Make Mushrooms out of Lemonade

If you’ve heard the expression “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” then you will understand that I am of course speaking metaphorically. Nature gave the East Coast a whopping crop of lemons last October, in the form of hurricane Sandy, followed closely by a heavy snowstorm. As I stepped around the piles of wood and tangled branches cluttering up the sidewalks, I realized this could be a wonderful opportunity: I could give these trees another useful life, I could inoculate them with mushroom spawn.

log

As with most projects it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. Oak is the best kind of wood to use for many of the tree growing mushrooms, but most of the downed trees in my neighborhood were Honey Locust or Bradford Pear. Still, I dragged a few limbs home, only to realize that I needed thicker branches. The thicker, the better, for several reasons: first, growing fungi need moisture, and the thicker logs will not dry out as easily. You can remedy this by watering your logs regularly, but the 3/4″ plugs needs to go into the outer sap wood (the lighter ring right underneath the bark). The fungus won’t grow as well in the inner heart wood.

mushroomplugTo make a long story short, a very kind arborist at the Botanic Garden provided me with a half dozen huge oak logs, and a very kind neighbor and fellow mycological enthusiast helped me lug them home. Then I ordered spawn from Fungi Perfecti and proceeded to drill hundreds of small holes in all my logs, plug them with the little wooden plugs with the delicate fuzzy white growth I’d gotten in the mail, then seal them with a few drops from a beeswax candle.

Some logs I just left outside all winter, but I kept two of them in the shower to escape the cold. I just put them out a few days ago, now that the danger of a hard frost seems past. I’ll have to wait to discover which logs do better — this is a long term project, it will be a year, maybe two, before I see any results.

In the meantime I will do my utmost best to train my kids to eat and enjoy mushrooms — but I’m afraid that may prove much more difficult than growing these finicky fungi.

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Worst Harvest Ever

Last Spring I decided to experiment with the “potato in a barrel” growing method. I had read that one could put a handful of seed potatoes at the bottom of a barrel in a few inches of dirt, then add soil (or even sawdust or hay) to the barrel as the plants were growing. This would force the poor potato bush to put down more and more tubers as it kept trying to rise above the dirt. One hundred pounds of potatoes in 4 square feet was the claim.

Since I live in the city and have just a tiny, communal strip of land behind my apartment building, this idea of vertical planting was extremely appealing. Of course I thought I could improve on it.

Although all the seed companies say to use only certified organic disease-free seed potatoes I didn’t want to spend double digit dollars for some mail-ordered package to be shipped half way across the country. Instead I walked to the local farmer’s market and picked up a dollar’s worth of beautiful fingerlings. No boring old Idaho potatoes for me, I wanted a hundred pounds of fancy, gourmet potatoes.

Rather than buy a barrel and drill drainage holes into it, I used some landscape fabric and sewed it into a large sac. This is actually a good idea if you have a sewing machine. It’s quick, easy, light, dirt cheap, and drains well. (Dirt, by the way, is not cheap). You can also roll up the sides, so the young seedling can get some sunlight.

  

I watched the plants grow and thrive, added dirt every day, hooked it up to a drip irrigation system, and, worst of all, bragged to my neighbors.

When the plants finally withered and died, it was time to knock over the sac and reap the rewards of my tender loving care. I headed to the garden with gloves, trowel, a huge pot for my bounty, and a camera to preserve my wonderful harvest for posterity. I started digging very carefully, crumbling any clump with my fingers so as not to damage the small tender fingerlings. Nothing. I dumped half the sac into the wheelbarrow and sifted through the dirt. Nothing! Reaching directly into the sac I felt something small and round, which turned out to be a pebble. Only at the very bottom of my sac did I find these six, tiny little potatoes — much smaller than my seed potatoes.

I changed my dinner plans in a hurry.

A little further research revealed that some early setting potato varieties, such as Yukon Gold, and, apparently, fingerlings, only set fruit once. They won’t work in a sac, a barrel, or any other type of vertical set-up.

