If You Can’t Find Them – Grow Them!
The modern forager has to adapt when conditions aren’t conducive. This year was epically hot and dry in Colorado. There were no mushrooms. By August, other foraging opportunities had passed: ditch asparagus was pickled, feral apricots were jammed and leaves were peeped. What to do? Lets grow mushrooms!
Cultivating our own mushrooms was something we stumbled into quite by accident. At this year’s Telluride mushroom festival we bought a Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceous) mushroom growing kit. We chose this species because it doesn’t grow in Colorado and we had attended a lecture by Paul Stamets that got us intrigued by its medicinal qualities. Buying Lion’s Mane in extract or powdered form is really expensive!
The kit was super fun: we brought it home, covered in a small plastic tent in our living room, and grew a big yummy Hericium. It tasted so good – kind of like scallops. We ate half of it right out of the sautee pan. But the real goal was to make more so we could make tincture and take it as medicine every day. So, like anything we jumped head-first into cultivating.
First, we ordered some more grow kits from Mushroom Mountain and Fungi Perfecti – Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), Maitake (Grifola frondoas), Pioppino (Agrocybe aegerita), King Stropharia (aka Wine Cap Stropharia rugosoannulata) and Blue Oysters (Pluerotus Ostreatus). We have already harvested Shiitake, Pioppino and Blue Oysters. The Maitake is almost ready and the Wine Caps are being stubborn but showing promise.
Of course we couldn’t do this in the living room, so we assembled a large metal utility closet from the hardware store in our garage. We built in a humidifier, added humidity and temperature sensors and some LED under-counter lights. Mushrooms obviously like moisture and we have the humidifier running 24/7. The four shelves in our closet have been useful:
- Surprisingly some like a good amount of light and some like less light, so, we have different lighting levels on different shelves. The bottom shelf is dark.
- We found they also like fresh air, so we frequently visit our mushrooms and open up the cupboard. We even added a small fan to one shelf for mushrooms that enjoy more circulation.
- The hardest part has been the temperature. We had some mushrooms that didn’t seem to enjoy the 70-75 degree temperatures so we add a frozen gallon of water to one of the shelves during the warmer daytime temperatures.
I started this process with a few good books: Tradd Cotter’s “Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation” and Paul Stamet’s “Mycelium Running“. I’ve now read them cover to cover and have learned a few things:
- Some mushrooms are harder to grow than others. Oysters are the easiest and grow abundantly. By far! The problem with oysters is two fold: 1) They release a lot of spores. Great in the woods, but not so good in our growing closet. 2) they really aren’t that yummy. We would get pretty bored eating them regularly.
- There are so many factors that affect the results: temperature, light, humidity, CO2, cleanliness, genetics and more. It is both science and art. Very similar to brewing beer in many ways.
- I really really like the flavor of Shittake and Lion’s Mane and want to have unlimited supplies. I’m looking forward to testing other species as well.
- Mushrooms can be cultivated outside too, on logs and woodchips. I’m starting that process but we are probably a year away from enjoying the fruits of that particular labor.
- Growing and selling mushrooms? Yikes. Kinda like foraging and selling mushrooms – not something we do. It is a lot of work, has hidden costs, and would probably suck the joy out of our hobby.
- Buying mushroom kits is expensive and not really sustainable. We would need to learn how to culture our own mushrooms and make or own grow bags.
The next phase was to buy liquid cultures of spores and create our own grow bags. Professionals have a lab and culture their own spores in agar while wearing cool lab coats. We aren’t there yet. Instead I went online and found a few websites that sell liquid mushroom cultures in large syringes. Our teenage kids thought we were shooting up drugs or something (it does look a bit sketchy)! The best place to order liquid spores online was Root Mushroom Farm. I took the syringes, inoculated them into quart jars of sterilized grain and set them to grow for two weeks. This is called “colonizing your spawn”.
Next, I bought a big cheap bag of oak pellets for pellet burning stoves at the hardware store and soaked them in water (they turn into sawdust). I added a bit of nitrogen (wheat bran) put them in a plastic bag and sterilized them (in a pressure canner). After heating them in a pressure cooker for a few hours, there is nothing alive in those bags and they are ready to grow mushrooms. The final step is to add the colonized spawn into these bags of sterilized sawdust– this is called “inoculating your substrate”.
In a week or two these bags will be “colonized”. We’ll open them up to fresh air and mushrooms will start growing. I hope, fingers crossed. It is hard to say how this will turn out, but I’d like to have 20 bags of mushrooms growing in our closet all winter and enjoy eating fresh gourmet mushrooms until the wild varieties are available again.