growing backyard mushrooms, with michael judd
I’VE CONFESSED BEFORE to a fascination with fungus–as in mushrooms—that sprout unexpectedly in the garden. Perhaps surprising is that I have never intentionally grown any edible mushrooms. Ecological and edible landscape designer Michael Judd, author of “Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist,” joined me on radio from his Frederick, Maryland, homestead, to teach me how easy it is to cultivate edible mushrooms outdoors.
Michael Judd is a grow-your-own type even when it comes to publishing: His self-published book (left) has struck a chord with readers—and particularly the chapter on mushrooms. So much so, that another book, on that subject, is already under way; a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign has just begun. On my public-radio show (listen in now, or read along, or both) we discussed three kind of specialty mushrooms that are adapted to backyard growing–shiitake, oyster, and wine caps–and how to grow them with an eye to the greater ecology of your landscape as well.
Q. The subheadline of your edible landscaping book is “With a Permaculture Twist.” What’s that about?
A. Permaculture is a holistic landscape design technique that was born in the late 70s. A Tasmanian woodsman-cum-professor and one of his students, Bill Mollison and David Holgrem, generated the design of what permaculture is.
It’s ecological design in that it observes natural ecological patterns, and then imitates those in ways to create human-centered habitats.
It combines form, function and production—and also includes all the elements of alternative energy, sustainable forestry, of course your market gardening, and all the social dynamics. So it doesn’t isolate any one design element; it puts them all together, like a natural healthy ecology does, so that it supports itself.
That’s kind of the nutshell of what permaculture is. So what I’ve done is try to simplify some of that, and make it very approachable for the backyard gardener—someone who has not heard of permaculture, but would like to try some of the projects that have these multiple benefits.
More into that twist, I add the aesthetics [photo of a portion of Michael’s edible home landscape, above]—the consideration for the modern landscape of suburbia that most of us are living in, with the homeowner’s associations and requirements. So how do we have this form, function and beauty, is what I’ve put into the book, in a way that’s not complicated, and is fun.
Here’s a project, and here’s another one—and over time those all begin to blend together into a dynamic.
Q. Some of the shady areas of your Maryland homestead support the ultimate shade-garden subject: mushrooms, the best crop ever for such spots.
A. Here in the mid-Atlantic, we have a lot of forests, and clients come to me and say, “I can’t grow anything; all I have is shade.” I get this big grin on my face and say, “No, it’s perfect for mushrooms,” and in fact they probably are already growing out there in their landscapes.
Q. I’m one of those gardeners who’s thrilled when a fairy ring of Amanita circles my concolor fir tree each fall, or the giant stand of big, glistening neon-orange jack-o-lantern mushrooms erupts each summer. I don’t even mind when lots of unknown little mushrooms sprout in a wet season on mulch or woodchips–something many not-so-enchanted readers write in to ask me how to fix in their own gardens–because I know it’s just nature doing its job, working to break down waste products and keep the cycles going.
A. And I think they’re really beautiful when they’re in their fruiting state—it’s one of the most beautiful ornamentals out there.
Q. I’ve always seen “kits” for mushrooms, cardboard boxes that promise X pounds, then that’s that. But you’re suggesting something quite different, yes?
A. What you’re talking about are tabletop farms, sawdust blocks that you can order from different mushroom companies. They’re already grown the mycelium in them, so when you open them and expose them to the right humidity, it pops out a bunch of mushrooms. So it’s very exciting—but doesn’t make economic sense in the long run. But if it’s the dead of winter and you need a little happiness—it’s not a bad thing to go to.
But what I’s talking about is growing them in the landscape, both on logs and on woodchips, in a way that is perennial.
Meaning once you get them started, they will fruit for you naturally up to eight years, without any further input but watching and harvesting them.
Q. So in the way that some of our garden plants self-sow and perpetuate, the mushrooms do, too?
A. Absolutely, especially the ones grown on woodchips. They eat the woody material, and when they’re nice and happy and the humidity’s right, they fruit. As long as that wood’s got some good meat to it, they’ll keep producing for you.
A. One that we’re really familiar with is shiitake, one of the tastiest mushrooms, and medicinal to boot. It grows really well on logs, and you’d be surprised how many different types of wood will grow different types of mushrooms.
Most of the trees in our landscape will grow some kind of edible mushrooms. There’s only a handful of exceptions, like black locust and black walnut.
Shiitake really loves oak, and will also grow on some of the harder maples, and I’m growing them on the wild black cherries that we have, on black willows—and even birches and beech trees can be used for mushroom growing.
We have a lot of the tulip poplar here that really does well with the oyster mushrooms [photo above], for instance. So it’s really looking at what’s around you, what’s available in the forest, and looking up what mushroom grows well with that tree.
Q. What grows in the woodchips?
A. The wine cap—one of my favorite mushrooms—grows in it, and has this beautiful burgundy top. It can get very large, up to 5 pounds, though oftentimes you want to harvest it smaller.
They have this meaty, nutty flavor, and are very opportunistic, meaning their mycelium runs very quickly, and colonizes woodchips very strongly, outcompeting other things, and pops hundreds of mushrooms at a time through the summer and fall.
