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For the Soil Gurus - A Couple of Newbie Questions About Silty Loams

 
Posts: 31
Location: North Central Idaho - Zone 6B/7A Average Rainfall: 25 inches
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Hello there!

I've been scouting different pieces of land in a new area (the western Rockies) for a few months now.

Although the region's climate has some shortcomings (short growing seasons and dry summer months seem to be the main limiting factors where agriculture's concerned), there's good green earth. I'd like to use some of the information that I've picked up - both on permies and elsewhere - to conserve (and improve) the land wherever I end up.

The soils in the area I'm currently looking at are predominantly silt loams underlain by silty clay loams, with low sand / high silt / moderate clay content - and very low organic matter after the first foot. I haven't taken a shovel out there yet, but it's a good bet I'll need to start with a soil-building program to ameliorate one or more existing problems with the soil (low organic matter, compaction, etc.) before switching gears.

One thing I could use some input on: are the types of soils I've described above generally suitable for the kinds of agriculture discussed on these forums (i.e., organic gardening, polyculture guilds optimized for minimal irrigation and fertilizer inputs, no till farming, sustainable & regenerative agriculture, etc.)? As a relative newbie (and as this is sort of a 'meta-question'), I'm not confident in my ability to abstract the pertinent info in the USDA Web Soil Survey database.

Question #2: Are these types of soils (i.e., loamy-textured soils with very high silt content) relatively easy to drain in the event that I find an otherwise-appealing parcel of land with a high seasonal water table (or seasonal perched aquifer)?

Much appreciate y'all's thoughts on the matter!
 
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Hi Donner!

I am not exactly a soil specialist, but I am going to suggest that if you have any soil whatsoever, some type of permaculture can work for you!

Regarding your soil as you described, I actually think that you have a pretty good start.  I am going to suggest two approaches that can help you out.

First, you might consider trying plantings some cover crops.  Deep rooting cover crops can help work organic matter deep into the subsoil.  Although this process takes time, it pays long term benefits.

Second approach would be to start some raised beds.  With a raised bed, you can tailor your soil to your own needs.  Do you have access to some non-pine/coniferous wood?  If so, you might consider trying growing mushrooms, not so much for the mushrooms as for the amazing compost they leave behind (but the mushrooms can be a treat also).  The two mushrooms I have in mind are wine cap mushrooms and blue oyster mushrooms.  Either can be a great choice and are really good starter mushrooms.  I personally like the wine caps as they are not terribly picky about their growing conditions, but I want to experiment with blue oyster mushrooms soon as well.

Either of these approaches can work and you can do both at the same time if you are feeling ambitious.  

Out of curiosity, how much land do you have and what does it look like?  Do you have any weedy brush that needs to be cleared up?  I make mountains of woodchips each year by trimming back weedy brush.  These woodchips are destined for my raised garden beds where they will be broken down into incredibly healthy compost by wine cap mushrooms.

Anyhow, these are just two thoughts.  If either sounds attractive, feel free to contact me and I can offer more specifics.

Good luck!

Eric
 
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I live in Maine, but the soil sounds like what I have here. I could be wrong, but I suspect around you there are some potato farmers?

I do not know about there, but here no-till is not something we can do. Loamy soil is really prone to compaction. We do minimal tillage, and that works pretty well.

The other limiting factor is; our soils tend to be highly erodible. That causes a bit of grief as the USDA has some strict rules on HEL...or Highly Erodible Land. They will show it on the soil maps anyway, and so it may/may not be an issue for you.

 
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hau Donner, Eric and Travis have given some good ideas/advice.

The soil you describe is well suited to being used for growing. As you lay on mulches, the organic matter in the soil will increase (do note though that most plants live in the top 18 inches of soil only) and that will make the soil more able to let water infiltrate deeper into the ground.

