Sunday, March 02, 2014

Stressing the Shrooms

I go through periods of my life where I am intensely interested in learning about something new. (My wife calls this by a much less flattering label, "Obsessive/Compulsive!")

Right now it's mushrooms. Not just picking wild mushrooms ... which I became interested in about 20 years ago, when we moved up to the Northwest, and during the past five years have really exercised/grown in my knowledge of how to hunt and find wild mushrooms ... but now, in terms of growing mushrooms (and no, we're not talking about the psychedelic kind, just the delicious, edible kind) here in my own home.

Baby pearl oyster mushrooms
(Pleurotus ostreatus) "pinning"
out of a "stressed" bag of substrate.
I've started by ordering a couple of pre-fab mushroom growing "kits" (one for oyster mushrooms, and one for portobello mushrooms, both among my favorites). The oyster kit is faster and is already sprouting shrooms (see the photo at left). The portobellos (also known as crimini, if you pick them at an earlier stage) will begin to mature in about a month.

Also, I've ordered and started building mushroom logs in our back yard, using "spawn plugs" impregnated with the spawn (mycelium) of Pleurotus ostreatus. (Basically, you cut maple logs into three-foot lengths, four to six inches in diameter, and drill them full of small holes, then hammer these little spawn-impregnated wooden dowels down into those holes, seal them with wax, keep them off the ground but in shade and damp for about a year before the mushrooms begin to sprout out.) I have 100 spawn plugs, about 4 logs' worth, so hopefully a year from now I will be knee-deep in pearl oyster shrooms.

These are pearl oyster "spawn logs."
3' Maple logs with 25 spawn plugs

embedded in each (sealed with
spot of red cheese wax).
Naturally I've been doing a lot of reading on the internet about shroom cultivation, and also talking with our local shroom company, Ostrom's. And I'm learning a great deal. One of the things I learned recently about shrooms is what has inspired me to write this blog post.

Most people don't realize that the shrooms that we eat are not the largest and most significant part of the mushroom organism. The largest part is actually the part that you can't see, what shroomologists call "substrate." Mushrooms are a fungus, of course, and like any fungus they have a very fine, hair-like root structure called "mycelium" which generally grows underground (or within the rotting bark of a tree, in the case of oyster and other shelf mushrooms). In some cases that organism can be very large, we're talking as large as football fields.

This is why you often find mushrooms growing in large "fairy rings" on lawns or in fields. The ring of mushrooms actually marks the outer edge of the single mycelium organism that connects them all.

So what, then are the mushrooms themselves? They are what shroomologists call the "fruiting bodies." They contain the seeds (spores) by which the mushrooms propagate themselves. If you take a mature mushroom (one which has opened so that the gills beneath are exposed, in the cases of those which have gills) and set it on a piece of white or black paper for (depending on the spore color; dark spores show up better on white paper, and vice versa), when you remove it you should see what is called a "spore print." You'll see that the spores have dropped like dust in a very distinct pattern corresponding to the gill pattern of the mushroom. (Spore prints are one way shroomologists positively identify various species of mushroom which may look, externally, very similar to other, possibly dangerous, species.)

Think of the mushroom, being to the organism beneath it, as the apple is to the apple tree. Fruit.

This is oyster mushroom spawn which I
 am growing myself in a plastic container.
The white mycelium covers sterile
pieces of wet cardboard like fur. The
individual pieces of cardboard will 
be inserted into bags with substrate
nutrients like pasteurized straw and
coffee grounds.
The mushroom spores, like seeds, are what propagate the organism. If in the proper nutritive environment, they will grow into new "spawn" (or mycelium) in order to start the cycle all over again.

Obbviously, for our purposes, the mushroom "fruiting bodies" themselves are what it's all about. They are the part that's delicious to eat. (I don't know of anyone who actually eats the mycelium. Yuk.) And, it's something that I learned recently about how these fruiting bodies come about that has given me cause for pause.

It's stress. A mushroom organism typically won't "fruit" (shoot forth delicious shrooms) unless it is stressed somehow.

There are, of course, various things that stress a mushroom organism. In the case of oyster mushrooms, it's predominantly moisture, light, and warmth. Hence I hang my substrate bag in front of a window in my mushroom-growing room. I regulate temperature at an even 62 to 64 degrees, and try and keep humidity well above 70%, keeping my mushroom substrate bag (which is punctured with small holes so the oysters can "pin," or send out small mushroom fruit buds) suspended in a "humidity tent" above a pool of water. I also spray the substrate bag at least daily with a fine mist of water.

More pearl oyster mushrooms pinning.
They double in size every day and should
be ready for harvest in about a week.
As you can see from the photo, this "stress" is paying off ... Today, 9 days after I started stressing the substrate bag, the shrooms are pinning and beginning to grow outward. They are approximately doubling in size every day, so within another week I ought to have a nice crop of shrooms ready to harvest. (I'll be sure and include more photos then.)

