Oh yeah hatchlings

April 5th, 2016

Oops! I forgot to tell you what happened with all those eggs!

Well, this:

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Despite a couple mishaps, everything went according to plan:

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First mistake: the thermometer I was using at first turned out to be 6 degrees too cool. I only found out about three days in (and then immediately Amazon Primed a replacement thermocouple that I adore!) so the hatching was delayed by a day or so (they develop more slowly when it’s cooler).

Second mistake: three or four days before the hatch I actually dropped one of the eggs, spiderwebbing the end and even drawing a tiny bit of blood from the membrane. Damnit, I thought, and then put it back into the incubator just in case. That chick hatched just fine!

Out of 22 eggs, only 5 didn’t make it. The only sad death was a chick that had fully developed, had even “zipped” a crack along the top of the egg, and then just lacked the strength to push its way out.

Those things happen. Never intervene, They say.  Never ever crack open the incubator on hatch day, They say. Well, They can go shove it.  After that pointless death I decided to trust my own instincts and helped a couple others with that one final push after they’d been struggling for hours. And look what we got:

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Fuzzies!

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Lots and lots of little fuzzies!

They’re in a huge 4′ long Rubbermaid tub right now, but they’re going to need a bigger brooder very soon. In the mean time, they are just loving their new digs. I’m giving them extra edible plants from the greenhouse to nom on, and a plate full of sand that they love to take dust baths in and peck at. They get so excited when I refill it and put it back in, it’s hilarious!

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About half of these will turn out to be dinners roosters; some, I’m raising for a friend; and the remaining 8-10 will become my new layers in about 6 months.

Overwintering sweet potatoes

April 3rd, 2016

Remember last year, how I got that absolutely massive couple of sweet potatoes from my new hugel bed?

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They turned out great, sweet and not fibrous at all like I’d feared.

So in case part of their massive growth was due to amazing genetics and not just the pond goop I’d topped the hugel with, I kept the top of the biggest. I decided to try and keep it alive over winter. It sprouted a short little forest from its top and then just sort of sat around politely over the winter months doing very little.

My calendar reminded me back in the middle of March that it was time to start sweet potato slips. Normally I just plunk a sweet potato (organic, so it’s not treated with a sprouting inhibitor) into some water and wait for it to root and start sprouting on its own. It takes a very long time. But since I’d overwintered the potato itself, I had already skipped both those steps. I decided to start one conventionally just for the sake of comparison. I set a sweet potato in a mason jar  with some water and started waiting.

And waiting.

This is what they looked like a week ago:

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The overwintered one was still patiently waiting with a head full of slips ready to go, while the standard one had just one measly little rootlet sticking out into the water and no slips at all. Overwintering saves so much time.

I went ahead and plucked off the ready slips from my saved potato and dropped them into the water of my little solar fountain. Each one will become its own separate sweet potato plant.

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Two days later they’re already rooting.

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I’ve always bemoaned how long it takes to sprout sweet potatoes, and how often I’m not ready by the time the planting window rolls around. Looks like I’ve found a solution, and one that lets me select for the genetics I want, too.

Plus, the sprouted sweet potato looks kind of like an ugly little bonsai, doesn’t it? Pretty cool for a houseplant. :)

Sculpting the woods

April 1st, 2016

I’m finally to the point that I’ve cleared out and colonized all the land left inside the garden. I want more room, specifically more room to grow perennials, and I’ve been eyeing the little strip north of the garden – maybe 1,000 sf or so – between the top of the garden and the road. Right now it’s just a spot where mulch and woodchips get dumped. It’s a problem area because it’s always soggy, wet and squishy; trucks get themselves mired and a few have even had to get towed out of there, the mud is so bad.

BUT. I’ve been studying the water patterns in the woods for a few months now. It’s much easier to do since I’ve cleared out much of the brush – I have a clearer idea of the overall picture of how water gets onto the land and where it wants to go. In this particular corner, the problem isn’t the water table exactly like it is in other places. Located at the bottom of convergent slopes something like half a funnel, as well as the location of the output drain of our basement sump pump, this area is mostly a victim of rainwater runoff. I believe I might be able to channel that water by cutting in a creek or two with an excavator and leading them to a small pond further in from the road.

