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This winter has been hard on us all, but I weathered the February snow storms with kale and herbs on my windowsill. Their fresh, green smells and flavors have been a welcome reprieve. Growing potted herbs on your windowsill is a great way to extend the growing season into the harsh winter, or an excellent way for people without backyards or garden plots to grow indoors. For a small investment of time and money you can harvest fresh herbs and greens from inside your apartment. You will need: a suitable container to grow in; some potting soil or growing medium; seeds or established seedlings; and the desire to grow some food.

 

The first step is choosing what to grow. I grew kale, dill, and cilantro this Winter, but oregano, chives, rosemary, thyme, mint, lavender, basil, lettuce, chard, spinach and other greens can also easily brighten your home. Some plants, like basil, will prefer warmer indoor temperatures day and night, so it grows best in a warm apartment without windowsill drafts. Other plants, like mint, tend to grow so well that they need their own container or they will take over the whole space quickly. Chives and parsley tend to grow easily and require lower light, so they might be more ideal for a gardner with limited light coming through the windows. Plan your seed purchases with these types of considerations in mind. 

 

Seeds can be procured from a wide variety of online and local sources including the PSFC. I have found the greatest success with seeds that are organic and/or heirloom. Depending on the season, seedlings might also be available locally or through mail order. Starting your indoor garden from already established plants will be easier perhaps, but there is also something magical about sprouting your own plants from seed.

 

Any container that can safely sit on your windowsill will do. It should have holes in the bottom for drainage so your plants won’t sit in excess water. It is common to place containers on a tray of some sort so excess water has somewhere to go as it drains out. If you select a container without holes already in it (as I did), you can use a drill or a punch to create holes in the bottom. Size is an additional consideration. For indoor herbs, you don’t need a very large container, but the size your plants can grow to will depend in part on the container size. For example, growing in pint sized pots will likely yield petite plants. Larger pots will help you grow larger, more robust plants that can withstand more aggressive harvesting. 

 

Seeds need a light, spongy, moist medium for sprouting, preferably one that is sterile or at least very clean. A variety of potting soils with balanced composition for moisture retention, drainage, and slow-release nutrients can be purchased online, at local nurseries or hardware stores, and here at the coop. I purchased a bag of organic potting soil for my windowsill garden, and it has worked well. Ordinary garden soil can get crusty and heavy when used indoors, and carries additional risks of pests and disease. Furthermore, high levels of lead contamination are found throughout Brooklyn and could turn your indoor herb project needlessly toxic. Unless you have had your soil tested, or it is soil that you created through composting, you are better off with purchased, clean soil for indoor projects.

 

You will need to carve out a sunny spot on or near a windowsill for your containers. South and southwest facing windows are ideal, but other windows can work too if your plants get several hours of direct sunlight per day. North facing windows, and windows in basement or garden level apartments that get mostly reflected light will be more challenging. Also note, as your plants grow taller, touching window glass for any prolonged period in the Winter might make them too cold, so keep them from getting too close to the window. 

 

Once you have a good place selected, you can fill your containers with moistened soil and plant your seeds. Purchased seed packets usually have directions about the depth your seeds would prefer to germinate at, and how close you can plant them to each other. For windowsill herbs, I often plant them a little closer together than described, and then thin them out once I see how well they’ve sprouted. 

 

As days and weeks pass, test the moisture level in your pots by pressing a finger one inch under the surface, lifting a pot to gauge its weight, and observing the surface soil quality. Factors like the size/shape of your containers, ambient humidity, sun exposure, and soil composition will all affect moisture retention. Good advice is to water when it’s dry, as most herbs prefer not to be overwatered. Yellowing leaves, for example, may actually indicate overwatered, soggy roots. To avoid damaging thin-stemmed seedlings when watering, gardeners often let water absorb up into the soil from below by pouring water into the tray that holds their pot rather than pouring water into the soil from above.

 

Herbs grown indoors can be less robust than outdoor plants but can still withstand regular harvesting of fresh herbs or greens for many months. In 4-6 weeks you should be able to start harvesting leaves from your plants without negatively affecting their growth. Cutting off as much as one third of a healthy herb plant should only encourage further growth for continued harvests.

