Monday, March 30, 2009

Growing Mushrooms, Part 1 - Why

Growing mushrooms is not just like growing a plant. If anything, it is more like a slow motion version of keeping a pet. But really, it is very different from either, with its own set of challenges and advantages. I am going to do a series of blog entries on growing mushrooms. To me, the logical place to start is to answer the question "why."

The single biggest reason a person would want to grow mushrooms is for food. Now I am not talking about the standard button mushrooms or portabellas you get from the grocery store. Those are actually a big pain in the butt to grow. They grow on well-composted cow manure, utilizing a process that is exact and convoluted and not really worth the trouble for something so readily available at the store. No, I am talking about gourmet mushrooms such as oyster, shiitake and enoki. These are mushrooms that are available at certain markets, but are always expensive and hard to find. Then there are stone mushrooms, black poplar mushrooms, and brick tops. These are just about impossible to find at all but the best markets and very expensive when you find them. Then there are shaggy manes. Those will never be available fresh at the store. By growing mushrooms at home, you can have the opportunity to try something you might not normally be able to find or afford. A single kit might be expensive, but if you can transfer the mycelium into another vessel, such as a log, you can get years of inexpensive, tasty mushrooms.

The second reason to grow mushrooms is to take advantage of the different uses they have in the garden, in the home, and in the environment. Mushrooms are the great restorers of the natural world. They take dead material and damaged terrain and turn it into healthy systems ready to support life. Pearl oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are the most widely studied and offer the most uses. They can decompose a wide variety of objects made from plants including, but not limited to, cotton waste, sugarcane waste, coffee grounds, straw, just about any hardwood (but no conifers) or anything made from hardwood. They will eliminate nematodes from your soil. They will filter runoff and remove a wide variety of impurities. They can be used to stop the spread of parasitic fungi by out-competing them. The list goes on. King stropharia mushrooms (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) break down wood chips or straw to enrich soils while also removing dangerous bacteria from the soil. Elm oyster mushrooms (Hypsizygus ulmarius) actively feed the wood chips or straw they are decomposing to the plants they grow with, creating faster growing plants. A number of mushrooms will help your compost decompose faster without your having to turn it or can be used to decompose large piles of plant debris.

The third reason to grow mushrooms is because it is fascinating. If you start from scratch, creating your own mushroom kit, you get to watch the mycelium leap into action. The cottony white mycelium covers the surface of the kit in a matter of days, advancing so quickly you can almost see it grow. Then it sinks down inside its food and disappears. For the next several weeks to a year or more, depending on what you are growing it on, nothing seems to happen. Then, like a magical form of instant gratification, you get mushrooms! It is fascinating to watch mushrooms grow. They go from primordia (tiny baby mushrooms) to full-grown mushrooms in 2-5 days in most cases. It is especially special to share the process with your children, if you have any. Children can be bored by how slowly plants grow. There is no such issue with mushrooms. You can check the growth every day as the mushroom forms and be amazed by how much bigger they are. Then you get to eat them!

The nice thing about growing mushrooms is that you can often take advantage of the restorative effects of mushrooms while still producing food and enjoying the wonder that mushrooms provide. The three are not mutually exclusive.


  1. I am glad someone else finds mushrooms as endlessly fascinating as I do (almost as glad as I am that I actually didn't get the mushroom tattoo I was planning on-really, really glad!)

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