All posts by fodderfarm

Fungi in the Garden

Two years ago, we moved to a new garden, it was winter and with the regular and sometimes torrential rain, the soil was sticky and boggy. The whole vegetable garden area needed reconfiguring as much of the runoff from the house paddock flowed straight into it and had no way to flow out again. The rest of the property was scattered with lovely large trees, many of which needed pruning to open up the pasture for better grazing, and there were a few hectares of pine trees. Having used our own homegrown tree mulch in the past we knew what a valuable resource all these trees were.

Mulching tree pruning’s

Work began with reshaping the vegetable gardens, using swales to guide the water flow around the gardens and away from the beds. The paths between the beds were dug out and the soil spread over the beds to raise them, these paths were then filled with woodchip, mulched from tree pruning’s to a depth of 100 to 200mm. All the larger perennial, shrub and fruit tree gardens also received a generous covering. Mulch is usually used to retain moisture during dryer months, but also as in our case, to allow excessive moisture to run away from mounded garden beds in high rainfall times.  It reduces the amount of weeds and any that do grow are easier to remove, this is thought to be due to succession (more on that later).

Fresh ramial mulch topping up the garden paths.

As we use mostly ramial mulch it also provides nutrients and helps change the characteristics of the soil to a less weed friendly environment. Ramial mulch is made from the fresh cut branches, up to 7cm in diameter and mulched while the cambium layer is still green. Often leaf matter or tree buds are included in the mulch adding even more nutrient for the soil. It is considered to have the optimal balance of carbon to nitrogen when used fresh, becoming higher in carbon as it ages. An issue with using aged wood chip is it can result in a ‘nitrogen deficit’ where the woodchip and soil meets, this can be negated by adding nitrogen to the soil in the form of blood and bone or aged manure at the time of applying the mulch or just by using ramial mulch.

Ramial mulch and straw in the vege garden

But wood mulch in and around your garden has another beneficial use, it creates a fungal-dominated soil. We saw this firsthand as our garden settled and found its rhythm, the wood mulch began to sprout. We had been experimenting with Korean Natural Farming methods (KNF), collecting indigenous microorganisms from old tree locations surrounding us. These were grown on to create fungal brews and added to the composts. We had spread fungi all over the garden and as any mushroom hunter knows the fungi bug is addictive. While we searched the wider landscape for fungi, beneath our feet our fungal networks were expanding.

Mycelium forming in the wood mulch.

Most people just think of fungi as the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) which we see above ground. But the main body of the fungi, called mycelium, is in fact below ground, spreading throughout the soil as a network of fibre like growth, called hyphae. These networks are very effective at extracting nutrients and water from the soil and mulch and making it more available to the surrounding plants. The beneficial fungi are great little workers within the natural environment, creating healthy soil biology, offering direct protection for the plants by producing anti pathogens and out-competing disease organisms.

Fairy inkcap, (coprinellus disseminatus)

There are two main types of beneficial fungi; Mycorrhizal and Saprophytic. Mycorrhizal fungi are the ones which form relationships with plants by either attaching themselves to the plant’s roots (Ectomycorrhiza) or by penetrating the roots cell structure (Endomycorrhiza). Their relationship is mutually beneficial, the fungi network, or mycelium, spreads its strands into the surrounding soil and extracts the nutrients, minerals and water from a larger area which it then releases to the plant. The plant in turn gathers carbohydrates, energy and fatty acids through its photosynthesis process and feeds these back to the fungi. This symbiotic relationship connects the fungi to other surrounding plants as well, creating a (chemical) communication network which can cover large areas. In fact, the largest known living organism in the world is the mycelia of the parasitic Honey Fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, USA, it covers an area of over nine sq. km.

Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria,

Mycorrhizal fungi will often produce fruiting bodies near the roots of their chosen plant companion, as the underground mycelium can be very fine this may be the only way you will know they are there without the use of a microscope. However, the mycorrhizal fungi which fruit above ground are generally associated with trees (ectomycorrhizae).  The Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, (the classic fairy tale toadstool) is a well recognised ectomycorrhizal fungi which is often found in pine plantations, but it also forms relationships with other trees such as oak, spruce, fir, birch, and cedar. Another well-known and edible species is the Birch Bolete, Leccinum scabrum, which is found under birch trees. But within the vegetable garden you are more likely to have Arbuscular Mycorrhizal (AM) fungi which is in the Endomycorrhiza group, these do not produce above ground mushrooms and do their work invisibly. Studied through a microscope, soil scientists are still learning about their amazing possibilities. AM are the most common symbiotic fungi/plant relationship, and it is thought that 80% of all land plant families have an AM relationship.

Common inkcap, Coprinellus sp.

The majority of mushrooms we see in our gardens are Saprophytic, the decomposers, and they are the most common type of all fungi, this group includes the common field mushroom Agaricus campestris. Living on dead organic matter, they break down materials like chitin, cellulose and lignin, which are difficult for plants to digest. Their action of breaking down woody matter, leaf matter, manure, dead insects and bugs, creates humus and mineralised nutrients which can be utilised by plants. The soft bodied delicate fungi are usually the first to show up in your mulched areas, species like the common inkcaps, Coprinellus sp. They will digest the more readily available nutrients making them more bio available to the plants. In our garden we have experienced flush after flush of these short-lived mushrooms, the delicate heads pushing up through the mulch, opening like flowers and then dissolving into the black goo which gives them their name. Another tiny relation the fairy inkcap, (coprinellus disseminatus) form little clusters along the edges of the garden beds causing us to step around to avoid damaging their fragile beauty. Then as the mulch ages, larger, chunkier mushrooms begin to appear which are capable of accessing and digesting the nutrients within the cellular structure of the wood as they have a more vigorous mycelium and powerful enzyme excretions. These species often include the very common and brick red Leratiomyces ceres, also known a Chip Cherries (a rather fitting name). Bright and cheerful as they look spreading out over the mulch, don’t let the name fool you they are not considered edible.

Chip Cherries (Leratiomyces ceres)

Another interesting fungi which is common on woodchip mulch is Cyathus striatus, Fluted Bird’s Nest or Splash Cups, thus named due to their little nest like cups with a few peridioles (capsules of spores) in each which look like little eggs. These curious little fungi are so camouflaged by their colours and size they are easy to miss unless you are weeding or fungi hunting. It is the mycelium of these Saprophytic fungi that is most obvious under your mulch or in your composts, forming quite thick white clusters of hyphae. Pull the mulch back, move a board or brick and we see clumps of hyphae, a vivid white against the dark browns of decomposing wood, as the mycelium spreads throughout our garden.

Fluted Bird’s Nest or Splash Cups (Cyathus striatus)

The last group of fungi is the second largest and yet probably the most studied from a garden or horticultural perspective, Pathogens. These can be present as rust, root rot, brown rot, blasts and smuts etc. While many resources are directed towards the fighting of these fungi, the fact is that fungi are the cleanup crew. If they are attacking your plants something must be out of balance, if we work on strengthening our soil and therefore plant health, our plants will have better resistance to fungal pathogens.

It is this cleanup function of fungi which has made them a useful tool in the battle against man-made pollutants. Myco-remediation is the term used for the process of using fungi to transform environmental toxins such as heavy metals, petroleum, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and many more. Their digestive enzymes can degrade these substances into generally harmless compounds, though in some cases these compounds can accumulate in the fungi. The shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus) is a common edible mushroom which can remove mercury from the ground but as it accumulates the mercury in its body, it can become toxic. So, it would pay not to eat fungi from known contaminated sites. The good news is even plastic can apparently be broken down by something as simple as the common oyster mushroom.

Tawaka (Cyclocybe parasitica)

But there is another great side to these amazing fungi, the edible one. There are a number of popular edible mushrooms which are able to be introduced to your garden, most are grown on logs such as Oyster, Shiitake and Tawaka. But the most impressive of these edible garden fungi and which can be grown in your wood mulch, is the King Stropharia or Wine Cap (Stropharia rugosa-annulata) capable of growing to an amazing 30cm in height and diameter. It also is a very strong decomposer with a dense mycelial mat, breaking down the wood mulch into nutrients for your plants and into beautiful soil, plus it is apparently capable of gray water filtration. Spawn for the King Stropharia can be brought online and is mixed into a bed of thick wood mulch in your garden. With adequate moisture and mulch, it should begin fruiting within couple of months to a years’ time and continue to provide you with plenty of mushrooms for many years.

