As forest-lovers who spent a considerable amount of time looking for a property with significant forest on it, an effort in conservation, my wife Emma and I knowingly signed on for some unconventional food production. Hey! We are both permaculturalists, so that was always going to happen anyway. While we were careful to find a place with an acre of cleared land, we always knew our Zone 4 understorey was going to play a role in our design. Namely, we wanted mushrooms.
We love mushrooms. We’ve spent the last couple of years becoming very familiar with the local wild mushrooms, learning to forage safely. We’ve become avid advocates for chanterelles and cinnabars. We’ve fallen deeply in love with chicken of the woods and hen of the woods (maitake). We make delicious broths with turkey tails. We’ve sparingly found morels, hedgehogs, honeys, oysters, black trumpets, lion’s mane, and others. A walk in the woods at the right time of the year can now easily lead to dinner.
Even so, with about a dozen wild mushrooms now in hand, we’ve never lost the desire to cultivate our own mushrooms. The fact is that it has been in our plan since we decided to settle in North Carolina, a mushroomers’ dream, and adopt the temperate climate lifestyle. Recently, we made our first mushroom logs. Here’s some of the information we put together for growing shiitakes and other mushrooms.
Lining Up Logs
Most of the mushrooms cultivated at home are grown on logs. They are primary decomposers that feed off of wood, breaking down the fallen trees on the forest floor. The button mushrooms found in stores are secondary decomposers, inhabiting soil where organic material has already undergone some level of decomposition. Other mushrooms, such as chanterelles, have a symbiotic relationship with trees. However, for the purpose of cultivation, it’s decomposers we can grow, and for home production in the forest understorey, it’s primary decomposers—shiitake, maitake, oyster, chicken of the woods—in particular.
These mushrooms prefer to feed on hardwood trees, with oaks being the prime specimen and white oaks the best of the best. Other trees that are commonly accepted (at least in our area) are maple, birch, beech, cherry and tulip poplar (for oyster mushrooms). While wild edible varieties chance their way into cultivation, when cultivating mushrooms, it’s important to find the right type of log. It’s equally important to find recently felled trees, which still have plenty of lignin, have not dried out, and have not been colonised by competing fungi. The best time to harvest this wood is in the winter/early spring, when plants are dormant.
Though Emma and I are not really into cutting trees down, we found that getting logs wasn’t all that problematic. Locally, there are many tree services that cut down threatening trees in housing developments, as well as local lumber producers who do selective cutting and have no use for the ideal-for-mushroom-growing size limbs. We were basically able to get a wide selection of logs—mostly maple and red oak—for free.
Putting In Plugs
Online, it’s easy to order inoculating plugs for cultivating mushrooms, even locally produced. Prices range from about $10-$15 USD/100 plugs We were able to locate plugs for some of our regional favourites: hen of the woods, chicken of the woods and lion’s mane. However, after doing some research, we learned that shiitake and oyster mushrooms are considered the easiest fungi to cultivate, so we opted to go with easy to start.
Our neighbour, in fact, has several stacks of shiitake logs from which we’ve been lucky enough to sample regularly, so we opted to go that route. The other nice thing about shiitake mushrooms is that there are different varieties, some suited for warmer weather and others for colder. They can also be reliably shocked into fruiting multiple times a year by submerging them in water for a day. This allows market producers—something we aren’t considering just yet—to create product on demand.
We decided to cultivate our shiitake mushrooms on a log cabin style stack, which was recommended for this species. We selected logs that were about six inches in diameter and cut them—with a pruning saw no less—to be about 42 inches (a little more than a metre). This kept the logs sizeable enough to last for a while (supposedly about a year per inch of diameter) but small enough to move around when necessary.
How to space the plugs seemed to be somewhat debatable, but the basic idea was to put them about four to six inches apart (10-15 cm) in rows that are about four inches apart (10 cm). Our logs got four rows of plugs each, with each log getting something in the vicinity of 30 plugs. The plugs are inoculated dowels about an inch (2.5 cm) long and 5/16” (8 mm) in diameter. I drilled the holes, and Emma tapped the plugs in and sealed them up using organic soy wax.
In addition to sealing the plugs with wax (beeswax and soy wax seemed the most recommended), we followed up with sealing the ends of the logs and any nicks or cuts where the wood, rather than bark, was exposed.
Waiting for ‘Shrooms
An inoculated mushroom log can take anywhere from several months to a couple of years to begin producing. A lot rides on the type of mushroom and the type of logs. According to Asheville Fungi, oyster mushrooms on poplar logs might take as little as four months, but shiitake on white oak will likely require at least a year of waiting. We are looking for the ends of the logs to turn white with mycelium, and then we can expect mushrooms to start popping.
For now, we’ve picked out a shaded spot in our Zone 4 forest, just up from a bend in the creek, right along one of our walking trails. We’ve stacked eight logs crisscrossed, and then elevated off the soil on some stones to avoid rot and other mushrooms from invading. For fun, we inoculated a few cut rounds of tree trunk, about a foot (30 cm) across, and they are standing up on stones too.
We inoculated in March, so we’ve just passed the three-month mark. Like much of our work this year—asparagus beds, rhubarb, planting berries, starting a privacy hedge—we find ourselves both cautiously excited and willing to wait for the promise of good perennial production. At least chanterelle season will be starting for us soon, and we’ve got some great spots nearby to explore for more wild mushrooms. So, fungi will definitely still feature on the menu this year.