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Eating the Weeds! 5 Steps to Enjoying Wild Edible Leaves, Roots and Flowers

Eating the Weeds

The organic produce aisle…of all places to have an epiphany. There I was, wrestling with the guilt of feeling bored with the canned veggies from my garden, when suddenly my eyes got stuck on the most peculiar looking foliage. I blinked a few times not quite believing what I was seeing – very luscious but expensive bundles of certified organic dandelion greens!

As an herbalist I was rather amused, thinking to myself about the pure abundance of dandelion greens growing in my front yard even in the dead of winter (albeit much smaller in stature than what I was seeing on the shelf in front of me). I had just collected some that morning to put into our salad for dinner.

I stood there slightly bewildered and thought, “Why would anyone actually buy dandelion greens, especially at this crazy price?” And then it dawned on me. Not everyone is as comfortable as I am walking out into my yard, a fallow pasture, or the forest to harvest and eat the plants that are growing there.

What is to me of second nature may be rather intimidating to others. Maybe the average person wandering through the grocery store is super interested in testing out the infamous dandelion greens of their granny’s dinner time stories, but they are a little freaked out by the idea of foraging them from wild spaces? Well, perhaps I can remedy that.

Acquiring knowledge about how to properly identify, harvest, and prepare edible weeds can be a lifelong journey and there is as much to learn as there is fun to be had. So on behalf of the wild weed kingdom, I would like to welcome you to an enlightening and satisfying way to build relationships with the natural world and truly connect with local wild foods you can rely upon for nourishment.

Why eat weeds?

Anyone reading a cooking blog these days can tell you that there is a growing interest and market for ‘wild foods’ such as mushrooms like chanterelles or morels and berries and fruits like elderberries, mulberries, or paw paw. These delicious and well-known miracles of nature can be both expensive and hard to find.

Fortunately, there are many less famous edible plants, or ‘weeds’, growing with wild abandon right outside our front doors whose tasty leaves, roots, and flowers contain tremendous nutritional value.

In fact, in the days before grocery stores, farmers markets, and year-round produce, these wild edible weeds served as primary sources of both food and medicine. Not only are these edible weeds nutritious, they are also free of charge, costing only the energy it takes to learn how to identify them and to get out into the great outdoors (with a bit of bending over). Research has shown that fresh air, natural light, and exercise all have the added health benefits of reducing the effects of stress on the mind and body (unlike a typical trip to the grocery store, in my experience).

Foraging for wild foods is a very rewarding and nourishing way to interact with nature. For many individuals and families, taking time to eat the weeds — even just those in your own front yard — can be an inspiring and memorable way to spend time with loved ones. It can also be a powerful teaching tool for parents wanting to instill in their children a sustainable food ethic and admiration and respect for nature’s bounty. In practicing the ethos of ‘eating local’, it is so important that we remind ourselves and our children where our food actually comes from. When learning to harvest and eat the weeds, we create mindfulness about respecting and honoring the life, the death, and the resources used to get that food to our dinner plates. In addition, preparing delicious food from the weeds you have harvested yourself can enliven the spirit behind your meal and the intention in your cooking.

5 Steps to Foraging and Eating Weeds

Step 1: Do your homework

When I find a new subject that I am uber excited about, I want to jump right in. However, in order to ‘eat the weeds’, we need to learn which plants are safe to consume as foods (i.e., not poisonous) and how to identify them accurately.

There are many poisonous look-a-likes out there, and although some of these plants are deadly, more often than not you and your guests could end up with a bad case of vomiting and diarrhea (it’s a terrible way to end a dinner party).

Needless to say, getting a handle on basic botanical identification is of utmost importance, so arm yourself with at least two plant identification field guides. The Herbarium and the blog of the Herbal Academy of New England are fantastic websites that house loads of great information about the properties of plants, but any good book on medicinal plants will cover edibility, what the plant is capable of inside the human body, and whether or not it may be ill-advised to consume it.

The caveat is this: always cross reference your field guides and herbal books in order to ensure you have positively identified a plant before harvesting it.

