Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Fungus Among Us

We have been getting a lot of rain where I live lately.  After the severe winter that we had, I had really been looking forward to the sunny days of summer.  While we certainly have had a few hot and sunny days around here, we have also had more than our share of rainfall over the last several weeks.  While this has been nice that I haven’t really needed to water my garden much, and some things are growing really well, other things in my garden have been slow to establish, or have not established at all.  In fact, I haven’t had much success in establishing my native wildflower garden using seeds, I believe due to all of the wet conditions that we have had this year.  Unfortunately, I may even need to buy some native plant transplants so that I don’t have to worry about fighting the weather to have them grow.  Sadly, I may need to do the same with a few tomato plants that haven’t survived in my garden.

Despite some of these frustrations with my garden, what have grown really well are different varieties of wild mushrooms that have been popping up in my yard.  I have found mushrooms really fascinating ever since I listened to a podcast where Paul Stamets was a guest speaker.  Paul is a world famous mycologist (a scientist who studies mushrooms, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term).  He wrote a book called Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which I am hoping to read in the near future.  He is a huge advocate for all things mushrooms, including the critical ecological roles that they play in natural ecosystems, and for how important they are for not only the health of plants, but for our own health as well. 

Paul has been doing a lot of research on medicinal mushrooms, particularly the Turkey Tail mushroom for its healing role in various types of cancer.  His own mother recovered from Stage 4 Breast Cancer while taking Turkey Tail mushrooms.  I am unsure what other therapies that she was using at the time for her cancer, but it seems clear that the Turkey Tail mushrooms played a huge role in her recovery.  I am a believer that when it comes to cancer, we need to tackle why someone has a bodily imbalance in the first place that led to the cancer development.  Just as with many other major health conditions, unless our bodily imbalances are addressed, other negative health conditions will develop, or the cancer can even reoccur.   That is why I believe that the solutions to many of these conditions lie in diet, lifestyle, emotional balance, detoxification, etc., and why we must all be proactive in prevention and not wait until we get some sort of diagnosis. 

What wonderful things like Turkey Tail and other medicinal mushrooms such as Chaga and Reishi do is to help our bodies heal themselves naturally and bring us back into balance.  One of the key properties of the medicinal mushrooms that help us to do this is the special sugars that the mushrooms contain, polysaccharides.  These polysaccharides are especially important for supporting our immune system.  Even incorporating some of the culinary mushrooms regularly into our diets can be a great strategy to add some of this immune support into our lives.  

Here is a video of the TED Talk that Paul did in 2011, discussing how important mushrooms are for our health:

If you want to learn more about Paul and his work, check out his website, Fungi Perfecti at

In natural ecosystems, fungi are extremely important.  Most of us are already aware that they help to break down dead organic matter and return it to the soil.  Many gardeners have also likely heard of how mychorrhizal fungi works in concert with the roots of plants to help them grow.  This is a symbiotic relationship, where the fungi help the plants to absorb water and nutrients, and the fungi in turn get sugars from the plants as food.  This mutualistic relationship between fungi and plants is less apt to occur when we disturb soil (tillage agriculture) or spray chemicals on it, both of which disrupt important soil ecology. 

Once we understand the importance of this relationship of fungi and plants in our gardens, we can then understand how mychorrizal fungi plays an even more important role in natural ecosystems, especially well-established forest ecosystems.  Mychorrizal fungi grow to form huge networks within the soil throughout these ecosystems.  In fact, it has been stated that some of these networks can extend for many miles, composed of a single mychorrizal fungi organism.   Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that that is really amazing!

Fungi are also currently being used for the remediation of polluted land sites, as the fungi literally “eats up” the chemicals and cleans things up.  This technique is being used even to clean up oil spills.  Pretty awesome, huh?

I never used to appreciate mushrooms, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I even started eating them and using them medicinally (I like to make tea with Chaga and Reishi mushrooms for immune support when I come down with a cold or the flu to help with a faster recovery, and I also like to use the cooled tea of these mushrooms as a liquid base when I make fruit and veggie smoothies).  However, the more I learn about mushrooms, the more respectful of them I become.  I even hope to start cultivating some of my own culinary or medicinal mushrooms in the future on my urban homestead.  I have a lot to learn about mushroom identification, but for now, I can still appreciate them for all of the important things that they do for our world and for us.

I hope that after reading this that you will gain a new appreciation for these extremely important organisms in our world.  One thing that I bet you didn’t know is that mushrooms have more in common with the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom!  Check it out!

Here are some pictures of the mushrooms that have been popping up around my yard over the last couple of weeks:

These are the same mushrooms that were growing in the first picture only one day later!  They were huge!

