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Shrooming: Trials and Tribulations of growing Shiitake Mushrooms

backyard gardening growing mushrooms in a backyard growing mushrooms in straw growing mushrooms in wood pellets growing mushrooms on logs mushrooms oyster mushrooms shiitake mushrooms winecap mushrooms

My path to learning how to grow Shiitake mushrooms has been paved with years of failure until about 3 years ago. I can now say that I finally have success and have enough confidence to begin to experiment with growing other strains and in different growing mediums, such as straw and wood pellets. 

Many years ago, I thought it would be fun to grow mushrooms so I bought a-grow-your-own mushroom kit from a seed catalog.  My rationale was that they were a fungus and mushrooms grew wild in my compost pile, woods and in our grass.  How hard could it be? HA!

My first kit arrived in the dead of winter and I eagerly opened the box. I followed the instructions, put the box with the gooey bag of ick down in the basement and tenderly cared for it for months….and…. nothing happened. I was frustrated and felt like I had been suckered (not for the first time and probably not the last). I tossed the mass of ick on my compost pile and thought it was a waste of time and money!

Then one very hot and humid day in August while tossing scraps on the compost pile I spied a mushroom.  I looked closer and I thought it was a shiitake and it appeared to be growing from that lump of white ick that I dumped months earlier.  I was excited but I didn’t want to pick it just yet. I wanted to wait just a little longer to see if it grew bigger.

A few weeks passed and I was thinking that the mushroom should be more than ready to pick and I hoped that more had sprouted.  I went out to the compost pile and it was gone - nothing. No white lump, no beautiful mushroom nothing but a pile of dirt and gravel.  WHAT?  I dug into the pile and there deep under the dirt and gravel I found a shriveled up dead mushroom. My neighbors heard me cry NOOOOOO!  I was crushed.

A few years went by….One day I was out with our hiking club walking next to a member I hadn’t met before.  We were chatting along and she suddenly stopped and said “Oh look! There’s a blah blah ish-a-toris something or another mushroom” (long Latin name).  She bent down, picked it, took a bite and offered me a piece.  As she stared and smiled at me, I was trying to find my lower half of my jaw as it was sitting on the ground.  I thought... “Did she just do what I think she just did?”… “Uh- no thank you” I replied.  I quickly gained my composure and I peppered her with questions on how the heck she knew that mushroom was edible.

I learned that she and her husband were wild mushroom foragers and that they learned this craft by going out and watching other seasoned mushroom hunters forage.  She explained that wild mushroom foraging should be taught by a seasoned forager and should not be taught via books or the internet.  There are too many poisonous mushrooms that look like nonpoisonous mushrooms and one mistake could be fatal.  I quickly decided that foraging for wild mushroom wasn’t for me.  Then I learned that she grew all kinds of mushrooms on her compost pile, logs, and wood chips, which she inoculated with mushroom kits.

Stop! Time Out! What did you say?  She explained that growing mushrooms is easy if you have the right environment.  I shared my tale of woe with my many attempts of growing mushrooms in my basement in the dead of winter and my hopes and dreams for a lonely mushroom growing in my compost pile from a discarded kit until it was killed…

She kindly explained that mushrooms like warm, humid shaded conditions and not cold dark basements.  To grow mushrooms, you needed to replicate those conditions and my shaded compost pile in August just happened to be the perfect environment for that shiitake mushroom. 

So why do those darn gardening catalogs only sell those kits in the dead of winter?  She smiled kindly and stared at me…It hit me, O.K. I get it – there’s one born every minute…”S” stands for sucker…She laughed and explained that I needed to buy the spawn from a “real” laboratory that specialized in growing fungi.  Oh…I said - there are mushroom laboratories??? I thought this was supposed to be easy…

Fast forward a year after my initial hike with the “Mushroom Lady.”  A consultant from CT Department of Agriculture was doing a site visit for my farm certification.  We were wandering around my property and he saw how much of it was covered in woods.  He asked if I ever considered growing mushrooms.  I had flashbacks of years of failed attempts growing mushrooms in boxed bags in my basement and of my conversations with the wild mushroom lady telling me I had to find a mushroom laboratory to get good spawn while she ate her way through our hike.  I asked him if I needed to have a sterile room or some building to grow mushrooms commercially.  He said no as there are mushrooms strains that grow well in the woods.  Clearly, I was missing something. He recommended that I do some research and think about it.

A year of research…I began to read books on mushroom cultivation. Who knew there were so many different kinds of mushrooms? I watched YouTube videos, read articles from magazines/blogs and I took a workshop on growing mushrooms.  The class was packed and, after hearing similar stories to mine, apparently, I wasn’t the only one that had been suckered with those grow-your-own kits.  I was not alone. I learned that the easiest and most successful way to grow mushrooms is to inoculate oak trees freshly cut into 4-foot lengths.

Months after taking that workshop and doing more research, I decided it was time.  A farmer friend was kind enough to allow me to cut down several trees on his property.  We hauled the logs back to my driveway and my husband (who was trying to be patient with me) hauled them to the back of our property and into the woods.  On several cold spring days, we drilled, plugged and waxed hundreds of holes.  It was a cold and sticky job and at that point, my husband was not- so- patient anymore and declared “No more logs!” 

The logs were then put to bed on the forest floor laid out in sections.  I was nervous because I didn’t know if this would work. But I was hopeful as I had done my research and felt confident that I did this right.  It would be a year of waiting to get my answer.  Was this going to be another failed costly experiment?       

Nine months later, I was giving someone a tour of my farming operation and I took him out to the pile of logs in the woods.  I spied a mushroom, then another and another!  I became emotional as I tried to explain to my guest that I finally had shiitake mushrooms. I was having a moment…this was big!! However, my guest was not so sure about me and was probably thinking that I was a whack job. He soon left and I was alone in the woods carefully cutting my prized mushrooms and lovingly carrying them into the house to show my husband.  I told him in a cracking voice, “It worked!  It really worked!”

Hubby wasn’t impressed…

Then I told him the current price per pound for shiitake mushrooms at the market.  His eye got real big and he said Oh! This year we will be experimenting growing in straw and wood pellets oyster, shiitake and winecap mushrooms.  

Books:

The Mushroom Cultivator: A practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms at Home by Paul Stamets and J.S. Chilton

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets

Websites:

Fungi Perfecti – www.fungi.com

Mushroom People - www.mushroompeople.com



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