We also need to understand which plants are both edible and abundant. Many edible weeds also valued for their medicinal virtues are in danger of being over-harvested in the wild. Some edible weeds require very specific places to live which can also account for their rarity. Never collect rare or legally protected plants and never enter into fragile habitats where your presence can alter the sanctity or stability of the ecosystem. If you are not sure about these things, check out the United Plant Savers ‘At-Risk’ and ‘To-Watch’ lists and the USDA Plant Profile database which will provide information about the vulnerability status of the particular species you are interested in eating.

Step 2: Find a fresh location

Like vegetables grown in a farmer’s field, edible weeds absorb everything they are exposed to in the water, soil, and air. Therefore, it is important to consider the growing conditions. It’s generally good practice not to harvest edible weeds that are growing next to roadsides due to likelihood of residue from gasoline and diesel engines and the salt, fracking wastewater or coal cinders used for deicing.

These substances are full of toxic chemicals and heavy metals which accumulate in the soil. There is also a very high likelihood that roadsides have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides to discourage plants from growing too close.

The use of pesticides and herbicides can also be an issue with public parks, as can excrement or urine from pets (or even people!). Be weary of immaculate or highly manicured lawns, parks and gardens, which are not likely to be pesticide-free. Know the history or maintenance regimen of the land you wish to forage from, even if it looks wild. Stretches of land with a dubious past may look benign but could have been an old landfill or industrial dumping ground. Your local county auditor’s office or public library should have historical plat maps that can tell you the history of that land.

It is also important that you seek permission from private landowners before foraging their property for edible weeds.

If you intend on foraging from state or federal lands be sure you know what you can legally harvest. For example, many state parks and nature preserves have a moratorium on harvesting anything from their properties, and federal lands like the national forests might require special permits or have specific rules about what you can and cannot take.

Step 3: Harvesting fresh plant material

Before harvesting fresh plant material, get in the right headspace and be prepared with the necessary equipment.

You’ll need a magnifying glass to assist in proper identification of flowering plants, clean and sterilized scissors or pruners, a trowel or hori-hori for digging roots, collection bags with labels, and a pair of gloves (for harvesting species with thorns and stings).

It is also a good idea to bring along a first aid kit. If going out alone, be smart and let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return — getting lost or injured in the deep woods when no one knows where you are can be a terrible and frightening experience. There are also some ethical issues to consider.

Bottom line: do no harm and leave no trace.

Be gracious and caring about your foraging practices, never harvesting more than 10% from the plant itself or from the plant grouping. If you are collecting roots, remember to be mindful of the damage you are causing to the surrounding area, including other plants and the soil.

If significant damage is likely, don’t harvest. Always remember that when you harvest the the plant can attempt to regrow (depending on the species, sometimes regrowth is possible, sometimes not). Use what you pick and don’t let wild foods go to waste.

There are real benefits for harvesting with the seasons. In the case of flowers this is pretty straightforward, but the nutritional (and medicinal) benefits as well as the palatability of weeds and their various parts will ebb and flow throughout the year.

Spring and summer are definitely good times to harvest leaves and aerial parts, where late summer through fall is believed to be the best time for digging roots. Some plants are only available in the spring or taste better when young, whilst others last all season long. Get to know the growing season to help you decide when, and where, to forage.

Avoid collecting material that is damaged, diseased, infested by bugs, or pooped on by critters.

I personally prefer to keep my weeds separated by species when I am harvesting (hence the multitude of bags and labels).

Keeping edible weeds separated will help with the final stages of preparation when you are removing non-edible material or undesirable tag-alongs.

Step 4: Preparing the weeds for consumption

Proper rinsing and cleaning of your weeds is straightforward.

Dispose of any damaged, buggy, or rotten material that you may have overlooked when harvesting and sort through your weeds carefully to make sure there is no foreign or unidentified plant material. Most edible weed parts like flowers and leaves are best consumed fresh, but for short term storage, make sure they are drained of excess moisture and then stored in bags in fridge.

Consume them within a few days so you do not lose them to rot. Flowers will wilt and go off sometimes within hours of being picked, so it is often best to eat them right away.

The roots of a plant should also be consumed fresh for highest nutritional benefit, but they can also be chopped and dried for longer-term storage. Learning how to dry edible weeds properly is both an art and a science and care must be taken in order to avoid spoilage. Some edible weeds, like dandelion leaves, nettle, chickweed, and red clover all make wonderful weedy vinegars that can be used in salad dressings and other recipes.