This post is shared at Healthy, Happy, Green & Natural Party Hop

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why Urban Homesteading Matters

My favorite house in our neighborhood!  I hope that my house and yard can someday look something like this one.

Seeking Sustainability Right Where We Are
As gardeners and homesteaders, many of us dream of having our own plot of land somewhere, where we can grow to our heart’s content and become self-sufficient.  That is one of the things that I dreamed of before moving into our house in a neighborhood that isn’t quite urban, but isn’t truly suburban either.  I also dreamed of having a sustainable neighborhood, being close to things, having lots of things within walking distance, having a great public transit system available, and decreasing my carbon footprint.  There are these two seemingly conflicting desires about where to live within me, and it’s hard to say where I will ultimately end up living.  

I prayed about it, and ultimately left it up to God to find the right place for us to live.  In the end, He blessed us with an older house with lots of character and lovely traditional woodwork, a decent sized yard, great neighbors who look out for each other, within an area close to transit, many sidewalks, and plenty of parks and green space around us.  I guess that in a way, I got a little bit of both worlds.  We love our house, even though as an older house, it needs a little more “love” than many newer houses, but to me it feels like home.  I grew up living in an older house, in an urban area, but somehow still growing to love nature and later on, becoming a gardener.  Sadly, far too many people who grow up in urban areas do not get the opportunity to connect to nature and where their food comes from.   Fortunately, my parents instilled in me an appreciation for nature and stewardship from Day 1 of my life, so I guess that I had an advantage that way.

Because I grew up in an urban area, I guess that you could say that I have a big heart for making urban areas more sustainable and revitalizing our urban communities.  Cities are growing on this planet, and before long, the majority of our human population will be living in them.  Cities are very resource intensive, and most often require loads of energy and resources to run them.  This presents us with a big problem:  How is humanity going to meet its needs for the future in a sustainable fashion, especially with more people becoming increasingly disconnected to the natural world in an era where there is less and less of the natural world that exists?  How on earth are we going to feed everyone?  How will we run our economies?  Where will our energy come from?

We can start by turning many of our lawns and yards into sustainable, ecologically-sound, food production systems.  We have a real opportunity to utilize our lawns, our rooftops, and even our basements to grow food (don’t get any wise ideas now- I’m talking about aquaculture and growing edible & medicinal mushrooms and the like, smarty pants! :) ).  This is where I believe that urban homesteading can play an especially important role.  We can at least reduce our dependence on food that comes from so far away by growing a lot of our own fruits and veggies, and we can try to source other things locally as much as possible.  I believe that this is going to become increasingly important as drought conditions plague many areas out in the American West where we’ve been sourcing a lot of our produce from for the last several decades.

I recently read an article that discussed how California is going to continue to experience drought conditions into the foreseeable future.  Since we’ve all become so comfortable with sourcing our produce from California for so long, we’re going to have to start looking for alternatives to sourcing our food.  That, and prices at the grocery store are likely going to continue to increase.  That makes distantly-sourced food seem ever more unattractive. 

I would say that for the most part, most produce from the grocery store isn’t the greatest and best tasting anyway.  I think that while it is difficult to produce everything yourself on a small urban lot, everything that you grow yourself is going to help you.  It is going to save you money in the long run.  It is also going to be much healthier for you, since the freshly harvested produce that you grow right where you live will still contain the vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that may not largely be present any more in store bought produce.  And, you know where it came from, not from some large corporation that doesn’t necessarily have your best interests (or your health) at heart.

There are many other advantages to being an urban homesteader.  Growing herbs, for instance, is like growing your own pharmacy right in your own backyard.  It is wise to learn about the safe use and identification of different herbs, of course, but it is comforting and empowering to know that you can at least provide some basic level of medical care for yourself.

There is the advantage of eating nourishing, whole foods that you prepared and preserved yourself.  Again, you will know where these foods came from and how they were made.

There is the growing empowerment that we gain once we start learning new skills.

There is a greater sense of community around us as we get to know our neighbors and share the abundance of what we have.  We help each other out and look out for each other.

There is the decrease in our energy use, as we seek simple and low-tech ways of living and doing things.

There is the reconnection with nature, which awakens us to the natural world and how we are all in this together.

There is the reduction of waste as we realize that we don’t need more “stuff” to be happy anymore and we no longer need to source as many inputs from outside of our homestead systems.  We begin to realize that there are many things that money cannot buy and we find that our souls and spirits find greater satisfaction in the immaterial than in the material things.

