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Eggplant and Elm Oysters: Made in the Partial Shade

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The benefits of growing mushrooms in your garden go much deeper that you might first realize. Not only will you be growing two food crops in the same space, but they have synergistic and beneficial effects on one another. Physically,the straw and woodchips used to grow the mushrooms act as mulch layer that keeps you plants moist and weeds in check. In return, plants provide shade and transpiration from the leaves has a cooling effect that keeps the mushroom mycelium happy. Nutritionally, the plant roots provide the mycelium with sugars, and the mycelium provides the roots with water and minerals in a bio-available form as they break down the mulch and the soil. For pest and disease control, some fungi like the Elm Oyster are actually entomopathogenic. That is, they kill and sometime “eat” some of the bugs your plants attract. Mushroom mycelium can also keep fungal and bacterial invaders in check. By companion planting, you get to play Mother Nature by creating a mini-ecosystem in your garden beds.

I have grown elm oysters in garden beds with peppers and kale. Both did OK but the plants didn't provide the shade necessary, and it wasn't the right time to grow many Elm Oyster mushrooms here in Tennessee. When thinking about what might work better, I was struck by a memory of visiting a friend's house.  I stuck my nose into their business by telling them that they had planted their eggplant in a spot that was too shady.   As the summer went on, I was pleasantly surprised to find out I was wrong. Not only did the eggplant grow but it had significantly less flea beetle damage than many eggplants have in full sun.  Although it did not produce many eggplants; the flowers and foliage were lovely enough to call it an ornamental.

So I thought I would try to grow eggplant both white and western, with elm oyster mushrooms in partial shade. It was the best combination I have tried so far. There was a large crop of eggplants and the damage from insects was minimal. In addition there were two flushes of elm oysters, one early in the summer and then one later.

Start by choosing the garden location. The best spot for both crops here in Tennessee is partial shade. Farther north the large leaves of the eggplant and cooler temps would probably allow for a mostly sunny spot. One Everything Mushroom Sawdust Spawn Block of Elm Oyster will cover 20 to 40 Square feet of bed. So choose a site that can accommodate a bed somewhere in the 3x7 to 4x10ft range.

Prepare the bed: It is necessary to start with rich, well-drained soil. Mycelium will be burned with any kind of inorganic fertilizer so stick with organic. Amend the soil with well-composted plant materials or aged manure. Avoid fresher amendments like leaf litter that are bound to have native fungi lurking which slow down or take over the Elm Oysters.

Insure soil is well-drained, as standing water will damage or even kill the mycelium. If needed, till and amend with inorganic materials for drainage (like vermiculite).

Soil is a whole science, if you are new to organic gardening in your area look for suggestions from local gardeners and extension agents.

Plant the eggplant early in the spring: Here in East Tennessee, I try to start plants soon after the last frost. The last frost date here is Mid-May, to which I pay no attention, because it can get hot quickly here and I want plants and mushrooms started before it gets too hot. Keep an eye on the long term forecast, and if there is no frost go ahead and plant. I start my plants in late April with the understanding there is a small chance you may need to cover plants if there is a frost warning.

Start your mushrooms: Once plants are established and starting to grow (2 to 3 weeks later) its time to spawn. Give your mushrooms a good head start against possible invaders by putting down a layer of cardboard or burlap sacks.

Always start with fresh dry substrates (straw and wood-chips) with no hits of fungal or other growth. Put down a layer of loose straw, break up the spawn block into golf ball to tennis ball sized pieces and broadcast over the straw.

Add more straw and top and finish with a layer of wood-chips. 

The bed is ready for watering.

Now the bed is ready for watering!

Press everything together so that the spawn is making good contact with the straw substrate (this probably needs to be done several times). The layer of heavy wood-chips helps keep everything compacted.

Water: Water like you would a normal vegetable garden. In general, give the bed a good soaking every two to three days if there isn't a good rain in the mean time. If it gets very dry or wet increase or decrease watering accordingly.

Vigilance: Check beds daily for mushrooms, especially after big rain events accompanied by fluctuations in temperature. The mushrooms don't last long outside. They also have the tendency to flush while you are on vacation and you want good pictures for your blog.

Eggplant and sweet potato circle first showing.

When growing Mushrooms - Experiment! Question authority! Question this Blog!

Growing specialty mushrooms, especially outdoors in beds, is a new to most gardeners here in the US. There is very little formal research and almost no funding to look into new methods. The thing is mushrooms can surprise you. Mushrooms can grow in a host of conditions and a wide of range of temperatures. Who knows what will grow best in your area.

From my backyard experiments, I think the entomopathogenic aspect is particularly exciting and much more widespread than reported. A formal study of Elm oyster showed that mycelium could kill 62% sugar beet nematodes in laboratory on petri plates (Palizi, Goltapeh et al. 2009). The same study confirmed that Pleurotus oyster mushrooms are able to capture, kill and digest the same cyst nematodes. Both species kill the bugs by excreting toxins from their hyphae. While studies like these are exciting the ability of mushroom species to fend off or kill bugs has not been well explored or employed in the garden setting.

Sometimes even question dogma when it comes to growing plants.

I did a pretty extensive internet search for growing eggplants in the shade and all experts seem to agree that “eggplants are a full sun crop”. They have large leaves like many shade dwelling plants. I hypothesized that here in Tennessee where it gets so hot, perhaps the shade provides enough of a a cooler spot that allow eggplants to grow better.

When things work it can be great fun. I was delighted my mental meanderings found a great partnership between Elm oyster – Eggplants in semi-shade. The large leaves and creeping nature of the eggplants produce enough shade to keep the mushrooms happy. Not only did it provide a couple of flushes of delicious Elm Oyster, but my eggplants never looked better or produced more fruits! Something else with large leaves like squash might work even better as well.

As with all mushrooms grown outside, be aware of invader mushroom species. Make a positive ID before eating any mushrooms grown outdoors.

I did the oyster-eggplant bed near a control plot with no mushrooms, but mulched with straw and wood-chips. The difference in bug damage was huge!

Control bed without Elm oysters.

Healthier garden with Elm oysters!

Palizi, P., E. M. Goltapeh, et al. (2009). "POTENTIAL OF OYSTER MUSHROOMS FOR THE BIOCONTROL OF SUGAR BEET NEMATODE (HETERODERA SCHACHTII)." Journal of Plant Protection Research49(1): 27-33.