A Presentation on Mushrooms

By: A.J. Stone

Walking through a foggy forest after the rain searching for mushrooms is something that always takes me back in time. Like looking into a fire or sleeping beneath the stars, it connects me back to those first people. They were in awe of mushrooms too and rightfully so.

Mushrooms and fungi have played an integral part in creating the atmosphere of the earth ever since they first evolved. 350 to 420 million years ago we have evidence of there being large fungal structures spearing up to 30 meters into the air, 300 Million years before grass had evolved. They were able to climb to such great heights by the large amounts of free Oxygen in the environment at that time.

Humankind has had a relationship with mushrooms and fungi from our very beginnings.  Entheogenic mushrooms inspired some the earliest cave paintings we’ve found, Selva Pascuala (6-4000 BC) and the “Bee-Man Shaman” cave paintings in Algeria (2000 BC) both have mushrooms prominently featured.  Otzi the Ice Man, found in the Alps and who died in 3200 BC, had several different kinds of mushrooms and fungus among his possession: some for tinder, some for antibiotic tea, and some for spiritual purposes. People of his time knew the uses of fungi.

The Eleusinian Mysteries, which swept through the philosophers of Greece from 1800 to 1600 BC, were based around Persephone and Demeter and the movement of the seasons. The Mysteries were celebrated with strong spiritual mushroom drinks, ritual verbal and physical abuse and the secrets of the maze-like Telestrion. Men were killed in public for revealing these secrets.  

The Rig-Veda describes Soma, a magical drink that turns men into gods. The recipe was lost when the monks who made it found that people were using it recreationally. They decided as one to die with the recipe and never share it again. One theory is that it used the Amanita Muscarita mushroom, which can still be found in that region. I imagine the last monk of his order, the last man to know what it is to be a god, dying alone in his monastery with his secrets.

Meso-American cultures also tended sacred mushroom gardens that terrified the conquistadors and the Chinese began propagation over 1000 years ago. These used age-old methods of mass spore inoculation and log culture.

King Louis XIV I began the first modern style of cultivation in 1888. Humid caves were laid out with composting button mushrooms in windrows and were tended and harvested by torchlight.

We have always had a relationship with mushrooms. We are more closely related to them than we are to plants. We should strive to learn more about this possible food source and how to integrate it into our gardens.

Today there are many fields in which mycology is working itself out of the woods and into the forefront. From petroleum and nuclear radiation clean up, to packaging solutions and urban food sources grown off what is generally thought of as waste. Straw, cotton seed hulls, newspapers, cardboard, coffee grounds, logs, and more cellulose based materials, like agricultural waste, can be used as the main substrate inputs for growing mushrooms.

There are three main types of mushrooms: Saprophytic, Parasitic, and Mycorrhizal. Saprophytic mushrooms eat dead matter, Parasitic eat and kill living trees, and Mycorrhizal mushrooms live in a symbiosis with living trees. These can cross categories sometimes. For example if Lion’s Mane infects a Willow tree and then kills it and continues to grow in it after it has died, it has exhibited Parasitic and Saprophytic characteristics.  Saprophytic mushrooms are the easiest to cultivate, as they don’t require a living host.

There are several methods of growing mushrooms that are popular for beginners.  Logs are a good method for maitake or shiitake mushrooms.  Oak is the best choice followed by Maple, Willow, and Birch. Avoid pines except for possibly Turkey Tails, a medicinal mushroom. The log is soaked, drilled along its length and circumference, inoculated dowels are then pounded into the holes, and you leave them in the shade, covered, for a year. Keep them moist and in a year uncover them to flush. There are many variations, some people stack them, some people bury them halfway down or all the way, but it’s a good outdoor propagation method. This method can be used to eradicate stumps. It will take years, but it’s cheaper than a stump grinder and you get some mushrooms out of it.

Another good home method is the bucket method.  You take a typical 5 gallon bucket and drill ½’ to 1’ holes all around its circumference 6-8 inches apart high and low. Then you chop up straw into 4-6 inch pieces and pasteurize it. Pasteurization is done by keeping something at a temperature of 160-190 degrees Fahrenheit for at least an hour and a half. You can do this in a very large pot, or you can build a very large pasteurizer out of 55-gallon barrel and a hot water heating element. You allow the pasteurized straw to cool, mix with grain spawn, which should be purchased from a reputable distributor, and stuff tightly into your bucket with holes in it. You take the holey bucket, put the lid on it, and put it into a bucket without holes for two weeks to allow the spawn to inoculate the straw. Then remove the holey bucket. Keep it humid and spray it twice a day with water and you could very well get the weight of the dry straw you started with in mushrooms. This method works very well with Oyster mushrooms, as they are very aggressive, but can also work with others as you can change up the substrate recipe.

You can even just boil cardboard and roll it up with some grain spawn inside of it, put it in a Ziploc bag for a few weeks, then remove it from the bag and keep it moist to fruit it. It really can’t get much simpler.

In all of these methods it is important to aim for at least a 20% weight ratio of inoculant to substrate. For 4 lb. of straw you should use a pound of substrate. For a 4-foot log 8 inches in diameter you should use 30-40 dowels.

Oyster mushrooms are full of variety and a good choice for beginners as are Lion’s Mane. Species that prefer wood take longer to inoculate the substrate and more complicated strains may have specific needs.

If you are going to go with buckets or bags, be making your own grains, petri dishes and syringes, or doing grain-to-grain transfers, you will need some equipment. A large pot or diy pasteurizer will be needed to pasteurize your bulk substrates. A Pressure cooker is essential for sterilizing grain spawn in jars or mycology bags, petri dishes, syringes, or other equipment. 

As you can see, cleanliness is really important when dealing with inoculants, so the next piece of equipment is paramount: The clean box. The cheapest is a still-air box, a large sideways Tupperware box that blocks the air from all sides but one. It is the least sterile of these examples. A glove box is a clear box with large gloves attached inside of it where you can work inside a sealed clean space. A Laminar Flow Hood is the best option, though the most expensive. It shoots a sheet of layers of HEPA filtered air over a workspace.  You will also need gloves, alcohol, and inoculation jars.

A lot of this equipment can be made fairly cheaply and there are many websites that sell all the doodads. Experimenting on a small scale is not terribly cost prohibitive, but a serious operation takes serious capital and know-how.

If you are serious about getting into growing mushrooms for yourself, there is much more to learn. This is just a basic primer for the world of mushrooms to get you excited for Spring. Paul Stamets is recognized as the author of some of the best books on the subject and there is a wealth of knowledge on forums and channels on the Internet. The best way to learn is to do it, run into a problem, solve it, rinse, repeat. Mycology is a hobbyist driven field, so dive in and find a niche!

In Ishpeming, MI at the 46th parallel, there is a project through Partridge Creek Farms, an educational community farm that has the goal of researching viable indoor food cultivation techniques that can be done on the small scale. Ishpeming is in a food desert in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and has a severely restricted growing season with extremely cold winters. The project’s aim is to reclaim unused heated spaces to grow local organic high value produce. Basements, closets, donated spaces, classrooms, space-buckets and more are being used and experimented with to enhance our field crop offerings.  

Mushrooms are one of the ways we plan to do that. Not only are we attempting to modulate mushroom growing areas to fit and operate inside disused buildings, we are collecting strains of local cold tolerant edible mushrooms for outdoor propagation around our outdoor farming projects.  We are teamed up with the Marquette County Foraging Club in order to save some of the diversity in our ecosystem.  We are spreading the word and along the way we are connecting modern people back to those first people, in the foggy forest looking for delicious mushrooms.