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Adventures with mushrooms

myceliumLiving in a wet climate as we do, we grow a lot of mushrooms, both indoors and out. There’s a nice crop coming along right now on the windowsill of the mud room. (Those will come out soon, I promise.) Our woods are full of mushrooms, of course. Mushrooms cover the stumps and logs of the trees we  chopped down near the house and all the branches that the storms knock down. They even pop up in the raised garden beds, which we made from Amish “mushroom dirt” (used-up substrate).

There are dozens of species, most of them beautiful and some of which I can almost identify. Identification is a tricky business, though (is this a turkey tail or a false turkey tail?), which is why – even though an acquaintance who is a locally famous mushroom forager and chef walked the property with us  and pointed out several edible varieties – I’ve never tried eating any of them.

Even without eating them, we’ve felt we were benefiting from their presence. Mushrooms are good – vital, in fact – for the land, because they recycle nutrients and make them available for new growth. They break down and detoxify all kinds of pollutants. Some types of mushrooms even transmit nutrients from one tree to another, delivering them where they’re most needed. Paul Stamets, in Mycelium Running, which is full of fascinating mushroom lore, calls them “Nature’s Internet.”

Hen of the Woods

Last fall, we bought some maitake mushrooms – aka “hen of the woods” – at a nearby farm stand. They were extremely delicious and extremely expensive. Apparently, they grow under oak trees.  I said to my partner, “We have hundreds of oak trees! Why are we paying twenty-five dollars a pound for maitakes?” I was suddenly seized with a desire to cultivate mushrooms.

Maitakes are best started in spring, but I was impatient and wanted to get a head start. I bought an indoor maitake kit by mail order, set it up in the mud room, and faithfully followed the directions about covering, uncovering, spraying and misting. If mushrooms can grow in the mud room by themselves, I thought, shouldn’t they grow even better with tender, loving care? The maitake emerged from the substrate and for a couple of weeks, they looked like they might turn into something edible. Then – well, I have pictures, but they’re too ugly to show here. I took the mess outside and buried it next to an oak tree stump.

I consulted with our neighbor Gary, who grows shiitakes and oyster mushrooms commercially in a barn. He brought us four maitake kits from his supplier, and I put them in the bathtub in the guest bathroom. Following Gary’s advice, I tried giving each one a different amount of moisture, ranging from fairly dry to fairly wet. This way, he said, I could find out exactly how damp an environment they really needed. I succeeded in growing only green mold. I was starting to see why maitakes are so expensive.

But spring is just around the corner, and with it, a more scientific attempt to get maitakes to grow in the woods – which, I’ve decided, is a more appropriate place for them than the bathtub. Drilling inoculated plugs into logs is the recommended approach to getting them started. Hopefully by next fall, I’ll have maitakes to eat, and beautiful photographs to post here.

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