Fungus Among Us

2/13, first evidence that mushrooms are developing…

On January 20 of this year I announced my intention to start growing oyster mushrooms using a new non-sterile technique I read about in Fungi Magazine. The technique, perfected by Milton R. Tam of the Puget Sound Mycological Society of Seattle, WA, uses newspaper-based kitty litter and guinea pig chow in which to grow the fungal mycelium of the oyster mushroom. My first batch, started on that date is now doing great and is just a few days away from harvest. I will stretch this blog out a few days so I can give a full report including pictures, yield and cost per lb..

Day three, 2/15/2014

For the first few weeks not much was going on besides the relentless growth of the mycelium through the medium. Think of how soybeans are transformed into tempeh and you get the picture. Gradually the kitty litter turns white with fuzzy growth until almost no more is visible. This happened in a dark closet at less than 70 degrees F. After two weeks I brought the bag out and placed it on the kitchen counter. I waited a week and nothing happened. I looked up pictures on the web of “oyster mushroom primordium” to see if I was missing something. As it turned out, what I was missing was a little more light. The mushrooms need the light to trigger the fruiting process. I switched on a kitchen grow-light and set the timer for 12 hours/day, and that did the trick. Within a few days little white domes appeared in the bags near the holes I had cut. In a matter of hours the domes differentiated into pincushions and each “pin” then grew a cap and started to resemble a tiny mushroom. Each grouping now contains 50 or more individual mushrooms and each bag has about 4 of these groups. They are growing so fast I can almost hear them grow!

Day 4.

Milton Tam’s article said that the primordia would form “5-10 days” after the two week mark, and I was about to give up on day 23, exactly two weeks and 9 days after the start, when the buds first appeared. I have been mixing up bags once a week since the beginning, and I will mix more today. The goal is to have a steady supply; the next week’s bag will start to produce as soon as the previous is done. My big unknown at this point is how long the spawn will last. So far it has lasted almost a month in the fridge. I have attempted to inoculate more grain (wheat), hoping it will outlast the original.

Overall the project is worth doing. With less effort than making a loaf of bread I get a pound of premium mushrooms, although it takes 3-4 weeks. Once you get to the one month mark however, the reward is already sitting on the counter.

Oyster mushrooms are not only tasty, they’re suspected of containing anti-tumor chemicals. One study found they “inhibit growth of colon and breast cancer cells without significant effect on normal cells, and have a potential therapeutic/preventive effect on breast and colon cancer.” (International Journal of Oncology). Oyster mushrooms are rich in protein (up to 30 percent by dry weight), plentiful in B vitamins, have no cholesterol, and have significant levels of the cholesterol-lowering molecule lovastatin — up to 2.8 percent by dry weight (Stamets, 2005, Alarcon, 2003). If that’s not enough they’re anti-bacterial too! The first mushroom-derived antibiotic, pleuromutilin was extracted in the 1950s. This info on health benefits were taken from an article by mushroom guru Paul Stamets here. Paul also stresses that all mushrooms, including oysters, should be thoroughly cooked before eating. I couldn’t agree more; fungi are the chemical factories of the natural world and need to be respected for their niche; their nutritional and medicinal value is unlocked by cooking.

Day 6. Time to harvest!

From mixing up the first bag until harvest took 30 days and yielded one pound. Since each bag took $3.92 in materials, that’s $3.92/lb. I fried up some this morning and had them in an omlet, it was great. Oysters are “al dente” mushrooms, similar to shiitake, not soft and supple like button mushrooms. There is a possibility that the bags will produce a second flush, so I’m leaving them around for a while. I harvested the second bag too but got only 10 ounces. I think this second bag was a little dry, so I’m planning on adding water to all future bags before they bud.

We just had another several inches of snow and spring seems far off, but the kitchen garden is going strong!



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Maine Lawn Rebel

Google street view of where I grew up.