The vinegar not only preserves the plant material by extracting the nutritional and medicinal virtues of the plant, but also assists the body in assimilating them. For further lessons in drying and preserving edible and medicinal plants, check out the Herbal Academy of New England’s online Introductory or Intermediate Herbal Courses.

They are chock full of solid information, how-to’s, and delicious recipes!

Step 5: Cooking and eating the weeds!

Finally! The exciting moment of reaping the nutritional rewards of your harvest has arrived. When first starting out and especially when preparing weeds for others, a little will go a long way. A whole mouthful of dandelion greens may make a different impression upon a dubious first-time weed-eater than a few leaves chopped up and added to a salad. Start small and go slowly, giving time for palettes to adjust to the new tastes and textures.

Similar to legumes, there are some weeds that contain properties that can be harmful if not nullified by heat, and some of which may require substantial cooking. On the other hand, there are some wild weeds whose nutritional value and palatability can be completely annihilated through cooking. Make sure you know which herbs you need to cook and others that would be better off eaten fresh. Everything in between is left to you, the artist!

Last but not least, have fun! Be creative! Remember that sometimes it can take a while to incorporate new things into our lives and wild foods are no different.

Be patient with yourself, and with those whom you share food. It may take some convincing or stealth weed-eating tactics, but eventually everyone will likely come around and enjoy eating weeds with you.

Good luck and happy foraging!

This post was written by Erika G Galentin, MNIMH, Medical Herbalist and Assistant Director of Course Development, Herbal Academy of New England

6 Simple Ways to Save Money on your Grocery Bill

At the Lil’ Suburban Homestead we love growing our own food right in our backyard but with both of us working full time we still buy quite a few of our groceries at the grocery store down the street. We are able to supplement a substantial part of our diet with farm fresh produce right out back especially in the warmer months in Coastal North Carolina.

We also gave up couponing a couple of years ago when we realized the couponing was steering us to mostly processed foods and we knew that in order to have good health and to continue to improve on a healthy lifestyle getting away from chemical laden and processed foods was the direction we wanted to go in!

However we have learned a few tricks that help us save money on our groceries and let’s face it they aren’t getting any less expensive, if anything prices continue to climb.

No. 1 Cut your bacon in half

I’m not joking whether you buy turkey bacon, regular bacon we noticed that when we started cutting our groceries in half that no one noticed and your waistline may thank you as well. When we shop for bacon I freeze it because I don’t know when we are going to use it. Bacon cuts very nicely in half when frozen with kitchen scissors. All you notice is that you have short pieces of bacon. This works well with a family of 4 of course this may not work so good with a family of 8 but start cutting things in half and see what happens.

The cutting in half principle also works with fruit for lunches cut your apples and bananas in half again most people just want the taste of the fruit and won’t really notice that they had less apple or banana. Again this is for most people not for 6’4” athletes like my son

No. 2 – Start adding dried milk to your baking you can use it anytime a baked good recipe calls for milk.

I use it to make banana bread and corn bread and so much more! A lot of times I mix some up in a bottle in keep it in the fridge. No one will be the wiser…seriously.

No. 3 – Start adding Fish to your family’s diet

Going totally meatless is more of a struggle for me since I eat a gluten free diet but it can be done and if you can’t go all the way meatless then try to have an inexpensive cut of fish one night a week in many places cod, tilapia, or flounder are still relatively inexpensive and don’t forget the good ol’ standby of tuna! Also there are a lot of gluten free pastas at the grocery store nowadays they are not necessarily priced low so you may have to look for deals!

No. 4 – Make the veggie the star of your meal!

I have a favorite recipe on my blog at Lil’ Suburban Homestead called Stuffed Peppers with Quinoa so the grain and the peppers are the starts and there is a little hamburger or turkey burger in the sauce to make it a hearty meal and it’s a heart healthy meal if you use a reduced fat meat and omit the cheese!

Grains really can stretch your grocery budget and using them up as leftovers and lunches will stretch your money even further at the grocery store!

No. 5 – Beans really are “Big Value” for your buck!

They are a great source of complex carbs and they are not only a great addition to every meal they also can be the centerpiece of your Meatless Monday meal!

Meatless chili and if you are concerned about dropping the additional protein of meat you can also add “TVP” or Textured Vegetable Protein. I have slipped soy based TVP into many an unsuspecting meal of course I always mixed it in half and even I could not tell the difference!

