Growing Mushrooms

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The Heart of New England
Growing Mushrooms
by Jeanne Sable

This year we are again trying to raise
a crop that’s a major departure from everything else we grow. It comes in various
shapes and sizes, and is practically any color but green. If you guessed it’s some
type of fruit, you're technically correct, but this "fruit" grows contrary to the way
apples or oranges do. Here's the rest of the riddle: "From my branches I never drop
down, instead I pop up from the ground. I shun the sun, ripen with rain, have
flowers none, what is my name?" The answer:

OK, so you
mycologists out there weren't fooled. But many people don't realize
that a mushroom is merely the fruiting body of an underground organism
composed of a living network of threadlike fibers called mycelium. These
denizens of the dark and damp can sometimes span an acre or more.  

A Laetiporus sulphureus first hooked me on mushrooming when I happened
upon one several autumns ago. Better known as the “chicken of the woods,” it was
growing atop a tree stump next to the road, looking for all the world like a huge
orange rose. Its frilly edges showed bright yellow underneath, like a flamenco
dancer's petticoats. And it was fresh—soft and moist as a baby just out of the bath.

I was relatively certain it was edible thanks to a mushroom walk I'd recently
covered for the local newspaper, but we checked it with some knowledgeable
mushroom hunters to be sure. It was the chicken, all right, and it tasted exactly
like one—honest. We dried several pounds of it, and decided to try our hand at
raising more.

We ordered "starters" for some “chickens” plus three other varieties: two types of
oyster mushrooms, and one portabello. When the package arrived, we discovered
it contained shiitakes instead of portabellos. "Oh shiitake! They sent the wrong
ones," we said. But upon reading that shiitakes are highly prized for both flavor
and nutritional value, we decided to keep them.  

Soon we were the proud owners of a package containing "plugs" of fungal spores
that would blossom into our own home grown "chickens" after being inserted into
oak logs.

The oyster mushroom starter resembled bales of straw crammed into clear plastic
bags. One of them couldn't wait for its new home and began spreading clubbed
white fingers out into the cellar before Charlie was able to finish building the
mushroom box that would look something like an open wooden coffin in the

One of the
oyster mushrooms was a special "espresso" variety that thrives on
coffee grounds. Not being regular coffee drinkers, we begged used grounds from
the local restaurant and dumped them into the bottom of one section of the box. I
guess they didn’t need the caffeine, because only the batch fed on decaffeinated
yielded any mushrooms. They were delicious!

One morning during that same time period, I visited our "other" garden boxes after
a couple days of rain. I was amazed to see a huge puffball sitting like a hearty side
dish, just outside one corner of our bush bean box. Six inches across and taller than
it was wide, it contained several pounds of pure white, tender meat. Previously, I
might have looked upon that fleshy orb as some aberrant growth—an intruder in
my garden—a lowly fungus among us.

But, guided by an expert mycologist and a good reference book, I was able to
incorporate it into a delectable stir fry with the rest of the vegetables. Exotic
mushrooms are a boon to the vegetable gardener because they add a satisfying
gourmet touch to any vegetable dish without necessarily adding meat. Try them in
a cream sauce over broccoli or cauliflower, or sautéed with eggplant, and/or
summer squash. Even your most carnivorous eater just might stop inquiring as to
the whereabouts of the beef. (But please, don't try this on your own. Poisonous
mushrooms are abundant and can be deadly!)

Up to 4,000 mushroom species grow throughout New England. Up to 1200 have
been identified in New Hampshire's Monadnock region. If you'd like to taste a
wider and more interesting variety of mushroom flavors than the white button
type commonly found at supermarkets, join a mushroom club or participate in one
of the many mushroom walks they hold in your region. Or develop a brown
thumb by cultivating your own. We recently discovered a New Hampshire
mushroom farmer who can get you started. The plastic-wrapped log he inoculated
with shiitake Marcelia is sprouting baby mushrooms in our cellar as we speak.

For mushrooms, starter plugs and spawn, and mycological workshops,
landscaping and consulting, contact Wichland Woods Mycological Services:

About the Author:

Jeanne Prevett Sable is an organic gardener, editor, and freelance writer
specializing in farming and environmental issues, with hundreds of articles
published in local, regional, and national publications. She has written
environmental scripts for children's television, live puppet theater, and the Web.
She is also the author of
Seed Keepers of Crescentville, her first novel.
Ever try chicken of the woods mushrooms? In New England alone there are 4,000 varieties of mushrooms!
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