What you want to do is develop (on paper) what you want to be able to grow on the land, then you will draw out where you want what, labeling each space so you don't forget what goes where at the startup.
These questions are more for getting you to think about land in the how to use it mode of thinking, which should help you plan ahead for better success early on in the adventure.
What crop plants do you want to utilize on this land? How much land do you need to devote to growing your food? (most can get by with one acre and some even less)
Do you want to only eat what you can grow or are you ok with a mix of your food with grocery store food for completion of a good diet?
Do you plan to eat meat? raise chickens for eggs and meat? and if you are a carnivore you might want to consider other, larger animals (goats, cows, turkey, geese, ducks, sheep, etc.) to raise and butcher for food.

Getting your wants list together allows you to then use that to create a "Needs" list of plants and animals so you will have an idea of the infrastructure you will need to accomplish your goals.

Redhawk
 
Donner MacRae
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Location: North Central Idaho - Zone 6B/7A Average Rainfall: 25 inches
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Greetings Redhawk,

"The soil you describe is well suited to being used for growing."

GREAT news.

"As you lay on mulches, the organic matter in the soil will increase..."

I have to admit to an inadequate understanding of soil building programs/timelines. The mulching you're talking about is accomplished through chopping and dropping cover crops, right?

For my first planting(s) of cover crops, I'm looking at a mix of Amaranth, Buckwheat, Cowpea, Daikon, and Sorghum-Sudangrass (on the advice of other Permies members). I'm thinking these species should work to build soil organic matter at various depths throughout the soil profile, reverse compaction, and fix Nitrogen - while slowing soil erosion by water and reducing weed populations.

Starting in the second year, I have a notion to switch over to Comfrey & Cardoon in areas I want to convert to food production (or forest). What do you think? Cardoon is supposed to have some drought tolerance and grow in heavy and/or nutritionally poor soils.

Thank you for your words of advice.

Food-wise, I'll be relying on the grocery store for the first few years. (Though, if Daikon grows successfuly in the area set aside for the vegetable garden the first year, I might be able to start my main vegetable rotation as early as the second year.)
 
Donner MacRae
Posts: 31
Location: North Central Idaho - Zone 6B/7A Average Rainfall: 25 inches
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Greetings Eric,

Thank you for your suggestions.

"Do you have access to some non-pine/coniferous wood?"

For lumber, you mean? I have Western Red Cedar & Alaskan Yellow Cedar for raised beds (but those are both coniferous). (I would be hesitant to build raised beds out of anything that wasn't going to last me a good long while. My current boards & fasteners are good for 10+ years (and that's in a climate with roughly twice the annual precip.).) What's the basic methodology for growing mushrooms in raised beds (if you don't mind going into a little more detail)? I was under the impression I would need deep shade for mushrooms.

"Do you have any weedy brush that needs to be cleared up?"

The woody-stemmed shrubs/trees in the area I'm targeting are mostly confined to gullies and areas where water is channelized by topography (and those I don't plan on disturbing unnecessarily). I can probably source free wood chips locally, if that's why you were asking (though I would have no control over the mix of species if I went that route).

"Mushroom compost" sounds intriguing. Where can I learn more about this?
 
Donner MacRae
Posts: 31
Location: North Central Idaho - Zone 6B/7A Average Rainfall: 25 inches
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Greetings Travis,

"Loamy soil is really prone to compaction. We do minimal tillage, and that works pretty well."

You strike the best deal you can with Mother Nature - on terms that you're comfortable with. =]  In my planning, I'm placing an emphasis on reducing organic matter depletion (one of the downsides of tilling) to minimize the need for offsite-sourced OM inputs in the future. Here's my downside: I'll have to limit the size of my planned production areas to what I can do manually myself without heavy machinery. Trade-offs...

"...our soils tend to be highly erodible."

I wonder if it's a common attribute of very silty soils? The soils in my area frequently have a high susceptibility to sheet and rill erosion by water. (Wind doesn't seem to be as much of a factor there, for whatever reason.) Sheet and rill erosion seems like a problem one can lick - though you might have to 'permaculture-it-up', hah. (Much depends upon the slopes present within your farming areas, of course.)
 
Travis Johnson
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Donner MacRae wrote:Greetings Travis,

"Loamy soil is really prone to compaction. We do minimal tillage, and that works pretty well."