I grew up in a land of conformity. The houses were all on 1/4 acre lots in a new subdivision and the measure of a family’s social standing had a lot to do with whether their lawn had dandelions and if the edges which met the sidewalk were cut razor straight, with no blade of grass allowed to bend over the cement. I always fought this. It was enough to cut the grass I thought. Let the next door people worry about getting on the cover of Lawn Beautiful. Flash forward 40 years and not much has changed. Now instead of pushing around a gas powered mower most suburbanites contract out their lawn care to a company like “Chairman Mow, we cut the grass of the ruling class“. Even at SeaCat’s Rest it’s common to hear the roar of internal combustion engines and the smell of exhaust, unchecked by the pollution controls common to the cheapest of cars, wafting in from neighbors. How did this all begin and why does it continue?

There’s a simple caveman explanation. Imagine your cave is in the middle of a thick forest. Now picture it higher up, overlooking a broad meadow or lake. In which would you feel safer? The one with the broad vista, of course. You can see ’em coming. Bloodthirsty foes or hungry relatives. Time to lock the door and pretend you’re not home. Could our love of lawn be any more than just that? Actually, yes.

English countryside. Photo by Andy Edwards

Consider the English colonists. They came from a pastoral land where every square inch of rural land was used for crops or grazing. They brought grazing animals with them and forest cover meant hunger, for animals and humans alike. Massachusetts was not Somersetshire. Trees had to be cut and grass planted. By 1640 we had established permanent markets for importing English meadow seeds like timothy and alfalfa. As our farms flourished, trends in English landscape architecture reinforced the ideal of lawns. In 1830 the lawnmower was invented by the Englishman Edwin Budding. By 1850 the lawn was part of the American preferred home landscape, with no other purpose than to look good.

As the lawn grew in popularity from Maine to California and south to the Gulf of Mexico, measures were taken to ensure its health in a variety of climates. Drought resistant grass varieties were planted in the south and when nature couldn’t provide, the Industrial Lawn took up the slack. By the 1950s the modern lawn required watering, chemical de-weeding with herbicides and greening up with fertilizers. It was cut, in ever greater frequently due to the fertilizers, with enormous inputs of fossil fuels. By the time I was in college it was said that Americans put more fertilizer on their lawns than India used on food crops.

Path to SeaCat’s Rest

For a while now there has been a movement afoot to reverse this trend. There’s a “freedom lawn” movement which seeks to develop a method of taking the industrial component out of the American lawn. Ornamental grasses, perennial flowers, native varieties and relaxed cutting and interference are part of this approach.  Mainers are a little less serious about their lawns anyway. Sometimes, meadows are allowed to grow and only bush hogged when woody plants (usually alders) appear. That might be every two or three years. I’ve never seen anyone in Maine apply lawn chemicals. Lawns are mowed, but weeds are free to flourish for the most part. Visitors from the south often comment that our lawns look a little wild and uncared for. I guess there are parts of the country where the industrial lawn still rules.

It’s no wonder Maine is lax on lawn care. Our own Hannah Holmes, who lives in Portland on 2/10 of an acre wrote a book called Suburban Safari, A Year On The Lawn in which she describes in great detail the ecology of her freedom lawn. On page 104 she says,

   Whatever you call it, it’s a popular landscape choice around here. Maine has been slow to recognize the genius of turning a perfectly good vegetable-patch-with-garbage-dump into an outdoor shag rug. And if we must have a shag rug outdoors, by gorry, we ain’t gonna manicure the blasted thing.

Here at SeaCat’s Rest we maintain a strip around the house of mowed grass, which I cut with an electric mower. Other parts of the property are covered by either woods or Kathleen’s extensive perennial flower and ornamental grass extravaganza, where butterflies and hummingbirds find plenty to eat. We still have the caveman expanse in the form of the North Atlantic. Just this side of the shore we allow nature to prevail with wild blueberries, raspberries and bunchberries. I like to cut back the woody plants by hand every spring to maintain the view, but most of the vegetation is untouched to preserve the integrity of the bank. At least one of our guests remarked that our setting was “rustic” and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment (see reviews here).  So there it is, if you book lodgings here you have to deal with a Maine Lawn Rebel.

