Mushroom Cultivation 101
While teaching the skills of simple, cheap, and easy cultivation and application of the decomposing, mushroom producing fungi is at at the core of the Radical Mycology project, we wish to note up front that the many of the same skills and concepts used to grow mushrooms can also be used to grow the mycorrhizal and fermenting fungi that are used to improve soil health and maintain traditional food ways.
A Brief History of Mushroom Cultivation
Fungal cultivation was arguably the first intentional human production. This is thought to have taken the form of mead (honey wine) production long ago when early humans discovered that by placing a bee hive in a small body of water that they could come back a few days or weeks later to find the water transformed into an intoxicating drink. Some of the first known examples of intentional mushroom cultivation, however, are found in 3rd century Japan where Shiitake mushrooms were grown on oak logs. This early practice consisted of placing logs that were fruiting mushrooms next to fresh logs. The “magic” (actually the spores) of the fruiting mushroom were invisibly transferred to the fresh logs and the following year or two Shiitakes would pop out of the new logs!
In the 1700s in France, Agaricus (Button) mushrooms were unintentionally first cultivated in the constant temperature and humidity environments of abandoned limestone caves. Horse bedding left in the caves started producing mushrooms and the practiced soon developed to add more manure over time in a trail-and-error approach to discovering the unknown world of mushroom development. Since that time, this practice has become highly refined to the point that Agaricus bisporus (Button mushroom) cultivation accounts for the majority of global mushroom farming.
In the 1920s, aseptic (aka “sterile”) laboratory techniques were developed that enabled controlled cultivation of mushrooms for the first time. For decades research mostly focused on increasing the profitability of Button mushroom production and was focused on intensely sterile work.
In the 1960s, the psychoactive mushroom Psilocybe cubensis began being illegally cultivated by home cultivators on a budget. Unable to afford or build highly aseptic environments, these growers worked out many lower-tech and lower-cost processes that brought the world of mushroom cultivation to a home-scale. The innovations and techniques developed during this period also began to be applied to non-psychoactive mushrooms with great success, thus expanding the number of species that were commonly cultivated. This community of cultivators have anonymously pushed the world of low-budget cultivation forward for decades and, in the recent years of the Internet, this expansion of knowledge is only continuing to increase.
Some Reasons to Grow Mushrooms
There are numerous reasons to learn to cultivate mushrooms and other fungi, as this site attempts to demonstrate. However, some of the most apparent reasons include:
- Mushrooms are a relatively cheap, year-round source of delicious, healthy whole food and potent natural medicine that can be grown on various urban and agricultural waste products.
- Mushroom cultivation provides many applications for developing local jobs & revenue as well as community food security.
- Ability to grow local mushrooms along with species not commercially available.
- Versatile uses in the garden on the land for soil building, nutrient availability, and water retention.
- Ability to remediate soil and water and rehabilitate damaged environments.
- It’s sciencey & fun!
We Grow Decomposing Fungi
The fungal kingdom is vast, with 1.5 million estimated species and only 5% formally described. While the “imperfect” fungi (e.g. molds and yeasts) are cultivated for foods such as miso, tempeh, beer, and bread, in this intro we focus on the larger, fleshier fungi: the mushrooms.
The fungal kingdom is divided into many sub-groups based on variations in lifecycle and ecological niche. Here, we focus on the saprotrophic basidiomycetes, a group of fungi that includes the mushrooms most commonly worked with for food, medicine, and remediation (e.g. Oysters, Turkey Tails, and Shiitake). Saprotropic means that the mushroom is a decomposer. Basidiomycete refers to the specific way that the spores develop in the mushroom. It is recommended that you come to understand the saprotrophic basidiomycete lifecycle before beginning your hand at cultivation or remediation so as to best understand what aspects of nature you are trying to mimic throughout your cultivation trials.
Saprophytic Fungi are the decomposing fungi, breaking down the organic matter of the world. These mushrooms are the easiest to cultivate as they (generally) only require nutrients and organic matter to survive. They are much easier to cultivate indoors than the fungi with more complex ecological roles, such as mycorrhizal fungi. Much like feeding an animal, the saprophytes require the basic needs of life (air, water, food, warmth) and not much else in order to grow.
