Clay, cordyceps, clams and cucumbers

Last weekend’s permaculture course covered soil (with Christina Nikolic of Gaia College, SOUL and The Organic Gardener’s Pantry), fungi and animal husbandry. We started things off with a bit of digging in the garden to collect our soil samples, which we scooped into flat-bottomed jars, topped up with water and commenced agitating to thoroughly break the soil finely enough to settles and show its layers. We were advised to scrape aside the organic matter and just go for the soil. It was going to take some time for everything to settle – but we began to see the surprising truth of Christina’s observation that even where we thought we had hard clay soil, chances were it was simply compacted and the actual clay content would not be that great. The colour of the soil reflects the amount of organic matter, with darker samples being higher in humus, and lighter ones tending towards higher clay content… no bad thing since clay holds water and nutrients better than silt or sand.

Water made up most of the jars, and the layers then settle in this order:

  • (small amount of organic matter floating on top)
  • water
  • clay
  • silt
  • sand

Christina takes a more benign view of soil than most instructors. Knowing your soil type does not mean you have a problem to manage, she says, and nor is there any point to spending money on soil tests. Instead, focus your energies on building up the organic matter in your soil (even a great soil probably only comprises about 10% organic matter) which makes it more able to absorb and retain water and nutrients.

There followed one of our increasingly excellent potluck suppers, which we were delighted to be able to eat on the sunny patio, and which included such local delicacies as steamed nettles with shiitake mushrooms, kale & squash filo pie, mango spring rolls and spot prawns… but the vegan fudge shamelessly stole the show.

After our giant feed, we talked about different ways of growing mushrooms – from inoculated logs (actually bagged bricks of substrate made from grain or wood chips – these are widely

Mushroom stem butt

available here nowadays at farmers’ markets), from spore prints or even stem butts. We were told that mushroom logs can be broken up and used to inoculate mushroom beds made in various ways in the garden, or rehydrated to fruit multiple times, as the mycelium web runs throughout the substrate. By far the most entertaining moment came when Brandon told us about the cordyceps mushroom that infects carpenter ants – compelling them to take to the highest branches of trees, and killing them at the moment their mandibles bite into a leaf, at which point the fungus grows from their bodies. It is a method of pest control (carpenter ants and termites) described by the mushroom guru Paul Stamets whose TED talk also discusses how to use mushrooms to clean industrial waste and for so many other purposes – medicinal, fuel and more – that he proposes preserving old growth forests as a matter of national defense. David Attenborough has documented cordyceps too:

I finished my weekend on Monday evening when I moseyed over to Vancouver Island University to attend a discussion about local food which featured John Ehrlich (of Alderlea Farm) who has a 300-subscriber biodynamic CSA (veg box scheme), and Guy Johnston, who is starting his second year of a Community Supported Fishery offering salmon, prawns and octopus. We broke for a mid-session snack offering local foods including Natural Pastures cheese – but one of the points earlier made was proved to us: in order to offer us local food, the organizers had to buy it and bring it into the meeting. This college with its cafeteria downstairs and a well-established culinary arts program is tied like many institutions to trade agreements and supplier contracts that do not address the provenance of ingredients. In order to assure a local food supply, local food producers need local consumers, and as has been often said most of our food is made up of cheap imports purchased from off-Island wholesalers.

Farmer John Ehrlich

Fisherman Guy Johnston

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