One classic introduction to growing mushrooms at home is a workshop on inoculating logs with shiitake spawn. Shiitake are, of course, eminently desirable, and after all what could be simpler than leaving a log in some shady spot in your back yard for a year or two before you go out and pick off a nice little basketful of beautiful round and speckled mushrooms?
If you take such a workshop, your instructor will tell you about the life cycle of mushrooms, how much of that life cycle is in the form of mycelium that grows into a substrate like logs, gradually colonizing it, and how when the log or other growth medium is fully colonized, the fungus will start to sprout fruits, which are the mushrooms that we eat. They will explain how shiitake have traditionally been grown on inoculated hardwood logs stacked in a wooded area, and how we are now going to inoculate some logs ourselves. Most likely, they will have spawn plugs, which are little hardwood dowels that have themselves been inoculated with mushroom spawn (by a professional mushroom growing company). The workshop participants each get their logs and drill little holes spaced about 4 to 6 inches apart all along the log. This is typically a lot of fun since you get to use a power tool (the drill). You then pound the plugs into the holes, and finally, close the holes up with molten beeswax. You may also close up the pores at the ends of the logs with beeswax, so the log does not lose moisture. That’s it! It is possible you’ll get to make three or four logs to take home – that makes for happy workshop customers :). Put them in a shady spot, in hot, dry weather moisten them, and wait for shiitakes.
Well, if you have read earlier episodes of our mushroom travels, you will know that we did just that in 2009, and we waited seven years for one, tiny shiitake harvest (it was very exciting though!).
By 2013, I had grown tired of waiting for those shiitakes, and decided maybe we had done something wrong; what I needed was a workshop. At the time, I was involved in the Needham Community Farm and teaching gardening workshops there with the farmer, a wonderful young woman named Heather Borkowski. Heather and I talked about mushrooms and soon enough she had us signed up for a mushroom class with a teacher in New Hampshire. At David’s place (wichlandwoods.com) we saw mushroom logs he had strewn about his woods; and his log dunking tub (shiitakes like to be dunked before fruiting, but it’s not a requirement); and his quirky self-built workshop house on poles. After the tour (which gave us an idea of good log location), we set about to inoculate our little collection of logs – I am sure I got my three or four :). Says I to the logs: “Haha shiitakes! Now you will grow at my house because I took a bona fide workshop and did everything right!”. I did not hear the small mushroom voices sing back: “Haha Babette! We will not, we will not! Even if you dunk us in a bucket!”. Grrr.
After that, I let the shiitake rest for a while. Although that 2016 mini flush did pique my interest enough that by 2018, at a wonderful Applied Permaculture course taught by David Homa, I was excited when there was an afternoon on inoculating logs. This time, the instructor showed us his log set up right outside his kitchen window, where they were in the shade all day, and where he could keep an eye on any fruiting activity that might happen. Naturally, I thought, I could do that! And I took 3 or 4 logs home from that workshop, stored them in a shady spot near our deck, and tried dunking those as well. But no shiitakes. I tried two more times. In 2019, we inoculated about 20 maple logs with two workaway folks using some fun mushroom tools I had acquired. And in the same year, we had a mushroom workshop as part of the Applied Permaculture Series I had organized with the Boston Food Forest. I took four oak logs home from that event. Maple and oak are great shiitake growing wood species. All the logs got stacked under the Green Giant arborvitae tree in our yard (a more perfect spot could not be imagined). I faithfully checked those logs for a couple of years after rains. And still, on the perfect logs, in the perfect spot, with workshop-led and pro-tools inoculation: no shiitakes.
I hope other folks have better luck than I with their shiitake logs. We all know it can be done. It is how they were cultivated in Japan for centuries. It is how they are cultivated at the Cornell University Small Farms initiative. Many farmers grow them this way. Perhaps one day, the elusive shiitake will be mine as well. Or maybe not. Will I try it again? Maybe … just one last time…
Two days later.
Wouldn’t you know it: I meet a wonderful woman who grows shiitake right after writing that letter. Ellena Baum is the Land and Community Education Manager at Grow Food in Northampton and she overheard me talking about shiitake while a group of us was harvesting hazelnuts at Nutwood Farm in Cummington. She said she had luck growing shiitake, right from the beginning. Naturally, I was all ears, and wanted to know the all the details of her process, which she generously shared. In April, get about 40 hardwood logs (oak best, then sugar maple, but other maples and birch also work) about 6-inch diameter and 4 feet long. Inoculate them with shiitake sawdust spawn and stack them in a forest area (she has hers covered with a shade cloth). The following year, in June, after some rainy days, soak for 24 hours, and set them vertically. A week or two weeks later you’ll have your first flush. You can get a second flush 8-12 weeks later. The second and third years are the best, while output tapers off in the fourth (and fifth?) years. I will definitely have to try that! Maybe it’s the colony of dozens of logs that will do the trick….