By Jesse Goldstein

This past Spring I helped to create a “Healing Garden” for a community garden at Myrtle and Kent called Myrtle Village Green. We planted dozens of herbs – both annuals and perennials – including Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Astragalus, Valerian, Skullcap, Yarrow, Wood Betony, and Motherwort. The healing properties of each plant vary greatly, as do the ways in which they should be harvested and prepared. To make my first herbal preparation, I worked with my friend and fellow gardener Millie Lytle. Millie is a naturopathic doctor with two decades of experience sharing, making and researching herbal remedies and incorporating them into a general wellness program. Together, we decided to begin by making a tincture of Motherwort.

What is Motherwort?

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a hearty member of the mint family that prefers partial shade and grows wild in nearly every county of New York state. Motherwort is popular in Japanese, Russian and Chinese medicine, and is also known as Throw-wort, Lion’s Ear, and Lion’s Tail. Its flavor is described as bitter, spicy and cooling. In North America, the plant is popular among midwives, and is considered a “nervine” (something that calms the nerves) for women experiencing stressful times such as pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Motherwort is thought to improve the tone of the uterus and is therefore recommended for stopping unwanted bleeding or hemorrhage after birth, to start a delayed period, or to ease menstrual cramps, stomach pains or gas. Further, some herbalists and midwives suggest using it as an “emmenagogue” to bring in a mother’s milk.

Herbalists also recommend motherwort for men and children experiencing lower back pain, sciatica, toothaches and headaches. In Germany, the Commission E, which regulates herbal remedies similar to how the FDA regulates pharmaceuticals, suggests using motherwort as part of a general treatment for an overactive thyroid and to help with cardiac symptoms related to anxiety. As Dr. Millie explains, “It’s all in the name: Motherwort is a soothing hug for frayed emotions and anxious bodies.” 

So how does Motherwort work? Dr. Millie gave me a brief introduction to some of the chemistry involved, “Motherwort contains an alkaloid called leonurine that relaxes the body’s smooth muscles. This is responsible for most of its pain and anxiety relieving effects. It also contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids called rutin and quercetin, as well as vitamin A, tannins and antimicrobial volatile oils.” Motherwort is generally safe for most people. However, as with any herbal remedy, one should always consult a trained professional before using motherwort, as there are safety considerations relative to each person’s unique situation. 

Making our tincture

We harvested our motherwort in August when the plant was in full bloom; tall, yellow-flowering tops rise up from the bushy foliage. We spent an afternoon cutting a few of these flowering tops off of our plants, bound them into a small bouquet, and then hung them inside to dry. The plant was likely dry after a week or two, but we waited a few months to make our tincture.

A tincture is a liquid extraction that draws out the healing properties of plants. Usually the liquid used is alcohol that is at least 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). We chose Everclear, which is 190 proof (95% alcohol by volume). In addition to the motherwort and the alcohol, we used a glass canning jar with sealable lid, scissors for cutting the herb (carefully, as motherwort is thorny), a pot of boiling water, a spatula, and the oven.  We used the pot of boiling water and the oven to sterilize the lid and the glass jar, submerging the lid in boiling water and putting the jar (after cleaning it with soap and water) into the oven on 250. 

The ratio of motherwort to alcohol is important. When making a tincture with dried plant matter, herbalists typically use an herb to alcohol ratio of 1:5. This means one part herb by weight in grams, to 5 parts alcohol by volume in milliliters.  We needed 1 gram of motherwort for every 5 ml of alcohol. Measuring the vodka was easy – 5ml is about one teaspoon. Without a kitchen scale to weigh the motherwort, we assumed that one teaspoon of well compacted motherwort was approximately equal to 1 gram. Conveniently, one teaspoon motherwort and one teaspoon alcohol satisfied our 1:5 herb to alcohol ratio. 

We made a large batch using 5 cups of motherwort and 5 cups of alcohol. After our sterilized jar had cooled off we gently pressed the dried flowers and leaves in with a spatula until the jar was firmly packed. We poured the alcohol into the herb-filled jar making sure all of the motherwort was fully submerged. We then sealed the jar, gave it a good shake to mix everything together, and began the waiting game. We put our tincture-to-be in a dark cabinet for 4 weeks, occasionally giving the jar a little shake to make sure all of the motherwort was exposed to the alcohol.

