growing backyard mushrooms, with michael judd

osgGRGKoK8kqKQAbHYyZ9FLpJCleEn3XxkJlXXwhplsI’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.  

ediblelandscape_cvr_comps_p3-3-e1384174552159Michael 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.

michael judd displaymushroom-growing q&a with michael judd

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.

michael judd gardenMore 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.

ypGt9y2Ie_FNzH3am4n889LNoLOooVd7F9ITEaOcoM8,z_af89ZcOYJH_oCkZqgxUuiBLRDfMWyWPsws5ZG5cGcQ. Do some species of mushrooms prefer woodchips to logs? Which ones should we start with?

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.

Q-yptI1j5drnCN_yE4FWY8mJoYwoRj03ssDOvlREEE4Q. So you’re choosing trees that may go, to use the wood, but to allow others to grow to full potential—by thinning judiciously and smartly.

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…

jGD42MEoU5Pc1zm0IUvtARCE4UViMEgPDayP6whQp4wQ. …So you drill holes in the logs?

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.

9SiwXFNhg1FLUCWTu2Gq6o5bvW1VZnHIH2B57KZ9QJoBut once you’ve drilled and sealed and placed your logs, you are done.

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.

nc9kws_WMOpVVr0u1JFRQA3cDq-ntVZ97ypwicE-WmoQ. Is this process similar when you grow on woodchips—do you use the dowels?

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

jVDkdcHweQpVTWoCAm5sEkADr2EgEMVQbM-2p8p4G_AQ. Besides having culinary use, fungi have environmental benefits. Can any of these edible ones be used for environmental purposes—in your “permaculture twist,” as you say?

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

ediblelandscape_cvr_comps_p3-3-e1384174552159TO 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

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.)

  1. Mary Barnes says:

    When I waa a little girl, I would go on walks with my granddad, and wish some days, to turn back time, so we could still go for walks foraging for mushrooms around Medicine Hat, Alberta.

  2. earen says:

    I have grown oyster mushrooms indoors from a kit. It was really cool. I have been wanting to mushroom forage for nearly a decade, but it hasn’t happened yet! I have yet to meet a mushroom that I do not find tasty. I hope to win this book. It looks really inspiring!

  3. Lisa says:

    One of the favorite activities during a visit to France was accompanying our host family for mushroom foraging. The diversity of mushrooms was astonishing.

  4. Amy says:

    My hubby and I semi-eloped in a small Italian mountain village in the midst of the fall mushroom and chestnut harvest. Each course at our post-wedding meal included different local mushrooms- including the meaty and hearty porcini (yellow boletus), a specialty for which this area is famous. It was extra special as our small rag-tag wedding party sat in this small mountain inn feasting on a home-cooked meal. I sat in my simple wedding gown surrounded by tables of mushroom gatherers and the local hunters, who like us were all there just to eat the 4-course “menu” of the day that the cook had prepared. The smell of drying mushrooms came in from all sides-from the adjacent rooms and down the from the rafters in the attic where the valuable mushrooms were laid out to dry on dozens of beautiful old wooden tables. Nothing could have been more memorable. Still today, the sight of dried Italian Porcini makes me smile.

  5. Carol says:

    We love wild mushrooms. My step-father foraged for mushrooms for most of his life until he passed away in his 90’s and we never questioned what he brought home, we just devoured them. After he died we found hen of the woods growing on a couple of our trees but we noticed them too late and they were way past their prime. He had brought home many of these when he was alive and I’d like to think that somehow he planted them in our yard after he left us.
    Last year the weather was less than favorable for mushrooms and our hen of the woods never came up but we continue to keep an eye on our oak trees in the hope that this is the year we will have a bumper crop! Would love to win the book!

  6. Garden Thyme Susan says:

    I’d love to win a copy of this book so count me in! I have always been intrigued by mushrooms but never knew enough to harvest them from the wild or better yet, grow them in my own shade paradise.

  7. Amy Pierso says:

    Michael Judd’s book about growing mushrooms sounds inspiring! My mother often recounted lively tales of foraging for wild mushrooms with her father in southern Germany and I have longed to learn the skill of mushroom identification. Mushrooms are a weekly staple on my grocery list. Armed with the information from this podcast, our family looks forward to trying to grow mushrooms in our own yard. Thank you!
    Count me in.

  8. Tina Mace Ward says:

    I have never grown mushrooms, only purchased them for cooking. I live in the Florida Panhandle and would love to begin growing mushrooms for my own table. This information has been quite informative and has inspired me to want to grow my own…thank you!

  9. Tara from North Carolina says:

    I love mushrooms! On pizzas, in stir fries, in salads…yum! I have never tried to grow them but after reading this article I might one day be tempted to give it a try! Thanks for the information!

  10. One of my favorite experiences was covering my garden with cardboard in the fall and then covering that with maple leaves. That spring every seem in the cardboard under layer was sending up morel fruiting bodies. 2 five gallon buckets full was the harvest.

  11. Mark says:

    Old Iowa morel hunter here…but love all shrooms. With a nice shady back yard full of trees, I think I have a perfect environment for growing my own and definitely plan to expand my gardening ventures.

  12. jean says:

    My grandmother always picked mushrooms in northern Alberta. She was from the Netherlands and loved wild mushrooms. She would go to the same place each year, where she knew there would be a good harvest of certain mushrooms. I have never had the confidence to do that – I have always been afraid of making an identification error and becoming ill. This method of culturing mushrooms is most interesting to me because one is able to make certain of the type of mushroom.

  13. Debby West says:

    Last March 2013, I attended a class to learn how to create a mushroom log. I am still waiting patiently. No mushrooms yet, but I believe they will come one day! I love mushrooms!
    Your interview with Michael was so informative and enjoyable. I am looking forward to reading his book soon. Thanks Margaret and Michael!

  14. Kathy Y says:

    I’m taking my first foraging class next Sunday and can’t wait to ask mushroom questions. I have never grown or foraged dor them and I live in southern indiana which has a good crop of morels each year. Really enjoyed the podcast!

  15. Maci Libby says:

    I have a large puff ball mushroom that I wait for every year! It is right in the walking path! Always in the same place by the 1st or 2nd week of September. I cook it with garlic and eat it on toast! So good! I also love black trumpets!! First time I had them was this year…by far my fave!

  16. Bess says:

    I have become an avid forager, but only for mushrooms I know are edible. Here in the Berkshires we start with morels in May then move onto oysters, chicken of the woods and my favorite, bear head tooth right now. This year we found black trumpets for the first time. Not so good at finding hen of the woods, but that’s ok, they make me feel hung over. I’d like to find lobsters and hedgehogs. I think I found a porcini/cepe/king bolete but I need an expert to ID it.

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