Foraging Feed

A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire and Mike Schosser
Claire Schosser and Mike Gaillard.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You call your way of life "voluntary simplicity." For Cat in the Flock readers, explain how you live, and how it's different from mainstream expectations.

CS: Voluntary simplicity means that we decide what our values are and how to live to express those values instead of allowing mass culture to tell us what we are supposed to value and how we are supposed to live. It also means doing our best to live within the limits of what the earth can provide. 

The less time we spend on earning money and on all the activities, like commuting, that are required to earn money, the more time we have for our own interests. Spending less time earning money means we have less money to spend, so we limit the goods and services that money buys to the lowest level that we can manage. The less we spend on any particular good or service means the more we have to spend on something else we might need or want, so we prefer goods that are high quality and last for a long time and/or require little or no maintenance and/or are secondhand and/or are human powered. We do our own cooking and cleaning and as many other basic household services as we have the skill to do. These choices generally entail using less energy and less energy intensive materials than we would otherwise use, which also means we cause less pollution and waste to be produced so we come closer to living within the earths limits.

Violets
While others might see wild violets as weeds, Claire regards them as an early spring source of nibbles, as well as a food for pollinators.

LB: That sounds great. I have two followup questions for you on this. First, removed from the dependence on a job, how have you spent your time instead? Second, what sorts of modern conveniences have you decided are not important? Do you wash your dishes by hand? Line-dry your clothes? I ask because Anthony and I began hand-washing our dishes last year since dishwashers are so weak these days that we ended up washing them ourselves after a wash cycle anyway, and we wanted to save money as well as use the wash water in our garden afterward. We were surprised to find we both actually enjoy washing dishes - it's meditative and satisfying. 

CS: The house didn’t include a dishwasher when we bought it, and the kitchen is so small I didn’t want to lose any space to a dishwasher, so I decided I would wash the dishes by hand. Although I had a dishwasher most of my adult life, I find I don’t miss it at all. I often mull over ideas while I’m doing the dishes, or I listen to music.

After washing the dishes, I put as many as I can on a rack and let them air-dry. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but it’s satisfying to find a way to arrange the dishes on the rack so I don’t have to dry any of them myself!

Dish Rack
The dish rack at the Schosser/Gaillard household.

While we have a clothes dryer - it came with the house - I dry our clothes on clothes racks most of the year. Because they aren’t abrading each other as they tumble around in the dryer, our clothes last many more years than they did when I used the clothes dryer all the time. My three pairs of fleece-lined blue jeans that I wear for five to six months of the year are well over 10 years old, and I can still wear them in public!

I don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Our floors are wood and linoleum, so I sweep them with a broom and mop them to clean them. We rake leaves with a rake and shovel snow with a shovel. I dig garden beds with a shovel instead of a tiller. Mike splits wood by hand. Sometimes he saws it by hand, too, although he uses an electric chainsaw when sawing by hand becomes too difficult. 

We don’t have a television. Instead, we each read a lot and have particular interests that we pursue.

As for what we do instead of a job, we have lives. Granted, part of the time we do the not-so-fun things like cleaning, paying the bills and keeping track of expenditures, and mowing the mix of grass and weeds that isn’t part of one of the gardens. Most of the time, however, we are doing something that we enjoy and that furthers our life goals. This includes each of us having an active spiritual practice and doing volunteer work. We enjoy reading and creative pursuits such as writing and playing music. I spend a lot of time working on the various gardens and watching the birds who live here or visit.

Birdhouse
A birdhouse beckons over Claire's garden plot.

LB: You and Mike shifted to this lifestyle back in 1994. Taking such drastic steps as you have to get off the hamster wheel was, I'm sure, rarer back then. What made you decide to do it? How hard was it, initially? What are your biggest struggles now?

CS: I came to St. Louis in 1984 to work as a research chemist for a large multinational corporation. If I had been happy with corporate life, perhaps Id still be working and we wouldnt be having this conversation. But I wasnt happy. It wasnt just that I didnt like my job; nothing about corporate life appealed to me. I could see how every step up the corporate ladder restricted further what employees could say, do, or think. The only question was how long I could stand to continue working there. The answer: eight years.

