I joined the blue oyster (mushroom) cult.

One of the challenges of gardening on my little urban homestead is the great old oaks that surround and shade my property. But for mushrooms, that shade is a welcome thing. I’d had mushrooms in the back of my mind since a small paper sack of shiitakes first appeared in my weekly CSA pick up a few years ago. Gaia Gardens’ farmer then, the genius that is Daniel Parson, was the first person I’d ever met who knew how to inoculate oak logs with shiitake spores. The result of his labors were what I think of as little flavor poems. Really, there are no words to describe how a good mushroom tastes. That’s why I like to think of them as poems—a thing so original that it can be expressed in no other way.

When Farmer Daniel moved away to South Carolina a couple of years ago, that was it for my shiitake supply. Then a few months ago, my fellow Southern Urban Homesteader Esther (who is also an accomplished mushroom forager, and I’m hoping to persuade her to contribute another guest blog here on her hunting/gathering adventures in the wilds of suburbia) invited me to participate in a little informal mushroom growing workshop she was helping organize in her neighborhood. It seemed like a good activity for my shady winter garden, so one Sunday afternoon in early November I found myself with Esther and a few other nice folks (fun ghis?) in a Chamblee, Georgia, backyard, around a giant turkey fryer vat over an open flame containing wheat straw steeping in hot water. It all felt very primal, but then mushrooms are rather primal—all moisture and shadows.

Our workshop leader, Rod Stafford of the Georgia Mushroom Club, brought along some blue oyster mushroom spawn that we would start not in a log, but in a bag or basket of this wheat straw, which was soaking in the hot water to pasteurize it. He chose blue oysters because they are very easy to get going, especially in colder weather. A good thing, since we were heading into temps in the teens and twenties within a few weeks.

Rod emphasized the need to keep things as sterile as possible (we also used surgical gloves to handle the spores), because the mycelia that form from the spores are competing with other bacteria. We removed the now-pasteurized wheat straw from the vat of hot water and spread it out to cool completely. Then came the fun part: we began by cutting tubes of clear plastic into three foot lengths and tying off each end with pipe cleaners (a few people used baby-sized laundry baskets instead of plastic tubing, but the technique is the same). Then we donned the gloves and filled the bags first with a layer of wet straw, then a sprinkle of the mushroom spawn, then another layer of straw, then more spawn, and so forth. The spawn is strange stuff–kind of fuzzy and spongy and otherwordly. When I reached into the sack to bring out a scoop, I felt like I was digging my hand into alien soil—literally. Its earthy scent is intense but not unpleasant.

We continued with layers of straw and spawn until the bags were stuffed to a height of about a 18 inches, then we tied off the tops with pipe cleaners. The bags looked like giant link sausages. We then poked holes into the bags, baked potato style.

I took my two stuffed bags home with Rod’s clear instructions to find a shady place (no problem there) that would allow for plenty of air circulation. I worried, of course, about the damn squirrels feasting on my mushrooms, so I enclosed them in an old guinea pig hutch and found the perfect spot for them tucked behind my groovy new rain barrel installation next to the house.

I had about a quart of the mushroom spawn left over, so on Rod’s advice I put it to work in a couple of other ways. This next technique thrills me to my thrifty toes because it uses stuff I just normally have around the house that would otherwise get recycled: I took some shredded waste paper and pasteurized it in a big pot on my stove and layered it with the spawn in a couple of quart-sized Mason jars and an old plastic colander (I used plastic baggies over my hands because I didn’t have any surgical gloves hanging around). I covered the jars with loose tents of aluminum foil and the colander with a plastic grocery sack. I added these odd looking containers to the squirrel-proof mushroom cage.

Then I waited. Every day I went out and turned the bags over and maybe spritzed the jars and colander with a mister to keep everything evenly moist. I peered through the plastic and the jar to see if I might spy any mushroomy goodness emerging. What I did start to see was mycelium forming—a dense white web of goo reaching through the straw and the shredded paper to form a kind of wet mat. It pulled the straw away from the plastic and formed a coat inside the jars and colander. (Really, this stuff has to be from another planet!)

After about three weeks, when there was plenty of mycelium, I dunked the bags in a bucket of water and gave them a good soaking. I was really hoping to see some mushrooms soon after that, but not much seemed to be happening. I began to doubt. I began to give up hope. I began to wonder if I had somehow contaminated my field: did I sneeze on my spores? Did the dog drool on them?

And then, wonder of wonders, three days after Christmas, I saw them. They are called “pins,” and they are basically the tiny little heads of mushrooms that first emerge from the mycelium. I emailed Esther right away (because I was so excited), then gave the bags and colander another dunking for several hours and misted the jars. And wouldn’t you know? They suddenly started growing like crazy.

I harvested a couple of the almost-ready ones today just to taste them, and wow! Delicate flavor/fragrance poems. Here they are with some arugula and eggs I gathered at the same time — Southern winter blessings.

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