Meet the Mushrooms, Episode One: Chicken of the Woods

A beautiful rosette of Chicken. All photos in this article are from members of the Philadelphia Mycology Club, specifically Bethany Teigen, Dan Schimmel, and myself.

Ahh, autumn! The leaves crunching underfoot, the crisp and chilly morning air, the pumpkin-everything-everywhere, and—what’s that huge cluster of orange cascading down that oak tree? Mushrooms, you say?

Yes, that’s delicious “Chicken of the Woods!” Laetiporus sulphureus, to be more technical, also commonly called Sulfur Shelf. Laetiporus cincinnatus is another edible similar-looking species, but not as delicious, so I’m focusing on sulphureus. It’s relatively easy to identify (David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified lists it as one of the “foolproof four”) and, as its name would imply, can have a quite chicken-like texture and flavor when prepared properly and if the specimen is young and from a good tree. Below I cover some key identification and harvesting tips as well as some ideas for culinary use.

Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.

WHERE TO LOOK FOR IT 

  • Sulphur Shelf grows exclusively on trees. It grows on living (mature and already dying) as well as dead trees (as it is both parasitic as well as saprotrophic). This includes logs, so double check those logs and piles of wood to see if a Chicken might be lurking on the other side! 
  • You will find it anywhere on the tree, from the base up through the height of the tree. You might also find it on stumps.
  • Only harvest from hardwood trees such as oak or beech. Oak is often a safe bet. Do not harvest from any conifers or locust or eucalyptus trees (these are the ones that might make you sick).
  • Be on the lookout during August through October, possibly even later, for that beautiful pop of orange as you walk through the woods. These mushrooms tend to grow fast and in large quantities. Make a meal to share with friends!

HOW TO IDENTIFY IT

  • The color can range from orange to salmon to orange-yellow to yellow. The color fades or becomes more white with age. You can use these photos for reference as well as any mushroom book, other websites, or online mushroom groups. 
  • The underside has bright sulphur yellow pores (it’s a polypore, literally it will look like many pores, rather than gills).
  • The brackets are somewhat fan-shaped and can be smooth to wrinkled to lumpy; caps are usually overlapping or in bunches, though occasionally solitary.
  • There is no obvious stem.

OTHER COOL FACTS 

  • Unlike some more rare mushrooms, there aren’t major sustainability issues around the ethics of harvesting this mushroom.
  • For the ambitious folks, it is possible to cultivate your own C.O.W. —but this is beyond the scope of this current article.
  • As for nutrients, Sulphur Shelf is high in protein as well as an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • These mushrooms may also have medicinal aspects such as antimicrobial and cancer-inhibiting compounds.
  • Sulphur mushrooms can also be used to make natural dye.

HOW TO EAT IT 

  • Harvest only young and tender caps. If you do want to use the older specimens, you can try to just cut off and use the more tender outer edges.
  • If possible just clean with a damp cloth. The mushrooms are very absorbent and you don’t want them to become spongy.
  • Make sure to cook very thoroughly. This breaks down the cell walls, making the mushroom more digestible and nutrients more available. This also kills potential toxins or pathogens. And little bugs if you didn’t clean them well 🙂
  • Substitute the same amount of this mushroom in any recipe that calls for chicken.
  • Super easy way to cook: just slice it thin and fry it in oil or butter, with some salt and pepper. Use as little oil as possible, again because of their absorbency.
  • Easy: slice thin and add it to your next omelet or scrambled eggs dish.
  • Foraging meets fast food: Try making breaded “Chicken” nuggets or “Chicken” fingers with a side of homemade honey mustard.

Stay tuned for more episodes of “Meet the Mushrooms.” For those of you new to mushrooming, I really can’t say enough about the joy of relating to fungi. Mycelial networks are all around us, giant organisms largely invisible to our own eyes, yet engaging in all sorts of ecological functions that often transcend human categorization. Learning to identify and eat the fruiting bodies of some of these species is just one simple way of developing a relationship, albeit a very useful and nourishing one! While my articles will tend to focus on visible and edible species, I encourage the intrigued reader to embark on their own mycological research. It is a pursuit sure to inspire, or at the very least, boggle your mind.

