Fungi Provide: Cultivating Edible Mushrooms
Follow along for our Wayward Instagram story takeover on 3/26. We’ll be sharing our process for shiitake log inoculation and harvesting. To stay connected with our farm, follow us on Instagram @Wildaltarfarmstead
We’ve become more alive to the rain. We wait; we notice; we react to the seasonal cycles of precipitation and temperature. Following a wet night of steady showers, we roll out of bed and slip out the porch door to feel the cool, humidity lick our skin. That feeling in the air seems just right, and we make our way to the small pine forest up the creek. On a thick bed of pine needles, we come to our shiitake mushroom laying yard. Several rows of three foot-long oak logs are bursting with their eager fruit: plump and meaty shiitakes that seemed to have appeared over night. We admire the bounty, but decide to come back a little later for harvesting. After the mushrooms have dried out some, they’ll have a longer shelf life. We’ll sever the caps from the logs, and carry our bundle home.
The laying yard is the center of our modest mushroom cultivation effort, one project I organize alongside my partner Jordan Fust as a part of our young regenerative farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Following the form of the existing landscape here, we can integrate our need and desire to grow food with the surrounding natural environment and minimize our labor input and our impact on the land. The pine trees keep our mushrooms shady, moist, and cool, while the pine needles provide an impressive mulch that keeps brushy, understory plants to a minimum. This gives us an open and efficient space to stack newly inoculated logs for an incubation period, and to lay out fruiting logs in long rows for ample air flow and space. For now, rainfall tells our mushroom logs when to fruit. We are letting nature do a lot of the work, and jumping into the process when it makes sense.
Actually, our entry into growing mushrooms was an exercise in taking notice of underutilized resources and waste around us. What don’t we have? Money, fancy farming equipment, experience, or expertise in working with mycelium. What do we have? Space, Oak trees (the preferred wood food source for Shiitakes), sawdust (a waste product of Jordan’s carpentry work and an important part of the inoculation process), a bit of scrappy determination, and books (lots of books). While growing mushrooms isn’t always predictable, fungi are misunderstood, resilient, and adaptable beings that offer healing and nutrient-dense food. We hope that taking a little time to understand the cycles and needs of fungi and their vast relationships to other plants will make us all feel a little more interconnected and hardy. In a changing climate, where increasingly unpredictable seasonal weather, soil erosion, and expanding desertification threaten our capacity to grow food around the world, fungi may have some lessons to teach us if we can listen.
In partnership with mushrooms, the great recyclers
Just as our farm’s foray into mushroom cultivation takes advantage of otherwise wasted resources, fungi, too, are the great recyclers. They are capable of transforming complex organic matter into food for other members of the ecological community. Fungi’s impressive network of cells, called mycelium, look like white, cottony webs that permeate every inch of the soil beneath our feet (look under a rotting log in the woods and you’ll surely see it). What we know as mushrooms are really just the fruit, or means of sexual reproduction, of some of these integrated mycelial bodies.
Humans have the misfortune of creating more debris (read as: waste) than any other species on this planet. Fortunately, we can collaborate with fungi to bring our behavior back into balance. Acclaimed mycologist Paul Stamets writes, “Mushroom spawn lets us recycle garden waste, wood, and yard debris, thereby creating mycological membranes that heal habitats suffering from poor nutrition, stress, and toxic waste. In this sense, mushrooms emerge as environmental guardians in a time critical to our mutual evolutionary survival.”
But what does this collaboration look like, and how can we realistically partner with mushrooms to reduce the negative impacts of human activities? One example to consider, proposed and tested by Stamets’ research, involves enlisting mycelium in the logging industry. Large-scale logging operations are problematic in too many ways to discuss here. Current practices lead to fungal die-off, and large amounts of woody debris (limbs, stumps, and unmarketable trees) are left in empty fields where they can’t decompose quickly to renter the ecological cycle. Often, the debris is burned, releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. In order to stimulate habitat recovery after logging, we can selectively introduce keystone mushroom species to feed on dead wood. Instead of burning, we can chip debris, inoculate with appropriate mushroom spawn, and scatter around a recently logged area. This new mycelial activity recycles the wood into food for remaining plants and replanted tree seedlings, supporting them and attracting wild life. While mushroom enhanced decomposition still releases CO2, it does so at a much slower rate, and at a cooler temperature than burning. Even better, we can introduce gourmet, edible mushroom varieties here. They can be harvested and sold for human consumption, providing a nourishing food source and an economic incentive for logging companies to incorporate habitat restoration into their business model.
While bringing mushrooms into logging operations is just one example of their beneficial use, there are many ways we can imagine to incorporate mushrooms into large-scale human activity for wide-ranging habitat support and restoration. Leveraging mycelium isn’t just a resource available to large companies or governments, though. We can also introduce them into our personal lives and diets to directly experience the nourishing benefits of mushrooms through our bodies. You may live in an area where mushroom growers are already cultivating important strains like Shiitake, Oyster, Lions Mane, and Maitake, and sharing them with the public at farmers markets or specialty stores. If you have the means, it’s great to support these operations. However, with pretty minimal start up costs, and some materials you may be able to scavenge for around your neighborhood, in your home, or in your yard, you can also grow your own mushrooms and witness the fascinating cycles of mycelium for yourself.
Likely the simplest form of at-home mushroom cultivation is to grow out Oyster mycelium indoors in containers using a growing medium like sawdust, straw, coffee grounds, or grains. Think of the growing medium as “food” for the mycelium. Oyster mushrooms are notoriously the easiest to grow, but careful attention to what conditions your mushrooms need will improve your success. For example, every mushroom strain has a specific preferred temperature range. And creating humid, but not saturated, wet conditions will make them happier. In the case of Oyster mushrooms, darkness supports the early incubation process (the period after you’ve just introduced spawn to a new growing environment is when the mycelium is at its most fragile). Adding diffused light after a few weeks will tell the mycelium its time to fruit and grow Oyster mushrooms. Mushroom spawn can be purchased from a certified grower online. It is produced in a sterile laboratory setting, and while it is the largest overhead cost of getting started, purchasing spawn will get you on the right foot for producing your own food from fungi.
Other strains like Shiitake and Lions Mane perform well outdoors on logs or in wood chip piles. This is great if you have access to outdoor space, and mushrooms under these conditions will fruit much longer than if grown indoors, sometimes for up to 6 years. Some spawn can be sprinkled into wood chip “beds” and be treated similar to a garden bed. Other forms of spawn can be inserted into pre-drilled holes in freshly cut logs of an appropriate tree species. This is the primary method we practice on our farm.
When considering growing mushrooms, it is wise and most effective to mimic the values of recycling and resourcefulness that the fungi community so adeptly illustrates. What spaces do you have that are currently underutilized? A back porch, an empty closet, a corner of a backyard? What resources or waste streams can you access easily? A local carpenter may be happy to give away her sawdust. Have a lot of coffee drinkers? Save your used grounds in the freezer until you have a large quantity or ask a nearby coffee shop if they’d be willing to collect them for you. With a little ground work, observation, and creativity, you can match an appropriate mushroom strain to your specific needs and avoid spending excess money and energy. Mushrooms are incredibly thrifty and sustainable, and we have much to learn from these values.