View from the bank

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Maine Garden Results 2010

This year has been a banner year for gardeners on the Acadia coast. Once in a decade. Maybe once in two. Let’s hope it happens next year. I’ve seen years when it takes four plantings of beans before success, sometimes as late as July. This year they were doing well in early June. The first tomatoes were red before August. Plenty of sunshine, adequate rainfall and temperatures in the 80’s during the days, 60’s at night. Wow!

My folly of the spring, to plant a Maine Coast vineyard has convinced some to consider me sane. It has thrived!  I pruned off all the grape clusters to allow the plants to put their energies into foliage. This is supposed to allow for faster wood growth above and below ground. I don’t expect a problem with winter damage here; the low winter temperatures are not that extreme unless the saltwater freezes hard–not that common. My next decision is whether to allow any fruits next year. It will be hard to not let a few go…. I was delighted that the grape seedlings I planted in spring grew all the way to the top wire, about five feet off the ground. This means that the horizontal branch on the top wire will become a permanent part of the plant. Everything else except the trunks will be pruned off in March. Every grape variety has an optimum number of buds allowed to produce in the spring depending on climate, soil, spacing, and who knows what else. Leave too many and you get overcropping, resulting in small, low quality fruit. Too few and you’re wasting space. Somehow, grapes need to be stressed into producing a good crop by being brutally pruned. I have a lot to learn.

Now, my bhut jolokia peppers have done fine in the greenhouse. These are the hottest peppers in the world; so hot that the Indian Army is weaponizing them into pepper grenades. They are from the Assam state of India and are translated as “ghost pepper”. You will not find seed for these babies at your local garden center. I got them from New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, and they weren’t cheap. I grow them mainly so I can get good seeds for next year. The jolokias rate over a million Scoville units, twice as hot as its nearest competitor. The peppers make nice novelty gifts.

The greenhouse is devoted to peppers, mostly of the edible type. I find bells to be difficult to grow into the colorful version, they take forever and are not very productive. No wonder they cost so much! Sweet banana are my stars. They produce like crazy from June to November and have a sharp pepper flavor without heat. I also like Jalapeño. A little hot and if you let it go red it gets sweet too. One or two more experimental varieties and I’m a happy pepper guy!

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High Summer and Beyond

Perfect temperatures, stunning aqua-vistas and sweet birdsongs make Acadia the destination of dreams for America. We’re a little far away from major cities. Come here and we’ll make you forget the effort. There are still places to stay and things to do that won’t require lottery winners.  You’ve all heard about the attractions of “the Island” , Mount Desert Island, aka Acadia National Park. Do you know that lodgings on the island are about 30 percent more expensive than places about 20 miles away? Do the math and seek out the bargains. This website was created to feature our property but many more in the area can be seen through and These places are rented by others like us who have excess capacity. Right now we are booked up for the summer except for July 10-14 and August 1-7.

Consider the autumn for a less harried visit. You may not need to escape the heat where you are but there will be lots to see and do and the weather will be fine. Our bookings calendar is wide open for much of September and beyond. Late summer starts with Hawkwatch on Cadillac Mountain with the Bar Harbor Jazz Festival running the third week in August. The 2010 Bar Harbor Fine Arts Festival starts August 20. Rounding out August is the wildly successful and free American Folk Festival in Bangor, August 27-29.

The Acadia Night Sky Festival is a celebration of the unique darkness of our night sky and runs from September 9-12. Bucksport’s 8th Annual Medieval Tournament is scheduled for September 11 at Fort Knox. Read about last year’s event here. The quirky MDI Garlic Festival happens this year on September 18 at the Smuggler’s Den campground in Southwest Harbor.  Though it’s a bit of a drive, the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine is an organic mega-event on September 24-26. Art in the Park will take place rain or shine on the Village Green in Bar Harbor September 25-26, 2010.  My favorite fall event is Acadia’s Oktoberfest & Food Festival, also located at Smuggler’s Den campground in Southwest Harbor, October 10, 2010. Last year’s fest was covered here.