When I quit my job, our household income dropped by almost two-thirds. We adjusted our spending downward, but within a year, it became clear that we were spending more than Mike earned. We tried to determine where we could reduce expenses enough to live on Mikes wages, but we couldnt seem to find any place where we could cut spending. 

Luckily I found the book Your Money or Your Life in early 1994. By applying the nine-step program in the book, we learned which expenses really were fulfilling and in line with our values and which werent. Knowing that, we dropped or reduced the most unfulfilling expenses. Within six months we were saving money, which by itself was a big boost to morale. Since we had dropped unfulfilling expenses, we felt better from that as well. 

Mike retired in 2001, when we calculated we had enough income from savings to cover all of our expenses. Then we moved in 2002 to our current house, drawing on savings to make energy-saving improvements. Interest rates declined in the early 2000s, reducing our income further. We went through some lean years, until we aged enough to begin drawing our pensions. Right now were doing well, while we continue to increase our resilience to economic fluctuations.

Canoe and Red Buds
A canoe under the red bud trees at Claire and Mike's place.

LB: That's an incredible life trajectory, Claire! By the way, Anthony's mother used Your Money Or Your Life (YMOYL) to retire early at age 55, pursuing a spiritual path and involving herself in a community called The Red Door that she helped found. She was active in both pursuits until she died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. So Anthony has read YMOYL as well. The problem for our generation, however, is that a lot of the advice in that book is no longer valid. Generation X has seen a dramatically widening wage gap between corporate leadership and the worker base. Pensions are no longer a thing (no employer has ever offered either of us one). Ours is the first generation in many to do less well than our parents. Finally, there are no longer any safe investments; savings accounts, CDs, etc., earn next to nothing, so we're left with very little besides the (rather volatile) stock market, and even today's 401Ks are tied to it. All that said, is there any advice you can give us as we work toward a hopeful kind of retirement? Also, I'm curious whether you had ever thought about leaving corporate life to go into a softer career, such as non-profits, or teaching? I've done both although in the end I had to opt for corporate work in order to pay off heavy student loan and other debt. 

Garden
A view of the tidy food garden.

CS: YMOYL worked for Anthony’s mother and for us because we could take advantage of pensions and good interest rates on safe investments. Without those the YMOYL goal of living off of interest from savings for many years becomes impossible; ordinary people cannot save enough money to do that at the current very low interest rates. 

I think the changes you’ve described are likely to continue and bring with them further changes that make the kind of retirement that my parents’ generation experienced a rare thing. To put it in ecological terms, previously stable economic patterns have been disturbed and are becoming more so with time. One of the things that permaculture teaches, a concept it borrowed directly from ecology, is that diverse ecosystems are more resilient to disturbance: they handle it better, it doesn’t tear them apart. 

Dogwood Blossom
Dogwood blossoms.

 What you and Anthony are doing and what Mike and I are doing increases resilience to economic disturbances by increasing our options to respond to it. The only form of resilience many people know is to earn more money. That is becoming more difficult to do. However, a more potent form of resilience is to need, and spend, less money and to increase our skill base so that we can more easily adapt to changing conditions. By growing some of your own food, you spend less at the grocery store; you eat better so you are healthier; you learn a skill that you can share with others; and you enjoy the satisfaction of gardening. By refurbishing patio gliders you saved the money you would have spent on lower-quality patio furniture and their replacements when they broke, you learned another skill, you have sturdy and beautiful patio furniture that will last for as long as you have a patio, and you have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. Everything you write about shows the different ways in which you and Anthony increase your resilience and maximize your options for later in life. The best advice I can give you is to keep doing what you are doing!

You asked if I considered other options for paid work such as teaching or working for a non-profit organization. Although I enjoy teaching on an informal basis, I never considered teaching in public schools. Even when I attended them in the 1960s and 1970s, it was clear that you couldn’t teach what or how you wanted. In grad school I did my research with a professor who began his career the same semester I started, so I had a front-row seat to watch the pressures that are involved in obtaining tenure. That was enough to discourage me from becoming a professor. Non-profit work didn’t seem much different from corporate work to me, except that it didn’t pay as well.

