Book Review: Mycelial Mayhem

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageBook Review: Mycelial Mayhem: Growing Mushrooms for Fun, Profit and Companion Planting by David Sewak & Kristin Sewak

Paperback – 288 pages, 7.25 Inches × 9 Inches (w × h),
Weight: 579 Grams ISBN: 9780865718142
Publisher: New Society Publishers. Publication Date: 2016-03-14

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this book, and wrote an endorsement for it. Now it is hot off the press, and a very attractive book it is too. The dedication includes the exhortation: “Keep spreading the spores”, by which the authors mean becoming a proponent of mushrooms, as well as growing them yourself.

Initially, from just the title, I thought this book would be about mycoremediation or mycorestoration, improving polluted or depleted soils by inoculating them with fungi. But the subtitle and the photos on the cover make it plain that this is a handbook for people wanting too grow diverse mushrooms for food and medicinal uses.

This is not a dull textbook – it is written by a couple inspired by and knowledgeable about mushrooms, and eager to bring along beginners, or those whose efforts have so far been limited to shiitakes. It’s accessible, friendly and lively. It demystifies this less known life-form with clear explanations, step-by-step instructions and some stunning photos. The sections of the book are labeled Mycelia, The Stem, The Fruit of Your Labor and Spreading the Spores, mimicking the development of the mushroom to lead us through what we need to know to become a successful mushroom grower.

The first section covers mushroom basics,life cycle, requirements for growth and place in the ecosystem. Along with infectious enthusiasm for including fungi as part of a small-scale sustainable farming venture, or simply as a backyard hobby.

Another thing this book is not is a field guide to identify wild-growing mushrooms. There are tips on wild-crafting along with cautions against misidentifying, or harvesting from herbicide- or pesticide-treated areas, or from naturally poisonous trees. There is a checklist of 15 tenets of safe collecting and 9 tenets for purveying (did you know you might need to get a permit to collect wild mushrooms for sale?)

A nice Oyster mushroom Photo Ezra Freeman
A nice Oyster mushroom
Photo Ezra Freeman

The second section covers growing mushrooms both outdoors and indoors, descriptions of various kinds, wild-collecting, and sustainable growing methods, including alongside vegetables. The different types of mushrooms are classified by ease of growing, so we can start with an easy one. Many different methods, using media such as wood, sawdust, straw, hemp rope, logs and tree stumps are discussed. How to set up an indoor mushroom grow room is explained, along with how to avoid disasters.The book explains the pros and cons and best choices for the various types of fungi. It also considers economics versus ecology, sustainability versus resilience, taking nature as a model, permaculture principles, and how you might pull this all together to design a system for your particular circumstances. I appreciated the thoughtfulness and the checklists – a refreshing change from some ardent scripts I have seen. I put this down to the balance of the two authors and their combined skills. It makes for an impressively grounded and practical book.

Oyster mushrooms Photo Ezra Freeman
Oyster mushrooms
Photo Ezra Freeman

The third section explains umami, nutrition, medicinal mushrooms, and the business side of growing for market, selling and evaluating your marketing efforts.

The last section (Spreading the Spores) includes resource info, references and photographed examples of marketing materials from Berglorbeer Farma, the authors’ previous home and business in Windber, PA. Their new ventures are in Montana, where Kristin Sewak runs Natural Biodiversity, a non-profit dedicated to restoring biodiversity in landscapes, and David Sewak is a fly fishing guide as well as a mushroom grower.

To sum up, a very good book for anyone wanting to grow edible or medicinal mushrooms!

Book Review: Ira Wallace on Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast

Book Review:

The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening

in the Southeast

by Ira Wallace.

January 2014, 200 pages, $19.95. ISBN-13: 978-1-60469-371-3

 wallace_i books-gardeninginthesoutheast

This book will be valuable primarily to new vegetable gardeners and those moving to the Southeast. Of course, experienced gardeners always want to learn from each other, so I encourage anyone growing food in our region, or its neighbors, to take a look. The writing and format are clear and accessible, the index is excellent, so you can quickly find the topic you want. The scale is backyard, not farm. That said, this book could be useful for new farm interns to learn crop basics, timing, and how things are done without fancy equipment. It has the advantage of clearly setting out the basic information without being overwhelming.