This area is very young scrub growth/early succession forest, mostly. There are only three to four trees in it large enough that I wouldn’t try to cut them myself; the rest are all young saplings maybe 6″ in diameter and less. Red maple and wild non-fruiting cherry, both trash trees. All of them young enough that I feel no regret chopping them down to plant more useful species of trees, but also old enough and straight enough that I might be able to harvest some genuinely useful poles and such.

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The largest trees are so tall that they may not cast smothering shade on a young understory tree – in fact they might be useful as nurse trees to help shield the saplings as they grow. So they might be able to stay. The more diversity there is, the more resilient the soil food web.

I want to use this space to plant a real permaculture food forest.

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I spent all weekend out there with a handsaw and a sawzall, cutting down the saplings I could; I managed to make 3 small hugels of branches, detritus, etc. and get them heaped over with a first layer of woodchips before I gave up. These hugels are not going to be huge by any means. They are simply there as a long-term source of fungal-based compost for the young trees and as a breathing space for when that area of soil gets saturated (if my pond idea doesn’t end up working like I think it should.)

They are also there running perpendicular to the slope of the land, to help prevent rainwater runoff from funneling down from the street into the garden. Let all that wasted rainwater soak into these wood compost sponges and nourish my trees and bushes instead.

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It doesn’t look like much, but you should have seen the size of the hugels before I topped them with the heavy wood chips. At least it is starting to look a tiny bit more organized. And look how many lovely, straight(ish), useful poles I harvested as well. These are certain to come in handy.

I can’t wait to show it to you once I’ve gotten an actual chain saw – sometime this week, perhaps. While I feel bad chopping down trees – even little ones – I have to keep reminding myself that I’m replacing them with much more productive species. There will be nut trees, berry trees, nitrogen-fixing trees… ten each of 8 different varieties, to be exact. Oh yes. 80 trees. More on that in a later post.

And in between the trees I am going to plant all kinds of woodland plants that thrive in the understory – blueberries, currants, blackberries, mulberries, elderberries; ramps perhaps, or ginseng; oh, the list goes on. There are so very many possibilities for woodland guild plantings.

This little piece of land is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the chickens as a force for tillage, sanitation, and bug control. Chickens can wreak absolute havoc in a vegetable garden as they scratch up delicate annuals and tear them to pieces; but perennials are made of much hardier stuff. Chickens clean up dropped fruit, eat up any insect larvae that fall, preventing further generations, and can scratch in any heaps of mulch or compost that I leave lying about. If my rainwater-runoff-diversion-stream-pond idea works, I’m hoping to have some ducks running around in this paddock as well.

I’m looking forward to staring out at this little piece of land in the Spring and seeing flowers everywhere for the first time.

 

Sofía’s peach

March 31st, 2016

A few years ago, Sofía found a peach pit in the garden (probably from our own compost.) She begged me if she could plant it and I said sure… thinking of course the thing wasn’t going to grow. I explained to her that even if it did grow and give fruit, that fruit grown from seeds half the time aren’t very good because of the way pollination works. Welllllll…..

For the past 3-5 years it’s just been the scrawniest, skinniest little peach stick you ever saw. Sofía is still posessive of it, still thinks of it as hers. She’ll take tiny little kid shovelfuls of mulch over to it when she sees me mulching around the bigger fruit trees (they’re so cute, her tiny little ineffective teacup-sized mulch heaps, but she’s so proud). If I’m going out with my probiotic spray for the orchard (neem oil, probiotics, kelp extract, etc) she may beg a little spray bottle of her own, just for this tree. She’s more interested in it than her annuals, for sure.

And now this year.

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For the first time, two blooms, just as big and pretty as you please. Sofía was squealing with delight.

