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Inoculating mushroom logs with sawdust spawn

We’ve written in the past about our mushroom experiments, which mostly centered around using plug spawn in logs. So I was thrilled when our local library offered an opportunity to try something a little different — sawdust spawn.

(Yes, we do have the best library around. Yes, they did let us take home an inoculated shiitake log of our very own.)


Pros and cons of sawdust spawn

Newly inoculated mushroom log

Sawdust inoculation tool

As best I can tell, the only real downside of using sawdust spawn is that you need to buy an inoculation tool. At $45 per tool, that means sawdust spawn makes the most sense for folks who intend to inoculate at least 36 logs (although you don’t have to do them all at once, of course). My math in today’s dollars:

  • Sawdust spawn: about $1 per log in spawn cost
  • Plug spawn: about $2.25 per log in spawn cost

In addition to long-term price savings, other benefits of using sawdust spawn include:

  • Your logs will produce mushrooms faster (in 5 to 12 months instead of 9 to 18 months).
  • I actually found inoculation with the sawdust tool gentler on my wrists (no hammering!).


Other inoculation innovations

Measuring mushroom log hole locations

Other than the inoculation tool, using sawdust spawn is pretty much the same as using plug spawn. But I thought you might enjoy seeing our teachers’ entire process since it is definitely better than ours!

First the infrastructure: They built tables with little wooden cradles at intervals to hold the logs in place. That means the only time you really need a second set of hands is when drilling the holes.

Also note the measuring stick with the spacing information on it. No laborious hand-measuring each log!

Drilling holes in a mushroom log with an angle grinder

Another innovation is the use of an angle grinder rather than a drill gun. Mark shared a video in which you can see how much faster this is than what we’d done in the past.

(Do be careful though. I could see someone drilling through their hand with this setup.)

Shiitake sawdust spawn

After the holes are drilled, it’s time to insert the spawn. Sawdust spawn comes in a block like the one shown above. You break it up with your hands then scoop some of the loose sawdust out into an empty yogurt container (or something similar).

Inoculating a mushroom log

Waxing a mushroom logNext, bang the inoculation tool into the container a few times to fill it with spawn. Place the tool over the hole and depress the button at the top to insert spawn. The goal is for the spawn to fill the hole up to about the bark level.

After that, all you need to do is wax over each spawn-filled hole. In the past, we’ve used beeswax from local hives, but apparently any food-safe wax works. Our teachers were using paraffin, melted then daubed on with cute little brushes. But they mentioned that there’s a new kind of wax, primarily used with plug spawn, that you can wipe on cold with your finger.

After that, it’s the usual waiting game (with the side note that, since we now live in an area with less extreme precipitation than we used to be located, we need to remember to water our log if we don’t get at least an inch of rain per week).

We haven’t had productive mushroom logs since moving to Ohio, but remembering how fun and easy inoculation was put the process back on my radar. Maybe next year we’ll push wildcrafting mushrooms onto the back burner and inoculate more logs.


About our teachers

Soulshine Acres mushrooms

I want to end with a huge thank you to Soulshine Acres for sharing their expertise with us. They’re a frequent vendor at the Athens, Ohio, farmer’s market if you want to check some of their mushrooms out. Or just follow them on instagram using the link above to learn about their forest farm, full of over 400 mushroom logs.

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March in the garden

Back in Virginia, March was a prime spring-planting month. Since moving to Ohio, it’s usually been an impatient-waiting month instead.

Not this year!

Early spring vegetable seedlings

A warm winter means my test beds of early lettuce and peas germinated well, so I soon seeded more.

Last year and this year's broccoli

Meanwhile, in proof of the winter’s extreme mildness, we’re starting to get tiny side heads on overwintering broccoli (protected by row-cover fabric over caterpillar tunnels).

To celebrate, rather than potting up this year’s broccoli seedlings (who are already slightly stunted from outgrowing their soil), I set out half on Monday. That’s a couple of weeks earlier than is recommended for our area, but the ten-day forecast looks good.

Arugula flower buds

Overwintering vegetables from last year (if any survive) are always the first edibles coming out of the garden, and this year we don’t just have the broccoli pictured earlier. Arugula started feeding us even earlier despite a total lack of winter protection for the plants. They started bolting (sending up flower heads) weeks ago. I quickly snipped the bounty, steamed it slightly, then sauteed the steamed flower heads in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Yum! Those have been good for a meal or two per week for most of March, although they’re starting to come to their end now.