Setting the Example and Expanding Our Thinking

I took a walk in my neighborhood the other day.  My destination was one of our neighborhood parks, but on my way there, I was able to check out some of the houses, buildings and the landscape in better detail than what I can do while driving my car.  One of my favorite points along the way was this awesome house that has a beautiful landscape with fruit trees in the front yard, and solar panels on the roof and in the backyard (you can see them from the street).  I always pass by this house and think, “Man, they are doing it right!  We all need to be moving much closer to that.”  I think that we need to change the overall dominant paradigm of grassy lawns before more of our neighborhoods can actually look more like that, but with every family that decides to reject the dominant paradigm of lawns and actually do something useful, sustainable, and self-sufficient with their property, they are setting a great example to others of what is possible, even in an urban area.

And we simply must start thinking about sustainable possibilities.  The future of our children, our grandchildren, and generations beyond them depends on it.

What do you think?  Why do you believe that homesteading in urban and suburban areas is important?

One of the lovely neighborhood parks near us.  We are very blessed to live in an area with abundant parks and green spaces. 

One of our neighborhood friends…  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Garden Beginnings and My New Keyhole Garden Bed

Well I really have to admit it.  I missed blogging.  Blogging is a creative outlet for me, and I was unable to dedicate time to it while I was working on getting my first e-books self-published.  Now that the book project has been completed, I can start writing about my garden adventures again.

A lot has happened in my garden since I wrote about spring in my last garden post.  For starters, I prepped and planted the garden bed in the existing garden area where I had my straw bale garden last year.  For site prep on top of the existing composted down straw bales that I spread out last fall, I mixed in some compost from our local county yard waste site, and I sprinkled some used coffee grounds as amendments.  I figured that other than that, there was probably still a lot of great organic matter remaining from the composting straw bales, so I’d just go ahead and plant directly in it. 

After site prep in my original garden area, I put two keyhole paths into the garden area with woodchips and wood mulch so that I could easily reach into the garden area from the inside.  The keyhole paths allow for easy reach and access from within the garden, and I can also easily reach the rest of the plants from the outside of the garden by reaching over the fence that I have rigged up to keep rabbits and at least provide a little deterrent to squirrels (although I’m not sure how well that it actually working- doesn’t hurt to try, right?).  I then planted many of the starter plants that I had started from seed earlier this spring. 

I openly admit that I’m probably quite over-ambitious trying to grow so much in such a small space, and I’ll probably run out of room, but heck, why not try stuff?  The plant selection includes: watermelon, cantaloupe, the Three Sisters (with sweet corn, red kidney beans, and pumpkins), broccoli, sweet peppers, sugar snap peas, picklebush cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, and more.  I’m also trying some companion planting using various herbs as pest deterrents, so I’ve planted onion bulbs along the perimeter, as well as some marigolds and calendula, and some basil by the tomatoes.  We’ll see how everything grows.  I love to experiment and learn, so it will be interesting to see what does well.

I also planted some herbs in my herb spiral after adding some of the compost and the used coffee grounds, as well as adding some sticks that have fallen from our very large oak tree in our backyard and some dried oak leaves for bulk and retaining moisture (they were added prior to adding the compost and coffee grounds).  So far, the plants in the spiral seem to be doing okay, and the cilantro seeds that I planted seem to be taking off pretty well.  I also transplanted two strawberry plants that I had covered with straw over the winter in the main garden area.  It amazes me that anything can survive in such cold winter temperatures that we can get here, but they did make it, and they actually have a few green strawberries on them so far. 

The one issue that I have had so far with my herb spiral this year has been the squirrels.  They decimated my small oregano transplants that I had started earlier this spring and planted in the spiral.  This has puzzled me a bit, since the squirrels left my oregano plants in the spiral alone last year.  My thoughts were that either the smaller starter plants didn’t have enough of the essential oils in the plants yet to serve as a deterrent and it was just a tasty salad item for the squirrels, or the buggers were making some sort of Italian or Greek potluck item to share with their families.  If any of you reading this have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.  

My New Keyhole Garden Bed

Then, there is the new garden addition to my yard.  I wanted more planting space than what I had available last year, so I decided to put in a keyhole style garden bed next to my whiskey barrel planter that I have some lettuce planted in, and do the site prep using a sheet mulch technique.  You see, I am all about working smarter, not harder when it comes to gardening, so the sheet mulch technique provides a lot of advantages when it comes to setting up a new garden bed in short order without having to do a lot of work. 

There are a number of ways to approach the sheet mulch technique, but for my new garden bed, I chose to follow the example given in the book Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield.  Basically, you begin by laying down cardboard over the initial area that you are going to build the bed on.  This blocks grass and weeds from growing by excluding light and provides an initial carbon layer for the bed.  The cardboard layer should have no gaps so that weeds cannot grow up between the cardboard pieces and into your garden.  Then, you lay down a 5-10 cm layer of nitrogen-rich material, such as composted manure (which is what I did), and lastly, you lay down a dressing layer on top (about 20 cm) of carbon-rich mulch, such as straw (do not use hay, it has seeds) and dried leaves.  This upper layer will help to retain moisture and provide additional carbon-rich material that your garden bed needs.  As with regular composting, you need both nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials to break down into the ideal organic matter for your garden.  Make sure that all of the layers are wetted down well as you are laying them out to kick-start the composting process. 

