Growing Mushrooms: How to Grow Specialty Mushrooms in Your Backyard

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Growing mushrooms is easier than you might think! In today’s post, you will be able to learn how to grow mushrooms of all varieties such as shiitake, oyster, and wine cap in your own backyard.

Mushrooms growing on tree bark

Growing Mushrooms You Can Cook With

Do you have a really shady section of your garden that doesn’t get a whole lot of sunshine? If so, you should consider planting and growing some specialty mushrooms in this area.

If you are really curious and ready to take the next steps towards growing your own mushroom logs, you should take a moment and read Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist by Fungi Fun Guy, Michael Judd!

Michael’s book is a unique how-to manual for the budding gardener and experienced green thumb alike, full of creative and easy-to-follow designs that guide you to having your yard and eating it, too.

This guide takes tips and pointers directly from his book. I hope you find it informative, useful, and fun!

Michael Judd holding a shiitake mushroom log

This book is distributed by Chelsea Green and is for sale at ecologiadesign.com

Reprinted with permission from Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist by Michael Judd © 2013. Published by Ecologia. Photography courtesy of Ecologia.

Different Varieties of Mushrooms You Can Grow

Judd says he often hears these words from many newbie gardeners, “My yard is so shady that I can’t grow anything.” To which he always replies with an “Oh yeah you can! Mushrooms love the shade!”

Growing mushrooms outdoors is much easier than you may think.

There are three types of mushrooms that you can plant in your garden- shiitake, oyster, and wine cap. These specific types are easy to grow, tasty, and versatile!

Shiitake and oyster mushrooms grow well on logs and the wine cap mushroom, also known as King Stropharia or Garden Giant, grows really well on wood chips.

All three of these have a wide temperature range for growing as long as there is moisture—make that moisture, moisture, moisture! If you retain nothing else from this project, simply remember moisture = mushrooms.

The Best Types of Trees For Growing Mushrooms

Many types of trees can be used for growing edible mushrooms.

In general, you should use hardwoods like:

  • maple
  • poplar
  • willow
  • birch
  • beech

In doing so, you should avoid species such as:

  • black locust
  • black walnut
  • most evergreens

Tulip poplar and hard maple are perfect for oyster and shiitake, respectively. Oak is the best wood for shiitake mushrooms, with its thick, protective bark and strong, long-lasting wood. A good oak log can produce beautiful shiitakes for up to eight years, whereas a softer wood like poplar may produce for only three to four years.

Now, you might be thinking, “How is cutting down trees to grow mushrooms ecological?”

A practice of sustainable forestry is the thinning of small-diameter trees to allow the larger, more mature trees to grow and to let in more sunlight that helps regenerate the forest floor.

These saplings are the perfect size for mushroom log cultivation!

Can You Use Old Firewood to Grow Mushrooms?

Simply grabbing some old firewood off the pile to grow your mushrooms won’t work, since the wood already has its own funky fungi going on. Mushroom logs need to be freshly cut from healthy trees.

Cut your wood at winter’s end before sap rise, which is around the end of February/early March.

The Best Size of Logs For Growing Mushrooms

According to Michael, trees or branches, approximately six inches in diameter, are best.

A larger diameter is fine if you have the brawn; however, smaller diameters are not recommended, as the wood will dry out too easily. Once down, you can mark and cut the logs at about 40 inches in length, which makes a manageable size to move around.

Judd then recommends you leave the logs where they are, slightly lifted off the ground, or move them where it is moist, leaving them for about three weeks. This period allows the tree’s natural anti-fungal properties to die off and the temperature to warm up for inoculation in late March or early April.

Note: If you have healthy wood that was downed during the winter, it is usable as long as you inoculate in the early spring.

Ninja Move: Put spore-inoculated bar oil from Fungi Perfecti in your chainsaw so that as you cut wood, you seed the stumps and surrounding debris. Throw some sawdust back on the stump to help keep in the moisture.

Maple Logs ready to inoculate for growing mushrooms

Fungi Mycelium

Fungi, the mushroom body, is made up of thread-like cells that weave together to make a network. When ready to fruit and release spores (seed), up pops the edible shoots we love so much!