And now that there’s absolutely no way we could ever get rid of the thing, I’m coming around to the possibilities presented by a seed-grown native peach. It’s proved hardy through all our kinds of weather and hasn’t hardly suffered from any pest damage despite near complete neglect. It’s in one of the wettest spots of the garden and also one of the shadiest, and yet it’s not only survived but is now blooming and seems very healthy, if still very small, with no fertilizer or any of the inputs/protections that the other trees get.

We’ll let it set fruit and see what happens – I’m very excited to taste it if we can get it before the damn squirrels and coons do! Even if it’s not the most tastiest fruit out there, though – a small peach that can produce in shade and doesn’t mind wet feet? Sounds pretty unusual and promising to me!

I’ll tell you what, though: I’ll be paying a lot more attention to it on my mulching and fertilizing schedule from now on.

The bees are back

March 30th, 2016

For the first time since 2009, I’ve overwintered 100% of my 3 bee colonies. (MD has the highest rate in the nation of colony collapse disorder.) As I checked mid-March, they were all three alive and queenright and even had frames of honey left. The two largest were churning out brood so fast I had to stick empty frames between full brood frames (“checkerboarding”) to prevent the bees from swarming because of  perceived lack of space.

The third colony, which was the swarm I rescued last year, is moving very slowly. No signs of disease or pests that I can see visually, but a low brood pattern compared to the others. I’m worried they won’t have enough foragers ready in time for nectar flow (April 15-May 15 in mid-Maryland.) If production hasn’t boomed the next time I inspect, I will have to requeen. Honestly, I should just be proud of them making it through the winter at all. There’s an old saying, “a swarm in July ain’t worth a fly”; it’s probably because a swarm caught in July doesn’t have enough time to build up any sort of stores to survive the winter.

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But! They’re all alive, and seem happy, and that’s amazing!

I gave Ceylon an extra deep box to fill with brood anyway, just in case, and I gave Lady Grey an extra medium box too. Darjeeling was doing so fantastially well that I went ahead and added a queen excluder and a honey super.

I’ve started feeding 1:1 sugar water (they use it to make honeycomb, which they need to fill the supers with before they can stuff them with honey.) The syrup will be removed just before nectar flow begins (I don’t want to harvest sugar water instead of honey). If I don’t feed it, they won’t be able to make nearly as much wax comb, which means they wouldn’t be able to store any new honey even if they did bring it in.

I heard an interesting recipe from Michael Jordan (aka. The Bee Whisperer) of “A Bee Friendly Company” on how to make their feed a little more nutritious and palatable for the bees. The process is a lot like making tea, steeping things like chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm etc. into the liquid. He then dissolves honey into his. While most beekeepers agree that honey is better for the bees than sugar, I don’t have a source of extra honey. So I used my standard 1:1 cane sugar syrup instead. I also changed the amounts a little because of what I had and didn’t have.

Jordan’s recipe for biodynamic bee feed: makes 1 qt.
2 cups good water, bring to boil.
Remove from heat, add 2 tbsp each:
chamomile, yarrow, stinging nettle, and peppermint. (Can substitute with 4 drops essential oil each).
Add 1 1/4tsp each:
thyme, lemon balm, sage, echinacea, allspice. (Or 2 drops each essential oils).
Steep 7 minutes and strain.
Add 1 cup cold water and let cool lukewarm.
Add 1 cup good honey (1/2 pound).
My experiment: made 1.5 gallons+
8 cups good water & 16 cups cane sugar, brought to simmer & removed from heat.
To a cheesecloth bag I added 3 tbsp each dry chamomile & yarrow. I didn’t have stinging nettle. I used 16 drops peppermint oil (4 drops/quart) and thought I’d made a huge mistake – it was eye blistering. (Next time I will HALVE the amount of peppermint oil, or use only the dried herb.)
I added 1 tbsp each dried thyme, dry lemon balm, fresh chopped sage & whole allspice berries. Didn’t have echinacea. Wrapped it all up in the cheesecloth and dunked it in the hot syrup & mushed it around for 7 minutes. It became a pretty light yellow.
After steeping, I added in the rest of the (cold) water and let sit til cool. Then I splashed in an extra cup of water because the peppermint still smelled very strong.