After four weeks, we strained the tincture through cheesecloth into a clean jar, keeping the liquid and removing all the fibrous plant matter.  After squeezing as much liquid as we could out of the motherwort, we used a funnel to pour the finished tincture into an amber glass bottle, labeled with the date we made it and the strength. Now it is in Dr. Millie’s apothecary, ready for her to offer to her patients! 

Footnote:

This article is not meant to be a surrogate for medical advice from a trained professional. In the US, the medical establishment does not embrace herbal remedies, and while it is generally accepted that motherwort is safe to consume, its medicinal properties – as with most herbal remedies – are not seen to be scientifically proven in a satisfactory manner. As with any decision involving healing practices, one should always consult the experts that they most trust. 

Ellen Zachos

Ellen Zachos

Ellen Zachos’ latest book Backyard Foraging is a beautiful and accessible resource for gardeners interested in native edibles. A frequent contributor to Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbooks, Ellen’s expertise and concise writing style is complimented by gorgeous photographs of the 65 featured species. She shares tips on finding and identifying plants and fungi in the urban ‘wild’, when and how to eat them, as well as tips for naturalizing them into your own home garden. Couldn’t recommend this one more!

green roof 1A green roof is often described as a living extension of an existing or newly constructed roof incorporating a water proof membrane and root barrier, a drainage system, lightweight soil, and plants. A green roof can not only add a beautiful green space to your home, but also increases property values while offering substantial benefits to the environment. In Brooklyn green roofs help provide insulation to a building, and reduce the volume of storm water runoff by absorbing and retaining water that would otherwise flood the storm sewer system resulting in sewage spills and overflows.

green_roof_diagramBefore starting a green roof project, the building should assess, along with a structural engineer, how much weight the structure can bear and the condition of the roof membrane. Building owners should also agree on how much maintenance they are willing to put into the longevity of the roof.

drought tolerant plantsGreen roofs are divided into three types of systems: extensive, intensive, and hybrid. The main differences are the amount of soil (growing medium), with extensive using 6” or less, and intensive using more than 6”. Hybrids might include areas of both types.  The choice between these systems is often based on load bearing capacity of the roof as well as budget, maintenance costs, visibility, and access to the roof. Costs can run $12 – $25 per square foot for an extensive green roof with no irrigation system if the existing structure is sufficient, but may cost $12- $40 per square foot for an intensive green roof if additional structure and irrigation is required.

green roof 3Case Study: Chocolate Factory Condominiums
In 2009, six years after the Cocoline Chocolate Factory building at 689 Myrtle Avenue had been converted to the Chocolate Factory Condominiums, the building elected to install a green roof. The original roof membrane on our building had been faulty since the conversion, and numerous leaks and damages had occurred. After several attempts at spot repairing proved unsuccessful, it was determined that the only solution was to replace the entire roof membrane.

green roof 4This full overhaul of the roof prompted the building’s board of managers to research several options. We realized we could repair the structural aspects by replacing the roof membrane, and for not much more we could also insulate the building, provide valuable and enjoyable green space for residents, and receive a substantial tax abatement from the city by installing a green roof.

We met several companies who offered a variety of options and solutions. We chose to work with Greensulate and Roof Services, who together had completed a number of green roof projects. At 5000 sq. ft however, our roof was going to be the largest they had undertaken in New York.

green roof 5We chose to do a hybrid green roof with a manual irrigation system. We worked with Greensulate on the design and layout of the roof to incorporate green space, a roof deck with furniture, and a walking path around the roof. We wanted the whole area to be accessible so kids could ride tricycles around, and also have an area for viewing the city skyline and fireworks displays. The existing roof had been covered with 5000 sq. ft of paver stones. Those were removed and recycled by Greensulate for other projects, and 1100 sq. ft were kept to create an elevated area for the buildings AC units.

