How to Grow Mushrooms
Not in a hurry? Growing your own mushrooms might be for you.
You’re pondering what to have with your morning eggs and decide a few sautéed shiitake mushrooms would add an earthy kick. Imagine being able to take a short walk into the woods behind your house, cut a few plump ones from your personal garden, and tuck into the feast a few minutes later.
That’s Howie Phelan’s enviable situation on his farm in Mono. But the gratification isn’t as immediate as it might seem. While plucking the succulent, umami-rich mushrooms for breakfast is a valuable payoff, they are in some ways the ultimate slow food. Wood mushrooms take time and considerable work to get established, mostly because the wood they live on must be the right age, have the right levels of sugars and moisture, and be placed just so. Then the harvest is an exercise in patience. Mushrooms have no schedule.
“They’re unpredictable,” Howie says, as we stride through the woods on a recent spring day to visit his two mushroom gardens, one for shiitake and one for oyster, nestled in two dips in the undulating forest floor. Each garden consists of two rows of 20 logs propped against each other. Mushrooms bloom on the bark of these logs four or five times a year – but exactly when is anyone’s guess.
“You have to keep an eye on them,” he says. “You’ll look every day and see nothing, then go back a few days later and you’ll have many. You never know when they’ll pop up.”
The adventure started for Howie in the winter of 2013 after he’d attended a talk by Bruno Pretti of Fun Guy Farm (Get it? Fun-gi.) months earlier at the annual Guelph Organic Conference. At his Goodwood, Ontario farm, Bruno grows mushrooms and sells the materials home growers need to get started.
Howie’s first step was to cut maple limbs from trees in his forest as the planting base. A year later, he and his wife Ann were regularly noshing on hyper-local mushrooms.
Why the wait? Those cut limbs had to rest over that first winter, stacked in rows on a bed of cedar rails to keep them off the ground. In the spring he and his friend Chad Blough, who was also starting a wood mushroom garden, got their families together in the Phelan barn to cut the limbs into four-foot logs. They drilled holes into the logs and filled them with plugs inoculated with mushroom spawn, then pulled the logs back out into the forest by horse and wagon.
“It’s something everyone can enjoy,” Howie says of the process. In the forest, the logs rested again in stacks for a few months before they were arranged into a standing formation. Howie “shocked” them by whacking them with a stick, which is known to help the mushroom crop get started by emulating a natural process. Mushrooms will sprout after a log is hit by lightning, for instance. A few of Howie’s bloomed early while the logs were still resting, but the first crop arrived in earnest after the garden was completed.
“I’d come and visit them. Are they ready?” he says, adding that trying to predict a mushroom harvest is like trying to predict the day tree buds will burst in spring.
Now, Howie, who retired from the electric motor business in 2008, says his mushroom habit takes “zero maintenance” and the logs should last five years before he starts the process again with new ones. He figures he has harvested hundreds of pounds, often returning to the house with full shopping bags weighing him down. Frequent foraging visits have become a pleasant routine. They also serve as reconnaissance missions to watch for slugs, who are no fools and have found there’s a delicious new food source in their midst.
Howie admits he is no Fun Guy yet. “He’s got 10,000 logs. I’ve got 80. He has a greenhouse, processing plant …” For Howie, the operation is more of a personal exercise in controlled serendipity. Each harvest is different, he says. Sometimes the mushrooms are clustered one on top of the other, sometimes they’re separate individuals. They can be tiny and round or huge and flat. “They taste different every time.”
Sometimes a shiitake will be this big, he motions, with elaborate designs on its cap, “like a hand-painted plate.”
The tall, youthful 62-year-old doesn’t mention fancy mushroom dishes – really, simple eggs with onions and mushrooms is the ultimate perfect meal. He happened upon mushroom broth when blanching some of his crop for freezing – “It makes delicious soup.” Pickled mushrooms were another discovery. He also recommends drying mushrooms and eating them like potato chips with salt and pepper.
Howie has watched the humble mushroom grow in popularity during the last decade. “People used to think it was a garnish, which is now not the case at all. It’s very nutritious,” he says. Mushrooms boast B vitamins, including riboflavin, antioxidants, potassium, phosphorus and selenium among other vital nutrients.
Still, it can take awhile to acquire a taste for the chewy, meaty bite. “Some people don’t think they’ll like them, but when they try them …” Howie beams in the spring sunshine.
As a new aficionado, his enthusiasm may be as attached to learning the science of mushrooms as to their taste. For instance, mushrooms are actually the fruit or bloom of a fungus, producing spores for reproduction. The vegetative portion of the fungus is the white stringy mass called mycelium, which feeds on the nutrients in the soil or wood in which it grows. In the case of wood mushrooms, the fungi absorb nutrients from the decaying logs.
Mycelium is having a cultural moment. It’s the subject of a growing number of books and talks on its role in keeping forests – and by extension all of us – alive in ways we can’t see.