An Introduction to Invasivorism

Omnivore, carnivore, herbivore, locavore, vegan, freegan, paleo, etc.—there are so many diets and lifestyles to explore and follow, each with their own body of ethical, biological, and practical reasons. One diet in particular that’s caught my attention lately is invasivorism. Essentially, invasivores focus on consuming invasive species in order to control those populations and thus eventually restore ecosystem balance. It’s an added benefit that many invasive species are actually quite nutritious for humans (but let’s not emphasize that too much, lest the foods become too desirable and intentionally farmed!).

According to the National Wildlife Federation, an invasive species is “any kind of living organism that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm.” Invaders can change the fabric of an ecosystem by out-competing and killing off native species, decreasing diversity, spreading particular diseases, and altering the food web. These are just a few examples of the multitude of complex issues associated with invasive species.

The term “invaders” certainly sounds threatening and malicious, and I often hear people speak the word with a tone of anger, even hatred. But let’s not forget that these species were usually introduced to foreign ecosystems through human behaviors. Now they’re only doing what they can to survive, just like any other organism. Whether intentionally or not, we humans are largely responsible for the complicated disturbances rippling throughout ecosystems. Invasivorism is a small reach towards finding actions that can, hopefully, have some sort of positive effect. 

If you have any interest in foraging for wild food, I think it’s worth your while to be able to identify invasives and consider how you’ll relate to them, hopefully with the best big-picture intentions for ecosystem health. While invasives include any type of organism, for the scope of this article (and in my present-day life), I’m focusing on plants. Below, I discuss Garlic Mustard, Japanese Knotweed, and Wineberries, three types of edible invasive plants in Pennsylvania and a few ideas for how to approach, harvest, and eat.

Garlic Mustard

From a patch in Morris Woods

Alliaria petiolata comes from Europe and can be found all throughout the US. invasivore.org provides some concise information on how Garlic Mustard disturbs the ecosystem, particularly through direct competition and negatively altering soil chemistry in its growing area. Garlic Mustard spreads only through seed, which is hopeful news, because it means that if you harvest the whole plant (make sure you’ve plucked the whole thing including roots) before it goes to seed in early spring, you can slowly reduce the population of it in the chosen harvesting area.

The easiest ways to incorporate Garlic Mustard in your diet are to toss the fresh leaves into any salad, or, my personal favorite, make wild pesto with it. You can add it to an existing recipe or base the recipe around it to use up larger amounts of the plant. If you want to be meticulous about discarding unused parts of the plant, such as large stems and root material, consider drying it out and then burning it in your next campfire.

Japanese Knotweed

Knotweed doing its thing: spreading quickly

Sometimes called False Bamboo, this plant is often found in disturbed areas and especially near rivers and streams. It’s a notorious invasive that spreads rapidly through multiple ways such as seed dispersal and stems shooting from its strong rhizome system. Its roots are unimaginably hardy and can even travel underneath and shoot up from concrete! It grows densely and tends to block out any other kind of native vegetation.

In Japan, Knotweed was prized as a nutritious mountain vegetable. Young shoots were harvested, peeled, and lightly cooked, or perhaps pickled. The roots are also extremely high in the potent medicinal compound Resveratrol, among other compounds.

Herbalists recommend tincturing the roots to include in multi-use medicines good for many conditions including Lyme’s Disease. If you stumble across a young Japanese Knotweed plant, try digging up the roots and young shoots for medicine and food—just be careful to dig up all of the root and rhizome material. If you find older and taller plants, it is recommended to leave it for professional removal, as the rhizome system will be too large to dig up entirely.

