Shiitake mushrooms are an easy to grow, delicious mushroom for beginners to learn to cultivate. Shitakes have a satisfying meaty texture when sautéed, broiled or baked, and they have a distinctive 'unami' flavor that makes them popular in Asia.
Our Appalachian homestead has given us lots of opportunities to experiment with homesteading skills like using a wood-fired earth oven, making vermicompost with worms, washing with soap nuts and building rabbit lawn mowers, so it seemed a natural next step for us to start experimenting with cultivating our own mushrooms. We learned a lot from this project that I am sharing with you in article. Think of it as a starting point in your own journey of learning the art of shiitake cultivation from spore to fruit.
Mushroom spawn requires hardwood logs that are well shaded and protected from severe winds. Red Oak and White Oak is the preferred wood type for shiitake cultivation. Trees used for mushroom logs should be felled in mid to late winter to be inoculated in early spring. Let logs age for two weeks before inoculating them. Only use logs with intact bark because gaps in bark can allow other types of fungi to get in and contaminate your spores.
Prepare logs that are between 3-8 inches in diameter and in lengths between 3-4 feet. Too long logs become cumbersome to work with; too short ones dry out quickly. Properly managed small diameter logs can produce more mushrooms though the logs will decay quickly. That's not a problem though, because 'spent' logs can be ground up and used as compost.
Shiitake mushroom spawn comes in two types: Plug spawn and sawdust spawn.
Plug spawn is mycelium grown into hardwood. It's easy to use because it requires no special tools and is extremely durable. It takes longer to grow and is more expensive than sawdust spawn, but it is a smart choice for beginner growers.
Sawdust spawn is the preferred spawn for shiitakes. This spawn type grows faster than plug spawn but is more sensitive to drying out. Consisting of mycelium grown into hardwood sawdust, inoculation is complex unless the process is mechanized with specialized equipment.
The Inoculation Process
Shiitake mushroom inoculation works best when it happens as early in the spring as possible, or when daylight highs are above 40 degrees f. A high speed drill should be used to make 5/16 sized holes 1 inch deep, spaced 6 inches apart, in staggered rows. This will create a diamond pattern.
Fill the holes with spawn as quickly as possible to avoid an opportunity for contamination. Specialized spawn tools like a thumb style brass inoculator can be used. Next, cover the loose sawdust spawn immediately with hot wax, usually cheese wax. Get the wax as close to 450 degrees Fahrenheit without burning it as you can to ensure a good seal.
Shiitakes take between 6 months to a year after being inoculated before the mycelium grow through the log in a thread-like network. This is called the "spawn run".
During the spawn run, stack your mushroom logs loosely to create airflow. The best log stacking techniques vary on climate zone, wind levels, average rainfall and your ability to protect the logs from wind and sun. The optimal production for shiitakes happens when they are kept at 35-45 percent moisture content. Keep your log ends off the ground or on weed-barrier fabric to prevent contamination from wild strains of fungi.
Fruiting the Crop
Shiitakes inoculated with sawdust usually fruit the fall after they are inoculated. Logs can be “forced” to fruit by being submerged in cool water for 24 hours and then stacked upright to increase the airspace for mushroom formation. Upright stacking also causes logs to recover more quickly by stimulating wood decay and fruiting behaviors.
Beware of pests around your logs. Mice like to chew on mushroom caps, but they rarely cause any damage. During prolonged humid weather slugs and snails can sometimes harm shiitakes grown close to the ground.
Harvesting Your Mushrooms
Mushrooms fruit to full size over several days. Shiitakes are ready to be harvested when their caps are 70 to 90 percent open. When they begin fruiting make sure to check our mushrooms every day. Mushroom development speeds up in hot weather and caps can quickly expand beyond prime condition on hot nights.
To harvest, twist and pull the stem off. Never cut mushroom stems because this shortens their shelf life significantly by drying them out. Mushrooms can be stored in any container that is well-ventilated. After your logs have produced a crop, let them rest for 2-3 months to give the mycelium a chance to regain the energy needed for fruiting. A healthy, well taken care of shiitake log can fruit for 2-8 years. njoy cultivating this delicious fungus! The healthy results are well worth the wait.
Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with their ever expanding collection of animals and are caretakers of a historic Appalachian homestead that resides on a 500-acre land trust. They also help to run a mountain-ridge retreat and ecology center. You can find her at her personal blog and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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