Luckily, kale looks like it will fill the upcoming gap, even though a droughty summer last year meant my plants went into winter on the small side. Hopefully by the time the arugula gets away from me, we’ll have another dependable source of greens to carry us through until the spring lettuce comes in.

Kill mulching garden aisles

Of course, weeds start growing just as soon as vegetables do. The garden beds are usually pretty easy to manage at this time of year — half an hour of yanking fends off long-term problems in our entire plot.

Aisles can be more tricky, but I’ve saved up cardboard all winter to hit the problematic areas. Purple dead nettle and chickweed are easy to yank, while grasses or ground ivy are better off kill mulched. I tend to hit the areas right around the beds I’m using just before planting so weeds can’t encroach on my seedlings. (I’m bound to run out of cardboard before I solve all my problems, which is why they keep coming back.)

Nectarine flowers

March is also the time to count your tree fruits before they hatch. We’re finally back in that mind game, having set out a nectarine a year ago. My produce count for that tree is simple: zero. Not because it bloomed too early (although it likely did) but because I’ll be picking off any young fruits to ensure the tree puts more energy into establishing its roots.

And that’s it for our late March garden. How does yours look?

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Pigeons for manure, eggs, and meat

Pigeon program

Pigeon manureWhen I saw the above teaser of a library program, I was instantly hooked by the reference to pigeon compost. And the photo Nandini Stockton shared of her manure piles was definitely intriguing. But are the feed costs and work worth the output?

To answer that question, I had to listen to the entire (wonderful presentation), the cream of which I’m including below.


Eating pigeon eggs

Cooking a pigeon eggIn addition to manure, pigeons on the homestead are a source of what Nandini referred to as a superfood. Despite their diminutive size, she claimed each pigeon egg contains as many calories as a chicken egg. I couldn’t fact-check this easily on the internet, but did find an article mentioning pigeon eggs’ protein levels, which are higher ounce-per-ounce than chicken eggs.

The downside of raising pigeons for eggs is volume, and not just volume of individual eggs either. Unlike chickens, you can’t keep ten female pigeons with no males around and expect eggs, and they don’t lay every day either. Instead, you need a mated pair of pigeons and each pair only produces four eggs per month. No wonder pigeon eggs are considered a high-dollar delicacy!


Homestead pigonRaising pigeons for meat

The other homestead use for pigeons is meat. Nandini didn’t talk about this much since she clearly considers her pigeons pets. But she did mention that there are specific varieties of pigeons better suited to being used as meat birds. Squabs are often killed at thirty days, right around the time they fledge.


Keeping pigeons on the homestead

So what kind of infrastructure do you need to keep pigeons? The coop (better known as a loft) is a bit like a chicken coop and it usually has at least a small aviary attached. Wood pellets are optimal bedding and pigeons are fed a mixture of grains. They also need special Pigeon coopwaterers with reservoirs at least 3/4 of an inch deep (but which the pigeons can’t poop in, of course).

Nandini keeps her pigeons entirely cooped up from early September to mid April since, otherwise, Cooper’s Hawks chow down on her flock far too easily. Starting in April (or whenever leaves are back on the trees to provide cover), she lets her pigeons out in the mid afternoon. They fly around, forage, and bathe in basins of water she places on the lawn before returning inside for the night.

I asked whether free-flying pigeons bother her garden, and she said they didn’t. But she also noted that her loft is located on the opposite side of her yard from her vegetables. She does plant sedums for her flock closer to their loft, which likely keeps them close to home.


Are we getting pigeons?

Mark says no. After sleeping on it, I decided he was right — an extra worm bin would result in just as good compost at a fraction of the hassle. But if you end up getting pigeons (or already have a flock), I hope you’ll comment and let me know what you think of them as homestead livestock!

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Tips for early spring peas

Soaking pea seeds

Planting pea seeds thick

Peas don’t like heat, so it’s a good idea to plant them as early as possible. But if you plant too early, you’ll end up with only a couple of survivors spread across a large trellis, wasting precious garden space. What’s the solution?

Early-planted peas can do well, but you need to stack the deck for success. First, soak your pea seeds inside for at least four hours, during which time they’ll plump up and wake up. You can actually keep them inside until they sprout, but you’ll want to pour off the water after twelve hours or so and cover the seeds with a humidity dome if you go that route. Sprouted peas also need to be handled more carefully to prevent the tender new roots from breaking, so I usually just do the four-hour-plumping-up soak.

