Do you have a damp, dark basement that would be a great bachelor pad for a zombie? The dark, clammy, creepy atmosphere is perfect for growing mushrooms. The easiest mushrooms to grow at home are white buttons, oysters, portabellos and wine caps. If you love the taste of mushrooms and are considering growing your own, just be sure to pick a variety you like to eat a lot of.
Mushrooms don’t grow from seeds like plants. They start as dust-like spores that are released from the gills under their caps. Mushrooms spend most of their life as mycelium, a network of moist fibers that use powerful enzymes to penetrate wood or other organic materials. Mushrooms take in carbon dioxide and oxygen while plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Materials rich in carbon—like wood—break down more slowly and are the preferred host for many edible mushrooms.
“Mushroom mycelium is hungry and likes to run,” says Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti and the author of six books on mushroom culture. “Like sourdough bread culture, a good strain of mushrooms will keep on going for years when given the right growing conditions.”
The surest way to grow mushrooms at home is with a kit, which makes a great winter table-top project. Kits are considered a seasonal product and are only available from September to May. You can buy any kind of mushroom you want in a kit. All you need to add is water and they grow in the box they come in. There’s even a magical-looking glow-in-the-dark neon green option you could try (Panellus), but they’re not edible. You can also buy a bag of spawn and grow mushrooms in damp sawdust, wood chips or coffee grounds in a terrarium, old fish tank or plastic storage bin. Even though mushrooms are slow to fruit compared to vegetables, once they’re established in a spot they like, they’ll continue to fruit in flushes of growth.
“The reward for your efforts will be the freshest, most delicious mushrooms you’ve ever tasted,” says Don Simoni of Mushroom Adventures. “A lot of the mushrooms in the markets are harvested three to five days before they’re placed on the shelves, but they’re really only good for the first two days and then their flavor changes.”
If you’re planning on drying your mushrooms for later use, you can grow them in specially prepared trays that are about the size and depth of a lasagna pan, which are already filled with the right growing materials and the spawn. The trays eliminate the guesswork and they can go right onto shelves or be hung from overhead floor beams.
“It’s fun to grown your own and kids enjoy it, too,” says Thomas Volk, a mushroom expert biology professor at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s more an art than a science with a lot of watching, adjusting and figuring what works for you.”
Glen Babcock, who has a mushroom business called Garden City Fungi in Montana, agrees.
“You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to get started, but you do need patience, a willingness to learn and a certain passion for the work. The people who get the most satisfaction from growing mushrooms have a natural fascination with fungi.”
Glen certainly fits his own description. He started growing certified organic specialty mushrooms in 1995 and now has five climate-controlled mushroom houses.
Are you feeling ready to grow your own mushrooms yet? If so, here is an overview of the most popular types of mushrooms people grow at home.
White Button Mushrooms
The ever-popular white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) are a good choice for newbies to grow. A white button kit should grow about four pounds of mushrooms. After your first cutting, more mushrooms will grow back every 10-14 days until all the kit’s nutrients are used up (about three months). Cook them or eat them raw in salads; you can’t go wrong with the button. Here’s a well-kept secret: Those pricey creminis and portobello mushrooms are really just white buttons that have kept growing until the cap opens fully and plumps up. If you choose to grow white buttons, you will no longer be paying $5 a pound for portobollos!
Oysters mushrooms (Pleuotus ostreatus) have a milder flavor than the more robust shiitakes. Their delicate texture makes them difficult to ship, so they, along with morels, are rarely seen in the markets. The stems are a little tough, but the caps are tender and delicious. Fast-growing and versatile, oysters thrive on partially decomposed straw or sawdust. Their color can be white, gray, pink or yellow. Oyster kits come with a sticky mass of white mycelium that has filled a small “tower” of wheat or oat straw and is sold in plastic perforated bags. Keep moist and humid and the tower will soon explode with oysters.
Most kits produce two flushes of growth. After that you can use the almost-spent mycelium to inoculate a compost pile or stuff it into cracks between pieces of wood, old firewood or logs. Here’s a clever idea: Mix the used mycelium with damp sawdust, coffee grounds and a little straw (not hay)
and fill milk cartons with holes punched in the sides. Put them down in the zombie pad or a cool, dark place, check them from time to time and in two or three months you’ll probably have several nice fruitings.