Often in our ‘conventional’ gardening and farming practices the beneficial fungi and other microbial life struggles. The use of frequent soil tilling, fungicides, pesticides, herbicides and frequent fertiliser application (especially soluble salt fertilisers) and even overgrazing, destroys the fragile fungal networks and their relationships with plants. Walk through old bush lands and you will see just how diverse and amazing these fungal networks can be. But these forests are highly fungal, which is not what we want in our food gardens and orchards, this is where the word succession comes in.

Ecological Succession Diagram

Succession is where one ecosystem is replaced by another as the soil and environmental conditions change and plants respond to these changes. Soil scientists studying the microbial world say bare rocky soil is at the highly bacterial end of the ecological succession, it moves on to scrambling annuals then to deeper rooted annuals and annual grass species, the fungi increasing slowly through each stage. The perennial herbaceous plants and grasses are just before the 1:1 B:F ratio (Beneficial Bacteria to Beneficial Fungi ratio) where vegetables usually thrive. The succession moves on to woody perennials, shrubs and vines between approximatly 1:2 to 1:5 B:F, with orchards said to do best at about 1:10. Deciduous trees range from 1:5 to 1:100 B:F with the evergreen and old growth forests being very highly fungal at 1:100 to 1:1000 B:F. By looking at what is currently thriving in your garden you can work out roughly where your ratio is at and changes you might need to make. But we also need to limit the practices that do harm and increase our use of mulches, diverse plantings and take the steps needed to start bringing our land back into balance. There is a whole new world to explore beneath our feet and bringing back the fungi is just a starting point into the soil health journey.

For more information, please check out:

And Korean Natural Farming at https://naturalfarminghawaii.net/

The Rustic Dairy

Having your own home-produced milk, whether it be from a cow, goat or sheep is often a major goal for many homesteaders. But with this influx of white gold comes more work and chores added to your day. Dealing with the sheer quantity of milk which some animals produce can be over whelming at first until you develop a rhythm that works for your household.

For us that rhythm is each morning we strain the fresh milk into a food safe bucket, this removes any debris (hairs etc) which may have fallen into the milk. The bucket has a secure lid and is put in the fridge until the next day. The cream rises and thickens and the next morning we remove the cream and put it in jars with the milking date on the lid, which go back in the fridge. 

The milk is then poured off into dated bottles if we need milk, or turned into cheese, kefir or junket. Any milk which is not needed that day goes into a ‘curd bucket’ for the pigs and sometimes the chooks. These buckets or large jars sit in a warm spot and the raw milk is allowed to set (clabber), if left long enough the curds (solids) and whey will separate. Clabber or curds and whey are in fact traditional ways of consuming milk especially in times where there was no refrigeration. I have heard stories of a bucket by the backdoor into which milk was poured, constantly topping it up. The contents would have fermented into clabber and then separated into curds and whey. The constant refreshing with raw milk would have kept the fermentation alive and the contents would not have spoiled (though it may have got rather sour unless it was cleaned out occasionally). The household would scoop the curds and whey out as needed. These curds and whey are probably most well-known these days by the old nursery rhyme of ‘Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey’

One of our stock food clabber vessels.

Another interesting item I came across in an old Aunt Daisy book was the ‘Curd Pit’.  A pit is dug ‘a good distance from the house’ Approximately 7ft x 5ft x 3 to 4ft deep. Whey is added from the ‘curd drum’ (probably the one mentioned above) to provide the bacteria to start the milk curdling then the surplus milk after the cream has been skimmed is added each day. Apparently, the curd forms and floats on the top while the whey gradually sinks into the ground. By winter there will be a pit of tightly pressed curd. This can be chopped into blocks with a spade and fed to your pigs and chooks. Our curd buckets are a more basic short-term form of this curd pit. The great thing about being able to feed surplus milk to the animals is it give you a break from dealing with the milk and relieves the feeling of being inundated.

