At their home in Olivebridge, mushroom enthusiasts Marc Eisenson and Nancy Castleman showed us a cake with shiitake mushrooms growing out of it.
Rather, it looked like a cake, but the "icing" was actually a luxuriant white mushroom mycelium growing over a compressed log of sawdust and wood chips. The mycelium is the vegetative, or non-fruiting, part of the organism which gives rise to the fruit or reproductive structure of the organism—aka the mushroom.
The second specimen was a bag of mycelium-covered straw with holes in it, from which oyster mushrooms had emerged, and the latter were busy sporulating over the kitchen table. Marc and Nancy normally grow their shiitake and oyster mushrooms in logs and straw, respectively, but for the purposes of our interview they had ordered these pre-inoculated kits so as to have a perfectly timed, fresh crop of homegrown mushrooms to show us. This was a very kind gesture, as Marc and Nancy don't themselves have need of kits, since they both forage for wild mushrooms and have a freezer full of sautéed homegrown mushrooms.
The economics: The shiitake kit was $26 and the oyster kit was $24, plus $10 each for shipping. Judging from the modest first flush, though lovely to behold and exquisite to taste (they sent us home with some to sauté that night), the more persuasive reasons to buy kits are (1) education and (2) entertainment.
Eisenson says, "If you're interested in learning about home mushroom production, this is a great way to start. In that respect, it's not all that expensive. If you become more interested, you can take it to the next step." Castleman suggests that the kits would make an excellent gift for young people who are into science. As to entertainment value, photographer Larry and I can attest that we found the mushroom colonies emerging from these kits endlessly fascinating to look at. The kits come from companies like the highly regarded Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, Washington.
You've tried out a kit, and your interest is piqued. The next step? Join the Mid Hudson Mycological Association (MHMA). Eisenson says, "The 'Mushroom Club' is a great group of people, all very willing to share knowledge." This is especially important if you are thinking about foraging for mushrooms—something you don't want to attempt to learn in isolation. In a club like the MHMA, you can learn with a group to distinguish the edible-palatable from the poisonous. In the case of the MHMA, you will also learn about home growing, as "culturing fungus" is part of the group's mission.
Then, while making friends in the MHMA, you can scope out where to get some oak logs for growing shiitakes, the type of mushrooms many people start with when getting into home production.
After becoming more proficient at foraging for wild mushrooms, Eisenson and Castleman started growing shiitake mushrooms about 20 years ago. Eisenson helped a friend cut some oak logs from his land and brought some home. Oak is not the shiitake's only potential host wood but it is the preferred one, and among oaks, white oak wood is thought to be primo. It's suggested that the logs should be harvested a few weeks prior to inoculation with mushroom mycelium so that the natural fungicide in the wood has time to dissipate. But don't wait too long—you want to maximize the available stored sugars and other nutrients that the mushrooms will need.
Those first logs Eisenson brought home were large and heavy (10 to 12 inches in diameter and about 4 feet long), and they got really unwieldly once they were soaked in water to speed development. The advantage of using bigger logs was that the amount of stored food in the wood allowed annual mushroom "flushes" for 20 years!—though the crops got progressively smaller and are down to a stray mushroom here and there.
Now, Eisenson and Castleman use more manageably sized logs that are a few feet long and about 6 inches in diameter. They are small enough to be tossed into an old kiddie pool for soaking, and then they lay the logs on the ground around a flower bed in the shade. From these smaller logs, they can expect up to about five years of mushroom harvests, twice a year, in spring and fall, for about a month each. They do the wood prep in summer or fall to enjoy mushrooms starting the following season.
Eisenson says, "The method is simple but not easy, especially drilling into hard oak wood. Have a good drill and keep extra drill bits around. In addition to drill and bits, you'll need a hammer and wooden plugs with mushroom spawn growing on them." (Eisenson and Castleman buy their plugs from Fungi Perfecti.)
Next, Eisenson says, "Drill 5/16" holes, about 4 inches apart, all around the log (about 50 holes in our typical logs). Then hammer one plug into each hole. Put the logs in a shady spot. After that, water them when you can (we get busy and pretty much rely on rain) and wait. In about a year, shiitakes pop out!"
Eisenson and Castleman skip sealing the plug with wax, something that often appears in instructions as a means to keep the spawn moist and prevent entry of competing spores. "It's really a pain," Eisenson says, "and we haven't found it necessary." In fact, the last time they sealed with wax, for whatever reasons, those logs failed to produce well.
When ordering shiitake spawn (as in the plugs described above), you'll find there are many strains of the mushroom from which to choose. The different strains vary in appearance, quickness to flush and length of fruiting period, tolerance of cold or humidity, specific wood preference, and so on.
Oysters and Wine Caps
Eisenson and Castleman have also successfully grown oyster mushrooms in straw in old laundry baskets. Growing oysters in this way is a bit more complicated than growing shiitakes because of the straw sterilization process required. Instructions for this and for shiitake growing can be found on the MHMA website from a talk Eisenson gave on "Mushroom Propagation."
If oysters are complicated while shiitakes are less so, the least effort is asked by the lovely wine-cap mushrooms, known also by their Latin genus as stropharias, that pop up in abundance on Eisenson and Castleman's wood-chipped paths in the spring and again in fall.
"We harvest them by the bucketfuls, and they're delicious," Eisenson says. "Stropharias like wood chips and cardboard, so as we extend our garden paths, the spores of wine caps go all over, starting new colonies." The couple sauté them and fill their freezer with these freely reproducing delicacies. Be sure to consult with a group of seasoned mycophiles like those in the MHMA to be certain that what is growing in your wood chips is indeed the edible stropharia.