Next, out in the garden, ignore the instructions that pea seeds should be spaced one to three inches apart. Instead, drop them into a furrow in dense clumps before covering them up.

Protecting pea seedlings from critters(Of course, it goes without saying that you waited until the soil was at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit, planned for rain to keep the seedlings growing fast, and didn’t plant just before an extended cold snap.)

Finally, find some way to protect your pea seedlings from critters. The same sprouts that are delicious on our table are also a favorite of rabbits and other garden invaders. We use caterpillar tunnels over our spring pea beds, keeping the enclosure in place until the plants are tall enough to need a trellis.

After all that, it’s time to wait and hope. Fingers crossed for a copious, early crop!

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Should I plant peas on Valentine’s Day?

(Short answer — probably not.)

But who wants a short answer when you can read an Appalachian anecdote?

Where I grew up, the rule of thumb was to plant lettuce on Groundhog’s Day and peas on Valentine’s Day. Which makes very little scientific sense (even if you ignore the fact that I now live in a different USDA hardiness zone).

After all, what early spring crops are looking for is moist soil that’s not too cold. And February weather is so variable that a date perfect on some years is bound to be terrible on others.

So, yes, I definitely recommend you pull out a soil thermometer rather than planting by the calendar. But there’s also a fun alternative (at least for lettuce).

Wintersowing lettuce

Last year, I meant to collect seeds from my lettuce bed, so I let the plants bolt and bloom. Unfortunately, it rained then stayed wet while the seeds were maturing. Rather than fighting the damp, I shrugged and figured I’d order my lettuce seeds next time around.

But when I went out to take a look at the spot at the end of January, there were already tiny lettuce seedlings poking up out of the earth! A soil thermometer would have given me data on whether the soil was warm enough right at that moment, but those overwintering seeds assure me that the average had been at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit for long enough to tempt overwintering lettuce to sprout.

Peas need about five more degrees of warmth than lettuce, so while I could plant some now I’m going to wait a little longer. (Pea seeds are also very tasty to critters, so unlike lettuce they’re not a good choice for wintersowing.) To soothe my itchy green thumb and commemorate Valentine’s Day, I’ll start a flat of broccoli inside instead.

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Turning old pea seeds into yummy winter sprouts

Are you itching for homegrown vegetables, but your garden soil temperature is still far too cold to start any new crops? Did you buy too many pea seeds last year and aren’t sure whether the holdovers have enough vitality to germinate in chilly soil?

Why not solve two problems at once by sprouting some pea seeds indoors?

Choosing seeds to sprout

Soaking pea seeds

First a note on choosing seeds — I always buy untreated pea seeds and those are the only type I’d use to grow pea sprouts for the table. If you’re not sure whether your peas are treated, shake some out of the packet. Are they pink? Treated! Are they tan or pale green? Untreated!

The next step is related. Treated seeds are engineered to be less likely to rot while they slowly soak up enough water to germinate. The way to bypass this issue when using untreated seeds is to soak the seeds overnight or until they plump up and lose their wrinkles. Even though you’ll be sprouting your seeds inside where rotting is less likely, you might as well soak your seeds.

Setting up your sprouting trays

Growing pea sprouts

The next question is — what should you plant your pea seeds into?

I was experimenting and didn’t want to commit to an entire flat to pea seedlings, so I dug into the recycling bin for potting containers. Clamshells from the grocery store are great since they have drainage holes in the bottom and a lid you can close to keep the soil surface damp during germination.

I tried out two depths of clamshells and highly recommend you choose the deepest tray possible. A 1.5-inch tray barely gave us two cuttings of sprouts while a 3.5-inch tray gave us at least three. (More on that later.)

Once you’ve chosen your planting container, fill it up with potting soil, then spread the soaked seeds in a layer along the top. I packed them in so the seeds were touching, which maximized the planting space.

Harvesting pea sprouts

Cut pea sprouts above the bottom leaf.

Now it’s a waiting game. Once your peas send up shoots that are multiple inches long, cut each sprout just above the bottom leaf.

The photo above shows a pea plant at its second cutting. Notice how it resprouted from the same point (which it will do again and again). Don’t cut below all the leaves, though, or you’ll only get a single harvest!

