ve just read too many stories of mushroom “experts” making fatal or near fatal (requiring kidney or liver transplants) mistakes. So we have carefully avoided either sampling the mushrooms that regularly emerge from our heavily shaded, oak-hickory landscape and have even remained reluctant to spread the spawn of mushrooms deemed safe.

That’s changed. It all began slowly.  A Food Forest seminar several years ago at Holden Arboretum left us with one sample inoculated shitake log.

(When the shitakes finally emerged, we ate them and survived!)  Then last fall I inoculated a patch of King Stropharia spawn underneath a stand of elderberries. This fall the distinctive wine-colored mushrooms popped up.   

We ate them and survived again!

Now, though, we’re moving much faster. The proximate cause: A course I took this fall at Ohio State University (“Mycelial Lectures”) that provided a broad overview of fungi and their natural role.  As part of that course, I combed both scientific and permaculture literature to write a research paper on “Maximizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest.”

Here’s what we now plan:

  • Expansion of King Stropharia plantings to front and back yards and as companion plantings to vegetables in our community garden plot.
  • Inoculation of nameko mushroom spawn to as many fresh cherry logs as possible (a dozen?) to key companion planting locations in our Food Forest.
  • Inoculation of at least a dozen logs with shitake spawn.

We also plan to harvest maitake or “hen-in-the-woods” mushrooms which have been growing wild under our very noses for years without our knowing what they were.  

At this point the mushroom-savvy reader will no doubt want to place a hand on her forehead and shake her head in dismay.   What to us looked like ugly gray-brown eruptions on oak stumps are, in fact, widely sought-after delicacies!

Here’s what I learned from the course and elsewhere that has transformed my thinking:

  1. Of the 17 mushroom poisoning deaths reported annually on average in the U.S., 16 are due to the Angel of Death (amanita bisporigera) mushroom, which in its earliest stage looks like the edible porcini.   While other poisonous species can cause considerable damage, they tend to look quite different than the ones I plan to eat.  (Even the nameko,  which the very unwary might confuse with galerina marginata, is distinguished by clear identification points.  Or at least that’s what the literature says. Hmmmm… After looking at these pictures, I’m going to have study this further!)
  2. Fungal variety contributes to plant variety and productivity. (The reverse probably works, too, with plant variety contributing to fungal variety. But that point is, surprisingly, subject to hot scientific debate.) Most garden fungi are invisible to the naked eye, but are essential to the survival of most plants. They have co-evolved over millions of years to provide auxiliary root systems with special capabilities for scavenging hard-to-access elements such as phosphorous. This much I already knew. 

But what I learned in the course was how multiple combinations of fungal strains can lead to greater plant productivity.  Six fungal strains may contribute more together to a given plant than any one strain alone.  Moreover, plants select which fungi do the best job of providing them nutrients and reward them accordingly with more sugars.  (Lots of chemical intelligence in the soil that we’re just beginning to understand!)

  1. Study of fungal/plant interactions still leaves enormous gaps.  There is a tremendous amount no one knows for sure.  But intriguing companion planting anecdotes abound.  David and Kristin Sewak, the market gardeners who wrote the mushroom neophyte’s book Mycelial Mayhem, say, for example, that King Stropharia mushrooms thrive in the shade of tomato plants and stop late season tomato blight. I plan to copy their method in my community garden plot.  And the mushroom blog Radical Mycology reports that nameko mushrooms have a near miraculous effect on both growth and fruiting of neighboring woody perennials .  Thus my interest in namekos for my own Food Forest.
  1. The number one predictor of fungal species variety worldwide is precipitation. The lesson for the gardener is to never ever, ever let your landscape dry out: swales, mulch, watering—whatever it takes.   You experienced gardeners know that already, of course, but understanding one of the key “whys” reinforces motivation.
  1. The best way to ensure the productivity of most edible mushrooms—i.e., in the phylum known as basidiomycota, including the mushrooms you see pictured in this article and the puffballs below—is to have an adequate supply of calcium in the soil.   (I’m not sure yet what “adequate” entails, but I’ve been adding gypsum or calcium sulfate to support fruit set in my mini-orchard anyway, so I’m reassured.)

