Pleurotus bucket is growing; compost is confusing

Well, my slapdash attempt at growing oyster mushrooms is coming right along. There’s definitely some mold contamination in some spots, but it’s very limited. [ETA 9/28: Yeah, not so much with the limited anymore.] The mycelium is doing its thing.

You can get a kit from Fungi Perfecti for growing a bucket full of Pleurotus on coffee grounds. (Not to mention a lot of other neat kits. I’m taken with the shaggy manes and garden giants.) I think they may mix in some more carbonaceous materials, and I’m pretty sure they start with a whole lot of sawdust spawn. That might give Pleurotus a boost in outcompeting the mold.

Speaking of Fungi Perfecti, I talked to a guy there who hasn’t seen any ill effects from using spent Pleurotus bags in his compost. (Nice, helpful guy. Myco geeks rule.) The inhibition effect was seen by a woman who grew it together with vegetables; I wonder if perhaps the stuff is just so aggressive that it’ll sometimes go after root hairs. It’s pretty hungry stuff.

I’ve been reading up about this critter. People who grow it at home without a lot of experience or equipment have reported no little trouble getting it to fruit. That sometimes might be because they don’t know, as I didn’t know, that it requires light to form primordia (“pinheads”) and fruiting bodies. Chang and Miles say, in their wildly expensive textbook Mushrooms, “The [formation of primordia] requires light of 200 lux intensity for over 12 hours. The growth of the fruiting body requires light of 50 to 500 lux intensity.”

I’ve also been reading up about compost, and getting a lot of contradictory advice with not much in the way of scientific references, and all of it strongly expressed. Add lime! Don’t add lime! Hot! Cold! Add soil! Don’t add soil! Yay wood chips! Boo wood chips! For crying out loud. The TAMU guide has some hiccups but might be the best of the lot. Its take on lime is interesting:

Ammonia escapes as ammonia hydroxide as the pH rises above 7.0. In the later stages of composting the pH may rise to between 8.0 and 9.0. At this time there should not be an excessive amount of nitrogen present as ammonia. Materials which contain large amounts of ash will have a high pH and may be expected to lose more nitrogen.

Some compost operators have suggested the addition of lime to improve composting. This should be done only under rare circumstances, such as when raw material to be composted has a high acidity due to acid wastes or contains materials which give rise to highly acid conditions during composting. It is recommended that when the pH remains above 4.0 to 4.5, lime should not be added. The pH will be increased by biological action and nitrogen will be conserved.

First shot at growing Pleurotus

Today I inoculated half a five-gallon bucket full of espresso grounds with about 50g of oyster mushrooms, using these instructions.

If I were really going for it, I would have been a whole lot more careful with sterile technique. (Espresso grounds are more or less steam-pasteurized, but I didn’t bother sterilizing the bucket.) As it is, part of what I want to learn is just how slapdash I can be and still get some kind of useful result. Right now, I’m not really interested in going into the oyster mushroom business. I’m in it for the compost, primarily. In fact, I might actually prefer that it not fruit: people do become allergic to Pleurotus spores pretty easily, or so I’ve read, and if the mushroom is as aggressive as I hope, it could be one of our major compost digesters. We could be growing a lot of this stuff.

According to Stamets, oyster mushrooms do a good job of breaking down caffeine. That’s my main interest at the moment. I’m composting a whole lot of espresso grounds on the property here, and I’ve got first-hand experience (Whee!!) with how much caffeine is still in the grounds. If I break up the espresso pucks with my hands, I can absorb enough of the residual caffeine through my skin that I become wired. So I’ve wondered about the wisdom of dumping that much alkaloid into my little toy ecosystem here. In the plant, it functions as a pesticide and inhibits the germination of other coffee seedlings. What’s its effect, in my soil, after composting, with different insects and plants? I don’t know, but pesticides and germination inhibitors sound like something to be a little concerned about, given the quantity.

It’s been interesting to play with these grounds from Blue Saucer Espresso. I’d say we’re getting about a garbage can’s worth every two weeks. At first I thought I’d just incorporate it directly into the ground, but there’s just too much material to make that work well unless I’m careful; it tends to crust up unless I work it in very well and don’t use too much of it. Digging it more deeply into the most fertile bed has worked better, but still, I’d need a lot of room to do it all with sheet composting. I’ve got some of it in a “Garden Gourmet” digester that we got free from the side of the road; that filled up fast (three weeks!) and has been getting impressively hot — perhaps verging on too hot. My latest compost heap is a more traditional heap-on-the-ground style with generous helpings of dirt to moderate the temperature down and, I hope, suck up some of the nitrogen that might otherwise gas off.

I’ve also been running a worm bin with a lot of coffee and seeing how that goes. If I build a bigger one, it may be a good way to re-use the old chicken bedding, too. It’s been a few months now since I started the worms on the mostly-coffee diet. They weren’t looking so happy for a while, but they’re looking a little better these days; I may be getting a population of adapted worms.