Wineberry

Yummy berries found in Cobb’s Creek

And now, for the most relevant plant for the month of July: Wineberries! Rubus phoenicolasius, also originating from Asia, is an invasive shrub/vine found in disturbed and sunny areas. Be careful when searching for it, as it tends to grow in conditions also loved by Poison Ivy. New York Invasive Species Information notes that Wineberries create “impenetrable thickets in natural areas, making the habitat unusable for some species and creating hiding places for others,” but also that “there has been no study to date documenting its specific impact on native species.” Wineberries are also easier to dig up than Knotweed and seem to present less of an intense threat.

The plant spreads largely through seed, which usually must be scarified through the digestive system of an animal to germinate. This is particularly important to note: several small woodland creatures now depend on this berry for food. In these cases, perhaps leaving many of the plants isn’t the worst idea. Some naturalists have recommended that it is beneficial for humans to harvest many of these berries, while leaving some amount near the forest floor. This way, we reduce the overall amount of seed traveling through their bellies and butts, but we don’t get rid of it entirely.

Besides, wineberries are really delicious and can be used the same way you would use a raspberry. If you’re not sure how to identify wineberries, look for hairy red stems and berries that are often slightly more orange than a raspberry. Also note that wineberries stay enclosed in their sepals until shortly before ripe. Get out foraging for your local wineberries before it’s too late—your tastebuds will thank you! 


While it’s unpractical to solely consume invasive species, I am in favor of incorporating them into your diet. Particularly, if you can be sure your actions are slowly reducing the population (such as harvesting the whole Garlic Mustard plant before it has gone to seed), why not give it a try? Slow but sure human removal may sometimes be a better option than widespread chemical wipe-out, which may be too sudden and throw off an adapting ecosystem. Plus, lots of invasive species are healthy and medicinal. Better to eat them than to hate them, right?

Teaching Climate Change

Sherrilyn Billger, PhD and Andrew Smith, PhD will present two companion pieces at the Next Earth: Teaching Climate Change Across the Disciplines conference June 10-30, 2019. This is a nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference presented by the Environmental Humanities Initiative at UC Santa Barbara. For more information about these projects, please read the abstracts below.

The Philosopher and the Entrepreneur: The Pedagogical Significance of a Symbiotic Relationship

Andrew F. Smith and Sherrilyn M. Billger

How many environmental philosophers do you know who’ve had the opportunity to develop a symbiotic relationship with an entrepreneur? In our case, the entrepreneur—a specialist in restorative landscaping and forestry—opened the philosopher’s eyes to one important way in which care for the needs and interests of urban and suburban landbases provides a tangible inroad into addressing climate change. This has had a marked effect on both his scholarship and his teaching. Reciprocally, the philosopher offered a theoretical framework to the entrepreneur, rooted in a defense of plant sentience and our embeddedness in the living community. This gave birth to the name of her business. It’s also informed how she advertises it to draw attention to the ecological and climatological importance of cultivating people–plantrelationships.

In this presentation, we tell the story of the pedagogical significance of this symbiotic relationship. The philosopher offers insights into how the entrepreneur’s hands-on work aimed at restoring ecosystems inspired a book project that’s influenced his teaching inside and outside the classroom. This has proven particularly beneficial when focusing on steps students can take to work with our distant green relatives to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In turn, the entrepreneur has found the philosopher’s theoretical framework invaluable for teaching clients and employees how to be nurturers of the land.

Take it Outside:  Eating for the Ecosystem

Sherrilyn M. Billger and Andrew F. Smith

Most of us have strong (occasionally clashing) opinions about to best redress climate change. Whether we debate as polite discourse, lively classroom discussion, or proverbial bar-room brawls, we need to step back and take it outside. To wit, this collaboration between philosopher and entrepreneur presents strategies for enhanced learning by taking students outside.

The philosopher’s pedagogical methods in the comfort of the classroom encourage students to engage with climate issues intellectually. They obtain an essential foundation, understanding theoretical issues, scientific underpinnings, and cultural context, but are unsure about how to translate what they learn into what they can do. This frequently leads to depressive overwhelm that can fortunately be alleviated through interactions with living communities in local ecosystems. Such outings provide experiential learning about interdependence, soil health, social justice, invasive species, storm water, plant tending, etc. To be clear, what is needed is not vocational training per se, but a link between the theoretical and the practicable. 