I often will make chili in the slow cooker on Friday’s in the winter and I will eat chili for lunch the following week I just pre- measure it into 1 or 2 cup containers the next week depending on everyone’s appetite. Delicious lunches make the day go so much better in my opinion.

No. 6 – Cook a turkey or whole chicken at the beginning of every week!

If you have a large family you can take off the turkey what you need for a recipe for every night of the week and you can cook the bones up for good healthful homemade broth and then you will have soup every day for lunch or at least for a couple of days that week!

Finding small ways to save on your grocery bill, eating less processed foods, and putting some change back in your pocket at the end of the week is a good thing!

Everything you need to know about Growing Heirlooms

growing heirlooms

For many of us, a large component to modern homesteading is growing fruits and vegetables for ourselves and our families. We enjoy having a little bit of control over what we’re eating and how it was grown. Growing and eating fresh produce is hands-down a healthier lifestyle and it leaves us with healthier wallets, as well. If you have yet to try your hand at growing heirlooms, there’s some compelling reasons to introduce a few into your garden this year. One of the most exciting is the hundreds (and hundreds) of heirloom varieties that you won’t find in the typical grocery store. Everyday commercial vegetables don’t begin to scratch the surface of the many shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors that heirlooms (and other open-pollinated varieties) can offer.

When you do find the one or two heirlooms in the produce aisle, they’re extremely expensive. Growing these special vegetables in your home garden will have you saving money, eating the ultimate fresh food, and enjoying intense vegetable flavors that you’ve probably never tasted before. To top it off recent studies have shown heirloom vegetables to be higher in nutrition than their half-breed cousins — the commercial hybrids. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds can be saved year-to-year, which means that technically after the initial purchase you’d never have to buy seeds again. Unless, of course, you’re like me and can’t wait to try the next variety that catches your eye (or palate). If generous gardeners around you (and vice-versa) share seeds from their plants; you may never have to purchase seeds for your garden again.

When you plant heirlooms, you’ll be putting food on the table that has its own genes and produces true seed. But what exactly does that mean? First let’s talk about the definition of open-pollinated, heirlooms, and hybrid plants (by the way, these terms define flowers and bulbs, as well as vegetables).

Moon-and-Stars-watermelon

Photo courtesy of: Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply/Grow Organic.com

Defining Heirloom Characteristics: 

Hybrid: The offspring of two plants of different breeds, varieties, or species as produced through human manipulation for specific genetic characteristics. Seeds kept from hybrids won’t breed true to the parent plant and can actually be sterile (as is the case for some commercial hybrids).

*Hybrids should not be confused with GMOs. A genetically modified organism has been altered by genetic engineering such as placing the gene from one species (like a fish) into another species (like a tomato).*

Open-Pollinated: These are plants that are pollinated naturally (by insects, wind, water, birds, or mammals). Seeds from an open-pollinated (OP) plant will produce seedlings and fruit that will look like the parent plant. In other words, these seed varieties are said to “breed true.”

Heirloom: Heirlooms are a sub-set within the open-pollinated class. Generally, they earn their title when they’ve been handed down from generation to generation for fifty years. Let me further clarify what puts heirloom varieties into a class of their own:

1. Heirlooms have time, stability, and history behind them. But the truth is that there’s no “official definition.” In fact, some purists don’t like to put varieties into that category unless it’s 100 years old or older (most agree to the age of 50 years). One thing is for sure, heirlooms are rich with culture being brought to us courtesy of immigrants from all over of the world. Plus, many of these seeds have wonderful stories — and names — attached to them.

2. Heirloom vegetables are always open-pollinated varieties, although not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. One example is when open-pollinated varieties are “created.” This happens when a plant breeder uses two heirlooms (or an heirloom and a hybrid) and crosses them in order to get certain desirable traits. The plant produced from the seed after the cross-pollination is a hybrid. This hybrid can be grown out, allowed to become naturally pollinated, and these seeds are saved.

They’re replanted and the cycle begins again and again for five years or longer. At the point where after the seed is grown out and it consistently grows true to its parent, it’s considered “dehybridized” and can be referred to as an open-pollinated variety. Are these new OP kids destined to become heirlooms? Maybe. If they’re loved and kept around for generations, these new open-pollinated plants could end up being the heirlooms of our future. After all, family heirloom varieties whose seeds have been passed down through the generations originated from cross-pollination (started out as natural hybrids) in the garden or on the farm.

