By Sara Huffman
There are several things we anticipate adding to the farm this coming year. One we are particularly excited about is shiitake mushrooms. Shiitakes are one of the easier mushrooms to cultivate and have been grown on logs for millennia in other parts of the world. They are a primary decomposer, meaning they want to grow on fresh organic matter meaning no handling manure!
Ok, a quick mushroom vocabulary lesson:
Spores are the ‘seeds’ of a mushroom; mycelium are the root like hairs that make up the vegetative part of a fungus, while the mushroom itself is a fruiting body much like the other fruits and vegetables we eat; and inoculation is the fancy word used to describe “planting” those mycelium or spores into an appropriate growing medium. When growing shiitakes, hardwood logs or sawdust are inoculated with small wooden dowels or sawdust pellets that have been colonized with the shiitake mycelium.
The best time to collect logs for inoculation is either now – late fall – or early spring. We aim to collect when the highest concentration of nutrients is within the wood itself. This occurs when leaves have fallen from the trees but bark is not slipping, or when buds are just beginning to swell in spring. Only hardwoods will work for shiitakes, and oak or cherry is preferred. If logs are harvested in fall, they will need to be stored until inoculation time in spring. They should be kept as dry as possible and out of contact with the ground to prevent intrusion by non-target fungi. (We wrapped ours in tarps.) If logs are harvested in the spring, they will still need to be held for at least two weeks because trees produce a natural antifungal when freshly cu, which can reduce success with inoculation.
Once logs have been harvested, colonized dowels are ready, and spring is finally here, we will begin inoculation! For this, we will drill holes that are the same size as our dowels all around the logs. (Most dowels are made to match up with standard drill bit sizes.) Then we will hammer each dowel into a whole with a rubber mallet. Finally, we will seal each hole with canning wax to also help protect against invasion by non-target species. Then…we wait.
Depending on the log size, shiitakes can take anywhere from 8 months to 2 years to begin fruiting, but once they begin, there are several harvests throughout the life of each log. Once a log is finished fruiting, they make an excellent additions to a compost pile.
Shiitakes are a good source for B vitamins, iron, protein, fiber, and potassium. They are easy to include in any number of dishes, adding a pleasant earthy flavor and excellent texture. With so many companies now specializing in mushroom cultivation, it is easy to find the materials you need to do an experiment yourself. There are even mushroom kits on sale at various stores that you can simply opened and place in the appropriate conditions, and then mushrooms will appear in one day. Could be a fun gift idea for any budding scientists in the family!-Rachel and Phil