Nice weather for ducks and mushrooms

“Planting” these shiitake mushrooms involved nothing more than pounding short lengths of wooden dowels, purchased with shiitake mushroom spawn growing in them, into numerous holes drilled in freshly cut pin oak logs. (photo by Wendell Smith)

Wouldn’t you know it: I write about the extended dry spell one week, and the next week – which is now – the rain comes and doesn’t let up. Not that all this rain makes me regret having a drip irrigation system watering my garden; rainfall could come screeching to a halt and send us into another dry spell.

My five Indian runner ducks offer many advantages here on the farmden, not the least of which is affording me the pleasure of watching creatures that actually enjoy cool, rainy weather. The ducks also are entertaining and decorative, spend much of their days scooping insects and slugs out of the lawn and meadow and into their bills and, especially when living on that diet of insects, slugs and greenery, lay very tasty eggs. The down side to ducks is that they don’t know to stay out of the road.

My four chickens offer many of the same advantages as the ducks, except that they never seem as at peace with the world as do the ducks. Also, chickens scratch. Scratching at the bases of mulched trees and shrubs exposes roots; scratching elsewhere wrenches young transplants out of the ground.

Chickens abhor rainy weather.

Mushrooms that I “planted” last spring are, like the ducks, reveling in this rainy change. “Planting” these mushrooms involved nothing more than pounding short lengths of wooden dowels, purchased with shiitake mushroom spawn growing in them, into numerous holes drilled in freshly cut pin oak logs. A cap of hot wax over each plug sealed in moisture. The four-foot-long-by-four-inch-diameter logs lay in a shady place through summer while being colonized by thin threads of fungal hyphae growing out from the plugs.

This spring was to be the start of a few years of “fruiting” – that is, making mushrooms, the spore-bearing structures of fungi that taste so good sautéed with some onions and butter or olive oil. Dry weather of the past few weeks was slowing the mushrooms’ first appearance, so I decided to shock them. Just bouncing the end of a log against a hard surface, such as a sidewalk, sometimes wakes them up. I opted for a water shock treatment, giving the logs a 24-hour soak in a shallow kiddie pool.

Right on schedule, within a week of being soaked, mushrooms began popping out all over the logs. With their ends levered into the horizontal openings of a metal fence gate tipped on its side against a tree, the logs and their attendant mushrooms are cantilevered out, perched above slugs and other organisms that might have enjoyed nibbling the fruits of my labor.

The shock treatment has resulted in a mushroom tsunami. Excess goes into the dehydrator, which has them crispy-dry and ready for long-term storage in about four hours. Once the tsunami ends, the fungi need to rest for a month-and-a-half before they’re ready for another shock. Or I can do nothing, and let nature pump out mushrooms more slowly over a longer period of time. Of course, if this rain keeps up – three inches in the last couple of days – another tsunami might be in the offing anyway.

With the ground thoroughly soaked, it’s a good time to get plants in the ground – except in wet clay soils. Working a wet clay ruins the almost-crystalline structure that develops when it is well-managed. Then, instead of the small particles aggregating together to make larger particles with larger pores in between them, letting air into the soil, the structure is reduced to only small unaggregated particles. Spaces between these small particles are so small that they draw in water by capillary action, and there’s no room available for air, which plant roots need. Good for pottery, bad for plants. Wait for any clay soil to dry a bit before digging in it, until it crumbles between your fingers with just a little pressure.

My soil is a silt loam that has been enriched with plenty of compost, which helps aggregation; so I can plant now, even right after rain.

Among the plants that I’ll be setting in the ground will be strawberries, right in a garden bed. Strawberries, you wonder? Big deal. But these are alpine strawberries. Okay, many people grow alpine strawberries. But these are white alpine strawberries – white, that is, even when dead ripe.

Alpine strawberries are different from common garden strawberries in that they are a different species (Fragaria vesca), they don’t make runners and both the plants and fruits are small, the latter about the size of a nickel. Previously, I’ve put a few in pots sitting along my front path for a nibble on the way to the door, or a few at the foot of garden beds – again for a nibble, here while working in the garden. I want to see how the plants do under the better growing conditions of compost-enriched soil and drip irrigation right in a garden bed.

Alpine strawberries are small, but have very intense flavor, which needs to be fully developed before being picked. I especially like the white ones’ flavor, which can develop fully because, being white when ripe, they’re ignored by birds. The variety name Pineapple Crush gives a good approximation of the flavor.

Join me for a Drip Irrigation Workshop on Saturday, June 20 from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Learn how drip saves 60 percent in watering, why drip keeps plants healthier and how it saves you time by reducing weeding and being easily automated. This workshop will include a hands-on design and installation of a drip system. The cost is $57. Registration is necessary. For more information and registration, go to


Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at [email protected] and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, visit our website at



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