3. It’s extremely important to note that no one owns open-pollinated or heirloom varieties; they remain public domain. Unlike many commercial hybrids, heirlooms have no secret parentage (as can be the case with hybrids) and they’re available to any gardener. By the way, the above characteristics belong to the open-pollinated veggies that aren’t necessarily considered heirlooms. They just may not have the extensive history as their counterparts.

Why We Celebrate Heirlooms 

Due to some misconceptions floating about, I’d like to explain that hybrid plants are not being demonized within the heirloom-loving communities. Hybrids certainly have their place and I don’t know anyone that’s actually banished them from their home garden. Rather, the idea is to celebrate and share the incredible value of heirlooms and open-pollinated plants. Here’s the part where I share what it is about our heritage plants that just rocks our world (literally).

Unrivaled flavor — I’ll be the first one to admit that any vine-ripe vegetable grown in the home garden (hybrids included) beats the flavor of store-bought vegetables any day. That said, most heirlooms have the flavor factor in spades; the prolific hybrids have a hard time competing with that. Commercial hybrids are created for uniformity in color, shape, size, yield, transporting abilities, and the ease of machine-harvesting. This isn’t to say that there aren’t delicious hybrids — there certainly are. But there’s an amazing assortment of heirloom varieties (and therefore, flavors) to please the palate.

Genetic diversity — We can thank genetic diversity for the fact that so many varieties of vegetables exist in so many different areas. Gardeners in Alaska can have potatoes just like gardeners in California all because there are varieties adapted to each environment. A big drawback to planting monocultures (a large amount of only one plant variety) is that a single pest or disease can come in and wipe out an entire food crop. Genetic diversity in a garden is the first defense against this potential threat. An excellent example is the Irish potato famine of 1845. At that time all of the potatoes grown in Ireland were a variety called ‘Lumper.’ Farmers lost all of their crops,  the people lost their food. Because the plants were genetically identical more than a million people died of starvation.

Adaptability — Heirloom plants have an inherent ability to adapt naturally over time to their environment (these plants are referred to as “landraces”). They adapt not only to the soil they’re planted in, but also to the climate.

Historically, as vegetable varieties adjusted to their environments they also developed resistances to local pests and diseases. The resulting plants ended up strong, viable, and suited to every area in the world. You can create landraces by planting an heirloom that does particularly well in your garden, saving the seeds from the best fruit, and replanting year after year.

A Little Control — Food is a basic human necessity and he who controls the seed controls the food supply. Unfortunately, about ten companies control three quarters of the commercial seed world-wide. They literally own it. You’ll be happy to know that heirlooms are owned by no one — and everyone.

A Link to Our Past — So when did “heirlooms” become heirlooms? It might surprise you to know that the term didn’t exist before the early 1980s. Before that, they were know by a different name; food. These plants were simply traditional vegetables grown in gardens everywhere — the staples of life. I find it fascinating that some of the heirlooms preserved by family seed-saving go as far back as 2000 years or more. Connected to these seeds is the history of our ancestors and who they were; giving us a basic indication of who we are. Seeds are truly living family heirlooms.

Purple Pod Bush Beans

Photo courtesy of: Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply/Grow Organic.com

Those Funky, Fabulous Names 

If you aren’t sold on heritage seeds by now, their names and stories will surely win you over. Check out this small example of some marvelous monikers:

  • Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed lettuce — You’re really going to resist that?
  • Moon & Stars watermelon — This melon literally has a big, gold moon and little starts on the rind.
  • Dragon Tongue beans — You can grow Dragon Tongues?
  • Mortgage Lifter (Radiator Charlie’s) tomato — M.C. Byles of West Virginia (“Radiator Charlie”) bred this tomato variety to bring in more money while he was struggling in the 1940s. He bred the plant for six years to achieve some stability in the variety. He sold the plants for $1 each and paid off his $6000 mortgage.
  • Rattlesnake beans — Pour these seeds into your kids’ hands and tell them to go plant some rattle snakes in the garden.
  • Tigger melon — Tigger is child-hand-sized, bright yellow with zig-zagged orange stripes.
  • Cherokee Trail of Tears beans — This bean was carried from the SmokyMountains to Oklahoma during the winter death march (1838-1839), 4,000 graves were left along that trail.
  • Mascara lettuce — Named for her brilliant red, frilly leaves.
  • Depp’s Firefly tomato — Read the name again. I’m just sayin’. 

