11/11/2015 TimberGardener 0Comment

If you’ve talked to me in the past 4 years you probably know I’m obsessed with mushrooms. It started when I moved to McCall, ID. From spring to fall, the forest is filled with morels, boletes, and coral mushrooms, and hericiums and oysters hang from the trees. I love the different flavors.

When you live in a timber garden, it’s natural to have the following thoughts:

  1. It’s cool, dark, and moist here, and there’s a lot of wood.
  2. It’s hard to grow vegetables, but mushrooms pop up everywhere.
  3. I will plant mushrooms.

So we did. Certain types of mushrooms are beneficial to plants, and encourage their growth. Some examples are king stropharia (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) and Elm Oysters (Hypsizygus ulmarius). (Elm oysters are not a true oyster.) In addition, wood-loving mushrooms help to break down our horse-manure-heavy compost and create beautiful soil. In the spring of 2015 we dug three 6-foot trenches and filled them with cardboard, alder sawdust, and straw. One had stropharia, one had elm oysters, and one had blue oysters (because our friend Ashley gave us a growing kit and they were delicious)! We layered them carefully and watered them…not as well as we should have. On a whim, I threw a chunk of king stropharia into one of our straw bale gardens.

thumb_IMG_20150530_122831_1024
Toby maddocking a 6′ trench alongside our plum trees.

We decided to ‘plant’ the mushrooms along rows of fruit trees so they could give them a boost in the future and the trees could provide them with some shade. Check out the fabulous clay soil we’re working with, and that baby gooseberry to the right. Toby’s Dad, Larry, dug his share of trenches during his visit! Thanks Larry!

thumb_IMG_20150530_123915_1024
Larry is one industrious Dad, and always jumps in to do heavy labor on his Idaho ‘vacations’.

After the trenches were in place, we put down a layer of cardboard and soaked it with water. Cardboard is a pretty good food for wood-eating mushrooms because it has carbon AND the glues are usually some easily digested compound as well. (If I had a cardboard shredder I’d probably have bags of mushrooms hanging all over the garage.) We layered in alder and cottonwood sawdust, along with a few thin slices of the logs. It’s hard to find any type of hardwood up here, and we’re limited to small-diameter alder, and cottonwood and aspen, which break down quickly. Most sources say chips are better, but we don’t have a wood chipper…only a chainsaw and patience.

So, layer your recycling-center mystery cardboard and your saw-oil infused wood, and top it with leaves of straw from a bale. Sprinkle in handfuls of mycelium at different levels. You never know exactly where the ideal level will be for mycelial growth. We watered too much in the beginning and had to back off once we realized the trenches were pretty saturated.

thumb_IMG_20150530_124345_1024
There is unlimited cardboard available at the recycling center in McCall!

After reading all of Paul Stamet’s mushroom production books and disregarding all the parts telling us we were doing it wrong, I decided we had probably killed the mycelium off. It’s kind of expensive ($20-30/bag) so that was disappointing. But slowly over the course of the summer we would check under the straw and find ropy strands of white mycelium laced through the sawdust and straw.

thumb_IMG_20150530_130657_1024
The finished mushroom bed, complete with a little alder log in case the mycelium gets hungry and we’re gone or something.

It wasn’t growing quickly but there were definitely patches of it. (Quick note: ALWAYS write down what you plant in your garden and where, because you WILL NOT remember which type of mushroom you carefully planted! Neither of us have any idea which trench has which mushroom. Maybe the cats know, but they aren’t telling.)

At the end of 2015, the straw bale beds had broken down quite a bit and the squash were near the end of their lives. One day I went out to the garden and noticed something knobby near the base of a squash plant. ‘Great, the entire root is pulling out of the bale,’ I thought. The bales are generally a great planting medium but squash get HUGE and fall off the bales sometimes…we had a few plants propped up with logs by fall. BUT NO! It was a whole line of freshly popped up king stropharia mushrooms!

thumb_IMG_20151008_185452_1024
The first king stropharia mushrooms I’ve ever seen in person.

We were SO excited. We watched them for a few days because the didn’t seem to be full sized yet, but they only flattened out a little. They were exactly as described…red-brown cap, medium to large size, with violet gills and a ragged white ring surrounding the stem. A culinary delight, and it was growing right there in our straw bale!

thumb_IMG_20151007_202332_1024
Glorious king stopharia, which do not seem to be bothered by bugs.

What do they taste like? The king stropharia, also known as the wine cap, is different than any other mushroom. They are the closest thing to a dessert mushroom I’ve ever had. I always sautee mushrooms in a little butter before I try adding any flavor to them, and these ones seemed to weep a sweet honey-like liquid. On ice cream maybe? They are one of Toby’s favorites, and will be fun to experiment with.

In late fall when our straw bales had shrunk to half their original size, Toby broke up the mass of mycelium and distributed it throughout the garden…near fruit trees, in raised beds, everywhere. It overwintered under a layer of snow. Find out how the mushrooms are faring in 2016 here.

Some mushrooms need a ‘casing’ layer to fruit, and this includes king stropharia. We ignored this for all of 2015. Over the winter I read a great article on planting vegetables within the mushroom trenches, which regulates the humidity near the ground and the moisture levels in the carbon materials. (There’s also a funny article here on using wet dogfood to boost production.) This summer we covered our trenches with a few layers of soil and horse manure to ‘case’ the trenches. We dug holes through the straw and in to the dirt below. Then we planted various squashes. We’re hoping it’s a beneficial relationship. We planted them during a heat wave and they look fantastic, so SO FAR it seems like a win.

-Sam