In Asia, folks have been growing their own mushrooms for more than 1,000 years. It’s catching on in North America as well. Long associated with witches or hallucinogenic drugs, growing your own mushrooms has culinary mavens sprouting their own on this side of the globe as never before. As with the gardens we grow here in the Rogue Valley, this is all about producing a superior fresh food.
The easiest way to start with growing your own mushrooms is with a kit. Since fall is here and winter not far behind, this is a wonderful tabletop project for any Rogue Valley gardener. Depending on the kit you choose, you can grow a number of kinds of mushrooms in a few weeks. The popular ones are oysters, shitake and a variety of button mushrooms. Once you’ve mastered growing with the kit, you can take that knowledge and go to a larger outdoor project, like growing shitake on an old oak log. You can even introduce some varieties to old compost heaps or shady areas of your garden where they can do their own thing pretty much unsupervised. Success with these friendlier species can lead to trying your hand with the more exotic ones – black poplars, morels or chanterelles.
An expert from the University of Wisconsin tells us that mushroom growing is “more art than science.” It involves a lot of watching, tinkering and figuring out what works. Mushrooms may be slower to fruit than most veggies, but once you find a site that works for them, they will stick around for a while – often for years.
The best part? You can start with a mushroom kit right away, grow it indoors and use the leftovers (the spores) to start a colony outside later on. The founder of Fungi Perfecti of Olympia, Washington tells us that “mushroom mycelium is hungry.” It wants to grow and multiply. A good strain of mushrooms will keep going and going if presented with favorable conditions.
Mushrooms are actually fungus and grow much differently from plants. They start out life as dusty little spores released from other mushrooms. Mushrooms spend much of their lifecycle as mycelium – fibers that utilize enzymes to attach to wood or other appropriate organic materials. Mushrooms are pretty much the opposite of plants. “Reverse photosynthesis”, says Paul Staments of Fungi Perfecti. “Mushrooms take in carbon and consume oxygen, whereas plants consume carbon dioxide and produce carbon and oxygen.” Wood, being high in carbon, is a perfect anchor for culinary mushrooms since it breaks down so slowly. Staments further states that “Fungi govern the decomposition cycles and make it possible for natural biological systems to operate. They are tremendous allies for the health of people and the planet.”
Of the thousands of mushrooms on planet Earth, only around 250 are considered “safe to eat”. Most of these are impossible to grow at home and have to be found in the wild, rather than cultivated in the basement. With the right ingredients – a strong strain of mushroom suitable to our area, a good place to feed, a moist and shady place to live, water and the right temperature – anyone can produce mushrooms superior to those available commercially. Fresh is always best.
Barbara Pleasant, of Mother Earth News, offers some helpful information on mushrooms:
“The easiest culinary mushrooms to grow at home are oysters, shiitake, wine caps and portobellos, but many more possibilities exist.”
Oysters: Are very mild in flavor and texture which makes them difficult to ship due to breakage and flavor change. These are delicious sautéed. In their natural habitat, oysters like newly dead trees like cottonwood or poplar. They grow fast and are versatile and will grow on straw or sawdust that has reached the right level of decomposition. Kits for oysters are generally a sticky mass of mycelium that has been introduced (or inoculated) onto a bundle of straw and enclosed in a perforated plastic bag. Keep it moist and humid and you have a gang of oysters in no time. When you’re done with your kit, take what’s leftover, mix it with damp sawdust, coffee grounds and some straw, fill some paper milk cartons poked full of holes and put THOSE into some plastic bags in a dark corner of the garage. Keep them moist and in a few months, you should be flush with mushrooms. Something else you could try would be a section of an oak log, with large holes drilled into the trunk and stuffed with the mycelium mixture above. Remember, oysters really want to grow on trees – that’s their natural habitat. Oysters kept outside will fruit from mid-spring to early summer and again in the fall.
Shiitake – are smoky in flavor and dense and meaty in texture. They are particularly well suited for cooking in stronger flavored dishes. You can dry them as well and keep them sealed in your Food Saver bags for use later. These mushrooms really prefer growing on a log and they seem to taste better. The growing logs are also an attractive feature to have around. Stack your inoculated logs into a tipi shape. An ideal log for inoculating shiitake is 40 inches long (they like oak the best) and 4 to 6 inches around. If you can get them at the right time – late winter or spring – when the natural sugars are at their highest and the bark left intact – so much the better. You can purchase plugs of spawn from several sources (more on that later). Drill 1 inch deep holes 5 inches apart all around the log. Insert the plugs into the holes. Cap the holes with a thin coating of melted paraffin to keep the plugs moist. Stack your logs in a shady place and water them heavily twice a week.
It is said that one whole summer must pass before the logs produce mushrooms. If you inoculate your loges in the spring, you have to soak them in water for 24 hours to get them to produce. If you have a pond or creek on your property, you can tie the logs to a block and sink them for 24 hours. If we’re lucky – like right now – and get a nice, soaking rain that will take care of things just so, and in a few days after the soaking, mushrooms will appear. If you rotate your logs during dry times in the 24 hour soakings, followed by six weeks of resting, you should have daily harvests of shiitake.
If you happen to have a home woodlot on your property, you can use the stumps for inoculation. Another method I’ve seen is to take slices of fresh hardwood logs, six inches thick, and build a totem pole with sawdust inoculated spawn in between each layer. Wet it down thoroughly, cover it in plastic sheeting or a trash bag and eventually, you’ll get mushrooms.
Wine caps: You can grow these right in your garden, just like a regular veggie crop! They can grow just about anywhere from garden soil to piles of wood ships to a compost heap. Little wine caps, grown in the shade, are a lovely red-wine color, but fade out to beige in brighter light. Give it a head start indoors with a kit or patch. Grow your mycelium at room temperature for a few weeks, then plant chunks of it wherever you want the mushrooms to grow after the soil temperature has reached 50 to 60 degrees. Be sure to harvest these mushrooms early – when they are buttons – so that your soil community of insects doesn’t beat you to the punch.
Other kinds of mushrooms – You can grow your own button mushrooms indoors – including the common white buttons and the more flavorful criminis (baby Portobello). This means your mushrooms are ORGANIC! Most commercial grower use pesticides. A kit for these types of mushrooms will give you your first crop within three weeks of starting it and should produce for around eight weeks. When the kit is done, use the leftovers to enrich your garden soil. It’s possible that a mushroom or two from this kit will pop up in your garden, but not likely. These types of mushroom need live compost to grow and it is quite labor intensive to produce the right environment.
Mushrooms are very low in calories, with very little fat and cholesterol. Five mushrooms contain 2 grams of protein, almost as much potassium as a banana and three important B vitamins. They are also a good source of selenium, which is usually found in meat and is in short supply in most vegetarian diets.
This is a fun and rewarding activity that is beneficial to your health, your diet and your general well being. It is also something that will make winter seem not quite so long, while you’re waiting for the gardening catalogs to show up!
Here are some reliable sources for kits, supplies and information:
Fungi Perfecti, Postal Box 7634, Olympia, Washington 98507
Mushroom Adventures, 355 Serrano Drive, Suite 9J, San Francisco, California 94132
Garden City Fungi, Postal Box 1591, Missoula, Montana 59806
Mushroompeople, 560 Farm Road, Postal Box 220, Summertown, Tennessee 28483