You strike the best deal you can with Mother Nature - on terms that you're comfortable with. =]  In my planning, I'm placing an emphasis on reducing organic matter depletion (one of the downsides of tilling) to minimize the need for offsite-sourced OM inputs in the future. Here's my downside: I'll have to limit the size of my planned production areas to what I can do manually myself without heavy machinery. Trade-offs...

"...our soils tend to be highly erodible."

I wonder if it's a common attribute of very silty soils? The soils in my area frequently have a high susceptibility to sheet and rill erosion by water. (Wind doesn't seem to be as much of a factor there, for whatever reason.) Sheet and rill erosion seems like a problem one can lick - though you might have to 'permaculture-it-up', hah. (Much depends upon the slopes present within your farming areas, of course.)



We may have similar soil, but they are also different. My soil has 6-8% organic matter, so I am at the point where I have too much organic matter. That comes from years of spreading liquid and solid manure, and using compost teas. I hear a lot about tillage being horrible for the organic matter and worm counts, but that is not what I am finding here at all, so tillage does not concern me so much. But you will have issues with compaction, it comes from the clay content of the soil.

As for being highly erodible, yes they would be via their very name. Silty, which means they are no different then erosion that happens on a construction site. In that case they use "Silt Fence" to stop the erosions because the moving soil is silt. We have the same thing, as glaciers or high volumes of water moved off the mountains, for whatever reason they landed where we live. Its like a giant muddle puddle where after the water drained away, or the glacier melted, we are left with silt. But just like on a construction site, it takes very little water to get that silty soil moving again. That is why it is considered highly erodible.
 
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Donner MacRae wrote:
I have to admit to an inadequate understanding of soil building programs/timelines. The mulching you're talking about is accomplished through chopping and dropping cover crops, right?



Any mulch is good, whether that be chop and drop plants you grow on site or additional biomass (like wood chips) that you bring in from the outside.  Obviously, if you are able to bring in truckloads of mulch from the outside (tree trimmers dumping their chips onto your property for you to spread), you'll be able to build soil much faster than if you are dependent upon what you're able to grow on your own.

Trees are the ultimate dynamic accumulators and solar battery.  They mine the deep sub-soil for nutrients and store them in their branches and root system.  When you get a load of wood chips, you are bringing the equivalent of thousands and thousands of hours of solar energy (sunlight captured by the tree and converted to biomass) and thousands of miles of soil-mining roots that have captured hundreds of pounds of nutrients.  What takes nature 20 years to accomplish, you can bring onto your land in one afternoon.  Those wood chips would otherwise be hauled away and dumped somewhere else.  You might as well put them on your land.

When it comes to improving drainage as well as improving the soil's water-holding capacity, the answer is always the same: increase soil organic matter (SOM).  It doesn't matter if your soil is clay, silt or sand, adding SOM is the answer to both issues (drainage and dryness).  Mulch is the fast track to both of these.
 
Donner MacRae
Posts: 31
Location: North Central Idaho - Zone 6B/7A Average Rainfall: 25 inches
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"...you will have issues with compaction, it comes from the clay content of the soil."

Good to know, Travis. I will keep that info on file moving forward.


Greetings Marco,

Your description of a tree as a solar battery and nutrient storehouse creates a striking mental image. What an awesome way of looking at it.

"... if you are able to bring in truckloads of mulch from the outside (tree trimmers dumping their chips onto your property for you to spread), you'll be able to build soil much faster than if you are dependent upon what you're able to grow on your own."

Ahh... Now you've piqued my interest. 'Building soil quickly' is the focused task.

(My mind races to questions - how fast do wood chips break down into usable soil? Does this tend to move the soil pH up or down? What's the a risk of obtaining (along with the wood chips) tree-diseases that aren't already present on the site?)

Hel-lo! I just noticed one of the final sections in RedHawk's Epic Soil Series (which I'm currently assimilating in a hurried manner) is called 'Great-Wood-Chips The good the great and surprise there is no ugly to wood chip mulches'. No doubt many of the questions I would automatically fire off have already been answered by the good Dr. RedHawk.

Many thanks for putting me onto this subject.
 
Marco Banks
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Donner MacRae wrote:

how fast do wood chips break down into usable soil?