Commonly cultivated species include:
- Agaricus blazei | A. subrufescens (Himematsutake | King Agaricus | Almond Portobello)
- Agaricus bisporus (Portobello | Button | Crimini)
- Agrocybe aegerita (Black Poplar | Pioppino)
- Chlorophyllum rachodes (Shaggy parasol)
- Coprinus comatus (Shaggy Mane | Lawyer’s Wig)
- Flammulina velutipes (Enokitake | Nametake)
- Fomes fomentarius (Tinder Conk | Hoof Fungus | Ice Man Polypore | Amadou)
- Ganoderma applanatum (Artist’s Conk | Kofukitake)
- Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi (Divine/Spiritual Mushroom in Japanese) | Ling Chi/Zhi (Tree of Life Mushroom in Chinese) | Mannentake (10,000-year mushroom in Japanese) | Panacea Polypore)
- Grifola frondosa (Maitake (Dancing Mushroom) | Kumotake (Cloud Mushroom) | Hen-of -the-Woods)
- Hericium abietis (Comb Tooth)
- Hericium erinaceus (Lion’s Mane | Monkey’s Head | Sheep’s Head | Bear’s Head | Old Man’s Beard | Satyr’s beard | Pom Pom)
- Hypholoma capnoides (Brown-Gilled Clustered Woodlover)
- Hypsizygus tessulatus (Beech Mushroom | Bunashimeji)
- Hypsizygus ulmarius (Elm Oyster | Shirotamogitake)
- Inonotus obliquus (Chaga)
- Laetiporu sulphureus (Chicken-of-the-Woods | Sulfur Shelf)
- Lepista nuda (Blewit)
- Lentinula edodes (Shiitake | Donka | Pasania)
- Macrolepiota procera (Parasol Mushroom)
- Morel angusticeps (Black Morel)
- Pholiota nameko (Nameko | Slime Pholiota)
- Piptoporus betulinus (Birch polypore | Kanbatake)
- Pleurotus citrinopileatus (Golden Oyster | Tamogitake)
- Pleurotus cystidiosus (Abalone | Maple Oyster)
- Pleurotus djamor (Pink Oyster | Salmon Oyster)
- Pleurotus eryngii (King Oyster)
- Pleurotus eusomus (Tarragon Oyster)
- Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster | Hiratake)
- Pleurotus pulmonarius (Pheonix Oyster | Indian Oyster)
- Pleurotus tuberregium (King Tuber | Tiger Milk)
- Polyporus umbellatus (Zhu Ling | Umbrella Polypore)
- Sparassis crispa (Cauliflower Mushroom)
- Stropharia ruggosoannulata (King Stropharia | Garden Giant | Burgandy/Wine Cap |Godzilla Mushroom)
- Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail | Yun Zhi | Kawaratake | Cloud Mushroom)
- Volvariella volvacea (Paddy Straw | Fukurotake)
Some of these species (such as the Oyster species and King Stropharia) are incredibly easy to grow and are recommended for the beginner.
An Overview of the Cultivation Process
The process of cultivating fungi revolves, in essence, around expanding a stock of mycelium (the network of tissue that comprises the fungal body) to the point that there is enough mycelial mass for it to transform into a substantial yield of fruiting bodies (aka mushrooms). Just like a plant needs a substantial root stock for a significant yield, so too do mushrooms need a large mycelial stock to produce a large flush of mushrooms.
Using moist, sugar-rich substrates (food sources) for the fungus, the cultivator must work in a quick and clean manner to ward off ambient bacteria and fungi that will readily consume the provided substrate. Classically, this work is done in several incremental stages in a very clean space. Once enough contaminant-free mycelium has been grown out, the fungus is placed into a humid environment, the temperature is dropped, and light is introduced along with an increase in fresh air in order to signal the fungus into transforming its mycelium into fleshy mushrooms. These four environmental changes work to mimic the changes that naturally take place in the fall, when most mushroom fruit.
The key stages to this practice in the sterile methodology are as follows:
- Spores or a small amount of source mycelium (taken from a fresh mushroom or acquired commercially) is introduced to either a petri dish filled with nutrient-rich agar or a sugar-rich liquid broth. The mycelium will then grow over/through this medium.
- 7-21 days later, once this mycelium has grown out, a small amount of it is transferred from the agar or liquid broth to a container filled with cooked and sterilized grains.
- 10-21 days later these grains will be colonized and are then introduced to a final wood, manure, or compost-based substrate upon which the mushrooms will fruit.
- This final substrate then colonizes over a matter of weeks or months and is then introduced to the correct environment to encourage mushroom development.
While this process is still the standard approach for commercial mushroom growers, in recent years a new understanding of how to cultivate mushrooms has come to light that is less aseptic and more natural in approach. Recognizing the natural ability of the fungi to digest not only a range of foods but also to defend itself from competitors, we at Radical Mycology choose to focus our techniques on approaches that are less reliant on sterile procedures and more respectful and cognizant of the mushroom’s innate abilities to defend itself.
These methods include:
- Fermenting substrates instead of using heat sources to pasteurize them.
- Training species to have a strong immune system capable of out-competing molds and bacteria.
- Growing mushrooms on kitchen scraps and other waste products.
- Growing mushrooms in outdoor installations that are maintained by the seasons.
- Implementing tools and techniques that enable aseptic work to be done in a relatively dirty environment.
And that is just scratching the surface! There are as many ways to cultivate as their are cultivators so do not get discouraged by the amount of information and the variety of opinions on how to cultivate that exists on the internet. Use the links below as starting point and come to find an approach that works for you.