In order to qualify for the city’s $4.50 per sq. ft tax abatement, we needed to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • At least 50% of eligible roof space must be covered by the green roof
  • A vegetation layer, at least 80% of which must be covered by live plants such as sedum or equally drought resistant and hardy plant species.
  • The 80% coverage means spacing of plants in a manner that will cover 80% of the layer by the end of the compliance period (the year the tax abatement is granted.) A New York State licensed and registered architect, engineer, landscape architect or a horticulturist with a degree or certificate from an accredited training institute, must certify the vegetative layer.
  • A weatherproof & waterproof roofing membrane compliant with construction and fire codes
  • A root barrier layer
  • An insulation layer compliant with energy, fire and construction codes
  • A drainage layer designed so the drains can be inspected and cleaned
  • A growth medium including natural or simulated soil at least two inches in depth.
  • Maintenance plan that includes a semi-annual inspection, plans for plant replacement, monthly inspections of drains free from debris and maintenance of green roof for a minimum of 4 years after the tax abatement is granted.

We were able to include all of the amenities we wanted for the building, qualify for the tax abatement, and take steps to reduce our impact on the environment.

green roof 6Greensulate chose a sedum mix, native grasses, creeping thyme, echinacea, black-eyed susans and lavender plants as the main elements of the green roof’s vegetation. They also sourced decking and walkway materials constructed from synthetic wood made of recycled shopping bags, keeping 590,000 bags out of the landfill.

The green roof has become our building’s most loved amenity, and is enjoyed year round by residents. Solar lights installed in the decking make a safe illuminated walkway for evening visits. Patio areas have increased community gatherings in the building and provide a green space otherwise lacking in our neighborhood.

green roof 7The building also received a $16,000 tax abatement from the city for complying with the green initiatives program, and was surprised to learn that that it was the first green roof in New York City to qualify and receive this tax abatement.  Since the roof system was designed in a sustainable fashion, maintenance of the roof has proven to be a small investment. It is widely agreed that the green roof is one the best investments the building has made, continues to be a source of enjoyment and pride for the building, and has sparked additional green initiatives and community building projects.

Useful Links:

Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design

New York City Parks and Recreation

NYC Green Roof Property Tax Abatement Program

Greensulate

Kemper System – Eco-Roof system

Goode Green

Columbia Green

Old inoculated log

A 5 year old shiitake mushroom log.

Perennial cultivation of gourmet mushrooms on logs can yield harvests for ten or more years from the same log with slightly more than a novice amount of labor and know-how. Nearly any clean-ish shady place is suitable for log cultivation. Sheltered backyards, cellars, cemented areas like air-shafts between buildings- not to mention all the shady stumps since Sandy- are all good mushroom habitat conditions common to Brooklyn. If there’s a shady spot near you somewhere, you can probably grow a log mushroom garden there.

A rik of logs like this can be inoculated with 1000 plugs of spawn.

A ‘rick’ of logs like this can be inoculated with 1000 plugs of spawn.

Spawn
A good first step is to choose what kind of mushroom you want to grow and start shopping for mushroom spawn. Don’t buy anything until you’re ready to host an inoculation party (described below), but browse for research to find the right mushroom for you. Look for “plug spawn” sold as little wooden dowels already inoculated with mushroom mycelium. Plug spawn can be purchased at prices comparable to what you would expect to pay for house plants. A $20 investment can fetch 100 plugs, enough spawn to inoculate a single 8 ft. log; where as a 4×4 cubic stack of logs can be inoculated with 1000 plugs for around $40 – $80. I recommend these online retailers:
Fungi.com  – Washington, an organic family business operated by Paul Stamets.
FieldForest.net  – Wisconsin, diverse selections with good prices.
WylieMycologicals.ca  – Ontario, organic commercial and small gardener support.
MushroomShack.com  – Ohio, one of the closest to NYC.
MushroomPeople.com  – Tennessee, a project of “The Farm”, home to famed midwife Ina May Gaskin.

This maple tree fell in a recent storm, leaving several large limbs suspended off the ground.

Ideal conditions. This maple tree fell in a recent storm, leaving several large limbs suspended off the ground.

Logs

Different fungi like to eat different kinds of trees. For example, shiitake, maitake, and oysters all do well with a variety of deciduous hardwoods like oak, maple, elm, gum, and sycamore; but chicken of the woods prefers spruce and fir. It is important to match the mushroom species with its preferred wood. So after choosing the mushrooms you want to grow, the second step is to find quality logs to grow them in. With so much windfall of healthy tree limbs these past years, there is no shortage of good salvage timber for Brooklyn mushroom gardeners to choose from. But you can’t  just grow in any old fallen log. Experienced PSFC backyard mushroom cultivators use these criteria  for choosing good wood:

  • Avoid wood with signs of mold or other fungus like these dark spots.

