At Four Oaks Farm in Topeka, we have deep feelings for fungi. Mushrooms are a much-maligned member of the biological community. Yet, these very primitive, simple organisms play fundamental and crucial roles to maintain the balance of nature. We now know many fungi form intimate beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots to support, feed and protect plants. Fungi are keystone members of what Dr. Elaine Ingham teaches is "the soil food web."
Twentieth century agriculture branded fungi "unwanted pest" and wages war against these microbes. Fungicides are sprayed on crops or injected in soil to eradicate this feared adversary of productivity and profit. Even seeds are dosed with fungicide, making them poisonous to eat.
But at Four Oaks Community Farm, we're making peace with the fungi family. Fungi are one of our best allies to create fertile soil and grow healthy, nutrient-dense foods. Bacteria and fungi are the foundation of life at its simplest, single cell scale.
Instead of spraying fungicides to kill these least of all life forms, we'll spray compost tea and spread sea minerals, biochar and compost to encourage them. We'll prepare special beds and oak logs to grow superfood and medicinal mushrooms. And we'll spread spores of various mycorrhizae ("fungus-root") all around the farm.
Currently, all soils I've seen at Four Oaks Farm are dusty, powdery, inert. Like fine sand, it's easily wind-blown or water-worn. The soils have no clay, or any other substance to create stickiness to glue soil particles together. This sticky cohesiveness holds soil together, allows it to adhere to itself and other particles. Soil can then form balls and clumps, and also open spaces and paassages, and curtails wind and water erosion. This glue permits soil to bond into structures that can support biological organisms.
One key substance that glues soil particles together to create tilth and hold nutrients is living and dead bodies of fungi. For years, scientists had searched for the "missing carbon" in soils. In 1996, USDA ARS scientist Sara Wright discovered up to a third of soil carbon is hidden as a glyco-protein ("sugar + amino acid") made by fungi. Since the main family of fungi that create this glue is the Glomales family of arbuscular mycorrhizae, this sticky substance is named Glomalin.
Fungi grow tiny tubes (called "hyphaae") that weave through soil. Those dense mats of white whisker-thin threads are feeding tubes that eat their way through soil and decaying biomass, searching for water and nutrients. Hyphae then pump this food through soil to the fungus. These fungal webs are also communication networks to weave the fungal biomass into a unified, interactive community. Almost any cultivation will rip and dismember the hair-thin mycelial networks, disrupting the flows of nutrients and information.
Complex biological molecules form the bodies of fungi, including the white tubular threads of hyphae that obtain nutrients and water. When fungi die, their glyco-protein bodies become molecular-thin residues that stick to anything. These fungal residues accumulate into a gelatinous material. This fungal jelly makes soil particles "aggregate" into larger structures to create empty, open spaces for air and water to circulate. This biological carbon is somewhat resistant to breakdown, stays in soil up to 50 years, and is a valuable ally to increase soil carbon levels and thus sequester carbon.
blooms in my backyard garden
scientific name: Morchella esculenta or angusticeps
Most mushroom hunters believe the morel is the fungal celebrity. Easy to identify. Among the first spring edibles (coincides with Trout season, ramps and apple blossoms). Elusiveness. High selling price. And morels are delicious. But an old expert mycologist says, "the taste is in the hunt."
Our first task is to create an environment wich favors and encourages fungi. In 180 degree reversal of direction from conventional farming with fungicides, we'll create safe havens for these beneficial and essential organisms to proliferate and diversify. We have four deliberate strategies to propagate fungi: mycorrhizal inoculation, fruiting logs, mushroom beds, and compost tea.
Mushroom Logs: Certain fungi don't grow in soil, but in wood. These must be carefully cultured on specific species of wood.
Mushroom Beds: We're creating special growing beds with extra features to encourage a diversity of fungal cultures. We will inoculate these beds with spores of half a dozen cultivated species.
Compost Tea: The easiest way to spread microbial cultures is to spray them on soil and plants. We will brew up our own microbial cultures. We have a small Vortex Brewer, the latest advance in culturing microbes in solution. Other special ingredients in our compost teas will be sea minerals, powdered biochar and rock dusts. Foliar feeding of plants. Soil inoculants sprays. Sea minerals and new forms of soluble carbon.
The brush pile will soon be a sacred circle garden with several special beds to cultivate mushrooms. The goal is to create soil which is optimum habitat for micro-organisms, especially edible fungi. And since fungi are decomposers, these beds will be loaded with digestible organic matter.
foundation layers for a fungal bed
This will soon be Four Oaks Farm's most thriving microbial community. This area will be treated with many microbial inoculants, including Biodynamic preparations (BD preps), Effective Micro-organisms (EM), and our own specially brewed compost teas.
One rule to grow mushrooms is NO TILLAGE—or any other soil disturbance. Fungi live in and under the soil, or in organic matter. Most of the mass of a fungus is invisible to our eyes—hidden underneath and inside. However, when conditions are right and ripe, the fungus forms a "fruit"—a soft mass emerges into air and light to create and emit spores—the reproductive climax to the organism's life cycle. This reproductive "bud" is a mushroom—the flower and fruit of fungi.
Rather than dig up dirt and disturb soil communities, soil is built up in layers. Rather than cultivating with shovel, plow or till to rip up weeds, we will mulch the soil in thick layers of organic materials. Not plant debris just dumped in heaps, but an intelligent, structured, thin-layer system to assure optimum microbial propagation and digestion.
blooms on on a log
scientific name: Pleurotus species
Oyster mushrooms are delicate woodland fungi native to temperate forests throughout worldwide. Oysters are widely cultivated internationally on a variety of agricultural byproducts. Particularly elegant, colorful group. Oysters aggressively colonize many substrates, and are the easiest to cultivate.
This not only avoids ripping up microbial communities and their infrastructures, it actually shelters, protects and feeds these soil food webs.
I first learned about this soil building system by accident over two decades ago, in 1991, while starting Earthwise Education Center, and its project to teach New York City homeless to be homesteaders and farmers. Unexpectedly, an organic food store near Union Square in Manhattan sent us a truckload of frozen organic produce. We spread now half-frozen garbage on pure glacial sand, covered by thin layers of leaf mold, aged horse manure, straw, and assorted rock powders.
Unexpectedly, without anyone paying attention, even planting one seed, or pulling one weed, the patch of sand became our most lush, prolific garden. Squash sprouted and vines grew hip-high to yield several bushels of large, thick flesh, strong tasting squash. Plus watermelons, tomatoes, potatoes, amaranth, beans. It was a mind-opening revelation how to bring minerals, microbes and organic matter together to create instant super-fertile soil.
A few years later, Patricia Lanza, a lady in the Catskill Mountains of southeast New York, discovered the same simple system to layer on organic matter, soil amendments, fertilizers and microbial inoculants.
The new beds at Four Oaks Farm are modified "lasgna" beds. Because these are fungal beds, not just for flowers or vegetables, they have an extra thick foundation layer of woody wastes, with rotting logs and shredded wood chips.
Making Mushroom Beds