About once a week we will take all the cream, that hasn’t been eaten on desserts or used in cooking, and make butter. For us raw cream is the most important aspect having a milking cow as we all love butter and fresh cream. Fortunately, butter is easy to make if you use a food processor, we had all sorts of issues trying to use our glass butter churn. But put it in a food processor and give it a whirl and it churns in minutes. Rinse it off and wash out the buttermilk with cold water, salt it and pat it. I find tipping off the buttermilk then adding cold water to the food processor and giving it a whiz, drain and repeat till liquid is clear works a treat. Salting will draw out any remaining liquid as will patting (working) the butter. We find our butter is not as hard as shop butter so is kind of spreadable from the fridge, which means we can scrape butter off easier and it softens enough to spread once on the bread etc.

Over the past year I have also experimented with quite a few cheese recipes with locally sourced raw milk but had varying degrees of success. With our cow finally having her first calf this upped the dairy workload and recipes which were easy and fast took preference. But of course, the ultimate test is will anyone actually eat it! It seems aging and funky flavours were our biggest issues and as I really don’t want to have to constantly buy cheese cultures, simple and traditional methods looked like our way to go.

Lucy our Low Line Angus/Jersey cross cow and her new born calf Wall-e (named after William Wallace and the kids movie Wall-e )

‘The Art of Natural Cheesemaking’ by David Asher was a good read and I learnt some great tips from his book. Like if using raw milk, you don’t need to sterilize utensils etc just keep them clean. Milk can be cultured by using kefir or whey from a previous cheese (trouble is I don’t like the taste of kefir and you need to keep the whey active, which means regular cheese making). Rinsing cheesecloths in water and baking soda before use removes any smells which can affect the cheeses.

But I found even using his methods and recipes they often didn’t hit the family acceptance factor, or the aging problems came up. Aging is not so much of an issue for us in the colder months but over summer we just don’t have the fridge space and being on solar a second fridge is not an option.  This led me to explore simple cheeses and the traditional clabber cheeses, where fresh raw milk was left in a warm place for a couple of days to set into a solid curd (clabber) just like with our stockfeed clabber. I have developed a small collection of cheeses which suit us and our Rustic Dairy style. Most of these cheeses can be made with only raw milk and a few items which should be in your pantry like salt, baking soda and vinegar.

Traditional Clabber Cheese

Mild American Cheddar or Ozarks Cheese

Paneer

Wall-e

Paneer

This very simple cheese doesn’t melt when heated and is brilliant for frying as croutons for your soups, adding cubes to curries and stews or sliced and used as the ‘bread’ under a grilled cheese toastie.

Milk is heated to just boiling and an acid is added to separate the curds and whey. You can use any vinegar but each type (white vinegar, Apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar etc) will give you a different taste to the paneer. Lemon juice can also be used and in traditional Indian paneer, yoghurt was used as the acid which gave the cheese a natural delicate flavour.

Ingredients

4 litres milk (any milk will do except UHT)

½ to ¾ cup of vinegar, or 1 cup of fresh lemon juice, or 2 litres of yoghurt or kefir.

1 Tbsp. salt (optional)

Method

Bring the milk to the boil (85 to 95°C) over a medium high heat. Stir the milk often to prevent it scorching on the bottom of the pot.

Bringing the milk to the boil, the potato masher is great for holder the thermometer in place!
And yes that is a massive thermometer, its our compost one (well washed) as someone broke my cheese one!

Turn of the heat and let the milk rest for a couple of minutes so its settles from the stirring.

Pour in the first measure of vinegar or lemon juice and gently stir a couple of times to mix the acid through the milk. Do not over stir as the curds are delicate.

Curds starting to separate…

Your whey should be a yellowy colour, if it is still whitish, I add more vinegar approx. ¼ cup. It seems that there is perhaps a lot of variances in the strength of different vinegars which affects the yield if the milk proteins do not separate properly.

The whey has gone from milky white to yellowy

Let the curds settle for about 5 minutes. You will see them separating from the whey. As they cool, they will clump together.

Scoop the curds from the pot and strain in a colander.

Straining the curds

If you would like to add salt, spices or herbs to your paneer mix them through now.

