Growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your backyard is a well-known way to have easy access to fresh food. But what about growing your own mushrooms?
It all started harmlessly as part of a birthday gift. A recent spring-cut log with a thin ribbon around it seemed strange at first glance. But the bewildered look on my husband’s and my face changed as we realized it was an inoculated shiitake mushroom log. Thus our innocent journey began. A little care and a little patience and these delightful delicacies were on our plates. One log has grown to two stacks with more being planned. Once you have fresh shiitakes from your woods, it will shame all others.
Growing shiitake mushrooms is very rewarding. However, it will take some effort and patience on your part to have the success needed for table-top pleasure. Log-grown shiitakes are known to have the best texture, flavor, vitamin and mineral content compared to all others. I’ll cover two main home-production methods: sawdust and plug spawn inoculation. With proper care, expect to have two to five flushes of mushrooms each year from the logs.
For sawdust inoculation you will need:
• Shiitake sawdust spawn
• Fresh cut logs 3–6 weeks; live but dormant fresh cut
• 7/16" drill bit
• 7/16" stop collar for drill bit
• Inoculation tool (to inoculate logs)
• Cheese wax
• Wax daubers
• Slow cooker
• Permanent log markers, preferably aluminum
1. Use oak or sweet gum logs. Logs should be cut into 36-40" lengths and be 3-8" across, thereby light enough to handle through inoculation and stacking. Drill holes 1-1/4" deep in a diamond pattern all around the length of the log at 3-4" apart. This task is more easily accomplished by using a table or saw horses.
2. After drilling holes, use the inoculation tool to “stuff” all holes drilled. The inoculation tool and the drilled holes must be stuffed with the sawdust inoculation to prevent air pockets and drying out within the drilled hole.
3. Use a slow cooker set on low heat to melt wax. Using a wax dauber, seal each sawdust-inoculated hole with wax as you fill each row. Bend the wire handle to hang from the edge of the slow cooker to keep dauber from falling into the wax. Some choose to also seal the end of the log with wax; this is optional.
4. Use permanent markers to date and list the strain used on each log. Stack inoculated logs like Lincoln Logs on the ground or on a wooden pallet in a thoroughly shaded location.
5. Use logs within 6 weeks of harvesting. If the log is inoculated after the first 3 weeks, soak the log up to 12 hours. Do not soak any log for more than 20 hours, to avoid drowning the mycelium. Depending on rain levels, logs may have to be watered on a regular basis. Optimum moisture amount is when the bark is dry but the log is moist. Do not allow the log to dry out, as it will kill the mycelium that produces the mushrooms.
It takes longer for production using plug spawn. However, it will be briefly covered here because it’s ideal for beginners with its smaller quantities and minimal equipment. It is also an easy way to experiment with different strains before doing many logs of the same strain. The only difference in actual labor is the size of drill bit used, and instead of using sawdust spawn with an inoculation tool, you just hammer in the plug and then wax. Care of the logs is the same as sawdust-spawn-inoculated logs.
For plug spawn inoculation you will need:
• Shiitake plug spawn
• 5/16" drill bit
• 5/16" stop collar for drill bit
• Cheese wax
• Wax daubers
• Slow cooker
• Permanent markers for logs
Check logs more frequently than you think is needed; you don’t want to lose out. Shiitakes can be harvested when barely opened to as large as your hand, depending on time of year and strain grown. There are three strain categories — wide range, warm weather, and cold weather — that indicate the condition in which they can be fruited (not the climate). Study, and ask those who know, about the specific strain you are growing to learn the best growing and harvesting tips. Do not allow any strain to dry out, nor wait so long that slugs, bugs or other creatures start attacking.
To harvest the mushroom, use a knife to cut the mushroom off the log so the inoculation plug will not be removed. Place the mushrooms in a large bowl or bucket as you harvest.
To use, rinse the mushrooms gently and quickly. Do not immerse. Expose the mushrooms to as little water as possible as they will act like sponges. Clean the top and the bottom. Our family removes the stems at this time as they are tough; use stems to flavor homemade vegetable broth. Store mushrooms in the refrigerator in a paper bag up to three days. They are ready for fresh eating, freezing or drying.
For freezing or drying, the process is similar. Once cleaned, slice the to-be frozen shiitakes into 1/3 to 1/2" pieces. Fill a quart-sized plastic freezer bag with 1 cup sliced mushrooms; for a gallon-sized bag, fill with 2-1/2 cups. More could be added; however, having the slices loose in the bag when frozen provides easier thawing later. To use the frozen shiitakes, remove from freezer at least an hour before starting to cook your meal. Cook as you would fresh.
Drying shiitakes is easy. Slice the mushrooms 3/4" thick. Lay in your dehydrator with space between each piece and use low setting. If you live in a humid area, use a non-insulated cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Place slices on parchment paper and put in the oven on the lowest temperature. Start with 30 minutes and then check every 10 minutes for dryness. When done, they will snap when bent, but avoid over drying or burning.
Allow to cool, double check for dryness, then place in sealable glass container. The mushrooms will keep in the refrigerator, freezer, or in a dark, cool place for several months. Toss into soups as they are cooking and they will automatically rehydrate.
You can also rehydrate dried mushrooms by covering them with hot water; keep the mushrooms submerged under a plate or something similar which will speed up the process. Cover the container and allow to sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Any water not absorbed by the mushrooms will have pulled mushroom taste, so use it to flavor soups or sauces.
These are some general guidelines for growing and using your harvest. If you want to try growing shiitakes, consider attending a mushroom-growing workshop or visit a local grower to see firsthand what it will take. Growing shiitake mushrooms is not difficult, but requires a little planning, a little effort and some patience — like most gardening. It’s worth it when you taste your homegrown shiitakes, both in quality and economics. Grow your own and you’ll never look back!
Jodi Ferguson grew up in Southwest Michigan and continues to pursue organic gardening, small-scale ranching, writing, music, travel and other interests with her husband of 20 years, Kam. Currently living on a few acres of East Tennessee foothills, she longs for cool northern air with less humidity and fewer bugs, and ultimately looks forward to eating from the tree of life in the Earth made new.
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