If you have ever kicked aside the leaf litter in a forest and seen the white webbing, then you’ve seen fungi. We call these threads “mycelium.”

For mushroom cultivation, you are going to want specific fungi mycelium (i.e., shiitake and oyster strains). The mycelium growth is started on sawdust, straw, grain, or little wooden plugs. When inoculated with mycelium these mediums are called “spawn.”

Think of them as kindling to get the mycelium going.

For beginning ease, I suggest purchasing spawn with mycelium on them from one of the many fine mushroom supply outfits; ideally, one close to your weather range.

I am a big fan of Field & Forest! Their claim is: “Proud to be part of this rotting world.” Their website and online catalog are a perfect package of how-tos and materials for beginners.

There are numerous spawn options, but for small-scale use, Judd says he prefers the plug spawn. Plug spawns are little birch dowels that arrive covered in the mycelium variety you choose. These spawns will be inserted into the logs.

Plug spawn with mycelium

Mycelium Tips To Grow Mushrooms

Here are some tips that will help you grow mushrooms easily.

  • A log roughly 6 inches in diameter by 40 inches long will take between 30-40 plug spawns. 250 plugs run about $ 20.
  • There are shiitake and oyster varieties that fruit at different temperature ranges, offering extended harvest throughout the growing season (early spring to late fall).
  • Spawn can be ordered a month or so in advance and kept refrigerated.
  • You can also collect your own spores from local fruiting varieties (which has the benefit of being a more resilient strain).
  • I highly recommend reading Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets. I consider this to be the bible on mushroom cultivation and use.

Setting Up the “Shroom Zone”

Before the big bucks start to roll in from your mushroom sales, a bare-bones work area is needed!

Come late March/early April, Michael has a set up of a super low-tech inoculation area outside the garage. It’s comprised of a few straw bales laying flat, a strong electric drill, a hammer, an old camping stove, and a nasty old fondue pot.

Materials List

Here is the list of materials you will need to create a bare-bones work area:

Drill Logs In A Diamond Shape to Grow Mushrooms

Once you have your shroom zone set up, it’s time to arm yourself with a drill. The logs are going to be drilled in a diamond pattern for the plug spawn.

Start the first row two inches from the log’s end. Space the holes every six inches. The depth of the hole is important. Ideally, the plug will be inserted to a depth just below the bark, almost flush, but not sticking out, about 1 inch deep.

Field & Forest sell ninja drill bits that have stoppers on them for the correct depth, but I have used a piece of tape or a pen mark on the bit to eyeball the depth. It’s good to drill a few holes and check the depths by tapping in the spawn to see how it fits. Soon, you’ll get the feel for it.

Use caution not to drill too deep, as that leaves a dry air pocket.

Drilling pattern for Mushroom Logs
Once you have your first row done, rotate the log two inches and begin the next row, starting between the first two holes of the previous row, approximately five inches down.

Continue rotating the log two inches for every new row and offsetting the holes to create a diamond pattern. The inches here are approximate, so don’t get worked up, just pull on the brew for balance. Drilling this many holes is a bit overkill, but it’s necessary to make sure that our chosen fungi are the one that colonizes and out-competes any other funky airborne fungi.

Drilling holes into a log for growing mushrooms

Whack In Mushroom Spawn Plugs

Whacking in spawn plugs can be very fun! Those skills you built up playing the fair game ‘Whack a Mole’ are about to pay off.

As fun as whacking stuff might be, we need to be careful not to damage the bark. The bark on your log is the skin that keeps the moisture in, so handle it gently. Oaks, with their thick bark, are favored in this process; poplars, with thin and brittle bark, not so much.

Some folks recommend using rubber mallets, but I find workshop participants tossing them aside in favor of the metal hammers.

Now, armed with your hammer and a bag of spawn, let’s get to it. Keep in mind that the bag of spawn is sensitive to drying out and should be protected from sun and wind while working.

Whacking in spawn plug for growing backyard mushrooms

Set Up A Wax-Melting Station

About the time you’re ready to start whacking in spawn, set up your hybrid wax-melting station. This station I set up uses an old Coleman two-burner propane gas stove. I set this up about 20 feet from the drilling and whacking stations, as the wax smoke can get thick and the wax will inevitably drip.