The portobello substrate, on the other hand, is located in a cool, dark room in a box. The substrate is scheduled to mature about March 7, when the mycelium should be at maximum health. Then I will open the bag, and stress the organism by scratching the top surface of the substrate with a fork. I will add casing (which is a mixture of damp peat moss and calcium carbonate, with some of the scraped substrate mixed in) to the top, leave it open to air, and keep the casing damp. This combination of air, casing, and damage to the substrate is what stresses the crimini organism (Agaricus bisporus). Within a few weeks it should begin pinning (poking up through the casing), then within a month I should have mature crimini and/or portobello shrooms ready for harvest.

The mushroom logs in the back yard will take much longer to mature, between 6 months and a year, but once they mature I will stress the logs primarily by soaking them in water, in order to begin the fruiting process. (The season also contributes to this process, as warmer temperatures also stress the organism.)

Our young adults group is currently studying a fascinating book by C. S. Lewis titled "The Problem of Pain." One of Lewis' theses is that pain (stress) is a natural part of life (including the Christian life), and is designed to cause us to grow spiritually. When we are too comfortable, we do not progress in our trust in God. But, introduce a stressful event, and the pain that brings (hopefully) causes us to look God-ward, to re-evaluate our lives, to pay attention to the cause of the stress and to begin to make the adjustments necessary for a healthy and dynamic faith.

You can learn a lot from a shroom ...
if you'll only listen.
We are just like mushrooms. Stress and pain cause fruiting. If our response to stress is the proper response ... realizing that we cannot in and of ourselves fix our problems, and relying on God for divine strength ... then we will be fruitful. God will be glorified, others around us loved and strengthened, and ultimately we ourselves (like Job, at the end of his traumatic stress experience) will be blessed.

Easier said than done, of course. None of us wants the fork. Pain hurts, by definition. (If you are hankering for pain, then something is seriously wrong with you!) But, when we are in pain, we can draw comfort in realizing that "God is not finished with us yet," and that, according to Romans 8:28, "God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose!"


Samuel Budiyanto said...

Larry, thats great. I'd love your blogg, your work about 'Beyond Church Growth'.
But, the major object with that Mushroom make me much excited. (Okay I'am a theology-scholar but love for mushroom cultivating-mycology).

Can you tell me about make a spawn from two kinds of mushroom with cardboard, like a Agaricus Bisporus and Oyster Mushroom?

Greeting from Indonesia,
Sorry, my english was pretty bad :)

Larry Short said...

Samuel, thank you for reading! And for your interest in cultivating mushrooms.

I have never yet successfully cultivated Agaricus bisporus from spores (although I understand it's fairly easy). I have cultivated them from kits, allowing them to mature into full-size Portobello mushrooms, and those turned out very nicely.

But, I have cultivated a lot of Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus). They are relatively easy, and there are at least three different methods you can try.

First, you can always obtain spores on the internet. But if you want to try harvesting your own spores, there are two different methods I would recommend.

The first requires a sterile environment. Start by making a spore print, placing Oyster mushrooms gill-side down on sterile tinfoil for 24 hours. The mushrooms will drop a spore residue onto the tinfoil. Use a flame-sterilized loop to scrape up some of the billions of P. ostreatus spores, then swirl into a test tube of sterile water.

Using a sterile hypodermic, you will then want to squirt the spore-impregnated water into a jar of sterile barley or other seed medium (which you can obtain on the internet). The spores will then grow throughout the medium, and once you see the white mycelium you can seed the mycelium-laden medium into straw logs (sterilized straw stuffed into sterile mushroom bags with "X" slits cut into them for fruiting.) In a few weeks, the mycelium will propagate throughout the straw, and given the proper environment (temperature, humidity, light, etc.) oyster mushrooms will fruit from the bag.

There is a second method, which I have found to be easier and to require less resources, even if it is probably less scientific. I carefully slice the stems of raw oyster mushrooms (after eating the caps) and place them in a sterile container between boiled squares of cardboard. The mycelium propagates throughout the cardboard and turns it white. (If you see too much green, it's contaminated with mold and should be discarded.) Once the cardboard has been impregnated with the P. ostreatus mycelium, you insert it into the previously-mentioned straw logs.

If you're willing to purchase spores, a third method which I've also enjoyed is to drill 50 1x1/4" holes into a 6" diameter, 3-foot length of maple. You can obtain spore-impregnated dowels of various types of mushrooms on the internet, and you hammer these into the holes you drilled them cap the tops with red sealing wax. I mount these lots in my back yard on support struts so they are at least a foot above the ground, and wait. Within a few months they will begin fruiting mushrooms, depending on the weather and moisture conditions.

No matter which method you choose, I know you'll have a great time experimenting with growing your own mushrooms at home!