As long as you keep feeding it woodchips, it will keep propagating itself, and you can spread them yourself around the landscape. I’d avoid too much pine, cedar, and things like that.
Q. Do they like a particular kind of woodchip?
A. Generally speaking, they would prefer a hardwood chip; they’d run through softwood pretty quickly.
Q. So let’s run thought the step-by-step basic how-to for the process.
A. The ideal time to begin is in late winter. I’m in Zone 7—so around late February, we look for healthy trees in or forest that are small diameter, about 6 to 8 inches in diameter, which we will cut into 30- or 40-inch logs.
At the same time we’re looking for these trees, we’re looking at the forest as a whole: How can we thin out this wood to benefit the forest and begin the process of growing mushrooms?
So from the very first step, you are having this ecological benefit from working with mushrooms.
A. That also allows more light through the canopy to the forest floor, to regenerate those species, so there’s this win-win-win with mushrooms.
So in our woodland I’m looking for the cherry, the poplar, the oaks and hard maples, and thinning that wood out. And then I let it sit, because trees naturally have an anti-fungal property. You let that sit for two or three weeks while the days are warming up (for us in Maryland, that’s going into the end of March, with 50-degree days).
About the time I dropped my trees, I called up my suppliers at Field and Forest Products or Smugtown Mushrooms, to order spawn. That’s usually little wooden birch dowels [above] with little ridges on them. What they’ve done is grow a certain type of fungi on it already for you.
When I say “certain type,” imagine it’s just like with tomatoes, where there are many varieties with different characteristics. It’s the same with shiitake: There are many different flavors, that will also fruit at different temperatures in early, middle, late season.
So I’ll choose a strain, and they’ll mail me the dowels, to arrive just in time. I’ll take my log and my electric drill and bit…
A. Maybe 50 holes all over a log, and you take your dowels and whack them in. [Photo at left, including a bottle of craft beer to reward the mushroom grower, not use in the growing process.]
Q. So you have these impregnated dowels, that have the mycelium on them, and then you sort of impregnate the log in a more forceful manner with these dowels.
A. The mycelium is living and feeding off the wood—the lignin, and cellulose. Those little birch dowels are like kindling, and would soon be consumed. So we’re putting it into that larger log, and then we’re going to wax over those holes to maintain moisture and keep insects from eating the spawn.
Then the mycelium is going to jump off the spawn and begin to run through the log—and we call this period the spawn run. It’s one of the more sensitive times in the log’s life, so you want to keep it evenly moist, and low to the ground, in the shade. If you don’t have a patch of trees, I have found that under a deck works nicely, or even wedged between straw bales with shade cloth over it.
The spawn run can last anywhere from six to 18 months, so you have to be patient.
After the wait, generally speaking, it’s like what we see in our landscapes after a warm spring or fall rain, when mushrooms pop up. So do the logs.
When they pop, it is a lot of mushrooms—you are inundated.
A. The woodchips are a lot quicker and easier. You can get a pile of woodchips dropped and do it almost through September. Usually the spawn for this comes in sawdust. You create a patch, 4 inches deep and 5 by 5 feet under a deciduous tree, then sprinkle in the sawdust and cover that with straw, and it runs very fast. It will begin fruiting the following year.
I should also add that you can do the process with the logs in the fall, but the trick is that you would have to keep them inside in a heated garage or closet in a plastic bag while the spawn is running.
Q. When the spawn is running, you don’t want them to freeze?
A. No, and the bag will preserve the moisture. [A longer mushroom-growing how-to on Michael Judd’s website.]
Q. So if I have too many to eat at once, what do I do?
A. I make maple-mushroom martinis [laughter], but if that’s not your thing, slice them about one-eighth inch in thickness, and quickly sauté them in oil or butter with a little salt and pepper for a couple of minutes then freeze them to throw into dishes the rest of the year.
Like I said: You’ll get a lot of mushrooms, you’ll have a lot of friends
A. Yes, they act as filters. That mycelium creates a web, that acts as a filter for chemical runoff from our roof, our driveways, our cars. What I do is position burlap sacks full of the wine caps in these areas where runoff happens from the roof, or downspout, for example.
Not only does it filter, but the mycelium actually digests the chemicals or oils into sugars, converting and cleaning them. It can make a huge difference in our watersheds. [Photo above shows such an installation of bags of mycelium on chips, before it is backfilled and reseeded.]
enter to win ‘edible landscaping’ book
TO WIN A SIGNED COPY of Michael Judd’s book “Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist,” of which I have two to give already gave two away, all you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page, way below the last comment (UPDATE: The giveaway is ended, but your comments are always welcome):
What’s your mushroom story? Ever grown them, or foraged for them, or do you simply purchase them to use in cooking? Have a favorite kind?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or something like that, and I will, but a reply is even better. Two random winners will be chosen after entries close at midnight on Monday, September 22. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada winners only.
find michael judd
- in his book, “Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist” (affiliate link)
- at his website, ecologicadesign.com
sources of mushroom-growing supplies
prefer the podcast?
MMICHAEL JUDD was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The September 15, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
(All photos courtesy of Michael Judd; used with permission.)