How many harvests to expect

Harvesting pea sprouts

Our first harvest was small (but tasty!). The photo above shows the total yield from both planting containers.

Growing pea sprouts indoors Homegrown pea sprouts

The second and third cuttings were larger. The images here show the plants and their yield after the third cutting.

After that, I realized I’d made a bit of a mistake. Our pea plants kept sending out new shoots even though I hadn’t put them in a window or under artificial lighting, so I figured they were fine in low light. But after the third cutting, it became clear that the seeds had used up all of their stored energy.

Which is a long way of saying, harvest four from the deep pot was scanty. Harvest four from the shallow pot was nonexistent and a lot of the plants died all the way back.

I put the deeper pot on a windowsill after that and am hoping we’ll see enough growth to get a fifth harvest. But even if this is the end, sprouting leftover pea seeds was definitely a low-work and nearly free way to add something fresh to our winter diet. (Plus, greenery inside in January makes me smile.)



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How and why to start a pit garden

On our first homestead, ground water was so high in certain areas that we had to build extra-tall mounds just to prevent plant roots from drowning. On our current ridge, the problem is the exact opposite and I hope the solution is the opposite too.


Pit gardenWhat’s a pit garden?

A pit garden is simply a garden bed located below the natural level of the surrounding earth. The idea is to concentrate and hold onto moisture, both groundwater and runoff from the surrounding terrain.

Alternatively, if you locate your pit garden where it gets runoff from your roof, you’ve created a rain garden. Whether a rain garden will rot roots depends on your climate and what you plant. But if you’re on a dry ridgetop like we are, it might be just the ticket!


How to know if you need a pit garden

Does your ground dry up and crack at least once a year? Do you irrigate and still lose shallow-rooted perennials like blueberries? Do volunteer vegetables come up in your mulched aisles more than in the good soil of your raised beds? Do broadcast-seeded plants germinate fitfully in the middle of your beds but better around the (lower-down) edges?

If any or all of these field marks sound familiar — try a pit garden (or rain garden, or both)!


Gardener digging a trenchHow to build a pit garden

Dig a trench then backfill it most of the way with excellent soil (putting the old subsoil somewhere else). Your goal is to have any mulch hit right at the natural elevation of the surrounding earth.

Next, plant and enjoy the result!

(By the way, the diagrams in this post are courtesy of Midjourney…who doesn’t seem to understand what either a shovel or a spade is. My correction: dig your trench with a spade, not whatever that gardener has in his hand…)


Pit gardenWhat we did

In our case, we’d dug the beginnings of a foundation for a wood-stove-room addition. Then (as usually happens with me), I lost interest in putting time and energy into house when I could put the same time and energy into outdoors and plants

So I moved acidified soil from our blueberry patch into our premade pit garden. Next, I transplanted a cranberry and a few blueberries that had barely been hanging on in the main garden into that good, low earth.

Our spot is definitely a rain garden in addition to a pit garden, and in some very wet years the trench used to hold enough water for tadpoles to mature. (You can see what it looks like after a sixth of an inch of rain in the photo.) I’ll report back and let you know if that’s too much water or just right for our ericaceous crops.


Anna Hess in a rock mazeWinter break

In other news, we’re taking a bit of a winter break while Mark heals up a back injury and I stick to the basics to keep the homestead running and myself sane. I’ll tell you about our edible-seed-sprouting experiments and more when life smooths out again.

If you miss hearing from us while you wait, why not check out our gardening video courses or deep-dive into gardening topics with our books?

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Third-generation hybrid hazels

Cracked hazelnuts

Hazelnuts have a lot of potential as a low-work garden plant, but blights make straight-up European hazelnuts problematic in the eastern United States. Luckily, various institutions have been experimenting with combining the disease-hardiness of American hazelnuts with the productivity of European hazelnuts over the last decade, and we jumped on the bandwagon very early on.


Our previous hazel experiments

Walden Effect hybrid hazel experiments

I used Google to search through our old posts to refresh my memory, and they actually got the facts right. But what’s most relevant to this post is:

Which brings us to…


A new hope

Male flower buds on hybrid hazel bushes

Hybrid hazel bushIn April 2020, we planted two hybrid hazel bushes here in Ohio: Yamhill and Dorris, both from Burnt Ridge Nursery. As expected, both have grown well with very minimal attention — I think I’ve kill-mulched under them every other year. Both are shaping up to look much more like European hazelnuts (tall and less bushy) than like American hazelnuts (shorter and with lots and lots of trunks). But what about the nuts?

