This week we were able to talk with DIY expert, Kori Adkins, on their foray into mushroom growing. Starting from the ground up, they built their own cardboard recycler which fruited Italian oyster mushrooms through winter in the Arizona heat. Read on to learn more about her cool technique.
Mary: Hi! Tell me a little about yourself and what pronouns you use.
Kori: Hi, I'm Kori - they/them/she/her. I'm 47 and live in Phoenix, Arizona, with my partner, our English bulldog and three cats. I've been gardening for almost 20 years. Professionally, I am a UX Designer. Also, I run a YouTube channel (Shoestring Martha), that covers sustainable and affordable gardening and DIY projects.
Mary: Very cool - Where about are you located and can you talk a little about the climate there?
Kori: I am in the low desert of the Southwest, zone 9b. It's very dry, and for much of the year, very hot. 110s and 100-teens are typical during the summer. Most of the rain typically occurs during the monsoon season, roughly July-September. Though, last year, we didn't really have a monsoon season, only netting 15 days of rain, total.
Mary: Oof, that sounds pretty harsh. What inspired you, then, to start working with fungi?
Kori: I like to grow what I eat. I also gravitate toward the unusual. If it's something delicious, that I can't find in the store, or that is costly, I try to grow it myself.
Mary: I really appreciate that, they're definitely curious creatures. What other unusual things have you grown?
Kori: Some of the more unusual items in the garden right now are saffron crocuses, capers, luffa, roselles (Hibiscus sabdariffa), and moringa. Also dragon fruit and desert wolfberry (Lycium macrodon), though neither have fruited yet.
Mary: Holy moly, sounds like a dream! Alright, back to mushrooms. There's so many different ways to grow them outside, why did you choose this method?
Kori: The thing that turned on the lightbulb for me, was seeing some of my local gardening friends successfully grow mushrooms by adding the spawn to their existing raised garden beds. The mushrooms would poke out between the slats when they fruited.
I wondered if I could create an intentional environment that mimicked this, specifically for mushrooms. So I built a wood crate of slender wooden slats, so there were plenty of gaps for the mushrooms to poke through.
I was also concerned about conserving moisture, so I added a lid.
Mary: Got it, so you adapted growing in beds to the crate, that's pretty creative! Can you paint us a picture of what your growing area looks like.
Kori: I chose a site that I thought might have the best microclimate -- an area protected from the sun, that's rather lush. I set my crate under our peach tree, near our wooden fence. The fence, and the Mexican petunias that line it, shield the crate from the harsh afternoon sun.
On its south side, there is a wine barrel planter, filled with lavender, and next to it, a large plume of lemongrass. The crate is protected on three sides, so that it only gets morning sun, and all of the greenery keeps the area more humid and slightly cooler. I also deep water the peach tree weekly, and that also contributes to a more hospitable environment.
Mary: So, you're in the desert - are there challenges to growing there because of environmental conditions?
Kori: Oh yes, the heat and the dryness are big challenges. I had to water the inside of the crate and spray down the outside daily.
Mary: Gotcha, and what about the weather, how does that affect your growing season?
Kori: This is still my first year, so it's hard to say what will happen next, but it seems that winter is when things really get hoppin', especially if we get a winter rain.
Mary: Can you walk us through your grow from inoculation through harvest, and how you maintained it?
Kori: Mid-October, I inoculated wet cardboard and craft paper with Italian oyster grain spawn (Italian oyster sawdust spawn works, too!) and sprinkled in a little compost. The first flush started mid-December, lasting until January 1st. There was a second flush shortly thereafter, mid-January until the end of the month.
After that, I rehabbed the crate by mixing up the cardboard / spawn mixture, and added some fresh cardboard and a little more compost. Nothing happened, for all of February, most of March. Near the end of the month, there was a pretty vigorous flush.
By then, we had temps in the upper 90s, dry and windy. Keeping the crate cool and damp seemed like an impossible task. A couple days ago, I raked aside the mulch under the peach tree, and spread around the crate contents, and covered it with the mulch. As of this morning, there are new mushrooms under there!
I'm guessing once it gets really hot, it will be done. If so, I'm curious to see if they come back in the Fall. I'm growing sweet potatoes in the crate now, but when it cools down, I plan on trying a different variety of mushroom in it.
Mary: Anything specific you learned along the way?
Kori: I used to be a bit intimidated by growing mushrooms, because it seemed very specific and scientific — which I'm sure is necessary for a commercial operation or if you want consistent, predictable results. But it can also be a creative process, with plenty of room for experimentation.
Mary: Definitely, I think you echo a sentiment many of us can relate to! Starting out, it's easy to get lost in technical details or overwhelmed by feeling like you need a bunch of equipment. But there's a whole world of cultivation that's less resource intensive and still successful. And you touch on an important point - creativity and experimentation are so important in mycology, there's so much for us to learn about partnering with fungi still. I love that you basically designed your own method for growing, just using what you had handy. What did it take to get this whole crate set up?
Kori: The frame of the crate is from 2x4s leftover from forming concrete, and the small slats are the edges trimmed from planks we used for the patio enclosure. So I have no rationale in choosing the crate's dimensions. It's just what I had on hand. It is the size it is because that was the size of the plywood scrap I used for the base. I used screws to put together the frame, and a brad nailer to attach the slats.
Inside, I used broken down and cut up cardboard boxes and craft paper that I had saved up over the course of several weeks. Plus, some compost from the composter, and of course the grain spawn from North Spore.
It took about an hour or two to build the crate. I soaked the cardboard overnight. It was probably another hour the next day to layer everything in.
Mary: Now that you’ve successfully grown mushrooms, anything you’d do differently in this setup if you did it again or any other projects you’d like to try out?
Kori: As I mentioned earlier, I'm trying the growing in wood chips & mulch method, that some of my local friends have successfully done. I'll use the crate again, but widen the gaps between the slats a bit. Once watered, they got really snug together, and mushrooms struggled to poke through.
I will also add feet to the crate, to keep the pillbugs out. They didn't do much damage, as they were mostly interested in the decaying cardboard and compost, but they did leave err — waste — which was a pain to clean at harvest time.
Mary: Hah, I can imagine. And that's why they put brushes on mushroom knives! Well after you get them all cleaned up, what's your go to way of preparing your mushrooms? Do you ever use mushrooms medicinally?
Kori: I have to choose?! So far, I've roasted them, smoked them, sun-dried them, deep fried them, and made jerky. My favorite is probably to slice them into strips, heavily season them, roast them in the oven, and then put them into tacos.
I'm taking the smoked ones with me camping in a couple weeks, and plan on using them in a pie iron veggie crunchwrap experiment.
I have not used them medicinally, but am interested in it.
Mary: Smoked mushroom trail treats sound incredible! We'll keep our eyes peeled for your results. Any nuggets of wisdom you’d like to share with folks who are curious about growing, are just getting started, or who have similar environmental considerations?
Kori: Microclimate is key, and don't give up on them. Mushrooms can be surprisingly resilient.
Mary: Yes! Great reminders. We know it’s hard to choose, but do you have a favorite mushroom and why?
Kori: Probably king oysters, because they're so burly and versatile.
Mary: And last but not least, symbolically speaking, which mushroom would you be and why?
Kori: Burn morel, because inhospitable circumstances only make me thrive.
Kori documented their grow though their YouTube channel! In this video, they build a crate for housing the mushroom grow.
And here is a tutorial on inoculating and taking care of the crate.
And as of April 8th an update on how it's growing! Some impressive flushes, tips on cooking, cleaning, and plans for the crate ahead of the summer.