    Avoid wood with signs of mold or other fungus like these dark spots.

    Clean: Meaning not already inoculated with wild fungus. Logs cut from recently downed and live trees are both good choices. Avoid any timber with visible signs of mold or decay, that was in direct contact with the ground for more than a few days, or that was felled more than six months ago. Winter, the dormant season, is the best time to harvest wood for mushroom logs. Keep your cut logs off the ground and away from potential contamination by wild fungus. If you cut wood from live trees, let it rest two or more weeks for its natural anti-fungal defenses to expire before inoculation.

  • Try to keep the bark intact all the way around the entire log.

    Try to keep the bark intact all the way around the entire log.

    Intact: Bark should be continuous all the way around the log with no wounds or scratches. Intact bark helps maintain moisture inside the log which is important for keeping mushrooms happy.

  • Size: Diameters from 3 to 8
    Limbs cut from felled trees are gathered together and cut into similar lengths. Tip: make a brief notch cut into the bottom of the limb before cutting through from the top to get a clean cut without tearing any tabs of bark of the log.

    Tip: make a brief notch cut into the bottom of the limb before cutting through from the top to get a clean cut without tearing any tabs of bark off the log.

    inches across, and lengths of about 4 feet are ideal. Smaller logs are lighter, easier to handle, and will produce mushrooms sooner than larger logs. Larger logs have a longer wait before they start producing, but, once they get started, can produce for  a greater number of consecutive years.

Inoculation Party
Once you have your logs and spawn in order, you’re ready to inoculate. Invite friends to an “inoculation party” and gather these supplies:

spawn fresh from fungi.com, drill bits, camp stove, thrift store pot filled with bees wax, and hammer.

Spawn fresh in the mail, drill bits, camp stove, thrift store pot filled with bees wax, and hammer.

•    power drills, the more the merrier
•    drill bits (size specified by the spawn retailer for their plugs)
•    hammers, one for everyone attending
•    1 inch wide paint brushes
•    bees wax (2 lb. wax per 1000 plugs)
•    hot plate
•    cheap pot for melting bees-wax in

We drilled more than one thousand holes in an afternoon- pining a bit for more drills on hand and an elevated work table.

We drilled more than one thousand holes in an afternoon- pining a bit for more drills on hand and an elevated work table.

Drill one hole for every piece of plug spawn. This goes faster with more than one person drilling at the same time. Place holes roughly 3 inches apart along the entire length and circumference of your logs. It may be helpful to mark a piece of scrap wood with lines measured every 3 inches for a template. A common technique is to drill a single straight line of holes, rotate the log a partial turn to expose a fresh side, and then start the next line of holes indented a bit from the first line so that the holes form equilateral triangle patterns together.

Tapping plugs all the way in until flush with the sapwood just below the bark.

Tapping plugs all the way in until flush with the sapwood just below the bark.

Hammer the little dowels of plug spawn into their holes. Catch up on some conversation with friends while you’re taping away on the logs, and get the bee’s wax started melting. Once the holes are all filled with plug spawn, paint melted wax over the plugged holes, over any wounds in the bark, and over the logs’ ends.

All waxed up and ready to soak.

All waxed up and ready to soak.

Waxing helps preserve moisture inside and protects the wood from wild fungus.

Soaking shiitake logs in rain water.

Soaking shiitake logs in rain water.

Soak
To give your mushrooms a good start in a moist new home, soak the inoculated logs for 24 hours in a rain barrel. Rural cultivators recommend soaking in pond water, but rainwater is a good next-best. Chlorinated tap water is not recommended unless you let it sit out for 24 hours to off-gas beforehand.

One pallet stacked on the northern side of a concrete wall, and covered with dry boughs for extra shade.

One pallet stacked on the northern side of a concrete wall, and covered with dry boughs for extra shade.

Lay in the Garden
The last step is to lay the soaked logs together in a fully shaded location outdoors. It is common to arrange logs into a criss-crossed, log cabin-style stack. This helps maintain humidity and keeps the mass of wood off the ground. Water the logs during dry spells to maintain consistently high internal moisture levels.

