Mushrooms – a Different Kind of Gardening

First of all, a big thank you to those of you who’ve been asking after my health, particularly my hands. Psoriatic Arthritis is in short, bloody awful – and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! I still have great difficulty typing and repetitive tasks that require any amount of strength, so I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve got great gardening gloves, I’m a no-dig gardener and that I’ve bought Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software!

A heartfelt thank you from me, under the beautiful chestnut tree. Here’s to a better year in 2021!

I’ve been fascinated by mushrooms since I was a small child, foraging with my parents for giant field mushrooms in paddocks where dairy cows had been. My father used to carry an old cloth flour bag and my mother a pillowcase to collect the bounty that my sister and I would collect. Some were huge, with big flat caps, ribbed brown gills and the wonderful earthy smell that only comes from fresh mushrooms.

Once we’d get home, we would pick over our treasure, making sure we had only collected clean edible mushrooms, discarding any that were too old or bug ridden. My mother would usually slice them into thick strips and fry them in a hot pan with butter, salt and a grate of nutmeg and we would eat them on hot toast for lunch. I remember when very small, making a spore print and marveling that this dark brown dust could produce more mushrooms! In recent years, I’ve bought bags of compost from commercial outlets and been rewarded with a bonus crop of Swiss Browns or Portobello mushrooms for my trouble. For many reasons I’ve moved away from using this compost in recent years and it got me thinking about growing mushrooms myself.

One of the many wonderful things about gardening is learning new skills, so for the past few weeks I’ve been researching how to grow mushrooms outdoors in my climate. (For context, in Australia Hobart is considered cold climate but my patch has a northerly aspect and my summer growing season is often extended far into autumn). My research led me to straw bale inoculation and cultivation, with the end product of not only mushrooms but also mycelium enriched mulch for garden beds.

Several varieties of culinary mushrooms can be grown outdoors on straw substrate. In particular, Oyster mushrooms and King Stropharia, aka Red Wine Caps or more correctly Stropharia rugosoannulata. I ended up choosing the Red Wine Caps for several reasons. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, this is a fairly easy-to-grow and forgiving mushroom for the home gardener. In my experience nothing breeds further exploration than early success, and being an utter novice at this, these seemed like the best option. I’d also read that Wine Caps, while not being the most delicious mushroom on the planet, are quite tasty – especially when picked young before the cap is fully opened. Stropharia is very robust and will not only colonise very quickly, outcompeting other fungi but will grow in relatively sunny conditions. Finally, once it’s finished fruiting, this produces a a compost that is very beneficial to the soil.

There are quite a few places that sell spawn in various forms to home gardeners. I opted for Aussie Mushroom Supplies, a small family business based in Victoria, though I’ve since discovered Forest Fungi here in Tasmania and I’ll be trying them out in the near future. I ordered a bag of grain spawn and it arrived very quickly, well packaged and smelling sweet and earthy. Before opening the bag, I massaged it thoroughly to break up any larger clumps of spawn.

I am blessed with a very large Sweet Chestnut tree that provides a haven for bees when it’s in flower, dappled shade in summer and abundant crops in late autumn but it’s dead space for growing anything beneath the tree. For years I’ve used it to stack bags of manure, pots or anything else that was in the way. So, after watching a number of videos (mostly on YouTube) I arranged four full-size very clean bales around the base, away from the trunk and soaked them thoroughly for the next few days. Using a steel rod, I poked holes throughout the bales, widening them with a wooden stake and filling these gaps with the spawn. I used extra barley straw to plug the holes and gave each bale an extra dousing with the watering can. All but one of the bales will get moderate sun throughout summer and autumn, so I’m interested to see how that one in the shade fares.

The finished bales around the chestnut tree

In the meantime, I’ve signed up for a local mushroom growing workshop next month and I’ll be keeping these bales damp and watching for signs of mycelial growth over the coming weeks.

I’ll post updates as things happen, but for now me and the Site Manager will just lounge around and wait!

Neko the Site Manager, hard at work

Wherever you are in the world, stay safe friends and I’ll see you soon! ❤

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