Popping up from moss and rotten trees in the shadows of the forest, mushrooms capture the imagination. The colorful caps and frilly gills are almost alien. The fungi world, to many, is a complete mystery. Yet, more and more people are endeavoring to learn more, particularly about edible mushrooms, in an effort to grow, harvest and enjoy these delicacies right at home.
“A lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to grow mushrooms,” said Eliah Thanhauser, co-founder of North Spore Mushroom Co. in Westbrook. “You’re able to grow mushrooms in places you wouldn’t be able to grow plants — in shady spots, under a deck or porch.”
Founded in 2010 by three college friends who recognized the public’s growing interest in mushroom cultivation, North Spore not only produces and sells quality mushroom-based tinctures and teas, but also the tools people need to grow mushrooms for themselves. Their customers range from at-home gardeners to commercial mushroom farmers. And on their website, northspore.com, they provide written material and videos about mushroom growing, with a mission “to provide access to the mycological world.”
“A lot of people want to try something new,” Thanhauser said. “They’ve been gardening their whole lives and have never grown mushrooms and are excited to grow a new, healthy food.”
To help the general public develop a better understanding of fungi, North Spore and other mushroom enthusiasts, such as the Maine Mycological Association, have been offering information and educational workshops throughout Maine.
Mike McNally, a member of the Maine Mycological Association and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter, has recently offered a mushroom cultivation workshop at his local library, the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, and he was blown away when about 50 people showed up for the program.
“I got interested in it about seven or eight years ago,” McNally said. “A lot of the mushrooms have tremendous medicinal properties. Like the oyster mushroom has been found to lower your cholesterol.”
Oyster mushrooms are the easiest mushroom to grow indoors, McNally said, because they grow well in a wide variety of substrates, including spent coffee grinds, banana leaves and sawdust. And outdoors in Maine, delicious wine cap mushrooms are one of the easiest varieties to grow, usually in piles of wood chips. Shiitake mushrooms are easiest grow on logs.
“Each mushroom, depending on species, has its own personality and growing requirements,” McNally said. “And even within the same genus and species, each seem to have their own.”
While one oyster mushroom may grow furiously, another might refuse to grow at all. At times, mushrooms almost seem tempramental, McNally said, but he doesn’t mind. He enjoys a certain degree of surprise, and he never tires of experimenting with new substrates and methods of growing.
A few years ago, he plucked a wine cap mushroom from a golf course, brought it home, collected its spores, then created what’s known as liquid mycelium (the vegetative part of a mushroom) by growing the spores in a maple syrup solution. He then use a syringe to inoculate or introduce the mycelium into a rye grain, which is scattered on the ground and covered with hardwood chips. A couple years later, he harvested about a hundred pounds of wine cap mushrooms from that location. All from one mushroom.
McNally has worked with fellow mushroom enthusiast Nelson Frost, who is also from Brunswick, to clone mushrooms in petri dishes. But this multi-step process is usually too complex for beginner mushroom growers.
Instead, you can skip several steps in mushroom cultivation by simply purchasing mushroom spawn, which is defined as any substance inoculated with mushroom mycelium. In other words, spawn is to a mushroom what seeds are to a plant. Mushroom cultivation businesses — including North Spore, Mushroom Ally of Massachusetts and Field and Forest in Wisconsin — sell a wide variety of mushroom spawn, with some species being easier to grow than others.
Spawn comes in three forms: plug spawn, sawdust spawn and grain spawn. The first two are used to grow mushrooms on logs and stumps, and the third is for growing in straw or wood chip beds.
To make it even easier for people to learn the art of mushroom growing, North Spore is currently working on a series of educational videos that will include time-lapse clips of mycelium expanding through substrate and fruiting. They also provide FAQ sections, books and other resources through their website.
“It’s one of those things that because there isn’t a very good general understanding of mushrooms in the public that it’s such a mystifying concept,” Thanhauser said. “People just don’t understand how they’re grown.”
“We want people to be as successful and happy as possible with their first mushrooms,” he added. “We want to set them up for success.”
One common mistake people make when attempting to grow mushrooms is treating the fungi as if it is a plant. Mushrooms will dry out in the sun, and if being grown indoors, the mycelium should be misted with water at least once a day — but it doesn’t need to be watered like a plant.
Another common mistake beginner mushroom growers make is using rotten logs rather than fresh cut logs to grow mushrooms.
“You have to use freshly cut wood that was living within a month ago,” Thanhauser said. “This ensures there’s a certain moisture content and there’s not a lot of wild fungi already established in the wood.”
And lastly, mushroom growing takes patience, especially when you’re just starting out.
“It takes at least a year to get your first flush,” Thanhauser said. “It’s kind of like a perennial [plant]. It takes a little time to get established.”
But once mushrooms start growing on logs or in wood chip beds, they could continue to grow for years to come.
And for those who want faster, short-lived results, North Spore sells indoor mushroom growing kits, which can be grown any time of year and usually take only two or three months to fruit, but only produce one to three crops. These kits are blocks of substrate (for oyster mushrooms, it’s a sawdust bock) that has been completely colonized by mushroom mycelium. All you have to do is take it home, slice through the plastic covering the block, and the mushrooms will start growing within weeks.
For these kits, North Spore has selected mushroom varieties that are hardy, easy to grow and edible, such as oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane, shiitake, king trumpets and reishi. Grown this way, the mushrooms grow a crop, or “flush,” between one and three times, then can be tossed in the compost pile.
For those interested in mushroom growing, foraging, photography or identification in Maine, the Maine Mycological Association organizes regular meetings, presentations and mushrooming forays for their members. The nonprofit also sends out a regular newsletter filled with mushroom-related articles. Membership is $10 for one adult, $12 for two adults, $5 for students and free for children under 18 years of age. To learn more, visit mainelymushrooms.org.
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