Perfect Pollination

If you’d like to grow heirlooms and save the seed for next season’s garden, you’ll need to protect your plants from cross-pollination by other plants in the same family. The goal is collect pure seed and in order to do this, varieties are usually grown a certain distance apart (depending on the plant family), or by using physical barriers such as caging or bagging techniques. For example, pumpkin varieties can all cross-pollinate with one another, which would produce impure seed and the pumpkins produced from the next generation would end up a hybrid. I should also mention that there are times when it may not matter to you whether your plants are cross-pollinated or not. If you don’t plan on saving seeds, then it wouldn’t matter how (or who) pollinated your plants. Here’s why: When a plant is pollinated it produces the right fruit for that variety.

Let’s say the a honey bee carries the pollen from a ‘Dixie Queen’ watermelon and pollinates the flower of a ‘Crimson Sweet’ watermelon, the fruit borne on that plant will be a ‘Crimson Sweet.’ Cross-pollination doesn’t affect the resulting fruit of the first generation. It affects the seeds within that fruit. Therefore, only if you were going to save the seed from that pumpkin would you be concerned about whom was pollinating whom. One of the keys to successful gardening is choosing the right variety for your climate — this doesn’t get any truer than with heirlooms.

The best advice I can offer on choosing the right varieties for your area is to talk to your local nurseries and see if they offer varieties that thrive in your zone, find out what your neighbors are growing, and ask heirloom seed companies for guidance before you order. This year, plant the vegetables with the laugh-out-loud names, rich heritages, amazing colors, and mouthwatering flavors. See for yourself why the varieties of the past have earned their way into the hearts and homesteads of so many gardeners of today.

asuburbanfarmer.com

About:
Chris is the gardening/home ag editor of From Scratch Magazine. She is also a freelance writer, blogger, and author of five books including Vertical Vegetable Gardening (Alpha Books, 2012). She balances family, writing, and all things modern homesteading from their hobby farm in the Northern California foothills. She’s blessed with four fabulous kids and four darling sugar babies.

Holy Shiitake! How to grow mushrooms in your backyard

shiitakes

By Julie Thompson-Adolf

I’m not much of a risk taker.

It’s sad but true. I don’t plan to scale the highest summit or cage dive with sharks. But in the garden?

Now, that’s a different story. I’ll plant varieties considered outside my USDA zone, push the envelope of sun verses shade recommendations, and squeeze just one more tomato plant into a bursting bed. Yep, I’m living on the edge, brandishing my trowel with the swagger of a swordfighter. The prize?

A lush, ripe delicious heirloom tomato for dinner. Although our ancestors thought them to be poisonous, today we know that tomatoes are safe. Not much risk there.

But mushrooms? Now, that’s upping the gardening — and eating — ante. There’s something subtly sinister about mushrooms. As kids, we’re warned not to touch mushrooms or play with snakes. As adults, we respect and covet the foraged fungi, salivating over morels and paying a fortune for truffles. Whether gourmet delicacy or cause for demise—mushrooms walk a fine line.

So, when I attended a mushroom growing session led by the owners of Mushroom Mountain, I definitely stepped outside my risk-averse comfort zone.

After all, the speaker was a brilliant guy — part genius scientist, part fearless farmer, part educator extraordinaire, part foraging foodie enthusiast. I was hooked.

Armed with my knowledge and a bag of plug spawn, I took a walk on the wild side: I began a mushroom garden.

I’m not certain that “garden” is the proper term, but “garden” sounds safe, don’t you think? Typically, shiitake mushrooms grow on portable, easily relocated fresh hardwood oak or sweetgum logs, approximately six inches in diameter and about three feet long. Of course, I don’t believe in easy.

Because my husband and I are tree-huggers, we won’t cut a tree unless necessary. However, we needed to remove a partially rotted tree.

Down went the tree, and with a few extra cuts—we had a forest of thick, round logs.

