- Posted By: Molly Wahl
- Written by: Molly Wahl, Master Gardener
In my little part of the county, winter weather is finally touching down. Just last week we started to drop into the lower 40’s at night and in the mornings everything is often covered with a heavy coat of dew. Rain is beginning to fall with more regularity, and the trees are becoming leafless skeletons against a backdrop of awesome October sunsets.
So, what’s a gardener to do? The soil it often too wet to be worked, and while the summer harvest is definitely over, the winter crops are still too young to bear much besides greens and baby lettuce. Might I suggest that you spend some time discovering a whole new kingdom of delights? May I introduce you to the exciting and colorful world of fungi?
This is the time of year to start learning about mushrooms. I am endlessly enchanted by Mother Nature’s sense of timing. Just when we are beginning to suffer from the ennui of late fall, she sends us something new and altogether different. Along with the first fall rains, mushrooms begin to fruit all across our lovely county. Amongst the eucalyptus stands, in the thick duff of bay and oak forests, and in mixed pine groves, mushrooms are poking their unique heads up from the ground. Most people are hanging up their hats and putting their hiking shoes in the closet at this time of year, but if you can withstand a bit of rain, there is a whole world out there that is just waiting to be discovered. And if you are a gardener, that whole world could be located within the confines of your own backyard.
Raising your own mushrooms is a trend that is spreading quickly amongst the urban homesteading, DIY folks. Fungi-philes order logs, boxes filled with chips, or sawdust that has been inoculated with mushroom spawn, and within a couple of months they often have their own edible mushrooms right at their fingertips. Last year at this time, I decided that I wanted to try growing mushrooms directly in my vegetable garden. From what I could tell, there were a couple of benefits to this idea. First, if it worked I could harvest edible mushrooms along with lettuce, greens, or whatever else I was growing at the time. Second, mushrooms help grow stronger plants. Fungi create large mycelial networks underground that help spread water and nutrients to their fruiting bodies (the actual mushrooms that we see.) Some of these mycelia form partnerships with the roots of plants thereby helping to secure additional nutrients for the plants.
So, I ordered three varieties: Stropharia rugoso-annulata (recently renamed Psilocybe ruguso-annulata), Hypsizygus ulmarius, and Coprinus comatus. Each of these three mushrooms needed a different type of strata. The Coprinus needed compost and manure, the Hypsizygus needed straw, and the Psilocybe needed hardwood chips. I got their respective beds prepared and mixed the mushroom spawn in. I allowed Mother Nature the honor of doing the watering over the winter and spring and then I sat back and waited. Sporadically, I received a few cute Psilocybe babies with their red wine colored caps, but besides that--nothing. I had hoped that this fall and winter I would be getting a lot more, but I suspect I will not. First of all I think that I did not keep the mushroom beds watered enough during the summer. I am really bad at watering things regularly especially when I can’t see that anything is happening (maybe this is why I have such a high seed failure rate!). Also, I realize now that two of my spots get too much sun. In general, mushrooms do best when they are part of an understory with shrubs and tree canopy above. I have very little shade in my yard, and so if I want to grow mushrooms, I will have to design a landscape that provides ample foliage cover. The last factor that I believe has contributed to the failure of my mushroom experiment is my chickens. I love them dearly, but with all of their hunting and scraping, they really disturb the top layer of the soil. Great for weeds and bugs, not so good for mycelial growth which typically happens, you got it, underground.
Nonetheless, it has still been a good year for mushrooms so far. A couple of our mushroom logs in the garage have started fruiting, and I am dreaming of homegrown shitake mushrooms as far as the eye can see. We have also had some luck with foraging mushrooms in the wild. While we haven’t found many chanterelles yet, we have harvested a number of King and Butter Boletes (Boletus edulis and Boletus appendiculatus respectively.) Boletes are commonly dried and known as porcini mushrooms for those of you who enjoy cooking with mushrooms.
As you can probably tell, I really enjoy mushrooms. I encourage you to start paying attention to the entire kingdom below your feet! If you are new to hunting mushrooms, you should be collecting them for identification purposes only, not for consumption. If you are interested in learning how to find edible mushrooms, you should take classes on mushroom identification though places like Merritt College or attend mushroom forays with the Mycological Society of San Francisco. Happy hunting!