Initially, the chips will not break down too quickly.  I'd say that it will take 6 months to break down a 6 inch layer of chips.  But once the fungal network in your soil grows due to the layer of food that you're feeding it, you'll find that with each subsequent layer of wood chips, the decomposition happens more quickly.


Donner MacRae wrote:

Does this tend to move the soil pH up or down? What's the a risk of obtaining (along with the wood chips) tree-diseases that aren't already present on the site?)



I've not noticed any kind of noticeable change in the PH of my soil, but I've never formally checked it.  I've got heavy clay, which tends to be alkaline, so it would be nice if the wood chips would lower the PH slightly.  People will claim that pine straw and chips from pine trees will acidify your soil, but I've never noticed that.  It would take years and years of pine chips to move the PH in any meaningful way.

I've read that having a higher percentage of SOM creates a wider tolerability for plants that might normally be fussy about PH.  I've seen this myself as the soil in the garden/orchard has changed over the years.  Because our soil was so heavy and alkaline, plants that liked a sweeter soil didn't used to do very well.  But now I can pretty much grow anything out there.  If you push back the chips, it's like a 4 to 6 inch layer of compost before you finally reach that heavy, gummy clay beneath.

Is there a risk of bringing in disease?  I suppose.  I've never had any problem with that, but it's certainly possible.  We've been on our property for 19 years and I've been putting down wood chips for that entire time.  I've never lost a tree to disease in that time.  We've got over 60 fruit trees -- never lost one.  There was an existing apricot tree when we bought the place that was absolutely massive -- the trunk was 2 feet across.  It was infested with termites so I cut that down.  Otherwise, never had any problems.  

On the other hand, adding biomass to the soil surface creates an ideal habitat for all the good microbes and fungi that prevent disease.  So yes, while there is a risk of bringing in disease with wood chips, the long term benefit of creating healthy soil where fungal networks thrive and microbes have a happy home is far more beneficial.

However, over the years, we had 3 different bad things come in with wood chips.  The first was fire ants.  It took me a year to get rid of those once I figured out that we had them.  That sucked.  The second was a zillion seeds from a Brazilian Pepper tree.  They were sprouting all over the place for a year.  It didn't take any effort to pull them up, but it was a hassle.  The third is something I've written about on this site a couple of times—mold.  If you get a load of wood chips, you need to move them within a couple of days and spread them out as mulch or they can start to heat up and get moldy.  Breathing that steamy mold cloud when you move the chips is nasty.  Trust me, I've experienced it.  You don't notice immediately that it's nasty stuff but it'll mess you up.  So move chips before they start to compost and break down in the big pile, or you'll need to wear a mask after a week or two.
 
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Hi Donner,

My approach to starting on any new land is to do the following two things. This will enable you to get a fair indication of what the soil is like before you start growing anything.

1 – Soil Health Card, this is ten simple tests you can do to see what the soil has on offer.
This was devised years ago by Land Care in Australia. I have included a link to the info and videos on how it works.

On first impressions, it seems so simple which it is but you will be surprised at what you discover.
It's amazing how often you see the opposite to what you were expecting.

Link to info on what is and how to do the soil health card - https://www.soilcare.org/soil-health-card.html


2 – Have a soil test done to see what the soil's mineral makeup is. I would suggest you find a soil lab and soil analyst who follows William Albrecht's methods.

With the above information, you will be better equipped on making growing decisions going forward.

There are relatively cheap ways of getting the soil to be productive and more importantly growing good health food.

If you need any more information on going down this road please get back to me.

Regards
Anthony
 
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We are thinking of getting a mechanical crimper roller for our silty/sandy loam as an improvement over chop and drop, more like crimp and cover. Run-off isn’t really much of an issue on our place (other than a slope stripped of vegetation) as the ground underneath our topsoil is essentially ancient beach sand. In my experience our silt is more likely to be blown downwind when exposed and dry. You rarely see any puddles after rain and mud is non-existent except down in some ravines and in some areas that have a nature towards retaining water I’ve mapped as being in line with a line of dry leaf wetland depressions that extend back into to woods.