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Meet Chaco, the 'Indoor Only' Suburban Farm Cat

Chaco_Feet

By Lisa Brunette

I've had the privilege of sharing my home with a total of four dogs and four cats over the course of my life (though only as many as 3 pets at one time, and those were all cats). Of the lot, Chaco is definitely the most entertaining. As the lot includes a poodle who had the odd habit of 'hanging' his turds on plants instead of depositing them on the ground like a normal pet, that's saying a lot.

Chaco's a special breed called a Devon rex, and they're famously described as "monkeys in cat suits." The breed has an above-average climbing drive. This is evidenced in Chaco's need to get to the highest point in any room, consequences be damned. His only health issue is a torn ACL. The vet said we should probably scale back on his Olympic skiing events.

Chaco_Tree

A cat like this deserves to be spoiled a bit, with faux 'trees' he can climb on, of course. As he had the crazy luck to get adopted by a couple of middle-aged empty nesters, it probably won't surprise you to learn that he eats an only-raw food diet, has a an arsenal of colorful cat toys, and sleeps the day away on a heating pad.

Don't judge us too harshly on that last one, though - his breed lacks a guard coat, so he's covered only in short little corkscrew curls of fine down. He gets mighty cold, easily. It's my duty several times a winter's day to rub his ears between my thumbs and fingers to warm them. He also likes to set his cold toe beans on my neck till they toast up again. He's happiest when he's tucked inside our clothing with us.

Chaco_Vest

The short, curly hair is one of his attributes, though: He's as close to hypoallergenic as you can get in a cat. Which makes him the only cat that doesn't trigger an endless slew of mast cell reactions in me. I'm greatly thankful for this, especially because he's the most affectionate, cuddliest cat I've ever met. 

If you come over to our house, you're likely to get a 'kiss' from Chaco, as his breeder taught him to stick his face right up into yours for a smooch, and we haven't been able to break him of the habit. (Not that we've tried that hard.) He sleeps with us, of course; and he really likes the cleft of my neck between head and shoulder. If that's not available, he plops right down on my head. On more than one occasion I've felt something wet... trickling down my chin... yep. Cat drool.

Chaco_Paw

When we first got Chaco, I hadn't yet figured out what was causing my health problems, and we tried to keep him out of the bedroom in an attempt to ensure a symptom-free night's rest, just in case I did react to him. But when I was staying in an Airbnb during our lengthy wait to move into our current home, Chaco was able to push the double doors open to my bedroom, and there was no keeping him out. He took to it as if to say, There. As it should be.

Speaking of pushing open doors, he can pull them open as well. This is of course not a great trait to have in a cat, especially if you don't want your trash all over the kitchen. 

With his big eyes and ears, he has a bit of an alien look that I find simultaneously adorable and comical. He's especially goofy during play, and one of these days I promise I'll capture on camera one of his totally wacked-out 'gonna git you' poses. For now, though, you can admire him in this hat.

CatintheHat

He's indoor-only because the Devon rex breed is a miniature one, putting him at about a half or even one-third the size of a regular household domestic cat. As much as he likes to think so as he gazes out at the squirrels and rabbits and birds just beyond the window, he wouldn't be able to tough it out there on his own for very long. I mean, besides that torn ACL, he's just a lovable goof with delusions of predatory glory. He wouldn't be good for the birds anyway; a surprisingly sad number of them succumb to house cats as it is, so we don't want Chaco contributing to the problem.

Until we can erect a 'catio,' or somesuch, Chaco must enjoy the outdoors from the safety of his home. Yeah, you should hear him bemoaning the injustice of the situation if we're outside and the windows are open.

Chaco_Window

For such a small guy, he can really strike a commanding presence. Sometimes, when running the day job business plus this blog feels like a lot, I can just pretend that Chaco's the boss. 