In all these cases — especially when worms are involved at all — I should probably check the pH and find out if it needs adjustment. I’ve been dropping anvil-like hints about getting a pH meter for my birthday.

I sure hope this works well, because our native soil here is horrible. It’s slightly dusty sand on top of a layer of clay with a lot of rocks in. It needs a lot of humus, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to be all that successful in growing high-demand vegetables in it. (I tried onions this year, and they grew to the size of ping-pong balls. And that was in a relatively well-established bed.) Dragging home all these coffee grounds reminds me of women I’ve read about who lived on rocky, barren Scottish outer islands and lugged seaweed up from the beach to build their garden soil almost from scratch.

ETA: The mycological plot thickens. It turns out that P. ostreatus (and I’m assuming that’s what I’ve got here, though apparently Pleurotus spp can look a lot alike) can inhibit plant growth. (Mycelium Running pg. 189) Possibly this is not what I want to be using alone as my big coffee-ground digester for building garden soil. So I’m left with questions: how persistent is this effect? What it the spent compost is further composted? Can I grow something else, such as Hypsizygus ulmarius, on coffee grounds?

chicken run, mark I

Yesterday, Josh and I — mostly Josh — put up a temporary extra run for the chickens under the plum tree. We netted the top with trellis netting, which with any luck will keep the chickens in while letting plums drop through. I’ve been cultivating a clover meadow under the plum tree for a while now, and the chickens love it. They go bananas out there, foraging for grub and chasing bugs and each other around. I’m wondering how long the clover will last before it’s entirely grazed out; those chickens eat an amazing amount.

They’ve all got names now: Trouble is the Delaware (white), Miss Thing is the Welsummer (brown), and Durf is our dimwitted Orpington (gold).

I keep an eye on them out there. (That trellis netting wouldn’t keep out the hawks, and we do occasionally get one.) It’s striking how much easier it is to spot Trouble and Durf than it is to spot Miss Thing. Camouflage works.

This run we’ve got is probably only good for one season. It’s really hinky, all held together with zipties and safety pins. I’d like to get a short cyclone fence out there with a couple of gates. And I’d also like to come up with some clever way of managing the netting over the top that’ll let me get in there and stand up to harvest plums — something like an enormous bungie net, maybe, that I can hook and unhook relatively quickly. I could make one of those out of cord from Seattle Fabrics. How hard could it be, right?

Happy car-free anniversary!

Yesterday was the second anniversary of our somewhat unscheduled switch to a car-free lifestyle. Which is to say, we haven’t owned a working car in two years.

All things considered, I think we’ve done pretty well. We haven’t really used a car much at all since ZipCar and FlexCar merged. We’ve occasionally borrowed my folks’ car for some hardware store errands, but we’ve mostly stuck with the bike and bus of late. And I don’t think it’s been much of a hardship. We do have to plan things more carefully, in general, and it’s a pain when there’s a show out in West Seattle I’d like to go to, but not really enough to want to spring for a cab back. But overall, I’m not regretting not having a car at all.

We’ve chosen where we live well, which helps a lot. There are grocery stores and farmers’ markets within easy bike/bus distance, as well as shopping malls and restaurants and libraries and most other places we’d want to go. With any luck, I’ll get another job within a few miles, otherwise that might be hard. When we bought this house, I expected that I’d be working at the UW more or less forever. And I’m still hoping that’s the case; it’s just less certain.

So, go us! As gas prices rise, that decision is looking better and better.


I haven’t seen a raccoon in our back yard in at least a year, probably more. After we cut some branches out of the tree on the back property line, they seemed to be less interested in hanging out back there. I guess they were just waiting for a reason to come back.

We took the chickens out to the coop in the back yard today with the intent of leaving them overnight. Tonight’s the Great American Backyard Campout, so we figured we could set up a cot or something back there and spend the night by the coop in case anything happened. So we headed out back just now, with the light fading, to see how the chickens were doing. They were freaking out, but they’ve freaked out the last few days when the light starts to fade. They haven’t gotten used to not having an overhead heat lamp on 24/7 yet, I guess.

They were in the fenced run area of the coop, so Cam got in to herd them into the enclosed chicken house area. They flew up onto her head. It’s not as easy to get a small chicken off your head as you might imagine, at least if you don’t want to injure the chicken. They’re pointy, and I think one drew blood on its way up, so I got in to help her out. And that’s when Cam noticed a raccoon at least the size of a five gallon water bottle staring at us from the break in the corner of the fence, about four feet away. The chickens continued to freak out, and some ended up on my head. Taking one for the team, I wrangled the chickens off Cam’s head and onto my own, so she could get out of the coop and retrieve the pet carrier. The raccoon climbed the fence and disappeared, but I’m sure it didn’t go far. Not with those tasty chickens protected only by a layer of chicken wire.

