I write a lot - every day, in fact - and mostly on the subjects of home and garden. So I'm constantly scouring for ideas, poking my head over people's fences, inspecting new arrivals at nurseries.
Inspiration is everywhere if you keep your eyes open. So when my husband received a neatly wrapped log for his birthday, I knew I'd stumbled upon a fascinating and relatively undiscovered garden trend.
He lifted up the 10 pound box, shook it back and forth - roll, thud, roll, thud - plopped it back on the table, removed the sparkly paper and there sat ... a log.
"Uh, thanks," he said, his inflection rising as if asking a question. The gift-givers giggled and smirked. It was clear they had bestowed this cumbersome souvenir to others and received similar looks of confusion. As he dug a little farther into the box, he discovered it also contained instructions on the care of his new log, his new shiitake log.
Turns out this was no ordinary stump. The mossy, oak log had been inoculated with shiitake spores. If we care for it properly, our family will be relishing fresh mushrooms for quite some time.
Our friends regaled the birthday party with their own experience with a shiitake log and told us of Alan Terry, the Baldwin City farmer who supplied them with the unusual gift. In fact, he supplies many restaurants with the unusual spore-laden logs.
Oak Ridge Farm
Large oak trees cover Alan Terry's backyard, creating a wind barrier, a lovely retreat and a venue to collect and inject hundreds of logs with shiitake spores. A strange practice, maybe; but when you have all of the essential ingredients and farming is your life's work, it turned out to be a perfect fit.
Although not without some trial and error.
"My first wife, who sadly died of breast cancer, was a keen gardener," Terry says. "She found a kit idea in growing mushrooms on oak logs, and she thought it would be a great hobby. Initially, we inoculated a few logs for ourselves. We got a bit obsessive about tending to them.
We thought, 'This is silly. It is taking over.' So we just forgot about them. I set them out by the washing line on the ground and ignored them. Well, it was about a year later, and my first wife was hanging out the laundry when she noticed the logs were covered in mushrooms."
That year the couple had some extra logs that they sold to a few area restaurants, as well as to the Community Mercantile Co-op. Those transactions were the beginning of Terry supplying many homes in the region with this fascinating form of harvesting food. He now primarily sells the logs at the Farmers Market Christmas Fair. His logs are available online as well.
Ins and outs
So how does it all work? Most of us are accustomed to seeing mushrooms growing out of the earth naturally, not with the aid of needles and laboratory-type conditions.
In the winter, Terry mixes shiitake mycelium (the network of tiny thread-like parts in the main body of a fungus) into sawdust plugs that he inserts into holes drilled in oak logs. He then caps the inoculation site with wax. The logs are then stored for a couple of years, referred to as the benign neglect period, to allow the mycelia to grow throughout the length of the wood.
There are a few ways to make the mushrooms sprout from the logs. One can "shock" the mushrooms into commencing the fruiting process either by knocking one end of the log sharply on the ground or immersing it in cold water - the icier the better. The soaking should last about 48 hours in non-chlorinated water.
Then place the wet log in a sheltered, shady spot and lightly cover it with plastic to increase humidity. Fruit should appear in one to three weeks. Remove the plastic when the mushrooms begin to appear.
You also can just let the log sit outside in a covered area on the ground, and it will fruit when temperatures are warm and wet. This is the easiest method but also the least predictable and productive.
How to reach Alan Terry
Oak Ridge Farm 1895 N. 500 Road Baldwin City (785) 594-2620
Once the mushrooms have reached a diameter of 3 inches to 5 inches - which generally takes four to eight days - they're ready to harvest. You should cut, rather than pick, the mushrooms.
Then enjoy your bounty.
Afterward, allow the log to recuperate on the ground in a damp place for two to three months, then soak it to start the process again. Weather conditions such as frost and snow don't affect the log's ability to produce fruit. It generally will produce harvests for about six years.
Terry has some advice for shiitake log enthusiasts.
"The chief problem I've found is that people leave them inside the house too long and they dry out," he says. "If you don't want to baby it, set it outside and just see what happens. But leaving it indoors too long is sure death."
Tim Manning and his wife, Lori Hanson, were at that fateful birthday party where the log was presented to my husband.
Manning loved the idea and longed for his own. He finally got his wish.
"Lori gave me a log this Christmas," he says. "She purchased it from Alan Terry at the Holiday Farmers Market. The log has already volunteered some mushrooms right off, without prepping or anything. The first one I picked had a lid about 5 inches in diameter."
The duo used the shrooms in a homemade spaghetti sauce and say they were a delicious addition. Manning says the log is great for thrifty cooks.
"This is a fantastic way to save a little money and have fresh-grown produce," he says. "Plus, the green thumb in me likes to watch them grow and see the stages it morphs through. The whole family is finding it both fascinating and educational."
So next time you reach for those mushrooms in the grocery store, you might consider investing a little money and time into a shiitake log of your own.