Chaco_Boss

Chaco_Boss2

He can often make it hard to work anyway. This is a pretty common thing I've seen in other cats, the drive to distract you while you're working on something important at the computer, but Chaco's definitely the hammiest. It's like he knows exactly how to get me to laugh.

Chaco_ScreenPeek

When we adopted Chaco in 2016, it was with the express purpose of giving my stepson, Zander, the experience of living with a pet, something that was new to him. I totally believed Chaco was for Zander. But then Zander went off to college, and Anthony and I realized Chaco filled a huge empty nest for us.

There was never any question when we made the decision to move to Missouri from Washington state that Chaco would be included in that plan, even though it meant moving him via air flight... and it also meant towing my cat and all his supplies with me through a string of Airbnbs while Anthony readied our house to sell.

Chaco_StLouis

But having Chaco with us was more than worth all that. I hope this doesn't offend you, but I've often preferred the company of my pets to people, and Chaco is no exception. He's very much a part of the fabric of our lives here at the 'farmhouse,' even if he does make it impossible to start seeds indoors (he digs them up) or dry herbs on screens (he treats this as his personal resting spot). 

Chaco_Herbs

He participates in our backyard foraging by munching on the yummy wild garlic we bring inside.

Chaco_Greens

He even watches TV with us in the evenings, though he reacts a bit differently to some of the documentaries than we do.

Chaco_Bird

We're sure he thinks of us as lumbering, somewhat awkward colony mates, whose strange insistence on sleeping at night and remaining active all day must be tolerated. We try to give him the best life we can, because he puts a smile on our faces every day, giving us that warm, cuddly, interspecies connection.

We all agree that some days, the exact right thing to do is curl up in a blanket and let everything else go.

Chaco_Blanket

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Cat in the Flock's Top 5 Posts of 2020. No. 1 Is for the Birds!

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Milkweed seed pod on a rose bush.

By Lisa Brunette

Two-oh-two-oh was a surprising year for Cat in the Flock, as between the extensive lockdowns and social distancing measures and our decision to forgo social media, Anthony and I found ourselves with more time to write. While our day jobs at Brunette Games never ceased, as its already established remote-work structure allowed us to continue working without fail, we saw family and friends less often, and most interesting activities outside the home were either canceled outright or made less attractive due to the requirement to wear masks and social distance. So, we opted to stay in. We published more on this blog in 2020 than anticipated, with a total of 52 posts, or an average of one per week!

What's most exciting about the past year at Cat in the Flock is that I saw the blog grow beyond me. The responsibility for those 52 posts was shared across 7 different authors. Notably, Anthony joined the fray, and his write-up on our bamboo squash tunnel was one of the most popular of the year. Besides the Anthony-and-Lisa duo here at Cat in the Flock, we also published posts from a former wildlife biologist, two award-winning travel writers, an acupuncturist, and a certified herbalist. One of these also made the top five.

All of our most popular articles share gardening as a theme, and with the combination of our own passions for the subject and a surge in interest due to stay-at-home mandates, it's not surprising to see why. Here are the top five posts judging by total number of page views, starting with fifth on the list and working our way to the top.

No. 5 - Native Plants As the Stars of the Show

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Quercus shumardii, or native Shumard oak, in fall color.

The very first post of 2020 was also our fifth most-viewed: Garden Stars of the Year: How to Win with Native Plants. It's basically a native plant gardening 'how to,' with suggestions for how to go about populating your garden with plants that have evolved to your geographic location's unique ecosystem rather than filling it with a lot of exotics. What can we say? We're still drinking the native plant Kool-Aid. Exotics are harder to care for, and they don't feed native pollinators, birds, or animals anywhere near as well as the plants our native fauna have evolved to consume. To us, going native is a no-brainer.

No. 4 - More Mushroom Mania

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Image courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation.

If you hadn't noticed, we're a bit obsessed with mushrooms here at Cat in the Flock, and our fourth most popular post reflects that. "Mushrooms Become Less Mysterious - with the Right Field Guide" is pretty much a love letter to both our stellar Missouri Department of Conservation and the mushroom guide it publishes, Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, by fellow St. Louis writer Maxine Stone. If you're anywhere in the Midwest, I highly recommend the guide.