For some time (between 6 months and a year) your mushrooms will grow without much visible effect. You may notice a little increase in the white mycelium growing around the plug holes.  When you see little swelling mushroom buttons, you know your log is ready to fruit.  Soak them again for a boost and watch.  They come quickly! Once you have a log that produces, it will continue to fruit for years to come.

-by Shawn Onsgard & Joey Stein, for the PSFC Brooklyn Backyard Brigade.

Spring is in full swing, and wild harvests of morels and other wild fungi are right around the corner. If foraged fungus from Prospect Park is outside your comfort zone, there is still time left this season to start an edible mushroom garden in your home, cellar, backyard, or community garden. A wide selection of gourmet mushroom varieties from portabella to reishi (including morel) are suitable for cultivation in Brooklyn with accessible price points and learning curves. Whether you’re looking for a project easy enough for young children or something with the longevity to satisfy a learned gardener, the kingdom of fungi has something for everyone. This article surveys the techniques and mushroom species popular with home cultivators to get you started before Summer.

Indoor Kits
Indoor mushroom garden kits boast both convenience and guaranteed results. One popular product from the eco-conscious company Back to the Roots  promises a harvest of oyster mushrooms within two weeks of purchase. Simply place their tissue-paper-sized box in a dark corner of your kitchen, add water, and wait. Similarly easy and small “just add water” kits are available from online vendors in the range of $20 – $40 for: portabella, crimini, oyster, lions mane, enokitake, king stropharia, maitake, nameko, pioppino, shiitake, reishi, and others. While packaged kits can deliver delicious, fresh mushrooms with minimal effort, they rather lack in longevity. Analogous to annuals of the plant kingdom, indoor kits will fruit once or twice, but are a short-lived pleasure. If you are up for a moderate DIY project, many of the above mushroom varieties may also be grown perennially.

Log Cultivation
Perennial cultivation of gourmet mushrooms on logs can yield harvests for ten or more years from the same log with slightly more than a novice amount of labor and know-how. Nearly any clean-ish shady place is suitable for log cultivation. Sheltered backyards, cellars, cemented areas like air-shafts between buildings- not to mention all the shady stumps since Sandy- are all good mushroom habitat conditions common to Brooklyn. If there’s a shady spot near you somewhere, you can probably grow a log mushroom garden there. As long as your log isn’t already inoculated with wild fungus, and you match the type of mushroom you want to grow with one of its preferred tree species, a log garden can start producing fruit in 6 months to a year.

Straw Mulch
Soil-enriching edible mushrooms like wine cap, a.k.a. king stropharia, fruit in humid late Summer days and can be inoculated into thickly layered matts of straw mulch between the plants in a garden bed. Bales of oat or wheat straw are soaked in water for three days before mushroom spawn gets mixed in between matts of the wet straw. Spreading inoculated straw mulch between corn rows and other crops helps retain moisture in the soil, boosts soil nutrients, and yields large meaty mushrooms for the grill. The perennial longevity of this method depends in part on the mass of straw available for the fungus to eat. To keep harvests coming year after year, gardeners will have to refresh the supply of straw in their mushroom patch annually.

Composted Beds and Lawns
It is also possible to sew mushroom spawn into thick beds of moistened wood mulch and richly composted lawns. Just imagine harvesting morels from the mulched paths of your community garden, or shaggy manes from around the compost bin. Maintaining a rich amount of well composted matter and perpetually moist conditions- even in dry seasons- are key to success with mushroom beds.

Symbiosis
Truffle cultivation is practiced by the most patient of souls who inoculate the seedlings of oak and hazelnut trees as they are sprouting to life. Planting them in the earth propagates a complex multi-species symbiosis that benefits the garden, the forest, and the kitchen. Successful truffle cultivation requires a more Mediterranean climate than we experience here in Brooklyn, but ingenuous gardeners from North Carolina to Oregon have been making inroads to this new frontier of American mycology. There may be hope for a truffle orchard in the neighborhood someday, but if you have the patience for that, surely you also have what it takes to hunt the wild morel in Prospect Park.

