The ABCs of Homesteading: M is also for Mushrooms

Reader Contribution by Tasha Greer
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This is the twelfth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.

If you read my last post, The ABCs of Homesteading: M is for Meat, then you know I am not a vegetarian. However, I do care deeply about our environment and I know that meat is a luxury to be enjoyed in limited quantities. So, to supplement our diets, we also grow mushrooms – shiitake mushrooms in particular.

1. Growing your own shiitake at home is easy. Here’s what you need to do.

2. Get hardwood tree limbs that are about 5-7 inches in radius and cut them into manageable lengths.

3. Drill holes in a diamond pattern about with each hole being about 6 inches apart.

4. Inject sawdust spawn into the holes or hammer dowel spawn into the holes.

5. Cover your spawn-filled holes with melted wax to make sure the logs don’t dry out while your shiitake mycelium is colonizing your logs.

6. Stack your logs in dappled shade in a crib-fashion to allow good air circulation and easy watering.

7. Water like you would a garden until the logs begin to pin (e..g tiny mushroom heads start popping up in your logs).

8. When pinning starts, either soak your logs in a tub of water to cause a flush of fruiting. Or, for strains that don’t like force-fruiting, keep them extra moist while the mushrooms do their thing.

Stand your ready-to-fruit logs up so you can get mushrooms on all sides and then watch and wait for mushrooms to explode. Some people will also take pinning logs indoors to make sure mushrooms don’t get soaked in big rains or grow slow if the weather changes radically.

Harvest mushrooms while they are firm and still growing to make sure you don’t have too much competition with other shiitake lovers like insects and animals.

Cook and enjoy!

It really is that easy. However, there are a couple other things you might want to know to make the process cost-effective and highly productive.

Sourcing your Limbs

In our part of North Carolina, trees are abundant. Since logging companies are generally not interested in the limbs of trees, there are secondary wood handlers who go into logged areas and convert the limbs to firewood or mulch. You can often make an arrangement with some of these limb processors to have them deliver whole limbs, roughly 5-9 inches in diameter to your homestead for a reasonable price. In our area, this is about $75 per load. One load is more than enough for our personal use and we convert any extra or damaged limbs to firewood.

Limbs should be fresh cut so that they have not already been colonized by other species of fungus. In summer, we only accept limbs from trees cut within the previous six weeks. In winter, there is less concern about fungus competition. So, we might take limbs that have been down as long as 10-12 weeks if they were cut while the trees were dormant.

Aging Fresh Cut Logs for Best Myceliation

If you happen to get same day service, then you will want to age your limbs about 4-6 weeks to allow some of the sap to dry. Living trees have natural resistance to being colonized by mycelium. By aging your logs before you inoculate them, you increase the odds of successful myceliation, e.g. the development of all those lovely little thread-like roots that draw nutrients from your log to make mushroom fruits.

Cutting Your Limbs to Size

When the limbs are delivered, you’ll need to use a saw or chainsaw to cut them into more manageable lengths. The length of the log really depends on what you can lift and handle. We cut ours to 4-5 feet in length because this is what fits in our bathtub for soaking. This size also makes stacking and standing up easy. But, we’ve got good backs and can handle heavy loads. Often at Shiitake workshops, logs will be cut to 2-3 feet in length so that log keepers who are not in the habit of lifting 50 pound loads can still handle the logs. So, go with the limb length that is most comfortable for you.

You also want to use the tree types that work best for your selection of shiitake. In general, our favorite is red oak for most strains of shiitake. The bark tends to hold up longer which means the logs stay moist with less watering on our part, giving the mycelium a better start. However, you can also have good success with white oak, sugar maple, ironwood, alder, sweet gum, and American beech.i

Choose the Right Shiitake for your Conditions

Just like with vegetables in your garden, different strains of shiitake will do better in different climates. In our area, we have a lot of variation in our climate from year to year. We hedge our bets by growing cold, hot, and all-weather shiitake strains.

Good retailers will give you lots of detail on the best growing conditions and substrate (e.g. which kind of tree limbs) for each strain of shiitake. They will also explain any special procedures for inoculation and for care of for your logs to achieve the best results.

Choose the Right Tools for your Spawn Selection

You will want to use high quality drill bits for drilling your logs. Depending on whether you are using plug spawn or sawdust spawn, your drill bit size will vary. Good retailers will tell you the drill bit size and style that will work best for the spawn you choose.

Additionally, if you plan to inoculate logs annually as we do, consider investing in specialized tools that can literally cut your workload down to less than 1/10th of the time it would take to make do with lesser equipment. High-speed drills, specialized drill bits, and inoculation tables are one time purchases that can last a life-time with good care and make growing mushrooms on logs a pleasure rather than a pain.

Care for your Logs as you would a Vegetable Garden

The number one mistake new shiitake growers tend to make is to neglect their logs. Shiitake spawn is pretty resilient so even without care you might get some crop. However to get reliable shiitake production, you need to water your logs regularly, keep in dappled sunlight, watch for pinning and water or soak as needed, and then check your mushrooms regularly to harvest shiitakes at their peak.

In extreme dry conditions, you may need to cover your logs with plastic sheeting and keep moist or water more often. You can use a greenhouse in winter to expedite myceliation and force fruit during the shoulder seasons. However, in our experience, shiitake logs really love spending lots of time with other living trees in a forested area. Though we do use our greenhouse at times to ensure year-round production, we do most of our production outdoors in our wooded mushroom grotto.

Eat Shiitake Regularly for Good Health

Shiitake are a super food in my opinion. Not only do they taste amazing, but they are loaded with good nutrition. They are high in Pantothenic Acid, Vitamin B6, Niacin, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Selenium, Riboflavin, and fiber.ii Why buy supplements when you can just grow and eat your own shiitake at home?

We’ll talk a bit more about staying healthy on the homestead in the next installment of The ABCS of Homesteading: N is for Nutrition Management. But until then, enjoy your shiitake!

Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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