Much thicker in diameter than recommended and nearly impossible to move, I was determined to turn the gathered logs into a shiitake producing machine. Somehow, the stumps were very reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

Anyway … Growing shiitake mushrooms seems complicated, but here’s a secret: It’s not. Don’t tell anyone, though. When people hear about the scrumptious shiitakes you harvested for dinner, they’ll think you possess amazing gardening powers.

Here’s what you need:

  • Plug spawn from a reputable source. I highly recommend Mushroom Mountain. The plug spawn I purchased from them is cultivated on 3.4” dowels. The spawn can be stored in a refrigerator and remain viable for up to a year. Remove the plugs from the refrigerator a day prior to use.
  • Logs or stumps, freshly cut from a living tree.
  • 5/16-inch drill bit and drill
  • Canning wax, melted using a double boiler method. (Bottom pot contains boiling water, top pot contains wax and small amount of mineral oil to help prevent the wax cracking and drying out. Submerge top pot into bottom pot to melt wax.)
  • Clean paint brush

How to Inoculate

Inoculation is the process of inserting the plug spawn into the log or stump—planting the mushroom “seeds.” The log needs to be inoculated within six weeks of cutting and should be dry and free of dirt. Drill holes 1-1/4 inch into the log to create an air pocket below the plug. The holes should be drilled in a diamond pattern on the log or stump, approximately five to six inches apart.

Hammer the plugs firmly into the holes and cover them with a thin coating of melted wax using a clean paint brush. The wax prevents insects from entering the holes in the wood.

After plugging and waxing the log, soak the logs overnight.

In my case, with our crazy forest of stumps, I ran a sprinkler to soak the wood.

Additionally, with the thick logs I used, I buried part of the wood in the ground to help with moisture retention. And then … you wait. And wait.

Hopefully, when your first mushroom appears, it will look like a shiitake. Our first mushroom looked … odd. I harvested it, took a photo, and sent it to Mushroom Mountain to confirm that it was, indeed, a shiitake.

As I awaited a reply, I watched “The Today Show.”

Ironically, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, appeared on the show, discussing the accidental poisoning of his entire family—by serving them mushrooms. They all required kidney transplants after ingesting foraged mushrooms. What?!? Nervously, I threw away the mystery mushroom.

It turns out, I discarded a perfectly safe, delicious oyster mushroom. Somehow, a stray oyster spore found its way onto the log.

But then, a few months later, a mushroom appeared on a log. Then another. And another. Soon, dozens of mushrooms filled the logs — and they looked exactly like shiitakes. Of course, do you think I ate them without first sending photos to Mushroom Mountain for a proper ID?

Not only am I risk-adverse, but I also try to keep my family healthy and poison-free. Fortunately, the very kind folks at Mushroom Mountain confirmed that my mushrooms were “beautiful shiitakes,” and I should happily feast on them.

That night, as I prepared dinner, I noticed that my husband waited until I took a bite of the risotto ai funghi before he tried it. He knew that if even I would venture to eat homegrown mushrooms, then they must be safe. As for my gardening status? Yep. I’m pretty much a mushroomgrowing rock star now.

And I might even attempt to forage for morels.

On a supervised expedition.

With the pros of Mushroom Mountain.

Here’s my recipe for Risotto Ai Funghi:

Ingredients

  • 6 cups organic chicken broth, divided
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 pounds shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried (rehydrate prior to use)

  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • ¾ cups dry white wine
  • freshly ground pepper to taste
  • sea salt to taste
  • 3 tablespoons chopped chives
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Note: Make sure to have all ingredients ready before you start. You need to stir continuously to avoid burning, so you don’t want to hunt down ingredients in the midst of cooking.

Directions

  1. Warm the broth over medium-low heat in a saucepan.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the mushrooms (fresh or rehydrated) and cook until soft, approximately 3 minutes. Remove mushrooms and liquid, and set aside in bowl.
  3. Warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet, and add the shallots. Cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add rice, stirring to coat it with the olive oil. When the rice is golden in color (about 2 minutes), add wine. Stir continuously until wine is absorbed. And ½ cup broth to the rice, stirring until broth is absorbed. Continue adding ½ cup broth at a time, stirring continuously, until liquid is absorbed and rice is al dente, approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
  4. Remove skillet from heat. Add mushrooms with liquid, butter, chives, and Parmesan, stirring well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Serve alone or as a side dish. Makes approximately 6 servings.

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