Sunday school

Like anyone consumed by their work, I ponder, read, and spout off more about local food, health, and sustainable agriculture than the Surgeon General recommends. And if you know me well, you know that the food “movement” has not been spared from my somewhat cynical world-view. And yet the Sunday farmer’s market, nestled in its humble crag under the highway, still leaves me tingly.

The view from Martin's Herb Farm's stand at the inaugural Baltimore Farmers Market of the 2014 season.

The view from Martin’s Herb Farm’s stand at the inaugural Baltimore Farmers Market of the 2014 season.

It’s not the food, really. It’s that there are no jerks at the market—a precious refuge in this gritty city. It’s that there are so many different faces—often not the case in the pallid foodie dimension—and most of those faces are smiling. It’s buying from farmers I’ve known for over a decade, longer than many of my friends. It’s seeing people’s generosity, either through a plunk in the de facto offering plate of the panhandler’s cup, or a coin tossed to a busker, or a signature on a petition for a humanitarian cause.

It’s Earl Martin, who always cuts me ridiculous deals on produce, though I’m not sure how I earned his favor. It’s scurrying to the other end of his table to buy something extra at full price to thank him for his generosity. It’s buying eggs from the Hibberts, who always seem genuinely happy to see me, and I wonder why, until I realize that I’m genuinely happy to see them too. It’s seeing Pam Pahl, and remembering that she took up her husband’s family farming legacy after he passed, a single mom with three kids and a calling. It’s Dave Reid, who always calls me Chrissy and I really don’t care because he wears his goodness the way some of us wear our defenses.

Don’t get me wrong, the food is good too. I rarely bring a list but always leave dizzy with the inventory of meals I can—nay must!—make during the week. Pasta carbonara with loads of parsley. Fish stew with herbs. Kale risotto.

I leave each week feeling reassured by the goodness of the world, humbled by the benevolence of nature, and connected to the thousands of folks I shared a space with for a few beautiful moments, as we collectively savored a week’s end whilst preparing for the approach of the new.

And I think: this must be what religion feels like.

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A fungus among us

A gardener’s calendar is set by the angle of the sun in the sky, the length of the day, and the temperature of the soil. And for good reason: the comings and goings of our photosynthetic partners are strictly linked to these environmental cues. But if we expand our ambitions beyond the plant kingdom, everything changes.

The Little Garden Club, whose members pull from North Baltimore, Towson, and surrounds, contacted me last fall about presenting a mushroom cultivation workshop. I had recently harvested a few Wine Cap Stropharia mushrooms from a mulch bed shaded by my rhubarb patch that I had inoculated the previous spring, and was planning to set up a few shiitake logs for myself. Teaching a workshop presented the opportunity to deepen my own knowledge of mushroom cultivation methods, and, to my nerdy delight, dip back into my freshman biology textbooks, refreshing myself on the life cycles, trophic relationships, and ecological functions of fungi. ‘Cause they ain’t plants, and that matters.

It's alive! Dowels teeming with shiitake mycelium are tapped into holes in logs, sending their fungal threads running throughout the log.

It’s alive! Dowels teeming with shiitake mycelium are tapped into holes in drilled logs. The fungus colonizes the wood, harvesting nutrients for food.

Alice, my contact at the club, offered up some limbs from a cherry tree in her yard, a tree species that serves as a suitable substrate for shiitake. Though there were reports of near calamity during the operation, she was able to cut limb segments, which I collected to pre-drill holes for the inoculation portion of the workshop. I ordered a few jars of peg spawn (wooden dowels inoculated with your fungus of choice) from Jeff Schatz of The Corner Spore, a local mushroom producer and growers’ supply. In one of the stranger exchanges I’ve made during my work with Urban Farmhouse, I dropped into The Corner BYOB, where I picked up the jars of funky-fuzzy white dowels Jeff had left for me while making a mushroom delivery to the restaurant.

We gathered at a club member’s home and the group indulged me—and even seemed fascinated by—the biological details surrounding fungal ecology, their ability to produce both sexually and asexually, and their diploid versus haploid life stages. We moved into the dining room where we spread the materials on a well-protected dining table: logs, peg spawn, hammers to tap said pegs into pre-drilled holes in logs, and plug wax to seal said holes. The ladies got right to it, tapping and smearing their way through the process.

The inoculation station.

The inoculation station.

Everyone took home a shiitake log of their very own. It takes 6-9 months under ideal conditions for the mycelium (the network of fungal threads that permeates the substrate) to colonize the log. After that, the log will produce several flushes of fruiting bodies, aka mushrooms, which are the reproductive structures for the fungus.

Like anything else in the natural world, you can get as technical or as casual as you want with mushroom cultivation. If you’re really looking to produce, you’ll mind exact temperatures during spawn run, will shock your logs in cold water, or perhaps beat them (seriously), to bring on fruiting, and inoculate successions of logs every two years to ensure on-going production. Or you can just set it outside and let nature do its thing. I’ll leave the fretting over yields (and bizzarro log-beating episodes) to the proper mushroom farmer, and just enjoy the surprise of mushroom babies when they choose to appear.