As you can see, I wasn’t sure I completely trusted this new recipe so I made a very dilute batch (well, except for the peppermint, and that I wished I had diluted.)

Results? The bees are sucking it down like crazy! They had been taking my simple syrup fairly well before, but this stuff is nearly gone a single day later. Either they suddenly realize they better start making comb right away before nectar flow and they’ll take whatever they can get…. or it’s true that steeping flowers and herbs in the syrup makes it closer to their actual favorite food, flower nectar. Which does make sense.

I plan to get the missing ingredients and serve them this faux-nectar (at half strength until I judge results) instead of the “industry standard” plain syrup from now on. Hats off to you, Mr. Bee Whisperer! Thank you!

Raised beds, or wanna-be hugels

March 28th, 2016

I just finished reading one of my most favorite gardening books to date:

Guys, I almost didn’t buy this book. I saw it and thought “oh, I have enough gardening books,” but then I saw Bonsall speak at this past bionutrient conference and he cracked me up! And then after hearing him speak and feeling bombarded with about ten thousand new ideas within the space of 40 minutes, I just had to have a copy of the book. I almost didn’t get one – they had sold out! But he was nice enough to give me a copy of his own and trust me to send him a check eventually.

This guy is hilarious. And get this – he’s a vegan who’s been growing all his family’s food in a sustainable way for years. So you can trust him to show you the most efficient way of doing things – and beyond that, the reasoning behind his methods and why they work. (Along with – and this was also extremely helpful! – experiments he’d tried in the past and how they did or did not work. Saving me some time.) His practice of scrounging for natural (free) materials anywhere he can (leaves as mulch, weeds as compost), and the innovations he’s come up with to make best use of those materials, really jives with my own modus operandi. I got so many good ideas from this book that I’d buy it again – if I had a friend as into gardening as I am, to buy it for. :)

But I’m not here to talk about this book tonight. I’m just mentioning it because one alllllll of the work I’ve been doing lately originated with a small idea I got from him: making the pathways as narrow as possible. Such a simple concept, but one I’ve never really thought about.

I’ve generally had 4′ wide beds and 2-3′ wide paths. Which is a lot of crop space wasted. Bonsall makes his pathways narrow and his beds wide. In the first years I’d never had to question it, since I hadn’t been able to use all the space I had. But now my garden is practically bursting at the seams and it’s time to rethink some basic layout.

I’m a short person so a 4′ bed is all I can reasonably deal with. And the paths – at least some of them – have to be wide enough to accept a standard wheelbarrow. But what if I shrunk all the pathways down to the minimum – and alternated sizes?  So a 20″ path (all that’s needed for a wheelbarrow) would flank one side of a 4′ bed. But between that bed and its neighbor there would only be a 12″ pathway – enough for me to walk, weed, plant, and not much else. The path on the outside of the second bed, though, would be 20″ again. So while every bed has wheelbarrow access from one side, and people access from both sides, I’ve saved a huge amount of space:

PATH BED PATH BED PATH TOTAL
30″ 4′ 30″ 4′ 30″ 186″
20″ 4′ 12″ 4′ 20″ 148″

In just two beds, I’ve saved a little over 3′. Done through the rest of the garden, I can create 2-3 more full, 4′ wide beds, or 200-300 square feet. Enough to grow all the potatoes – half the carb calories! –  that a family of 3-4 would need in a year (Markham, Brett. Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 acre. Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.)

It’s not just a simple matter of drawing new lines, though. Even though it kills me, each of these newly created beds has to be raised out of the bog (remember last year all my seedlings drowned in the torrential June we had).

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the strange boards on the right are scraps of vinyl shed siding I found a neighbor discarding on the side of the road. The right dimensions, strong, and they’ll never rot – perfect.

Since I don’t have access to a lot of extra soil, I can only raise the beds by removing the topsoil, filling with logs, woodchips, chicken bedding, the boxes of coffee grounds my local Starbucks saves for me, leaves etc., and then replacing the topsoil. It usually takes me about two weeks to do one by myself.