The idea of such a device is that it rolls down cover crops and “crimps” the stem every 5-7 inches to stop the flow of juices through the stalk…thus killing the cover crop while leaving it in place as a mulch. (TIMING is absolutely critical in such an operation…if the crop is rolled down too early, the roots will still have enough energy to sprout new stems, and if it is done too late, there will be viable seeds that will re-seed a new cover crop. The time to crimp/roll is when the plants are in flower, and the first seeds are visible but unripe.)



The design and function of a mechanical crimper roller seems simple enough to be home built w/ some welding skills and up-cycled materials. The ones that gain their weight by being filled with water are criticized because of problems with corrosion and freezing and ruining the tank in winter, but those issues could be remedied by vigilance by the user and some design improvements and could be easier to build and use than the crimper that uses weights to achieve just the right crimp.

Rodale did research and here are their conclusions.

Research conclusions:

Our results showed that crop yield was lower in reduced-tillage management systems due to low cover crop biomass [4,111 kg/ha (3,670 lb/acre)], well below the optimal threshold biomass of 8,000 kg/ha (7,000 lb/acre) when compared to the grower’s standard system. However, using reduced-tillage management systems enhanced nutrient concentration of a-carotene, lutein, calcium, and phosphorus in winter squash when stored for 60 days. Total polyphenol concentrations increased by 1.75, 2, and 1.5 times in the BCS, RC, and grower’s standard treatments, respectively, as storage periods increased from 0 to 30 and 60 days. Vegetable growers who have limited resources and capital may start by using the BCS system, an affordable low-input management technology, to roll-crimp the cover crops while producing high quality winter squash. In addition to enhanced nutrient levels of winter squash when using the high-input technology method, growers will observe reductions of 1/5 the time required to roll-crimp the cover crop and 1/6 the time required to transplant seedlings as compared to those of the low-input technology system.

 
Donner MacRae
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Location: North Central Idaho - Zone 6B/7A Average Rainfall: 25 inches
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I am very grateful to everyone who has taken the time to add suggestions to this thread. Marco - I am indebted to you for your detailed and informative response, sir. Let me turn over what you and RedHawk have said (here and elsewhere) regarding wood chip mulches for a day or so before responding.
 
Donner MacRae
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Greetings James,

Being of more modest fabricating capabilities than yourself, I think I might tackle the 2X4 + angle-iron "foot crimper" demonstrated at the 1:19 and 4:55 marks in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjcyoalaeAM

If the going is too slow (less than, say, an acre per day), my fall-back plan is to rent a walk-behind flail mower. =]

BTW, if you do go the DIY route with the drum, I think it would make a fascinating pic thread / tutorial.
 
Eric Hanson
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Hi Donner,

You have gotten a huge amount of great input from Marco and RedHawk—and they give out great advice and have helped me tremendously, so I only have a couple of minor points.

When I asked if you had access to non-coniferous wood, I was not thinking about lumber, I was thinking about the potential for woodchips.  Wine Caps are amazingly easy mushrooms to start with, but they are not especially fond of conifer chips.  What I was thinking was if you did have some deadfall trees (non-conifers) or brush needing to be cleared, then you could potentially chip these up to use as a substrate for mushrooms, and their resulting compost is amazing!  Alternatively you could bring chips in and accomplish the same as long as the chips are not conifers.

Good Luck,

Eric
 
Donner MacRae
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Greetings Anthony,

"...this is ten simple tests you can do to see what the soil has on offer."

Sorry for taking so long to reply - I did my own web search on Soil Health Cards after checking out your link, and I'm still reading.

Far from being too simplistic/basic, this seems like an invaluable heuristic tool (just what I need for my land-hunt) - not sure why I'd never heard of it before.

In the course of searching, I found this USDA website:

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/soils/health/assessment/?cid=nrcs142p2_053871

It offers Cards tailored to various parts of the US, including the region I'm interested in. =]

Thanks for expanding my knowledge base.
 
Donner MacRae
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Hi Eric,

Ah, gotcha. Sorry for my confusion.

Do the mushrooms need to be grown in the shade, though?
 