Even if you attend no special events, fall in Acadia is a great time. Crisp air, thinning traffic, turning leaves and the annual cranberry crop are worth a visit.

Northeast Harbor's Asticou Gardens

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A Lamoine Vineyard

People say I’m nuts. Growing grapes in our windswept, foggy, short growing season is folly. Stick with raspberries and blueberries. Maybe they’re right. I’ve written in the past about the sad attempts of local wineries to produce a local product from grapes. The best wines are produced from the traditional European varieties of the vinifera species. Often growing these grapes at the cold edge of their range produces wine with exceptional flavor. But that assumes the grapes will grow in the first place. Our problem here is not so much winter kill; our temperatures are well above the twenty below many varieties can withstand. Our problem is too much rain and lack of sunshine and warmth in the summer. Grapes are notorious for having fungal problems. They like things dry; their roots go deep.

There are options. Vinifera grapes–the familiar Pinots, Chardonnay, Shiraz, etc would be very high maintenance. They would have to be buried in the winter, sprayed often and they may not ripen before frost. Fortunately, we have the native grapes like Concord and Niagara, members of the  labrusca species. These make lackluster wine but are table favorites. I know these grapes will do well here; neighbors grow them. There’s even a wild giant grape vine up the road from here which is threatening to take down a maple tree. It is probably a member of the riparia species, the riverbank grape. The riparia and labrusca species are the two American grapes most often used when breeding with vinifera for our climate.

A complicated history of grafting and crossbreeding has produced many varieties which are both cold and humidity tolerant and which also produce acceptable wine. I found two of these varieties at Surry Gardens (Surry, Maine), Frontenac Gris and Kay Gray. The two epicenters of hybrid grape research in North America are New York State Experiment Station at Geneva, New York and the University of Minnesota and can be credited for these new options. I would have liked one of the new Marquette vines, but they’re hard to come by.

Niagara, my earliest leafer

My vineyard consists of two Reliance vines (a pink table grape), two Frontenac Gris, two Niagara, two Kay Gray and one Concord. I know I planted them too close but I wanted to make sure I would have survivors if some died (they’re now 3-4 feet apart). They are now leafing out and I must admit, I’m excited. The goal of this first year is to develop the root system by allowing as much leaf growth as possible. Fruit clusters will be pared down to a minimum and training to the trellis will be a priority.  If you know how to grow grapes, please get in touch. I’m just about clueless!

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Starting the Peppers in Lamoine

The summer breezes off the ocean, which start up about 10 am are not good for growing peppers or tomatoes. While they lure visitors escaping the heat from the rest of the country, those 70° F winds can frustrate seaside gardeners. It works like this: The sun beats down on the land. The land heats up the air above it. The air rises and creates a low pressure which gets filled by the cooler heavier air over the water. And that is the origin of the on-shore breeze. It is pretty much independent of the prevailing wind direction, which at our spot happens to be southwest to northeast anyway, adding to the breeze. Move a quarter mile inland and the breeze warms up. This ocean tempering is responsible for our microclimate; cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, as long as the saltwater doesn’t freeze (it didn’t this winter). The ocean temperature is very slow to change. The constant churning of the tides keeps the water pretty cool in summer, at a maximum of about 63°F. In winter it usually drops only to the mid 30’s.

Bhut Jolokia, hottest pepper on earth.