Climate change isn’t just happening out there, in the rainforests, low-lying islands, and Arctic ice sheets. It’s happening down the block where the storm drains overflow, in the park overgrown by invasive vines, and among the street trees outside the classroom window. This presentation will lay out essential elements for connecting theoretical foundations to experiential learning. We will include footage from our out-of-the-classroom activities.  

Spotting the Spotted Lantern Fly

Have you heard about the latest insect invaders? They reproduce in very large numbers, and swarms can cover entire tree trunks. They will land on your head, your shoulder, your shoe, your lap, anywhere they please. If you see one on the ground and try to stomp on it with your foot, you better be quick or it’ll hop away at lightning speed. Spotted lantern flies (SLFs) are an invasive pest, and they will be popping up all over the Philly area this year. They were already in Fairmount park last summer.

For most homeowners, SLFs are little more than a nuisance. But they can take nuisance to a whole new level. Their favorite plant to eat is Ailanthus, commonly known as tree of heaven, which happens to be another rapidly spreading invasive plant-pest. Unfortunately, SLFs also feed on fruits and have caused significant problems for some vineyards and orchards. And they feed on black walnut, maple, and willow trees, among others. Hops, cucumbers, and other crops can suffer serious damage too. (My biggest problem personally has been on my computer vines.)

I have been battling these beasties for a few years because I have a vegetable garden in Berks county, just a few miles from the location where the SLFs first came into the US (in a load of stones). 

Spotted Lantern Fly life stages
Image Source: Penn State Extension

Garden and home centers are advertising a number of different control methods, including a systemic insecticide that kills bees. If you are like me—eating for the ecosystem—you want to avoid using such toxic chemicals. You absolutely have other options.

The best non chemical option is scraping off and destroying egg masses. You can do this from late September through May, but the best time to scrape is late winter (nymphs start appearing in late April). Scraping is literally just scraping, with something like a plastic card or a butterknife. Just be careful to limit damage to the bark. Most egg masses are closer to the ground in sheltered locations. SLFs will lay eggs on just about any flat surface, including deck boards and concrete blocks.

The next step is to catch any after they’ve hatched. During their life span, SLFs climb upward in trees, so sticky bands around trunks are effective in catching them. One sticky band program in PA has already caught over a million of these buggers. In order to limit the likelihood of beneficial insects and birds getting caught in the sticky band, it’s a good idea to trim the width to just a few inches. Replace the bands every 2 weeks or sooner if they fill up.

Like many insects, SLFs can be killed with organic contact pesticides like neem oil and horticultural soap. I’ve also had great results using a spray bottle of diluted (biodegradable) Sal’s Suds. But remember that these interventions are chemical and can damage plants (don’t use in the heat of midday) and other insects (spray carefully and avoid bees as much as possible). I also like to swipe or finger flick the SLFs into a container with rubbing alcohol.

The option with the least impact on other insects is to just smash the SLFs. But you need to be quick! It could be a great game for your family and friends. 

hops

An unfortunate consequence of pests like this one is how they impact our food and beverage industries. Many of us choose organic food when possible, but the most effective methods of controlling (read: killing) pests are not certified-organic. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Something that ‘efficiently’ kills one thing is likely to be harmful to other things. Many vineyards are now faced with higher costs from more extensive pest control measures. I’m not going to condemn wine growers out of hand for trying to protect their vines. To be frank, if the more toxic pesticides—including the neonicotinoids—were only available to companies (and not homeowners), we’d have significantly less run-off and over spray and residual contamination to deal with.

At the same time, I enjoy a nice malbec or syrah, and I’d prefer my wine be organic. Contending with SLFs clearly raises costs for all affected vineyards, but is particularly rough for organic growers. Organic pesticides like spinosad and neem oil degrade quickly, requiring many more applications than conventional options like carbaryl and dinotefuran.