As one new book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben, explains, we’re learning that trees in a forest use this network of interconnected fungi as a support system and even to “warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals” to one another, as The New York Times described it. Wohlleben calls it the “Wood Wide Web.”
Howie also namechecks mycologist and author Paul Stamets as “the mushroom guru of the Western world,” credited with bringing Japanese wood mushroom practices to the West. The expert’s TED Talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” explores how mycelium – “Earth’s natural Internet” and the first organism to come to land – can be harnessed to clean polluted soil, create insecticides and work as antiviral medication.
Then there’s ethnomycologist Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory – the idea that humankind gained consciousness when our ancestors ingested psychedelic mushrooms – which is another favourite discussion point. It’s all fodder for Howie’s newfound, multilayered obsession, giving him something to ponder as he waits for his shiitakes and oysters to bloom.
On our walk, Howie gets downright philosophical about the interconnectedness of everything out here in his woods on this 100-acre farm he’s owned since 1989. He shows off a new “primitive timber frame” sugar shack (made entirely of reclaimed materials from his property) where simmering into syrup is the sap of 40 of his sugar maple trees. There are countless clusters of bright green, perky wild leeks and wild ginger plants growing in patches. Soon to come are the fiddleheads and berries.
“That’s what makes a deciduous forest so nice. A tree falls and different things can start to grow,” he says.
How to freeze mushrooms
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Blanch mushrooms 30 seconds. Drain (saving the stock as a delectable soup base). Wait until they’re thoroughly dry, then bag and freeze them.
How to make mushroom chips
Preheat oven on low (150–200°F). Place sliced mushrooms on a cookie sheet. Dehydrate them for about 2 hours, flipping once. Store at room temperature. When you are ready for a “myco” snack, toast until crunchy under the broiler, and spice them up with salt, green onion pieces, spices and olive oil, or even enjoy with salsa or dip.
To start his shiitake and oyster mushroom garden, Howie turned for advice to Bruno Pretti of Fun Guy Farm in Goodwood, Ontario. Here’s an adapted version of the steps Bruno recommends at mycosource.com, which Howie followed. Visit the website for more details.
Be patient. The whole process, from the time you cut the wood in which the mushrooms will grow to your first meal, usually takes longer than a year. But once they start producing, you can harvest them for up to five years before starting the process again.
What you’ll need to grow mushrooms
- Access to live trees
- Saw or chainsaw
- Drill with ½-inch bit
- Inoculation tool or a small funnel and a tamping rod
- Mushroom spawn, which is grown in loose sawdust or in sawdust formed into plugs (NB: Fun Guy now sells only loose sawdust spawn. They no longer sell the sawdust spawn plugs Howie used.)
Pick your trees
Choose hardwoods, such as sugar maple or oak, since their bark stays put for a long time, keeping moisture in. Skip softwoods, fruit woods and walnut.
Cut the limbs
Cut limbs from live trees in the late fall or winter. Don’t use trunk wood or cut wood that has been around awhile. Fresh limbs help ensure no other fungi are already in the wood and that the sugars in the wood, which usually fuel the production of leaf buds, will instead help the fungi to produce mushrooms.
Leave them there
After you’ve cut the limbs, stack them for good ventilation, keeping them raised on, for example, a base of cedar rails so they don’t touch the ground. For photos of stacking options, see mycosource.com
Cut them into logs
In late April or early May, cut the limbs into 4-foot lengths. The ideal diameter is between 4 and 8 inches.
Drill a series of holes to a depth of 1-1/8 inches. The holes should be 4 to 6 inches apart, in offset rows that are 2 to 3 inches apart (in a diamond pattern).
Insert mushroom spawn
Fill the drilled holes with mushroom spawn and seal each hole with a Styrofoam tab, cheese or beeswax. (This helps keep the spawn from drying out.)
Stack the logs
Stack the logs again in the shade or forest. For the next three to four months, soak the logs using a sprinkler for three to four hours once a week, unless you experience heavy rain. (This may not be necessary, but you might get mushrooms earlier if you do it.)
Stand the logs up
In the garden’s permanent location, string a length of wire between two posts. Then line up your logs on either side, tops leaning against each other to form an upside-down “V” shape.
Watch for mushrooms
You’ll start to see white mycelium at the end of the log in a ring shape, possibly within weeks. As early as that fall or in the following spring or summer, mushrooms should pop out the sides of the logs. Each log can produce one to two pounds of mushrooms a year. Inoculated logs should last up to five years before you’ll need to start again with fresh ones. Harvest using scissors or a knife. Never rip the mushroom off the log. Enjoy!
Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution (1999)
Paul Stamets’ website fungi.com and TED Talk,“6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.”
Don’t want to grow your own?
Check out the locally grown offerings of Fresh and Tasty Mushrooms. Proprietors Sean and Shannon DeClerc grow oyster, shiitake, enoki, cinnamon and other mushrooms at their Shelburne farm and sell them on summer Saturdays at the Orangeville Farmers’ Market. freshandtastymushrooms.com