Longer term:

If fungal variety is so great for gardens, why not find a way to introduce more? Here systemic knowledge is also lacking.  Once established, many fungi are powerfully resistant to colonization by competitors. Yet some fungi valuable to humans and gardens alike, like King Stropharia, are known to spread aggressively.  Wouldn’t it be great to have the tools to perform a nuanced analysis of existing fungal populations and an equally nuanced set of guidelines for introducing sustainable populations of beneficial fungi to the soil? Maybe in 10-20 years….

And what about endophytic fungi?  This is a class of fungi about which I previously knew nothing. These are microscopic fungi that live within plant tissues, sometimes mutualistically, not as parasites.  Scientists have known about these fungi for over a century, but new tools for computerized genetic analysis have revealed their overwhelming numbers and variety. Many actually help their plant hosts either grow or ward off disease. Most plants acquire these fungi “horizontally,” the same way we catch flu. Studies have shown that suburban trees harbor fewer of these potentially valuable endophytes than the same tree species growing in native forests.  Could we make up that deficit in our gardens with foliar sprays of beneficial fungi?  Once again, maybe in 10 to 20 years.

Assuming that I continue to avoid eating toxic mushrooms, I’ll let you know then!

Pawpaw Update

by Tom Gibson

When last I left you, dear gardener reader,, my five bearing pawpaw trees were carrying about 20 fruit each.  Just as important, they had held their fruit despite several vigorous spring showers. This was in contrast to the year before when storms knocked all but four of my baby fruitlets to the ground.  In the intervening period I had added gypsum (calcium sulfate) as a way to encourage fruit set while preserving the acidic soil pH pawpaws prefer. In other words, I tried to toughen my little guys up to face whatever the increasingly extreme Northeast Ohio weather had to offer.

This is what they look like when very young and vulnerable:


So did they make it?  Yes, big time!

They even withstood one of the most extreme weather events of the year: the so-called “microburst” of this past August. This storm hit a relatively small, 20-block area in my Cleveland Heights neighborhood that brought down numerous trees—including several on my street:The storm struck in the early evening, but an inspection the next morning showed that all my well-staked pawpaws had survived:


After that it was “wait and feel.” My particular pawpaw cultivars don’t change color much—maybe a little yellow here and there—when they ripen. So, like a nurse taking my patients’ pulse, the best way to gauge ripeness is to take a morning squeeze of each pawpaw.  If they begin to soften, I wait a day or so for more softening, then bring them inside to fully ripen.

I’d leave the fruit on the tree longer except for some mammalian competition.  Raccoon?  Opossum? Something was coming through every night and sampling at least one pawpaw:


In the end, we harvested about 80 pawpaws.  They lined our window sills:


A pawpaw is best when it feels squishy soft.  That means its pulp is nice and custardy inside.  You can eat them as is for dessert:


Or combine them in smoothies with sour blackberries:


But we also put the pulp into freezer bags, two cups to a bag, for use in baking:


Pawpaws add texture, flavor (banana/mango/nutmeg), and aroma to a lot of great baked goods:



Deer Antler Anguish (Or how half a solution can fail much more than no solution at all)

by Tom Gibson

Like most suburban gardeners, I do regular battle with deer.  Over the years I have gradually substituted vegetables deer don’t like (e.g. garlic) for ones they do (e.g. tomatoes).  I have fenced in young saplings whose tender shoots deer have eaten into the ground.  (My young plum tree survived somehow and re-emerged with spreading multiple branches of the type I wanted to cultivate anyway!).  And I jerry-rigged a six foot fence in attempt to block casual walk-throughs.

The latter was my undoing and, far more, that of two full-antlered bucks two weeks ago. For them it was probably the worst experience of their otherwise way too comfortable suburban lives.

The problem was the fence: a combination of wire and fishing line.  The wire was too visible to the deer and the clear plastic fishing line was too weak. The result was that the deer quickly broke through the fishing line and walked through the fence at will.

The ideal short fence, my colleague Elsa Johnson, has kept telling me, is heavy 50 lb-gauge fishing line. Because of the deer’s poor eye sight, it won’t know what’s halting its progress and, confused, it will turn away in another direction.  And the sturdier heavy-gauge fishing line doesn’t break from the initial deer impact.  Installing that sturdier fishing line has been on my project list for at least a year!

