"How Do I Grow Mushrooms?"
In the early years of North Spore, when it was still a fledgling mushroom business, countless days were spent standing behind folding plastic tables hawking colonized grain, wooden dowels, and sawdust, collectively known as mushroom spawn. Mushroom spawn is the equivalent of seeds for mushroom growers. Where a gardener or farmer might plant a tomato seed to grow a tomato plant, a mushroom gardener or mushroom farmer will use mushroom spawn to grow edible fungi. Spawn is biologically different from spores, but that's the topic of a future blog post!
We were relentless- displaying our spawn in high school gymnasiums for small town Maine events, at agricultural fairs, flower shows, farmers markets, and tree sales. We were there to meet face to face with a public hardly aware of the diversity of fungi living all around them, and in most cases fiercely skeptical that mushrooms were anything but the poisonous toadstools that responsible adults warned their impressionable children about. Stay away from mushrooms, they're dangerous! The collective voice seemed to be saying.
We were there to change minds and to open people up to the joys of mushroom cultivation, and for the most part were successful at it. It has been an amazing journey witnessing the growing appreciation of this historically overlooked biological kingdom.
Now that an interest in mushrooms seems to be striding into the mainstream of American culture, fewer conversations are spent convincing people that they should care about mushrooms. Now, not an hour goes by at public events where somebody doesn't walk up to our booth and ask with a resolute tone "so, how do I grow mushrooms?"
It is less a question than a statement: I'm going to grow mushrooms, and you all are the supposed experts, so tell me where to begin!
So without further ado, here are my thoughts and considerations on 'how to grow mushrooms':
1) You should start with the easiest species to grow
There are certain species that are all but guaranteed to be successful. We have a blog post dedicated to these species!
Starting with species that are sure to grow is the best way to keep your mushroom growing moral high and to cut your teeth. Mushrooms can be finicky. Certain species have very precise needs and can frustrate beginners.
2) Indoor or outdoor? Consider your location!
There are a number of ways of growing edible, medicinal, or psychedelic (should they be legal in your jurisdiction) species of mushroom. Many species can be grown both indoors or outdoors. You should be aware of the species you want to grow, and what the particular strain of that species was developed for. Some species, such as shiitake, will grow readily both indoors on 'blocks' or outdoors on logs, but have particular strains that are suitable for each application. You won't have as much success growing a block strain shiitake on logs, or a log strain of shiitake on blocks. A good spawn supplier will know the lineage and best application of their different strains and species.
Some species prefer to be grown either indoors or outdoors. Wine Cap (Stropharia rugosoannulata), for example, is one of the easiest mushroom species to grow outdoors. When Wine Cap grain spawn is spread into hardwood wood chips or chopped straw in a shady spot outdoors, almost nothing will stop them from growing! Trying to grow them indoors is another matter entirely. They are nearly impossible to produce in any quantity as they prefer unsterilized media and like wild animals they have a difficult time thriving indoors.
If you have plenty of shady outdoor land, shady gardens, lots of perennial plant cover or evergreen shrubs or trees, you most likely have a suitable environment for outdoor mushroom beds or logs. You want to make sure your mushroom grow doesn't receive too much direct sun and that you take measures to keep beds and logs moist should there be a drought.
Determining whether you can grow mushrooms indoors depends on how large or intensive you envision your mushroom operation to be.
Anybody can grow one or two Grow Your Own kits on their kitchen counter with little more than a spray bottle filled with water. This is often the best way for beginners to get a feel for growing mushrooms!
Larger indoor grows require far more infrastructure than outdoor grows. Because mushrooms require high humidity to produce, your space will need to be weather-sealed to prevent mold or rot issues affecting your home. Basements can be converted to mushroom rooms, but care should be made to prevent moisture and mushroom spores from damaging your living environment!
3) How many mushrooms do you want to produce, and on what time scale?
Are you looking to grow enough mushrooms for a few memorable meals, or are you hoping to have enough to dry and preserve for use throughout the year? Some of you are probably looking to start a mushroom enterprise and distribute to restaurants and through farmer's markets. Each scale of mushroom growing will require different considerations.
The easiest way to get a few quick meals is to grow them at home on your kitchen counter using a Grow at Home kit. The kits only take a couple weeks to start producing and you'll usually get 2-4 flushes out of them before they start to degrade.
Alternatively, mushroom logs, specifically shiitake or oyster logs, will produce around 1lb of mushrooms per log per year. Logs inoculated with these species take an average of 1 year to fully colonize (the act of mushroom spawn spreading throughout the log), but will produce for many years after the begin to bear mushrooms. We've heard of logs producing for over a decade!
With 20-30 logs you could have 20-30lb of mushrooms per year, most likely coming at you all at once! Inoculate a few logs each year and you will cumulatively produce more mushrooms each season. A good dehydrator or pickle recipe will come in handy and allow you to enjoy the fruits of your logs for months to come.
Certain species of mushrooms are not nearly as reliable as producers. Chicken of the Woods may take multiple years to fully colonize and will fruit sporadically, Hen of the Woods is finicky and abhors fungal competition, and Lion's Mane can have mixed results depending on the inoculation style you choose. However, these species are thrilling to cultivate and success is a badge of honor!
If you're looking for year-round continual mushroom harvests you'll need to research and invest in an indoor setup. This will require a clean space to do culture work such as a flow hood or clean room, the ability to pasteurize or sterilize substrates (via lime soaking, steaming, or autoclaving), and a space that can remain in a state of constant humidification and air exchange.
There a number of great resources on indoor cultivation! Like Peter McCoy's Radical Mycology, Paul Stamets' Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, or Tradd Cotter's Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation.
Hopefully this article helps clear up some initial questions! Mushroom growing is incredibly satisfying and accessible for most people, it all depends on what resources you have available and how much space and time you want to allocate to your new hobby!