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  • Writer's pictureBart Acres

Pro Tips for Mushroom Growing

When growing mushrooms, it can be easy to get bogged down in technicalities and overly specific details. Anyone from new home hobbyists to commercial scale mushroom farmers can fall into this trap of over analysing challenges that we may encounter, and coming up with overly complicated solutions to these problems. Whereas often, the best thing to is to take a step back, and go right back to the basics of mushroom biology to figure out ways that we can grow mushrooms more simply, reliably, efficiently and productively. Turning to this simplified, 'meta level' thinking has helped me time and time again in my mushroom growing career, and it is amazing how often the best solution is also the simplest one - if we take a moment to consider the true basics of how mushrooms grow and what they need to thrive.

Think Like a Mushroom

The single most important thing a mushroom grower can do, is to get to know mushrooms. Observation is an extremely valuable skill which one should consciously work to foster, whether that's observing mushrooms in the wild, or observing growth habits, what goes right and what goes wrong at different stages of cultivation attempts, and any differences between different processes and techniques that you may have tried.

When you're out and about, in your garden, at the park or in the bush, make a point of observing as much as you can about mushrooms. What are they growing from? What is the environment like? How do they develop over time? Are they growing out of a nook or crevice in a log? What's the weather been like for the past week or so? Are they out in the open or sheltered by tree canopy? So on and so forth.

After a while, these types of observations become a subconscious default, and can often provide valuable insight into the basic nature of how mushrooms grow, and therefore, how to best provide for them when you are cultivating them at home. This tip is so valuable, it's how we got our name, MycoLogic!

Keep It Simple

It's easy to get bogged down in complicated detail of mushroom growing, especially when you're just starting out and trying to learn everything all at once. The reality is, mushroom growing can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Some people enjoy the most stripped down basic 'lo-tek' ways of growing mushrooms, while others get enjoyment from setting up tightly controlled environments with many sensors and automated climate controls.

A crop of delicious Shaggy Manes growing from a patch of inoculated lawn

When it comes down to it, what most mushrooms require is really pretty simple. They need a clean substrate to grow in, moderate temperatures without extremes of heat or cold, and an environment which has reasonable humidity and plenty of fresh air exchange for the fruiting stage. If all of these parameters are met, taking into consideration the traits of the individual species you're dealing with, then you're setting yourself up for a good chance of success! This rings especially true for any outdoor mushroom growing. On many occasions I've tossed some old spawn into some woodchip mulch outside, forgotten about it entirely, until a few months later, there's a patch of mushrooms growing!

Indoor mushroom growing does require a few more 'hands-on' steps, but its still good to keep simplicity in mind. Many instructions online contain unnecessary steps (like chopping up straw, for example). Sometimes it can be a fun experiment to throw the 'rules' out the window and to see how simplified and stripped down of a process you can get away with!

Patience is a Virtue

Most of us grew up being told that mushrooms pop up overnight. And yes, in many cases, mushrooms can grow pretty quickly (although not usually overnight), but its important to remember that the mycelium that gave rise to those mushrooms would likely have already been growing for weeks, months, or even years before these mushrooms have appeared.

Some species, like Pekepeke-kiore, can be slow growing, especially when it's cold

So, while mushrooms in many ways do grow faster than many fruits and vegetables, it can certainly still take some time, and it is important to remain patient throughout the process. Mushrooms will grow at their own pace, and there is little use in trying to hurry or rush the process. Get in tune with the speed of the shroom! Many companies advertising grow kits will try to emphasise how fast it all is and that you'll be harvesting mushrooms in just a few days. This is rarely the case in real life. Especially in colder conditions, mushrooms can take well over a week and in some cases a few weeks to reach harvest point from when they first appear.

When it comes to outdoor growing, it's good to expect that it will take at least a year to get your first harvest of mushrooms from when a mushroom patch or mushroom logs are made. On many occasions, I've talked with mushroom growers who are lamenting the fact that their mushroom log or outdoor patch 'didn't work', but often upon further investigation it turns out that they had only made it a few months prior, and the mycelium is still busy spreading and establishing itself in the substrate.

Over the years theres been a few times that I gave up hope on mushroom logs I'd made after a couple of years, and tossed them under some bushes out the back section. And on many occasions I've walked past them a few weeks later and seen a beautiful crop of healthy mushrooms growing! It's important to remember that certain species, and certain substrate types (like very dense hardwoods) can take much longer than we may expect to get fruits. Pekepeke-kiore (Hericium novae-zealandiae) logs on dense hardwood commonly take up to three years to produce, in my garden, but grow many delicious and healthy mushrooms after that!

Know Your Species

Every mushroom species has its own traits and idiosyncrasies. They'll have their preferred substrates, growth temperatures, appearance of mycelium, speed of growth, and so on.

Observing mushrooms growing in the wild can be a valuable learning tool

For example, pink oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus djamor) are native to tropical regions around India and Southeast Asia, and as such, they love warm temperatures above 20°C. The mycelium will literally die if it is under 5°C for any extended period. So, trying to grow this mushroom in the New Zealand winter, or outdoors on logs, can often fail as it's simply not warm enough.

On the other hand, enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes) love the cold, they will thrive and produce beautiful mushrooms in the depths of winter, but will lack vigour if grown in the heat of summer.