Happy mushrooming!
-by Shawn Onsgard for the PSFC Brooklyn Backyard Brigade

Online Retailers
Fungi.com  – Washington, an organic family business operated by Paul Stamets.
FieldForest.net  – Wisconsin, diverse selections with good prices.
WylieMycologicals.ca  – Ontario, organic commercial and small gardener support.
MushroomShack.com  – Ohio, one of the closest to NYC.
Backtotheroots.com  – Washington, sells an easy-grow oyster mushroom kit also sold locally in Brooklyn.

Resource Communities
Mushroom walks with the New York Mycological Society.
NAMYCO.org  – North American Mycological Society.
MykoWeb.com A useful information warehouse from experienced Californian mycologists.

Further Reading
Mycelium Running, by Paul Stamets
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, by Paul Stamets
Mushroom Guide, by David Aurora

Why Grow Food at Home?

By Helen Zuman (member, Safe Food Squad’s Brooklyn Backyard Brigade)

As a Park Slope Food Coop member, you already have access to an abundance of succulent local produce. Maybe you supplement Coop purchases at your local farmers’ market, or belong to a CSA. Great! You still have lots to gain from growing food at home. Read on for the top five benefits of turning your yard, roof, patio, or windowsill into a farm.

1. Increase vitality and variety in your diet. The two greatest determinants of what foods are available for purchase in a store (or even, to a lesser extent, at a farmers’ market) are how well they hold up to being transported and how broadly they’ve been integrated into the Standard American Diet (SAD, for short). This means that of the thousands of edible varieties capable of thriving in our climate, only a few dozen ever show up on the shelves. To eat Dragon’s Egg cucumbers, or Crisp Mint lettuce, or Cream Sausage tomatoes, you might just have to grow them yourself.

Part of eating better is eating fresher. Sullivan County farmer John Gorzynski (of Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm) says that greens (for example) lose 40% of their nutrients within three days of harvest. Even as a Coop member, benefiting from our quick turnover, you’d have to shop every day to get those veggies in your mouth within that three-day window. Why not skip the crowds and checkout lines, and plant your own produce aisle at home?

2. Get to know our allies in the plant kingdom. When you buy food, you glimpse one part of the plant (the edible part) at one stage of its development. When you grow food, you witness every stage of the plant’s life cycle: seed, sprout, seedling, mature producer, seed bearer, mulch. Despite its reputation for inducing boredom, you might actually find it fascinating to watch plants grow.

Earth Island Journal Editor Jason Mark, speaking at the 2008 Chicago Green Festival, used a short slide show to illustrate one widespread side effect of detachment from food-growing: First, he flashed images of three corporate logos; then, he showed the foliage of three common food plants – including the potato – growing on a farm. Everyone in the audience could identify the logos; only a few could identify the food plants. Which body of knowledge is more vital to our health and survival?

3. Experience our food system as a web of relationships. Shopping at the Coop, you sometimes know what farm your produce is coming from; shopping at a farmers’ market, you always do. That’s a start on linking what you eat with the living network that brings it into being. Still, much remains invisible: the soil the food’s grown in, the farm ecosystem, the work of farming, the choices and forces driving how and with what materials that work is done.

Growing food at home offers a hands-on intro to the world of the farmer, in microcosm. As you tend your crops, you’ll notice how your site and its flows – of sun, wind, water, pets, insects, wildlife, people, vehicles, pollution – influence your plants’ health and productivity. When seeking materials such as mulch, soil, and fertilizer, you’ll get a feel for the market’s tilt towards “cheap” inputs made possible by “cheap” oil. You’ll need to form a strategy for relating to “weeds” and other “pests.” Chemicals? Compromise? Cooperation? Best of all – and especially if you compost – you’ll witness the activity, and learn the quirks, of the countless creatures who build the soil your plants call home.

4. Gain essential competence. Not so long ago, we were a nation of farmers. Along with the three Rs, most children learned the basics of food-growing. Only in the past few generations, as the gush of oil into agriculture has crested, have we come to assume that we’ll be able to eat without understanding how food gets to us, or participating in the process.

This assumption – like the oil age – is an anomaly. We’ll be far more confident in our ability to thrive amidst the propportunities (problems recast as opportunities) accompanying “peak everything” once we take the vital step of reclaiming our agricultural heritage.