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these better grow some damn fine veggies.

By some miracle, an dear old friend came over and volunteered her help for a couple days. I swear, when she got here I could still see the glint of her halo. Together we started and finished an entire new hugel bed in one day. (And then we both went home and were sore for a very long time.) It was just incredible and I am so very grateful for her help. I don’t have a picture of that one, yet, but I’m so glad we’re up to 4.

Four hugels done! And this one of the driest Springs I can remember since 2008. Trust the year I finally put in the raised beds, to be the beginning of a long drought in which I will have to begin irrigating! HA!

Greenhouse, at last

March 18th, 2016

Have I still never shown you the finished greenhouse? It’s been done since the beginning of March, for crying out loud.

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It’s positioned purposely over the kitchen door and window. I can walk right out into my garden. And when it’s hot in there, as it gets every time we have a good period of sun, I crack the window and put in a fan to suck that free solar heat into our frigid house.

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You can’t see it well, but the thermostat is pointing to 80 while it’s 40-something outside. Pretty cool.

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Definitely not as beautiful as the glass-and-cedar glasshouse I had been pining over last year, but nearly as functional and 10% of the cost. I’ve got lots of stuff started in there already, while nothing is growing outside yet.

One of the most pleasing things I’ve found is that I have my flats of seedlings out there, warm and protected – in real natural sunlight instead of a fake fluorescent glow. Our electricity bill always goes up sharply during the months in which I’m starting seedlings – I mean of course it does, with 16 4-foot-long bulbs shining from dawn til midnight. But now I have to do nothing at all, and it’s wonderful.

Homegrown babies

March 17th, 2016

Spring is right around the corner, and my poultry have been getting kinda frisky lately. I took that as a sign that it might be time to set the next generation in motion.

Last year I was lucky enough to have three hens go broody and raise their own chicks (takes so much work off my plate, it’s the best possible way!) Those hens are no longer with us, though, alas, so there’s no guarantee that any of these current layers will decide they want to help me out by becoming mamas.

I can’t wait forever and just hope that it happens eventually; heritage breed hens take about six months to come into lay, and if they don’t hit that period before Fall then they just sit tight through Winter, eating but producing nothing til the next Spring. I’ve had that happen before. It costs a lot of feed, for nothing in return.

So I went ahead and took matters in my own hands.

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I gathered a bunch of our own eggs. For the sake of genetic diversity I scooped up this dozen mixed eggs from the lady who owns a flower shop down the road. Happily the duck and the drake have been …busy… lately too, and she lay six eggs in a row (one in the middle of the mud wallow, the dummy). I scooped them up and brought them inside too. Perhaps in protest, she hasn’t laid another one since.

Just look at all of them.

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That wooden contraption is a manual egg turner. Each of those eggs has to be turned 4 to 6 times per day, lest the inner membrane “stick” to the shell and impair development. See the ‘O’s on the sides? There’s a corresponding ‘X’ on each of the other sides, to help me keep track.

Anyway, turning each of them several times every day while they all sort of rolled around loose in there was getting very frustrating – and taking a long time, letting too much heat out of the incubator. So this grid has spaces wide enough that the eggs roll on their own but stop when I want them to. I can crack the incubator, turn all the eggs at once, and close it all up nice and tight again.

I was counting on not all the eggs being fertile… but after candling at 4 days, all but 1 chicken egg had an embryo inside. It’s critical to say that this in no way  means that they’re guaranteed to hatch – that would be incredibly rare, as all kinds of things happen in development that leads to chicks that simply never hatch  – but still, it’s a bit unnerving to face the possibility that a good many more of them may hatch than I had anticipated.

I’ll just have to build a bigger coop.

Of the duck eggs, only 3 are fertile. I’m still excited, since they’re our own homegrown babies of a somewhat rare (though not heritage) breed – but I had wanted more. Plus now the hen has stopped laying again, so I’ll just have to wait til whenever-she-feels-like-it to try and hatch another batch. Since ducks are notoriously bad mothers, it’s unlikely that she’ll ever sit and hatch out her own brood.

