Ellen and I love mushrooms, and when Ingo wanted a dozen logs seeded to grow the edible fungus, our hands were among the first to fly in the air to volunteer. We’ve barely eaten any mushrooms in Latin America, so Ingo’s plan to set up a series of logs growing oyster mushrooms for the table and for sale sounded good to us. I’ve hunted for mushrooms in the wild before, but never seen how they’re grown in a small scale, sustainable way. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

The first step in the process was to collect logs to use as a growing medium. You can buy mushroom kits pre-seeded in mesh bags of wood chips, but long-term it’s cheaper to use fresh-cut logs. Ingo cautioned us that deadwood can be contaminated by other fungus, whereas he wanted logs from live trees so he was sure the oyster mushrooms would take.

Hauling our mushroom logs to the house

Hauling our mushroom logs to the house

Science break! The mushroom organism lives in wood or in the ground, and the visible parts that we know as mushrooms are its version of fruit. Often, one large mushroom will spread over a huge area, popping up sporadically or in patterns depending on where its food is abundant. The underside of each mushroom that blossoms from the soil holds spores, which spread by wind or water and allow the mushroom to reproduce itself, like seeds. One could grow mushrooms by gathering spores and spreading them to the place where you want mushrooms to grow. The other way to breed mushrooms is to take a piece of the underground bit, the mycelium, and transfer it to a new growth medium. The first way is complicated, while the second can be undertaken by any enterprising mushroom lover.

A day or two earlier, a couple of volunteers had taken the chainsaw and cut logs into 1.5 meter sections for mushrooms. Ingo had them cut softwood, because it takes less time for the mycelium to penetrate the wood. The mushrooms take a few months to start producing from softwood, and can take years for hardwood. The logs we cut were from the lowest elevation of the farm, the beach, and we had to carry them up the steep slopes to the main house, where Ingo cut slits into them with a chainsaw.

The next step was the tricky part: inoculating the logs with the mycelium without contaminating them. Ingo informed us that the mushrooms wouldn’t fruit if more than one kind of fungus was growing in the log, so we all had to get cleaned up and boil the tools to avoid cross-contamination. (Ellen and I wonder just how crucial this is – there were certainly surface fungi on the outside of the logs, and we touched enough of that to risk infecting the log with the wrong fungus.)

Hard at work inoculating logs with mycelium

Hard at work inoculating logs with mycelium

The actual process was easy. We stuffed the cracks in the logs with mycelium, filled the last centimeter with wood shavings (boiled and allowed to cool, to ensure cleanliness), and coated the shavings with melted wax to seal the mycelium inside the log. We were careful not to accidentally fill the log with two different batches of mycelium, and cautiously avoided pouring melting wax directly onto the mycelium, which might kill it. The process was rife with opportunities to make dirty jokes and innuendo-filled comments about helping each other stuff or wax our cracks, which Ellen and I enjoyed immensely.

Can I wax your crack?

Can I wax your crack?

Last of all, we needed to hang the logs somewhere cool and shady, where they could sit unmolested for anywhere from six months to a year. Once the mycelium has penetrated the logs and consumed most of the wood, it will send out its fruit, mushrooms, to pass its spores on to fresh wood. Our logs will produce mushrooms for a few months until the wood has been entirely consumed. Ingo has logs hanging from trees like overgrown wind chimes in several groves on his property.

I wish Ellen and I could be here when the mushrooms are ready to harvest – one of the disadvantages of spending only a few weeks in each place is that we rarely get to taste the fruits of our labours. Now that we’ve learned how to grow mushrooms, though, I think we’ll try to find ways to inoculate logs and grow mushrooms of our own at home. Even if it’s just a small branch or bag of sawdust on a city balcony, I’m sure I can make room to grow mushrooms somewhere. They’re just too good not to try!

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