So let’s be informed consumers, purchasing food, wine, and garden products that align with our values, keeping in mind the underlying costs that lead to the price on the tag.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can deal with these spotted lantern flies, EFTE will gladly venture to your home for a consultation. We will teach you how to identify all life stages, as well as where to look for the eggs, the nymphs, and the adults. We will discuss the more eco-friendly control options with you, helping you craft your custom intervention plan. We will also provide you with tips and strategies for protecting your most favored plants and trees.

If you’d prefer not to be bugged by these bugs, we also provide egg mass detection and scraping services, to destroy as many as possible before they even hatch.

What we eat matters

What we already know

The majority of food available to us is heavily processed and shipped long distances. Conventional produce has often been sprayed with chemicals that may cause cancer. We know that diets high in fresh produce are healthier, and many consumers demand organic options. Locally-produced food is generally fresher, and prevents large transportation costs, including the pollution that transportation generates. CSAs are growing, farmers’ markets are booming, and community gardens are popping up all over the city. We’re moving (slowly) in the right direction.

We know climate change is real. We know monoculture crops are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. And we know that the political climate directly affects environmental regulations and therefore the quality of our air, water, soil, and food. Now is the time to take action. Now is the time for every single one of us to improve the way we eat.

But why should I grow my own food?

Growing your own food is a patriotic and revolutionary act. When you grow your own food, you have greater control over what ends up on your dinner plate. You can pick the varieties you like best, you can use organic methods, you can eat the veggies at their peak ripeness. Nothing tastes better than a freshly picked vine-ripened (in my opinion Brandywine) tomato.

If you are a CSA member or buy produce at a farm stand, growing a few of your own edibles is a great complement. The CSA and farm are indeed local—which is great!—but nothing’s more local than your back door. And maybe they don’t grow your favorite hot pepper. At the height of the harvest, vegetables like snap peas and string beans should be picked every few days. You can claim your bounty at its absolute peak.

When’s the last time you bought a head of lettuce with a few brown leaves? How about a strawberry with a mushy spot? An oddly shaped tomato? We demand visual perfection from the produce we buy, and as a result, we waste a lot of perfectly good food. You are probably more forgiving with edibles you grow yourself. You’re likely to pull off (and compost) the brown lettuce leaves, cut out the mushy strawberry spot, and use the tomato anyway. Let’s embrace imperfection and reduce waste!

You can make our ecosystem healthier

By growing more of your own food, you add more green to our city, which not only looks nice, but also helps improve air quality. Adding new garden beds and containers chips away at the ubiquitous concrete surfaces that perpetuate our ongoing runoff problem. Your garden can enhance biodiversity, feed pollinators, and improve your own connection to the natural world that surrounds us. And fresh produce is just plain yummy.

How to have happy houseplants

Do you have a houseplant that seems unhappy? Trust your gut. If the plant looks like it’s struggling, it probably is. But don’t worry! There are only two causes for most indoor plant problems: light or water (or both). And I’m going to let you in on the top-secret two-step method for houseplant happiness.

All too often, houseplants don’t get enough light, or they drown in too much water, or they dry out because we forget to water them. It happens. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Want to learn more about houseplant care? Here are some of my favorite online resources:

Oh no! Looks like it’s too late for Mr. Crispy.

Here’s the top-secret two-step:
1. Look at your plant. Does it look happy? Does it look strong and proud or weepy or saggy or sparse or shriveled? What color are the leaves? Look at the soil. Is the surface smooth, cracked, covered in white crumbs or green goop? Touch the soil, heck stick your finger in the soil at least to your first knuckle. Is the soil dry and brittle? Dense and soggy? Gather up your data and visit the links above.
2. Do something different immediately, but not too different. Yes, your struggling plant needs a change, but too much change at once could kill it. Change your watering frequency or move the plant to a new spot or repot the plant. Doing all three at once could be too much stress for an already struggling plant.

