“The Integrated Homestead”
The cultivation of mushrooms has made tremendous strides in recent years. These beings (fungi are not plants) have much to offer the homesteader seeking food producing strategies which fulfill other needs as well. Mushrooms can assist us to produce edibles and medicinals; to serve as decomposers in both garden and woodlot, speeding breakdown of organic residues to soil; and (sadly, an increasingly critical need) for bioremediation—the cleansing and reclamation of land abused by the toxic side effects of our careless industrial culture.
The cultivation of mushroom “spawn”—live cultures used to inoculate appropriate substrates (growing media) like logs, wood chips, manure composts, and straw—is a process requiring laboratory precision, equipment, and techniques. Most homesteaders will choose to leave those tasks to the experts, and purchase the started spawn, which is much easier to work with in the homestead setting. (Once we have mycelial “patches” started, however, it can in some cases be easy to propagate from those patches to make satellite colonies.)
In addition to the mushrooms we cultivate, we will find wild opportunists colonizing the permanent areas of organic litter which we maintain. On our place, for example, I’ve found blewits and wine cap Stropharia growing in mulches in the forest garden and elsewhere. Reaping where we did not sow is always welcome, of course, though we should consult a good identification guide (or several) before ingesting any mushroom. (A few species are lethally toxic.)
Here are some of the species we have grown or have begun experimenting with, and the uses to which we are putting them:
- We have grown shiitake (Lentinula edodes) for years. We cut living hardwood trees in the dormant period of late winter—oak is best, white oak best of all—of a size to make logs convenient to handle. A month later we inoculate the logs by drilling numerous holes in each log and inserting the prepared spawn. After an “incubation” period of up to a year, the mycelium (the fuzzy, hair-like strands like the ones we see in decaying logs or forest leaf litter—those are the fungus itself) grows what we call “mushrooms,” fruiting bodies for making and releasing spores, and reproducing the species. Shiitake are easy to grow. Like the garden tomato, the homegrown version is superior to anything you can buy—at a fraction of the cost.
- Lion’s mane
- Hiricium erinaceus is a delicious, beautiful, and unique mushroom—shaggy and pure white. One of its great virtues is that it will colonize black walnut, which serves as host to almost no other fungi, as well as black locust.
- Grifola frondosa or maitake or hen-of-the-woods is a large, gray, fleshy polypore made up of numerous overlapping caps. It may be the best choice for recycling stumps after tree cutting operations, given its large size and gourmet eating qualities. Maitake is considered a potent medicinal as well—extracts are used for their antitumor properties.
- Reishi and turkey tail
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) are both shelf polypores growing on dead or dying trees. Both have long histories of medicinal use in Asia, and are being extensively studied the world over for immune-enhancing, anticancer properties.
- Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are prolific, fleshy colonizers of dead trees. An exceptionally aggressive species, it offers itself as an ideal decomposer following felling and clearing operations in the woodlot. When we did some clearing of Ailanthus during this past spring, we did all our felling and trimming cuts with the regular bar lubricating oil replaced by “mycospored oil,” a vegetable oil carrying a heavy load of oyster mushroom spore. Since Ailanthus is not desirable as firewood, we cut the trunks and branches into short sections to ensure better contact with the ground and hence greater moisture in the wood. The hope is that the mushroom will hasten return of these woody materials to the earth, while providing excellent edibles for the table for several seasons.
- Elm Oyster
- The elm oyster mushroom (Hypsizgus ulmarius) is a saprophyte (fungus feeding exclusively on dead organic materials) which can be used as a garden companion to boost plant crop yields while supplying excellent edible mushrooms. The elm oyster can be grown in the straw mulches in garden beds, or in sawdust or wood chip mulches.
- Blewitt (Lepista nuda) is another possible garden companion. It can be inoculated into mixed debris piles of tough, woody stems and stalks that are hard to break down in a compost heap. As it colonizes these materials—which could be laid down in mulches that will not be disturbed, as in blackberry beds—it speeds their decomposition while producing choice edible mushrooms.
- Wine Cap Stropharia
- King or wine cap stropharia (Stropharia rugoso annulata) is another candidate as a garden companion which can colonize high-carbon mulches like straw, sawdust, and wood chips. This mushroom sometimes grows to extraordinary size (another common name is garden giant)—up to five pounds, and nearly two feet across. Once resident in the soil, it will continue to be active as long as appropriate organic debris is added as mulches.
- Shaggy Mane
- The shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus) is a member of an interesting family of mushrooms that prefer grassy soils frequently receiving manures, such as horse pastures. Shaggy mane can help make the nutrients in manure composts more available in the soil, while producing mushrooms that are delicate in flavor but widely enjoyed by “mycophagists” (mushroom lovers).