Put the warm curds into a mould (or just a container with holes to drain the whey) on a draining rack and place another container or jar full of warm whey on top of the curd for a press.

Once the paneer has cooled it is ready to use, it can be stored in the fridge for up to a week and can also be frozen.

The yield from this 4 litre lot of milk was 553g (yes I tared the plate :-))
Paneer cubes fried in butter.
Paneer croutons in pumpkin soup with fresh cream

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

Our neighbour’s forestry block was being harvested and they were about to move into the area which has our spring source and 15,000 litre water tank. The forestry boss man had agreed to help us move the tank out with his digger. But on the day, we were meant to do it, with the tank already drained, he was caught up elsewhere.  The tank sat on a cut out at least 20 metres up into the pines so David decided we could get it out ourselves… It’s that self-sufficient mindset you see.  Where there’s a will there’s a way, if I want it done now, I’ll have to do it myself etc. David’s got it down to a fine art. Besides the reality is a helping hand also brings outside interference, ahem, I mean outside opinions and heaven knows there’s enough opinions between the two of us without bringing in another person’s ideas! David tends to mull over these difficult jobs and find a solution in his head (or You tube if necessary but not in this case) and then bounce it off me for a different viewpoint. Its not the first time we’ve moved a large cumbersome object, though often they are not round and get rolled on posts. Like the 2m x 4m shed we rolled down a small hill, dodging large oak trees and into its new spot as a chicken house.

The tank on its forest cut out platform.

But anyway back to the tank, using a fence post and a sturdy board as levers and with much straining and grunting, we raised the side near the bank until we had enough leverage to flip it on its side. It hit the ground with a hollow thud and fortunately stayed put on its forest ledge.  After much debate and mucking around in the mud, we tied a rope around the tank and looped it around a punga, slowly lowering it down a 3m bank onto a track David had cut through the massive blackberry.  The blackberry kept it in place on the slope as we scurried down to join it. Turning the tank to face the road below we pushed it like a steamroller over the dense blackberry, thorns grabbing at our legs and tearing our skin.  It rolled up against a small punga but with more manoeuvring it was on its way again.

The squished blackberry path down the hill.

A broken mess of pine lay over the old gate, so sturdy boards were put down to get the tank up and over. This worked great until one of our future carport beams snapped, damn, what good structural timber that was…

But we got the tank onto the road and across to our paddock.  Until now we had been mostly in the shade of the pines but once in our paddock the sun was intense. We rolled and manoeuvred the tank up a steady but uneven incline, pausing occasionally to reposition the tank and catch my breath while seeking much needed shade.  Once at the flat area we chocked the tank with a bit of pine debris (of which we have plenty) to prevent it rolling back down the hill.  David still had to prep the pad so home for a much-needed drink and to get some more tools.

Later as David was determinedly struggling to flip the tank by himself (I think another term for this is bullheadedness…), Ben the boss man turned up.  He was impressed (and a little gobsmacked I think) to find the tank already moved from its hillside perch 100m down the road. David said ‘here pull-on this’ and together they flipped the tank back on its base. Ben being a giant of a man made the job easy. He went off to check on his boys felling trees further up the road, glad to be saved a couple of hours work.

Over the debris and onto the road.

David decided to climb in the tank and give it a clean it.  But as he descended into the tank the old wooden ladder disintegrated beneath him.  He landed hard on the bottom of the tank, bruised and sore, the ladder fragments around him. His first though was ‘how am I going to get out’, his second ‘I may as well clean the tank while I’m here’.  However, it was so hot and stuffy in there he soon stopped cleaning to try and figure a way out, but none of his escape ideas worked and as surely someone would come past soon, he continued cleaning the tank.

The air was getting hotter and stuffier, he stood on the bucket to see if he could get some fresh air. The opening wasn’t too far away so he jumped and gripped the rim. But he couldn’t get his elbows up through the small opening and the top started to cave. The sweltering simmering heat made any effort exhausting and dropping back down he thought ‘Bec’s making dinner, she’ll wonder where I am soon and come looking. I might as well clean the tank’.

The tank finally in place.

