Since the last few posts have been pretty long and informational, I wanted to write a lighter post that possibly has more to do with our daily lives. I’m excited because it’s summer and it’s nice out. Hopefully, we all have a little more time off, some free time and family time. So here are my ideas for a few summer projects.
1. Grow your own mushrooms. I’ve never done this before but I’m looking forward to trying it soon and I don’t think it will require much work. To start, you can either buy spawn from a place like this or you can do it the cheaper and more DIY way and start from mushrooms you buy at the super market. For the DIY way, go to a farmers market or any store has mushrooms in a connected clump so that they are all attached to each other like this or this. Then eat your all your delicious mushrooms except save the bottom ends where they all attach. You might have to cut apart the base a little so that you have several little mushroom ends.
Get a plastic bag (the bags bread comes in or any long thin ones work especially well). Fill the bag with any or all of a variety of materials (shredded newspaper, coffee grounds, cut up yard waste, straw, sawdust, etc.) to form the substrate on which your mushrooms will grow. As you are filling up the bag, mix in your mushroom ends or the spawn you bought and make sure everything is evenly distributed. You may need to add some water to make sure everything is moist but not too wet. Tie the bag closed so it’s nice and airtight.
Put the bag in a dark place and wait for the fungus to colonize and grow lots of hyphae (root like structures) which together make up a web of mycelium. This will probably take several days. When the bag is visibly covered in the white mycelium, take it out of the dark, cut a few holes in the sides of the bag and place it in indirect light. Mist the holes every day to make sure it stays moist. Now just wait for your mushrooms to grow out of the holes until they look something like this. (It’s amazing how everything comes together, right?) Wait until they get nice and big then pick a few at a time and the bag should keep producing mushrooms for a while.
2. Find some edible wild plants in your area. This isn’t really a project but it’s still an interesting new connection to have with your food. As you eat your wild food, you can think about how it came from nature and didn’t require any inputs like it would if grown on a farm. It was growing in the woods only minutes ago. Just as Native Americans have been doing for thousands of years, you can use local knowledge to eat from the land with a small footprint.
If you live in the bay area, some edible plants that grow in the summer include blackberries, fennel, and herbs like bay leaves and sagebrush. Blackberry is a thorny vine that you can likely find growing at a local park or hiking trail. The plant likes moist and shady places and is commonly found closed to creeks. Right now most plants just have flowers or immature fruit, but later in the summer they will be covered in ripe berries.
Fennel is an invasive plant from the mediterranean that likes dryer areas and can often be seen on the hillsides along highway 280. The plant is in the same family as dill, carrots, and parsley and produces tons of little yellow flowers like this. The plant tastes like black licorice or anise and the bottoms of the stems are really good in salads. I love their crisp and crunchy texture, almost like the texture of a fresh apple. This is the only plant on the list that you will have to actually uproot and kill to harvest it. (Don’t worry though because it’s invasive).
The native California Bay Laurel produces leaves that have the same strong flavor as the bay leaves used in Italian and Indian cooking. These trees are common in forests and woodlands and can be found at most hiking trails around the bay area. The leaves are long and narrow, smooth, and medium to dark green. You will know you have found a bay laurel if you crumple up the leaves and smell a pungent scent like that of the traditional bay leaf. You can use the leaves fresh or dry as a seasoning.
Another herb that grows wild around here is California Sagebrush. It has a sage-like odor and can be found on dry hills like those by 280, similar to the place you’ll find fennel. The fuzzy, light gray-green leaves are thin, needle like and give off a strong but nice smell. As with the bay laurel leaves, you can use it to flavor dishes or in a tea. Both plants have been used by Native Americans for their medicinal properties.
Two edible plants that grow earlier in the year around spring time are yellow woodsorrel (or sour grass) and miner’s lettuce. The leaves, stems, and flowers of woodsorrel are edible and have a sour flavor. Woodsorrel pops up pretty much everywhere as it starts to rain and you can probably find it in your backyard or along sidewalks around March. The plant’s leaves look like clover and it has yellow flowers. Miner’s lettuce is a healthy green that is high in vitamin C and got it’s name when gold miners ate it to prevent scurvy. Both types of leaves, the spade-shaped ones and the round ones below the flowers, are edible and great in salads. They taste just like spinach to me.
Sorry if you don’t live around here and I just rambled on about plants that aren’t relevant to you, but to me a lot of the fun is doing the research yourself and figuring out what plants around you are edible and delicious. If you do live in the bay area, you can check out the book, The Flavors of Home or take a “Wild Food Walk.” There are tons of edible plants that I haven’t mentioned here that are just waiting for your discovery.