We got the chickens back into the house and put them in their box. Tomorrow, I think we’ll reinforce the coop with a layer of half-inch hardware cloth, dug down a ways to prevent tunneling. We don’t want the chickens’ first night in their real coop to be their last. Stupid raccoons.

Chicken tractor

Yesterday after work (plus a bit today after I found the tin snips so I could cut the chicken wire) I built a small chicken tractor so we could introduce the chickens to the outside world. I probably should have put some more thought into the design—doors on both ends might be nice, for example—but it worked out ok, and it’ll be easy to take apart later if we decide we want something better. This isn’t going to be their permanent home, in any case; we’ve got a real coop with an enclosed yard for that. This is just so we can take them into the front yard if we want. And so we could take them out of their box in Cam’s office and into the outside world for the first time today.

They’re about five weeks old now, and they’ve got enough insulation that they shouldn’t be too bothered by a breeze. Plus, it was a gorgeous day. So I went up to the neighborhood vet and picked up a cardboard pet carrier to transport them out of the house and into the tractor, one at a time. They were freaked out by the change for a few minutes, but got used to it fairly quickly and started scratching around and eating the clover. Cam fed them some rose petals, which they had fun with, grabbing one and then running away so nobody else could take it from them while they figured out how to eat it.

Getting them back into the house could have been tricky. We don’t have a fishing net or anything to catch them with if they escape, and the tractor is long enough that we can’t just reach in and grab them if they don’t cooperate. Luckily, this time when we opened the door they came over and let us pick them up and put them back in the carrier. Cam had enlisted one of our neighbors to help if we couldn’t wrangle them back inside, but we ended up not needing to call him. This time.

As usual, there are some photos:

DSC03369 DSC03361 DSC03355 DSC03348

Lousy chick feeder

I am distinctly not happy with the metal chick feeder we got at the Bothell Feed Center. (Yet another of the things I was not happy with when it comes to the Bothell Feed Center.) The Delaware in particular is bound and determined to climb the thing, and the feeder has sharp edges around the openings that we’ve had to bash back to make it chick-safe. The chickens keep finding more and more sharp edges, though. The Delaware cut one of her feet again today; that’s the third or fourth time for her. I’m going to bust out a goddamn file and file the hell out of that thing.

Not pleased. Tempted to dip the whole shootin’ match in a tool-handle plasticizer, and if I thought it were foodsafe, I probably would.

ETA: Hell’s bells. Filing isn’t going to work worth a damn either. We’ll figure out something. (ETA2: Fixed. I’m pretty sure. Thanks, Josh.)

New tea plant

Self-sufficiency in caffeine! Today we packed home a tiny tea seedling, no bigger than my thumb, from the Rockridge Orchards stand at the farmer’s market. Heaven knows the ornamental camellias around here grow like weeds, so I have high hopes for Camellia sinensis.

If it does well enough, I’d like to try propagating some cuttings in a couple of years. Some people say that cuttings root well; some say they don’t.

new chicken pictures

Josh has some new chick photos. They’re going through the first molt and looking distinctly motheaten. Enough feathers have come in that you can hear a loud taffeta rustle from them now.

Right now they’re in a cardboard box that gives them about four square feet. This should be enough for three chicks of that age, and if it weren’t for the Delaware it probably would be. But the Delaware is a hyper nutcase. That chicken is trouble, all right. I read her the chicken catalog description — “a lovely calm breed” — and she was predictably unimpressed. I think we’re going to have to double their space very soon.

The length of their necks keeps astonishing me. They seem almost neckless, and then suddenly they’re all neck.

If you dangle a ribbon into their box, they attack it madly, shrieking. “We’re training ninja chickens, you know,” remarked Josh yesterday. (Yeah, except for the whole stealth thing. I think they’re more in the berserker line.) I thought of that today when I was handling the chickens and saw that a little scab on my arm had come loose. The Delaware was happily drinking my blood. This has got to be a bad sign. Unless we want bloodthirsty attack chickens, and I suppose there’s something to be said for that.

at last my artistic genius is appreciated

Last night the chickens were chasing each other around, smacking into each other and generally making a racket. They were playing a bit more roughly than I liked, so I tried singing them a song, very softly, just to see what would happen. I wasn’t through the first line of “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore” before they’d all lined up silently, beady black eyes watching me closely. No one could ask for a more attentive audience. It was almost unnerving. As I kept singing, they settled down in the corner of the box beneath me, groomed their new little feathers, and dozed contentedly.

On I went through “The Cruel Mother”, “Jack O’Diamonds”, and “Traveller’s Prayer”. They cozied up to the wall of the box and snoozed profoundly. When I was done, they blinked a moment, picked themselves up, and started wandering around dazedly.

I haven’t been able to replicate that experience, but the Delaware does reliably come over and settle down when I start singing.