But I and my deer friend pests didn’t count on the mating season and new antlers!  Two weeks ago Sunday we found two bucks who had somehow entangled  their antlers in wire fencing. A path they had trod effortlessly as bare-headed adolescents had suddenly become treacherous.  One buck, pawing nervously, was battling a single wire that still provided him a wide circumference in which to struggle.  Eventually, I was able to free it by snipping a wire (at a safe distance!)


The second buck had far worse problems.  It had already snared a large knit hammock in its antlers and that was getting tangled. Six hours later when we returned, it was in even worse shape. It had wrapped itself around the tree until its head abutted (in every sense) the trunk.


Although an early morning call to the Cleveland Heights police had brought no solution, an afternoon call did. A young woman from a private animal control company under contract to the city arrived.  Calmly and professionally, she used wire clippers and a scissor to free the second buck.  The whole process took 45 minutes.

Free at last, the second buck ran off, followed by his little entourage of concerned does.

Neither buck has returned!

Damage to our yard: one black locust tree totally girdled of bark (and doomed to die) and lots of bent fence posts.  Anyone want a well-used hammock?


Boneset Pollinator Party

by Tom Gibson

August is pollinator party time in my backyard.  Not just the steady savoring of mint by the great golden digger wasp.


Not just the business-like mining of comfrey pollen by bumblebees.

bee on comfreyAnd not just careful, trip-weary harvesting of hardy ageratum pollen by monarchs on their way south.

Monarch on hardy ageratumNo, the real disco atmosphere—one imagines a sparkling ball and an unlimited supply of rave—occurs just above my patch of boneset (Eupatorium Perfoliatum)*. Wasps (especially), bees and other insects lurch onto boneset’s little white flowerettes, hold their position for a split second, then burst off to the next plant.  They’re just so excited. And the variety! Big wasps, little wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, little flying things I don’t have a name for. Rarely do any of the feeders pay attention to their companions (though I have seen smaller, more aggressive mason wasps deliberately knock more cumbersome digger wasps off a flower).  A true feeding frenzy.

The only calm insect I observe around boneset is the occasional dragon fly, a non-pollen consumer and pure predator. It waits motionless for minutes on a garden stake and then swoops through the mayhem to gather a small insect meal.

I like insect-on-insect predation in my garden, and boneset is a great way to encourage it. In all the scientific journal articles I’ve read on the subject, boneset is at the top of the list of for attracting predators and parasitoids. (The latter lay eggs in host insects who eventually provide a greet-the-world, first meal for the hatched larvae.) The more predatory wasps and flies, the fewer insects like Japanese beetles that will eat my plants.

Boneset produces blossoms consisting of dozens of small white flowerettes (like Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, etc.) that make a good fit for wasp mouth parts. But their pollen must contain some special chemicals, too, that I haven’t seen described in any journal. Whatever they are, they drive wasps, bees and flies nuts.

Here are a few of the insects that stopped long enough for an iPhone close-up.  (I never worry about getting stung; the insects are just too intent on locating boneset pollen.)

Here’s a paper wasp:

Paper wasp

…and a carpenter bee:

carpenter bee

A soldier beetle and a black hornet.  The former eats aphids among other things and emits a poison that makes it inedible to potential predators…. like hornets. 

soldier beetle and black wasp

But what happens when a defenseless herbivore finds itself on the same flower as a hornet? The same as a zebra and a lion at the same watering hole.  Give the lion plenty of space.  I’ve seen an ailanthus web worm moth like the one in the upper right of this picture dive under a boneset bloom to escape from a wasp and hide there until danger passes. The little mason bee on the left, however, poses no such threat.

ailanthus web worm moth + mason bee

Here’s a syrphid fly, one of those parasitoid egg layers I mentioned above

Syrphid Fly

And is this a wasp or thick-headed fly?  I think the latter; the two circles on its abdomen are a possible clue. Many flies have evolved to look like more dangerous wasps.  The thick-headed fly parasitizes bumblebees.

Wasp or thick-headed fly

*Boneset gets its odd name from its use in (very) primitive folk medicine. Because boneset leaves join right through the stem (see picture below), folk healers would wrap broken bones in boneset poultices and give their patients boneset tea—all in the hopes for similar joining.

boneset leaves