5. Save money. How much it costs to start growing food at home depends on how much you already know about food-growing, how much your friends and family know, how creative you are at repurposing materials from the waste stream, and how much time and energy you’re willing to invest (see Dave Hamilton’s Grow Your Food for Free (Well Almost) for an extreme DIY perspective). Your home-farm installation could cost anywhere from zero to thousands of dollars.

Once you’re up and running, you’ll find it’s even easier to keep costs low, especially if you’re able to mine the waste stream for fertility (e.g., make your own soil out of food waste and fallen leaves). You may need to buy only seeds – and you can eliminate even that cost by saving your own or swapping with neighbors. (For seed-swapping in Park Slope, attend the April 21st Seed Celebration at the Old Stone House; visit permaculture-exchange.org for more info.)

Of course, all the above benefits accrue to those who grow food in a community or school garden, as well as to those who grow food at home. Do both! Let the two pursuits support each other. Enjoy both the sociability of farming with others and the intimacy of daily interaction with your live-in plants.

Are you a Park Slope Food Coop member who’s already growing food in the city? Are you eager to teach others? You might enjoy working with the Safe Food Squad’s Brooklyn Backyard Brigade. Email brooklynbackyard@gmail.com. FTOP credit available. For more on urban food-growing, visit brooklynbackyard.wordpress.com.

Spring brings a wealth of wild edibles to Brooklyn. Master gardener and native plants expert Sara Stopek let me take some pictures of what’s growing in her  Clinton Hill garden this week.

Blue Aster

Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) has delicious, tender greens in Spring. They have a mild flavor and a texture similar to young arugula. The plants pictured here enjoy growing underneath tall shrubs on the sunny side of the garden, but will thrive in deep shade too. Blue aster will bloom well into the fall when most other plants have quit for the season.

Fiddlehead Fern

Fiddlehead Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are sometimes compared to asparagus with their ephemeral harvest and unique, pleasant flavor. I like them sautéed with ramps (see below) alongside a hearty omelette. The plants pictured here enjoy the wetter and shadier part of the yard, and have self-propagated from a handful of starter plants to cover a 16 square foot patch in just a couple of years.

Ramps

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) taste and smell much like leeks. I have found large patches of ramps thriving under the thick deciduous forests in the Catskills, but the plants pictured here seem just as happy to grow in a container beside strawberries.

Amelanchier, aka “Juneberry”

Juneberries (Amelanchier) have a uniquely delicious flavor I can only describe as subtle cherry crossed with magic. Gorgeous white Spring blossoms (pictured here) are followed by bundles of red berries in early Summer. Juneberry trees come in a range of sizes so you can choose the a variety that best fits your garden.

Blueberry blossoms

Blueberries (Vaccinium) bear fruit in mid-late Summer, but I couldn’t resist photographing these beautiful Spring blossoms. There are so many different kinds of blueberries available from native plants nurseries, and it is recommended to grow several varieties of blueberry in your garden for best fruiting. While often grown in full sun, the plants pictured here are thriving in containers on a front stoop with only partial sun.

container-grown Blueberry

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Tender and succulent with a mild sweet flavor.

Harvests in 5-6 days. Yields 16×1, i.e. one quarter cup of seeds yields 4 cups of sprouts.
Growing Tip: Rinse at least 4 times daily, and remove hulls and slowly sprouting seeds on day four.
Serving Idea: Serve chilled on top of salty tortilla chips and follow with lemonade.
Miscellany: After eating fenugreek sprouts my underarms smelled like maple syrup for three weeks.

This is a delicious sprout that’s easy to grow. I have only two negative reviews. First, about a third of the seeds either didn’t sprout or were so slow to sprout that they weren’t ready to eat on day 6. Second, the fenugreek-induced maple syrup aroma from my underarms was a little weird, but gave me an idea for what to feed my buddies the next time we go camping.

Whole fenugreek seeds from the Park Slope Food Coop. This little bag measured in at 1/4 cup. Image

Pour into a dry bowl to check for errant debris … all clear.Image

Put them up to soak overnight in a half gallon mason jar fitted with a fine screen-top lid.Image

Rinse and drain repeatedly for five to six days. !/4 cup seeds yields 4 cups sprouts.Image

My 4 year old liked them on salty tortilla chips served with lemonade.Image