Here at MycoLogic, we largely focus on the cultivation of mushrooms which are native to, or at least naturalised in, Aotearoa New Zealand, for the simple fact that they have evolved in our local conditions and are very well adapted to our temperate maritime climate. Many species of native mushroom can be grown year-round in most parts of the country, especially if protected from the extremes of direct frost in winter and high heat and dry winds in summer.

So, it's a great idea to familiarise yourself with the key characteristics of each species of mushroom and what growth conditions they prefer. This will help you to have more success by growing what's in season at any given time of year, and will also help you to know when to keep an eye out for mushrooms growing on any outdoor projects like logs or outdoor beds.

Know Your Substrate

Like all other living beings on this earth, mushrooms have their own preferred things that they like to eat, and which the process of evolution has fine tuned them to be optimised at digesting, and converting into growth of mycelium and fruitbodies (mushrooms). When it comes to mushrooms, some are generalists, while others are specialists.

So, it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with what type of food your mushroom likes to eat. We have plenty of info in our grow guides about the preferred substrates for each species and each growing style. Generalist species like Phoenix Oyster (Pleurotus pulmonarius), Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) and Enoki (Flammulina velutipes) are all known as species which are quite adaptable to a range of substrates and cultivation techniques - they'll grow on almost any kind of woody, carbon rich material, including the likes of shredded cardboard or straw. Whereas other species, like NZ Shiitake (Lentinula novae-zelandiae) or Pekepeke-kiore (Hericium novae-zealandiae) are a bit more specific about their requirements and substrate types, and will often require a bit more experience, patience and observation to successfully cultivate. Of course, if you're not yet comfortable in crafting the right substrate mix for certain species of mushrooms, ready made grow kits have had all the hard work done by our lab technician and are ready for you to just grow some delicious mushrooms!

The other key aspect of 'knowing your substrate' is to get a feel for the moisture content that is needed for successful growth. Many people have the impression that mushrooms love as much moisture as possible, all of the time. The reality is that mycelium, and mushrooms, generally prefer a 'Goldilocks Zone' of moisture and humidity.

Overly hydrated substrate which is waterlogged at the base, preventing mycelium from growing

Too much moisture in substrate itself will cause it to become waterlogged, blocking off microscopic air channels throughout the substrate matrix which allows mycelium to breath. Substrate which is too wet will generally result in very slow mycelial growth, and, in the worst case scenario, the substrate could be so waterlogged that the mycelium suffocates from lack of air, and the substrate instead becomes host to anaerobic bacteria.

A similar rule applies to the humidity in the growing environment itself. The best quality mushrooms are usually produced in 'moderate' humidity environments with plenty of fresh air exchange. Mushrooms grown in extremely high humidity of 90% plus will often be waterlogged, soggy, and become prone to infection by bacteria or molds.

Keep it Clean

It's important to remember that when we grow mushrooms, it's always based upon providing plenty of nutritious mushroom food (substrate) for the mycelium to eat and turn into delicious mushrooms. It's a wondrous process by which we utilise the mycelium to convert stuff we can't normally eat, like sawdust or straw, into highly nutritious food for us humans.

But, in the process, we've also created a habitat that can be ripe for the spoil by other competing wild organisms, whether that be molds, bacteria, or species of mushrooms other than the ones we're trying to grow!

As such, it's important to keep in mind that we want to try our best to start out with a substrate that is free from competing organisms (also known as 'contam' in the mushroom growing world), inoculating it with spawn of our desired mushroom species in a timely manner, and doing all that we can to give our desired species the upper hand in colonising, and fruiting from that substrate before other fungi get a chance to get in there and dominate the territory.

Indoor growing is much more sensitive to contaminants than outdoor. So, when making the likes of sawdust blocks, it's important to ensure that the substrate has been adequately sanitised (via pasteurisation or sterilisation), and that it is inoculated and incubated in a clean environment without heavy 'spore load' of molds in the surrounding air. Indoor fruiting spaces should be cleaned regularly, and if molds or other contaminants are noticed within the fruiting room, they should be removed from the space so that the contamination doesn't spread to other blocks. And, of course, any insect invasions should be promptly dealt with before they get out of control!

When it comes to outdoor growing, things are a bit more loose. We do not generally process or sterilise substrates (like logs or woodchips) used in outdoor growing, but instead the 'clean' substrate is provided by way of it being fresh. Old logs and woodchips that have been sitting around for a while are likely already being colonised by competing fungi, whereas material that has been freshly cut or chipped (within a couple of weeks or so) is usually pretty clean, and ready to receive the spawn of your desired mushroom species.

It's relatively common for random fungi to pop up in outdoor beds or on mushroom logs that you make, simply by way of the fact that outside air is loaded with mushroom spores pretty much all the time. Just in the same way that in the wild we may see multiple species of mushrooms growing in close proximity, whether thats in a mulch bed or on an old log, most times the mushrooms can quite happily co exist, and the mushrooms that you inoculated with should still grow perfectly well sooner or later!

It's up to the mushroom grower to make the call if a cultivation attempt has been only lightly, or severely encroached upon by competing fungi. If a log or outdoor patch that you made is entirely covered some random mushrooms, it may be time to make the call to discard that attempt and have another crack at it - but most times if there's just a few random mushrooms popping up here and there, you can proceed with the original plan.

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