Winter is coming quickly, and the remnants of summer gardens are fading into memory. Most people are spending their weekends raking leaves, trimming trees and preparing their yards for winter. Instead of throwing those branches and clippings into the trash or the compost pile, why not use them to grow your own mushrooms?
Mushrooms are perfect for people who have pretty much the opposite of a green thumb. They thrive on benign neglect, requiring very little investment of time or money. Unlike most plants they love damp, shady spots, making them perfect for those Midtown backyards full of mature shade trees. Shiitake inoculated logs can bring years of gourmet mushrooms for pennies an ounce. They take up very little room – you can even grown them on an apartment balcony!
The first step is to decide what type of mushrooms you want to grow. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are two of the most commonly grown mushrooms. They taste great, are easy to grow, and are familiar to most people. If you have a really limited space, or you aren’t sure that you are ready for the commitment of logs, mushroom kits are a really simple way to dip your toes into mushroom growing with no commitment. There is even a really cool oyster mushroom kit that you can grow in coffee grounds. The cost is definitely higher, but you will still pay less per ounce than you do at Fresh Market, and you also get the smug satisfaction that comes along with growing something that most people would never attempt!
Personally, I would advise skipping the kit and going straight for the plug spawn. The return isn’t instant– you have to wait for the mycelium (mushroom spores) to permeate the logs/decaying matter, but the return is significantly better, lasting for years. There are quite a few types of mushrooms that can be grown from sawdust spawn in your yard, flower beds, gardens,etc., but if you want shiitakes, most people suggest you go the log route.
You can order a log that is already inoculated with the spawn from Young Urban Farmers, but they are quite expensive compared to the DIY version.The DIY is pretty simple. First you need to order plug spawn. If you only want to inoculate a few logs, order these plug spawn from Mushroom Mountain. That will give you enough spawn for about 5 logs. If you are taking down a tree and have a lot of wood, you might want to order these from Mushroom People. You get 1,000 plugs for 35.00– enough to inoculate between 30 and 50 logs. That may sound like a lot, but the logs can be stacked, and they will actually end up taking up very little room in your yard.
When it comes to logs, you are looking for hardwood. Oak, sweet gum, beech, maple, poplar, pecan, walnut or other deciduous trees work well. You can use logs as small as 3 inches, so have the tree trimmer cut up those branches that he took down. Most sites will say that logs between 4 and 8 inches are optimal. Length of the log is up to you, but most people find 3 to 4 feet to be manageable. The logs need to be fairly fresh– cut less than 3 months ago.
There are a lot of inoculation instructions and videos on the web, so I won’t go into great detail. All you need is a drill bit that is between 5/16 and 7/16ths (depending upon the size of your plug spawn), beeswax and a small paintbrush to apply it with. You will drill holes roughly 4 inches apart, pound the dowels in, cover them with wax, and then you are basically done. Find a shady spot in your backyard and forget about them for around 6 months. If the weather is particularly dry, soak them down occasionally to make sure the spawn doesn’t dry out.
After 6 to 9 months, you have a couple of options. You can try force fruiting the logs by soaking them in icy water overnight (a kiddie pool works great for this), or you can wait for the spring/fall rains. We have had better results from the latter. We have 50 inoculated logs, and after a few days of rain we usually have mushrooms on 5 or so of the logs.
Shiitakes are great in all manner of dishes, but one of our favorite things to make is a simple shiitake and sage brown butter pasta dish. Start with a medium onion chopped. Throw it into the pan with a little olive oil and let it start sweating while you chop your shiitake. You’ll need about a pound of shiitakes. If the stems are woody then just use the tops (save the stems to make broth with). When you get done chopping, throw them in the pan and cook until they have let out their water and the onions are starting to brown slightly. Remove them all from the pan, turn the heat to medium and add 4 tablespoons of butter. Brown the butter, stirring constantly until the foam recedes and the thinnest part of the butter starts to brown. Take it off the heat and add some chopped sage. Fresh is better, but dry works in a pinch. We like sage, so we usually chop about 10 leaves of fresh. It will sizzle a bit, stir it to keep it from burning. Add the juice half of a lemon and stir, then add your mushrooms and onion back in and stir it all together. Serve is with pasta and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Enjoy!
The Mushroom Cultivator Comprehensive guide, covers the cultivation of many of the most popular breeds.
TED Talk Interesting talk in which Paul Stamets tells how mushrooms and fungus are an untapped resource for preserving the planet
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World Stamets book that shares a similar premise to the TED Talk
Mushroom Mountain Nice people in South Carolina who have a lot of information on their website.
Heather Coleman is a freelance writer and part-time DIY’er who mostly manages to fit her projects in around her family and her volunteer work. She lives with her husband, two boys and two pets in Midtown.