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Grow Mushrooms for Better Garden Soil

1/11/2013 4:36:00 PM

Tags: mushrooms, soil, slow gardening, Jenks Farmer

I’ve spent a lot of energy and time making splashy flower gardens. I’m a gardener, but I don’t always get to say the important stuff, the nuts and bolts stuff of organic gardening. In this blog, I plan to write about the things that don’t get people’s attention. The slow, sure, soulful gardening techniques that get obliterated by instant, project-oriented, consumer-oriented stuff that passes for gardening. The slow stuff, namely caring for our dirt, makes our flower farm a really special place and definitely, as far as the South goes, an experimental place.

For about ten years, I’ve been enthralled with the teachings called Soil Food Web. Just this summer, I discovered mushrooms. Not as food, not grown on logs or sawdust bags, and not scavenged out the woods, but as garden plants and soil builders. We can grow mushrooms, for food, medicine, minerals and beauty right in the garden, right beside any other plant, or in a pot on a deck, or even in the median or parking lots that belong to someone else.

King Stropharia mushrooms
King Stropharia mushrooms growing in the ground. Photo By Fluffymuppet/Courtesy Flickr.

This past summer, among a row of lilies, Tom and I made a little bed and inoculated it with mushroom spore, according to the directions of Todd and Olga from Mushroom Mountain. It cost me about 40 bucks to get started.

Within eight weeks, two amazing things happened. First, our lily leaves turned dark green. Second, beautiful pewter and burgundy mushrooms erupted from the ground. The coolest thing is that they’ve never stopped. Slowed down yes, but even on New Years’ Eve, I took this picture and we made a salad with everything from the winter garden. We sautéed the mushrooms, as peoples stomachs are not well prepared to digest, or absorb nutrients from raw mushrooms. (Hence, I always cook them.)

cardboard for growing mushrooms in the garden
The white powdery mycelium will infect the cardboard, which is then moved to start new beds. Photo By Jenks Farmer.

Since we started, we’ve expanded our mushroom bed tremendously. It’s not like we have this giant bed given over to ‘shrooms. It’s a mixed planting. It has needle palms as a background, mustard and coriander coming up in it for winter greens and, of course, crinum lilies. Expansion is really easy. We just put some wet cardboard down in the existing area. Within weeks, it’s covered by this beautiful white creeping hair like fibers (called mycelium). Actually, I’ve given some to friends and put some in a public landscape that’s mulched with those crazy red painted chips—just to see what will happen.

Having mushroom omelets all fall has been sweet. But the real reason we started growing and fell in love with this idea is that mushrooms make soil so much better. Remember I said our lilies turned green? Mushrooms have the cool ability to access nutrients in woodchips and other things, and not only turn them into but deliver them directly, like a shot in the arm/root, to plants.

Mushrooms make great dirt.

Jenks FarmerJenks Farmer is a horticulturist and writer who spent his career building public botanical gardens in the South. Now, on the 18th-century farm where he grew up, he’s learning new stuff and starting over as a complete organic—and looking toward truly earth-friendly, dirt-inspired gardening. Jenks says, “We grow mostly lilies, a few herbs and almost all of our veggies. Take a look at videos, pictures and articles about our farm and gardens at”

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