My houseplant care regimen looks like this:
1. Bring plants indoors when nighttime temps get to 50 degrees and below. Place them near windows that best approximate their light needs. Some of the plants overwinter under grow bulbs.
2. Water the plants every week unless they don’t need it (finger into the soil to test). Take the plants to the sink or the shower, water thoroughly, let them drain, take them back. I often rotate the plants so a different side faces the window every week, to keep the growth more consistent. I rarely fertilize houseplants in the winter.
3. Take most of the houseplants outdoors when nighttime temps get to 50 degrees and above. Keep them in the shade (I like to hang them in trees) or with at most a few hours of morning sunlight.
4. Water when they need it, paying attention to how often it rains or just use the aforementioned finger test. If it’s hot and it doesn’t rain they need water multiple times per week.
5. Fertilize once per month. I’m a big fan of Planet Natural‘s organic fertilizers.

All else equal:
Plants in bigger pots are more resilient than those in smaller pots.
Plants in pots with drainage holes are healthier than those in pots without holes.
Squishy-leaved plants (succulents) need less water than other plants.
Flowering plants need more water than other plants.

I hope the links above will help keep you and your houseplants happy together. But if you need some more help, let us know.

Happy houseplants

Why “eating for the ecosystem”?

I started Eating for the Ecosystem because I am determined to change what we grow and how we grow it. I know we can choose plants and designs that strengthen our ecosystem, while looking beautiful and providing us with food. And we can do it affordably.

The company name arose from discussions with my husband about his second book, A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism. One of his points matches one of my long-held beliefs: that “[h]ow plants are treated in the process of cultivating and gathering them for food matters morally” (p. 31). To me, plants are people too.

We both consider what we consume to be a moral decision, and we constantly re-examine our choices. We believe that the best metric for weighing these choices is the effect we have on our ecosystem. “[T]he world is full of people, only some of whom are human. Plants and other-than-human animals may be people, too. Moreover, we maintain a special bond with, and specifiable obligations to see to the needs and interests of, our landbase and all the people who live on it and in it” (p. 8). We have a bond with, and obligations to, our ecosystem.

Myriad factors can drive a person’s food choices, whether health effects, genetic modification, price, availability, treatment of animals, synthetic chemical use, sentience, or environmental impact. I frankly don’t care whether other people have the same diet I have. I do care whether people think about what they eat and how their food choices impact their ecosystem. And I want to make it easier for anyone to make consumption choices that match their values.

I want to encourage eating for the ecosystem: growing more food in urban settings, selecting diverse plants that support local animals and insects, turning lawns into woodlands or gardens, and using integrated pest management rather than reaching for a chemical solution. We need to do more to enhance food safety and food security for ourselves and future generations.

Gardener’s to do list for late spring

This post originally appeared in the Penn State Extension Master Gardener’s blog.

All vegetable gardeners want a successful harvest, and I’ve found that no time is more pivotal than the first month or so after planting. This is when our seedlings take root, and establish a strong foundation for future growth. I spend more time in my garden in spring than any other time of year, and it always pays off. Here’s a list of late spring tasks that will benefit your organic vegetable crops.

Monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed leaf

1. Attract Pollinators

Many of our vegetable plants already attract bees and butterflies, but we can supplement these with flowers like Echinacea, bee balm (Monarda), zinnias, yarrow, and sunflowers, among others.  I like to grow common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) to attract Monarch butterflies, and bronze fennel to attract Swallowtails. It’s also a good idea to include a shallow water source for the pollinators. You’ll find some more tips in my printable PDF. And if you’re committed to attracting pollinators, you could get your garden certified.

2. Protect your vegetables from critters

I live in central city Philadelphia, but my vegetable garden lives in rural Berks county (zone 6b). I see no deer or groundhogs in my Philly neighborhood, but they certainly frequent the neighborhood around my garden. The local rabbits are quite voracious as well. So I’ve installed simple 8-foot long 2×4 posts (not pressure-treated) and plastic deer fencing. I added some short galvanized wire fencing to keep the rabbits and groundhogs from gnawing through the deer fence. I’ll have to keep an eye on my fence throughout the growing season, because those critters are crafty, and just might find/dig/gnaw a way through or around my fence. Vigilance is key.

munched tomato
Somebody got to my tomato before I did.

