Roots and Shoots: Foibles with Fungi

After ending a 10-year role with a company and colleagues I loved, I was meandering through my what’s-next-list when a local workshop about growing mushrooms on logs came through my inbox. 

As a fan of the ideas in Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests, by Steve Gabriel and Ken Mudge, and agroforestry in general, the idea of becoming a mushroom farmer spawned. 

Mushroom log

Grown on logs, shitake mushrooms have great flavor and nutrients. (Photos by P. Doan)

Four years and 150 inoculated logs later, fantasy has met the backbreaking task of lifting a water-soaked log from a stock tank and carrying it around the yard. Here’s how it works in a very undetailed summary: 

(1) Find suitable species like maple, oak or birch. I used to know the harvest percentages off the top of my head but all I’ll say now is that maple works better than birch and I won’t use oak because oak trees aren’t regenerating well in our local forests. 

(2) Drill many holes in each log. We filled the holes with shitake mushroom spawn and then covered them with melted wax to prevent other fungi from colonizing the log. Don’t damage the bark while doing this.

(3) Ideally the logs are inoculated with spawn in the winter and early spring, then left to sit until the following year when harvesting can begin as the temperatures hit the right zone for your mushroom strain to fruit. Around April or May, soak the logs in water for 24 hours, remove and wait for little mushrooms to start popping out. It takes about a week. I can usually harvest about a pound of shitakes per log. 

I’ve fallen far from the perfect setup for a mushroom farm that I learned about in the workshop. Living in the woods isn’t the only qualifying factor for success. 

The Payoff

The yummy dishes my friends have reported making with our shitakes makes it all worth it:

Shitake “bacon” (involves roasting and brown sugar)

Stuffed shitakes

Shitake tempura

Shitake tacos

Omelettes

Risotto

Paella

In my landscape, there are certain ways to get places and not many shortcuts from front to back or side to side. There are a lot of trees that I could theoretically cut into logs that are the right size for mushrooms but they are not easily accessed across a stream. Moving logs without some kind of motorized assistance isn’t practical, especially on slippery, sloping ground in late winter. I was willing to get a draft horse but my family thought it was impractical. 

Some lessons to note:

shitake mushrooms in basket

The bounty

(1) Use small logs and don’t let the person in the family who says “it’s about 6 inches” and can’t precisely measure things like tree trunks and branches be the one who determines which logs to use. Our logs are big and heavy, and during the process of drilling and inserting the spawn, stacking, soaking and harvesting — the logs get handled a lot.

(2) Have a strong core. A yoga or Pilates teacher, a good massage therapist and an orthopedist you trust are also good to have on hand. 

(3) Set up your mushroom farm, aka “the stack,” close to a water supply and electricity. High-quality hoses and extra-long extension cords aren’t worth the time involved in spooling them out and collecting them. 

(4) Make it convenient. If you take a course like I did, you’ll learn about the spreadsheet where you calculate the profit and loss and track the time you spend, since labor is a cost and you’re supposed to pretend like you’re paying yourself. That extra 5 to 10 minutes it takes to walk to your stack or move a log to the soaking tank or go back to the house when you forgot to bring enough bags for the harvest adds up, and your wages go down. 

(5) Harvesting well and growing well require experience over and above what you learn from a book. I’m in my second season of harvesting shitakes and I’m still figuring out timing. On some humid days in July, I’d either not get around to cutting the shitakes off the logs or deliberately leave them one more night assuming they’d be fresher for use the next day, and then they’d be overgrown. During the past few weeks of dry weather and fluctuating temperatures, the shitakes are smaller and dryer and taking longer to grow. 

(6) Have a support group. After attending the workshop, I joined a Cornell Small Farms email group with other New York mushroom growers. They are helpful and open to sharing their experiences and resources, and I’m grateful for it. 


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One thought on “Roots and Shoots: Foibles with Fungi

  1. I really enjoyed your writing and I just found your gardening column! Thanks for sharing your experience!