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Secrets of the mycocosm: The joys of mushroom cultivation

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 April Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

If you are looking to extend your growing season, or add a specialty crop that will diversify your CSA offering, or simply to become more intimate with the mysterious fungal kingdom, consider joining NOFA/Mass on Sunday, April 17 at Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester to unlock the secrets of mushroom cultivation. This hands-on workshop (taught by yours truly) will dig into several different methods for successful outdoor mushroom cultivation including log cultivation with shiitakes and woodchip bed cultivation with stropharia. Find more workshop and registration details here. 

Like many Russian immigrants growing up in the northeast, my memories of autumn revolve around the great mushroom hunt. A certain buzz would pervade my house during those heavy September rains when the nights were nippy enough for a sweater and the maples were just starting to turn. For those were sure signs that the mushrooms were waking up, and so we’d go off to the woods the next day to stuff our bags with boletes, russulas, lactarius, and hedgehogs.

Those hunts marked the beginning of my romance with fungal fruits, but it was through the dance of cultivation that our love affair matured. The first I’d heard of mushroom cultivation was during a permaculture course I was taking back in 2008. I was immediately drawn to the myriad ecological benefits that mushroom cultivation offers; not only do mushrooms provide a sustainable source of protein, but more importantly, growing fungi allows you to make use of the wasted and marginal. Unlike fruits and vegetables, most edible fungi thrive in dark, damp environments and, because they are nature’s great recyclers, they can be grown on an array of substrates: everything from storm-killed trees to phone books to used coffee grounds. The materials needed to grow succulent shiitakes, oysters, wine caps, and many other species are free and ubiquitous. All you need is some technique and patience to make these materials come alive.

Growing mushrooms outdoors not only creates a far superior product to what you can get from a grocery store, but also extends the harvest season on both ends. Many strains of shiitakes fruit during the first true signs of spring, while others fruit deep into November after killing frosts have killed off most of our annual crops. Even more importantly for us farmers and gardeners, the majority of the work in growing mushrooms on logs or woodchip beds is front-loaded and occurs during winter and early spring, before the planting season comes and sweeps us away. 

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