3. Weed and mulch

As they establish themselves, our vegetable plants compete with weeds for sun and water and soil nutrients. My garden is host to a seemingly endless army of thistles and wild onions. Until my vegetables are large enough to shade competitors, I need to weed frequently. I also use mulch to keep the soil moist and discourage weeds. Some gardeners use inorganic materials, but I prefer organic mulch. It doesn’t keep every weed out, but it will slowly decompose and further nourish my soil.

You might consider red plastic mulch for your tomatoes. Penn State scientists found that red mulch increased tomato harvest by 10 percent on average.  To keep the weeds at bay and encourage a better tomato harvest, staple red mulch to black mulch  and lay it on the ground red side up. The easiest time to do this is before you plant your seedlings, but you could also lay it after planting, and create cut-outs for your tomatoes to poke through.

4. Erect plant supports

If you haven’t yet done so, now is a great time to install plant supports.  Putting off this task will leave you wrestling with large plants, and you’ll risk breaking the stems and damaging the roots. Supports are particularly important for peas, pole beans, and tomatoes. I also like to provide supports for my cucumbers, and occasionally for my pepper plants. Garden supply stores offer a wide variety of stakes, teepees, and cages, but you can also make your own. In order to keep your garden chemical-free with natural materials, choose bamboo, cedar, cypress, and jute twine. I use jute twine throughout my garden, because I can toss it in my compost pile in the fall.

Cucumber seedlings starting to climb

5. Make frequent inspections

Organic vegetable gardening is actually really easy. The biggest time commitment comes in the spring, but the summer and fall payoff is truly worth it. Take a little extra time now to nurture the plants and help them set a strong foundation. The absolute best thing you can do for your garden now and throughout the growing season is to walk around and look at the plants. How are they doing? Are they getting enough sun and water? Do you see any evidence of disease or insect damage? Catch it early, and your plants are likely to recover.

Attracting beneficial insects

In order to see more butterflies in your garden and to ensure good (bee) pollination for your vegetables, plant natives and use integrated pest management. This printable PDF provides tips for attracting beneficial insects.

Swallowtail caterpillar on Echinacea purpurea

I love composting

I love composting.  I mean I really love composting.  Every part of the composting process makes me so deeply happy, it’s probably strange to most people.  I find composting satisfying on so many levels.  I don’t put out all sorts of yard waste, I don’t toss my food scraps in the trash, and I don’t dump all kinds of crap in the garbage disposal.  And then, I get this amazing, sweet smelling happy soil amendment for my plants.

One of my earliest low-low-tech composting systems

But I understand that it isn’t easy or obvious for everybody, so…I’ll dive into some tips.

One of my facebook friends told me she has trouble with her tumbler.  Tumblers work best when there’s a good moist (like a wrung-out sponge) mix of “greens” and “browns” that is left alone (nothing new added) for a while, and tumbled from time to time.  If you keep adding ingredients to your tumbler, you won’t get good compost, because you’d have to sift out the newer ingredients.  A tumbler with only one compartment isn’t enough for an effective year-round compost operation.  Some tumblers have two compartments, so one is for adding and the other is for compost-cooking.

The mix of greens and browns isn’t an exact science, though a number of books and web pages suggest a certain mix of each.  In my personal garden I ignore that, because composting as waste disposal is only useful to me if I can add whatever I have when I have it.  “Greens” are mostly green, but this also includes your food waste.  If you only put food waste (and no yard waste) into your tumbler, it’s too green. It won’t decompose well, and will probably smell funny.  Add browns, like dried leaves, dried grass clippings, or shredded soy-ink newspaper scraps to the mix.  And make sure it isn’t too dry, it should be just damp (not soggy) for best cooking.

As with most horticulture, the best way to maintain compost bins is by looking at them from time to time.  Does the compost stink?  Add browns.  Is it too dry?  Add water.  It is moist, not stinky, but still not decomposing?  Well, it’s either winter or you need more greens.

I heartily welcome any and all questions about composting. How’s your compost bin cooking?