Mushrooms seem to be just ‘there’ in a way for the most part. They’re on pizza, in lots of wraps and sandwiches, can be made into burgers, and of course most people think most mushrooms are deadly.
Mushrooms are in the ‘fungi’ family which is a family unto itself and no relation to plants but many can be symbiotic with plants sharing and receiving nutrients.
In my experience the average person knows very little about the life cycle of the mushroom. Usually common myths are that we use spores, or that we all are growing funny mushrooms, and when people picture a mushroom it’s your typical white button or portobello. Fun fact for you – those are same species just different strain of mushroom like a tomato but it’s a Roma and not Cherry.
Actual facts – mushrooms breathe in Oxygen like us and breathe out CO2 like us. Shiitakes, which I grow, actually do need light to initiate mushrooms to form. We call this pinning.
We don’t use spores for reproduction. We use mycelium(mi-see-lee-um) which is the vegetative root system of mushrooms. Mycelium is the genetic copy whereas spores are the offspring and just like you and I we are not genetic copies of our parents. We get that mycelium from the cap/stalk once a mushroom forms.
We do however grow mushrooms in relatively high humidity anywhere from 85-95% Rh(relative humidity). That one you probably knew.
Depending on the grower and their choice strain of mushrooms they wish to grow the techniques and practices are different for how to get to harvesting mushrooms. Certain strains of mushrooms like Oyster are vigorous fast growing and relatively tolerant whereas other strains like Shiitakes are slow moving, has multiples growing stages, and requires sterile and careful handling.
Oyster mushrooms are typically grown on pasteurized straw. Aptly named for their ‘oyster’ like appearance and come in a wide variety of colors. Pasteurization is can be done in few ways with mushrooms and it’s’ function is to clean the medium of other competitive fungi like molds for a short period of time.
Shiitakes are what I study – Lentinula Edodes is the official name of the mushroom. There are fewer methods to cultivate shiitakes than there are Oysters but due to small farms and difference situations of availability the medium being used for cultivation is always expanding. For the most part they are grown in hardwood logs outdoors in a shade tent but indoor cultivation(my practice) is starting to be favored due to efficiency and timing while still maintaining quality. Outdoor growing mushrooms while produces better more natural shiitakes is inefficienct, extremely long, and you have to have your own wood/land to use and start. I am hoping I can do a small outdoor operation for wild strains and I’ve built some friendships with loggers who I hope to get some good logs from to start that because I have no land/trees to cut of my own.
Indoors I grow mine on hardwood chips(oak is favored)and a variety of other food sources to increase quality, flavor, and efficiency. The name of the game is quality and efficiency and to delicately achieve both. You want 100% efficiency and if you aren’t operating at that level you are wasting your time and a lot of money. Efficiency is determined by harvested wet weight over dry starting weight. So if I have a 5lb(dry weight no water added) block and then I harvest 4 lbs I am at 80% efficiency which isn’t bad but it could use some work.
Adding differing levels of carbon, nitrogen, and sugar bases you can increase efficiency and I’ve read all the studies on those bases and done some experimenting myself. All of my added ‘ingredients’ if you will are certified organic – I want to ensure no residue of any kind from pesticides and fungicides exist in my mix.
The biggest hill to overcome with shiitakes is they need sterilization. Unlike pasteurization, sterilization, is the removal of all competitive fungi/bacteria to ensure proper growth for allowed growing time. Sterilization requires autoclaves, pressure cookers, and most of all a flow hood.
You’ve seen a flow hood you just probably forgot and or it looked different. Every high school chemistry class had one but you reached into it and it usually had a top vent for exhaust rather than an open environment like the one below. This piece of equipment is crucial for shiitakes because once you sterilize you have to keep it sterile and these deliver sterile(.3 micron) pressurized air to ensure what is called ‘laminar’ or flat air flow. It’s not a giant wind tunnel like you’d think it is designed to deliver controlled air and not be a wind tunnel. The only factor missing here is the fan now on the top with runs at over 570 cfm. We custom built mine due to cost involved and it works great! You can hack build these or buy them it all depends on the effort and or money you want to put into your process.
Mushrooms that require sterilization are a lot harder due to the increased asset/equipment requirements and also basic mushroom handling knowledge. I’ve messed up countless times and have learned a lot of contamination but from my mistakes comes lessons and now I am running a small time operation with very little if at all contamination which is nice. So you kind of just have to invest, learn, do, learn again, and see how it works for you.
Biggest lesson – don’t try to rewrite the book about mushrooms – so much information is available to you between backed research educational extensions offices like Pennsylvania Extension on bag/log cultivation, and there are countless books available which you can buy online or likely buy at your local big book store. I’ve got the online publications and I’ve got the books and then some. But it does come down to doing it and re-doing it if you mess it up. This book is great for beginners and it puts things in simpler much more updated terms.
The beautiful thing about mushroom cultivation is that it can be achieved year round with relatively low operating costs once everything is in place. Mushrooms have about a 5 day shelf life if just commonly stored in the fridge so local growers are needed everywhere because shipping overnight would spike the price too high and so those mushrooms you get at the store are likely dried to seem fresh. But for reference this is a fresh shiitake.