A Fungus Among Us
Austin-area mushroom and worm farms team up for home garden compost
Update: The grow kit pickup on Friday, December 16 will take place at LoLo wine bar, located at 1504 E. Sixth St., from 3-7 pm.
Before the early bird even has a chance to enter the equation, worms need their breakfasts, and many Austinites' home gardens depend on it. Some homes collect vegetable scraps and layer them with cardboard in a worm bin, but that’s a lot of upkeep for a home garden. On a much larger scale, one Buda farm learned that worms love its main scraps: used mushroom substrate.
Smallhold, a Brooklyn-based mushroom farm with two Buda locations for growing and research, happened to pick its Texas real estate 20 minutes down the road from the compost worm breeders at Brothers Worm Farm. A mushroom farm doesn’t look like most Texas farms — it’s all indoors, chilled, and very sterile — and the first thing a visitor will notice in place of rows of crops is stacks of substrate blocks.
In this case, mushroom substrate, or growing medium, means sawdust and seed hulls. That might not sound very nutritious for worms, but since the worms' meals include spent substrate (i.e. growing medium after the mushrooms have already been grown and harvested numerous times until the block cannot produce anymore), it includes lots of leftover fungus bits. They also consume lots of hard, ground materials (often included in the catch-all term “bedding,” which Growing In the Garden calls “anything that was a tree”) to help the toothless worms mash up the softer stuff in the form of fruit and vegetable scraps from Break It Down Eco-services.
This system creates what Smallhold calls a “nearly fully circular (super early beta!) product.” Substrate is recycled wood and seed casings; it becomes worm food with leftover produce scraps; the worm castings (feces) feed Texans’ gardens. Smallhold estimated in mid-November that it had donated 125 tons of spent substrate for feeding the Brothers’ clew. (That’s what you call a group of worms.) This is in addition to 13 tons of produce scraps.
Smallhold says the resulting fertilizer is “40 percent more active than typical vermicompost.” An analysis provided showed a high ratio of fungi to bacteria, which is better for growing large vegetation as opposed to weeds, and high fungal biomass. The latter means that more mushrooms may grow where the fertilizer has been used — a very healthy addition to a garden.
Vermicomposting can be done at home, but many gardeners don’t come up with enough vegetable scraps to keep things going without buying additional material, don’t want to deal with temperature management year-round, or find that their colony grows out of control.
Mushrooms can also be grown at home, even by absolute beginners, making a grow kit a great low-effort, high-uniqueness gift. The unfussy fungi just need a relatively dim or dark place, and some misting with water. Austinites who would like to gift blue oyster mushroom grow kits, vermicompost, and other shroomy paraphernalia may preorder for pickup on December 16. This is a good last-minute option for nearby shoppers, since the recommended cutoff for online orders in time for Christmas passed on December 1.
More information about Smallhold is available at smallhold.com. Much of the information in this article is available through Smallhold’s newsletters.