Holy Shiitake! How to grow mushrooms in your backyard
By Julie Thompson-Adolf
I’m not much of a risk taker.
It’s sad but true. I don’t plan to scale the highest summit or cage dive with sharks. But in the garden?
Now, that’s a different story. I’ll plant varieties considered outside my USDA zone, push the envelope of sun verses shade recommendations, and squeeze just one more tomato plant into a bursting bed. Yep, I’m living on the edge, brandishing my trowel with the swagger of a swordfighter. The prize?
A lush, ripe delicious heirloom tomato for dinner. Although our ancestors thought them to be poisonous, today we know that tomatoes are safe. Not much risk there.
But mushrooms? Now, that’s upping the gardening — and eating — ante. There’s something subtly sinister about mushrooms. As kids, we’re warned not to touch mushrooms or play with snakes. As adults, we respect and covet the foraged fungi, salivating over morels and paying a fortune for truffles. Whether gourmet delicacy or cause for demise—mushrooms walk a fine line.
So, when I attended a mushroom growing session led by the owners of Mushroom Mountain, I definitely stepped outside my risk-averse comfort zone.
After all, the speaker was a brilliant guy — part genius scientist, part fearless farmer, part educator extraordinaire, part foraging foodie enthusiast. I was hooked.
Armed with my knowledge and a bag of plug spawn, I took a walk on the wild side: I began a mushroom garden.
I’m not certain that “garden” is the proper term, but “garden” sounds safe, don’t you think? Typically, shiitake mushrooms grow on portable, easily relocated fresh hardwood oak or sweetgum logs, approximately six inches in diameter and about three feet long. Of course, I don’t believe in easy.
Because my husband and I are tree-huggers, we won’t cut a tree unless necessary. However, we needed to remove a partially rotted tree.
Down went the tree, and with a few extra cuts—we had a forest of thick, round logs.
Much thicker in diameter than recommended and nearly impossible to move, I was determined to turn the gathered logs into a shiitake producing machine. Somehow, the stumps were very reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
Anyway … Growing shiitake mushrooms seems complicated, but here’s a secret: It’s not. Don’t tell anyone, though. When people hear about the scrumptious shiitakes you harvested for dinner, they’ll think you possess amazing gardening powers.
Here’s what you need:
- Plug spawn from a reputable source. I highly recommend Mushroom Mountain. The plug spawn I purchased from them is cultivated on 3.4” dowels. The spawn can be stored in a refrigerator and remain viable for up to a year. Remove the plugs from the refrigerator a day prior to use.
- Logs or stumps, freshly cut from a living tree.
- 5/16-inch drill bit and drill
- Canning wax, melted using a double boiler method. (Bottom pot contains boiling water, top pot contains wax and small amount of mineral oil to help prevent the wax cracking and drying out. Submerge top pot into bottom pot to melt wax.)
- Clean paint brush
How to Inoculate
Inoculation is the process of inserting the plug spawn into the log or stump—planting the mushroom “seeds.” The log needs to be inoculated within six weeks of cutting and should be dry and free of dirt. Drill holes 1-1/4 inch into the log to create an air pocket below the plug. The holes should be drilled in a diamond pattern on the log or stump, approximately five to six inches apart.
Hammer the plugs firmly into the holes and cover them with a thin coating of melted wax using a clean paint brush. The wax prevents insects from entering the holes in the wood.
After plugging and waxing the log, soak the logs overnight.
In my case, with our crazy forest of stumps, I ran a sprinkler to soak the wood.
Additionally, with the thick logs I used, I buried part of the wood in the ground to help with moisture retention. And then … you wait. And wait.
Hopefully, when your first mushroom appears, it will look like a shiitake. Our first mushroom looked … odd. I harvested it, took a photo, and sent it to Mushroom Mountain to confirm that it was, indeed, a shiitake.
As I awaited a reply, I watched “The Today Show.”
Ironically, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, appeared on the show, discussing the accidental poisoning of his entire family—by serving them mushrooms. They all required kidney transplants after ingesting foraged mushrooms. What?!? Nervously, I threw away the mystery mushroom.
It turns out, I discarded a perfectly safe, delicious oyster mushroom. Somehow, a stray oyster spore found its way onto the log.
But then, a few months later, a mushroom appeared on a log. Then another. And another. Soon, dozens of mushrooms filled the logs — and they looked exactly like shiitakes. Of course, do you think I ate them without first sending photos to Mushroom Mountain for a proper ID?
Not only am I risk-adverse, but I also try to keep my family healthy and poison-free. Fortunately, the very kind folks at Mushroom Mountain confirmed that my mushrooms were “beautiful shiitakes,” and I should happily feast on them.
That night, as I prepared dinner, I noticed that my husband waited until I took a bite of the risotto ai funghi before he tried it. He knew that if even I would venture to eat homegrown mushrooms, then they must be safe. As for my gardening status? Yep. I’m pretty much a mushroomgrowing rock star now.
And I might even attempt to forage for morels.
On a supervised expedition.
With the pros of Mushroom Mountain.
Here’s my recipe for Risotto Ai Funghi:
- 6 cups organic chicken broth, divided
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 pounds shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried (rehydrate prior to use)
- 2 shallots, diced
- 1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
- ¾ cups dry white wine
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- sea salt to taste
- 3 tablespoons chopped chives
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Note: Make sure to have all ingredients ready before you start. You need to stir continuously to avoid burning, so you don’t want to hunt down ingredients in the midst of cooking.
- Warm the broth over medium-low heat in a saucepan.
- In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the mushrooms (fresh or rehydrated) and cook until soft, approximately 3 minutes. Remove mushrooms and liquid, and set aside in bowl.
- Warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet, and add the shallots. Cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add rice, stirring to coat it with the olive oil. When the rice is golden in color (about 2 minutes), add wine. Stir continuously until wine is absorbed. And ½ cup broth to the rice, stirring until broth is absorbed. Continue adding ½ cup broth at a time, stirring continuously, until liquid is absorbed and rice is al dente, approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
- Remove skillet from heat. Add mushrooms with liquid, butter, chives, and Parmesan, stirring well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve alone or as a side dish. Makes approximately 6 servings.