A gardener’s calendar is set by the angle of the sun in the sky, the length of the day, and the temperature of the soil. And for good reason: the comings and goings of our photosynthetic partners are strictly linked to these environmental cues. But if we expand our ambitions beyond the plant kingdom, everything changes.
The Little Garden Club, whose members pull from North Baltimore, Towson, and surrounds, contacted me last fall about presenting a mushroom cultivation workshop. I had recently harvested a few Wine Cap Stropharia mushrooms from a mulch bed shaded by my rhubarb patch that I had inoculated the previous spring, and was planning to set up a few shiitake logs for myself. Teaching a workshop presented the opportunity to deepen my own knowledge of mushroom cultivation methods, and, to my nerdy delight, dip back into my freshman biology textbooks, refreshing myself on the life cycles, trophic relationships, and ecological functions of fungi. ‘Cause they ain’t plants, and that matters.
Alice, my contact at the club, offered up some limbs from a cherry tree in her yard, a tree species that serves as a suitable substrate for shiitake. Though there were reports of near calamity during the operation, she was able to cut limb segments, which I collected to pre-drill holes for the inoculation portion of the workshop. I ordered a few jars of peg spawn (wooden dowels inoculated with your fungus of choice) from Jeff Schatz of The Corner Spore, a local mushroom producer and growers’ supply. In one of the stranger exchanges I’ve made during my work with Urban Farmhouse, I dropped into The Corner BYOB, where I picked up the jars of funky-fuzzy white dowels Jeff had left for me while making a mushroom delivery to the restaurant.
We gathered at a club member’s home and the group indulged me—and even seemed fascinated by—the biological details surrounding fungal ecology, their ability to produce both sexually and asexually, and their diploid versus haploid life stages. We moved into the dining room where we spread the materials on a well-protected dining table: logs, peg spawn, hammers to tap said pegs into pre-drilled holes in logs, and plug wax to seal said holes. The ladies got right to it, tapping and smearing their way through the process.
Everyone took home a shiitake log of their very own. It takes 6-9 months under ideal conditions for the mycelium (the network of fungal threads that permeates the substrate) to colonize the log. After that, the log will produce several flushes of fruiting bodies, aka mushrooms, which are the reproductive structures for the fungus.
Like anything else in the natural world, you can get as technical or as casual as you want with mushroom cultivation. If you’re really looking to produce, you’ll mind exact temperatures during spawn run, will shock your logs in cold water, or perhaps beat them (seriously), to bring on fruiting, and inoculate successions of logs every two years to ensure on-going production. Or you can just set it outside and let nature do its thing. I’ll leave the fretting over yields (and bizzarro log-beating episodes) to the proper mushroom farmer, and just enjoy the surprise of mushroom babies when they choose to appear.