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From Mulch To Mushrooms

After two years of decomposing, the piles of leftover wood chips at Bread & Roses Gardens will soon sprout mushrooms thanks to hungry mycelium.

The fungal network is thriving in this pile of wood chips at Bread & Roses Gardens. They anticipate morels and other mushrooms will start popping up as the weather warms up.

Surprise ‘Shrooms

We love talking about mushroom hunting, especially this time of year. It’s a great way to enjoy early spring and perhaps pick something delicious and unique for tonight’s dinner.

But some folks are lucky enough to not have to do any hunting at all.

Salem Willard of Bread & Roses Gardens scoops up a pile of mulch that has been decomposing in a heap for two years. He points to what looks like strands of white thread. “That’s mycelium,” he says, the vegetative part of fungus that will sprout mushrooms. “So, that’s probably oyster mushrooms and morels.”

Black Gold

Several weeks ago, he and fellow permaculture designer Jonas Carpenter were sheet mulching and planting goji berries on their expansive plot of land just outside Bloomington. They can attest to the fact that it takes a lot of wood chips to rebuild soil.

So what happens to all the excess mulch? It turns out if you leave wood chips alone for long enough, fungal networks will break down the wood and turn it into nutrient-rich black gold that Willard and Carpenter then apply to the plants.

“When you have soil like this, you don’t have to worry about drought because you can feel how wet it is,” says Willard. “It just absorbs moisture.”

In addition to creating a quality soil amendment, Willard has mycelium to thank for eating away one of the farm’s waste products.

“Without them, we would be buried in hundreds of feet of wood debris.”

More: You can fast-track this natural process with some cardboard, spawn, wood chips and dried leaves. Check out this guide for cultivating mushrooms in your backyard. (Note: It takes 4-6 months for mushrooms to fruit!)

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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