Raising chicks is hard, though. It’s stinky and dirty and a lot of constant, tedious work for six weeks. Sooooo much better when the mamas do it for me! Let Nature deal with it so I don’t have to.

Greens for the girls

March 9th, 2016

I feel so bad for the hens in winter. The ground is frozen and hard to scratch, there are no bugs to be found, and there’s certainly nothing green.

Chickens are crazy about greens. They’ll tear up your garden, quick; in fact once I let them out there in the Fall they make short work of every little last wilting vegetable in the place. Of course they eat the bugs too, and they turn it all into eggs for us.

But then winter sets in and there’s nothing but the same old factory chow. Their eggs go pale, they look sad and cold. Poor things need a treat, something to cheer them up.

Well, you know how chickens eat grains?

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They like sprouted greens even more. They’re easier to digest and sweeter than seeds. Heck, even we humans like sprouts of all kinds for their fresh flavor and high nutrition. (I once tasted some popcorn sprouts that tasted like candy.) And all that nutrition that the chickens get, comes right back to us in the form of more nutritious eggs.

So I started trying to sprout seeds for the chooks. Problem was, these seeds take about 7 days to get to serving maturity, and all the jars and plates and trays quickly began to take up much more room than I had counterspace.

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Enter the MEGA-SPROUTER. Or something like that, anyway. Insert your cool name here.

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This thing took me only a couple hours to put together – I think it took two 1x4s and 2 1x2s, or thereabouts. I then used an xacto knife to punch holes all along the bottoms of one end of those standard nursery flats. I marked that end with a dollop of hot pink nail polish, so I wouldn’t get them mixed up when removing and inserting trays.

The xacto knife holes were too small, though, and quickly got clogged with seeds. I enlarged them by poking through them with the hot tip of a glue gun. This worked too well – it made the holes way too big, so that water was pouring down onto the seeds below (causing them to wash “downstream”) instead of dripping gently. I finally decided that the tip of a very sharp pencil worked best to enlarge the hole just that littlest bit.

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This system is the bomb. I wish I could say it was my idea, but I found it circulating on Facebook. Chad Lifka is the original designer, and you can see his in action right here: https://www.facebook.com/alesha.coleff/videos/10207372409861004/

Can you see why I was instantly hooked? This thing is fabulous – I have seven trays going at all times. Every morning, when she normally takes our kitchen scraps down to the chickens anyway, Sofía also brings down the oldest tray to the coop and dumps in the entire mat of 4″ tall seedlings. The chickens love having fresh succulent greens in winter. Their eggs have been a bit brighter lately, and it’s worth the very slight effort to see them so happy.

If I could make any changes, I’d reduce the slant from tray to tray. Right now the spread is 6″ at the widest and 3″ at the closest, and with a little finegaling I got all seven (plus a top empty “dump” tray and a bottom catchall tray) to fit on 4-feet-tall legs. But that 6″ could really be 5″, or even 4.5″. The goal is to have the water trickle through slowly, but the steepish angle my trays occupy means that at the beginning, before the seed germinates, much of it gets washed downhill and piles up at the bottom. Small seeds like millet often get stuck in the holes and clog them.

Not a big deal, though, and easy to fix if I feel like it. Overall I’d say this little contraption is a perfect win – it’s so nice when that happens!

Oyster inoculation, 3, 2, 1…. go?

March 7th, 2016

It took me a couple days to get around to it, but I did eventually take my jars of sterilized coffee grounds and add the oyster mushroom base to them.

I chopped the biggest “root ball” up into pieces and layered those lasagne-style with coffee grounds. The smaller root base I just “planted” with its little leftover mycorrhizae patch in contact with the coffee grounds.

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So now I have two little mushroom terrariums.

And we just sit back and watch… and wait. If the coffee grounds start turning white, yay! That’s the oyster mushroom gradually eating the coffee grounds while it grows. If the stuff in the jars gets fuzzy, or blue… well. Not so delicious. Would not recommend for snacks. I wonder which it will be.