Many plants with separate male and female flowers start out male only as they mature since it’s a lot less work to produce pollen than fruit. Sure enough, in spring of this year (2023), the Yamhill produced its first male flowers. Now, the Dorris is following suit while the Yamhill is completely coated in both male and (I think) female flower buds.

So it looks like 2024 will be the test! Do these more carefully selected hybrid hazels produce nuts with shells thin enough so I don’t have to pull out my hammer? Stay tuned for a taste test this coming fall!

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A brand new gardening course for you!

Garden Course Sale

Porch planter boxAs long-time readers are aware, Mark’s a big believer in building your way out of repetitive or unpleasant homesteading tasks. So I get to enjoy his amazing caterpillar tunnels, porch-top planter boxes, anti-chipmunk strawberry beds, anti-bird raspberry area, and deer-proof garden fence.

Now, after a year of making me talk in front of a camera then plunking Mark down in front of editing software, you can enjoy a deep dive into each of those projects. For another day or two, you can even nab your copy at 50% off!

This is our second video course and I hope it comes across as tighter, more informative, and more entertaining than the first one. (It certainly felt that way to me, but maybe I’m just getting over my annoyance at seeing myself in moving pictures.)

Caterpillar tunneslAs a bonus, Udemy courses come with a lifetime subscription to updates. For example, folks in our Soil-First Gardening Course paid up front for an hour-long course just like this one, then got a bonus half hour of cover-crop information a few months later totally free even though the course increased in price by $10 at the same time.

Which is a long way of saying — I hope you’ll grab a copy now while DIY Gardening Projects is brand new and the cheapest it will ever be!  if you really want to make our day, please consider leaving a review after you watch. Reviews not only help strangers decide to take a chance on our courses, they also give us ideas of what to add and how to do better next time.

Happy learning!

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What the new zone map means for home fruit gardeners

2013 and 2023 USDA zone maps

Perhaps you’ve seen the new USDA hardiness zone map that came out this week? For the first time in eleven years, we have an updated map, and about half of the United States moved half a zone warmer (with the rest staying in the same zone they were in before). You can check your new zone here.

Before you rush out and buy tropical trees to plant in your garden, though, I thought I’d share a few thoughts from our last fifteen-plus years growing fruit.

Averages aren’t everything

Snowy gardenFirst, you need to understand what the zone map really means. It’s a thirty-year average of annual extreme low temperatures in your location.

In other words, that’s the coldest it’s likely to get in your garden on an average year — so sometimes the temperature will never drop that low and sometimes you’ll see a freak cold spell that dips even lower. In fact, as the climate changes, unusual cold waves (and heat waves) are becoming more common, so my biggest piece of advice is this:

Be conservative when picking out those fruit trees! Maybe don’t choose a fig that’s only on the edge of hardy where you’re located. Instead, if you live in zone 6b (as we now do), it’s smarter to select varieties hardy to at least zone 6a. This is especially true for fruit plants that take several years to mature.

Frost pockets

Peach flowerWhile you’re planning smart, be sure to consider microclimates. Even though the area we moved from is technically half a zone warmer than the one we’re in now (meaning we moved from zone 6b to zone 6a…which is now zone 6b!), our hilltop tends to evade early and late freezes that would have definitely struck our previous deep-valley pocket.

So no matter what the map claims, believe your eyes if they say you’re actually half a zone colder or warmer than your neighbors. And consider late freezes prone to result in fruitless years when selecting varieties — late bloomers can be a major plus.

Heat and drought

Bowl of berriesFinally, it’s worth looking at the flip side of the coin. The hardiness zone maps don’t say anything about annual high temperatures or droughts, but for many of us both of those climate concerns are increasingly relevant in our gardens.

For example, despite drip irrigation, our hilltop gets so bone dry during scorching summers that I keep losing shallow-rooted blueberry plants. I intend to move the survivors to a wetter location (which I’ll tell you about in a later post). For now, just remember that there’s a lot more to keeping fruit plants happy than making sure they evade the worst winter ice.

Shameless plug

If you want to read more of my thoughts on choosing fruit plants that will produce with minimal headache on your part, definitely check out my Weekend Homesteader: Winter ebook (or nab the full series in paperback form).

And I’d love to hear from you. How are you changing your gardening plans in response to the new maps?