Learning to grow mushrooms
I’ve always been fascinated with mushrooms and yet I have a healthy respect for fungi too. Whenever I see a perfect specimen popping up through the earth or growing on a log, I study it meticulously, admittedly wondering if it is edible.
And even though I have a small library of mushroom identification books, most of the time I never trust myself to actually consume the interesting growths I come across. My mind goes back to an image in a book I saw as a kid, with a man writhing in anguish after consuming wild fungi. His mouth was open in silent agony as he clutched his stomach, his legs sprawled awkwardly as he, according to the caption, suffered his last few moments on Earth.
However, I love eating mushrooms and I love hunting for them too, so I was particularly intrigued when I read about a class on how to grow your own fungi. I thought the process would be complicated and time consuming, but, I am glad to report, that is not so.
This particular class was taught at one of my favorite places in the Northwoods, the Kemp Natural Resource Station in Woodruff. Situated on the shores of Lake Tomahawk and part of the University of Wisconsin system, this beautiful facility hosts many world-renowned scientists and professors who come to the Kemp station to do research on anything from trees, algae, toads, bats and a multitude of other interesting subjects.
The class was taught by Scott Bowe, a woods product specialist and professor at UW-Madison and Glen Stanosz, a professor of forest pathology. Scott, who lives in Prairie du Sac, got interested in growing mushrooms when a friend asked him to help out at his shitake operation.
Glen explained to the class how fungi live and reproduce. Did you know that a mushroom is the result of mycelium making love? Mycelium, which consists of many strands of hyphae, are just some of the components needed for a mushrooms to be produced.
Aside from all the technical stuff though, I was really anxious to find out how I could actually grow a crop of mushrooms which, come to find out, isn’t that difficult at all.
Scott and Glen were excellent teachers and had all the equipment needed for participants to actually inoculate a log and then take it home to grow their own shitake patch.
The process starts out by acquiring hard wood logs, 3 to 4 feet long and about 6 to 8 inches across. Shitakes can grow on a variety of wood, but hard woods like oak and maple are denser, providing the mycelium with more food and hence a longer fruiting period.
The logs need to come from healthy trees with no rot. You can “shock” the logs by soaking them in water overnight which speeds up the fruiting process, but it isn’t necessary.
When a tree is harvested to grow mushrooms, it is best to wait two to three weeks before inoculating the logs with mycelium because freshly cut logs produce anti-fungal compounds that degrade over time. Spring and early summer are the perfect seasons to start a mushroom patch because it gives the mycelium plenty of time to grow. However, logs can be inoculated up to 30 to 45 days before a frost and still be fruitful the next year. As a rule, and depending on conditions, it can take 6 to 12 months for the first “flush” to grow.
Scott brought to the class specialty made drilling stations for us to use which consisted of 2×6 boards nailed together in a V. These template structures were marked where holes should be drilled in the logs to place the mycelium.
Each log was drilled with many holes (about 30 to 40) with a ½-inch bit, an inch or so into the wood. Then these holes were “plugged” with mycelium using a special tool resembling a wooden straw.
The next step was dabbing melted wax over the plug holes so critters don’t steal the mycelium before it has a chance to infiltrate the log.
That’s pretty much the process. Logs should be watered during dry periods and placed in a spot where they get 80 percent shade throughout the day. Individually they can be leaned against the north side of a building, or they can be stacked, log-cabin style, in a square.
A couple of days after I took this class I visited the local watering hole where I told a group of friends about my mushroom growing adventure. They listened raptly as I explained the process and it wasn’t long before I had a pile of freshly cut hardwood logs dumped in my yard and requests for a mushroom growing lesson.
You can purchase mycelium from numerous mushroom reproducers throughout the country but I ordered mycelium “plugs” from a company called Fungi Perfecti which is located in Olympia, Wash. It is an interesting enterprise that even has mushroom kits available.
The soup recipe I included this week was served after the class concluded and was accompanied by homemade bread and pumpkin bars that were cooked by Scott’s wife. I’ve included the recipe for the soup which I am still dreaming about.
I’m really excited about my mushroom growing operation, and even teaching others how to grow their own patch too. I’m looking forward to picking mushrooms I know are safe to eat and the image of that poisoned, writhing man fading from my childhood memory. That alone will be worth the effort.
Chicken and Wild Rice Soup
One whole chicken
2 cups wild rice (cooked as directed on package)
1/2 cup raw Minute Rice (uncooked)
7 cups chicken broth
1 can cream of chicken soup
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
1 cup rinsed and coarsely chopped shittake mushrooms (rehydrated or fresh)
1 small onion, chopped finely, or 1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
Cover chicken with water and boil for about one hour. Allow to cool and pick meat from the bones. Using a large soup pot, mix all ingredients together and simmer on low at least one-half hour to blend flavors, stirring occasionally. Serve with fresh, warm bread.