The Southeast has been “traditionally underserved” in terms of vegetable gardening books, so having this compilation of tips for our climate, the names of reliable regional varieties, and the encouragement to start in any month and harvest in every month, is valuable beyond price. There are great gardening writers elsewhere in this big country, but nothing beats learning from someone who really knows the territory. Ira learned gardening in her grandmother’s yard in Florida, and has grown food in Virginia for many years. It is hard to translate northern books which talk of ground frozen solid for months in winter, or curing onions out in the September sun. Beginners will have a much happier time starting out with a book written for the actual conditions they will encounter. Gardeners moving from other climate zones will get useful information about working with “the quirks of our climate”; fall gardening, winter gardening, hot weather crops like southern peas and okra. For instance, did you know why gardeners in hot climates don’t sow in hills? They dry out too much (the gardeners as well as the hills!).

This book is intended mostly for those in the lands where the American Holly grows. This is zones 6-9, with bits of 5 and 10: the Southeastern Coastal Plains, Piedmont, Appalachians, Interior Plateau and Ozarks. Winters are temperate, summers are hot and humid, and there is a wide range of seasonal crops. We need to start spring crops early, to get a harvest before temperatures heat up; we need to add organic matter frequently, as it burns up fast in hot humid conditions; we need to know about shading.

The Gardening 101 section includes many helpful tips on soil tests, garden planning and rotations and cover crops. There are lists of crops by season and by ease of growing in our climate. As the introduction says, “Happily, gardening is a year-round activity in our region”, so there is a month-by-month section listing tasks and possibilities.

The Month-by-month section includes a To Do page for each month with panels on Plan, Prepare and Maintain, Sow and Plant, and Fresh Harvest. There is also a Skill Set panel each month covering topics such as making compost, setting up drip irrigation, building shade structures. Each month has a theme: Sowing Seed Indoors for February, Beating the Heat in July. The tone is encouraging and helpful for beginners and climate migrants alike.

My one quibble is that the drawings don’t always seem to exactly fit the text, and I wish there could have been some photos. Luckily, Ira is from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and their website www.southernexposure.com has plenty of photos of crops in action and includes a sun symbol for varieties especially suited to the Southeast.

There is a nice description of working against the shortening days and cooling temperatures of fall to get crops established in the “living refrigerator” outdoors – filling it up to draw from later. Plan for crops to mature in late November, before growth slows right down. There are a lot of critters out there, though, so bring in what you can for storage. Also, plan to have some crops reach half-size, be protected over winter, then rapidly grow in early spring for first harvests of the new growing season.

Part 3 of the book is an A to Z of crops, starting with two Planting and Harvesting Charts, one for the Upper South and one for the Lower South. These cover 38 crops or groups of closely-related crops. Then each crop has around one page of details, divided into paragraphs on Growing, Harvesting, Varieties and Seed Saving.

The Resources section  includes seed and plant suppliers, community organizations, weather and climate resources, companies selling tools and supplies, soil testing services and more good books (blush, including mine). There is a Glossary, to demystify any terms you don’t know – soon you will!

If you live in the Southeast and are new to growing food here, you’ll learn a lot from this book and its clearly arrayed information. If you live around the Southeast, you’ll probably also learn some tips (think of Pennsylvania as the “Upper Southeast”!). If you’re a farmer with new interns about to arrive, get this book for your library. If you’re an experienced vegetable grower in our region, take a look too – I bet you’ll find some new ideas.

Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia, Bill Best

9780821420492Book Review June 2013 by Pam Dawling

Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia,  Bill Best         Ohio University Press April 2013. ISBN 978-0-8214-2049-2 (paperback) $22.95 (212p)

This book is an encouraging read. First I’ll say what it’s not: it’s not a How to Save Seeds Manual. So, what is it? A local history of seed saving and the people involved in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina mainly, and some of South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. It’s about the whole traditional culture of trading and co-operation among mountain people who don’t buy all their seeds from a catalog. These people cultivate varieties that grow well and taste good, and they select for desirable traits to develop better varieties.

