|By Brenda H. Reed
It is easy to appreciate the earthy, succulent flavor and texture that mushrooms add to meals – from grilled steak to spaghetti to fresh salads. The only way to improve on the eating quality of edible fungi is to grow your own. No, that is not really a difficult task if you follow a few simple steps, and you are sure to enjoy the growing just as much as the eating.
Actually man’s interest in mushrooms goes back to when Hippocrates wrote about their medicinal value in 400 B.C. It wasn’t until a French gardener began to grow mushrooms in the underground quarries near Paris in the late 1700s that they were grown commercially.
Mushroom propagation is very different than growing traditional green garden plants. Mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll and therefore depend on other plant material “substrate” for their food. The part of the organism that we see and call a mushroom is really just the fruiting body. What we don’t see is the mycelium – tiny threads that grow throughout the substrate and collect nutrients by breaking down the organic material. This is the main body of the mushroom. In general, each mushroom species prefers a particular growing medium, although some species can grow on a wide variety of materials. Unlike most common garden vegetables, mushrooms are propagated from spores, not seeds. What is eventually planted is called spawn.
If you are thinking about trying your hand at growing mushrooms, it is important to understand the life cycle of fungi.
15-Week Production Cycle
- Select a growing medium
- Sterilize the medium
- Seed the beds with mushroom spawn
- Maintain the correct temperature and moisture conditions for mycelium development
- Harvest, clean and begin the process all over again
At some point you may want to try your hand at growing mushrooms from scratch but the best way to get started is to order a kit from a reputable mushroom supply company (see sources at the end of this article). It is also possible to grow mushrooms inside your house or garage. However, indoor mushroom growing requires more work and closer monitoring.
Choosing a Species
Oyster Pleurotus species and shiitake Lentinus edodes mushrooms are the easiest mushrooms to grow and are good choices for beginners. Once again, using a mushroom kit is the best way for the beginner to get started. Once you have been successful using the kit, you can set up and develop your own growing system.
Although oyster mushrooms are commonly grown on sterile straw from wheat or rice, they will also grow on a wide variety of high-cellulose waste materials. Some of these materials do not require sterilization, only pasteurization, which is less expensive. Another advantage of growing oyster mushrooms is that a high percentage of the substrate (what you plant) converts to fruiting bodies, increasing the potential harvest. The only drawback is that some folks are allergic to oyster mushroom spores and must use respirators to safely work around them.
Shiitake mushrooms are another good choice for beginners, since they are relatively easy to grow on logs either inside or outside. Grown inside, they can also be grown on compressed sawdust logs or in bottles. Shiitake mushrooms are also easier than most other mushroom species to produce organically.
The body of the mushroom stores nutrients and other essential compounds, and when enough material is stored and the conditions are right, they begin to fruit (produce mushrooms).
If the body is spread out and microscopic, how do mushrooms grow so quickly? There are two basic reasons: 1) since they store up compounds between fruiting, and most fruit once a year, they have a lot of reserve available to support the mushroom. 2) Mushrooms develop differently than do plants or animals. Plants and animals grow through cell division. To get bigger they have to produce more cells. Cell division is relatively slow and requires a lot of energy. The mushroom body also grows by cell division. However, the mushroom fruit does not. Just about as soon as it begins to develop, a mushroom has almost the same amount of cells as a mature mushroom will have. The mushroom increases in size through cell enlargement; this means that the cells can “balloon” up very quickly. Very little energy is required. Basically, the cells just enlarge with water. So a mushroom can increase in size as fast as water can be pumped into its cells. Almost overnight a mushroom can go from a pinhead to a large mushroom.
Please note that I am not trying to teach anyone how to identify wild mushrooms for harvest. Though some wild mushrooms are edible, I am not an expert in finding them. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous. Because they can be deadly, you must educate yourself and possibly take another expert friend on the hunt with you. This article is purely about the process of growing gourmet mushrooms from kits purchased from reliable sources.
Some information on growing mushrooms not bought in kit-form:
- Maintain temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees F. A high humidity can be maintained by using plastic tents to cover the mushroom growing boxes.
- Compost the growing medium: 40 percent hay or straw, 40 percent sawdust and animal manure (preferably from horses and chickens).As an optional step, you may bake the growing medium in an oven at 200 degrees F for one hour, but do not use the same oven used to prepare your family’s meals. This would kill any life in the compost. However, if the correct ingredients are added (just mentioned), this step won’t be necessary.
- Find a heavy, waxed box of the appropriate size, or build a wooden box. The box should be 5 or 6 inches deep. If you are going to grow large quantities, shelves or racks may be built to hold the growing boxes. When growing mushrooms, cover the entire rack or box with plastic.
- Obtain edible mushroom spawn from a reputable company.
- Fill the growing box with composted medium. Sprinkle in some spawn. Cover thinly with compost. Sprinkle gently with warm water, about 1/2 cup per square foot. Place a plastic sheet over the box, allowing a little ventilation.
- Water 2 or 3 times weekly. Make sure the ‘soil’ does not dry out and is not spongy-wet. After 3 weeks or so, or after the first sign of life, add 1/2 inch of loose compost. In 4 to 6 weeks, the first crop of mushrooms will be ready.
When the mushrooms are ready to be harvested, just gently twist the bottom of the stem until it breaks.
To dry mushrooms, tenderly, but thoroughly, wash the mushrooms. Put them on clean towels until the water begins to dry from them. Slice the mushrooms thinly. Dry them on racks in your oven. Leave them in the oven (at 170 degrees F) until they become brittle. Place them in airtight jars and store them in a cool, dark place. One pound of dry mushrooms is equivalent to five to seven pounds of fresh mushrooms. Reconstitute by soaking in water, or add dry mushrooms to soups and sauces.
When you purchase mushroom kits, all of the information you should know about growing them is included in the kit. The growing temperature desired may not be the same with every variety. The growing conditions may be a little bit different, but it is mostly the same.
For mushroom kits and supplies:
P.O. Box 7634
Olympia, WA 98507
P.O. Box 515
Graton, CA 95444