It’s best to remember that oysters really want to grow on a tree. Commercially raised oysters are grown in big plastic bags that look like a punching bag. Oyster mycelium will grow horizontally in sawdust, but it might not fruit until it reaches something vertical. For inexpensive, low-maintenance oyster growing, you can buy plugs of spawn that you tap into holes drilled in newly cut oak logs from one to six feet long. If grown indoors, oysters usually fruit from mid-spring to early summer and then again in the fall. Spells of cool, damp weather can also trigger fruiting sprees.
Shiitake mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), though delicious to eat, are grown primarily for their therapeutic value; it’s been proven they reduce tumors. Shiitakes have a full, smoky flavor and a dense texture—think soups, stews and killer risottos. They grow best on oak logs, which is where they originated in Japan (shiitake means “oak mushroom” in Japanese). Shiitakes grown on oak logs taste better than those grown on other kinds of wood. You can buy shiitake logs with the spawn pellets already embedded in rows, or you can do it yourself. Cut your log to the desired length and soak it in cold water for 24-36 hours. Don’t use any logs that have been in your woodshed for the past three years. It can be dead, still-standing oak, but it has to be freshly cut. Drilling the holes for the pellets is easy, but describing the staggered diamond pattern for optimal growth is tricky in writing, so you may want to watch a video to do it correctly.
Whether you buy the log or make it yourself, water every two to three weeks, and you can lie the log down (but get it up off the ground) or stand it up on end to save space. Once up and producing, a shiitake log will keep fruiting for five years or until the log rots away. They don’t do much during the heat of summer, but will produce again like gangbusters in the cooler days of fall. Harvest while the caps are still curved and not all the way open.
Wine Cap Mushrooms
Wine caps (Stropharia rugoso annulata) are a brownish-red mushroom with a bright white stalk. They are similar in flavor and texture to white buttons. You can grow this delicate-tasting variety right in your garden along with your vegetables. They grow on organic material like garden soil, wood chips and compost piles. Young wine caps grown in deep shade have pretty burgundy-red caps, which quickly change to beige in brighter light. Vigorous and persistent in many climates, wine caps fruit lightly in the spring, heavily in the fall and now and then through the summer in cool, moist areas. Regardless of the variety of mushrooms you grow, there’s always a culprit, particularly outdoors, so be on the lookout for snails and slugs. Leave some lettuce or cabbage leaves out to lure these pests away from your mushrooms.
Mushrooms don’t freeze well and turn into a slimy mess when they thaw, but they dry very well and are quite delicious when reconstituted in water or stock. If you have a bumper crop, you can easily dry them in the oven, in a dehydrator or in the sun. You may balk at the price of a dehydrator, but they’re great for many uses and will save you money in the end.
Don’t wash mushrooms before drying. If they’re dirty, wipe them off with a damp cloth. Quartering them shortens the drying time. Arrange the cut pieces loosely on the drying racks of a dehydrator or on a cookie sheet in the oven. Don’t heap them up. Put them in a preheated oven no hotter than 150°F and bake for one hour, leaving the oven door slightly open to let the moisture escape. After the first hour, flip them over and bake for another hour. Continue until they’re cracker dry and easily snap in two.
Sun drying is free and easy, plus it is the best way for preserving flavor, but it takes a lot longer and there is a good chance the mushrooms won’t fully dry. If the mushrooms are still flexible and kind of rubbery after a few days, finish them off in the oven. Check often because it won’t take them long to completely dry. If not fully dry, they are likely to rot or grow mold. When stored in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place, dried mushrooms will keep for years. As with other things that appeal to sophisticated tastes, your homegrown mushrooms will absolutely interest chefs and upscale food markets if you’re looking to make some cash on the side.
Now that you know how it’s done, doesn’t a steaming bowl of homemade cream of mushroom soup or an omelet made with bacon, mushrooms and cheese sound yummy?