Salamander Springs Gardens: an excerpt

The following is an example of the case studies we want to document for our book. Ken visited several forest farming sites during his 2012 sabbatical. It inspired us to visit and research more for the book, but we need your help to do so…

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Case Study:

Rodney & Heather Webb

Salamander Springs Gardens, Marshall NC

February 5, 2012

by Ken Mudge

Rodney and Heather have homesteaded their 75 acre farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina for twenty years. We meet Rodney at the bottom of a steep, rocky driveway that our 2WD car is not at all suited to climb. Rodney is about six foot six, and has a full bushy beard on its way from brown to gray. He was born in Fairbanks, AK.

The son of an Army Airborne Ranger turned Chaplain, he moved regularly in life until finally settling in the mountains of Western North Carolina in 1992. “Narrowly avoiding a college degree”, he turned to environmental activism, bioregionalism and permaculture which has gradually led him to become a gentleman farmer. Their lifestyle is low impact while supplying as much of their own food as possible. Their expressed goal is to “restore and maintain rare forest components with an emphasis on maximizing biodiversity”.

Alongside the track we are walking is a gravitationally-excited babbling brook.  As we approach the farm proper, we see piles of spent shiitake bolts (logs) that are no longer productively fruiting after 4 or 5 years, although there will be sporadic fruiting for as long as 8 years.

The main shiitake laying yard is a narrow 40 feet long triangle between the road and a steep bank. There are 20 or so crib stacks each with about 20 bolts. Some are on more-or-less level ground but others are perched on a moderate slope. A crib stack consists of 5 tiers of 4 bolts each.  Each tier runs perpendicular to the ones above and below giving it a log cabin-like appearance. The date on which any log was inoculated (hence, its age) is color coded with plastic-ringed roofing nails, with a number designating the spawn strain; WR 46 (wide temperature range) being the most common.

As they age, bolts are prone to become contaminated with competitive fungi like turkey tail (Trametes versicolor). To minimize this problem, each crib stack sits a few inches off the ground on a 4’ x 4’ wooden pallet. This particular laying yard holds about 400 shiitake bolts out of the total of 1200-1500 active logs on the farm. During the production season (March-October), Rodney force-fruits 40-100 bolts each week to obtain 30 to 50 pounds of shiitake mushrooms. Forced-fruiting (“shocking”) begins by soaking 30 or 40 bolts at a time in two 400 gallon Rubbermaid hotel laundry bins, for about a day. Then the bolts are moved into the fruiting shack and stacked in an alternating A-frame configuration against a horizontal support.

IMG_6846The fruiting shed is an open-sided structure with a sloped roof of translucent corrugated fiberglass sheeting, suspended about 12 feet off the ground on a framework of poles. The shelter helps maintain quality by keeping rain off the mushrooms that otherwise would make them slimy and worthless.

After a few days pea-sized “pins” (mushroom primordia) emerge from cracks in the bark, all over the bolts, and in a few more days enlarge to full-sized harvestable mushrooms. A typical bolt produces a flush of about ½ – 1 pound of mushrooms each. Rodney says that once, one bolt produced an extraordinary 5 to 6 pounds at a single forced fruiting. Over the 8 month production season a bolt will be shocked 3 or 4 times. That’s twice as many flushes in North Carolina’s warmer climate and longer growing season compared to a comparable bolt in New York or New England.

The single worst pest of shiitake mushrooms is slugs. Slugs love shiitake mushrooms. They carve unsightly holes in the cap. Slug-damaged mushrooms cannot be sold fresh, but are sliced up and dried. The price for dried shiitake is about 60% of fresh. To minimize slug damage Rodney has put down a bed of gravel over the dirt floor of the fruiting shed. Apparently slugs are indisposed to slime their way across what are to them gigantic lumpy boulders. As we walk further up the road we can see open fields where he and Heather grow vegetables and other full sun crops. All we can see in February are a patch of leeks and some tall sunflowers with blackened seed heads. At the end of the road are raised beds full of woodchips, which will be inoculated with spawn of Stropharia, the wine cap mushroom.