Bill Best spent 40 years teaching and administering at Berea College, Kentucky. In his retirement he directs the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center near Berea, and gathers and passes on heirloom seeds. The author holds a Best Family Farm one-day seed swap each year in October. As a market farmer in the Berea area, Bill was featured in an article about heirloom beans and tomatoes. This led to 86 letters in 6 months from people wanting heirloom vegetables! Bill became a focus for developing a seed bank of local heirloom beans (and other vegetables). Every bag of seed came with a story! Here we get the stories as well as careful descriptions of the many types of bean.

The first third of the book is about beans, which reflects the importance of growing supplies of protein and flavor when independent from stores. I’ve long puzzled about the various terms used for beans, and I am grateful to Bill Best for his lexicon. If you too are confused about greasy beans, cut-shorts, half-runners, and leather britches, then I recommend his clear descriptions. Lovers of heirloom beans tend to prefer pole beans for flavor over bush beans. Heirloom greasy beans (named for the slick shells, and famed for the tenderness and flavor) command a much higher price at markets than commercially grown beans. Cornfield beans are pole beans, traditionally grown with corn as the poles. Cut-short beans are varieties where the bean “outgrows’ the shell, so the beans are cramped into square shapes. They have high protein content. Field peas are southern peas or cowpeas originating in the Deep South. Crowder peas are the pea equivalent of cut-short beans. Butter beans are small speckled limas.

Full beans (when the seed is fully mature) – is the traditional stage for harvesting beans whether to be used fresh, canned, pickled or dried as “leather britches” or shelled out. Leather britches (aka shuck beans) are full beans broken into lengths, strung up and dried in the shell, to provide meals in winter and early spring. Beans with immature seeds were not much eaten – why not wait for the protein? Shelly beans are beans shelled out before the pods dry, then dried. They cook without the soaking needed by beans from dried pods. Half-runner beans have runners 3-10 feet long. Their popularity led to commercialization, which sadly included the tough gene being incorporated into the seed line (to withstand mechanical harvesting without breaking). It is hard to find non-tough half-runners now.

Stringless bush (or bunch) beans are all I grow. These old-timers are sure stringless beans have less flavor. Modern stringless beans have to be picked before the seed appears, because they include the tough gene. The downside of stringlessness is toughness – what irony!

People who grew their own beans developed varieties for each growing season: ones with good cold soil emergence for spring, ones for hot summer months, shade-tolerant ones for growing in cornfields, and fall or October beans that do well going into cooler weather. Some beans are named after the time of year they are planted, others after one of the people involved in growing them.

Some growers would trade their bean seed at the local hardware store for other seeds or for supplies. So hardware stores, rather than feed stores, were the place to buy local heirloom seeds. The author discusses the cultural context that has made the Appalachians a fertile ground for maintaining heirloom beans. Families farmed to support themselves, and survived and thrived according to their talents at producing food, and products to trade. During the Great Depression, beans were a very important source of food. The author takes us on a tour of several farms and their bean varieties. “Haywood County’s past can be found in more than old records and photo albums. Try the bean patch.” As more people discover the flavors of heirloom varieties, demand and enjoyment is increasing.

Unlike beans, tomatoes were not prominent historically in the diet of Southern Appalachian people, but they came to be important and an enormous range of flavors, shapes, sizes and colors has been developed. There are at least 34 sugars and acids involved in tomato flavors. Many people have heard of Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, but few know the Vinson Watts Tomato, developed over 50 years of careful work. The author has grown this tomato and 450 others during a 49 year period, and reports that this is the most disease-resistant he has found, with no compromise on flavor. It’s available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

After 20 pages on tomatoes, there are short sections on heirloom apples, cucumbers and milling corn (the US became dependent on hybrid corns and in 1970 the Southern corn leaf blight devastated 15% of the corn crop. Much of the genetic diversity and resilience had been lost). Candy Roasters are the type of winter squash most favored in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Little known elsewhere, this big storage squash (which possibly originated with the Cherokees) is used for pies, breads, butters, generally with sugar.

Next we dive into the last third of this book: stories about individual seed savers the author met or corresponded with. This is the ethnography part of the book – a descriptive study of this particular human society. The farmers and gardeners here are of the older generations. Seed saving seems a very life-enhancing activity! The final photo is of 100-year old Judith Whitehead Patteson, sitting outdoors, holding a jar of Ardelia’s Speckled Butter Beans, which she has grown for many years.

Read this book for an inspiration into the difference it is possible to make, by choosing good vegetable varieties, growing your own and buying local.