After this prep process (and sprinkling some used coffee grounds over the new garden area), I put the keyhole path in the middle, spread out wood mulch on the path, and then I put fencing around the entire garden area to keep little critters out.  Lastly, I planted a number of transplants that I started from seed directly into the new bed, and will be planting some seeds in the remaining space left in the keyhole bed garden over the next couple of days.  A few tips:  You will probably want to punch a hole in the cardboard layer just prior to planting so that roots can get through to the ground below.  You will also want to put some potting soil in the hole to plant the transplants in or just plant your seeds in the potting soil as well.  Make sure that you water everything well after planting, just as with any other garden plantings.

Here are a few pictures of the process of my garden prep so far:

My herb spiral.  We had a few invasive weeds that had grown up around the base of the spiral, so I simply placed more cardboard over the existing area, and added more wood mulch and wood chips.  There was more mulch added after this picture was taken.

The herb spiral, after planting with my strawberry plants, some starter plants, and some herb seeds.

The existing garden area, prior to planting and putting up all of the fencing.  The container in the middle had the strawberry plants in it that were later transplanted into the herb spiral.
A mushroom growing in the main garden bed prior to planting.  Proof that great, rich, organic compost was forming from the composted straw bales left over from my straw bale garden last year.

One of the very important workers in my garden.  Unfortunately, I had to inform it that I couldn’t afford to give it a raise this year.

The area of my yard that would later become the new keyhole bed garden.  The keyhole bed garden has a diameter of 10 feet across, so I measured 5 feet radius points all around the edge from the center, which was marked with my flower pot.

Laying down the cardboard layer over the grass and weeds, and putting up the fencing.

Wetting down the cardboard layer before adding the manure.

The composted manure that I used to add to the second layer.  I needed about 14 of these .75 cubic feet bags of manure, but I probably could have used a few more had they been available.

After adding the manure on top of the cardboard.

The new keyhole bed garden after adding some straw and some dead leaves, along with putting wood mulch on the keyhole path.  I later added some additional fencing to complete the circle around the garden bed.

This post is shared at Healthy, Happy, Green & Natural Party Hop

Friday, June 6, 2014

Back From a Break and My New Book Announcement!

My Dear Readers, I know that I have written no posts here at Day by Day Homesteading for a little over a month now, and you have probably been wondering what on Earth has happened to me.  Well, I have some exciting news: I have self-published an e-book (well two, to be exact)!  During the final weeks of writing, editing, and publishing, I decided that I needed to dedicate all of my free time and extra energy to my book project.  This book has been several years in the making, and for a number of reasons, I decided that it was finally time to write it and get it out into the world.

The book, The Down-to-Earth Guide to Healthy Food Shopping, is focused on how to find and select healthy food when you go to the grocery store or the market.  Here on the Day by Day Homesteading blog, I have always advocated, and will continue to advocate, growing your own food as much as possible, as you will always know where that food comes from.  I advocate that view in my book as well, but I also understand that not everyone is going to grow their own food, and in the world that we live in, it is challenging to produce and grow absolutely everything yourself.  At some point, many of us still find ourselves needing to buy food from somewhere outside of our homes and homesteads.  My goal with this book has been to help guide folks to what I believe are the healthiest food choices are out there, and what many of those terms on the food labels mean. 

I have found that there has been a lot of confusing and conflicting information available to the public about what eating healthy really means.  This issue has been very close to my own heart, since I have personally struggled with a nearly 8-year journey for my own health and wellbeing, and proper nutrition has played an absolutely critical role during the search for solutions to my health issues.  In the book, I discuss my experiences with my own health struggles, the physical, emotional, and spiritual impacts, how these struggles have ultimately made me a stronger, more resilient person, and how I am now closer to my Creator than ever before.  I then discuss many of the things that I have learned along the way about what I believe eating healthy really means, and how to find truly healthy food when you go shopping.   I also discuss that there is no one-size fits all diet for everyone.  What do I mean by that?  You’ll have to read the book to find out!

I also wrote a much shorter guide on selecting produce when shopping at the grocery store, The Down-to-Earth Guide to Finding and Selecting Healthy Produce.  In that book, I discuss issues such as which conventional produce items typically have the most pesticides, what the code stickers on the fruits and vegetables mean, how to select the best produce, and even resources for finding locally grown produce near you.

For more information on my two books, please check out this link.   If you feel so inclined, please feel free to leave a review of the books on either of the sites where they are being sold.  Thanks!