Whilst mushrooms are easy to buy at any food store or supermarket, growing them yourself at home can be fun, cost effective and educational. Mushroom growing is also a great activity to do with the kids to illustrate some of the wonders of nature.
Mushrooms are a fungus that do not require sunlight to grow. In fact, the lack of sunlight actually makes them grow better. When growing mushrooms you will be doing your work in a dark environment.
Mushrooms are one of the few edible fungi that grow naturally and can be picked in the wild. However, unless you are experienced and knowledgable, it is highly recommended that you don’t pick mushrooms in their natural environment. Mushrooms can be very hard to tell from toadstools which are poisonous, sometimes fatally.
As the old joke goes, all mushrooms are edible – it’s just that some mushrooms are only edible once!
Mushrooms are a nutritious and tasty addition to the diet and can be use in may types of dishes. They are very high in B Vitamins and vegans and vegetarians often make them a core component of their diet. Mushrooms replace many of the vitamins that would otherwise be consumed from meat.
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a much larger organism. Fungus are one of a group of organisms whose purpose is to break down organic matter. Mushrooms are often found flourishing amongst rotting leaves in darkened forests or in cow paddocks covered in cow manure.
Underground, a fungus can cover a substantial area. In fact, the largest organism on earth has now been identified as a fungus that lives in the US: the fungus covers an area of 250 acres!
The actual body of a mushroom fungus is white hair-like structures called mycelium. These mycelium are connected and release chemicals that break down the organic matter in the soil.
Nutrients are then released and absorbed by the mycelium. When conditions are right and the mycelium grow close to the surface, then they create fruiting bodies. These are, in effect, mushrooms (or another fungi).
Starting a Home Mushroom Farm
Growing mushrooms commercially requires a large amount of investment and infrastructure. However, you can grow mushrooms at home for a fraction of the price, in what are commonly called ‘mushroom farms’.
You can buy mushroom farms from your local nursery or hardware store. They are also easily purchased online. They are simply a box, or bag, full of compost which has the mushrooms growing in it.
All you have to do, in most cases, is place the farm in a suitable environment for the mushrooms to grow and add water.
Mushrooms grow best in a warm, dark, moist environments. The perfect spot is under the house where temperatures stay constant and it is dark. A steady temperature of around 16-18 degrees is best.
If you can maintain this temperature you can grow mushrooms all year around. Generally, mushroom farms are available from retailers in Spring and Autumn, when temperate conditions are best.
Keep your mushroom farm moist, but not wet. The best way to do this is to use a spray bottle. Give your mushrooms a spray every two to three days. After about five days your mushrooms will start to ‘pin’; these are small white mushrooms developing.
These mushrooms will now grow quickly and, usually around three days later, you will have good-sized mushrooms ready to eat. If you get the environment right, growing mushrooms really can be that simple.
Maintaining your home Mushroom Farm
If you have a home mushroom farm, you can have continuous supply of mushrooms for around two months or longer.
Growing your own mushrooms at home is a very economical way to add more to your diet and have a ready supply of mushrooms on call. Your mushroom farm should supply you and your family enough delicious fungi for breakfasts and dinners for over two months.
All you have to do is keep the moisture up, by spraying with water every couple of days. You do not need to fertilise your mushrooms. However, eventually the mushrooms will use up all the compost. If you wish to continue growing mushrooms, you will then need to start the process over again by purchasing another mushroom farm.
What to do with your old mushroom Farm?
So, when you’ve finished growing mushrooms with your initial mushroom farm, what are the options for the old one? Well, the best part is that it is not wasted. You can use the leftover compost in your vegetable patch or simply in the garden as mushroom compost makes an excellent soil improver and fertiliser.
When it comes to picking your mushrooms it is best to pull them out, do not cut them off and leave the stem in the soil. You can pick your mushrooms at any stage in their development.
Some people like small mushrooms and they are fabulous in salads or in Chinese food. Others like to let their mushrooms grow large (and they can get very big) and fry them to put on toast. The larger ones have a much stronger flavour than the small ones.
Mushroom do not store for long at room temperature – generally, only a couple of days – but they will last around a week in the vegetable section of your fridge.
In some parts of the country mushrooms grow natural and wild, usually in cow paddocks and fields. Generally mushrooms appear in Spring and Autumn.
The essential key to harvesting wild mushrooms is to know what is a mushroom is and what is a toadstool (which are not edible).
So we have to reiterate: if you don’t have the knowledge and experience, avoid picking mushrooms in the field.
How Mushrooms are grown commercially
Growing mushrooms as a business is very different to cultivating a box or 2 under your house at home.
The making of the compost for growing mushrooms is a science, it takes a great deal of experience to develop the compost ready for mushroom growing at scale.
Commercial providers have the machinery and ingredients to develop the excellent, consistent mushroom compost. Generally speaking commercial growers use animal manures (cow and chicken), straw, soil, peat and lime.
The trick is then to get the compost to the right temperature and moisture levels to start the composting process. During the composting process the compost heats up to very high temperatures.
The compost actually steams with the heat generated and at this point in the process micro-organisms are active. Interestingly, the compost is actually pasturised. This means that any seeds and other fungi are killed by the heat of decomposition and then the nutrients are released.
Once the compost has cooled down the compost is taken into controlled temperate rooms devoid of light, and the mushroom mycelium are added.
The mushroom mycelium then spreads through the compost and when conditions are optimal, will start to produce mushrooms.
Commercially-produced mushrooms are grown on racks, thus making the process of picking very easy.
We heartily recommend that you try growing mushrooms at home. It’s easy, convenient and an enlightening educational experience for children. Home mushroom kits are inexpensive and easily purchased online.
Once you’ve tried growing mushrooms yourself, the supermarket offerings will lose their appeal.