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Eric Hanson wrote:Hi Donner,

You have gotten a huge amount of great input from Marco and RedHawk—and they give out great advice and have helped me tremendously, so I only have a couple of minor points.

When I asked if you had access to non-coniferous wood, I was not thinking about lumber, I was thinking about the potential for woodchips.  Wine Caps are amazingly easy mushrooms to start with, but they are not especially fond of conifer chips.  What I was thinking was if you did have some deadfall trees (non-conifers) or brush needing to be cleared, then you could potentially chip these up to use as a substrate for mushrooms, and their resulting compost is amazing!  Alternatively you could bring chips in and accomplish the same as long as the chips are not conifers.

Good Luck,

Eric

hey Eric. just to let you know. i talked to a lady on another site from Alaska and she said she was growing wine caps on mostly black spruce wood chips. i didn't think this was possible but she sent me the pics. they have only spruce, and some cottonwood and white birch but mostly spruce grows up there. I'm going to try a experimental bed next spring with spruce/ fir chips to see how it compares to hardwood. been feeding mine arborist chips that are mostly spruce sometimes and they are doing just as good.
 
Eric Hanson
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Hi Donner,

So wine caps are fairly bulletproof.  Ideally, use non-coniferous wood (but apparently they will grow on these as well), get that wood moist and preferably have some dappled shade.  Believe it or not, Wine Caps actually prefer to have a bit of sunlight.  Personally I grow mine (the first year) next to tomatoes so that the tomatoes can cast a bit of shade.

Wine Caps really like to grow in association with plant roots.  When I go digging around to see how my spawn is doing, it is always growing best around roots.  It is fascinating to see how the mycelium wrap themselves around roots.  This last spring I planted summer squash in the same place I grew tomatoes last year and it was the healthiest summer squash I have ever grown.  I also planted some inoculated peas, not so much for the peas, but more to get nitrogen fixation bacteria in the bed and especially to encourage more wine cap growth.

So given Steve’ Discovery that they can grow on spruce, then I would say you have some very promising possibilities.  When I grow wine Caps, I do so in roughly 12” raised beds.  I will chip up a bunch of woody debris from around me, and pile it in a garden bed and rake flat.  I then scoop out 8 (this number is arbitrary, but it is what I do) holes in the chips, save the chips, refill with a good topsoil, manure, potting mixture, etc. and plant tomatoes.  I then dig another series of little holes and trenches connecting the holes and mix in the spawn (the reason for the trenches is to get the spawn to spread together quickly).  Any leftover spawn I spread on the surface.  I then take all those chips I was saving and scatter them on the surface.  This might add an inch the pile.  At this point I water very thoroughly.  Next I lay down 2-4 inches of straw and thoroughly water again.  Next I hurry up and wait.

It might well take a year to get mushrooms.  The mushrooms won’t appear until they have colonized all of the wood first.  They actually kinda have to starve to produce an actual mushroom.  You can get mushrooms quicker using less woodchips or using only straw.  You don’t want the chips to dry out, but don’t worry about checking every day.  The purpose of the straw was to help protect the underlying wood from drying out.  Check occasionally and if the feel dry, give them water.  But the wine caps are pretty resistant critters!

I hope all this helps.  If you want more information, I have a thread I can give you where I detailed my journey.

Eric
 
Eric Hanson
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Steve,

I will be very interested to see how your conifer bed works out!

I have been told not to use Wine Caps on mushrooms, but if they work, then who am I to say otherwise.

Please let us know how things work out!

Eric
 
steve bossie
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Eric Hanson wrote:Steve,

I will be very interested to see how your conifer bed works out!

I have been told not to use Wine Caps on mushrooms, but if they work, then who am I to say otherwise.

Please let us know how things work out!

Eric

about the only thing id think wine caps can't use is any kind of cedar . i don't even use cedar as mulch around my plants due to its allopathic tendencies. now in between rows where you don't want grass, cover it with cedar and it will be a long time before anything grows there. heard black walnut is the same. next load i get from the arborist next spring, I'm going to ask him what kind of trees are in there.
 
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