Gourmet mushrooms like Shiitake, Oyster & Enoki mushrooms are growing in popularity but the retail price for many of these delicacies can often be out of range for many people. Mushroom lovers on a budget have another option - growing mushrooms at home.
Mushroom production might seem complicated but there are many kits on the market that make growing mushrooms easy. These kits provide the substrate, pre-inoculated with mushroom mycelia and simple instructions.
When we think of mushrooms, we often think of the soft caps & stems that we see in the grocery store. Hidden underground, however, is the vast majority of the mushroom mass itself- the network of feathery mycelia. These mycelia, often seen when turning over compost, are what the mushroom uses to absorb food & moisture. The cap & stem that we commonly eat is just the fruiting body.
To grow, mycelia require an uncontaminated food source, free from other microorganisms, moisture, and temperatures between 60-80F. The food source can vary, depending on the species of mushroom, from sawdust & shavings to manure or compost. Once mycelia have colonized a food source, they begin to produce fruiting bodies, commonly referred to as pins. As the pins mature, they develop into recognizable mushrooms.
Most commercially available kits range in price from $20-$30. Most kits will start fruiting within a week and you can expect a harvest of 1-2 pounds of mushrooms per flush. Commonly, each kit will provide 2-3 flushes of mushrooms before the food supply is spent. Finished kits can then be placed on the compost pile where you can sometimes get a bonus flush of edibles.
Types of mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes), have a rich, meaty texture. The brown caps often grow up to 3-4 inches in diameter. They have been highly prized in the Orient for centuries and scientists are researching its medicinal, anti-viral properties. Indoors, the kits can be stored from 55 to 75F and will produce 2-3 pounds within 3 months.
Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus spp) are named for the fact that their flavour & texture resembles oysters. The mushroom itself comes in different colours, depending on species, from pink, cream, white & gray. The white mushroom is the easiest to grow and will fruit over a wide temperature range from 55-75 F. These mushrooms are particularly sensitive to humidity and need to be misted 2-3 times per day.
Enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes) have long delicate stems, joined at the base Both the caps and stems are edible and are best eaten raw to take advantage of this variety's crisp texture. Toss them into salads, sandwiches, or as a garnish for soups. Enokis require a colder environment, 45 degrees compared to growing temperatures of about 60 degrees, which other varieties require.
Once a kit arrives, it should be free of any different coloured moulds. If you do see anything strange, get a replacement. An incubation period is required for the mycelia to colonize the whole substrate. The kit should be kept at the proper temperature and should be kept moist at all times. Colonization usually requires 7-10 days.
After this period, the mycelia need to be forced into fruiting, usually by placing the kit in the refrigerator. Afterward, the kit will have to be opened and exposed to some light (excluding Agaricus species). A good place to keep the kits is in a garage or a sheltered place outdoors. Keeping the kits under your sink usually results in fungus gnats. If outdoor temperatures dip, a Styrofoam cooler makes an excellent humidity chamber, insulating the kit against cold temperatures.
As the fruiting bodies appear, the humidity needs to be kept high. Most kits come equipped with a plastic tent so a regular spray of water is enough to achieve the right conditions. Using the right water, however, is critical. Spring, well or rainwater is best, as it doesn't contain any chlorine. If none of these are available, leave a bucket of water to stand overnight to allow the chlorine to evaporate.
If you become hooked on mushroom production, you can move on to the next step- growing mushrooms on logs. While logs take much more time to develop edible mushrooms, they produce for up to 4 years and are even more economical than the kits.
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, by Paul Stamets
The Mushroom Cultivator, A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms at Home, by Paul Stamets and J.S. Chilton
The Mushroom Council - Mushroom facts & buying tips
MykoWeb - articles news & recipes
About the Author Arzeena is an agronomist and gardenwriter for Organic Living Newsletter.