New to the whole mushroom foraging idea? Check out this great piece by guest blogger Ellen King Rice that breaks down everything you need to know. And for funsies, you might also read our further account of mushroom foraging right here in the back 40 for the delicious and plentiful 'shroom known as reddening lepiota.

No. 3 - Farmer Bob's Jam

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Bob Frause in the garden. Photo by Sue Frause.

Over Sue Frause's long, award-winning career as a travel and lifestyle feature writer, she's amassed quite a following, which partly explains the popularity of the post coming in at the No. 3 spot, On Whidbey Island with 'Farmer Bob' and His Inspiration Garden. But I also think that asking a travel writer who's written about places hither and yon to turn inward toward her own backyard yielded just a truly wonderful piece about gardening, family, and what it means to call a place home. She mentioned to me how surprised she was by the response, and I believe her readers were hungry for this self-made profile.

The Frause's Whidbey Island garden is a very special place, just perfect for our regular 'inspiration garden' feature. It's inspired me ever since I had the pleasure of staying there back in 2008, and it continues to remind me of what's possible. 

No. 2 - Long Live the Squash Tunnel!

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Anthony and the freshly made bamboo tunnel.

As I mentioned above, Anthony's bamboo squash tunnel piece received quite a bit of attention, boosting it to second place for the year. It's possible that in a gardening-focused time of high unemployment, the prospect of a free bamboo tunnel for veggies was too strong to resist. 

Tragically, the squash tunnel fell victim to one of our dramatic Midwestern summer storms, but for a time, the arch anchored the garden, supporting cucumbers and, of course, squash, as well as providing birds with an interesting place to roost. Besides, it just looked so cool.

No. 1 - This One's for the Birds

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A surprise search-engine darling for us this year is Easy DIY Bird Baths for Your Stay-at-Home Pleasure. It regularly brings in readers in the same vein as the squash tunnel piece, as a highly thrifty way to get out in the garden and do something ecologically minded. 

I think what consistently puts this one ahead is that it's about a good, original idea: to use leftover tempered glass pot lids as reservoirs for bird baths. I've never seen anyone do this before, and it's surprising because it works so well. I still have four variations of them in the garden this winter, and the birds continue to use them on a daily basis. They're easy to clean and care for, and the tempered glass ensures they stand up to the extremes of winter and summer weather.

There you have it. I'm not sure we'll be able to keep up the once-per-week pace in 2021, especially since Cat in the Flock still doesn't earn any income for us. On that note, if you're a fan of our content, consider popping a few into our tip jar - and tell your friends about us. The more the merrier in this flock!

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Free Food from Your Yard: Mushrooms!

Reddening lepiota

By Lisa Brunette

One of the benefits of removing the turf grass in our entire backyard - which constitutes the majority of the 1/4-acre plot - is that we have a lovely carpet of native violets growing over most of it. I've raved about viola sororia previously on the blog, and the best part is that the violets arrived of their own volition, free of charge. With them, came edible mushrooms.

Pictured above is Lepiota americana, AKA 'reddening lepiota.' This gilled cap mushroom seems to be a natural companion to the violets, as all spring and summer, we found them growing in clusters nestled under and amidst the violet leaves.

We'd first noticed reddening lepiota last year, but we didn't know they were edible and thought better than to try eating them without more information. I included them in this Q&A with wildlife biologist/author Ellen King Rice - you can see how the cluster dwarfs Anthony's hand in a photo about half-way down. That convo with Ellen was a great start in getting the info we needed, as it put me in the mindset to purchase a Missouri-specific wild mushroom ID guide, to which I gave two thumb's up in a followup post. This is it in case you want to rush right over to the MDC Store and buy one right now.

Mushroom ID guide

And you should, if you live in Missouri or plan to visit and do a little foraging while you're here. If you're one of our readers from the East or West Coasts, you're better off with a regional specific guide for your area. 