If you do go out and pick from local plants, make sure you don’t take too much to ensure the plant survives. Often times, like with a huge bay laurel tree or blackberry vine, it seems that there are far too many of the leaves or berries for you to even make a dent in the number. This is probably true a lot of the time. And with an invasive plant like fennel, taking everything will only help our native plants. Still though, be conscious of what you are taking from nature and try to spread out your harvest, taking a little from every plant or area rather than decimating one spot.
3. Plant some veggies. Though it’s not optimal planting time right now, we are lucky to be in a place like California with such a long growing season that gardens can thrive right into the fall. You can definitely still start a lot of different veggies, especially quick-to-mature ones like lettuce or green beans. Lots of different types of vegetables are super easy to care for. Obviously, if you get more into gardening you’ll find that different veggies like slightly different amounts of sunlight and water; different planting times, spacing, and depth; different soil types/nutrients; pest control and maybe some pruning. But honestly, you can get a perfectly great crop with just a pre-started plant from the nursery, maybe some potting soil, a sunny spot, and daily watering. You can use a container or just plant right in the ground.
Popular and easy warm-season crops include nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants), different squashes and melons, lettuces, and green beans. Lettuces are nice because you can harvest as soon as they are producing big enough leaves and keep coming back as the plant continues to produce for a while. Pick the biggest leaves at the bottom and harvest in the morning for the crispest, sweetest lettuce. You don’t need any kind of cages, stakes, or anything like that. Just plant, water, and watch it grow. It’s such a rewarding process to help create food and grow it right from the land. It always amazes me that a few resources and energy from the sun can grow into such a beautiful edible product.
I realize I haven’t given many specific gardening tips, but check out a couple gardening sites on the SITES page, do your own research, or ask the people at your local nursery. It’s not much work and it’s so worth it.
4. Start a compost pile. This goes along with growing a garden and it’s a gratifying way to cycle your food waste back into producing more food rather than just throwing it away. With compost, the leftovers from your food decompose into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that will help grow your garden and produce your food in the future. The cycle is so simple yet so beautiful.
Most food waste can be composted (other than dairy or meat which attract pests). There are tons of different ways to compost, but the key principals are the same across the board. The main idea is to maintain the proper ratio of carbon and nitrogen in the pile. To do so, a balance must be achieved between carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. Carbon-rich materials are usually dry and brown: dried leaves, wood chips, sawdust, shredded brown paper. Nitrogen-rich materials are green or fresher things like food scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, or manure. By maintaining a roughly equal ratio of “browns” and “greens” you can achieve an environment which fosters the growth of insects, fungi, and bacteria to break down your waste. Layering the browns and greens in 3-4 inch layers is a good way to get a good mix of each.
You can use a bin if you like or just pile everything up. You will want to water your pile a bit when you add stuff to it or when it looks dry in order to maintain moisture and encourage decomposition. You will know your pile is too wet and has too much nitrogen if it stinks a lot. If your pile is too dry and has too much carbon, it will break down very slowly.
Temperature is another important part of composting, but not something you have to worry about too much. The temperature will kind of take care of itself if you do other stuff right. As your pile gets bigger and decomposition gets going, it will be able to sustain a higher temperature since much of the pile will be unexposed to outside air. At the same time, some fresh air is good because we want to attract aerobic bacteria (ones that need oxygen). The unpleasant smell of a wet and overly nitrogenous pile comes from too much anaerobic bacteria, which thrive in an environment free of oxygen. To introduce some air into the pile, you can turn it with a pitchfork every week or so. As you can see, the process is pretty straightforward and it will yield some amazing stuff to add to your garden.
I realize this post got very long which is what I was trying to avoid, but hopefully it wasn’t too dense or boring. I think these projects are a great way to find a new connection to your food. I think the long-term gains of the projects will help benefit the health of our bodies, minds, and environment.
On another note, today marks the beginning of National Pollinator Week. As you can see in my earlier post about Honey, bees (and other pollinators) are amazing creatures that are completely vital to our food supply and environment. Two articles I just read stated that bees pollinate 80% of the plants around along with 40% of the crops we need to eat. Go bees! To help keep the population of different pollinators healthy, you can plant flowers that attract different insects.
According to an article in the SF Chronicle, hummingbirds like lilacs, fuschias, and snapdragons. Butterflies like goldenrod, asters, and nasturtium. They both favor red flowers. Milkweed attracts monarch butterflies specifically. Bees will like a variety of purple, yellow, and white flowers planted together. Some of their favorites include asters, lavender, sages, and borage. A lot of the veggies we plant in our gardens are ones that bees will like too. Even if you aren’t going to plant anything in your backyard any time soon, I feel it’s important to think and learn about pollinators. Check out the events happening this week in the bay area to learn more about our fascinating and essential pollinators. Thanks for reading another long post!