As he started to clean, again he was overwhelmed by the heat.  ‘I wonder what the time is? Will the sun be going behind the hill soon?’ He stood on the bucket again and could see the sun was still high in the sky it could be another hour and a half before it cools down. The slightly cooler breeze near the opening made him realise he was having trouble breathing in the thick hot air of the tank. ‘Surely someone will come soon; I might as well clean the tank’. You must wonder at this point if the lack of air and the heat was making him a bit incoherent as he just kept trying to clean the tank…

The heat was intense, and he felt himself becoming overwhelmed if he tried to do anything. He struggled with each breath and felt faint, and it occurred to him that he might not last another 30 minutes he had to get out! David picked up the pieces of the ladder and tried to put them back together, but one of the few rungs still clinging to a side rail just fell off. Leaning the broken rail against the tank with its last two top rungs near the wall he stood on the bucket and leapt for the opening again.  Holding the rim, he scrambled for a foot hold on the rail. His soaked socked feet (gumboots were on the bottom of the tank) gripped the rail like climbing a coconut tree. This was enough to allow him to get his elbows up through the narrow opening, but he didn’t have the energy to pull himself up.  The rail started to slip across the base of the tank, but still stayed upright long enough for David’s foot to find a rung, but he also felt the rung bend under his weight. Pushing himself upwards with the little extra leverage he heard the rail hit the base of the tank, it was now or never.  The tank top started to cave again, he mustered all his strength to haul himself out, roll off the tank and still holding the rim he waited till he felt his legs drop below him before falling to the ground. Dehydrated and shaken by the experience he walked home in his sodden socks. We’ll just add this one to his list of well that was a bit dodgy, someone must be watching over him.

The homemade wooden ladder.

The next morning, he made a ladder from timber (all our ladders were too wide for the opening) then went to retrieve his gumboots and finish cleaning the tank. But this time he told me what he was doing with instructions to come check if he wasn’t back in an hour. Long story short he cleaned it, dragged loads of pipe out through the blackberry and the pines, reconnected it to the spring and got our water going again. Luckily for us the crew got in and did their felling without wrecking the spring or dropping a tree on the damn tank. Phew.

Following pipes through the forest mess.

Traditional Clabber Cheese

This crumbly soft fresh cheese is similar texture to a cottage cheese but higher in fat. It can be pressed in a mould to create a firmer round cheese which can be sliced or which can apparently be aged as white rind cheese like a camembert, but I have not tried this yet.

Ingredients

1 litre Fresh Raw milk (I have used four litres of raw milk in the photos)

1 teaspoon sea salt (or other good salt free from additives such as iodine and anticaking agents)

Method

Put raw milk into a glass jar or non-reactive bowl/pot (or food safe bucket if making a large batch)

Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place to sour and thicken. It should take one to two days depending on temperature, check it every 12 hours or so. Fresh milk may take longer but is better to use as older milk can taste bitter due to the psychotropic bacteria’s which thrive in the cold of the fridge.  Once the milk has become a thick mass (Clabber) and started to separate it is ready to hang.

Line a colander with a cheesecloth and place it in a large bowl. Pour the clabber into the cheesecloth and gather the cloth up around the clabber. Tie off the top and hang from a hook or a wooden spoon over a large pot. Use a fine woven cloth but if you find the clabber is too runny to hang it needs longer to ferment before hanging. The clabber needs to drain its whey for about 24 hours.

Hang the clabber for 24 hours

After 24 hours place the cheesecloth in a bowl, open the cloth and mix the salt into the cheese. The added salt will help to remove any leftover whey.

After 24 hours there is still a bit of moisture in the cheese, the salt will add flavour to the cheese but also draw out more whey.

Hang again for another 4 hours or place in a mould and put a weight on top (glass jar of water etc) to press out any extra whey.

After the second hanging or pressing the cheese is now ready to eat.

The cheese is now ready to eat and will be fine in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Seasonings can be added with the salt, fresh or dried herbs like chives or spices like paprika can give you very different tasty cheeses, perhaps even dried fruit and nuts…

The Fresh cheese turned onto a plate, this cheese is lovely spread on sandwiches, crackers or crumbled over salads.