Note we don't receive anything in exchange for this endorsement of this MDC publication. All of our props, kudos, and reviews are 100 percent objective, with no sponsorships or payments made in exchange for sharing our opinion. You're welcome!

So now we know with complete certainty that the mushroom pictured above is a) Lepiota americana and b) safe to eat. We've dined on them all spring and summer, and THEY ARE DELICIOUS. Let me tell you, there's nothing that makes you feel like you've got this whole survival thing down better than foraging in your own backyard. But we didn't go about this cavalierly. Let me walk you through the rather robust process.

Step 1: Try an ID App

Early on, I posted some photos of the mushroom in question to iNaturalist and got a positive ID for Reddening lepiota. I love iNaturalist and use it pretty much weekly to ID flora and fauna (177 observations, and counting!). It's also our main tool for the Shutterbee study. But I didn't stop at iNaturalist. That would have been dangerous, as the app has limitations and can give you a false result.

Step 2: Consult a Guide Book

Next, I went to the guide book to see what it could tell me about reddening lepiota. According to author Maxine Stone, it's edible, but she recommended exercising some caution, as it can easily be confused with a lookalike known as green-spored lepiota, which is poisonous.

Whoa, right? Nature doesn't mess around. Two mushrooms, similar in appearance, growing in the same part of the world, one is safe (and tasty), but the other is poisonous - not enough to kill you, but it will make you super sick. Stone points out two areas of differentiation between them: 1) Reddening lepiota bruises red and 2) it leaves a white spore print. Which brings me to step 3.

Step 3: Take a Spore Print

I know this sounds all science-y, something only botanists should do, but taking a spore print turns out to be easy like a summer breeze. All you do is separate the cap from the stem and turn the cap gills-down onto a piece of paper or other surface the spores can 'print.' Then you wait for the spores to drop - this can take anywhere from a few hours to 24. Since reddening lepiota prints white, Stone recommends black construction paper. Luckily, we have a black cutting board that works perfectly.

Spore print

Isn't that amazing? Some people turn mushroom spore prints into art, and you can see why. 

Step 4: Ask an Expert

The print supports with clearly white spores that the mushroom is likely Lepiota americana. At this point, I had 3 sources: iNaturalist, the Missouri's Wild Mushrooms guide, and the spore print. But since eating mushrooms from the wild, or in this case, the wild out your back door, carries a certain amount of inherent risk, Stone recommends reaching out to an expert, too, for an ID confirmation. So I did what she suggested and found our local mycological society, which brought me to an expert... named Maxine Stone, the author of the guide.

She was really lovely, responding right away, with a 'likely' confirmation on my reddening lepiota ID, with the caveat that she couldn't make a 100 percent positive ID in person due to the coronavirus lockdown. But at this point, Anthony and I felt we'd covered the bases pretty well.

Step 5: Try a Small Sample

We ate just one or two bites at first, waiting 24 hours to see if we suffered any ill effects; there were none, so after that it was mushroom on the menu.

Funny thing: Stone's book lists edibility on a four-point scale, with "choice" being highest. Lepiota americana is noted as two stars, or "good." This was our first foray into eating anything other than grocery store mushrooms, and we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. The taste is unlike anything we've had before, with a meaty, musky richness that explodes on your tongue. We can't wait to get our hands on one of those 'choice' mushrooms...

We simply sauté them in butter in a cast iron skillet. They redden similarly to portobello mushrooms (another ID confirmation) but have more flavor, in our opinion.

Sauteed mushrooms

So there you have it: Free food from the yard, as a result of getting rid of our lawn. These just didn't appear when we had nothing but grass.

Please note that you should follow all five steps above and exercise extreme caution if you attempt to eat mushrooms found anywhere outside. We continue to take spore prints of EVERY HARVEST on that black cutting board, just to make sure we don't inadvertently pick up a poisonous green-spored mushroom instead. We can gather a crop in the morning and have spore prints by lunchtime.

Mushroom haul

Best of luck with your own foraging forays, whether out your back door or in the wild. Be safe, be smart, and stay curious, my peoples!

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We might be a little obsessed with this topic. Look! It's a whole category.