After a single season in a community garden I now consider myself a farmer… in other words, I’m an optimist. I will try again. I will improve on the design (this time I will sew a little window in my sac so I can harvest from the bottom while the plant is still growing above). I will not be greedy, I’ll use a solid, thick skinned potato. I will probably still be cheap and use a handful of potatoes from the local farmer’s market. Rain or shine I will report back next year.

Nothing Beats a Beet Cake

This is a truly extraordinary cake: not only will it slip beets into veggie-phobic kids, it tastes amazing, contains no fat (besides the minimal amount contained in cocoa powder), no eggs (so it’s vegan too), it has a great texture and baking it is an esthetic joy. Seriously. Beets may stain your hands, but their color is so beautiful it’s impossible to hold a grudge against them.

1 large beet

1/2 to 1 cup apple sauce

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1 cup sugar

1 tbsp cornstarch

2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cinnamon

Peel and dice beet into 1/2” cubes, and boil until soft. Drain the beets and puree in the food processor with 1/4 cup fresh water.

Preheat oven to 325°F

Put pureed beets into large measuring cup and mix in enough apple sauce to get 2 cups of beet and apple puree. Add vanilla, vinegar, and 2 tbsp water.

Sift all the dry ingredients together then combine with the beet mixture.

Pour in a greased 9” by 13” pan or two 8” round layer pans and bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick pricked into the center of the cake comes out clean.

To decorate the cake as shown in the top picture, make a paper doily then (right before serving) sprinkle some powdered sugar on top. If you sprinkle the sugar ahead of time the cake’s moisture might make it vanish from sight….

Easy home-made bug spray

An evening stroll in the garden should be relaxing: it’s a time to check on the ripening tomatoes, snack on a strawberry then squish a bug or too — but too often lately I’ve been chased back inside by a swarm of aggressive tiger mosquitoes who seem to be eagerly waiting for their dinner (me), and who attack the minute I open the back door. I’ve made some bug repellent sun cream, which works well, but if I’m just popping outside to gather a few basil leaves then it seems pointless to spend 5 minutes rubbing it over exposed skin. Today I adapted my recipe, putting the essential oils in a vodka base rather than the water and oil emulsion I used for the cream — I sprayed some on then I offered myself to science and to my mosquito sisters, parading up and down their favorite haunts, brushing against the leaves where they lurk.

Success! I repelled all the mosquitoes — not a single one bit — but the neighbors’ cat still came to greet me as usual.

I will post a more detailed recipe after further testing — but here are the ingredients I used: neem oil, citronella EO, lavender EO, peppermint EO, soy lecithin, and, of course, vodka.

The Most Refreshing Summer Drink

This drink cannot be bought, only grown — so if you don’t have a garden (a sunny windowsill will work too) then you’ll just have to buy a pick-up truck. It’s worth the trouble.

All you need is a sprig or two of fresh lemon verbena, a hardy, sun loving little herb with a fresh lemony scent. You will also need a few sprigs of mint. I like to combine spearmint with chocolate mint, but any variety will do. Go to your garden in the morning, harvest the fresh herbs, pour boiling water over them and refrigerate till you’re hot, sweaty and ready for a healthy, invigorating afternoon drink. Don’t add sugar, it will keep you from tasting the beautiful, subtle combination of flavors.

Mint is easy enough to find in stores but I’ve never seen lemon verbena for sale.

Grow a Garden, No Land Required

While taking a stroll in the no-man’s land between Gowanus and Red Hook in Brooklyn I came across this little marvel of a garden: lettuce, basil, chives, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme were all thriving in a well-tended plot. The back of a pick-up truck is the perfect raised bed — you can follow the sun and take your garden with you on vacation! This garden even included plastic yard decorations: a rhinoceros, cow, giraffe and elephant were grazing happily between the rows of lettuce. From now on, I won’t accept any more complaints by fellow city dwellers about their lack of outdoor garden space. Get a pick-up truck!