 

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All a-buzz

Here’s what I knew about bees before attending the first session of “All Natural Methods and Practices of Honeybee Stewardship” workshop presented by Baltimore Honey: bees are critical to food production, bees exhibit complex and fascinating social behaviors, bees make sweet, delicious honey—a substance with almost mystical powers—and bees are in peril, dropping like flies (pardon the inept analogy) at the hands of colony collapse disorder and other afflictions.

But here’s what I didn’t know: the practice of beekeeping has arrived at the same chemical- and antibiotic-soaked industrial practices that have perched all of food production at the edge of disaster, at least when executed at the commercial scale. For me, beekeeping evokes quaint, picture book images of a friendly lass in a veil with a smoker. But in reality, many modern commercial beekeepers are using systems developed for predictability, mass-controlled operations, and economies of scale that fundamentally conflict with the natural processes that sustain healthy colonies—right down to feeding bees high fructose corn syrup. Really folks, has corn syrup ever been a good idea?

Continued loss of honeybees, in the wild and in apiaries, has the potential to drastically reduce the supply of certain foods, and completely eliminate others.

Okay, yeah, Debbie Downer’s in the house today. My readers know that trying to control nature—rather than collaborating with it—to produce food, can work in the short term, but falls apart in the long term, whether we’re talking about soil degradation, toxin accumulation, loss of biodiversity, or antibiotic resistance. Beekeeping has suffered from toxins introduced into bees’ forage (pest- and herb-icides on pollen and nectar plants), as well as synthetic fungicides and antibiotics introduced into hives by the beekeepers themselves. Naughty, naughty.

Don't use pesticides on your bee buffet, for Pete's sake

Don’t use pesticides on your bee buffet, for Pete’s sake

Luckily, there are soldiers out there who have been doing things their own way, and for a long enough time to know it works.

Enter Meme Thomas, founder and director of Baltimore Honey. She oozes bee enthusiasm and knowledge like some sticky-sweet substance. She’s been caring for beehives without smokers, without antibiotics, and without added sugar water for decades. Instead she applies a lot of gumption, some smart design solutions, and careful attention to what the bees are telling her: is there evidence of mites on the IPM board, inserted periodically under each hive to detect parasites? Is there enough honey on the hive to steal some for ourselves and still leave enough for the colony to overwinter? How much water are they consuming, and what does it tell us about whether the hive is rearing brood or producing honey?

When you’re done the course you can buy a NUC, or nucleus hive, to get you started, reined over by a locally reared, open-mated queen (rather than a selectively bred one, a practice which limits genetic diversity among bee colonies). And—get this—when you’re hive thrives, Bmore Honey will buy a NUC your hive produced to sell to other new honeybee stewards, propagating hives of sustainably reared honeybees in gardens and backyards throughout Baltimore. Inspired I was.

I have four classes to go. Already my questions are burning—what’s this about a bee dance? What are the behaviors and functions of all the different social castes? And most importantly, where will I put my hive and how good will that first honey harvest taste?

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Announcing…

So this is what it’s like. It’s different than I imagined. But blogging feels oddly like emailing, or any other kind of writing, really. Am I doing it wrong?

All Luddite confusion aside, this blog is born to expand Urban Farmhouse’s voice in the community of folks cheering on gardeners and seasonal eaters of all walks. Our grow food, know food newsletter will still spill forth each month (and you’ll see it posted here). But add to that more frequent reflections on the daily life of the urban locavore.

You see, over the past three years, Urban Farmhouse has provided consulting, design, installation, garden coaching, and maintenance to homeowners growing from shy shovelers to confident nano-farmers. But just as I was getting down and dirty in my role as head (okay, solo) farmer at Urban Farmhouse, additional opportunities to participate in the big picture of nutrition education and food advocacy have found me: I’ve recently accepted a position as Executive Director of Friends of Great Kids Farm, and continue to serve as a program evaluation assistant for University of Maryland’s nutrition education program for SNAP recipients.

Add that all together, and it’s become obvious that 1. There aren’t enough hours in the day, 2. My computer’s lifespan will be shortened by all the dirt from my fingernails becoming lodged between the keys, and 3. The education of a gardener is a lifelong pursuit, and the curriculum includes many courses: season after season of trial and error; long, pleasurable hours of reading texts, forums, and blogs; demonstration by experienced gardeners; and structured group learning.

The main field at Great Kids Farm greets visiting students.

The main field at Great Kids Farm greets visiting students.

Conclusion: Pending an unforeseen slowing in the earth’s rotation, Urban Farmhouse is transforming from a hand-over-hand garden coach to an educational resource for organizations, schools, and informal groups; to an exuberant voice in the foodie choir; and to a grower of words and cultivator of curriculum, spreading the gospel of veg.

So this blog will join the newsletter, facebook page, twitter feed, and our new instagram feed (oo!) as a repository of garden triumphs, seasonal cooking inspiration, timely tidbits, and general enamorment with all that our collaborations with the elements provide for our bellies and our souls, at home and in the community.

Make sense? Good!

Be sure to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to the newsletter, so you don’t miss a crumb.

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