Anyway, back to the peppers. My solution was to build a greenhouse. This, along with a few wind barriers creates a place where heat-loving vegetables can grow in our long but cool season. I’m nuts about peppers. I search the world looking for the hottest. The current front runner is the Bhut Jolokia from the state of Assam in India.  This boy is like pepper spray in a pod at over a million Scoville Heat Units. A few weeks ago I burned my hands just planting the seeds. I don’t have much use for this toxic produce but I’m committed to growing a few plants each year just to keep up the seed stock and to dare the occasional hotshot to eat a rice-sized slice.  I can feel sweat on my forehead just thinking about it. I got the seeds from The Chile Pepper Institute, part of the the New Mexico State University. A recent article reports that this pepper is being weaponized by the Indian military; they’re using it to make a “Chili Grenade” to use in the fight against terrorists!

My main crop is the standard yellow or orange bell pepper which this year I am growing from seeds taken from a supermarket pepper. Last year I was picking this variety from my greenhouse into December. I don’t heat my greenhouse; freezing temperatures usually don’t get inside until December at the earliest. My other favorites are sweet yellow banana and jalapeño. Both of these varieties are early and prolific. Colored bells are the crowning glory but yellow bananas are the workhorses. I also grow a few other hot peppers for custom paprikas. After tasting your own paprika you can’t go back to store-bought!

While the sun is strong but the pepper plants are small I squeeze in a crop of spinach or other greens. These are sewn in directly as soon as the ground thaws and temperatures moderate. The greenhouse produces food for us almost year round, and many plants come up year after year without being planted. We have a few bunching onions which serve as an emergency supply when we’re out. Claytonia has popped up and will be starring in a salad soon. Cilantro/coriander has seeded itself and claims a corner. Spring is here!!

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Acadia’s Asticou Gardens

Asticou pond

An unsung gem of Acadia is Northeast Harbor’s Asticou Azalea Garden.  I’ve been to Japanese gardens in San Francisco and Portland, OR and they are beautiful. I never thought a cold weather Maine version was possible.  Thanks to Charles Savage and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. this secret garden was planted in 1956 to preserve the rare plants of other island gardens as they were being dismantled. Charles Savage, then owner of Asticou Inn graciously opened the gardens for all to enjoy for free. Today the garden is owned and operated by the non-profit Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve. This is an excellent place to unwind, relax, contemplate and inhale.


The main theme is azaleas, or more broadly, rhododendrons, from cooler regions of the world. Winding paths of raked gravel take the walker over a meandering stream to the shore of Asticou Pond. Exquisitely cared for and labeled specimens transport one into a bonsai wonderland.  Seasonally, the beauty is timeless with a careful balance of evergreen foliage and flowerings.  I can’t wait for the cherry blossoms in mid May.

The Asticou Azalea Gardens can be found at the intersection of Route 198 and Route 3 in Northeast Harbor, with the parking entrance just off Route 198. It is on the Island Explorer bus route. The garden may be visited during daylight hours from May 1 to October 31. Nearby also find the Thuya Garden, also owned and managed by Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve.

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Unity Common Ground Fair

Today the Common Ground Fair starts, and thefair sign big news is there will be organic coffee.   Well known for featuring only Maine food, the fair has forbidden coffee being served at the fair because – well, you cannot grow coffee in Maine.    However, this year, they have bowed to the pressure of the crowd, and it will be available.    Also new  they will not be selling bottled water.   The water at the fair is great to drink – so bring your own container!!!

As always, the fair strives to totally recycle as much as possible, so, be prepared to minimize your footprint on the planet – bring your own bags to carry your new treasures and enjoy the wonderful handmade crafts, exhibits and organic products made on Maine Farms.   My favorite is the fiber goods, warm hats and mittens for the next season. See the Lama and Alpaca and cashmere goats. The fair website is the best place to check out the schedule. This is a wonderful event for all age groups.

Don’t forget the animals – poultry, rabbits, sheep, horses, goats, cows and of course the “boarder collie sheep herding” competition.   Our daughter grew up attending this fair and it sparked an interest in how things are made.   She ended up learning how to spin yarn, knit and crochet even though we lacked those skills.  The fiber producers at this fair are amazing.   It’s part of growing up in Maine and it’s part of the creative economy.

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