How Do I Know Which Mushrooms to Grow?

So you’ve decided to grow your own mushrooms. Congratulations! Mushroom growing is a wonderful hobby, and like gardening, there is a certain feeling of pride that comes with producing your own fungal treasures.

But now comes an important question – where do I begin? Just like when you were a beginning gardener, you should start with something easy. Once you’ve mastered coaxing a decent yield out of the substrate of an easy-to-grow species, then you can move onto something more challenging. But which species are easiest to grow? And what other factors are there to consider?

Some species require a great deal of maintenance, and thus should be avoided by the beginner. Maitake or hen of the woods, for example, requires a cold shock, 10-20oF (5.6-11oC), followed by a period of initiation under high carbon dioxide and humidity, and then followed by a high dose of oxygen. It can be tricky to create all of those conditions, not to mention the expense required to procure all the right equipment to make it all happen. So maitake mushrooms should probably be avoided by the beginning grower. On the other hand, oyster mushrooms are very easy to grow – indeed you can purchase specialized kits that require you to put in no more effort than slitting the side of a box and keeping it moist for a week or so, resulting in a quick yield of some tasty mushrooms.

Here are some other factors to consider.

Ease of identification – how easily you can tell your cultivated mushrooms apart from “weed” fungi. This is more of a factor with mushrooms grown outdoors on wood chips.

Substrate specificity – what kind of medium is required to grow a particular mushroom. Oyster mushrooms, for example, will grow on a wide variety of substrates — wheat straw, coffee grounds, hardwood conifers, agriculture waste, etc., all things that are fairly easy to obtain. Your local bakery would probably more than happy to give you all of their food waste that you can handle, and your oyster mushrooms will be perfectly happy growing on it. Maitake, on the other hand, will grow only on oak logs or oak wood chips. To be sure, you can get wood chips from a nursery, but they probably won’t be oak.

Temperature range and sensitivity – Just as you would not attempt to grow a plant from USDA Hardiness Zone 10 (average annual low 40oF-30oF) in Zone 6 (average annual low 0oF-minus 10oF), you would want to make sure that the mushroom species you wish to grow can survive the climate in your area. So if you live in the Chicago area, with that Zone 6 average annual low, then a hairy panus mushroom, which grows at tropical temperatures of 86-100+oF, would not be a good species to start with. Instead, try a shiitake or an oyster.

Time to maturation and yield – Some mushroom species are slow to produce, while others will fruit quickly. If you’re the impatient type, then you probably don’t want to start with truffles (10 years) or even king stropharia (4-6 months). Oysters take only about 10 days to produce.

Infrastructure – If you choose to start from scratch instead of growing from a kit, your choice of what to grow will be limited by the amount of physical space you have and substrates available to you. If logs and tree debris are all that you can get, then you will be limited to shiitake and whatever else grows on logs. If you can obtain wood chips from your local arborist, then you can grow king stropharia. If you can spare an extra room, such as a bathroom or closet, then you can have an indoor growing operation, using those extra rooms for colonization and fruiting.

So start with easy to grow species right for your climate on whatever substrate you can easily obtain, and will have improved the odds that you will get a bountiful harvest of delicious and nutritious mushrooms.

Those Finicky Mushrooms

Growing mushrooms can be a rewarding activity. Next to seeing the fruits (and vegetables) of your garden labors, it is also a delightful treat to see beautiful shiitake, portabella, or king stropharia mushrooms sprouting from the depths of the mushroom bed we’ve created. Like all organisms, mushrooms require a food source. Yet mushrooms will not eat just any food source. Unlike with a vegetable garden, where you can throw food scraps into a compost pile, let them decompose, then mix them into the soil for your fruit and vegetable crops, mushrooms requirements are a bit more specific. Some mushroom species can grow on a wide variety of carbon sources – wood chips, sawdust, coffee grounds, agricultural waste, etc. Others will only grow on a specific substrate, such as wood chips, and some will only grow on a specific species of wood.

So what do the various mushroom species like to eat?

Enokitake – prefers to grow on wood and plant debris. In the wild, they grow on stumps of the Chinese hackberry tree (or enoke in Japanese), but they can also grow on mulberry and persimmon trees.

King Stropharia – grows best on wood chips, but will also grow on soils that have been supplemented with chopped straw.

Lion’s Mane – In the wild, Lion’s Mane is usually found on dead and decaying hardwood logs, most often in the fall throughout North America. For home growth, it thrives best in hardwood sawdust supplemented with wheat bran at 10-20%. It will also grow when spawned in rye grain, however, it has a tendency to fruit well before the fungus has fully colonized the grain. When using rye grain spawn, it is necessary to shake it often to make sure that the fungus completely colonizes the grain.

Maitake – Also known as hen-of-the-woods, ram’s head and sheep’s head, maitake will grow only on oak trees or in a bed made of oak wood chips.

Oyster – Oyster mushrooms are probably the least finicky of cultivated edible mushroom species. Straw is the most common medium used for growing oyster mushrooms, however, the fungus also grows successfully on sawdust, cardboard, coffee grounds and other byproducts of agriculture such as sugarcane bagasse and cotton waste.

Portabella – Commercial portabella mushroom growing kits usually use horse manure as the growth medium. Home growers, however, can put together a mixture of about 10 pounds of finely ground corncobs with 10 pounds of straw. This mixture is then allowed to stand for a few days. Gypsum can then be added, and the entire mixture can then be allowed to decompose. After this, add 2 pounds of leaf mold, 2 pounds of peat moss, and either 2 pounds of granite dust or greensand. You can also add some previously made compost to improve the composting process. Lastly, add 3 pounds of sand. This mixture is then allowed to decompose and cool off before inoculating it with portabella spawn.

Reishi – grows best on rye and other grains.

Shiitake – grows best on hardwoods – either in hardwood logs or blocks of hardwood sawdust.

So to be successful in growing mushrooms, you have to feed them what they like, not what you like

Beware the Wild Mushrooms

“There’s an interesting looking mushroom growing in my backyard,” one of my friends posted on her Facebook page. “I’m thinking of harvesting it for dinner.”

Politely, I recommended that she re-think that. But what I really wanted to say was, “Are you out of your @#$%& mind!?”

There’s a saying among mushroom hunters that says, “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” Yes, there are plenty of wonderfully flavorful wild mushrooms that can make for a tasty addition to any meal. However, there are also some highly toxic mushrooms that can make you very sick or kill you. And many species of the latter closely resemble many species of the former.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the pictures below of the two similar looking mushroom species. See if you can guess which one is the edible species?

Did you guess that the one on the right is the edible species? If so, congratulations – you’re dead! The mushroom on the right is Amanita virosa a.k.a. the Destroying Angel, a highly toxic species of wild mushroom. The mushroom contains amatoxin, a substance which when ingested, destroys the liver and kidneys. To make matters worse, toxicity symptoms of vomiting, cramps, delirium, and diarrhea may not appear for 5-24 hours. By then, it may be too late to reverse the damage done to the liver and kidneys.
Perhaps you looked at the pictures and thought, “No problem. I’ll just bring along my guidebook.” Or “I’ll just smell them. That will reveal the difference.” Would you bet your life on any of those tactics? But don’t you see, you just did.

Bottom line – when in doubt, don’t eat it. And even if you think you know, if you’ve had little or no experience with gathering wild mushrooms, don’t eat it without first consulting an expert. Because what you don’t know may not only hurt you, it can kill you.

By the way, the mushroom on the left is Volvariella bombycina – the Paddy straw. It is edible.