Roots and Shoots: Gardening in the Dark, Damp Crevices

What kind of room has no windows or doors? A mushroom.

By Pamela Doan

Mushrooms usually don’t make the list when we talk about gardening, but they are a big part of the discussion when it comes to forest farming. As one of the key crops that can be grown in the shade, mushrooms are well suited for agroforestry projects on a large or small scale, and a lot of Philipstown residents have suitable areas on their properties.

Start with a log or a stump. Order cultures online. Drill holes in the log. Insert cultured plugs. Wait. Wait some more. Soak the log. Voilà! You have grown mushrooms. Maybe not a project for your cellar, but definitely for the shady areas of the lawn, mushrooms are easy to grow and a completely different experience than tending tomatoes and corn all summer.

No weeding or soil amending is necessary. Mushrooms don’t require fertilizers or pesticides. Weather conditions won’t affect the harvest unless it’s sunny and hot and you neglect watering for too long. A minimum investment of about $15 for 100 spawn plugs will bring in a two- to four-pound yield, and they can be harvested repeatedly.

Locally, the founders of Longhaul Farm in Garrison are growing mushrooms, but for their own culinary adventures, not for their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares for now. Jocelyn Apicello, who founded the farm five years ago with her husband Jason Angell, gave me a tour and explained their process for growing mushrooms and how they got started.

In their first try, Apicello said they put the logs they inoculated with mushroom spores in the pine forest back behind their house. Hurricane Sandy knocked down some large white pines on their logs, though, and they decided it would be better to bring them closer to the house. Now, their stack is completely unobtrusive, tucked in among some hemlocks and rhododendron on the side of the driveway. The trees and plants around the inoculated logs are watered with a sprinkler system, keeping them damp.

Inoculated ash logs where shiitake plugs have been inserted into drilled holes (Photo by P. Doan)

Inoculated ash logs where shiitake plugs have been inserted into drilled holes (Photo by P. Doan)

Last October Apicello and Angell put in 500 plug spawns, and the logs could be shocked now. Shocking is a process of waking up the mushrooms and making them think it’s spring and time to grow, said Apicello. “Soak the log in cold water for 24 hours and then keep it wet. Mushrooms will start to grow all over the log and within a few days you can start to harvest them.” They grow shiitake and pearl oyster mushrooms, which Apicello described as the easiest. “If you forget to water, it’s OK. They’re very low maintenance. Some varieties are more complicated and less forgiving.”

Every type of mushroom has its own preferred log, and that is based on sugar and water content. Some like hardwoods and others like softwoods. Chicken of the woods likes to grow on spruce and pine. Maitake will only grow on oak or elm. Apicello recommends the website for growing resources and as a source for plugs, the dowel-shaped rods that are covered with spores that you hammer into a log to inoculate it.

To get mushrooms started, send away for plugs. The plugs can be inserted into a log or stump of the right type of wood by drilling holes. Apicello said that the best-sized log is 4 to 6 inches in diameter and 3 to 4 feet long; any longer and it gets heavy and harder to manage. Use freshly cut logs, otherwise they will already have competing bacteria and fungi in them. The purpose is to allow the spores to occupy the entire log.

It takes about six months, depending on the variety of mushroom, from the time the plugs are inserted to the time it’s ready to shock. Apicello said that the mushrooms will naturally grow eventually, but it’s a less robust harvest and takes longer.

Once the log is shocked, Apicello said they get two to four pounds of shiitakes per log. As for storing, she said, “If you don’t get them wet and harvest at the right moment before they’re too woody, they will last a couple weeks in the fridge. You can dry them and always have mushrooms on hand, too.” She pointed out, “They’re much more micronutrient rich than vegetables.” Whether you’re interested in a single log with gourmet mushrooms or 10 logs with more common varieties to share with friends or sell, this is a straightforward and rewarding endeavor.

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