Another type of mushroom that they are cultivating on this farm is reishi (Ganoderma sp.), used as a medicinal tincture. Eighteen inch long, eight-inch diameter logs are inoculated with reishi spawn, and half buried vertically in sand in a 3 gallon (10” diameter) black plastic nursery containers. This is the first time I’ve seen reishi grown that way, but an even bigger surprise is Rodney’s chaga (Inonotus obliquus) production. It is a fungal parasite on birch trees that colonizes wound sites and forms golf ball or larger-sized hardened black mass of mycelium that looks like brunt charcoal, and is sometimes referred to as a “conch”. It is thought to have anticancer properties, and Heather says it makes a pleasant tea. Chaga sells for $60 a pound (shiitake sells for $8-12 per pound).

Rodney shows us a birch tree where he cut off a 3” diameter branch, packed the end with chaga spawn, and then wrapped the area with a sleeve of plastic film. This project is in the experimental stage and only time will tell if it becomes a marketable crop. Clearly with chaga and other things around the farm, Rodney is an innovator, unafraid to try new things.

My personal favorite innovation on the farm is the tree stump method for cultivating oyster mushrooms.  I was able to preview this when Rodney sent me a picture a few months earlier, shortly after I first contacted him. The picture shows a beech stump about 12” diameter. About 3 years ago he cut down the live tree leaving a 6’ high stump, still attached to its root system. With his chainsaw he cut and removed about 30 evenly-spaced watermelon-shaped wedges about 6 inches wide and several inches deep into the wood. The notches were packed with oyster mushroom sawdust spawn, and then the wedge was pounded back into a notch and secured with finishing nails.

whatisThe picture he sent me shows this stump about a year later, covered with masses of golden (yellow) oyster mushrooms bursting from the spaces between wedges and the accompanying notches. This whole monolith was covered with many pounds of these golden mushrooms. Last year it flushed 3 times yielding a total of 60 pounds of oyster mushrooms worth hundreds of dollars (@ $10/lb.).

Mushrooms are not the only crop grown at Salamander Springs Gardens. This is very much a multi-crop farm, including but not limited to forest farming. Some of the other non-timber forest products are wildcrafted (gathered from the wild) but most are cultivated in one place or another around the farm. These include ramps (wild leek), galex (a florist’s green) and some medicinal herbs. And then there are the “crops that walk” (animals).

Silvopasture is the term applied to the agroforestry practice of raising livestock (partially) beneath a forest canopy.  On the slope above the house Rodney and Heather have fenced in an area enclosing about 3 acres partially under a pine canopy and partially in the open. Here is where they keep cows, goats, pigs, and chickens. The animals graze in the open some of the time and at other times they seek shelter from sun, wind and rain while foraging under the trees.

IMG_6859There is one last example of the creative farming practiced at Salamander Spring Gardens. Consider a farmers common dilemma. How does s/he reclaim a field overrun with tall brambles, or other invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed? Rodney’s solution has 3 stages. He begins by sending in the first wave – the goats, to clear out the above ground vegetation. Goats will eat almost anything including the nastiest of briars. But there is more to a nasty weed than what’s above ground. Roots and rhizomes lurk below ground, and if left unchecked they will re sprout or sucker in no time so that ultimately you’ve made little or no progress at all. Next, send in the second wave – the pigs. If there is anything alive below ground the pigs will root it out and eat it, removing the roots and/or rhizomes that would otherwise regrow the whole mess. Now the crop is ready for planting. Finally, send in the third wave – the chickens. They will gobble up all sorts of insects and slugs and turn them into eggs or drumsticks.

Ken would like to do a follow up visit this coming growing season to see what’s fruiting at Salamander Springs Garden.  Help him get there. Visit Small donations are welcome! Fifty dollars gets you a copy of the book hot-off-the-press.

Forest Farmers Survey

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2 thoughts on “Salamander Springs Gardens: an excerpt

  1. Pingback: Help us find and tell the stories of Forest Farmers. | Finger Lakes Permaculture Network

  2. Pingback: From mushrooms to dandelions, foraged food finds way to U.S. tables

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