Ralf Redlig enjoys foraging for wild mushrooms. He also likes to grow his own vegetables. So last month, the 62-year-old Maple Ridge, B.C., resident decided to combine the two interests.
He purchased some mushroom spawn from a local supplier and sprinkled the grain-like substance into several plastic bags of pasteurized, chopped-up straw. He then left the bags untouched inside his greenhouse.
Within a few weeks, generous clusters of oyster mushrooms had sprouted and were ready to be picked and eaten.
"I'm very much an amateur," Mr. Redlig admits. Still, he has produced enough oyster mushrooms for several meals, serving them sautéed with butter as a side dish, or to flavour gravies. "You can make many, many things with them," he says.
Spurred by a desire for healthy and locally grown food, an increasing number of home gardeners are testing their skills beyond the vegetable patch and cultivating oyster, shiitake and other gourmet fungi in bags of straw or on logs in their yards, starting from spores or ready-to-grow kits.
Bill Chalmers, owner of Aldergrove, B.C.'s Western Biologicals Ltd., which sells mushroom-growing equipment and supplies, has seen his sales to hobbyists double from a year ago.
"I think this has just become a bit of a fad thing, to grow your own," he says, noting that popular food trends like the 100-Mile Diet and concerns over food quality have generated a new wave of amateur mushroom growers.
People are also becoming more educated about mushrooms in general as they gain exposure to different varieties at restaurants, farmers' markets and wild-mushroom-foraging workshops, says Paula Vopni, a principal operator of Toronto's Mycosource Inc., which supplies mushroom spawn.
"Ten years ago, people basically didn't even know what they were and wouldn't even know how to cook with them," Ms. Vopni says.
She added that raw-food enthusiasts and nutritionists are increasingly touting the purported health benefits and antioxidant properties of certain mushrooms.
Shiitakes and oysters are the most popular among home growers, since they grow on wood or straw rather than compost or manure, and don't require a lot of maintenance, says Ken Fosty, owner of Gourmet Mushroom Company in Winnipeg.
Mr. Fosty sells beginners' shiitake growing kits for about $40, each containing hundreds of wood plugs impregnated with mushroom spawn.
Growers first need to cut fresh deciduous logs, 10 to 20 centimetres in diameter. Then they drill holes in the logs and fill them with the plugs. They finish by sealing the tops with melted wax to prevent the wood from drying out, and leave the logs outside in a well-shaded, moist environment.
Shiitakes require a full year to incubate, during which time they can be left alone, Mr. Fosty says.
"You just throw [the logs]outside and leave them be. Sort of like a mutual fund. You just forget about them," he says, adding that the following summer they begin to fruit and will continue to produce mushrooms for years afterward.
Inoculating logs is best done in springtime, but it is possible to grow oyster mushrooms in straw at any time of the year, Mr. Chalmers says.
Using the same method as Mr. Redlig, Wayne Sager of Abbotsford, B.C., recently attempted to grow oyster mushrooms in plastic bags under his porch.
Mr. Sager, 69, filled pillowcases with bits of straw, then pasteurized the straw by submerging the bags in hot water for about an hour. After draining the straw of water, he mixed it with spawn obtained from commercial growers and placed it in plastic bags, puncturing them with small holes so carbon dioxide could escape.
Within weeks, a white substance called mycelium should appear, followed by mushrooms soon afterward.
So far, Mr. Sager has had limited success. On initial attempts, he didn't chop the straw finely or pack it tightly enough, so the mycelium ran too far apart between straw particles and the bags became infected with mould.
Although mushroom cultivation doesn't take a lot of work, it can be tricky, he says. "You learn every time you do it."
Near Neepawa, Man., Lori Brooking, 53, says she is pleased with the shiitake mushrooms that appeared this fall on logs she inoculated last year.
"It's neat to watch them come. They just grow really fast. You look one day and think, 'Oh well, maybe there's going to be something there.' And you go out the next day, and there's this big mushroom."
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