I’ve seen set-ups in the garage with a plug-in burner and tarp underfoot, but that somehow loses the outdoor mystique. Both approaches work.

For a pot, I use an old fondue pot, but really any pot will do. Some more legit folks might recommend using a double boiler and putting water in the bottom of the first pot or even just placing a metal bowl in a pot with water in the bottom as a makeshift double boiler.

I use a cheese wax that I get in big chunks cheaply from Field & Forest, and it seems to last forever. Start off with a fist-sized chunk and crank the heat to medium-high and watch until the wax melts clear and starts to fine bubble. Then, turn the heat to low, around 300 degrees. You want the wax to be as hot as possible without catching on fire!

I judge the heat by the smoke; a thin smoke is good, while a thick one is getting close to the flashpoint. Often during workshops, where I have a small army of first-time drillers and whackers, I forget to turn the wax down and it catches on fire. It’s no huge blaze, but you cannot salvage the wax once it’s caught fire.

Carefully take it off the burner, dump it on the gravel drive, and start again.

The flashpoint is easier to control with a double boiler set up. The trick is to have the wax as hot as possible to ensure a good seal that traps moisture and keeps critters out; otherwise, the wax can dry and peel off. Once your wax is hot, use a small bristle brush, a steel baster, or wax daubers (which are a dollar a pop from Field & Forest) to dab the wax over each spawn.

Waxing logs for growing mushrooms outdoors

Label the Log With the Mushroom Type

If you have (or plan to have) multiple types of mushrooms, it is a good idea to label the logs with aluminum tags nailed into the log’s end.

Make sure to put the type, variety, and date. It will help to track what does well, to make recommendations to others, and be sure you are harvesting the right fungi.

Shade Is the Best Place for Growing Mushrooms

The next stage in the fungi journey is one of the most critical: the spawn run. This is when the mycelium jumps off the spawn into the log and begins to colonize it. This can take anywhere from six to eighteen months.

Place the logs flat during the spawn run, just off the ground an inch or two. Moisture during this time is key. The logs want to be placed in a shady place that imitates a forest setting, out of the wind, and, ideally, close to the house and watering source.

If you have a naturally moist, shady area around your house, that is a good spot. My new favorite place to stash logs is under the deck, where water falls through and the house blocks the wind. The fungi love it!

Another good spot is underneath evergreens that are porous and allow enough water to fall through. You can create your own shade with a 60-80 percent shade cloth draped over straw bales with logs laid in between.

Logs under deck during spawn run for growing mushrooms

Keep The Logs Moist

Make sure to keep your logs moist; you can water them like the rest of your garden. If there has been no rain, they need the equivalent of about one inch of water a week. You can either hose and the area around them down once a week, or set up a sprinkler and run it for 15-20 minutes.

Once the logs fruit, lean them up to view and easily harvest the mushrooms.

Leaning logs ready to fruit mushrooms under evergreens

How To Harvest Mushrooms

When the logs fruit, usually after a warm spring or fall rain, simply cut the mushrooms off at the base, being careful to not pull off chunks of the bark. Then, the sky’s the limit for enjoying and preserving them. You will be amazed at the abundance a log produces at once!

If you can get past sautéing them in butter and garlic or making some stuffed mushrooms with spinach and ricotta, then they are easy to dry and store. My personal favorite preservation is shiitake vodka! But, for you teetotalers, a mushroom-infused olive oil with peppercorns and hot peppers is a tasty treat and great gift.

Logs growing shiitake mushrooms

A Word About Mushroom Safety

You may be wondering if it is safe to eat any ol’ mushroom that grows out of the log. The answer is an emphatic “Heck No!!”

If your spawn variety has not successfully run and colonized the log, it’s possible that another airborne fungi has set up shop. Only harvest the type that you inoculated the log with and have a picture of what that is.

If you inoculate a shiitake, only harvest a shiitake. Thankfully, oysters and shiitake are easy to identify. The beauty of growing your own mushrooms versus hunting for them is that you know exactly what is supposed to pop out.

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